We’re finally in Iran! We really enjoyed our time in Mongolia and Central Asia, but travelling in Iran was probably what I was looking forward to the most on this trip. I donned the mandatory headscarf (you’ll be seeing me in this for 32 days!) and we were on our way.
From the border of Turkmenistan, we took a minibus to the nearest town, then switched to a taxi, then switched to yet another taxi. So far, travel days were feeling the same as they were in Central Asia…but a BIG difference was the driving. The taxi drivers were actually going the speed limit, rather than 160 kms/hour. I was able to breathe and relax, which was nice.
Not only is Mashhad Iran’s holiest city, but it’s also the second biggest. When we arrived, there were cars and people everywhere. We didn’t mind though, we were fascinated with everything we saw.
Women walked down the street wearing the traditional, black sheet known as a chador, groups of men talked animatedly together, families window shopped and many stands of colourful spices, dried fruits and sweets lined the streets.
It was all very exciting!
During this trip, we’ve been booking our accommodation ahead of time using HostelWorld or Booking.com. Since we were in Turkmenistan, we didn’t have internet access so we had to do like we used to do: show up and look around!
The city was packed. We looked at so many hotels and apartments and were really disappointed by what we had found. Everyone said the rooms in Iran were great value, but all we found were dirty, old, smelly apartments. Not appealing. After wandering around forever, we saw Meraj Hotel. The lobby was nice, the receptionist was friendly and the two bedroom apartment was clean and cozy!
We decided to come to Mashhad for two reasons. The first being that it was the nearest city from the Turkmenistan border, so it made sense to stop here. The second being that we really wanted to see the huge Haram (shrine complex) commemorating the death of Shia Islam’s 8th Imam: Imam Reza.
Over 20 million pilgrims come to the Haram every year to pay their respects to the Imam Reza who died over a millennium ago. There are twelve Imams (rightful spiritual leaders of the Islamic faith) in Shia Islam. Eleven of which are buried in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, with only one being buried in Iran – hence the importance of Mashad as a pilgrimage site.
The Haram dominates the center of the city and is open 24 hours a day. Non-Muslims technically have to visit the religious site with a guide, but Nick and I wandered in ourselves and weren’t questioned (the first time, the second time we had to go with a guide). I put on the mandatory chador and we wandered in awe through the colourful domes and minarets, tiled courtyards and beautiful prayer rooms.
(No cameras were allowed inside, so you’ll have to use your imagination!)
The most memorable part of visiting the Haram was entering the Holy Shrine complex. Inside, men and women cry, pray, push and shove to reach Imam Reza’s tomb. Touching and kissing the tomb is the most emotional part of the pilgrimage. Even though we weren’t able to relate to the emotion they were feeling, it was very moving to watch.
We spent two nights in Mashhad and even though we enjoyed our time spent at the Haram and met many kind people, we were ready to move out of the city and into the desert! Sun, sand and oases, here we come.
Have you ever been to a Holy City or a very spiritual site? What was your experience like? We’d love to hear from you, leave a comment below!