Saturday, November 08, 2014

Iran – Travel in the Misunderstood Country

“Are you not afraid of being caught in a bomb attack?”

Sometime before my trip to Iran I casually asked a friend if he was interested in tagging along and received this immediate, half-joking response. Not an encouraging one as you can see, but in one short reply he summed up the public perception towards the country.

First of all, all the bombings that you may have heard about almost certainly took place in Iraq, which despite being Iran’s neighbour could not have been more different historically, culturally and in terms of political stability. Iran has been a peaceful country since the Iran-Iraq War in 1980s, and visiting the country is no different than visiting any other places that you may have in your agenda.

Why Iran?

Concern about the bombings aside, the average response I received when people learnt about my trip is why Iran, with the tone ranging from curiosity to bafflement. Admittedly, as exemplified by the above narration involving my friend, Iran is a country the rest of the world knows little about and certainly not on average travellers’ top destination list. What little we gather is normally not the rosiest of pictures, which is understandable because chances are the only brush with the country we have is through Ben Affleck’s Argo or the daily news propaganda fed by the Western media. Driven by the country’s mystic and personal quest for a unique travel experience, I did some research and soon realized that there are ordinary people behind the news headline, a red carpet into the country calling for travellers to make a beeline.  Instantaneously an interest began to form, the question of ‘Why Iran?’ changed to ‘Why not Iran?’ and I made up my mind that this is a place I just had to see to believe.

School girls in Tehran. No, they don't get bombed on the way to school.

So why not Iran? This is a country with civilization spanning thousands of years & boasting the great Persian Empire that at its height stretched from present Greece to India. The history & culture alone are a great selling point to any outsiders. In modern times, the Western economic sanctions imposed on the country shield the population from external influences and give birth to self-sustainable generations. The Islamic republic in short is a microcosm of a cruel social experiment; put 80 million people in a glass house, away from Western contacts and see whether they make or break. Fast-forward 30+ years later and you get Iran as it stands today; drenched from the experience but yet proud to be still standing.

Still not sold? Thanks to the good bilateral relationship between Iran & our country, Malaysians enjoy free visa-on-arrival for stay less than 15 days (visitors from most foreign countries on the other hand would have to fork out EUR 50-90 for the same visa). In addition, your trip does not have to cost a fortune; daily expenses including food, transport & hotel are generally on par with what you pay in KL.  

Itinerary – Where & How

It’s important to first and foremost reset our mind and recognize that Iran, despite the seemingly conservative population and decades of Western sanctions are in fact a modern country with admirable amenities especially that concern foreign travellers. Tehran, for example is a concoction of progressive and unprejudiced society (where ladies inner wear are sold in the open at the bazaar, for instance) with excellent metro network.

As with any other countries, you have the option of DIY or going with city/inter-city tours arranged by travel agencies. I chose the former, partly because I found the option doable from my research and also to save a bit of money.

A normal tourist route involves a trek along the southern part of the country, covering cities of Tehran, Kashan, Isfahan, Yazd and Shiraz. Tehran is the capital and Iran’s largest city, followed by Mashhad which is located north-east, near to neighbouring Turkmenistan but out of the way of the abovementioned route. Kashan and Yazd are small desert towns, traditionally the stopovers between Tehran-Isfahan and Isfahan-Shiraz respectively though they boast their own unique signatures and attractions. If you’re short of time, you may want to skip Kashan and Yazd and focus on the big three – Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz.

All these cities are well-connected locally and regionally via land transports and international airports. Being the republic’s capital, Tehran is naturally a modern city with bustling traffic and great energy. The fast-paced lifestyle, epitomized by the throng of locals at the bazaar engaged in what seemed like an endless bout of speed walking can be pretty overwhelming – you would either grow to love it or you would want to pack your bag immediately and leave the city (which was what I did). Thankfully, Isfahan and its picturesque attractions offer a refreshing sight.  Amongst the three, Isfahan is perhaps the gem and certainly my favourite – their star attraction of Naqsh-e Jahan Square combined with glitzy bazaar and friendly people are not to be missed. Lastly, Shiraz prides herself as the birthplace of famous Persian poets and is also a short drive away from the historical Persepolis and Necropolis, important landmarks of the former Persian Empire.

Imam Mosque at Naqsh-e Jahan Square, Shiraz

Depending on where you choose to stay, most main attractions in the city are concentrated within good walking distance but if they are a little out of the way, taxi does not charge astronomical rates. For inter-city travels, the most popular mode of transport is the VIP bus, which is economical despite the name. Bus tickets can be reserved through travel agents or if you’re willing to take the risk, head to the bus stations and purchase the tickets for immediate departure as the routes are served by multiple bus companies with excellent frequency. When heading to any destinations on a bus or taxi, it might be a good idea to have them written in Farsi as not everybody can read the Roman alphabets or speak English (though many do).

A little note on currency and prices – the official currency of Iran is Iranian Rial and at the time of writing, 100,000 Rials give you roughly RM10. However because of historical link and the large currency unit, Iranians often express goods and prices in Toman in daily transactions where 1 Toman = 10 Rial. This became a major source of confusion for me in the first few days in the country and if you find yourself in Iran one day, it is best to check with the traders whether the price they quote is in Toman or Rial. For budgeting reference, a comfy single room at a decent 3-star hotel would set you at 800,000-1,000,000 Rials (that’s RM80-100) per night, a meal of rice or kebab and drinks costs around 100,000 Rials and a 15-20 mins taxi ride costs 100,000-150,000 Rials. In addition, Tehran metro only costs 5,000 Rials per ride while inter-city bus travel is pretty affordable at 150,000-200,000 Rials.  

Anti-US Government, iPhone-Loving People?

The hostility between Iran and the Western states can be traced back to the revolution and hostage crisis of 1979, but despite the fierce rhetoric from government heads, here’s an interesting opinion poll results – Iranians are second only to Israelis in a list of Middle Eastern countries most supportive of the US. Now, that is not to say holding favourable opinions of the Westerners are strictly positive traits, but it’s important to recognize that behind the layer of government there are ordinary people who lead normal lives as global moderates. It is fascinating to note that among the interesting characters I encountered during my trip include young Iranians who are passionate defenders of iPhones in Apple vs. Samsung row, listened to Hotel California on the radio and honest citizens who are well informed of failures of the government in performing their roles.

Prior to my trip, one thing I found all travellers to Iran on travel forums can agree upon is that Iranians are one of the friendliest, if not the friendliest people in the world. When you travel at an unfamiliar place, a random hello from a stranger or an invite to their house after a mere 5 minutes’ chat may set an alarm, but in Iran it is a common occurrence and you could just feel the genuine welcome the locals afford to newly-made foreign friends. During my travel in Tehran, a group of school girls at Bam-e Tehran shyly said hello and tried to converse with me using what little English words they could gather before asking me to take their pictures.  Over at Isfahan, I lost count the number of times I got stopped for a little chat with the locals before being invited to their shops or houses for chai while walking around Naqsh-e Jahan Square. Perhaps it is the rarity of encounters with outsiders that bar Iranians from prejudice and make them naive, or perhaps we are the ones naïve to think that distrust for strangers is a norm but whichever it was, the authenticity of their approach was certainly the highlight of my trip. It is not my place to say this but with the ongoing nuclear peace agreement between Iran and the Western world, the rightful lifting of sanction is just a matter of time, and if and when that happens, I hope the influx of outside world will not change the people because they are the country’s soul, their biggest unique asset.

So Long, Persia

I spent 9 days in Iran, covering Tehran, Isfahan, Yazd and Shiraz where I also made a short trip to Persepolis and Necropolis. In between Tehran and Isfahan, I had an unplanned detour to Mashhad where only the kindness of a stranger saved me from getting into further trouble and farther away from my original destinations.

Colourful interior of Nasir Al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz

If you’re planning to go to Iran, be cautioned that travel information can be hard to come by but travel forums and blogs are reliable resources. Moreover, I found Wikitravel to come pretty handy too, offering concise travel information and hotel recommendation.

Will I go back to Iran? A resounding yes to Isfahan, and I would also like to explore a bit more of Shiraz but I’ll probably give Tehran a skip because I simply could not stand the noise and traffic (though I have strangely grown fond of their skilful taxi drivers). But don’t take my word for it; with Iran, more than any other places you simply have got to see it to appreciate their hidden beauty.

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