A special travel experience
Besides Rwanda I do not think I have been in a country where the difference between the general perception of the state of affairs and the real reality of the journey has been greater than in Iran.
There are simply unbelievably so many prejudices that smoke when traveling around Iran. And even though I love to travel, it's still rare that I feel like I'm coming home as a better person after a trip. But this is how I felt in the spring after 9 intensive days, thanks to all the openness and hospitality that was constantly met.
How do you get to Iran?
I had arranged the trip myself with my old friend Jesper. We flew with Turkish Airlines directly into Isfahan, where we got VOA - Visa On Arrival. From there, we took the VIP bus to Yazd and ended up in Shiraz, where we flew home from via Istanbul.
The country with the friendliest population
Already in the flight queue in Istanbul on the way to Isfahan, we met an Iranian family with father, mother and daughter, who lived such a modern life with such modern values that most Danish families would appear provincial in comparison.
They were fluent in English, the mother was a PhD student in another city, and the father worked in an oil company down south and commuted regularly.
They were on their way home from a headscarf-free holiday in Madrid. And they offered to show us around the beautiful central square of Isfahan. They took us to the tea house and we were absolutely not allowed to pay for anything; they were just happy to be able to show their country as it really is - and speak English.
Unfortunately we ended up at the Morvarid Hotel, which is not going to win awards for cleanliness or noise reduction. However, it was well located just north of the square.
And Isfahan was a cool city to walk in with good wide sidewalks, lots of trees and the beautiful old bridge full of life. And they even had new bike paths! With cyclists on!
We kept getting greetings "Welcome to Isfahan" and "Where do you come from", wherever we went, without anyone trying to sell us anything - it was a bit wild. Even in the bazaar, one was not just a wandering purse, it was an incredibly pleasant surprise. A beautiful and very friendly city.
Yazd, the old caravan town
Yazd was an experience in itself. It is only 300 km away, but is of another world. The old caravan town with the crooked alleys, beautiful houses and fire temples was fiercely tourist friendly.
We ended up at a brand new hotel in a traditional house, Hotel Qanat. Here we were quickly adopted by the always present and servicing family, where both mother and daughter spoke excellent English, while father was more on pointing.
We were the first guests ever allowed to join the hotel's underground water system, called a qanat, which is the traditional water and cooling system in the desert city. It runs from the mountains and down through Yazd. The mother had not been down there before either, so the maiden voyage was celebrated with pictures and lots of smiles.
That the hotel owner, who was rarely seen, became greedy for money, and we had to insist on staying in our large bright room for the $ 40 we had negotiated it for, is another matter. However, one is not traveled for nothing, so we stayed where we were for three nights. Remember to visit the Towers of Silence and the Desert. 12 points to Yazd.
Surprises in Shiraz
We ended up in Shiraz, 450 km southwest. At first glance, it was a bit of a busy mess compared to where we came from. There were lots of sights, but our eyes were only really opened when my travel companion got in touch with a couple of locals who were siblings of one of his acquaintances.
The acquaintance had, in the best Iranian spirit, immediately insisted on giving my travel companion the contact details of his family in Shiraz. We met with the family for a cup of tea at a tea house.
Then it went hand in hand with them showing us the city, again insisting that we should not pay anything ourselves. We did get that changed though, as entrees and food despite the low price level after all ran up in some money.
Shiraz, Iran's most liberal city
The locals are very proud that Shiraz is perhaps the most liberal city in Iran. The women show more hair than the headscarf, and they have a vibrant cultural life with theater, opera and music on the streets. And then they have some very impressive mosques that you may well visit.
They were proud that their city is a modern city. Here you drive a car, are out in the evening, and many take a long education. And even though there was not exactly equality, there was something that smelled like that. We even saw a waiter with a headscarf in the shape of the American flag!
We got a blurry snapshot taken of her, which she discovered and smiled at before she went outside and smoked a cigarette. Hats off to rebels in a clerical regime.
Persepolis, the ancient world empire
One of the highlights of Shiraz is an hour’s drive outside the city with beautiful Persepolis. Near it lies Necropolis, which was decidedly impressive if one is into that sort of thing.
Persepolis is considered the capital of the first world empire that stretched from present-day India across Iran to the Balkans. There were built centralized, cohesive societies until Alexander came and smashed it in 330 BC. You can watch a short video from Persepolis here.
We also took in the Eram Garden and to the significant Hafez Tomb the night before sunset. It's like a local, cozy folk party with a picnic included, and you instinctively feel included in the party. Incidentally, the food is really good in Iran. It is spicy without being violent, and then you can even get a beer with the food… yes, yes, it was so alcohol-free, but it tasted good.
A more open and free Iran
If one was in doubt about how seriously the locals are working for a more open and free Iran, then at least one was not after experiencing some of the major streets in the evening in Shiraz. There was an election campaign right when we were there.
Although the supply of candidates is very limited, they said that they could easily feel the difference in everyday life, whether it was the reform-minded Rouhani who is sitting there now, or it was the tighter Raisi from Mashhad, which is perhaps Iran's most religious and conservative city. .
There were lots of mostly younger people standing with election posters shouting and singing and smiling while reminding people to vote. Democratic spirit in its purest form, although the electoral system itself can hardly be given the same designation.
Rouhani won comfortably, and he promised to continue the reforms and open up to the world. It was a different - and very positive - travel experience in the middle of a Trump era.
When should you leave?
April is definitely high season with clear, dry weather. As we approached Easter, there were several tourists in Yazd who did not look as if they could find a place to stay in the old town. Booking is therefore important around there.
We booked by mail, because the big booking sites do not work in Iran. Once we also got the hotel to book a hotel for us in the next town.
We got unproblematic Visa On Arrival in Isfahan. Just remember the patience, 75 euros, a printed hotel booking and a piece of paper from your travel insurance company describing in English that you have a travel insurance that covers Iran.
Turkish Airlines flies directly to quite a few cities in Iran from Istanbul. Consider an Open Jaw ticket - into one city and out of another - to avoid wasted time. Only downside is the flight times, which in both our cases were at night.
Remember the cash
Iran is cash only, so remember USDs in large and small banknotes. They can be exchanged in many places, but you get the best rate at the exchange offices. We ended up spending $ 900 a day including flights, which was clearly the most expensive part.
It is quite cheap to eat out, and hotels are available from 30 USD per person. night for a twin room. If you can find cheap flights, it can easily be a reasonable trip.
It only cost $ 9 to get from town to town in fine VIP buses that ran on time along good roads. There are also train routes, but it did not fit into our schedule. Unfortunately, because I like to travel by train. Those I know who have done it in Iran have been positive about it, although it may well take a little longer than by bus.
So herewith my warmest recommendations for Iran as a travel country. Finally, remember to talk to the locals and say yes when they invite you to tea and tours. You will not regret it in one of the most hospitable countries I have ever been to.
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