What I learned from travelling in Iran
So from travelling in Iran for two weeks from the north to south, through cities and villages and into the desert I would think that I have a good idea of what you should expect when visiting. It may surprise some who only listen to western news stations that Iran is really nice and really friendly! My guess is that if you are reading this you probably already knew that but here are my thoughts on what to expect in Iran.
Learned from travelling in Iran – People are so friendly
One thing that struck me about arriving in Iran was how everybody was so friendly. I thought this might not last but it did and it didn’t matter what city we were in. People go out of their way just to be nice. From people in hotels whom you expect to be friendly as you are giving them money to people collecting tolls on the motorway. Several times we arrived at toll booths and when they saw we were foreigners asked us where we are from and then ‘Welcome to Iran’ while waving us on. This happened in the north near Tabriz, in the middle – Isfahan and in the desert – Yadz. I can only presume they didn’t talk to each other! If you ask for directions on the street don’t be surprised to be stuck talking to someone for 10minutes and have several other members of the community join in to ask you how you are getting on and if you like Iran. Then without wanting anything they all leave after inviting you to their house for dinner.
Learned from travelling in Iran – Plastic surgery
Of all things that surprised me in Iran this was only second after the friendliness. Plastic Surgery is EVERYWHERE. And the Iranians really like to show it off. It is like a status symbol to have a bandage over your nose. In the western world if you have surgery you take a few weeks off (apparently) and pretend nothing happened but every day we saw women (it was always women) with bandages on their noses or puffed up cheeks or lips. There were waitresses working in hotels, eating in restaurants, sightseeing, you name it, they had bandages on their noses. And when we got wise to this you take note of the noses with no bandages and realise that holy Moses she had plastic surgery too! The reconstructed nose of choice seems to be a triangle one. Or what it reminded me of was Michael Jackson’s nose in the late 90’s. Not that appealing but it definitely looked better on the Iranians.
Learned from travelling in Iran – Selfies are everywhere
My God are they everywhere. And selfie sticks. I was nearly tempted to buy a stick myself when they were only $2. No matter where you are people are taking selfies. Even when people want photos of you (get used to that) and you have a willing 3rd person they STILL want a selfie. The photo won’t be as good but it’s like the selfie itself is the aim and not really who is in it. From not being under a rock for the last few years and looking at Facebook I know this is like a spreading virus. And from being previously in Turkey, Armenia etc this selfie craze is not just an Iran thing but I suppose is just how most of the younger folk take photos these days. They definitely know how to pose.
A strange point on this, women almost always want a photo with the female and males with the males. I don’t know if the women are more fascinated with foreign women or if the culture wins out and disallows males with an unknown female.
Learned from travelling in Iran – Iran is very safe
Unlike what the media might make you think Iran is actually very safe. The Middle East is not the most peaceful place these days but come to think of it either are a lot of cities in France or Germany. Iran on the other hand has an unbelievably relaxed and inclusive atmosphere. This again was a surprise for me. At no stage at any time did I feel like we shouldn’t be here or that something bad might happen. We walked around cities at night, we went into all sorts of shops, restaurants and cafes, talked to all sorts of people but at no time did we feel threatened. In most places, even side streets, there are people around so you are almost never alone. Of course I am not suggesting going around at 2am with a big camera around your neck and hundred dollar bills hanging from your pocket! The usual competence applies!
Once in Yadz which is full of narrow laneways we were walking down a back alleyway after looking for some café at night when I did think it probably wasn’t the ideal place to be as we were on our own and it was quite. A group of people came around the corner and after passing them out one shouts back ‘Mister’, ‘Mister’. We turned around and all they wanted was photos and selfies! A good 20 photos later we were back on our way.
Learned from travelling in Iran – Women are everywhere
Muslim countries and especially Middle Eastern countries have reputations (rightly or wrongly and let’s not get into it here) for treating women as second class citizens. Despite what you have heard about the Islamic state of Iran women are not all dressed up like black chess pawns waddling around the place. Covering your shoulders and hair for a woman is a must by law so there is no getting away from that. Men are semi obliged to wear trousers and not shorts and that is more of a cultural thing. Most women and girls wear jeans and a long sleeved top with a brightly covered head scarf over their hair but still leaving a good half of their hair on show. Faces are not covered. There is a minority who do wear the black burka with a hijab (face uncovered) and a fairly rare sight is the niqab (only eyes on show).
To my surprise it seemed that most people on the streets, in the shops and in bazaars were women and all had pink, blue, green headscarf’s on with dyed blonde hair. They are definitely not confined to the house and under the thumb of the husband. Also there is a lot of women in work. In the customs offices when we were trying to dispose of our vehicle in Iran there were maybe 25-30% of the workers women in the two offices. One of the three managers in one office was a woman. I am not saying this is equality or like western countries but only that it is probably a lot more liberated than you originally thought and certainly not like Saudi Arabia.
Learned from travelling in Iran – Driving is Easy
I have driven in a lot of countries around the world both developed and under developed (14 on this trip alone) and I must dispel the myth that Iran is dangerous to drive in. From reading a guide book or two I thought that we would have a crash at least twice a week unless we snuck out at 3am or that the jams were so bad we should skip the cities altogether. Neither is the case. The driving culture is a little different for sure but people even when driving are very polite and there is an eerie silence as nobody is beeping! Drifting slowly from one lane to another without indicators is common but everybody does it and they all let each other in. In Ireland for the same manoeuvre you could have a serious road rage incident.
Firstly all the roads are good. Very few potholes even when driving in the mountains or desert. Driving on the motorways is extremely safe. There are fixed speed cameras approx. every 20km but these are easy enough to spot coming but on top of these there are police with tripods. On one occasion I passed 4 of these in 50km. And got pulled over twice! One policeman couldn’t find paper and so wrote my speed in pen on his bonnet! Speed limit is 120km/hr and I was doing 130km/hr. This is in the desert where 160km/hr might be acceptable.
Secondly the traffic in the cities is not that bad. I drove in rush hour traffic and although heavy wasn’t actually the worst and is twice as bad in little old Dublin, Ireland. Tehran is by far the biggest city and has a good traffic network. The main roads have no junctions (with bridges, tunnels) and any traffic really starts once you get off these.
On the whole, if you are even contemplating driving in Iran then it means you should have no problems.
Learned from travelling in Iran – People want to practice their English
You may be sitting down having coffee keeping your business to yourself when you will hear an ‘Excuse me’ and hence commences a 10min conversation about how you like Iran and what you do in your home country. A student is practicing English. As I mentioned at the top Iranians are very friendly and very polite so they have no problem with you asking them questions as well. Normally these are students or teenagers and girls are more likely to talk to a fellow female. In the few times this happened to us their English was very good and we had no problem talking to them for ten minutes despite one never having spoken to a native English speaker before. One of the students was so excited with her English and bravery that she kept coming back with a separate friend in tow every ten minutes.
Learned from travelling in Iran – Accommodation is expensive in Iran
Of all the surprises Iran gave us the only downer was the cost of accommodation in Iran. As the usual websites don’t have any dealings with Iran it was hard to know in advance. But just be wary of varying prices and varying quality. There didn’t seem to be much of a correlation between price and quality. There are some very high quality hotels where you could pay $250-300 per night and of course they are good and then there are the lower end where you pay $30-40 and they are dives. There were very few middle standard hotels where I would think most people would want to stay. Some places we stayed were really nice for $70 and others cost $100 but were of a much lower quality. We found that for a double room in a 3 star hotel the price was about $100 per night. Waay more than we expected.
Learned from travelling in Iran – There is lots of colour
From being in the Middle East before I expected sandy brown and black to dominate the colours of the clothes and buildings but this wasn’t the case. Whether it was the women’s headscarf’s or the mosques everything in Iran had some colour. The mosques were blue and yellow or pink and green, the headscarfs were blue, pink and mango. Even the carpets seemed to have extra colours. One place that didn’t have colours was the desert and mountains in between the cities. This was definitely only one monotonous colour – light brown.
Learned from travelling in Iran – There is no hassle from shop vendors
Unlike South East Asia where the vendors don’t take no for an answer in Iran they leave you to your own devices. In Asia even though you are on bracelet street and saying no to bracelets three times from one shop doesn’t have any effect on the vendor next door who asks you the same annoying questions. Not so in Iran. In Iran it is very polite and unless you look at items or touch them they won’t bother you. It makes window shopping a peaceful experience.