wonderfully amazing trip
14 December 2012,
This is just a stream of consciousness reflection of the truly, absolutely, totally, incredibly, wonderfully amazing trip I had to Iran in November 2012.
Rather than dry details of our itinerary, I leave some impressions of Iran and practicalities that I hope will assist other travellers in making the (right) decision to visit Iran and help them to plan a trip.
I had 12 days in Iran altogether. The trip was planned and booked via email through Iran Travelling Center who were excellent in every way. We paid in cash (USD) upon arrival. The guides they arranged in each city were very good - in fact one of the highlights of the trip was meeting such warm, friendly, passionate, knowledgable and genuine people working as guides - very different to the jaded people who often end up working in that industry in many other places. It felt like being shown around by new friends.
Even though I'm usually more of an independent traveller, having guides really enriched the experience of visiting Iran because of the legendary Persian hospitality. I'd read about the warmth of Iranian people and heard about it from a friend who had visited, but until you feel it first hand, when an Iranian looks you in the eye and says with utter conviction "you are very welcome" you won't fully comprehend the depth and sincerity of that warm hospitality. We experienced it time and time again.
Getting a tourist visa was a little time consuming, but not difficult. I sent the required paperwork and passport scans to Iran Travelling Centre. A week or 10 days later they sent back our application reference numbers which were then forwarded to the Iranian Embassy in Canberra. If taken in person they process the visa in a couple of hours, if done by post it takes about 10 days.
Some random reflections and memories:
*Air pollution in Tehran was diabolical
*Tehran street landscapes reminded me of Tokyo for some reason (both cities had a construction boom in the same decades I guess)
*Hipsters (of both genders) in Tehran wear skinny jeans and black framed glasses....just like at home!
*Hafez's Tomb in Shiraz at sunset was a very moving highlight of the trip. Any culture that venerates its poets to such a degree has lot going for it!!!
*Isfahan is a great city for walking and has very very beautiful sights
*There is no "baksheesh" culture. There is no hard sell or hassle at all in the bazaars or elsewhere. One guy in the bazaar in Esfahan who just wanted a chat said "don't worry, this isn't Egypt or India. I'm not trying to sell you anything or rip you off". :-)
*Dizi was my favourite dish (kebabs got a bit repetitive...after a while)
*I have a new found appreciation for gardens
*Even though we were there during Ashura festival (one of the cornerstone Shi'ite religious festivals which commemorates Imam Hussein's death) day to day life for most Iranians is totally secular. I had the misguided belief that Iran was a hyper-religious country. Actually from my limited experience of both countries, I'd say the average American is significantly more inclined to whacky-religious notions than the average well educated Iranian. (*Cough* "creationism" being taught in US public schools with a totally straight face. *Cough*)
*I felt absolutely safe walking the streets day or night
*We were welcomed and invited to share food and tea while observing Ashura festivities. There's that hospitality again.
* facebook was accessible by hotel wifi more often than not. BBC wasn't.
*We encountered no trouble travelling as a gay couple. We were discrete of course (twin beds etc). No doubt many of the people we interacted with managed to put two and two together and work out we were a couple, but Persian hospitality was also discrete enough to never put us in awkward conversational situations where the nature of our "friendship" or marital status was quizzed. (While there are allegedly "no gays in Iran" plenty of guys in the street gave suggestive glances!!!). Life for queer Iranians is obviously a major uphill battle and I admire their courage and strength in the face of such official persecution. For a foreign traveller a bit of common sense and judgement is all that's required.
*Lanscapes were staggeringly beautiful
*Iranians have picnics anywhere, at any time of day or night - including by the side of busy expressways in drizzly weather :-/
*Crossing he road was frightening the first couple of times, then you learn to just step into the flow of traffic - there will never be a break big enough to cross in, so you just have to take the plunge
*Despite overall friendliness of strangers on the street, service in hotels was pretty tepid
*Iranians are curious about what people think about them and their country (sadly the response tended to be that most people in Australia have misguided, negative impressions - thanks a lot mainstream media for peddling lies about such a beautiful country and such a proud, warm culture)
*English was more widely spoken than I expected; certainly much more than places like Korea or Japan but I plan to study more Farsi before my next trip. Memorising the digits 1 - 9 would definitely help for a start!!!
*Zin-o-din Caravanserai and Abbasi Hotel in Esfahan were great experiences
*It was incredibly cheap. Our 11 day package worked out to about USD1000 each (accommodation - including expensive rooms for 3 nights at Abbasi), breakfasts, guides, entrance fees, visa processing, a couple of domestic flights all included. On top of that we spent maybe no more than $300 between us on meals, snacks, souvenirs and so on.
*We went to some very cool coffee shops that would fit in easily in trendy parts of any western city - though the barristas could do with a bit of training
*Kharanaq (near Chak Chak) was an unexpected delight. So was carrot jam on flatbread for breakfast.
**I CAN"T WAIT TO GO TO IRAN AGAIN** and have been telling all my friends to go.
To the Iranian people reading this thread, thank you for treating travellers so well and making our trips so memorable for all the right reasons. I really hope prosperity and better days come back to Persia soon, because it is a truly magnificent place. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.