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.
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.
About 75km northwest of Mashhad, the mysterious 25m-high Radkan Tower has baffled visitors for centuries. A tomb? A coronation spot? According to Iranian archaeo-astronomer Manoochehr Arian, it was actually a highly sophisticated instrument for studying the stars built in AD 1261 by astronomers led by Nasruddin Tusi (Nasir Al-Tusi; 1201–74).
Golestan National Park
East of Gonbad, the limited-access Golestan National Park includes partly cultivated steppe and contrastingly thick mountain forests of 500-year-old trees in which you half expect to meet Asterix and his cohorts. The region is indistinctly littered with clues to the once vibrant Tabarestan civilisation that lasted from the Neanderthal era right up until the 13th century.
This popular weekend getaway for Semnanis is a quietly charming oasis amid spiky rock ridges. Gushing streams and a few remnant mud-compound houses grace the upper parts of town around Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Sq. There’s enough snow on the ridges 8km behind town to allow impromptu sledging until mid-April.
Sprawling in arid rocky folds, Mahdishahr (16km from Semnan) is dominated by the impressive if mostly contemporary blue-domed Al-Mahdi Hosseinieh. The town’s other notable building is the 40-year-old Kakh Palace, now used as the remarkably good-value Sangesar Hotel with blue tiling, grand lobby and two-storey chandelier of 1970s rope-glass. Take the best suite for full effect.