Traveling countries that others avoid.
Or, how it really is to visit Iran.
“Do you really want to travel to Iran, isn’t it dangerous there?” That was not necessarily the kind of “information” we had expected from a travel agent in Yerevan when we wanted to book a flight from there to Tehran. The question, however, contained the skepticism we encountered frequently before, during, and after our stay in Iran. We also felt some uncertainty when considering our plans. Although everything we heard from other Iran travelers was throughout positive, a substantial part of our Iranian image was shaped by the Western narrative of an Islamic terror-supporting regime. And yet we were convinced once again how valuable it is for us to travel to those countries that many tourists avoid.
“The visa machine is broken”
It already took quite some effort to enter Iran. Holding a bus ticket from Yerevan (Armenia) to Tabriz (Iran), we drove another time to the Iranian embassy in Yerevan to get our pre-applied visa stuck in our passport. “The visa machine is broken. Maybe it works again in 2 weeks.” That was just about everything the embassy staff told us. Now, for us that was far more unexpected than for the other frustrated travelers around us, who already came here for the last two weeks to get a visa – obviously without success. So, what next? Should we spend our time visiting the embassy every other day until the mysterious visa machine finally worked again? Or should we dare to jump on the already booked bus hoping to get a visa at the border (which was not possible according to the Foreign Office)? After intensive research and some back and forth and back and forth, we decided to get on a plane for the first time since we started our journey 2.5 months ago. After all, a flight to Tehran promised the prospect of a visa on arrival at the airport.
Still, we were nervous when we approached the visa desk at the Tehran airport after landing. We knew that we did not meet all official visa requirements as we had no proof for our departure from Iran (we did not even know when and from where we would leave again). One hour later, to our surprise, we both held an Iranian visa – yipeeh! Nothing was required but sufficient euro notes to pay for the visa and standard passport photos. Contrary to the information on various official websites, we neither needed Danie’s Hijab passport photos (a pity, actually 🙂 ), nor printouts from our health insurance, hotel reservation or departure tickets. No queues, no questions, just friendly faces. The gentleman at the counter first handed the visa to Ralf before he turned to Danie with a big smile: “For you… no visa!”
“You were ripped off!”
In order to buy a train ticket to the city center as well as a local SIM card, we first had to exchange some Euros to Iranian Rial (international Credit Cards are useless in Iran). We had checked the latest exchange rate in advance on the Internet: For 1 € we should get about 50,000 Rial. After the first bank did not want to change money for us, a private person offered to exchange our money for the official rate without fee. How nice, we thought – and should have been skeptical. Only 5 minutes later, the IranCell employee as well as the train ticket seller told us “you were ripped off, you should have gotten 15,000 for one Euro!” Huh!? We got 50,000, that’s a lot better, isn’t it? It took another several conversations before we fully understood how the currency works in Iran. There are two exchange rates: the official government rate for foreign trade (1€ ≙ 50,000 Rials) and the 3 times better “street rate” used by the Iranians within the country (1€ ≙ 150,000 Rials). The confusion got even worse due to the fact that Iranians say “15,000” when they mean “150,000” Rial. That’s because they speak in Toman (1 Toman ≙ 10 Rial). So, when we were told we could not accept less than 15,000, the Iranians meant 15,000 Toman, which is 150,000 Rials. Conclusion: Yes, a single guy “ripped us off” – but because WE asked for it and his government invited him to.
The first impression counts – or not
After only one night in Iran we were not sure how many more we want to spend here. The first impression was quite uncomfortable. First, the visa chaos and the uncertainty of whether we would even be allowed to enter the country. Second, the currency dilemma and the question of who we can trust when it comes to the “right” exchange rate. And, third, there was the official Iranian dress code, which bothered especially Danie: With headscarf and fully covered legs and arms she dragged herself through the oppressive heat of Tehran. The outdoor pool in our first hotel was of course forbidden for women, any outdoor sports unthinkable with a hijab. On our way through the city we reconsidered our situation. We had the choice: Did we want to hold on to our first impression and continue to feel uncomfortable? Or should we put our prejudices and skepticism aside and give ourselves and Iran a second chance? We recalled our situation in Johannesburg / South Africa six years ago. At that time, a bunch of revenue-driven taxi drivers jumped at us upon arrival at the airport. After they had rushed us apart, we had a hard time finding back to each other again. The shock impacted our confidence in the locals severely. However, less than four weeks later at the same airport, this initial skepticism was gone. In the meantime, we adored the loveable and trustworthy locals, and we knew how to deal with the taxi drivers. But above all, we learned how much our skeptical attitude influenced our own perception. Even though we had tried to free ourselves from prejudices, they made us perceive the unfamiliar behavior of the taxi drivers as threatening. Remembering these experiences, we decided now, six years later in Tehran, to drop our discomfort and start our trip to Iran anew. With success!
Why traveling to countries that others avoid?
In the following two weeks between Tehran and Shiraz, we were rewarded for this decision. Like other tourists, we were amazed how open, welcoming and honest the Iranians are. Their extraordinary hospitality made us perceive our own culture as distrustful, selfish and cold. But why is it that visiting less touristic countries often results in the most incredible travel experiences? For us, these are the five decisive factors:
- Few tourists. In Europe and Southeast Asia, you have to share the most beautiful spots with thousands of others; in these countries only with a few. No queues, fair prices, more room to enjoy.
- Welcoming locals. While the locals are being pushed out of town by the sheer number of tourists in Venice, the Iranians are constantly inviting them into their homes. Where there are only few tourists, locals still have plenty of curiosity for foreign visitors. Several times we were offered to spend the night with an Iranian family. During religious holidays, we were given free food when passing a mosque (rejecting this “gift of God” was considered to be very rude). And even the taxi driver who almost ran us over with his car, shouted out of his car with a smile “Welcome to Iran!” After all, the hospitality of the Iranians may also be attributed to their religion, the Islam.
- Safe traveling. There is only one extremely dangerous place in Iran: the road. We thought Georgia is bad, but Iran is worse. Even red traffic lights are pure decoration here. Besides that, the Iranians were eager to make us feel as safe as possible in their country. Only the slightest sign of a question mark in our faces prompted passengers to offer help immediately. Here, it is absolutely common to tell the cashier your credit card’s PIN number because there is not the slightest security concern. Even the Islamic dress code eventually resulted in a pleasant sense of adaptation to and respect for the Iranian culture.
- The good feeling when prejudices are unmasked. When we chatted with an Iranian about a possible desert tour, he suggested to first travel to his place where we would discuss the different tour options. As Central Europeans we don’t like to buy the pig in a poke but nevertheless, we traveled to Yosuf without prior agreement. We not only had an unforgettable tour to the desert, on top Yosuf also offered us to stay in his apartment for free, while his mother took care of our diet.
- Who expects little, is rarely disappointed. Prejudices are not necessarily bad. In countries that many prefer to avoid, expectations are often low. As a result, positive events have a much stronger effect.
“Outside of your comfort zone is where the magic happens” is a classic quote in motivational seminars. Our Iran experience once again encouraged us to travel countries that are beyond our comfort zone to expose our unconscious prejudices. We will probably be surprised each time anew. And that is good.
- Cash and Iranian Tourist Credit Card. Iran is not connected to the international payment system which is why our credit cards do not work. Tourists are forced to bring their travel budget cash into the country. For cashless payment we used the MahCard, an Iranian prepaid credit card. We charged the desired amount by PayPal (6% fee!) together with a MahCard employee in our hotel (charging cash would have been feeless). At the end of the trip, the money which is still on the card is transferred back to your account. Due to the high inflation, many accommodations as well as guides only accept Euros, hence it is best to carry Rial and Moreover, even during our two weeks in Iran the exchange rate dropped considerably why it was highly recommended to exchange only the required daily budget at once.
- Reserve accommodation by phone. Few hotels can be booked over the internet and only for an overrated price. We were advised to contact accommodation by phone and negotiate prices.
- Comparing exchange rates. The external (XE Currency) and internal (bonbast.com) exchange rates differed at least 3-fold.
- A journey in the spring. Iran is hot and dry towards the end of the summer. In spring, large parts of the country are gorgeously green and desert lakes still contain water – perfect for hiking!
- VPN tunnel. Many websites are blocked in Iran, which can be bypassed by a VPN client. Surfing with Iranian IP can cause some confusion, especially for ticket bookings: While it is 2018 in the Gregorian calendar, Iranians live according to the Persian calendar in 1397 (after migration of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina). The VPN client helps!
More travel tips? Visit our Iran blog post.