Iran Iranian Culture

10 Unforgettable Experiences in Iran I’ve Had (So Far)

From rafting in the Zayandeh Rud to camping in the desert to drinking tea with the Bakhtiari nomads, I share 10 of my most unforgettable experiences in Iran (so far).

One of the best things about Iran is that there are lots of holidays, and I never let one pass without discovering a new place- even if it’s right here in Tehran. Over the past few years, I’ve visited some amazing places that have left lasting memories. These are 10 of my favorite, most unforgettable (and sometimes random) adventures and experiences in Iran that I’ve had so far.

Rafting in the Zayandeh Rud

In the Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province, you can go rafting in the Zayandeh Rud with guides who are members of the national rafting team. How could you pass this up? After a few rapids, we approached calmer waters, and a few of us went for a quick swim. About one minute was all I could tolerate as the freezing temperature left me gasping for my breath. Further down the river, we stopped to jump off a boulder, and the considerable drop in temperature in that area left me helpless. After jumping in, it was entirely too cold for me to catch my bearings, so I ended up just floating down the river into the arms of the coach, who was further down, waiting to catch and drag everyone back to the bank. My tour mates later joked with him, “You know, she’s American. Now you can tell everyone you saved an American from the water.”

When the adventure was over, the rafting coach’s mom served us a steaming bowl of âsh to warm us back up. But it pretty much took returning to Tehran’s early summer heat to get my core temperature back up.

From rafting in the Zayandeh Rud to camping in the desert to drinking tea with the Bakhtiari nomads, I share 10 of my most unforgettable experiences in Iran (so far).

Rafting the Zayandeh Rud in some calm waters. I’m in the yellow boat, y’all!

Drinking Tea with the Bakhtiari nomads

We found the Bakhtiari post-kooch (migration) in their yeylâgh (summer quarters) in the Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province. We were welcomed into their tent which was not so much a tent as it was stone walls covered with a thin tarp to let some light shine through. The living room area was covered in different rugs, and poshti (thick pillows used to lean back on when you are sitting on the floor) were spread against the walls. Colorful tassels hanging off of blue beads handwoven onto a ribbon were strung around the walls like streamers. A small kitchen area was curtained off to the side.

We sat around drinking Persian tea and enjoying good company when a younger Bakhtiari gentleman walked in to the surprise of unexpected guests. He was donning the traditional clothes: a wool cap and a long, cream-colored wool vest with black stripes at the top, almost resembling piano keys. This vest, as I learned, is actually rather pricey, but what really struck me was that his giant Samsung phone was sticking out of his left shirt pocket. I guess despite their traditional lifestyle, even the Bakhtiari have kept up with (or maybe can’t escape from) technology.

From rafting in the Zayandeh Rud to camping in the desert to drinking tea with the Bakhtiari nomads, I share 10 of my most unforgettable experiences in Iran (so far).

Tassels in the Bakhtiari tent

Cruising down the Anzali Lagoon

The best surprises often happen when you don’t know what to expect. And I had no idea that such a place existed in Iran. So cruising through the canebrake spotting all kinds of fauna and houses built on stilts before entering the open waters where the Caspian lotuses were in full bloom was definitely one for the books! I can still hear the raindrops hitting the giant emerald leaves.

From rafting in the Zayandeh Rud to camping in the desert to drinking tea with the Bakhtiari nomads, I share 10 of my most unforgettable experiences in Iran (so far).

Caspian lotuses and the Anzali Lagoon

Watching a zurkhaneh performance in Yazd

Zurkhaneh (literally, “house of power/strength”) is the traditional gym of Iran and inscribed as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. This age-old tradition has its roots in battle and warfare with the exercises intended to make warriors out of ordinary men in addition to developing their physical and mental health as well as their ethical principles. Perhaps the fact that women aren’t allowed in zurkhaneh made me more interested and curious. Thankfully, Saheb A Zaman in Yazd is open for tourists, including women. The performance was a wonderfully meditative experience and even better than I had imagined. Now how often does that happen?

From rafting in the Zayandeh Rud to camping in the desert to drinking tea with the Bakhtiari nomads, I share 10 of my most unforgettable experiences in Iran (so far).

Saheb A Zaman zurkhaneh in Yazd

Voting

The first vote I ever cast was for an Iranian presidential election. I was 16 years old, and we had to drive two hours to Atlanta to cast our ballots.

In the summer of 2017, I voted for the first time in Tehran. My dad was visiting, and we got in the voting line at 10am. We left at 5pm. I still don’t know why it took 7 exhausting hours, and even friends and family gasped, “7 hours! How many times did you vote!?” But Iranians are chatter bugs who get friendly very quickly, so the time passed fairly quickly as we swapped stories with people around us. Needless to say, it was unforgettable. Would I do it again? Absolutely! Only this time, I’d wake up kaleh sahar (at the crack of dawn) to be the first person in line.

From rafting in the Zayandeh Rud to camping in the desert to drinking tea with the Bakhtiari nomads, I share 10 of my most unforgettable experiences in Iran (so far).

It only took 7 hours!

Qeshm.

I hope you read that as “Qeshm, Period.” Qeshm was my first solo trip in Iran during a really tough time, and I can’t say enough about this magical, dolphin-shaped island. Whether the other-worldly rock formations of Valley of the Stars, dolphins of Hengam Island, the rich biosphere of Mangrove Forest, mysterious high and low tides of Naz Island, badgir (windcatchers) dotting Bandar Laft, rainbow valley of Hormoz Island, lenj (ship)- building yard, or herds of camel cooling off in the Persian Gulf, this island is an all-around wonderland.

From rafting in the Zayandeh Rud to camping in the desert to drinking tea with the Bakhtiari nomads, I share 10 of my most unforgettable experiences in Iran (so far).

Hengam Island in Qeshm

Eating street food in Lashkar Abad

Oh, how I love Khuzestan. The bandari music, the laid-back culture, the palpable love of the Brazilian national soccer team, the Ray Bans, the tempers just as hot and spicy as the samosas. And eating falafel and other street food in Lashkar Abad in Ahvaz is an experience. A complete disregard for hygiene meant my falafel sandwich was manhandled by several pairs of bare hands, but I’m fairly certain it was those extra germs that made all the difference in taste (and boosted my immunity). 

From rafting in the Zayandeh Rud to camping in the desert to drinking tea with the Bakhtiari nomads, I share 10 of my most unforgettable experiences in Iran (so far).

Falafel in Lashkar Abad, Ahvaz

Camping in the desert next to a 19th century fortress

Why sleep in a 5-star hotel when you can sleep amidst a pomegranate orchard under a billion stars? And the middle of the desert with no light pollution offers an exceptional star-gazing experience. All that while camping next to a piece of history: the Karshahi Fortress (aka the Thieves’ Castle), which used to be the operational center for a gang of robbers that spread horror and fear throughout the caravan roads at the end of the 19th century until the end of the Qajar dynasty. And peeking out of my tent in the morning to the sight of a herd of goats drinking water from the nearby pool was the icing on the cake.

From rafting in the Zayandeh Rud to camping in the desert to drinking tea with the Bakhtiari nomads, I share 10 of my most unforgettable experiences in Iran (so far).

Goats around Karshahi Fortress

Putting my feet in Caspian for the first time since I was 3

I knew I had been to the north of Iran as a child only because of pictures I’d seen, but I had no memory of it. And in all the years I traveled to Iran in the summers, it was only to visit family, so we never went to the north. On my birthday two years ago, I finally got the chance to pay a long overdue visit. It’s hard to explain, but there was a visceral joy, a feeling like this was my country, and the Caspian was mine.

From rafting in the Zayandeh Rud to camping in the desert to drinking tea with the Bakhtiari nomads, I share 10 of my most unforgettable experiences in Iran (so far).

Meeting dâsh mashtis in Tehran’s Botanical Gardens

The concept of the dâsh mashti intrigues me. I had only ever seen their characterization in movies and had a vague idea of who they are and what they stand for. But I know how to spot one: white shirt, black suit, and the signature black bowler hat and handlebar mustache.

Last spring, my cousin and I decided to check out Tehran’s Botanical Garden, and as we were strolling through, we came face-to-face with a whole slew of dâsh mashti. At first, I thought it was a joke and that maybe they were just there for entertainment purposes. But you can’t tell me this guy isn’t the real deal. I think my smile says it all.

From rafting in the Zayandeh Rud to camping in the desert to drinking tea with the Bakhtiari nomads, I share 10 of my most unforgettable experiences in Iran (so far).

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From rafting in the Zayandeh Rud to camping in the desert to drinking tea with the Bakhtiari nomads, I share 10 of my most unforgettable experiences in Iran (so far).

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  • Liam
    1 May 2018 at 23:16

    Are the “dash mashti” the Persian version of “The Blues Brothers”? Perhaps a men’s gardening club? Or are they more like the Angels? Not much online about these guys. Does “dash” come from “dadash” and does “mashti” mean from Mashhad? Hamishe jaleb e!

    • Pontia
      5 May 2018 at 15:17

      Hi Liam, interesting questions! I never thought about them being like the Blues Brothers- they do sort of look like them. You’re right about where the words come from. “Mashti” also refers to someone who is a real man and completely mature. On the one hand, “dash mashti” means a person who is fair and generous. (Like I expected them to charge me for the picture, but when I told my relatives, they gasped, “Oh noooo, he’s a real dash mashti! He would never do that!”) But on the other hand, as I understand, they also sort of took care of things/problems for the more wealthy bosses in the neighborhood.