When you’re a frequent traveler, you’ll very quickly find a system of your own that minimises pain and maximises pleasure and comfort. In my case, much of my travel was for work. Trips very quickly started to have a pattern: staying at a favourite hotel chain to get upgraded to better rooms and access to lounges to avoid tourists; booking a car in advance from the airport to avoid waiting for smelly taxis, arranging meetings before or after rush hour, booking better tables at better restaurants, and looking up old friends, or colleagues who can direct you to a good show or event (again avoiding tourists). All this is possible in most places. In some countries, however, this is simply not possible. Iran for me is, for now, one of them.
It’s hard to imagine the millions of people who visit Mashhad without credit cards or famous hotel chains being involved. I was expecting mayhem at immigration and in organising transport. But traveling with the group meant no waiting in immigration. In fact, we handed our passports to the agent and received them stamped after spending a short time in a welcome lounge. An hour or so after landing, we were in our hotel rooms where our luggage soon followed. All holidays should be like this!
The main purpose of the trip was to visit the shrine of Imam Reza. This is one of the largest mosques in the world and – although it’s not a measure given my terrible sense of bearing – we got lost inside it on every single visit. It’s a beautiful complex of buildings with libraries, study areas and many connected prayer halls. The ceiling inside is a kaleidoscope of small mirrors that come together a lot prettier than I make them may sound. Walls are tiled with the typically-Iranian blues, and calligraphy is in every corner – each one a small masterpiece of accuracy and elegance. The courtyards between the many buildings are decorated with small water fountains and rest areas, which before the increased security since the mid-1990s used to be popular picnic areas with locals.
We ventured out to Shandiz for lunch, but on this short trip we didn’t have the time to see some of the other sites such as the tomb of the poet Ferdowsi, or the public baths that date back to 1648. We leave these for another visit.