Iran Sojourn: Part III

I sincerely apologise to my readers and my dear friend who took time out to write about the beautiful journey through Iran. As promised, this is the third and final piece from my friend. Please read on and send in your queries and feedback, we would love to help you if we can 🙂

Here, I want to share some possibly useful tips from my 10-day experience in Iran.

 Iran: Some useful tips for travelers

 Language

I do not know Farsi and I was fine and faced no major hurdle. Nevertheless, I would recommend at least learning the Farsi numerals (they are written in the same way as in Arabic or Urdu), because often menu prices in restaurants or in other places are only written in the local language. It would be better if you can count one to ten in Farsi, especially when you haggle while hailing a cab. It should not be very difficult for Indians as the numbers sound very similar to Hindi. 

This brings us to the issue of managing currency, which can be a little bit difficult at first because of the confusion between ‘rials’ and ‘tomans’. Iranian currency is officially known as ‘Rials’ and currently (in May 2017) one US Dollar can buy more than 32,000 rials. One rial is equal to 10 tomans and most prices in shops are written in tomans rather than rials. However, in actual conversations and haggling, the last there zeroes of the tomans are often omitted. So when a cab driver quotes a fare of five tomans, he most likely means five thousand or ‘panjhazaartomans’.

 Commuting within the country

Although a railway network does exist, you need to book tickets well in advance. In hindsight I am glad I failed to get train tickets as it allowed me greater flexibility. Overnight buses appear to be a popular mode of long-distance travel within the country and the buses and terminals are quite clean and well-maintained. I found buses to be a cheap and comfortable mode of travel. An overnight journey from Isfahan to Shiraz, almost same as Mumbai to Ahmedabad in distance terms, cost me 18,500 tomans or Rs. 370, in a semi-sleeper 3-seats-in-a-row (2+1) bus.

 Airfares also seemed much cheaper than fares in India. I booked a flight from Shiraz to Tehran – equivalent to a Mumbai to Bangalore flight – which cost me only 128,000 tomans or around 2,500 Indian rupees, despite booking just one day in advance and that too in Nowruz season. 

Things to do in major cities

In Tehran, the entire stretch from old Bazaar to Golestan Palace to the National Museum would be a good starting point to acquaint yourself with the history of the country; the entire area is well connected to the Tehran metro network. Also, I would recommend a visit to the Milad Tower, which offers a good panoramic view of Tehran.

 Isfahan is a great heritage city and the entire Naqsh-a-Jehan square and the surrounding area should be part of your itinerary. Also, it is a nice place to buy traditional Iranian delicacies like ‘Gaz’ candy (you can also buy it from Tehran International Airport on your way back home). I would also recommend a visit to the Vank cathedral in Isfahan, which stands in testimony to Iran’s history of religious tolerance. If you are interested in history and would like to see and know more about the Armenian genocide, then Vank cathedral and the accompanying museum would be good investment of time.

 If you plan to visit Shiraz, I am sure that Persepolis, the ancient capital city which was attacked by Alexander, would be in your itinerary. However, bear in mind that the local name for Persepolis is ‘Takht-e-Jamshid’ and that is likely to be the only name by which taxi or bus operators identify that place.

 Finally, you should know that alcohol is banned in Iran (except for maybe some religious minorities). However, there are tea houses and places where you get hookah.

 Although there is little to worry, but please be on your guard

I have already discussed how easily I found help, often more than asked, whenever needed. I did not discern any tendency to fleece tourists. My hotel in Isfahan helped me with my onward bus and airline tickets and I have no reason to believe they tried to make any extra money. On one occasion, I had forgotten my mobile at a restaurant in Isfahan and got it back when I went there after about an hour. Nevertheless, I can recall atleast two instances where I suspect street vendors tried to fleece me. Also, I was never sure if I was paying the correct fare for taxi because there does not seem to be any concept of paying by metre. Thus, while there is no reason to be paranoid, it is better to be on your guard.

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Part 2: Random acts of kindness by people made my Iran trip a memorable one

When we come back from our trips, its not just the places we visited that makes our memories special, its the kind deeds of strangers, the people and the city’s culture which makes a trip truly magnificent. And somehow we always remember how strangers went out of their way to help us when we really needed it in a strange new land.

In this second series, my friend narrates the beautiful memories that he brought back home from Iran, not of just places but people who were generous and kind and who went out of their way to make his trip a splendid one.

Here it goes: 

The first thought that crosses ones mind when they hear about travelling to Iran is how safe is it anyway. Right?

Although the apprehensions are quite warranted given its neighbors – Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan which are not exactly the most peaceful or ‘stable’ countries in the world. However, what US President Jimmy Carter had to say about Iran in 1977 still holds true: “Iran is an island of stability in one of the most troubled area of the world”.

The amount of frisking and checking in public places in Iran was visibly lesser than in India, perhaps suggesting lower terrorism risk-perception. Especially, security at domestic airports or Tehran metro seemed relatively less stringent compared to India. Of course, security at the Tehran international airport was at par with major airports in India.

Iranian Hospitality:

This brings me to the random instances of kindness that made my trip a memorable one. I was invited by a guy I just met at Tehran airport to his home in north Iran (Gilan province), not very far away from the Caspian Sea. Although not in my itinerary, I kind of made a detour as I did not want to let go of the opportunity. Although you can call it risky, but the greed to see something more than what I had planned for made me bite the dust. Needless to say, I had a great stay,  the family went out of its way to make me feel at home and the elder sister of the extended family even took a day off from her bank job and drove us to the nearby attractions of Lahijan. The traditional food and the ride to the mountain area is still afresh in my memory.

Iran certainly is not like any dystopian Middle-Eastern patriarchy where women are barred to venture out of homes without male companions or not allowed to drive or work.  Also, interaction between members of opposite gender does not seem to be a taboo, as I can attest from my own experience. One of the many female students who worked as staff (or volunteers) in Isfahan’s tourist attractions was kind enough to take interest in my expedition and actually showed me around the city in evening after completing her shift. Isfahan is a great heritage city and there is a saying in Farsi: ‘Isfahan, nesf-e- jehan’ meaning that Isfahan is half the world.

Besides being very generous to tourists, people are generally very polite and extremely well-mannered. Just a small tip to travellers from India; when you hail a cab, sit in the front seat. That is what seemed to be the norm there.

It was common sight to find posters commemorating heroes (often martyrs) of the eight year-long Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) at any round about. The war, also referred to as the ‘Arab-Iran war’ by Iranians, started when Saddam Hussein attacked Iran just a few months after Iran’s 1979 revolution, trying to take advantage of the post-revolution turbulence in the country.

Reminders to the revolution and the eight-year war are a common sight, especially in the capital city Tehran,often in the form of large murals over buildings. The huge cemetery of the war martyrs, Behesht-e-Zahra or ‘Zahra’s Paradise’ in south Tehran, was quite busy when I visited on a Thursday afternoon in 2014, some twenty six years after the war. Apparently, it is tradition for families to picnic at the gravesite and also to distribute food/sweets/candy to other people/strangers nearby. The cemetery was dotted with countless photos / posters of young soldiers, presumably all martyrs. The cemetery gave me the vibe that the revolutionary fervour is still quite alive. Of course, drawing too much inference can be risky because of three reasons – one, a war memorial will always display greater zeal or fervour than the average population; secondly, the period I visited was just before Nowruz holiday and might have distorted the number of visitors and lastly, other people besides martyrs of the war are also buried there.

How safe is it for women?

Owing to my limited experience in Iran as a solo male traveller, I am not in a good position to comment on how safe Iran would be for a woman traveller and you are advised to check other online resources on this subject. It is indeed true that there is a mandatory dress code for women in public, i.e. the hijab, with covering of hair (often by a scarf) being an essential part. The most common attire for women, as I observed, was jeans plus coat or jacket plus scarf.

This is the second part on my 2014 trip to Iran. The first part had dealt with planning the trip. The next and final part will dwell on some practical advice for travellers. However, due to my work schedule for the coming week, I would be able to post about it only on the next Sunday, i.e. 14th May 2017.

 

The Persian Story: Solo Trip to Iran

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.

 Flight

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.

Visa

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.