After an amazing 3 month adventure travelling Iran from the western province of Kurdistan to the southern island of Queshm, I thought I would write up a short blog with some helpful – I hope – information about what to expect. Enjoy!
Be like batman
Every female in Iran needs to wear appropriate clothing out in public. This basically boils down to the hijab (head scarf) and a mantou (overcoat )which is designed to conceal your physique. This is a mandatory requirement and non-negotiable. The long black chador that makes one look like a mobile tent is not mandatory (unless visiting mosques – which if you don’t have one you will be given one).
Now I must point out that ‘out in public’ also applies to the confines of your hotel. Unless you are in your room, or in someone else’s home; you must wear these two garments at all times. I remember when I was staying in a hotel in Shiraz a fairly butch European girl with fiery red hair was walking around the hotel courtyard with her hijab around her neck. Do not do this. Please be aware that Persian people will most likely not challenge you for this as foreign guests in their country are given preferential treatment even if that means bending over backwards to make you comfortable. It is important to be mindful ; if you see other women wearing their hijab then please follow suit as you do not want to attract unnecessary attention or get involved with the police. I was amazed that this particular lady failed to notice other women wearing their hijab which left me thinking that she ‘tried it on’ so to speak. Don’t.
Likewise for men, being seen walking around cities in shorts and vests is still considered taboo. Even if it’s 35c and in the middle of summer, you must refrain from wearing these items of clothing. Unless you are in your room or in a remote beach somewhere – like Queshm – do not wear items that show your legs or arms.
Boom shake the room?
The Taliban, ISIS, ISIL…what ever your favorite terrorist group you will NOT find them here. Iran is an extremely safe country to travel in. Everyone is approachable and willing to help if you need it – all you have to do is ask. Sure, Iran gets a bad press with some governments issuing warnings to those wanting to travel to the Islamic Republic. The first time I went to Iran 2 years ago the British government were advising against it. All I can say is BOLLOCKS to that. Please bear in mind that these warnings are only issued when the two governments fall into a disagreement with each other and end up acting like kids arguing in a playground. Also bear in mind that these warnings are instigated by people who have NEVER visited Iran and are created arbitrarily. For example when the sanctions were lifted suddenly the British government’s warning was suspended, while the Canadian government for example still issues a warning to their citizens. Ignore the warnings and just come here. All Governments have vested interests so if they feel they can persuade the general public in order to benefit from it, they will do it. Bollocks to them. Besides Iranian people love to have foreign guests in their country.
Don’t trust your eyes
Undoubtedly the greatest risk to your safety is crossing the road! They drive like fucking idiots here and you will also catch yourself cursing at the drivers at some point during your time here. Take extra precaution and try crossing a quieter street if you are not confident crossing the main street. DO NOT expect them to stop or slow down for you ; on the contrary they will speed up and NO ONE obeys zebra crossings . You need to monitor every single direction as cars and motorbikes criss-cross across roads , do u turns at junctions illegally, reverse on a busy street to get to that missed exit, and drive down one way streets – in the opposite direction! – and bus lanes. Another important point is that if you are crossing the road and an oncoming car flashes his lights at you , this is a signal to get out of the way and fast ! In the UK this is usually interpreted as a polite ‘after you’ gesture. In Iran there’s no such thing as ‘after you’ on the road so be vigilant! As one friend of mine said: “You can’t trust your eyes”
Planes, trains and mahmooly
Travelling Iran is easy , cheap and fairly comfortable. The traveler has 2 types of buses to consider taking: mahmooly (normal/cheapest bus) and VIP (slightly more expensive). With the VIP buses the seats go back further , you get free snacks and an unlimited supply of water. The down side is that there are no toilets on the bus (a nightmare for those who have weak bladders and are on a 10 hour journey) with no wifi or plugs to charge electrics appliances. The bus will stop at certain points; at least once for dinner and you can ask the driver to stop anytime you need a toilet break – just make sure it doesn’t get to the point of an emergency as bus drivers are quite relaxed when it comes to finding a place to stop and may take their time.
Bus stations are packed with shops and seating areas. You will hear people shouting the name of cities in the hope to find someone who wish to travel to that particular destination. They normally congregate outside the main entrance and will approach you asking : ‘Tehrani?’ for example and take you to the ticket booth. They do not do this for money and will not ask you for any, they will simply take you to get your ticket then leave in the hope of finding another customer.
All bus stations have toilets – naturally. But expect to pay a small maintenance fee of 500 tomans (10p). Yes they stink. Plus, if you happen to need the toilet during prayer time, expect to see a row of men balancing on tip-toe while attempting to stick their feet in the sink.
I only took the train once (from Mashad to Neishabour) so don’t take my experience here as gospel. All platforms are sign posted in Farsi and English , but there is no indication inside the train as to what the next stop is- not even an announcement so it’s best to keep looking out the window to check and know how many stops there are in advanced prior to taking the train.
The quickest and most comfortable way to travel is undoubtedly by plane. With one way costs as low as £20, this is a very cost effective way of travelling. I took two internal flights booked within a day of departure and loved it.
Tehran, Mashad , Shiraz and other large cities in Iran have Metro (subway stations). By far the most uncomfortable , busy and dreadfully slow was Tehran’s metro. For a start there are not enough stations in this sprawling metropolis (I stayed in the west of Tehran where metro stations were near non existent. Chitgar was by far the closest station to me being approximately 8km away). And if you are using the metro during rush hour God help you. If there is a definition of sardines in a tin it would be Tehran’s metro, and if you are caught in it in the middle of summer expect to loose a few kilos as there is no air conditioning system just a window opened slightly ajar. Another thing to note is that the metro can take AGES to cross the city making me question why people would bother using it! But when you see the state Tehran’s traffic is in , it’s clear that people really can’t be bothered to take it as they would rather be stuck inside their own car than squashed inside the train.
Another thing to note about the metro is the lack of metro maps in stations. Once you buy your little blue ticket you will be left wondering which platform to take as there is no wall map telling you where you need to go! That is until you randomly head down to one of the platforms hoping for it to be the one you need only to find a map telling you you need to cross over to the opposite platform!
Taxis are the best option to get around Tehran, and you can cut the cost by telling the driver nah da baste – don’t close the door – meaning other members of the public can stop your taxi and hop in for a ride. Some taxi drivers however may not agree to do this as, obviously, they will make more money with only you in it. That said you can find another taxi who is willing to share it to the general public.
A 15km journey or so in taxi on paper should not take long but due to the horrendous traffic expect to be in the taxi for a good 30 minutes at least. Taxi journeys will certainly eat into the backpackers budget so my advice is to download maps.me and walk (if at all possible). On average a 15km taxi ride should cost about 2500 tomans (£5/$8) but factoring in the attempted rip off anywhere between 3000 – 5000 (£10/$14). So costs certainly rack up if you are in and out of taxis all day.
In some cases you will also need to take taxis to visit out-of-the-way places. Since the tourism infrastructure is badly developed to non-existent off the typical Esfahan, Shiraz and Yazd route ,public transportation to major sites such as Chogha Zanbil and some villages such as Maseleh and those dotted around Kurdistan are non-existent forcing one to take a taxi which could cost anywhere between £20 to £50. Travelling as a group or couple obviously cuts costs.
Johnny be good…
Now toilets….the majority are squats so expect these in public places and restaurants. All high end hotels have seated toilets along with the odd trendy cafe. You will also find toilet paper here but be warned ! You will not find toilet paper in public toilets and expect them to be damp and stink. Some don’t flush so you need to use the small hose that is attached on the wall to wash down your bodily fluid. You can also use this to wash your ass but if you don’t have paper to dry yourself… :\. I found the hose generally impractical as the water will spray all over your pants anyway so it’s best to buy and use toilet paper. What I found quite interesting was that most toilets (even public toilets) will have hooks so you can hook up bags and coats! Much needed when you’re trying to take a dump while attempting to balance a bag on your lap.
Show me the money
By western standards Iran is remarkably cheap . However with soaring inflation (around 25%) the cost of living and travelling is rising fast. Given my own travelling experience I found Iran not as cheap as I would have liked. If you are off the beaten track you will find that the tourism infrastructure undeveloped which means taking taxis to visit sites – such as Chogha Zanbil. Travelling alone one will feel the burden of such costs. Hotel costs vary , the cheapest I paid for 1 night was £6 at Omid guest house in Kerman – but you get what you pay for! Dorms averaged at around £7 ($10) with single rooms costing between £10 upwards . On average I paid about £20 for a single room. Travelling with a partner will cut costs dramatically and is highly recommended. Food is cheap as chips ; you can eat for around £2 easily or if you really want to budget – stick to grocery stores and falafels.
There will be times when you go to buy something and the shop assistant will say gable nadare (it’s nothing) and proceed to momentarily refuse your money. Welcome to Tarof – a system of social etiquette. Through my research online I found it best summed up as ‘offering something you don’t want to give and refusing something you want’ in this case the shop keeper pretends to refuse payment from you when in reality he wants your money ! The shop keeper expects you to respond ‘no no I insist ‘ or words to that effect whereby the shop keeper then accepts your money. Think of it as a little game and you will be fine. In many circumstances I found that this was a knee-jerk instinctive reaction and that in some cases they took my money and proceeded to give me my change while saying ‘it’s nothing’!
You may also find people willing to pay for you – for example in restaurants. The right response to this is to refuse and expect to pay unless they repeatedly insist – often with violent shakes of the head and flaying arms. If this is the case then back down as this is not tarof but a genuine offer.
Tarof comes in all shapes and sizes , from offering someone your seat, to insisting they go through the door first. Indeed in my experience Tarof also comes in the disguise of false promises. For example I noticed a pattern that kept repeating itself. When I spoke to a near total stranger or was introduced to a near total stranger the chances of them offering dinner for me or going out somewhere right at that moment there was extremely high. Afterward we would exchange numbers and a further offer of ‘going out somewhere’ would be spoken about followed by I will call you or let you know. However in most cases nothing further would materialize and I would not hear from them again. It made me think that it was Tarof all along… At first I found it strange but as the pattern kept repeating itself I got used to it to the point where I would mutter ‘yeah yeah’ in my mind.
Guests are no pest!
Where ever you find yourself in Iran, you will be welcomed with a smile. A foreigner in Iran – especially a western foreigner – is such a privilege for Iranians that they consider you (or us) ‘gifts from God’. As a matter of fact the word ‘foreigner’ is inaccurate. Iranian’s like to use the term guest instead. Where as in the UK (and undoubtedly from other western countries) people from other countries who reside here are called foreigners (and may I daringly add seen as pests). The term is, I believe, quite derogatory. But in Iran you will be considered and treated like a guest – and a special one at that. With numerous invites to dinner from near total strangers, as well as invites to homes to visit their family and friends, You will find hospitality in every corner of the country.
It’s good to talk…when the connection doesn’t break!
Keeping in touch with friends and family is paramount to the traveler anywhere in the world and the same can be said when traveling Iran. However with international network providers cutting Iran off from communicating with the rest of the world , the travelers’ only option is to find a cafe or hotel with have WiFi. Indeed in my experience not all hotels offered WiFi so it’s best to check before committing to a night.
WiFi is mans best friend on the road. But don’t expect it to be as fast as it is back at home. The speed of the network can be excruciatingly slow which is a pain in the ass when you want to send a photo (or worse video) via Whatsapp for example. I’ve lost count the amount of times a photo or video failed to upload even though the WiFi signal strength was so strong.
Another thing to note is that many hotels require you to log in before having access to the net – not a problem , the receptionist at the desk will give you a small piece of paper with their login details. Just search for the network name and input your user name and password and Bingo! Well not so fast. Through out my time travelling Iran their was a limit to how much data I could use. In the Totia hotel in Esfahan for example I only got 250MB! Which is nothing when you want to send pictures or video. Once I reached my limit I had to go back down to reception and ask for another piece of paper with their log in details – which they were more than happy to supply me with. But going up and down 2 or 3 times in one night just to get another user name and password is extremely annoying and they would not give it out in bulk!
Once you are connected and raring to go it’s important to check your signal strength. In some cases I had good signal in my room, but in other hotels I had to hang around the courtyard outside, sit beside my room door while holding my phone up in the air, and leaning against the wall in the corridor just to get bearable signal. In one hotel in Sanandaj , because my room was in separate building I had to stay in the reception area to get signal. So please bear in mind that just because a hotel offers WiFi it doesn’t mean you will get it in the most comfortable place (I.e. your room).
There will also be times when the WiFi signal is at full strength but you can’t connect online , this either occurs because someone has just reset the router or (more commonly) they haven’t paid their bill. In some cases I asked about this and the response was, in broken English of course , I need to put money on it.
General points to consider
Remember you are in a Muslim country – and a strict one at that – so some ideas or points of view may not be agreeable with your own.
Iranians are Shia Muslims and despite sharing a large amount of similarities with Sunnis there are a couple of key differences to note. One such differences is the Shia’s reverence for their 12 imams. These are the holy men who succeeded (controversial to Sunni muslims) the prophet Muhammad and they demand a huge amount of respect as on certain days Shia Muslims will devote much time to either celebrating their life or mourning their death – this may also include siblings if they had any. There are shrines all over the Middle East where Shia pilgrims journey to visit the imams, these could within their own country (imam Reza, Mashad for example) or out in the danger zone of Najaf in Iraq. Sunni Muslims don’t believe in the 12 Imams and as a result often proclaim Shia Muslims as not real Muslims.
Have I missed anything ? Any thoughts , corrections or general observations please leave a comment below.
Thanks for reading.