I remember my astonishment the first time a friend suggested a ski trip to Iran because it was cheap. Like most people, I had no idea it was a viable tourist destination. While I had not given much thought into it, I generally assumed as it is in the Middle East it must therefore be deeeadly. Nevertheless the seed had been planted.
Four months later I was on a plane bound for Tehran from Istanbul, via Doha.
I had been in Istanbul for a week and intended on heading west towards Sweden through Eastern Europe. The local Turkish man who I had been staying with spoke oh-so-highly of Iran. A fellow traveller, he described it as place like no other, a cultural shock of great proportions – all of which naturally appealed to me.
Convinced, I booked my ticket and departed Istanbul the next day. I booked my first night in a hotel in downtown Terhran using the airports WiFi and was banking on reports from a (reputable) travel blog detailing their experience entering Iran as Australian citizens with a Visa on Arrival – a travellers best friend.
The head of Qatar airways check-in staff was not convinced however. After half an hour of phone calls and checks he was not convinced it was possible. A Turkish father of two young daughters, he gave me the lecture my father or mother would have, had I informed him of my travel destination – I gave my rough itinerary to a couple of friends, but decided family didn’t need to be in the loop on this one. I assured him I with the utmost confidence all will be fine, and signed my life away diverting any responsibility from the airline.
That was the hard part. Getting the VOA was as easy as handing over 120 euros to an official with a straight face whose eyes showed a seemingly kind man. Half an hour later and my VOA was granted. Entering Iran as visitors on the near fully booked plane was myself, a South Korean businessman and his wife and a Chinese tour group.
I was not sure what to expect in Iran. Like most, my idea of Iran was formed predominantly thru the usual misinformation the media fed the Western World. I knew it would be nothing like what I had been told, but I never imagined the perception created could be so far from what I experienced.
Aside from the first night spent a hotel – hotel address was required for VOA, I spent majority of the next 2 weeks Couch Surfing – staying with locals you meet thru a website who offer a place for you to stay for free, its a legit worldwide website, however the practice is technically illegal in Iran. Aside from said technicalities, Iran is the most rewarding country to see via Couch Surfing that I have visited. I was able to have completely open conversations about controversial topics with the young liberal minded generation who only wanted to see their country succeed on a global scale.
I found the Iranians I met to be highly intelligent, unbelievably hospitable, calm, logical, very peaceful, proud of their history – specifically the Persian side, always laughing and with a curiosity understandably geared towards the outside world.
The biggest cultural difference that I experienced in Iran was not the clothing – which I found quite modern and more trendy than some nearby European countries, nor the food – though sheep brain was pushing it, but the hospitality.
While I have since experienced incredible examples of hospitality while hitch hiking, and heard endless examples of similar stories, of the countries I have been, Iran remains the country in which I experienced the most widespread selfless hospitality which is deeply embedded in their culture. In Iran they take their responsibilities as host very seriously and are dedicated to ensure any guest leaves Iran with a smile and a belt that no longer fits.
I experienced and felt considerably more at risk and unsafe in the eastern European countries I visited after Iran. In Serbia my friend was violently taken to the floor and kicked in the head because he bumped into someone in a bar, in Krakow I saw a street brawl – ranging between 3 and 10 people – most nights I went out for a drink. Alcohol fueled violence is among the most common form of violence, however even in their former glory 30 years ago where a thriving nightlife existed, I find it hard to believe such violence would be so easily found.
People are usually surprised with this comment. The image they picture is of a small portion of the population and forget that a governments international political views rarely in fact represent that of the general population (Vietnam war, Iraq war, most wars) – this is especially the case in Iran.
Among the highlights of the interesting food I have tried throughout the world, at the top would be the sheep brain I tried in Iran.
Considered a delicacy, served as a stew type dish with other parts of a sheep including the tongue, cheek and hoof, it was heavy and oily and I could feel my heart slowing down with each sip. My host admitted to experiencing a numbness in his legs if he was to over indulge. The best part about the whole meal was that it was served at breakfast. Sheep brain is exactly how I like to start my day.
Having just woken up and with an empty stomach, obviously I had to try. Eating with my eyes instead of my mouth, it was not the most pleasant thing I have ever tasted and I will be crossing it off my list. In comparison the tongue and cheek were absolutely delicious!
Aside from this meal, I loved all of the food in Iran. Granted I was eating home cooked meals majority of the time, I was always back for seconds. My favorite desert is now dates in peanut butter sauce. And for the price of a beer in Sweden, I could get a meal in a quality restaurant enough to feed a family. Great food in combination with incredible hospitality, I did not go hungry.
The only thing better than the food was the experience at meal times. In houses we usually ate all together on the floor sharing everything, creating a great atmosphere full of laughter. While the food was always amazing, meal time was always about the company and the conversation, a concept that is fading in the west.
I admit to knowing next to nothing about the Persian empire before my trip – where better to start than in Iran itself. I learnt a brief history that every Iranian I stayed with knew in detail, despite – I was told – Persian history being wiped from the school curriculum.
I learnt that American, Israel or the West is not most hated among Persians but rather the Arabs who they have been at conflict with for centuries. Largely due to the divide between Shia and Sunni Islam which occurred after the death of prophet Muhammed due a dispute in who should be his successor.
As often as I am told how great the Scandinavian summer of 2014 was by every Scandinavian I meet, I was just as often asked, why I came to Iran and what I thought of Iran before and after visiting the country. I explained the general perceptions of the country by the average westerner – due to lack of any reliable accurate news coverage of the country – is negative and continued to reiterate my new found love of their country.
While alcohol is illegal, nearly every household contained a bottle of something. One host brewed his own beer, which at 14% alcohol content was the best home brew I have ever tasted. I was told of phone numbers to call where people deliver various substances to your door and underground parties to rival ours. And thanks to VPN’s everything that is officially banned is accessible – from Facebook to pornography. Life in Iran is tough, but they live to the fullest, they are always laughing and smiling. Understandably most of the younger generation yearn to travel and live abroad but that is common in any country.
Iran surprised me with its splashes of modernism, parks that belonged in London, bridges that lit up and sky scrappers – of course I wondered around the back streets in the lesser socio-economic areas of Tehran (keep in mind it is has a larger population than London, Hong Kong or Paris) and witnessed the usual issues of poverty that comes with urbanization in a developing country.
I followed the typical ‘first time in Iran’ itinerary from the crazy over populated dirty Tehran to Esfahan containing the amazing Imam square – mesmorised by its beauty I visited 3 days in a row, onto the quiet desert town of Yazd where the complete silence I found among the back mud walled streets was much appreciated and finally onto the great, clean, friendly city of Shiraz with a day trip to the incredible Persepolis.
I flew back to Tehran from Shiraz – I should have taken the VIP bus which contain chairs you would find in living rooms big enough to fully stretch out, complimentary tea, water and snacks and all for about 8 USD for a ticket between cities – to Istanbul via Doha and enjoyed a gin for the first time in two weeks while marveling over my experiencing and vowing I would be back for longer than 2 weeks next time. I cannot wait to see where this country is headed, all signs point towards greatness.
Iran is a magnificent country with everything to offer – from lush forests and snow capped mountains in the north to deserts in the south, mosques full of memorizing geometric art centuries old, and the incredible ruins of Persepolis – best part of which is there are no ques. Iran is a western tourists dream. An amazing cultural experience different to any I have experienced – though my experience in the Middle East is limited – great food, beautiful people, a plethora of interesting tourist attractions that will leave your memory card full and your moth gasping and a very, very limited number of tourists – for the time being.
Go to Iran. Research more than I did, travel as you normally would be it hotels, hostels, Couch Surfing, hitch hiking or cycling. Say yes to random acts of kindness and be amazed.
Oh and bring cash as you cannot access international banks at the moment due to sanctions.