Travels in Iran
I have no words to begin to describe my unforgettable journey to Iran.
It is a country which surprised me in so many ways and which I would highly recommend you visit before it gets too touristy.
I would love to share all of my experiences in Iran with you. Very good ones and a few bad ones. I know most of us have prejudices when we think of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Indeed most of it comes from antagonistic media depiction saying how dangerous Iran is. It presents such a bad image that many people would never put this country on their travel bucket list.
Let me introduce to you a country rich in history, glorious architecture, mouth-watering food and some of the most welcoming locals on planet Earth.
Brief History of Iran
I know many of you might not be interested in history, so if this is you, you can skip this part. Iran has such a rich history that I just can’t deliberately omit it.
Throughout much of its history, Iran’s original name was the Great Persian Empire. Cyrus the Great founded the Achaemenid Empire which ruled from 550 to 330 BC. Then Alexander the Great conquered, and after his death the Hellenistic period started. The next empire was the Sassanian, which ruled for over 400 years.
The 7th century was influenced by Islam. The Arabs conquered Iran, then the Turks, and later the Mongols. The Mongols destroyed many cities – and killed most of the population while brutally ravaging and devastating the empire.
In the late 16th century, Shah Abbas I the Great became king of the Safavid Empire. Led by the Shah the empire reached its status as a major world power. In the early 18th century, a very weakened Safavid Empire was overthrown and the next dynasty, Qajar, was established. During WWI, Iran remained neutral.
In 1921, a man called Reza Khan seized power and brought tremendous modernization to Iran, but was resented by devout Muslims. In 1951, the Iranian parliament nationalized the oil industry, since British forces had invaded Iran to ensure oil supplies. The Iranian Revolution started in 1979 and Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was forced into exile.
The extremely conservative Islamic leader Ayatollah Khomeini (I have never felt such dislike and animosity towards a politician in my life as I have for this man) seized power in 1979. Iran became an Islamic Republic and is guided by Islamic principles to this day.
In November that year, Islamic militants took 52 US citizens hostage inside the US embassy in Tehran for 444 days which went down in history as the Iran hostage crisis.
From 1980 until 1988, the Iran-Iraq war cost hundreds of thousands of innocent people’s lives. Later, in the middle of the 90s, the US imposed oil and trade sanctions over Iran. In the following years and into the 21st century, Iran resumed uranium enrichment, which kept media and Western countries alert. Meanwhile, the Iranian government continued to insist it was pro-peaceful under the presidency of ultra conservative Ahmadinejad (in office 2005-2013).
Mass Protests in Iran
Mass protests are currently going on due to economic grievances. When I arrived in December 2019, fuel price had increased threefold as few months ago earlier.
For Iranians, who seem to think they have an inherent right to cheap fuel, this alone is sufficient reason to prompt mass protests nationwide. Over 100 people have been beaten to death since the crackdown. At the same time, the EU looks away. In my opinion, the EU is facilitating Iran’s conservative government which is causing lots of problems in the Middle East. People in Lebanon and Iran go on mass protests because of this government.
Because of the historical conflicts mentioned above, this is a very difficult section to write about. Due to the invasions of several ethnic groups in the past, Iranian cuisine is as rich and complex as its history.
Typical Iranian main dishes are combinations of rice, meat or nuts. And plenty of vegetables. Often, pomegranates, quinces, apricots and raisins are used in their cuisine. Not to forget saffron – incidentally, Iran is first place in the world production of saffron.
You would be insane to turn down a sumptuous dinner offered by your Persian friends or hosts. Don’t be afraid, jump at the opportunity and you won’t regret it.
I will try to list few of their famous dishes, some of which I highly recommend you try. The best dish I tried is Khoresht-e Fesenjun. It is an iconic stew served with chicken or lamb. I personally eat it without meat, I only eat the sauce. The sauce combines ground walnuts and pomegranate syrup. I could literally bathe in this sauce.
Polo means rice, and Zereshk polo is rice with barberries. Generally saffron tinged rice is put on top.
More Dishes To Try
For meat lovers, kebabs are easy to find in every corner of the country. From lamb, beef to chicken kebab and even lamb liver kebab (called jigar), there is more variety than one would expect.
Tahchin, an Iranian rice cake, was another favourite dish of mine. Usually it is filled with yogurt, saffron and chicken fillet. But you can also fill it with just vegetables. It is very crispy on the top which is the reason I like it.
Abgoosht is another famous Persian dish, originally a poor man’s dish. All the ingredients, like chickpeas, lamb, beans and tomato puree, are put in one pot and cooked very slowly.
Iran has too many desserts to list. You will often find saffron or rose water in many of the sweets. My favourite sweet is faloodeh. Kind of ice cream noodles dipped in rosewater syrup. Best known in Shiraz. I know it sounds strange, but just give it a try.
Tehran – Capital of Iran
I get a fairly good first impression of Tehran the night I arrive, and this is confirmed the next day as I stroll through the city. I am amazed that nobody makes silly comments. The city is pretty quiet for a capital. Many travelers don’t linger longer than a day in Tehran, but I would recommend spending a few days there to get to know the culture and people better.
The best way is to visit some sights during the day like the Golestan Palace or the National Jewel Museum. Then during breaks you can sit in one of the tea or coffee shops and talk to locals. From this, I learned how many people hate their conservative government and how tired they are that Iran has such an infamous reputation.
On top of that, I meet many Iranians who are atheists and who blasphemously complain about religion that I almost can’t believe my ears. In shock, I start to think if I am merely lucky to meet only liberal people, or if this country is more liberal in general than one would reckon.
This is a huge surprise to many travelers. I just love strolling through the streets and parks of Tehran. But be aware, the air pollution is not for the faint-hearted. Sometimes it gets so bad that they close schools to prevent children from inhaling toxic fumes. Besides crazy traffic and air pollution, in my opinion it is worth staying longer in order to get in touch with young artists and their work.
If you need a guide for Iran or Tehran please contact this amazing woman. Who might be the best tour guide in Iran.
Maryam Yarmohamadi (Whatsapp: +989126392968/ Email: firstname.lastname@example.org / iranhi.wordpress.com)
How About Hitchhiking
I think often about hitchhiking; it doesn’t really matter which country I am in. I always seek new challenges when I travel. For some people travel might be a fun leisure thing they do once or twice per year. But for me it has been my life for the past five years. A life I have chosen for myself and all the challenges which come with it.
The buses in Iran are very comfortable and you can get from A to B easily with public transportation. A bus ticket from Tehran to Kashan might only cost 3 US-dollars. So why hitchhike? I mean buses are so convenient. You don’t have to consider putting yourself in any danger. Later I will say more about it, but first, Kashan.
Kashan is a pretty and cozy town, the best way to explore (again, like anywhere else in Iran) is to walk around aimlessly. The city has a mountainous area and desert area.
It is maybe more known to travelers the Maranjab Desert and Caravanserai located near the salt lake. Even though it has many touristy sites, somehow the tourist sector remains undeveloped.
Internationally, the town is famous for manufacturing high-quality carpets and textiles. There are many architectural sights to visit; almost all of the highlights are within walking distance. Places to visit include: Bazaar, Abbasi House, Fin Garden, Tabatabaei House and Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse (most entrance fees cost between 200.000 and 500.000 rials).
Knockers – Who Is Knocking On My Door?
Keep an eye out for the doors. They have almost imperceptible details which truly complete your Iranian trip. I am talking about the door knockers. Different knockers for different guests – or should I say different knockers for different genders. On each door there is a sturdy and thick knocker for men. And next to it a slender and dainty knocker for their female counterparts. Therefore, people inside can decide who’s going to open the door and what they can wear to welcome their guest.
Hitchhiking in Iran
Now we are getting to the part I mentioned above.
I want to tell you my experience and then you can judge. Therefore, I want to keep my whole account of Iran objective and neutral.
I go to the bus station of Kashan, only to find out that the bus I want to take will leave in three hours and therefore arrive in Isfahan at two in the morning. So spontaneously I decide to… hitchhike. I have hitchhiked on all the continents and in countries where it is more challenging than in Iran, so here I want to give it a try again.
I would say that in Iran, if you look like a foreigner, I can assure – you won’t wait more than a minute. Seriously, almost everyone stops when I stand by the roadside. Most of them are also taxi drivers; just make sure you get into a private car.
Anyway, I don’t have a hard time stopping a car which will bring me out of town to another hitchhiking stop. The man who picks me up is considerate, hence his taking me to a better spot, only the communication is horrible. Without Google Translate he does not understand me. Waiting at the toll, he talks to a truck driver who is willing to take me to Isfahan.
Before I forget, do NOT use your thumb to hitchhike in Iran – in Persian culture it is equivalent to the stinky middle finger.
This truck driver seems to be nice. As soon as I get into the truck and we try to talk he touches my legs. Inwardly, I am panicking and my mind imagines all the bad scenarios which could happen. I said “STOP and NO” in a very strong and confident tone. He rudely counters with a “yes”. So, I stop talking to him. A few minutes later, he tries to pick up the conversation again, ignoring what happened only a few minutes ago.
I try to have a serious but clear talk. He screws everything when he shows me a picture of his member on his phone. And at that moment I feel like vomiting. What kind of situation have I got into? I start to be mad at myself, but calm down within a few seconds. In a serious tone I reply to him that, I sent my mother the plate number before I got into the truck.
Fortunately, he stops somewhere on the highway to Isfahan and I hitchhike further.
But, my hitchhiking experience in Iran continues in an unlucky way.
Before I get into this private car, I try to make it clear that I want to hitchhike and won’t pay anything. In order to make it even clearer, I call Sara (my Iranian friend of 10 years) to be the translator. She tries to tell the driver that I want to hitchhike. Somehow it is all a mess. The twist of the whole plot is: he is a taxi driver and wants me to pay 25 US-dollars as soon as I arrive in Isfahan. Feeling cheated, I don’t want to pay. We get into a “fight” which is not really a fight but the outcome of a whole misunderstanding and miscommunication.
At the end a friend from Tehran, Maryam, intervenes and help me via a phone call with the driver. He apologizes and gives me back the money. What a hell of a ride and hitchhiking challenge.
After this trip I don’t attempt another hitchhike in Iran.
I failed this time but it is definitely not the last time I hitchhike.
I know you might be outraged by my hitchhiking experience in Iran. But please consider it could happen anywhere. There are good and bad people everywhere in this world. I am still thankful for bad experiences in life; if not for them, I would never cherish the good ones. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And I know that it could happen anywhere. By the way I don’t have fond memories of hitchhiking in France or Bulgaria. But splendid hitchhiking trips in Mexico, Taiwan and Patagonia. Decide for yourself and please trust and use your common sense, as usual, wherever you travel to.
Money in Iran
It might be a little bit tricky on your first day to understand the money system in Iran. The rial is Iran’s official currency. There are bills of up to one million rials. Usually all prices are quoted in rials when written, but in speech they are quoted in toman. Toman is an unofficial currency used by Iranian people in daily transactions. It might be confusing at first. But actually, it is very easy to convert. Each toman equals 10 rials.
IMPORTANT – Due to sanctions, you need to bring all your money in cash with you and exchange in the country. You can’t withdraw money with your credit card. So bring enough cash with you and extra for emergencies.
Isfahan – Half of the world
After the horrible hitchhiking trip, Isfahan feels like the final safe harbour for me. According to a Persian saying, “Esfahan nesf-e jahan”, or Isfahan is half the world. During the Safavid dynasty under Shah Abbas the Great, Isfahan is the capital of the empire. To this day, the city is resplendent with magnificent mosques, rich bazaars and picturesque classical Persian gardens. You might expect to visit the city for a few days but ending up staying a whole week.
Tourist Attractions of Isfahan
In my opinion, Isfahan is the best architectural city of Iran. As you wander all the corners of Naqsh-e-Jahan Square and visit the Shah mosque, you can not stop help being astonished. Naqsh-e-Jahan Square, also known as Imam Square, is a great example of the Safavid empire’s architectural peak.
There are more great attractions that flank the square and are a must-visit: Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Ali Qapu Palace, Shah Mosque and the Qeysarie Gate, the main portal to the bazaar. Close to Naqsh-e-Jahan Square is Chehel Sotoun Palace, which was built by Shah Abbas II as a site for entertainment and for receiving important guests.
The art decorations in and around the palace depicting half naked woman or homosexuality on its walls are what you may way too promiscuous consider for Iranian tastes.
Another astonishing attraction is the Jameh Mosque. The mosque underwent gradual changes throughout different dynasties, hence the different styles in parts of the mosque.
Bridges and Beryani
There are few bridges to visit. One of which is named Siosepol. The unique two-storey Siosepol has 33 arches which you can sit under and walk through. The other bridge you must stop by is the two-storey Khaju Bridge- at its centre there’s a pavilion for the king.
Besides sipping tea in teahouses, shopping at the bazaar and dining in traditional restaurants, you might consider seeking out the traditional dish of Isfahan called beryani. Minced lamb wrapped in soft bread – a very heavy meal.
Far away from the city centre there is an Armenian quarter, known as Jolfa, which offers a glimpse of the country’s beautiful diversity. Walking in this neighbourhood you can visit chic and quaint coffee shops.
I stayed in a wonderful hostel in Isfahan and met so many young entrepreneurs who had just started their own business recently. A website which helps travelers navigate more easily around Middle East, with booking for accommodation or tours. Also, I made my first Iranian friend in Isfahan who speaks Chinese (even though I don’t). We spent few days together, and I can really say he became a good friend of mine.
If you ever need a guide for Isfahan, who knows a lot about history and architecture – Don’t hesitate to contact my friend Amin (Instagram: amin.nasrii).
One more thing; Iranians really know how to poke fun at themselves. As such, there are quite common clichés about their own people. For example, Shirazis are known for being lazy and fun-loving people, whereas Isfahanis are so stingy they would risk everything just to save a toman.
Yazd – Enter the World of Cyclists
I only remember walking around in the historic neighborhoods and relaxing in the parks of this oasis city. I think Yazd is best explored when you lose yourself in the maze of its centre while eating fresh oven-baked bread.
Or just chilling in cafes and chatting with some locals. Walking around and eating as much as you can.
At least that’s what I did. You can also hike the beautiful mountains and enjoy a spectacular view. Or you can rent a bike and get yourself into a chaotic adventure experiencing the Iranian traffic, which I enjoy very much.
I have to admit that for a long time I haven’t met so many interesting travelers all in one spot like in Iran. I guess you must be a little bit crazy, extremely adventurous or very open-minded to travel Iran. But I guess people are usually a mix of all those characteristic traits.
I meet many cyclists on this trip who are cycling from Europe (many Germans from Germany) to Beijing. Now I feel super inspired by many of them and just want to write down that I am thankful to have met them. Also I consider those encounters among the biggest highlights of my trip. Thanks for giving me more inspirations; life is a never-ending learning process. Yazd is a beautiful place to meet wonderful souls.
Shiraz – Home of the Poets
I am sure that many travelers favourite city is Shiraz. Many people visit Shiraz because of the ancient ruins of Persepolis and Pasargadae.
I stayed with the loveliest and funniest Iranian couple who run the Friendly Hostel in Shiraz, where I had so much fun. They will welcome you into their life as soon as you enter the hostel, which is basically their flat with three rooms.
Shiraz is well-known to be the city of poets like Hafez and Saadi. Combined with 2500 years of architecture, it is the perfect recipe for one of the most popular destinations in Iran.
Places to see in and around Shiraz
The Nasir-al-Mulk or the Pink Mosque, is an astonishing piece of architecture. The famous picture you often see from Shiraz shows sunbeams breaking into the prayer room of this mosque. I love the pink tiles that adorn the walls and the peaceful atmosphere, especially in the afternoon.
The remnants of the mighty Persian empire’s Persepolis are one hour away by car. King Darius the Great used the residence for ceremonious festivities, showcasing the wealth of power of the Persian empire. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
After the devastating conquest of Alexander the Great, the reliefs and imposing gates are still impressive to see. To make the most out of your visit and to not miss anything, you need a guide! The knowledge and stories behind the reliefs are worth knowing. I can recommend Reza (WhatsApp: +989035437680 Email: email@example.com or FB:facebook.com/persepolistouristguide).
You won’t have trouble finding things to do in Shiraz. Wander the gardens, get lost in the Vakil Bazaar or just visit Shah-e-Cheragh Shrine, a famous pilgrimage center.
One of the best attractions in Shiraz is the historic Persian garden called Eram. This garden is part of the Shiraz Botanical Garden and is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Tomb of Hafez
The tomb of Hafez is my favourite tourist attraction in Shiraz and is surrounded by beautiful trees, flowers and paths. Hafez mainly wrote about love, faith, wine and criticized the politicians and rulers of his time. Shirazis are very proud that Hafez and Saadi were each one of them.
Don’t Say “No” To An Invitation
The best food in Iran is when it’s home-cooked. In the weeks you travel Iran, you get numerous dinner invitations. It is considered polite to turn them down the first time, but if they insist just say “yes”. This will be one of your best memories of Iran. If there were a contest for the friendliest people in the world, Iranians would definitely make it to the finals.
Be aware that people are very curious about your opinion on Iran. Every time you will hear the same question: “What do you think about Iran?”.
Try to be honest, but don’t be rude. Most of the time I told them that I really enjoy and love traveling Iran, which was the truth in my case. For me, the best experience in Iran were the dinners I had with locals or with foreign travelers. Cheers!
Tarof – The Iranian Art of Etiquette
There is one cultural phenomenon which you will encounter when interacting with Iranians. It is tarof, the Iranian art of etiquette. If you handle it incorrectly, you end up upsetting Iranians and being marked as extremely rude.
Tarof is like a salsa dance of words, which means often you have to fight over the bill at a restaurant or turn away an offer for dinner. Being German, I would describe myself as very upfront. Therefore, if someone invited me to eat dinner at their home in Iran, I would happily accept the offer but this is not the Iranian way.
This is precisely where the Iranian etiquette of tarof, or how you should behave, comes in. In Iran, you always begin with a friendly “no” to any offers from your host. The offer is made and refused back and forth a few times until the food or tea is served to you. In all cases it doesn’t matter how many times you say “no, thank you”, you will never be left without a few snacks and a cup of tea.
Another way in which you encounter tarof is in any type of customer service. A common phrase you will hear, for example from taxi drivers, is “ghabeleh shoma ra nadareh”, meaning “it’s nothing”. And even if it sounds overly friendly, this does not mean you should not pay. Remember it is their etiquette of politeness. It just comes off as greedy in Iran if you ask for money up front.
When Iranians want to go on holiday, they think about Kish Island. Travelers rather avoid Kish, since it is like a cheaper and smaller version of Dubai. After plunging into lots of history and architecture in Iran, I decided to immerse myself a little in the nature of the Persian Gulf on Qeshm Island.
I stayed in Qeshm Hostel and our friend and hostel owner Mostafa organized all the tours around the island. Since this small island is not overrun with tourists yet, you can still experience authentic ecotourism.
Located in the Strait of Hormuz, Qeshm is the largest island in Iran and a free trade zone, with a great abundance of wildlife. Many of the unique geological formations around the island are listed as UNESCO Heritage sites. Are you interested in salt caves? One of the longest salt caves on Planet Earth is Namakdan Salt Cave located on that island.
Stars Valley is where you can find the geological formations the island is famous for and a place to walk around the canyons and narrow valleys. The canyon walls are even more impressive around sunset.
Try to visit Laft, a centuries-old traditional fishing village. It is the place which has the most preserved Persian Gulf culture. You won’t see any women walking around as the village is quite conservative.
I hope I could have given you an insight of my precious travels in Iran. Before you judge, you should go there yourself and make your own opinion about the country and its people. Traveling is one of the best ways to leave your comfort zone and to enrich your body and soul. Especially when a destination like Iran will surprise you in many positive ways. Your greatest memory of Iran will most likely be its people, who are endlessly welcoming towards foreigners. It’s all these experiences that will live longest in your memories.
Spending some days in Baku, Azerbaijan
After Iran, I traveled to Baku, Azerbaijan and stayed there for a while.
I can’t say much about Azerbaijan. Even though I spent all my time with Azerbaijanis, it is difficult to even acknowledge their culture or traditions. All my friends who have been to Azerbaijan told me the best way to understand their culture is to leave the capital and experience warm and genuine hospitality outside of Baku.
Azerbaijan’s capital Baku is the architectural city you want to visit when it comes to modern architecture. Outside of the city center, you can’t avoid the Soviet influenced prefabricated high-rise buildings. But the city centre couldn’t be more different, having similarities to any other Western European capital. The city show cast the perfect blend of East meets West, where traditions meet modernity.
The old city called İçəri Şəhər, is built within a fortress wall. Including the Palace of the Shirvanshas and Maiden Tower, they are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since the second oil boom in 2006, the city is dotted with architectural jaw-dropping masterpieces.
I spent most of my time in Baku in some bars and having endless talks about different topics with very liberal and open-minded locals and friends.
Christmas in Taipei
In my last blog post I wrote that I spent two months of this year in Taiwan. I also wanted to come back to Taiwan for Christmas and New Year’s Eve. I was longing to spend some quality time with my friends in this beautiful country, particularly friends I have not seen in a long time. This year I had the honour to see and hug them again – for example Sally, my long-time friend whom I value incredibly and who moved to Taipei in September. Therefore, I am thankful to be able to spend Christmas Day with her.
I did some running on Christmas in an almost unbearably hot and humid 25 degrees. And on this celebrate a big festive day; all I wanted was to spend contemplative time with people I admire and love. I am very grateful to spend these days and surround myself with great and inspiring people.