On January 12th, Steve and I embarked on a journey through the magnificent country of Iran. For 18 days, we travelled around the country, exploring new places every day and getting to know and understand the unique Iranian culture. We travelled for 5.700 km, explored 7 cities, visited many tiny villages, ticked off 9 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and discovered some of the most amazing places that Iran has to offer.
We had a beautiful day of exploration in Kashan, fell in love with the red village of Abyaneh, were amazed by the view at the Towers of Silence in Yazd, climbed dilapidated mudbrick buildings in Kharanaq, explored the ancient citadel in Bam, spent a day roadtripping through the spectacular Qeshm Island, saw the most beautiful stained windows in a mosque in Shiraz, visited Persepolis and other important sites of Ancient Persia, enjoyed some cold days in wintery Tabriz and spent an entire day exploring and talking to locals in the troglodyte village of Kandovan.
Of course, not everything about the trip was fun! We didn’t enjoy the smoggy city of Tehran very much, felt disappointed with the overhyped city of Esfahan, got stuck on a bus for 19 hours in the middle of the highway on the way to Shiraz, and had another bus break down on the way to the airport on the last day. On top of those mishaps, I often felt as though Iran didn’t live up to my expectations. I had heard so much good about Iran, and believe me when I say that I did enjoy most of it, but for some reason, I just wasn’t as into Iran as I thought I would be! Iran is a hard country to compare with others, but the most “similar” countries that I’ve visited are Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and Iran just didn’t come anywhere near those three.
That being said, it doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy Iran. Because I truly did – I loved the magnificent architecture, the spectacular nature, the interesting culture, the hospitable people and the millions of cats! There are a lot of things that I LOVED about Iran, but unforunately, it hasn’t ended up on my top 10 list of countries. Maybe someday, I’ll change my mind, which is what happened with Tajikistan (I initially thought that I didn’t enjoy Tajikistan, but in hindsight, it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life). But all in all, our days spent in Iran were full of great times that are now beautiful and cherished memories.
The hijab-wearing nation
Iran was, just as I expected, a completely different world than what I’m used to, but the culture shock wasn’t as big as I had expected though. I knew before going that all women have to wear the hijab (including tourists), but I was surprised to see how “western” a lot of the Iranian women dress.
In Tehran, women dress quite liberally, some with their scarves halfway to their necks, so the front hair was showing. In Esfahan, I even saw a woman with all of her hair out and with a scarf covering just the top of her head, so basically everything was visible. The more south we got though, the more conservative the women’s dress got. In Yazd for example, I almost only ever saw women dressed in black niqabs, completely covered from top to bottom with only the face showing, and on Qeshm Island, a completely different dress took over with women wearing colourful dresses and the traditional Boregheh ‘beak’ masks.
I was also surprised by the fact that when we went on tours, the guides would often tell me when it was okay to remove my scarf and have my hair loose! It was a relief whenever I could, as I must admit that it can get annoying and really hot to wear! It seemed like they didn’t agree with the hijab policy of the country and it made me wonder just how many are actually against it.
It’s interesting to compare Iranian women to hijab-wearing Muslim women in the west. Where many Iranian women wear their hijab showing half of their hair, I have never seen this in the west – a hijab in the west always covers all of the hair. The difference is, as well, that it’s a free choice in the west (apart from some countries where it’s illegal to wear), whereas in Iran, you have to wear it even if you’re not Muslim or don’t believe in covering yourself up.
Another interesting thing about Iran, is the strict division of men and women. In the metros, there is a “women only” section, where men are not allowed no matter how full the other sections are, but women don’t have to sit in there. This often resulted in us being cramped in with 1000 other men, as I didn’t like the idea of being separated (how would I ever find him again!?). In the busses, however, women HAVE to sit in the back and men in the front.
The surprisingly good standard of living!
In many ways, Iran was a positive surprise. First of all, the standards of living were much better than in other “similar” countries that I’ve visited. We saw almost no beggars on the streets, most people were dressed in modern clothing and the cities – for the most part – lived up to western standards. I don’t know why I expected standards similar to the Gorno-Badakhshan region in Tajikistan, at least in the smaller villages, but Iran was nowhere near that.
Oh, and the VIP busses were AWESOME – just look at this one below!
Ooops, I don’t know ‘weather’ or not I packed smart
The weather in Iran also surprised me – a lot! When I did my research for Iran, I also checked the weather to see which clothes to take, and based on only Tehran weather (stupid, I know), I brought mostly winter clothes. That turned out to be completely unnecessary, because the further south we got, the warmer it got! On Qeshm Island, which was the southernmost place that we went to, it got to 28 degrees! It was only in Tehran and Tabriz that I needed warm clothing! Hopefully I’ve learnt from my mistake, and the next time I visit a country the size of Jupiter, I’ll check the weather for all the points of the compass.
Cats, cats, cats!
Another – awesome – surprise was the amount of cats that are EVERYWHERE in Iran! I looooove cats, so I was in heaven constantly for 18 days! Surprisingly, we didn’t see many dogs about – actually, the first one that we saw was in the village of Shahdad, seven days into our journey!
The crazy traffic of Iran
Although Iran surprised me with a lot of good things, there were also some bad surprises that I could’ve lived without.
One of these is the traffic. Traffic in Iran is NUTS and probably the worst I’ve ever experienced. If you want to cross the road in Iran? Risk your life – the cars do not stop! If you want to drive anywhere? Risk your life. It’s a fact that Iran has one of the highest rates of road accidents in the world, and that traffic accidents are the third leading cause of death in the country. I can’t even begin to explain how relieved I was when we were dropped off at the airport on our last day – we had survived 18 days on the road in Iran. After reading about the statistics, it seems like a miracle.
Entrance fees for everything
Another really annoying thing about Iran is the overpriced entrance fees on almost everything! I can understand there being a cost for awesome sights like Persepolis and Bam, but for gardens and normal mosques? That was a big annoyance for me in all of Iran, especially because it made it near impossible to travel on a budget as the entrance fees are quite pricy, and what’s the point in going to Iran and not seeing anything?
The incredible Iranian hospitality
A few things may have annoyed me during our travels in Iran, but the incredibly nice people of Iran definitely made up for it! We’ve been invited in to homes, been given gifts, received free food and drink, and one girl even paid for our taxi. Everywhere we went, we were met by friendly faces, and many would shout “welcome to Iran!” at us, as we walked by. They seem to really enjoy seeing tourists in their beautiful country, and we were often asked to take pictures with them as well!
The perfect end to the trip
Our 18 days in Iran were over, and it was time for me to head back to Denmark and for Steve to head to Italy. But of course, the fun didn’t end there. While we were at the airport in Tehran, waiting for our flights, a police guy came over to us and took Steve away! He was “arrested” for playing cards with me….
In my Lonely Planet book from 2001, it actually says that playing cards is illegal in Iran, but we never ever thought that it would still be the case in 2017! Talk about being outdated! Thankfully, we both found the whole ordeal really funny, and nothing actually happened to Steve – although our playing cards have seen better days.
My favourites after 18 days in Iran
Regions visited: 3/5
Cities visited: 7
Kilometres travelled: 5.700
UNESCO sites visited: 9
Favourite city: Tabriz
Favourite village: Abyaneh
Favourite food: Warm Iranian flatbread – it’s so good!
Favourite mosque: Nasir al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz
Favourite cultural heritage site: Kharanaq
Favourite natural site: Namakdan Salt Caves on Qeshm Island
Favourite UNESCO site: Persepolis
For 18 days, Steve and I spent almost every daylight hour exploring something new and exciting. We saw so much in so little time, and I’m surprised how we managed to fit it all in. From our original plan, the only thing that we missed out on, was the city of Shush. There are still so many places to see and explore in Iran, such as Mashhad, Garmeh, Kish Island and all the other UNESCO sites just to name a few. I’m sure that I will be back in Iran to tick those places off someday.
After not backpacking since August, it was good to be on the road again, but I’d also forgotten a lot of the challenges that come with it. We had a few mishaps along the way, but I mostly remember Iran for all the good times.
So, most of January was spent in the magnificent country of Iran – what a way to start the travel year of 2017! I’ve got many more travel plans and ideas for 2017, and during the next six weeks, I’ll set foot in two new countries (Romania and Albania) and one old favourite (my beloved Faroe Islands). I hope you’ll continue to follow my adventures around the world!
Click HERE to read all of my posts from our trip to Iran <3