In September 2016 a friend and I visited the Islamic Republic of Iran. Here I would like to share my experiences to convince others to visit this beautiful country. When we first came up with the idea to visit a less touristic country like Iran, the reactions of most of my friends and relatives ranged from disbelief to shock. After all, why would anyone want to visit a country at war (possibly confused with Syria) or full of terrorists (we could not find any!) ?
In the following weeks I read several interesting books on the country, including “Understanding Iran” by William Polk, the “Lonely Planet” and the German best-seller “Couchsurfing im Iran”. It turns out that Iran is a very safe country, and even the typically overcautious foreign ministry of Germany has not issued any security warnings. Only some border regions should be avoided due to conflicts with ethnic minorities and drug-related kidnappings.
The next non-problem was to get a visa. Anyone not from Israel, US or UK can get a visa at the airport in Tehran within 30 minutes for around 50 USD. The initial spy movie tension quickly eases when you realize that they won’t ask you any questions other than health-insurance and your hotel for the first night. That was it. You just entered the axis of evil. Now the real problems start. Western credit cards don’t work in Iran. That means you’ll need to take along all the money you need in cash and exchange it when you can, which isn’t all that often. The maximum changeable amount at Teheran’s IKA airport is 50€. This currently amounts to 1.7 million rial or 170,000 toman. Due to the massive inflation, plans are being discussed to remove another 3 digits from the currency. Price tags are typically written in Persian numbers and without the last 4 digits. To complete your confusion, many Iranians will confuse numbers like 15,000 and 150,000 and you don’t know whether they are talking of rial or toman. Since Iranians are extremely helpful and correct, I found the best approach is to wave a bunch of low-valued notes at them and let them pick the right ones. Compared to other countries in the region they also rarely want to negotiate prices and rather walk away than to lower their offer.
Our original plan was to relax after the flight and drive to Mount Damavand – the highest volcano on earth (5,610m) – the next day. There we would take 3 days to acclimatize and climb to the summit. Unfortunately the weather forecast was not on our side and we had to move quickly. So we took the taxi from the airport at 5 in the morning to the mountain and a jeep to the base camp. Overly tired and with way too much luggage we started the ascent for camp 3 at 4,250m. That’s when I first experienced AMS or Acute Mountain Sickness. You don’t know what freedom is until you v**** from the railing of a mountain camp at 0°C in the middle of the night. After 12 hours of sleep my heart was still beating like crazy so I decided to abort the hike and go back to the base camp. My friend eventually made it to the summit and to this day his clothes still smell of sulfur. The camp was also where I first encountered the incredible kindness of the Iranian people. Even the poorest people with no command of the English language shared their food with us and expected nothing in return. We shared a room with about 20 men, several of which were soldiers in uniform, despite being off-duty. It feels unreal to be in the same room with the “bad” people that Hollywood (Argo) made you fear and computer games taught you to “fight” (Battlefield, Command & Conquer, Splinter Cell).
Fed up with canned food and privies we decided to visit Tehran, a city of 15 million people. Tehran is a bustling and constantly growing metropolis squeezed against a range of mountains, most of which are higher than any mountain in Europe. Unfortunately it is also leading many global rankings in terms of highest traffic fatalities and worst pollution. If you are looking for adventures, the Lonely Planet guide recommends to get a taxi and tell the driver to go to the other side of town as fast as possible. DON’T DO IT! Tehran can be roughly divided in the rich North and the poor South. In the South you will find the typical supporters of former Iranian President Ahmadinejad. The houses along the main streets are all covered with banners of the “martyrs” that died in the terrible Iran-Iraq war. Tourists rarely go here. In the North you will encounter rich and educated people that stroll around the numerous parks and sights. People speak English and are enthusiastic to talk to foreigners. There is much less air pollution here due to the higher altitude. A coffee in the North can cost ten times as much as a meal in the South. Hence it is not difficult to imagine that this obvious economic inequality is a cause for political tension.
Tehran Bazaar is somewhat in the middle between the North and the South. For centuries the bazaaris have played an important role and they were involved in all major coups and revolutions (e.g. 1953, 1979). There is a dedicated area for every possible product you can imagine from motorbike tires to wedding cards and underwear. General purpose stores are rare in urban areas. In Tehran you also find the former American Embassy, now known as the “Den of Espionage”. It is home to a museum and several pro-revolution militias. All along the walls you will find the famous anti-american murals, that describe the hostage crisis as “god’s will”.
Much older than Tehran is the former Persian capital of Esfahan. The quiet city is home to the impressive Ali Qapu palace, which overlooks what used to be the worlds largest square – the Naqsh-e Jahan. All around it you will find the bazaar and the section dedicated to the sale of gold. Despite the shabby and traditional look of the merchants’ booths, we estimated that there are at least 100 million euros worth of gold in these corridors. Most items are pure gold and are weighed and sold for the current gold price, which is displayed on TV screens. At night you can see locals strolling along the Si-o-seh pol bridge, which is colored with warm yellow lights. Young people gather under the 33 arches of the bridge to play guitar and sing together. In this lovely atmosphere it is easy to forget that the river below you has no water for much of the year and that water scarcity is one of the biggest problems in modern Iran.
Kerman & Shahdad desert:
As a final stop on our tour we took a long-distance bus to the desert town of Kerman. Buses are a major means of transportation in Iran and millions of people use them every year to attend the religious pilgrimage to the city of Mashhad. For a small surcharge one can take the so-called VIP buses that give you an enormous amount of legroom and plenty of food and drinks. The Iranian movies shown on the bus were surprisingly critical and dealt with topics like violence in marriage, polygamy and drug abuse. While relatively uninteresting, Kerman serves as the hub to the surrounding desert region. It is located along the main road to Afghanistan and Pakistan and therefore drug trafficking is a major problem. According to Wikipedia, Iran has the highest per capita number of opiate addicts in the world and opium is cheaper than beer. From Kerman we went on a two-day tour with an ordinary taxi. We visited Shahzadeh Garden, which is located right in the desert. We continued through the Colored Mountains, which look like a selection of spices with hundreds of different colors. From the cold wind in the mountains, we descended ~3km to the hottest place on earth – the Shahdad desert. At night we slept at the edge of the desert in an adobe hut and the locals cooked for us, while proudly presenting the 10 words of English they had learned from a phonetic dictionary. The next day we continued to Bam citadel, the largest adobe building in the world. It looks much like a medieval fortress with a surrounding city, but is built out of adobe. This fortress along the Silk Road, that can be traced back to 600-400 BC, was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 2003. Luckily by now some parts of it have been rebuild. From Kerman we started our long trip back home. At Kerman airport I encountered a poster for one of Iran’s best known propaganda operations. It depicts a proud Iranian soldier in front of an exploding US aircraft carrier. The whole operation was a fake and the sunk carrier turned out to be a mock replica of the USS Nimitz. Rather amused, we took the plane to Tehran and from there to Kiev and back home.
Needless to say that if you are looking for a relaxing summer vacation according to Western standards, Iran is not the right country for you. There are no common beaches for men and women and alcohol is strictly forbidden. The level of hygiene is bad and only expensive hotels have Western toilets. But if you are looking for an amazing multitude of cultures, religions (Shia, Sunni, Jewish, Zoroastrian and Christian) and long forgotten empires (Median, Achaemenid, Greek, Seleucid, Parthian, Sasanian, Umayyad, Abbasid, Islamic, Persianate, Mongol, Timurid, Safavid, Qajar, Pahlavi and Islamic Republic – not that I would know all of these by heart), then Iran is one of the most amazing countries in the world. If you want to talk to people that are proud of their heritage, but also desperate for modernization and liberalization, then Iran is for you. If you want to experience the unique nature and a civilization that prides itself for bringing water to the desert, then Iran is for you.
Having said that, I am also aware that Iran is a country in motion. Next time I will come to visit, Western tourists might be all over the place, prices might rise and many sights might loose their sense of undiscoveredness. On the other hand, tensions between the new US administration and the rulers of Iran might rise again and we could see another “lost decade” for Iran. I can only hope for the best.