10 – Slovakia
9 – Romania
8 – Mali
7 – The United Kingdom
6 – Japan
5 – Central Asia
4 – Laos
3 – Ethiopia
2 – India
1 – Iran
‘What? Your number one favourite destination is Iran Andrew? That’s the axis of evil! That’s where all the terrorists come from!’
Well, throw away all your preconceptions about Iran because for me it was the ultimate backpacking experience. I spent a month there nearly ten years ago now and it hasn’t changed as my favourite backpacking experience. I doubt it ever will. Why? Because it is a simply wonderful country to visit as a backpacker. Disregard what you think you know about the place and the people. There is not a country I have visited (and I’ve visited 69) with friendlier people. No, I’m not talking about the government or the theocracy, but the real people who are nothing but genuine, warm, hospitable folk prepared to open their doors to you at the drop of a hat.
People joke about being ‘kidnapped’ in Iran, about a family taking you in and it becomes impossible to leave not just because they don’t want you to, but principally because you are taken care of so well that you lose the urge to move on in your trip! It happened to me after crossing the Pakistan border. Met a guy as we crossed, stayed with his family in Kerman and was there for ten days. I don’t even impose of relatives for that long! Usually…
It’s good value for money Iran, and no mistake. The buses are comfortable, there are a plethora of historically important or just stunningly beautiful sites across the country, a month was not long enough for me there. You get decent hotels for little money, hospitality, kindness, adventure… the only catch is it’s pretty hard to get in if you’re from the UK and close to impossible if you’re from the US.
Yazd is a wonderful city, lots of mudbrick buildings and alleyways and lanes to explore. Not too far from Yazd is the site of a Zoroastrian temple, at the small village of Chak Chak, in the middle of a desert built into the side of a hill. It’s really beautiful and I did it on a day trip which took me also to the abandoned village of Karanagh. A really special little village of mud-brick houses. There was a lot more to the tour as well, including Camel kebab for lunch.
Shiraz is another great place. It’s the spot to reach Persepolis from, an ancient ruined Roman city in the desert. Another day tour combined with a couple of lesser sites. One of those sites was Naqsh-e Rostam, four tombs carved into cliffs that were reminiscent of the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. Lesser sites? If it was a lesser site, it was only just!
Shiraz has a great market, good for buying carpets if you so desire, some ruins of its own and a couple of shrines dedicated to poets – poets are very popular in Iran.
Esfahan or Isfahan if you prefer, is regarded as something like the ‘jewel’ of Iran, and it’s not hard to see why.
In the centre is one of the most impressive squares on the planet – the Eman Khomeini Square. It is named after the first Ayatollah, father to today’s Iran and be warned – it’s not the only place named after him in Iran. It’s not the only Square named after him in Iran. The square boasts an amazing Mosque at one end, a market, space, life, it’s where it’s at in Esfahan. Esfahan has a lot more to see though, beautiful gardens, a bird sanctuary and the river is awesome. Some of the bridges over the river have little tea houses built into them. It’s really charming and picturesque and the sort of place you could happily lose yourself in for days.
Tabriz, in the north towards the Turkish border, is another pleasant city with some nice parks and shrines to poets. It feels like a university-town. An easy day trip takes the visitor to Kandovan where people live in houses formed naturally by volcanic rock centuries or more ago. If you’re lucky you might get to go inside a house and see how it’s set up, it is truly a special little place. The spring water flows near the river at the base of the Kandovan cliffs. It’s highly prized and apparently has remarkable healing qualities. People come from far and wide to bottle some of this water and take it with themselves.
And then there’s Tehran. It’s not the monstrous of capital cities and it has a stunning mountain-backdrop, but I wouldn’t have it on top of your places to visit list. Simply, it’s a big city. It’s busy and even the Iranian hospitality is not quite what it is in other places. Mashhadd, a city in the north-east, which I didn’t visit as it was a long way from any of the places I did, sounds like a great place to visit, so if you’re headed to Iran, do consider this place.
Perhaps an odd choice for number one, for me it was an easy choice. If you’d like to know more about my time in Iran, it features as part of Dhaka to Dakar: Book One – Through Asia. The individual chapter is also available for kindle separately.
And with that, my top ten countdown, began in November, is finally done. Do you agree? What countries am I missing which you think deserve to be in a top ten? Please do comment below. The blog will continue. I am going to do a series of blogs on top sleeps of various kinds and various regions, plus I want to write a little about the epublishing experiences I’ve had so far, and of course I am having experiences regularly to blog and post photos about. So – WATCH THIS SPACE!