Tehran to Gorgan
The road to Manzadaran from Tehran winds over stunning Alborz mountain terrain and is well worth the journey in itself, but has some treacherous switchbacks. The gateway to the northern province is the sprawling city of Sari, famous for a cluster of three 15th-century tomb towers: the Imamzadeh-ye Yahya, the Imamzadeh-ye Abbas and the Borj-e Soltan Zein-ol Abedin.
Capital of an eponymous region, booming Semnan lies on the northern edge of the vast Dasht-e Kavir desert, 240km east of Tehran. Since Sassanian times it has been a key stop on the silk route, attracting wealth and regular destruction in equal measure. At first glance it’s a diffuse, nondescript city of low-rise modern buildings and wide boulevards.
An early capital of Khorasan, Neishabur (Nayshaboor) was first settled in the 3rd century AD by the great Sassanian Shah Shapur I as one of his great fortified trading cities, and the place grew fat and rich exploiting the thick veins of turquoise that wind throughout the hills nearby.
This historic caravan town sits on the edge of the great desert plateau, attractively backed by parched rocky ridges (the highest are discordantly snow-covered well into April). Damghan’s timelessly crumbling mud-walled buildings are rapidly being replaced by modern constructions.
Where the last ripples of mountain ridge disappear into a vast dusty plain, you’ll find this friendly, adamantly Sunni town. White beards and whiter turbans create a street-vibe that’s more oriental than in most Iranian cities. Imam Khomeini Blvd runs 4km from Imam Reza Sq (northwest) to Falakeh Sharak (southeast), passing Shahrdari Sq halfway.
Just as Stratford-upon-Avon in England is synonymous with Shakespeare, so Tus is inextricably linked with Persia’s 11th-century epic poet Abulqasim Ferdosi. Domestic tourists flock to the Ferdosi Mausoleum, set in its own park and topped by a classically styled stone cenotaph.
If heading for Merv and Mary, you can cross the Turkmenistan border in this strange, flat town where several redundantly large boulevards don’t seem to lead anywhere. A useful landmark west of the town centre is the dolphin-fronted Hotel Doosty. Its best rooms are a decent midrange deal and its restaurant is excellent value (meals US$3).
If you’re heading to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s surreal capital, consider sleeping here to get an early start for crossing the nearby border. Bajgiran village isn’t an attraction but a few huddles of archaic mud-houses look faintly attractive amid the arid mountain ridges and communication towers.
Just 18km from the Afghanistan border post, Taybad’s main attraction is the imposing 1444 Molana Mosque. Its towering iwan is of a similar grandeur to that of the Jami complex in Torbat-e Jam. The male-dominated Municipality Hotel at the northern edge of town has unsophisticated if fairly spacious box-rooms with bathroom, TV and much too much pink.