Iran Part I: The Painless Process of Entering and Exploring Central Iran (and Proving Everyone Who Thought It Was Dangerous Wrong)
From hitchhiking in a thunderstorm with drunk Iranian girls, to traversing across the Maranjab Desert in a taxicab, to checking in to a brothel at 3am, our trip to Iran is more bizarre than I could have ever imagined.
Despite warnings from the Australian government, Jemma and I have been Iran for over a week. Catching a flight from Istanbul, we arrived at Tehran Airport at 3am. A voice echoes over the intercom in Turkish or Farsi, we could not tell, explaining that we had just passed into Iranian airspace. In unison, every woman on the plane proceeds to slide their hijabs from their necks over their heads.
We had had no practice runs, no attempts at learning to secure the hijab to Jemma’s head, and to say we struggled is an understatement. It took the rest of the flight to get her $2, fairly pathetic excuse for a hijab to lay over her face, and even with guidance from the middle aged woman beside us, we still couldn’t get it to sit comfortably, let alone fashionably.
After collecting our things and exiting the plane, it was like stepping back in time. Whether this airport was ever trendy or modern, I’m not sure, but it looked as if it hasn’t been updated since the Iranian Revolution.
Following the herd of people towards immigration, we noticed a sign up ahead: Visa and Insurance Issuance. The sign pointed towards an empty and ominous hallway, far from the direction of the other passengers. Perhaps we were the only tourists on the flight, the only ones in need of visas, so we diverted our path, towards a seemingly empty office.
We were greeted by a man who asked to see our insurance details. To even enter Iran, you must have an insurance policy from a recognised insurer already purchased. Due to American embargoes against the country, this proved to be very difficult: most Western insurance companies refuse to cover travellers to Iran and we were forced to go with IATI, a Spanish based company. Thankfully, we came prepared with a printed copy of our policy: unfortunately, however, the policy was written in Spanish and did not mention Iran at all instead having ‘WORLD’ listed as the countries we were visiting.
The staff members debated amongst themselves and eventually let us pass without purchasing the airports pre-approved insurance policy because ‘they knew who the insurance company was.’ So, tips for making it into Iran. Have your insurance printed and make SURE that somewhere on the page, it has Iran listed as the country of visitation.
After proving our insurance company did exist, we were shuffled into a large, almost empty room, occupied only by another Australian backpacker and a French couple. Slowly, a large but charming ‘Oscar Isaacs‘ lookalike strolls over to us. I get nervous, but the man takes a seat next to us and begins asking questions. At first, his conversation seemed interrogational, but it soon turned to polite chat, almost like discussing our travel plans with another backpacker.
At the end, he smiled, gave us the most perfectly executed wink I’ve ever seen, and walked away into the night. The visa process was slow, but relatively easy, and after paying the rather ridiculous €145 visa (the most expensive visa Iran had to offer), we made our way through immigration. Far from the interrogation we’d been promised by online forums, we were fairly quickly waved through passport control, without so much as a glance at our paperwork or a stamp in our book.
Easy process, right? We made our way out of the airport, located the Ibis hotel shuttle bus and were at our lovely accomodation, checked in by 5am.
Despite having a reputation of being an extremely difficult country, getting into Iran was a surprisingly painless process.
After checkout, we walked back across the road to the airport metro only to discover, at 1:30pm on the dot, that we’d missed train and would need to wait another 80 MINUTES for the next one. Yes, that’s right. The airport train runs less frequently than the run time of Toy Story.
Frustrating though the wait time was, we took some solace in the fact that we now had time to get a sim card from the airport, change some cash, and pick up some much needed food.
Now, the currency exchange is something I’m still struggling to understand, even after a week. Due to the US Embargo, Visa and MasterCard do not work in Iran: that means no paying in card, and no ATM withdrawals. Luckily, the Ibis Hotel is an international company, so I payed online through Trip.com, but everything else needed to be payed in cash, Euros preferred.
[Hotel websites such as Booking.com and Agoda, as well as sites like AirBNB do not work in Iran. Go figure. Thankfully, Trip.com and Hostelworld work great, as does Couchsurfing!]
This meant that we had to change Australian dollars into Euros, and then exchange them in Iran for their national currency rial. To make matters even MORE confusing, the locals use a secondary currency known as toman. I eventually discovered that toman was essentially just rial with a 0 removed: 500,000 rial is 50,000 toman.
Now, the locals automatically remove unnecessary 0’s. 500000 rials is referred to as 500, for example, but most of them use toman in day to day price quoting. So imagine my confusion when a SIM card is quoted as ‘60’ but the cashier won’t accept my 60,000 rial. To them, 60 is 60,000 toman, and therefore 600,000 rial.
Also confusing, the exchange rate. After exchanging €50 at the airport, I’m presented with 6,110,000 rial. According to my currency app, and an online exchange converter, 6000000 rial equates to $211. Now, unless I was lucky enough to meet the worlds stupidest bank tender, I think the online exchange isn’t accurate. By my calculations, the rate was most likely $1=75,000 rial. This exchange rate fluctuates from day to day, but try to get a rough idea before visiting so you don’t get the same nasty shock as me
The metro line into the heart of Tehran is, let’s just say, a bit of a bitch. After a poorly timed last minute toilet run, we made it onto the train seconds before the doors closed. The train runs along the airport line for 30 minutes before joining the rest of the metro lines. Although cheap (less than a $1.20 to get into the city) the initial line is terrifying. Travelling in total darkness, the rickety soundtrack of the Tehran underground really set the mood for our trip to Iran.
After an hour and a half of travel, and 3 line changes, we exit the subway to be greeted by overwhelming sound of car horns and the smell of old cigarettes. Tehran is what I imagine 1970’s New York to look like. It was dingy, and grimy, and there were no cars in sight that were made in the last 40 years. Due to the embargoes, there was barely a single brand I recognised. They did, however, have brands such as Lara instead of Zara, and snacks like Cheet-Oz instead of Cheetos, but they didn’t have a single McDonalds. What a shame. The only brand I recognised was the occasional Coca Cola, but even then we still drove past a factory manufacturing a Coke-wannabe called ZamZam. Is nothing sacred?!
The buildings had a Soviet aesthetic to counter the traditional Persian architecture; a bizarre amalgamation of Eastern and Middle Eastern. It was a bizarre sight, but honestly an enlightening experience, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
Our original plan was to fly into Tehran and fly out via Tehran 6 days later to Tbsili via Azebeirjan, however the otherwise affordable flights had more than tripled by the time we went to book, so instead we decided to start in Tehran, make a few day trips and then proceed to the North and cross the border into Armenia. This meant we were limited in our time in Tehran and after wasting a morning sleeping in and catching the train to the city, we decided to make the most of our only free day (which is all you need really.)
We started our morning by heading to the Golesran Palace, en route meeting a lovely man who joined us for the metro journey and told us not to go visit the Palace at all. Ha. We did it anyway, and thank goodness we did because it was one of the more impressive sites we saw in the city.
Next up, we headed to the Grand Bizarre, hoping to grab a few snaps in a carpet store, or a shot of a lantern shop, but sadly, the Bazaar is far less aesthetically pleasing than those found in Turkey. No Instagram shots to be found there. We did, however, stop into Sharaf Al-Eslami for lunch. With no English menu and not a single picture to be seen, we had to point at someone else’s food and hoped what they were eating was tasty and cheap. After being delivered a kebab plate (which was certainly not what we ordered), we continued off on our trek with full bellies, and thankfully, not empty wallet.
After lunch, I was excited to catch the metro to my most anticipated stop, The Former US Embassy (or the US Den of Espionage). After the Iranian Revolution, the US Embassy was seized, and the site has since been turned into a museum of anti-American propaganda, showcasing the spy work the US undertook on Iranian soil.
Afterwards, we walked across the road and took a stroll through Artist Park, a local hangout of people of all ages, in lieu of bars and other ‘western’ mingling establishments. There were people having fun everywhere you looked; playing badminton, chess, people playing on the tennis courts or foosball tables. We even smelt a couple of hipsters smoking weed! Whilst we didn’t try to meet anyone, it is a great place to get a feel for the local culture.
Our final stop was Tabiat Bridge, another social spot where you can meet new people, read a book, or grab a bite to eat. Another bizarre concept; people meeting on what is essentially a freeway overpass to hangout. But there are plenty facilities available, including a book depository and plenty of cafes and restaurants, one of which where we had one of the worst pizza’s I’ve ever eaten (we left half of it on the plate, that’s how bad it was).
We made our way back to our hostel, Vono Hostel, for the night exhausted and set our alarm to catch our early morning bus to (relatively) nearby city of Kashan.
After another slow checkout, we arrived in Kashan with barely enough time to see the local sites. Far from the industrial city that Tehran was, Kashan is a relatively small city, home to a population of only 300,000 people. Unlike other areas we’d visited on this trip, whether across Asia or Europe or the Middle East, Kashan truly was an undiscovered land in regards to tourism. The last bastion of untapped exploitation.
Hounded by tour guides and some friendly locals the second we stepped out of our hotel, we realised the vibe of Kashan would be much different to that of Tehran. People would smile in my direction, wave to me, ask for their opinions on their country in a friendly fashion. One man even stopped me to tell me he loved me. Yes, people are very friendly in the outskirts of Iran. The ‘Death to America’ sentiments have long since expired in this part of the country. I felt like a rockstar.
Jemma, on the other hand, did not receive such adoration. With her tanned skin, dark features, not to mention the hijab, she was often mistaken as being Persian. Nonetheless, it was nice for random people to finally call me beautiful instead of them always telling Jemma that she is. How the tides have turned!
We decided to first visit the Abasian and Tabatabaei Historical Houses. Once an opulent place of residence, the houses have since been turned into a museum of sorts, allowing you to take a tour through it’s rooms and see how the elite of pre-revolutionary Iran used to live. We bought a combination ticket, which granted us entry to three houses (the two we visited along with the Borujerdiha House), as well as other nearby sites, but due to an incoming thunderstorm, we decided to save it for another day.
Before making it home, our walk was interrupted by the turrets of rain, causing us to immediately seek shelter under a nearby storefront. We couldn’t stay for long, however, as the droplets starting to fall sideways, rendering our shelter useless, but thankfully, a hand from a nearby car beckoned us to come inside, the host hidden behind the dim windows. Seizing the opportunity, we ran in to the car, drenching ourselves and the other passengers in the process.
The car was occupied by two women and a male driver, none of which could speak English. It became increasingly obvious that the two girls were drunk, as they were enthusiastically yelling incomprehensible English words at us, laughing hysterically and then high-fiving. It was impossible to know if they were simply having fun or making fun of us. Jemma and I, feeling incredibly awkward, could do nothing but laugh alongside them. I think, with my long hair, the girls thought I was also a woman and that’s why they were so hysterical, but I cannot confirm.
The next day, we took up the offer of one of the many tour guides that approached us on our first day to do a tour of the Manajab Desert. For only €20, we were taken on a half day expedition of the desert in a taxicab (we used ‘Cheap Taxi Reza’, who you can look up online or ask for the details in the comments below, but you could probably find a less rushed tour if you shopped around in town).
Starting at the Nushabad Underground City, we were shown around a former refuge of the Iranian communities, who were forced to live underground as recently as the 13th century to avoid persecution. Our guide on this part of the tour, Ali Reza (no relation to Cheap Taxi Reza, I assume), was assigned to us after we payed the 500,000 rial entrance, and man, was he good.
He gave a comprehensive tour, happily answered my million questions, laughed at all of my jokes and told a few of his own, and even took us to the ‘forbidden’ first level, which he says no tourists are allowed to visit. Afterwards, we sat and drank the delicious Iranian coffee with rose syrup, but were interrupted by our driver who told us we’d wasted too much time and had to leave (the visit usually takes 15 minutes, but we’d been there for well over an hour.)
This angered Ali Reza, who after scolding the driver for rushing us, left us to move onto our next stops, the Mud Castle, and the Holy Mosque. Our time at the castle lasted less than 2 minutes, and consisted of a few (at the insistence of our driver) rushed photos, and a painful conversation with a local boy who I think was trying to scam us.
Our visit to the Mosque was slightly uncomfortable; beautiful though it was, it felt almost perverted exploring what seems strictly a place of worship, and not a place of tourism. On top of that, Jemma was required to wear a chador over her hijab, and we had to enter different sides of the mosque, seperate from each other.
It DID, however, allow me the opportunity to have my photo taken by a man in the mosque. I asked to have the chandelier included; I’m glad he accommodated my request.
At 4pm, we were finally, we were our way towards the Maranjab Desert, stopping only once we arrived at a checkpoint, where I paid 50,000 rial to enter. Our guide confessed to us that Iranians enter free, but tourists pay a fee. I wondered if maybe they too thought Jemma was Iranian and let her get away with not paying.
Driving across the unpaved dirt tracks in this beat up automobile was a roller coaster of a ride; we’d speed across dunes and bumps, jump off the path and rush through the shrubbery, weave in and out of the road going from the left side to the right side, and narrowly avoiding incoming traffic in the process.
We soon passed a large congregation of people and vehicles, a large circus tent and a ‘catapult ride’ with flashing neon lights. Sensing my confusion, our guide explained that this was a party spot. We pried a little more and found out that, far from the watchful eyes of the police, this was a spot where people would drink alcohol without fear of arrest. It was literally the Wild West out here, in more ways than one.
With the night sky following closely behind us, we raced towards our final stop; the giant sand dunes. It must have been an odd sight, a taxi cab speeding across the desert. At this point, we were completely isolated, far from the reaches of another vehicle. I increasingly began to wonder what might have happened if our car had broken down, or gotten bogged in the sand, and with the state of the car, it seemed like a very real possibility.
Thankfully, we made it in one piece. Our driver parked next to an old shack (one that Jemma thought was a place to buy food, but I assumed was on old outhouse) and we made our slow ascent up the dunes. The earlier rain had washed away the orange of the sand and replaced it with a murky brown. It made our photos a little less impressive, but probably made it easier to walk up.
After half an hour, and after snapping every variation of a photo you could possible get in that environment (surprisingly little), we headed back to our car and proceeded back to civilisation. We stopped at party central to drink tea, accidentally eat what I thought was a lollipop but was actually sugar, and converse with other travellers and party going locals. This was the first time we’d actually met any other tourists on our trip; even they seemed surprised that we’d visited Iran. All of these foreigners had come from countries nearby and were shocked that we would come from so far away.
So far, our trip to Iran has been extremely pleasant. Sure, we hadn’t gotten up to much, but we’d be able to take more day trips on the next leg in Tabriz! The people have been friendly, the accomodation has been wonderful, and our experience has been a relatively positive one!
Well that’s all about to change!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our Persian adventure in…
The Disastrous Experience of Exploring and Exiting Northern Iran (and Realising Maybe Some People Had a Point)
For more pictures of our trip to Iran, head over to the photos page.