SpiceRoads Blog

Persia’s Ancient Wonders Now

Posted on: December 6th, 2016 by Sally Hoare
Posted in: Iran

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Modern day Iran boasts ancient and amazing sights influenced by centuries of Persian culture and history. Such a simple term, ‘Persia’, is a far reaching and wondrous melange of ethnicities, environments, and events that developed into the delights to be discovered so near to the Cradle of Civilisation, where we all came from in one way or another.

 

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Shiraz is thought to be over 4,000 years old. What is definite is its role in Persian culture – it is home to renowned and beloved gardens, wine, education, and poets, inspiring artists throughout the ages.

 

Imam (Shah) Mosque, Isfahan, Iran

Eram Garden, one of the UNESCO Persian gardens, dates to the 12th or 13th century. Cypress trees are a feature, including one that apparently is almost 3,000 years old. Visitors now can see the results of the centuries – cultivating not just the plant life, but also the integrated architecture and art. It is now under the care of Shiraz University, open to both botanists and the public.

 

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Tombs of Sa’di and Hafez: These two poets, who lived in the 13th and 14th centuries, have influenced scholars, writers, and lay people alike to this day. Their tombs have been maintained and visited by those who want to contemplate their writings in its tranquil gardens and serene marble mausoleums.

 

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Zand Complex is an area of Shiraz featuring the Arg of Karim Khan, an 18th century citadel and fortress, and Vakil Mosque and bazaar. The mosque is an excellent example of the art of its time, and the night prayer hall features a minbar, or pulpit, carved out of a single piece of green marble.

 

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Persepolis, once the richest city on earth, was founded by Darius I in 518 BCE. This capital of the Achaemenid Empire was built on an immense half-artificial, half-natural terrace, with an impressive palace complex adorned in gold and silver, ivory, and precious stones. Considered one of the world’s greatest archaeological sites, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.

Eqlid is close to the Zagros mountains and is one of the highest Iranian cities at 2250 metres. Considered the border between the mountains and the desert, it offers views of snow-covered peaks almost year-round.

 

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Photo by destinationiran

Abarkouh is a desert city known for its ancient ice houses and windcatchers and for being home to the second oldest tree in the world, a 4,000-year-old cypress. Depending on the legend, it was either planted by Zoroaster or by Japheth, Noah’s third son.

 

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Zein-o-Din Caravanserai is one of 999 travellers’ inns on the Silk Road built during the reign of Shah Abbas I. Dating back to the 16th century, it is one of two caravanserais built with circular towers at the corners of a square surrounding a courtyard with a pool.

 

Disused old building interior at the foot of the hill with Towers of Silence in Yazd, Iran.

Disused old building interior at the foot of the hill with Towers of Silence in Yazd, Iran.

Yazd, one of ancient Persia’s oldest cities and one of the largest made almost fully out of adobe, dates back over 5,000 years. A major Zoroastrian centre, it’s home to the famous Tower of Silence where the dead were left to be picked clean by vultures as well as the Fire Temple where a fire has been going since 470 AD.

 

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Isfahan, a former capital of Persia and now Iran’s third largest city. Among its tree-lined boulevards, picturesque bridges, verdant gardens, and historic bazaars, visitors can appreciate how the reign of Shah Abbas I optimised urban planning to highlight its architecture and art such beauties as the UNESCO-listed Naqsh-e Jahan Square and Royal Mosque.

 

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Photo by irantraveltours

Kashan was an important centre for high quality textiles, pottery, and tiles from the 12th and the 14th centuries. It’s importance as a trade centre can be seen in the architectural wonder of its main bazaar complex, teeming with shops, inns, and restaurants and featuring an amazing light well. Beyond the hustle and bustle of business is another UNESCO Persian garden, Fin.

 

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Photo by howtoiran

Iran’s capital city, Tehran, is where antiquity and modernity meet. The National Museum houses a priceless collection of artefacts, chronicling life, great and small, from pre-history to more recent times. Golestan Palace began as a citadel in the 16th century, became the seat of the capital in the Qajar era, and was rebuilt to its current form as a palace in the 19th century. This complex of intricate marble carvings, brilliant mirror works, and exceptional design was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013.

Everywhere you travel in the region, it’s very likely that you’ll uncover more enchantments, from quaint farms and villages to vast world heritage sites, that hopefully will deepen your appreciation of this singular yet expansive culture. These destinations have survived so much through so the millennia and should continue to charm and be cherished. Don’t you think it’s time you joined in?

To find out more about these sites and about what else you can discover:

http://www.untoldiran.com/

http://www.farschto.ir/en/

http://www.irantourismcenter.com/

http://whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/ir

https://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/cities/cities.html

Rider of the Month – Jeffrey Olver

Posted on: November 24th, 2016 by Sally Hoare

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Tell us about your earliest experiences as a cyclist…

I have ridden a bicycle since I was a child however I discovered the pleasure of road cycling in 2011. I bought my first road bike and joined my first SpiceRoads Bangkok to Phuket Tour 3 months later. Though I realized I had much to learn about cycling, capsule I met experienced cyclists on that tour and learned a great deal about Thailand in those 10 days. In short, I was hooked on cycling after my first SpiceRoads Tour.

Tell us what you most enjoy about cycle touring and why you like to see the world by bicycle?

Cycle touring brings people from all around the world together with at least one thing in common, the love of road cycling. I have met many fine cyclists and have made some of my best friendships on SpiceRoads tours. It is also common to find very strong riders older than myself and that has given me hope for aging gracefully also. Lastly, the guides and drivers are key to feeling integrated into the Thai community as we move from town to town across Thailand.

How many cycle tours have you been on with SpiceRoads and which has been your favourite?

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I have cycled 8 tours with SpiceRoads. One trip from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and 7 tours of Bangkok to Phuket (Yes, 7 times so that must be my favourite). I enjoy the small beach towns on the Gulf of Thailand and spectacular scenery of the Andaman Sea coast. The dinners offer a wide variety of dishes and the Thai massage is perfect complement to a day of exercise on the bike. Even though the tour travels the same route, I see and learn new things that I missed on previous tours. Every group of SpiceRoads cyclists is unique.

Where would you like to cycle next?

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I would like to explore the Northern Thailand hills of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai and the Isaan/Lao area with SpiceRoads in the future. The local Thai cycling culture is extremely vibrant and Thai drivers are respectful of the cyclist. I feel safe and welcome with my bicycle in Thailand and it truly is the land of smiles.

– In your opinion, what is the benefit of travelling by bicycle?

The health benefits from cycling would have to top the list. Personally I have lost weight, lowered my blood pressure, increased muscle mass and found an outlet to the mental stress of modern life. I have recently retired and visit Thailand a couple of months a year. I always bring my road bike as my main means of transportation and a tour with SpiceRoads brings together old and new friends.

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Persian Cuisine: Extraordinary and yet Familiar

Posted on: November 22nd, 2016 by Sally Hoare
Posted in: Iran

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Many know Persian art and architecture. Many appreciate the intricacies in ancient Persian carpet-making. But many may not be acquainted with true Persian foods. Unfortunately, Persian cuisine is sometimes lumped together with Arabic, but although they share similar geographic origins and some ingredients, there are distinct differences.

Of course, there are familiar sights at a Persian meal: rice, flat breads, kebabs, yogurt, grilled fish, meat stews. But there are unique uses of other ingredients. You might not be surprised to taste saffron and cardamom, but then you’ll find fruits like pomegranate and tamarind as well as walnuts and pistachios coursing through every course, complementing succulent meats, fishes, or pulses. Persian recipes deftly mix sweet and savoury ingredients to create dishes that burst with flavour.

Some dishes considered essential (it seems unfair to call them ‘basic’) are:

Jewelled rice: When the occasion for dinner needs more than just rice, this dish combines rice with dried fruits and nuts, creating a colourful treat for the eyes as well. Typically, pistachios and almonds slivers mix with barberries (like cranberries), glazed orange peel, and pomegranate and are spiced with saffron.

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Ghormeh Sabzi is a stew, but so much more. Its considered by many as a favoured Persian dish, combining an incredible mix of herbs that is sautéed to make the base of the stew. Dried limes are added for a singular tartness. As with many other Persian dishes, this can be made with meat or can be a perfect vegetarian option.

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Photo by turmericsaffron

Sabzi Khordan can be found at most meals. It is amazing in its simplicity but complex in the flavours to be discovered. A plate of fresh herbs and roots (parsley, cilantro, radishes, scallions, dill, basil, mint, chives) often accompanied with pickled vegetables, cheese, and nuts. Select your ingredients and eat with flatbread.

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Photo by food52.com

Borani Esfenaj is another way to get your spinach. Walnuts and fried onions are chopped and combined with spinach in yoghurt for taste sensation like no other. An amazingly healthy vegetarian dish, it is served can be served with ‘sangak’, a whole wheat leavened flatbread.

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Photo by Familyrecipecentral

Joojeh Kabob is a typical, if such is possible, kebab dish, grilled skewers of vegetables with chicken that has been marinated in saffron and lime.

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Fesenjan is another dish normally for a special occasion, but with these ingredients, who can be blamed? This is a sweet and savoury stew of walnut, pomegranate, and most often, chicken or duck. Naming its main ingredients doesn’t do it justice.

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Kohresh Bademjan: This stew is one of many traditional Persian dishes that feature eggplants, or aubergines. This particular stew combines the flavour of eggplants with the tartness of limes or sour grapes. This can be made with meat or can go vegetarian.

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Photo by turmericsaffron

Persian desserts and sweets includes Faludeh, a dessert of thin noodles served cold with rosewater and lime juice; Tar Halva, a confection made of rice flour, cardamom and butter; and Shir Berenj, Persian rice pudding.

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Faludeh – Photo by Abouttimemagazine

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Tar Halva – Photo by persianmama

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Shir Berenj – Photo by afghankitchenrecipes

This barely scrapes the surface of the delights that can be found in Persian food. There’s the delights of the crispy crunch of Tahdig rice, the refreshment of the fruit or flower flavoured Sharbat drinks, the myriad variations to create a thick, luscious Aash soups. And so much more.

With the increased interest in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines because of reports on the health benefits of their traditional ingredients, and with the opening of Iran and the region to those who are unfamiliar with it, the joys of outrageously delicious Persian dishes will hopefully spread even further!

To find out more, you can start with (I don’t endorse any of these recipes, but I did use these sources to learn more):

http://www.cultureofiran.com/persian_cuisine.html

http://www.foodrepublic.com/2014/10/29/persian-food-primer-10-essential-iranian-dishes/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/27/persian-recipes-food-iranian_n_3504083.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/iranian-food-why-a-vibrant-cuisine-is-ripe-for-rediscovery-fesenjan-tahdig-ottolenghi-a6974246.html

http://persianmama.com/recipes-4/

Beyond Persepolis: Persian Arts and Culture

Posted on: November 9th, 2016 by Sally Hoare
Posted in: Iran

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At one time the centre of one of the largest empires of the world, Persia has borne some of the world’s greatest treasures. Various intricate arts, lyrical literary styles,  and architectural techniques can find their beginnings in the area in and around Iran that is attributed to Persia.

Persia can be considered as beginning with the Achaemenid Empire, known as the realm of Cyrus I, Darius I, and Xerxes. These leaders achieved almost mythological standing, expanding their empires, implementing public works and constructions, and patronising arts of all origins. The empire was known for incorporating elements from those they conquered, endeavouring to create the best of all worlds.

Another major influence was Zoroastrianism, the main religion until the widespread adoption of Islam after the Arab conquest of Persia in the 7th century AD. But its origins go back to around the 10th century BCE, so its influence can’t be over-emphasised. Its main tenets are Humata (good thoughts), Hukhta (good words), Huvarshta (good deeds). The rites and traditions surrounding these seemingly simple ideas are represented in temples and artwork that survives to this day. Notably, the purifying and protective endowments of earth, air, water, and fire can be found throughout.

With the Arab conquest, Islamic influences found its way into Persian arts and culture. And Egyptian, Greco-Roman, and Mesopotamian traits also had their hands in – showing that trade as much as war can impact artisans.

Architecture

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The epitome of Achaemenid architecture is Persepolis, the capital of the First Persian Empire. This UNESCO World Heritage site exemplifies how Persian artists, artisans, and architects worked together to combine the best in urban planning, construction, and art. Building on naturally terraced land, additional terraces were created to erect regal structures featuring elegant friezes, slender columns, and majestic sculptures.

The columns are a unique design – the engineers at the time could construct lighter roofs to make a lighter load for more slender columns. These were often topped with ingeniously designed animal sculptures, also known as capitals.

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As a counterpoint to the many temples and palaces, Persian mausoleums and tombs also received great attention and detail. Are simple sepulchres, other necropolises, but all adorned with sculptures and some with intricate metalwork.

Arts

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Within and around these sites can be found even more artistry. Monuments carved out of mountainsides, mosaics depicting scenes from history and mythology, sculptures in bronze and other metals, all adorned homes and palaces, and now can mainly be found in museums and private collections.

Persian metalsmiths didn’t only master bronze work, but also excelled at many techniques for working silver and gold to create decorative jewellery pieces as well as functional drinking vessels and dishes, sometimes inlayed with gems and decorated with abstract designs or scenes of feasting.

Carpets

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The one thing that most people know of is the quality and beauty of Persian carpets. But they aren’t just a single type — Persian carpets covers a wide range of styles and materials. This tradition is thought to have dated back a few thousand years. Each village, city, region developed their own techniques and methods.

Some use cotton, wool, silk, or unique mixes. Some feature geometric designs, birds and flowers, hunting scenes. Some use brilliant, bright colours, others more subdued hues. There are myriad weaves and knots as well. All work together produce beautiful functional works of art. And unlike some arts that are relegated to antiquity, these lovely pieces are being created to this day.

persian_rug_1It’s a testament to the quality and handiwork required that two traditions of Persian carpet weaving is listed as on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritages.

Gardens

Imam (Shah) Mosque, Isfahan, Iran

The nine Persian gardens are listed as UNESCO natural world heritage sites, recognising the tradition and its influence on landscaping since Cyrus the Great. They are designed to integrate natural surroundings with manmade structures. They are thought to be representative of Eden or of the Zoroastrian principles of air, fire, water, and earth, often being separated into four sections. Often featuring innovative engineering and water management, these gardens have passed the test of time, offering themselves oases to visitors, past and present.

The beauties and wonders of Persia’s heritage is being rediscovered as the region pulls out from its recent tumultuous history. What once could only be discovered in history books or museums is now available to those who wish to experience this culture first-hand. Plan a visit soon and see the wonders that come when so many worlds meet and combine!

To find out more:

http://www.persiansarenotarabs.com/persian-culture/

http://www.iranchamber.com/index/art_culture.php

http://www.cultureofiran.com/art_articles_and_links.html

http://www.avesta.org/avesta.html

http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/en/RL/traditional-skills-of-carpet-weaving-in-fars-00382

http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/114

http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1372

Exploring the Wilds of Malaysia by Bike

Posted on: October 27th, 2016 by Sally Hoare

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For many people, when they think of Borneo, it brings images of explorers boldly trekking through the dense tropical rainforest, discovering breath-taking beauty, and amazing exotic wildlife and plants.

However, Borneo is a perfect location for anyone who is a biking enthusiast looking for an exceptional adventure, in a much less populated area than they would experience on the mainland of Malaysia.

Because Borneo has warm weather year-round, and temperatures are fairly consistent in most of the area, it’s ideal for bicycle touring. May to September is truly the best time to enjoy cycling tours in the wilds of Malaysia as this is the dry season, which means the humidity is low as well.

You will enjoy a wonderful, unique adventure cycling tour through East Malaysia, (also known as Malaysian Borneo), on the island of Borneo. You can enjoy amazing monkeys and exotic birds in astounding national parks and wildlife reserves including Kinabalu National Park, explore sanctuaries, off-road cycle a portion of the historic Sandakan Death March route, and explore exciting cities.

Another popular location is Gunung Mulu National Park, which is considered to be Borneo’s finest national park by many. Some of the most appreciated highlights are the Sarawak Chamber cave systems, as well as the huge Clearwater Cave.

Kuching, the energetic capital of Sarawak, is known for its world-famous orangutan sanctuary in Sepilok Forest Reserve, as well as the canopy walkway located at the Rainforest Discovery Centre. Other enjoyments in the area include kayaking on the Sarawak River, a cruise through the spectacular mangroves, trekking along beautiful jungle paths and relaxing on the unspoiled, stunning beaches while watching the golden sunset.

While jungle adventures are a large focus of the tour through the wilds of Malaysia, we will also explore many traditional ethnic villages on this cycling tour through Malaysian Borneo.

Along with exploring the tourist amenities and shopping locations within Kuching, we also interact with the diverse charming native locals. In fact, as part of our unique adventure, we stay in the homes of the welcoming residents, experiencing local village life first hand.

Bako National Park, near Kuching, covers miles of jungle trails as well as several lovely beaches. In addition to enjoying the beautiful beaches and shoreline, Sipadan Island offers some of the best diving tourists can experience in Asia. In addition to exploring the wilds of Malaysia on land, divers can explore and enjoy the beauty of colourful living coral reefs, sea turtles, sting rays, hammerheads and other tropical sea life.

Also among the towns we will enjoy exploring in northern Sarawak is Miri; from here, we can cycle to the Number 1 Oil Well national monument, and Taman Selera beach.

So, if you’re looking for cycling tours through areas that are far less populated than the mainland of Malaysia, while enjoying the jungles, national parks, waterways, beaches and the seaside, and miles of beautiful roadways unspoilt or congested by traffic, then the cycling tour of the wilds of Malaysia Borneo is a perfect choice.