“Ah for fuck sake! Why don’t you just go to Syria altogether?” That was my mother’s reaction when I mentioned to her I was planning to travel to Iran. Such is the way that Iran has been portrayed in the mainstream media over the past decade, even the mention of it’s name conjures up vague associations of war, nuclear weapons and George Bush’s infamous ‘Axis of Evil’ proclamation. My mother, though uninformed in her overblown hysteria, was convinced her only son was going to be travelling to a war zone full of terrorists, kidnapped and would never be seen again.
I’ll be honest- my main reason for visiting somewhere so off the beaten track as Iran was the price. It was approaching Christmas and I knew I needed a trip to look forward to in order to get me through January. I looked on Skyscanner for the cheapest country in Asia for that month and bagged return tickets from London for £140 – a steal! But like my mother I knew very little about the country, except that the UK.gov travel advice suggested it was perfectly safe to visit, and it seemed to have a very low cost of living. Other than that, I had no idea what to expect.
Iran has a long history going back to before the Persian empire and the country’s history and culture are inescapable. Tea drinking is everywhere, neck ties aren’t and Iranians are proudly Persian – don’t make the mistake of calling them Arabs. During our ten day trip, we visited three of the main cities – Tehran, Esfahan and Shiraz, each very different. Tehran was as bustling and polluted as one would expect from a city of15 million people, though having come from London where people are so famously stand offish, I was shocked by how friendly it’s people were. Built at the foot of a mountain range, the peaks that were the backdrop to the city were stunning, when they ever made an appearance through the smog. Though Esfahan was the second largest city in Iran, it felt infinitely smaller. Dotted with UNESCO World Heritage mosques and squares, it was breathtakingly beautiful and life moved at a much slower pace. Shiraz was smaller and quieter still and though not as immediately captivating as Esfahan, its proximity to the ancient Persian ruins of Persepolis more than made up for it. Ten days meant we only got a taste of each place and it felt as soon we got to know a city we were on the move again. Having a full two weeks would have made the trip much more comfortable, especially given travelling to each new city involved a 6-8 hour bus journey.
Given our tight pockets cutting costs was one of our main objectives while trying to not compromise on experiencing the country. For a backpacker looking to travel on the cheap Iran was a dream – once we got there the cost of living was tiny. We had brought £800 with us to the country just to be safe; cash points in the country won’t accept foreign bank cards. We ended going home with nearly £500 of that after 10 days. Most sit down meals cost about £5, a five-hour bus journey across the country cost just over £5, we treated ourselves and upgraded to VIP for £8. The trip could have been even cheaper if we limited the number of sit down meals we had. Accommodation worked out at about £30 on average per night for two in quite comfortable guest houses. Again, this could be done a lot cheaper if needed and for those on a budget, there was an established couch surfing network.
However, Iran did so much more than meet my expectation of a cheap place to visit with centuries of history and culture. I’d like to think I’m quite well travelled at this stage but nothing prepared me for the kindness of the Iranians. Having nearly had my trust in people robbed by touts during a recent visit to Marrakesh, I was initially cautious when random Iranians first approached us to offer help in the Tehran metro. However, I cannot understate how the Iranians restored my faith in humanity. I have still never experienced the same kindness and welcome that we were shown. Strangers invited us home with them for tea, a lady whose seat we mistakenly sat on in a bus spent the day showing us around Shiraz, we passed a whole afternoon and night having tea and then dinner with an older couple. Others bent over backwards to help us out when we were hopelessly lost, or offered us a bed in their home after just meeting us. And these were only a few of the many acts of kindness we were shown.
Nearly all the Iranians we spoke to were very much clued into global affairs and were motivated by a genuine curiosity about us. We were asked so many times “But why did you come to Iran?” that I lost count. People were eager to know what we thought of their country and to make sure we enjoyed it. These encounters left us with a constant warm fuzzy feeling that I’ve never felt to the same level anywhere else.
Like anywhere, there are other sides to Iran. The hijab is compulsory and all women (Iranians and visitors) must wear it at all times in public. I understand for many people this might be a deal breaker. While it’s easy for me to say as a guy, I think it’s something you have to accept from the start if you’re going to fully enjoy your trip. This was how my girlfriend felt, but even then after a week of constantly having to adjust her head scarf she was getting frustrated.
Iran is also not the place to head to party; alcohol is completely illegal. Being a twenty-something year old living in London, where most of my social life seems to involve alcohol, I felt this would be something I’d struggle most with. However once everyone else in the room isn’t drinking you quickly realised how little you miss it, and in the end, it didn’t cross my mind that much. Having said that, we were assured by some of the friends we met that if we wanted a drink it could very easily be found – one friend even produced a hip flask of whiskey from his pocket to show exactly how easy!
Iran is a country that challenges preconceptions. While our visit completely disproved my mother’s view of Iran as being a dangerous international aggressor, it also far surpassed my expectation of only a cheap trip for January. Iran was its people, and the warm fuzzy feeling the Iranians impart in you will live on long after your trip finishes. So go, now – just leave your pre-conceptions at the door.
Éanna O’hAnrachtaigh, Travel Writer