Iran, which boasts of tales of an era gone by, of modernity yet the uprising. My friend took a journey which very few people can even imagine on their travel list. We both have decided to not name him as the decision to post anonymously stems solely from the desire to avoid possible complications that might rise if he ever plans to visit USA.
Let him take you on his solo trip to Iran, an unchartered teritory, an unknown terrain for many of us.
Visiting Iran and why!
History, heritage, architectural marvels are good enough reasons to visit Iran. Additionally, if you want to impress your friends and crushes by undertaking a seemingly perilous journey without actually ever putting yourself in any danger, then Iran is the place to be. Moreover, you get to examine for yourself the western narrative of Iran being some sort of ‘evil mullahcracy’ which is apparently part of some evil axis. Be rest assured, Iran is a very safe country to visit; the ‘Global Terrorism Index’ ranks Iran as the 47thmost affected country from terrorism, much below India (8th), USA (36th), UK (34th) and neighbours Iraq (1st) and Afghanistan (2nd).
When to visit?
I visited Iran in March 2014 (solo male tourist), for ten days from 11th March to 21st March. These dates are important. March 21st generally marks the beginning of the one-week ‘Nowruz’ celebrations in Iran. Nowruz, literally ‘New Year’, is apparently the most important holiday in Iran, when families generally take a one-week break to travel, meet relatives and exchange gifts. For one week post 21st March, the entire country is in holiday and tourist places are very crowded; therefore it is generally advised to avoid visiting Iran during that particular week. However, my pre-trip research showed that the week immediately before Nowruz was a good time to visit (and I was not disappointed subsequently). Of course, you could choose an entirely different time to visit Iran; some of my newly made friends in Iran advised visiting the northern parts of Iran, which are generally mountainous and colder, in summer.
Planning the trip – hotel bookings and foreign exchange
I had planned to visit the three big cities of Tehran (the capital city), Isfahan and Shiraz. The famous ruins of Persepolis could be accessed through Shiraz. I advise you to book hotels before the trip, although searching for accommodation once you get there should not be an insurmountable problem. In case you land up in an Iranian city without any hotel booking, ask for ‘Musafir-koneh’, i.e. travellers’ inns if you want to save some money. I myself had stayed at such an inn for a night in Shiraz and realized that families (including women and children) also often use such inns. Otherwise, the slightly more expensive hotels are always an option.
Regarding booking hotels before the trip, you need to do it over email. Remember, due to US and European sanctions on Iran’s banking system, hotels will not be able to accept payments by credit cards or wire transfers. So, in effect, booking a hotel in Iran essentially means exchanging emails and promising to stay at the hotel in return for extracting a promise that the hotel will host you. In 2014, I managed to book a hotel room in central Tehran, near Hassan Abad metro station for 27 US Dollars per night.
This brings us to the question of foreign exchange. First of all, remember that international credit cards (whether Visa or Mastercard or Amex) will not work in Iran, due to the sanctions. Therefore, you need to carry cash to Iran, preferably partly in Dollars and partly in Euros. Do not worry about Reserve Bank of India’s restrictions over carrying foreign currency abroad, there is an exception for Iran (and some other countries). [http://www.quickforex.in/images/pdf/rbi-rule.pdf]
My experience in 2014 suggests that most hotels, including the budget ones, accept US Dollars. However, that could be changing now due to Iran’s stated political decision to gradually ditch the Dollar. Nevertheless, converting foreign currency to Iranian Rials should not be a problem. I converted the first batch of my forex at the Tehran international airport, more formally known as IKA (Imam Khomeini Airport). For my solo trip for ten days, I took with myself foreign exchange equivalent to eighty-five thousand Rupees. It is better to carry some buffer because once you are in Iran it would be difficult to access your money back home.
As per my understanding, flights to and from Iran in March tend to be more expensive due to Nowruz. I could manage a Mumbai-Tehran return ticket at around Rs. 28,000, booked at the Iran Air office in South Mumbai. If you are planning to fly from Delhi to Tehran, then I guess Iran-based ‘Mahan Air’ is an option. You might not be able to view Iran Air or Mahan Air flights in popular travel websites (like Makemytrip), again due to sanctions! It is advisable to directly call the airlines for enquiries. Besides, there are also other carriers, but they will most likely entail a stop-over. Remember, Tehran has two airports – IKA and Mehrabad; most international flights operate out of IKA.
I availed the visa on arrival facility at the Tehran airport. However, that was in 2014 and rules have subsequently changed; Indian passport holders are no longer eligible for visa on arrival. I regret I cannot provide much useful information on this crucial aspect of travel due to lack of experience with the new rules.
This is the first of a three part series on travel to Iran. The subsequent parts will focus on my experiences in Iran.