Iran had been a country at the top of my travel wish list for a long time, so when I made the call to resign from my job and travel for a year, adding it to the itinerary was a no-brainer. Before I knew it, I was in Armenia and it was time to start sorting a visa.
I’ll write more about the destinations I visited in my next post. For now, I’ll be reflecting on a few of my experiences in Iran. The people, their genuine hospitality, the unique experiences that helped propel Iran from the top of my wish list to the top of my favourite countries list. And a few travel tips for those interested in a visit to a most fascinating country.
I hadn’t met many people who’d travelled to Iran but when recounting their trips there was a common thread that the spoke of glowingly– the people. Friendly, welcoming, generous and humble were common adjectives used to describe the Iranians.
From my first day in Tehran, I could see exactly where they were coming from. Over the next four weeks I regularly had memorable encounters with the locals. The shopkeeper who offered me a discount in exchange for proofreading a message being sent to an overseas acquaintance. The young girl who wanted to practice her English with me and share her popcorn (with her family waiting patiently, I got the feeling this was a regular occurrence every time she spotted a foreigner). The shopkeeper in the Kashan bazaar who offered me and a travel buddy a unique view of the cityscape – from the roof of the bazaar via a locked door!
One of the things that became quickly apparent was how family-orientated the Iranians are. A real joy was visiting any park on the weekend (Thursday/Friday in Iran due to Friday being their holy day) and seeing groups spreading blankets on the grass, all sharing laughs, flasks of tea and barbecues.
Iranians are genuinely glad you’ve made the decision to ignore the Western propaganda and visit their country. You’ll be approached on a regular basis – “Where are you from”? Where have you been in Iran”? (If you mention their hometown, expect a grin like the Cheshire cat). “What is your favourite Iranian food”? Go with the flow – while there are many amazing tourist attractions in Iran, it is the memories of the people that will remain strongest.
Expect the Unexpected
“Feel like visiting the old US Embassy?”, asked my new Aussie travel buddy Anton.
“Yeah, why not”, I replied. “Sounds interesting”. Little did I know what was to unfold.
It isn’t actually an embassy anymore. Not since 1979. Those of you who’ve seen the movie “Argo” will be familiar with the story (or at least the sanitised American version) but the guts of it is:
From the mid-50’s until 1979, Iran was ruled by the US-backed Shah
In 1979, the Islamic Revolution saw the Ayatollah Khomeini take charge
A group of local students were convinced the US was planning a coup to reinstall the Shah
They stormed the embassy and took everyone hostage; ambassadorial staff attempted to destroy documents and equipment, but much remained intact
Earlier this year, the embassy reopened to the public as a museum dedicated to showing what went on behind closed doors
As we left the metro station, we heard a growing noise- a large crowd, loudspeakers, horns. As we turned the corner onto Taleqani Avenue, we had our answer – a protest march. But not just any protest march. As we soon discovered, it was actually 38 years to the day since the students had stormed the embassy and this was a demonstration commemorating that event. Initial thoughts of an embassy visit being dashed were replaced by growing intrigue about what we were witnessing. Tens of thousands of people, banners denouncing the US and Israel, Donald Trump being a particular focus (“Keep Calm and Shut Up Trump”).
We were approached on a regular basis, protest attendees interested in where we were from (turns out Kiwis and Aussies are very well liked in Iran). In turn we were able to speak to them, to find out their political views, why they were marching. These conversations confirmed what I already suspected – they bear no ill will towards Americans; their anger is aimed towards the meddling of the US government and corporations. Indeed, most of them have met Americans and found them to be decent people. This ability to separate a citizen from their government is something a lot of people in the West could learn.
Later that afternoon we finally made it to the embassy when it reopened. What we saw was fascinating and gave some insights into why the relationship between Iran and the US is so strained. A room housing equipment for forging passports (Australian and Algerian, interesting enough). Rooms of encryption equipment. And, of course, the infamous paper-shredders. As the hostage crisis lasted 444 days, the students had plenty of time on their hands – they used this to recreate documents found shredded whilst the embassy was being seized.
All this gave me time to reflect on one of the decisions I had to make prior to travelling to Iran – I’m no longer eligible for the 90 day visa on arrival; from this point on, any visit to the US will require applying for a visa at a US embassy, with an interview a possibility before I’m granted (or denied) a visa. All because I chose to travel to a country on the new US no-go list. Or in Trumpian logic:
Decent law-abiding traveller + trip to Iran = A bad person, a very bad dude
Later in the trip, I was exploring Isfahan with my mates Sergio and Eoin. We spotted what appeared to be an impressive yet modern mosque -.why not go for a look. As we arrived, we discovered that it was in fact a new mosque under construction. Peering through the gates piqued our interest even more. “Can we come in and have a look?” asked Eion to the nearest construction worker. A short “No” was the reply; oh well, time to move on. As we passed the main gate and unperturbed by our initial failure, Eion wanders up to the gate and asks again. As luck would have it, we’d encountered the head engineer and he was most happy to let us in to see his pride and joy. Not just that, Ali even offered us a guided tour!
Even though it’s not finished, the main hall is already being used for Friday prayers, often holding a crowd of 3-4000. Work has already been underway for six years; an end date is uncertain due to funding issues. However, once finished, Ali claimed that overall capacity will be over 30000, making it the largest mosque in Isfahan and one of the largest in Iran. A particular challenge was that the site already hosted a 250-year-old mosque. Rather than demolish it, they decided to incorporate it into the new designs.
On my last evening in Iran, I was wandering around Shiraz. I discovered a brilliantly lit mosque - the Sayyed Alaeddin Hossein Mosque. As I was admiring the amazing floodlit exterior, I was approached by a well-dressed local - turns out he was a mosque ambassador and was offering a guided tour! Hardly going to say no to that. I asked his name, to which he cryptically replied “It’s a great Iranian name, a GREAT name”. Having recently visited Persepolis, I realised it could be one of two names, Cyrus or Darius, both rulers over 2000 years ago and both known as ‘The Great”. I guessed Darius, it was Cyrus. Trust me to get a 50/50 wrong. As he led me into the mosque, I was immediately struck by the stunning interior, the walls being covered with a mosaic of mirrors, mainly clear but also shades of blue and green. He explained that this was a functioning mosque but was also housed a tomb of a son of the seventh Imam.
A few surprises remained. Cyrus led me through a locked door, straight into the ceremonial hall, open only on special religious occasions. This room was again bathed with a mosaic of mirrored glass but also featured striking entranceways of intricately carved marble reliefs.
As we left the mosque, Cyrus headed toward a small group of men, they were then introduced to this Kiwi traveller. I can now say that I’ve met and shaken hands with the former head of the Iranian Air Force! Definitely not being let into the US again!
It's not often I'm introduced to a new sport but that’s exactly what happened in Isfahan, A few people in the hostel had been talking about an interesting experience, with strongmen exercising with wooden clubs while someone accompanied this with drums and ancient chants; I was intrigued, I had to see this! Our first attempt was a failure, a religious holiday meant the arena was closed. Onwards to Yazd, where one of my first tasks was tracking down this mysterious sport. The hostel manager was the obvious go-to and he knew exactly what I was looking for. Armed with location and time, a small group wandered down to Saheb a Zaman Zurkhaneh.
We shuffled into the arena, known as a “Zurkhaneh” (which translates roughly as “House of Strength”). Turns out that this is one of the oldest forms of exercise in the world, over 2000 years old! Initially used to prepare warriors for battle, it’s now used to turn spare tyres into six-packs, while at the same time connecting with a heroic past where Persia ruled the world. It’s a series of calisthenic exercises using equipment such as wooden clubs and metal bows to build dexterity, strength and coordination. All performed in time to the rhythm of a drum and bell, with ancient mystic chants from a large leather-bound book.
You’ll find a Zurkhaneh in any city in Iran. I also attended in Shiraz and the contrast could not have been greater. In Yazd there were 50-60 spectators, most of us tourists happy to pay a small 50000 rial entry. In Shiraz, I was the only tourist – just me and five locals. Initially I found this a little intimidating but being Iran, it couldn’t have been further from the truth – participants and spectators greeted me with a smile, a handshake and the inevitable questions about my nationality and Iranian travel itinerary.
Words of Advice
Make sure you bring all the cash you will need (including some extra), ideally in USD or Euro. It is almost impossible to access money in Iran. And I only include the "almost" because we all know that only the Sith deal in absolutes.
Make sure you understand the concept of Toman. 1 toman equals 10 rial. While the currency is Rial, most prices are quoted in toman. To make things more complex, the final 3 zeroes are often dropped. So a price of 70 is actually 70000 toman, which is 700000 rial! Important - always clarify if the price is in rial or toman and you can't go wrong.
I’ve mentioned the kindness and generosity of Iranians throughout this post. There is an exception though – taxi drivers! Like in most countries, they’re out to cheat you of out of every rial they can. Thankfully, there is an answer. While there is no Uber due to international sanctions, Iran has their own version – Snapp. Like Uber, you install the app and then request via your smartphone. The price is set, and you pay in cash (since your credit card is no good here). Standard price for a 1-2km ride is 40000 rial (homework – how many toman is this? 😊) – at less than a Euro it is excellent value and way better than you’ll get from the taxi mafia. The only downside is that it isn’t available in all cities – Yes to Tehran/Kashan/Shiraz/Isfahan, No to Yazd.
Being an Iranian app, of course it’s not on Google Play or the Apple App Store. Go to cafebazaar.ir and download from there – you’ll have to wait until you’re in Iran as you’ll need an Iranian mobile number.
Internet access is somewhat restricted in Iran. Many sites you’re familiar with, such as Facebook and Hotmail, will be off limits. Things can also change without warning – Whatsapp was blocked at the start of the trip, 2 weeks later it was fine. And, perhaps most importantly of all, your bank will be inaccessible from Iran due to international sanctions.
Is this an issue? Perhaps not. After all, sometimes you have to disconnect to reconnect. But if you really need a particular site, your answer lies with a VPN, or Virtual Private Network. For those not familiar with this term, it’s basically a product that masks your web activity by routing your traffic via a server in another country.
But which one to use? I’m no expert, I’d never used a VPN until I reached Iran. Three free VPN’s I can vouch for are Tunnel Bear, Speedify and Turbo VPN.
Learn a few basic words and phrases in Farsi and your experiences with Iranians will become even more memorable. A good place to start is with numbers, you’ll have a better understanding of things like menus and you’ll gain great respect from the Iranian people:
I was asked my age by a local. The look on his face when instead of telling him, I wrote it in Farsi! Although in hindsight, I don’t know whether he was impressed that I’d learnt the numbers or that I could count that high 😊