After crossing the border from Turkmenistan into Iran, our first stop was Mashhad, the holiest city in Iran. It was definitely an eye opener for us, from the over pouring attention of the locals, women clad in black chadors to the genuine hospitality of our local friends.
Our first place of visit in Mashad was its grand Haram-e-Razavi (Haram in short) shrine, which was a beautiful complex of dazzling gold domes and courtyards full of pilgrims who were here to pay their respect to their holy leader, Imam Reza.
When we first arrived at the main entrance of the Haram, the guard called for a guide to escort us in. This guide service is completely free and our guide spoke fluent English. We stopped by the Foreign Pilgrims Association Office where they played a 10 minutes long video about the Haram and gave us each a bag of souvenirs which consisted of a brochure and a stack of picturesque postcards of Mashad. Also, strictly no cameras or bags allowed inside the Haram. But strangely, camera phones were allowed. Their body checks were very thorough and we even had to empty out all of our pockets! All women also had to wear a chardoh when entering the Haram. I borrowed mine from the guesthouse that we stayed at. Sadly, non-muslims were only allowed in the outer courtyards.
We went again during the night as the entire place will be lit up and it would be a different experience for us. We were denied entry at first as perhaps the guides have gone home already and it was supposedly impossible to explore the Haram without a guide. But we pleaded with them to grant us entry and after some long discussion amongst themselves, they managed to find one of the staff (who couldn’t speak English) to bring us in. We were delighted and as we wandered through the dwindling crowd, our guide suddenly led us into one of the holy buildings! Non-muslims were not allowed entry usually and hence it was such a privilege for us to be able to enter.
Tip: Visit the Haram at night around 7-8pm again for a totally different experience of the holy place. If you’re denied entry like us at the beginning, try pleading with them and assure them that you will not take too long and that you really want to see this place at night. Who knows, you might be lucky like us and get to be one of the privileged few to enter the golden dome!
We were so amazed by the dazzling interior and its grandiosity! The stunning canopy was bejewelled with tiny polished mirrors and sparkling chandeliers in every section. There were also a lot of pilgrims praying and meditating inside and the atmosphere was so intense. Especially when we were inside the golden dome where the Imam Reza’s tomb was, there were so many devotees shedding tears for their revered leader and kissing and touching the zarih (the gold cage where the tomb was) We were not allowed to take any photo of the cage though.
Mashad was no doubt an interesting and wonderful experience for us. The people were so amicable and we received so many greetings and smiles as we walked down the streets. Definitely a good start to our 1 month trip in Iran!
Where to stay
Vali Non-Smoking Homestay, $10 for a dorm bed. Free wifi and free flow of Vali’s unique mountain tea.
By the way, you have to at least try the cooking of Vali’s wife once if you’re staying at his homestay. His wife’s cooking is delectable! We really loved the classic Fesenjun which is a local dish of rice with roast chicken savoured in pomegranate sauce, walnuts and cinnamon. It cost $5 for each meal.
Vali was an exceptionally friendly extrovert who made us feel very welcomed in his country. Some people might be put off by his over friendliness, but we felt that he was just being extremely helpful and also a very straight forward person who speaks his mind. He also gave us a free introductory tour around his carpet factory and provided lots of interesting information about the different types of carpets and its origins.
How to get here
Do note that the information on Lonely Planet is outdated. The correct address:
No. 277, 38th Malekoshoara Bahar, Chaharahe Lashgar, Mashhad, Iran
We took a cab from the border of Turkmenistan-Iran, cost us around US$40.
Ps. Important advice to fellow travellers
Beware of Vali’s extremely outspoken tour partner, Rafi, whom we had a very very nasty experience with after rejecting his unethically priced tours. Besides hard selling, he also showed us horrible attitude after we declined his offer and even wrote us long ridiculous messages on our Facebook page and website. If you wish to know the full story, you can drop us a message and we will personally share with you our bad experience with this person. To be safe, go for the Kang village tour with Vali instead who’s more genuine as he was the pioneer in conducting tours in Kang village and he’s doing it more for his passion rather than for the money. If you’re wondering who he is, you will definitely meet him if you’re staying at Vali’s homestay. He’s the other Iranian who speaks fluent British english.