During March-April 2018, Holly and I had the unique opportunity to visit one of the most exotic and unknown countries in the world - the Islamic republic of Iran. After discussing our trip with various people we realised the importance of passing on our experience and how many people were curious to understand more about this mysterious part of the world. Thus, our blog begins...
We have a simple goal: to de-mystify the many false assumptions about Iran and tell a story of our personal experiences. We want to share information and develop further understanding between Iran and the rest of the world.
For us, it has become our own peace mission; because what we share may help to prevent any escalation of conflict (for example with Israel). Many see Iran as a strict regime that is developing nuclear weapons and threatening the sensitive situation in the Middle East. If this is all you now, you should take a look at this video to see how different the reality is: Israel and Iran: a love story? video).
Before our trip, we were just like most people when it came to Iran: uninformed, fearful and ignorant. When the media portrays Iran, it seems to be about the bad: a secretive Islamic regime, revolutionary guards executing anti-government prisoners, massive UN economic embargos and developing nuclear weapons. Therefore, our expectations are that Iran is not safe.
We hadnt had any contact with Iranians whatsoever. And as they say, and the unknown is most feared. So you can imagine our surprise when we got an AirBnB booking request from someone "for their sister". We thought, 'What? Why cant the sister make her own booking?' Well, it turns out not if they are from Iran, where Airbnb is among many blocked websites/apps. We decided to accept, thinking 'what's the worst that could happen?'
And there she was, a petite 20-something year old Iranian girl "Jane" showed up at our doorstep. A citizen of an apparently extremely hostile and one of the most closed-off countries in the world (maybe after North Korea) was staying in our living room on a fold-out couch (yup, its not flash).Instead of fearing her, curiousity took hold and we decided to talk to her and find out as much as possible about her and her life in Iran. Initially, there was hesitation from both sides which then led to friendly conversations, sharing dinners and towards the end even an invitation to come visit Iran. Of course we politely agreed, but at the time never thought more of it. Who in their right mind would want to go to Iran, right?!
While planning our Easter holiday, instead of the usual European roadtrip, Holly came up with a crazy idea - why dont we take Jane up on her offer and travel to Iran! We started organising the trip and applied for our visas at the Embassy in Prague (50 Euro for Czech citizen and 120 euro for New Zealander). Not knowing if Jane was a one off nice Iranian or not, we met the Iranian Embassy staff who were ecstatic we were planning a trip to their home country. 'You must try this food, visit these places, April is the best time to go!!' Holly started to think so far Iranians are so friendly, I hope they are all like this!
Now came the time to tell our families we were going to Iran. They were immediately concerned, especially since neither of us has ever been to a muslim country before. What followed was an avalanche of questions and catastrophic scenarios of us being kidnapped or killed. It took a considerable amount of persuasion to make them feel comfortable about the trip. Next thing we knew, we were on our way my grandma's scarf became Holly's mandatory hijab on arrival at the Khomeini international airport in Tehran and in no time, we are off to an adventure!
Must-see in Tehran:
Now first thing to realise about Iran, is that it's Islamic republic. This affects a lot of travel aspects, the first one still being on the plane to Tehran. When the plane enters Iranian airspace, Iranian laws apply - this means the air hostesses will stop serving alcoholic drinks and women need to put on their head scarves. Yup, even before you land :-) We were also noticibly different to everyone else on the plane, and got a number of curious and excited smiles and waves from our fellow passengers.
We landed early in the morning and managed to do a first foul at the airport arrivial hall - a natural yet massively loud kiss that echoed throughout the terminal, at which literally everyone else turned around with stunned faces. Ooops! A few moments later, a taxi driver is driving us to our guest house, driving 120 km/h in an old Peugeot that was literally falling apart, singing along his morning prayer via car radio, while showing us photos of his family on Whatsapp - completely ignoring any indicating and road lanes. Not a great start, but it was all so new and exciting, so went with it.
Later that day we were meeting Jane at the former US embassy. Not far away from there, a car pulls over on the other side of the road and two people get out of it - father and son. About 12-year old boy we have never seen marches straight to us and with a friendly smile and perfect English says "Hello, we welcome you to our country! Iran is a beautiful country, great people but horrible government. Please excuse our leaders and talk to the people. Please come to our home for lunch." Well that left us speechless. Nevertheless this first contact with locals was only the tip of the iceberg of what we were about to experience.
Later we met up with Jane and enjoyed a fantastic day. Tehran is a modern city, with multiple metro/subway lines, interesting sightseeings and friendly people. Fully working infrastructure, corner shops with plenty to offer. We went to a mosque for the first time in our lives. Visited the local bazaar, Azadi tower, imperial palace and many more. What really surprised us how green the city was. Somehow we were expecting more the Kabul-like dry desert city with sand flying around. Nope. There are many parks, trees alongside roads and flowers blooming everywhere (we did go in the beginning of spring). And its so clean! There is no trash laying around like in other countries we have visited.
We also visited a northern Tehran suburb called Tajrish. There was a nice view on the mountains, but what was really important for us was our first proper visit to a mosque. Neither of us had ever been! Naturally we didnt know what to expect.
With a spot inside the mosque premises to meet, we entered through the separate entrances for males/females. Holly saw a box with sheets and immediately picked one up and tried to put it on. Three older women saw she was struggling and didnt hesitate to lend a hand. Then realised how she needed one that complemented her looks; 'no this one is more beautiful for you, or maybe this one, let me help you, ah yes, perfect!' As the men walk straight through, David was getting a little concerned as finding the perfect sheet took some time! But then I was safely escorted with my new friends who polielty asked for a photo and we went to check out the mosque at prayer time.
The other thing which surprised us was the currency. Officially Iran uses Rial, but because of the inflation, everyone uses a local currency Toman. The deal is that 10 Rial equals 1 Toman, but the really confusing part is they use the same banknotes! We were trying to get this different "money", but it was the same. Just 10 times more valuable and everyone says the price in Toman.
This is important to know since Iran isnt part of the global credit/debit card system SWIFT. This means you cant use any of your "normal" cards to withdraw money from ATMs or even pay at local merchants. To avoid this problem, we brought about 800 Euros and exchanged them during our trip. You can also exchange US dollars, but Euros are more recommended.
Must-see in Isfahan:
We had to part ways with Jane after a few days in Tehran and travelled to artsy-like city of Isfahan. We took an over-night Royal Safar bus (which was very cheap and good quality with air conditioning and free snacks) and stayed in Isfahan as couch-surfers with a local family (please support locals as much as possible, you will not be disappointed). Thanks to the community, we were able to meet up with some very interesting locals. Mainly three people really stood out: a 16-year old yet very intelligent girl with big plans for her genetics science career and typical teenage problems, a lovely girl with great tour-guiding experience and historical knowledge, and the third was a 38-year old male who works for the local city council. He was interesting mainly because he represented "the other side" - fully supported the government with everything they were doing. Each story has two sides and he certainly delivered his point of view on why women are essentially men's property, why it doesnt matter that road workers dont have health insurance (but apparently get hit by cars all the time and the perpetrators never get found), respected more the boyfriend's "right" to Holly than her free will and explained why its better to have all banks nationalised. Holy cow, talk about a different perspective!
In Isfahan, one of the main attractions was Naghshe Jahan square. We could spend the entire day there! :-) It was really massive, wide and long (most squares arent as big as this one), with many shops and cafes around the outskirts of the square. Holly got some of her beautiful jewelry here. If you are into shopping, here you can buy just about everything. What I really liked about it was that a lot of locals came here to meet with friends and family, so it didnt feel like a tourist trap. And how amazing it looked at night! But more about that later :-)
I would really like to point out one thing here - Iran isnt a super touristy place (yet!), so locals enjoyed talking to us pretty much all the time. At first, it felt a little uncomfortable, because we arent used to behaviour like this. But after a while, we realised the intention was purely from curiousity. This is important for the next part of our adventure - Couchsurfing has this amazing feature "Post a public trip", where you notify anyone at the area that you are coming and it lets them contact you. I never had much success anywhere else... but oh man, in Iran we used to get like 20 messages a day!! So of course we were utilising this a lot.
In Isfahan, during our crazy 24 hours, we met some really interesting people we mentioned above. They became our tour group for the rest of the day and we had a lot of fun with them. After leaving Naghshe Jahan square and the Ali Qapu palace (recommend the guided tour there!) we went to Chehel Sotoon palace, which had some awesome wall painting portraiting Iranian history.
While we were walking through some of the parks (contray to assumptions, Iran has many!) David said he felt like a cup of tea. Out of no where a hot glass of tea was raised in front of him and a family invited us to their picnic! Next thing you know, there is selfies galore and friendly yet stimulating conversation. This is a typical aspect of Persian hospitality, it really makes you welcomed and involved!
Our next stop was the 33 Pol bridge over the Zayandeh river. As you can see from the photos, the river was completely dried out! We were told its been like this for the last few years because of some unwise decisions made that led the river to dry out. It was so sad! After a little while we arrived by the Khaju bridge, which we crossed again and went to get some coffee. Man, for a tea drinking nation, they can do some good coffee too. On our way back to the host family, we crossed the Naghshe Jahan square at night, which looked absolutely stunning! The photos just dont it a justice. The locals were celebrating and the whole square was full of people.
Must-see in Shiraz:
The next stop in our Iranian adventure was another large city called Shiraz. If you think this sounds very familiar to the type of wine, you are right :-) It is indeed called after this city, since it was once produced here. Anyway, this city is ancient (dates back to 2000 BC!) and is the gateway to Persepolis and has plenty to offer to curious travellers like us. We stayed at a lovely little place called Taha hostel, which we highly recommend.
The most intriquing place in Shiraz is the Pink mosque. Its name originates from the unique colour-play created early in the morning. You need to come here really early, like REALLY early - 5-6am before the sun comes up (and before the tourist bus wave hits). It casts the most beautiful light projections inside the mosque and off the rugs in all sorts of pink colours, hence the name. Unfortunately given the tourist awareness, this place gets swarmed by tourists around 7-8am. Regardless, it is an absolute must see.
Afterwards we visited the Hafez tomb, who was a very important poet around 14th century. If you are into history and literature, you will appreciate this place. Later that next day, we met up with another Couchsurfer and her family for what is called the Earth day. This is a Iranian public holiday and signifies the start of spring and new beginning. We spend a whole day with this lovely family, shared a meal with them and even played a board game Ludo, which we never thought would make it to Iran. Also Holly cause a bit of friendly mayhem by giving the family's grandad a big hug in front of everybody!
The next day we met up with yet another Couchsurfer (yeah thats how popular we were haha) and she took us first to the Quoran gate. This place has a really nice view at the city and has a lot of interesting history behind it, because it used to be the entry gate to the city centuries ago. When it was getting dark, we started heading back to our hostel and visited a local shisha (water pipe) shop, which we both were incredibly excited about. They had all possible flavours and accessories! We simply had to get this special hose with ice compartment for our shisha back in Prague. On our way back to the hostel we also discovered a very beautiful mosque called Sayyed Alaeddin Hossein Mosque. We havent seen anything this remarkable before. The colour, detailing and inside of the mosque was simply breath-taking! Also the surroundings were pretty too. Same as the other mosque, Holly had to wear an extra cover when entering the mosque.
The last day in Shiraz we met up with our Couchsurfer friend from last night and she took us and her boyfriend to another really interesting place - the Pink lake. This place used to be a sea, but over the years its been drying out and now there is hardly any water left. I have never seen anything like this before. We walked on the salt for a few hundred meters and took some photos. And of course David just had to taste the salt! :-) Its pretty strong and doesnt taste very nice haha. We ended the day with another yummy local dish of BBQ with beef, chicken and fish. And we are off to Yazd, our last place in Iran! Taking an overnight bus again, so that David has time to plan everything.
Must-see in Yazd:
In Yazd we stayed at another hostel called Silk Road Hotel, which has a beautiful courtyard and overall nice touch to it. We had a full breakfast and then we were planning to explore the town, however something happened before we had a chance to do that. We were "inside" the hostel in the dining room, which was considered private but a shared space among others so it still fell under the Islamic rule of "dressing appropriately". At one moment, the hostel manager told us to "please get dressed, there is a man coming from the town". This meant Holly had to wear her head scarf, jacket and long pants again even inside a private establishment. This put a bit of a bad mood on us since we werent expecting it, however this might be just the difference between couchsurfing and hostels.
Afterwards we headed out to the city. First to go was the Zoroastrian fire temple. This is really interesting, because it basically is a different and religion from Islam and also a lot older (a couple of thousand years). So much for Islam not tolerating other religions. Inside there was this "ever-lasting fire" and mythology about the religion.
Then we visited Amir Chakhmaq Complex and there we randomly met up with some of our travelling friends from Germany and Portugal. They conviced us to take a taxi with them and go see the Tower of Silense outside of city (about 20mins drive). As a true Star Wars fan, David was super excited! Take a look at the photos and you will understand. It looks just like the houses at Tatooine, the home planet of Anakin Skywalker. But nevermind the Star Wars, this place is seriously ancient. At least a couple of thousand years! We explored the houses, walked up the Tower of Silense and took some photos from the nice view. The top of the tower was used as a massive firepit.
Afterwards we visited the water museum, the prison where Alexander the Great was briefly held, a local bazzar (marketplace) and Jame mosque (city mosque) just before having our dinner at a lovely Iranian old cafe with a great rooftop sitting and a fantastic view over the city.
At this point it was the sad but inevitable end of our journey. The next day we boarded a train back Tehran (be aware, they require you to show your passport at train stations here and females must do it separately too). Here we shortly met up with Jane again for our last Iranian dinner and paid our last money to the taxi driver to take us back to Khomeini international airport.
Overall about Iran - absolutely without question this has been the most fascinating and eye-opening trip of our lives. Iran will remain in our hearts as a very hospitable, welcoming country. We are both looking forward to returning one day. One of the main reason we were glad to visit Iran, is because we fear that it might end up just like Syria. There has been a lot of aggressivity between Iran and other countries such as US, Saudi Arabia and Israel. You never know what might happen (nobody expected Syria), so we wanted to see it while still in peace and we are so glad that we did! Therefore also we created this blog to encourage other travellers to go see Iran and spread understanding and respect among all people. We wish all the best to Iran and its amazing people! :-)
To finish off, we put together a few important comments which didnt really fit anywhere into our story, however we felt they are very important to share with the world: