Hey folks and it’s for low-down on a country I love but haven’t posted about in a while, and that would be Iran. In every post on Iran that I write I usually say something about ‘you probably wouldn’t consider Iran as a destination, but… yada yada yada’, but I’m not going to get into justifications. Simply put Iran is one of the best countries in the world to travel. It’s well connected, cheap and great value for money, the people are as friendly as ANYONE on this planet and you do yourself a disservice if you love travelling and write Iran off for any reason. YES – those who govern the country are not necessarily the greatest human beings alive and there are some clear connections to organisations best not mentioned, but the average person, the person you are likely to meet, will see and traveller and want to make them welcome to their country.
Getting to Iran
Iran’s national airline, Iran Air, services 71 international destinations, but doesn’t have a safety record that anyone would envy to be honest. Plenty of Middle Eastern Airlines though do fly into Tehran and other destinations in Iran including Isfahan including the ‘big three’, Etihad, Emirates and Qatar. Plenty of connections through Europe and to Asia, but you won’t find United or American flying into Tehran any time soon.
Land borders are open to Pakistan, Turkey and Azerbaijan. Not to Armenia. Crossing to or from Pakistan involves going through the Baluchistan Desert (primarily in Pakistan), which at times has been a no-go zone for foreigners due to terrorist activity, but over the last couple of years (2020 the exception I guess) travellers have started crossing there again. This does involve being driven by police basically all the way from Quetta to the border or the reverse – some have found themselves with police escort almost everywhere they go in Pakistan. Still it’s an experience and if you want to be truly intrepid, go for it. I did it back in 2004 Pakistan to Iran, and although these measures weren’t in place or needed back then, it was still an incredible journey in an overnight bus which was seriously hot for the most part.
You can cross into Afghanistan to Herat I think it is, and possibly there are other open borders to this country but it’s not regarded as a safe country to visit just right now (Afghanistan) and we can live in hope that one day it will be. There’s also a crossing or two between Iran and Turkmenistan. The mountains between the two countries are pretty epic, so the crossing between must also be epic too I would say.
I haven’t crossed to or from Azerbaijan, but I did leave Iran via one of it’s borders with Turkey, on a bus going from Tabriz in Iran to Istanbul. This was in the north-west of the country and was through an incredible mountain range, and as we waited to be processed at Turkish immigration the sun began to creep up and the sight was breathtaking.
This means a visa for most, and for Americans it’s a bit more tricky. I think these days you can get in will a fully booked tour – for many years Americans simply couldn’t visit Iran at all. What I’ve read is that you at least need to go through a tour agency to secure your visa. For those from the UK, it’s similar but I think not quite as strict.
Otherwise most places need to apply for a visa from a nearby embassy and depending on the relationship your country has with the Islamic Republic of Iran, it will probably be easy or difficult accordingly. I applied through the post and got it back within a week or so back in 2004 here in Australia. In fact the interweb says now Aussies can get a thirty-day visa on arrival. So it’s quite different depending on your country I guess.
As mentioned, cross-country buses do exist from Turkey to Iran and back. From Azerbaijan it looks like people usually do some sort of rail/bus compo which could be a lot of fun. I didn’t mind travelling the breadth of Turkey from Iran by bus – but that was because it was less than half full more than anything.
Know the People & Culture
Iranians are possibly the most hospitable people in the entire world. The Lonely Planet used to joke about your own ‘Iranian Hostage Crisis’ – not sure if the wording is a good idea, but what they are alluding to is finding yourself invited to stay with a local family somewhere and finding it really hard to leave. This happened to me when I was there, I met a guy at the border with Pakistan and as it happened I was travelling to Kerman, where he lived. So he helped me out with transport and by the time we were half way there, he has asked me to stay with his family in law.
I accepted and before I knew it, 10 days had passed. No, they didn’t keep me chained up in a corner, but I was constantly given reasons to stay longer. I’d been on the road for ages too and so it was great to have a place to crash for a little while, and I was very well fed and looked after. I was shown the sights and was humbled by the generosity of everyone at every turn. And this is not an uncommon experience in Iran. Many traveller leave with similar tales, and on top of that I had amazing experiences meeting locals in Shiraz, Isfahan and Tabriz as well.
And in a museum in Tehran a girl working there I chatted with for a while told me of how she did Latin dancing at night in a secret class because it wasn’t allowed. The warmth and openness, no matter how much you’ve heard about it before you, WILL surprise you.
And people stay up late and visit family and friends at all hours. We all cooked – and I’m talking about the wider family of the people I stayed with with around 30 or more people – Aubgust together and enjoyed meals prepared together, and half of the Aubgust – a tasty Persian stew we cooked in two HUGE vats – was given to the poor.
The people are genuinely curious about foreigners, and I was invited to a couple of English classes by chance meetings in Shiraz and Tabriz and got to chat and exchange ideas and thoughts with university students. I was asked about women and head coverings, and I said I thought it was great if women could choose whether they wanted to wear it or not, and the class clapped my answer. Don’t presume you know a people until you meet them.
I didn’t feel threatened or in danger even vaguely at any point. Yes, if you fly drones close to military establishments well you can expect to land in trouble, and if you do break the law in Iran the law won’t be very forgiving, so use common sense and don’t join protests or anything like that. But despite the edicts from the rulers and the way law is administered in Iran, you don’t feel that everyone fanatically follows Islam, in fact you don’t feel like many do. And if they do, odds are they are still welcoming.
Buses are completely the way I got around Iran when I was there. Any inter-city trip was by bus, and they were comfortable, cheap and frequent not to mention comfortable. Petrol prices, even today, are still mind-bogglingly low for the visitor. It was less than 10 cents US a litre when I was there and I heard a few years back they doubled the priced – and there was outrage.
You can travel by air domestically if you wish. I’m still a bit of nervous flyer and the record of local airlines isn’t stunning so you may, as I did, decide against it. There is a train system in Iran and I kick myself that I did get around to riding it. Tehran is connected to the Persian Gulf, Mashaad, Isfahan and Azerbaijan by rail and they are expanding the network substantially. It’s going to become, I suspect, THE way to train Iran.
Iran is dry. That’s the biggest climate statement one can make. Without a doubt one of the driest countries on the planet, with a lot of desert. It is blistering hot in the summer, but when I went in April it was mid-20s and perfect. It gets much colder in the winter two, in the north there are plenty of mountains and so snow is far from uncommon, who knows one day it may be a skiing destination? From Tehran, in April, I could see snow on the top mountains not that far away.
Costs and Hotels
What’s the lowdown on costs, I hear you say? Well, whilst Iran is not ‘bottom of the barrel’ cheap, it remains a brilliant budget destination not for having things always so cheap, but because it represents astonishing value for money. I had some amazing hotel rooms for never more than $20AUD ($15USD) and I doubt they are much more today. Will they have WiFi that’s fast and not regulated? Well, I don’t know about fast but I suspect you’ll want to source yourself a VPN accessing the internet in Iran.
Some rooms shared a bathroom, others were fully contained, usually pretty comfy also very simple. To eat out, it won’t set you back that much, not more than a few bucks. And the food, admittedly having a lot of met in it, was tasty and good. Lots of little ‘burger’ shops where you choose the meat you want from a window and they cook it in front of you then and there.
Lots of meat – kebab style, skewered, lots of fresh salad, stews such as abgoost which are so tasty and include everything you can think of and more – made tasty by loads of chicken skin! Of course, no pork but otherwise you’ll be right and I think, with falafels and the like, there are a few choices for the discerning vegetarian. The flavours are great, lots of spices are used to flavour but not so things are particularly ‘hot’ as it were. Rice, flat bread and more supplementals are available too! And the best thing in my opinion – whereas travelling India and Pakistan I get very sick after a few days because of the food, this did not happen to me in Iran – not ONCE. Hygiene standards are pretty decent in Iran. A side note – Tehran is definitely a little more expensive than the rest of the country.
Okay so I visited these cities when I was there – Kerman, Tabriz, Shiraz, Isfahan (also spelt Esfahan, usually by me!), Yazd (a real highlight) and Tehran. It took me 28 days I think it was. I visited the town of Kandovan from Tabriz in a day trip – where they live in caves in volcanic rock and mineral water runs from the ground. From Shiraz (and yes, the grape variety did originally come from this region) I visited Persepolis, an ancient city hidden in the desert and saw a number of other highlights in that day trip, including the Naghsh e Rostrum, ancient tombs in a cliff.. A desert trip from Yazd was also a highlight visiting a Zoroastrian temple in caves after a long climb it’s an incredible thing to find in the mountains, surrounded by desert.
It’s steeped in incredible history and beautiful cities. Isfahan is one beautiful city indeed with a stunning square in the middle and this beautiful river. Highlights of Shiraz include and old citadel and the tombs of poets – very popular with Persians are the poets! You can find a little more out here – Travel Itineraries – Iran, but also if interested keep an eye out for a post I will be doing on what to do and see when in Iran, a look at the sights because there are heaps and I realise I never really went into detail on my blog about Iran before.
All in all the key is to plan ahead a little, but leave flexibility in your time in Iran because you will get offers too good to pass up. An open mind and your visa is pretty much you will need. So when things improve across the world and travel again is something we do regularly and safely, put Iran your list of places to go, because it won’t disappoint you.
Thanks and as always, May the Journey Never End!