Nuclear programme. Religious dictatorship. Axis of Evil. Some of the things that might spring to mind when (Western) people think of Iran. I certainly got a reaction when I said I was going on holiday to Iran. Is it safe? (yes), you will never be able to visit America again (untrue), or that it was the craziness idea they’d ever heard (not really).
It probably helps that my parents lived and worked in Iran in the late 1970s so I grew up with a different image of Iran to that generally portrayed in the media.
They don’t generally speak a huge amount of English but almost all younger Iranians will ask you which country you are from.
They love food (particularly sweets), poetry (particularly Hafez) and selfies (expect to be asked to join them).Safety
Iran is safe place to travel around, with decent infrastructure, and low levels of crime. I happily walked the around narrow, unlit streets of the Old City in Yazd at night with a camera around my neck, as youngsters on scooters whizzed by, and felt perfectly safe. Which wouldn’t be the case in South East Asia, South America or the U.S. to be honest. While I was there it seemed a safe haven compared to terrorist attacks in Paris, and even with home in New Zealand, which was battered by huge cyclones.
Probably the greatest risk to your safety is crossing an Iranian road, with pedestrian crossings more advisory than guaranteed. The best approach is to cross in time with a local, ensuring that they’re closer to the traffic.
Iranians are actually excellent drivers, but have a very high tolerance for risk. Don’t be surprised if bus or taxi drivers remove their seat belts when they are unlikely to be spotted by police. It seems that wearing a seat belt implies that they might not be a good driver. Taking a taxi at night in Tehran is more thrilling than a roller coaster, as they weave through the traffic at speed, with countless near misses.
Despite the seeming chaos, particularly in Tehran (which had more flowing traffic than it’s reputation may suggest), there were remarkably few incidents (though statistically Iran comes out badly on global league tables). Probably due to the greater proportion of cars to bikes, and better roads, I felt safer travelling in Iran than in South East Asia.
I also learnt that at least 90% of cars are white, mainly French (Peugeot 206) or Iranian made. In three days of looking in Tehran I spotted four red cars…
Every morning in towns and cities I saw rubbish collectors in action, resulting in relatively clean streets. But unfortunately common to so many counties, people happily discard rubbish wherever they are. The river in Esfahan was full of it.
Tap water is fine to drink, it did me no harm drinking it for 17 days.
Fewer people smoke than I expected, I’m unsure of the law but never came across anyone smoking in a restaurant, though did come across this muppet smoking illegally at a petrol station (thankfully he was filling up with diesel).
I was expecting to be cut off from the world but almost everywhere we stayed had wi-fi. Many websites such as Facebook, MeetUp and the BBC are blocked, but accessible through using a VPN app.
The key app for Iran is Telegram, a Russian messaging app (like WhatsApp) used by over half the population. It’s the best way to stay in touch with any Iranian friends you make on your travels.
Brands and culture
Iran is full of global brands – Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Samsung, LG, Sony, but no American restaurants (e.g. McDonalds or KFC) or American cars. Particularly in the funkier parts of Tehran you can hears Western pop music. I was sat in a bistro that wouldn’t be out of place in Auckland when Katy Perry came on in the background.
The tragic impact of the eight year Iran-Iraq war is everywhere, with images of soldiers and civilians who lost their lives (martyrs) found in mosques, along roads, and on the sides of buildings throughout the country. Hits home when you visit a small town that lost 200 people in the pointless war. Increasingly there are new portraits of people who lost their lives in Syria.
Iran has a well developed banking system, despite sanctions making it trickier (but still quite doable) to get money into and out of the country (as shown by carpet sellers acceptance of Western credit cards). Nice example I saw was bar codes on bills, that can be scanned and paid instantly with your mobile phone. Inflation is high but you can get 22% interest on your money in the bank, a nice earner if you have some.
The majority of Iran is well above sea level, with Tehran ranging from 1,200m to 1,700m. Snow can be seen on the mountains into summer and it keeps the temperatures more bearable, though some areas like Yazd can easily get into the high 40Cs during summer.
Sun rises and sunsets were generally surprisingly poor, unsure whether due to the climate, time of year, or pollution (or all three). I expected something spectacular at the Caravanserai Zein-o-din in the desert, but the sun just disappeared into the haze.
Iran was almost disappointingly full of tourists, proof that there are very few undiscovered places anymore. It’s not at Burma, Cuba or Vietnam levels yet, but is certainly an up and coming, and increasingly popular, place to visit (though won’t be for Americans post the Trump travel ban as Iran responded in kind).
In particular it seemed popular with tour groups of older people (some really quite old) from France and Germany, and a few Chinese and Japanese groups. There were far fewer independent travellers, those there generally seemed to be French. The most random group I can across were committed bird watchers from around the world close to Mt Damavand, an unexpected sight with their tripods, binoculars, and huge cameras.
I travelled with Intrepid on their Iran Adventure tour for two weeks and stayed on a few days extra in Tehran with a very generous Iranian friend of a friend. The nine strong group was a typical Intrepid mix of Brits, Kiwis, Australians and a couple of Europeans, average age about 45. Intrepid run this tour about twenty times a year, mainly in the spring and autumn, the best times to visit.