This appealing, rapidly expanding city has a lively vibe and a colourful character, thanks to an ethnically mixed population and an attractive location where the green Alborz Mountains stoop to meet the northeastern steppe. Gorgan was the birthplace of ‘eunuch-king’ Aga Mohammad, who founded the expansionist Qajar dynasty (1779–1925).
Booming Semnan city is well placed to give swift access to both the Alborz Mountains and the vast Dasht-e Kavir desert, while still being an easy 240km drive by expressway from Tehran. Since Sassanian times it has been a key stop on the silk route, attracting wealth and regular destruction in equal measure.
This historic caravan town sits on the edge of the great desert plateau, attractively backed by parched rocky ridges, the highest often remaining discordantly snow-dappled well into April. The town retains a couple of groups of historic tomb-towers, minarets and mosques built in uncoloured, expertly faceted brick.
The soaring Mil-e Gonbad tower is the unmissable attraction of what is otherwise a faceless, forgettable urban sprawl famous for Turkmen horse racing and a nationally prominent volleyball team. A millennium ago, when the tower was built, this was the thriving city of Jorjan.
The majority of Iran's Turkmen people live on the Turkmensahra steppe, where a magnificent tower at Gonbad-e Kavus is the only significant monument still standing from the region's once-vibrant Tabarestan civilisation, obliterated by Genghis Khan’s hordes in the 13th century.
The largely forgettable town of Kordkuy (kord-koo) is centred on Shahrdari Sq, a giant traffic circle in the Sari–Gorgan Hwy. In the middle, ringed with palm trees is a full-size replica of the mysterious 11th-century Mil-e-Radkan – but reaching the original is the main reason to come to Kordkuy.
Golestan National Park
East of Gonbad-e Kavus, the limited-access Golestan National Park includes partly cultivated steppe and thick mountain forests of oak, beech and Persian ironwood, whose leaves blaze with colour in autumn. The park's forested western end rises rapidly from around 500m to over 1600m atop the Beyli Plateau,which is dramatically ringed with stepped cliffs.
Around 9km off the Quchan–Mashhad Hwy, Radkan village is surrounded by a quietly fascinating scattering of old mud ruins and ancient sites, including a conical former ice house right in the heart of the hamlet. But much the most interesting and best preserved monument is the mysterious 13th-century Radkan Tower, fenced amid fields 3km southeast.
Photogenic Kang is a contender as ‘Khorasan’s Masuleh’, a fairly homogenous stepped village of stacked mud-brick homes, most with porch-balconies and earthen roofs. Stairways duck beneath overhangs while steep, slate-bottomed streams run down the middle of alleyways. To find the base of the village, fork left at the teahouse where the bus terminates.
The small village of Bajgiran is the main crossing point for those heading for Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s surreal capital. Consider sleeping here to get an early start. The nearest major population centre is Quchan, a city of around 170,000 people with a sweet little ethnographic museum on Azadi Sq.