It takes four days to reach the summit of the country’s highest mountain, a 5,671-metre volcano. Base camp is two hours from Tehran, making Damavand one of the most accessible 5,000-metre-plus mountains in the world. If all goes to plan, this seven-day trip includes two days’ recovery in Larijan’s thermal spring and Tehran.
Foreigners! Welcome to Tehran! You may also line up here,” announces a smiling airport official dressed in a long, black chador who is pointing to a newly opened immigration booth. A throng of young Dutch, Polish and German travellers pick up their rucksacks and peel off from the back of our queue and rush towards the new one.
Queues for foreign passport holders at Imam Khomeini International airport have been conspicuously short for almost a decade, but 2014 is tipped to be the biggest year for western tourism in the Islamic Republics 35-year history. The populist and bombastic former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad left office late last year and his replacement, Hassan Rouhani, has assumed a softer diplomatic style, lifting many barriers that kept tourists away.
The news, this week, that the British embassy is to reopen in Tehran should see the Foreign and Commonwealth Office change its advice against all but essential travel to Iran. Most Europeans can pick up a two-week visa on arrival and Britons can now get a visa in London, since consular services resumed in spring after a two-year hiatus.
A walking tour based around the eponymous 1934 travelogue by the explorer Freya Stark, showcasing the greener side of Iran, traditional villages, the castles of the “assassins” and Alborz mountain hikes. The trip includes a stay with the Shahsevan nomadic tribe, a visit to Tabriz’s blue mosque and Unesco world heritage bazaar.
The Dasht-e Lut desert, one of the Earth’s hottest and driest places, is a (hardy) trekker’s dream, with incredible rock formations, sand dunes, salt plains and the Valley of Meteorites – imposing landscapes that enchanted Marco Polo and, 700 years later, Wilfred Thesiger.