Iran

With its big territory and many landmarks, Iran appealed to me for a long time. I’ve been often thinking of taking three weeks to explore it as much as I could. But planning for perfection never works. It’s better to take a small bit now than hoping for a long trip with no fixed date.

Bath house in Kashan

I did not go to Iran on a solo trip. Instead, I booked an organized group tour, so not to worry too much about organization. It turned out I should have not. Internet has enough resources to prepare a trip to Iran on your own thanks to enthusiastic travelers. I missed a part of the Iran charm and I did not really go off-the-beaten tracks. At least, that always gives me the possibility of coming back!

So what really is Iran? I would not call Iran a leisure destination, although there are ski or sea resorts easily accessible from Teheran. There are 4% more tourists coming to Iran year-on-year. This trend only increases as travelers are realizing that Iran is a destiny with a huge potential.

However, Iran is a very singular country and you must make some efforts to adapt to it. It is one of the few regimes in the world where the government rules by strictly enforcing the Sharia, so you can’t miss the pertaining presence of Islam everywhere. Iran is the country with the largest Shiite population in the world, although there are thousands of Iranian atheists, Sunnites or Zoroastrians.

Iran is isolated politically from the biggest part of the world due to sanctions imposed by many Western countries under the leadership of the United States.

Why are there sanctions against Iran?

Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran is the pet peeve of US diplomacy because of its stance against the United States, qualified as the “Great Satan” and Israel that Iran publicly declared as “a country to be annihilated from the surface of the Earth”.

The first sanctions were imposed in 1979 after a large group of students kept in hostage for two years employees inside the American Embassy in Tehran. The reason for this was to demand the extradition of the Shah of Iran who fled to the US while pending trial.

Another round of sanctions were imposed in 2006 after Iran refused to halt its uranium enrichment program upon accusations of producing nuclear weapons. Iran claimed its nuclear program was for civilian purposes only, such as generating electricity and fabricating medical equipment.

Then, since 2018, The US reiterated sanctions against Iran under very murky circumstances, such as the destruction of a US spying drone within the Iranian airspace, as well as unidentified attacks on petrol facilities in Saudi Arabia. These episodes reminded me the USS Maddox incident during the Vietnam war or the aluminium tubes as proofs for attacking Irak in 2003.

The recent killing in Irak of the Iranian General Qassim Suleimani spiked a protest at the American Ambassy in Bagdad, which is used as a new reason for enforcing more sanctions.

In this context of tensions, the 8th of January 2020, an Ukrainian civil aircraft has been mistakenly identified as a US rocket and shot down by Iranian forces, killing all people on board. Sadly, the very same mistake was done by the US Navy in 2008, when an Iranian passenger plane with 266 people on board was shot down above the Strait of Hormuz.

Over the years, sanctions have taken a serious toll on Iran’s economy and people. Iranian Banks have no access to international payment systems. The U.S. pressures whoever deals with Iran or purchases its oil. A Huawei top manager was arrested for trading with Iran while having also business in the US. Tourists, after visiting Iran, can have a denial when applying for a visa to the United States.

Apart from sanctions, Iran is still heavily traumatized by the Iran-Irak war (1980-1988), which left a huge scar in the Iranian consciousness. 1,5 million young soldiers were killed during the war. By the way, you will certainly raise your eyebrows while studing about the reasons for this war.  

A shrine to young Iranian victims of the war.

The Iranian people

Is Iran safe? Definitely yes! Wherever I went, I was struck by Iranian kindness, cultural curiosity and openness. Iran is certainly not (yet) spoilt by mass tourism, and because of that, there is no aversion towards foreign visitors. Even walking through the bazaar of Kashan nobody forced me to buy anything, like in the bazaars of, say, Morocco or Egypt. This was a pleasant experience.

Communication in Iran is easy. They are highly educated people and usually speak a pretty good English.

What you cannot do in Iran

For foreigners, they are two things you cannot do in Iran. First, drinking alcohol is prohibited everywhere in Iran. You might get some moonshine if you tip your taxi driver, but it is considered a crime, so if you drink, you take a risk. The second no-no, exclusively for women, is to go to public areas without a scarf. Apart from that, common sense and cultural awareness are enough to make you feel comfortable.

Gender segregation in Iran

I have not seen the strict gender segregation described in the travel guides.  There is indeed a mutual shyness between genders in Iran, but there is no taboo for women talking with men if they need to. I even blushed several times when Iranian girls were giggling at me. Don’t get me wrong on the women status in Iran. There is a long way to go for gender equality, but women are quite independent. Iran is actually better ranked for gender equality than many surrounding countries, as per survey done this year by an  American NGO. All the places I visited were full of women working. Cafés were full of groups of ladies. They also drive cars not less than men do.

In the buses, men are expected to sit in one part of the bus, and the women in another, but this does not mean the middle can not be mixed. Usually, women sit in the back and men in the front, but it also depends on the bus configuration.

Traditional doors have knockers for women and men. Depending of the noise, the doors will be opened by the the respective gender.

Money in Iran

Due to international sanctions, foreign credit cards, such as Master Card, Visa, JCB…are not accepted in Iran. You will have to finance your trip entirely by cash. It is usually easy to change currencies in major cities. Have some small currency change, say 20 USD. It will be easier to change your bills as the cost of living in Iran is very cheap.

The local currency in Iran are Reals. However, the “everyday” value of this currency is expressed in Tomans, which is the original value in Reals divided by 10. At the beginning, it is a bit confusing but once you know, you get used to it fast. For example, a pomegranate juice costs 10 000 Tomans, so you pay it with a banknote of 100 000 Reals.

Teheran

Some guides will tell you Teheran is worth a visit. I found Teheran chaotic and polluted. Some highlights in Teheran are the Golestan Palace and the Iranian Museum that features unique artifacts of the Persian Emplire. If you happen to skip Teheran, you will enjoy more time in other places.

Emplire. If you happen to skip Teheran, you will enjoy more time in other places.

Shiraz

The coupola of the Pink Mosque in Shiraz

Persepolis

Persepolis is an antic city founded in the 5th century BC by the Persian ruler Darius the 1st. I found it as impressive as Baalbek or the Acropolis. Persepolis alone is worth the trip to Iran. Many important archeological artefacts have been discovered on the site, including thousands of clay tablets with cuneiform script that was fully deciphered in the 19th century together by German and British scholars.

Isfahan

The Si-o-Se Pol Bridge, Isfahan.

The heart of Isfahan is the Naqshe-e-Jahan Square. It is the second biggest square of the world after Tian-an-men, in Beijing. The square comprises many stunning civil buildings and mosques.

The Shah Abbasi Mosque is an impressive building complex, classified in the UNESCO list, reminded me the beauty of the Registan Square in Samarkand.

The vivid cupola of the Sheik Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan.

Abyaneh adobe village

Kashan

I found Kashan charming, with its labyrinthic bazaar, its bath houses, the Fin garden less invaded by tourists.

The Fin Garden, Kashan, classified as a World Heritage Site since 2012.

Tips for making the best of Iran.

Here are some lessons learned from my trip to Iran:

Consider getting off the tourist route. In the recent years, the flow of tourists rose considerably, slightly spoiling the charm of cities such as Yazd, Esfahan, Shiraz or Kashan. By doing this, you will have even deeper and truthful local interactions.

Do not go to Iran with a passport with a stamp of any frontier with Israel. Beware of Egypt and Jordan frontier zones. You could be denied entry to Iran.

Book all hotels in advance because acceptable establishments may be fully booked.

Prior to your trip, download a VPN app to access sites such as Facebook or YouTube.

4G Internet is very fast and cheap, so don’t leave the airport without buying a SIM-card.

Have some Tupperware to bring back delicious dates and pastries.

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  • © Sebastian Zelechowski, Moscow 2011
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