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Travelling in the Islamic Republic

An eyewitness report from 12-28th Oct 2000.
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Four of my friends, two girls and two boys, and I decided that Iran would be and interesting destination for our next holiday. The target was to travel with our rucksack and use public transportation to get around. Due to the weather the trip was postponed to October instead of august. This gave us a reduction of the temperature of 10-15 degrees Celsius, weather close to at good Danish summer. We had all kind of not so positive pictures of everyday life in Iran before we went, blended with horror stories about the Custom clearance: But you can read more about that below.

Airline tickets, we flew with Lufthansa to Frankfurt and then to Tehran and we flew with Austrian Airlines via Vienna back to Copenhagen. I must say that I was a bit disappointed with LH, sitting in the rear of the A340 there was almost one hour between the food was served and beverage coming. Flying to Frankfurt can not be recommended right now, since there's huge air congestion and your fight will almost certainly be delayed. We almost lost our connecting flight due to this.
On the itinerary it was stated that you should reconfirm you tickets at least 72 hours before departure. We couldn't do it since the Austrian Airlines phone number was impossible to get. So if you are keen on reconfirming your tickets, contact the Airline bureau in the airport when you arrive and get the right number. We did not have to pay any extra airport tax upon departure.

As mentioned above, we had our fears about this instance. But to tell the truth there wasn't the slightest problem neither on arrival nor on departure. We have had several discussions before we left for Tehran. Could I bring a sealed first aid kit with syringes and needles, would this result in a complete body search and taking the luggage apart into atoms in the search for drugs? Since we brought a Video 8 camera, what about the broken seals of the cassettes, maybe the recordings will be subject to thorough investigation? What about the tourist book about Denmark I brought as a gift, there might be a small picture of women flesh other than faces and fingers (Danish beaches, you know)!
Since we just where waved through with the question "Where are you from?" we did found out if the items we carried with us could have been subject too investigation. Well home again, then seen in the mirror I don't think there any reason to worry, offcource you shouldn't bring material which are a direct provocation, like pork meat, Salman Rushdie books and magazines with uncovered women.

Already before our departure we had several contacts in Iran, and some of them even offered a place to sleep. We had accepted an offer from Leila; we could rent an apartment in the Northern of Tehran for the first days. This was a very good start for us; it was a great intermediate between our normal levels of comfort and the standards in Iran. During our stay we visited several families and homes and this is definitely the most memorial parts of the trip. We had prepared ourselves a little of this overwhelming hospitality by bringing different gifts from Denmark, so we could return a token of appreciation. The gifts doesn't have to be from you home country, nice things from the Bazaar can do it.

How are you - do you speak English?
The hospitality starts already on the street, where you will above mentioned so many times, that you at a certain time of your travel decide you only speak Russian! But before this time, just relax and answer their questions, all they what is to use their small English vocabulary. Sometimes some smartass carpet dealers bump into you and waste you time with Smalltalk that's only gonna convince you to go and buy in his fathers carpet shop - you will learn to spot those on 100 meters distance.

Does and don'ts
Clothes for men and women. It's not required that men wear jackets and matching pants as certain embassies sugest. Men can wear any kind of cloths, just that the pants are long and the top isn't a tanktop. If you will visit mosques, wear long sleeves or a shirt. Women have to wear a scarf as a minimum, covering their hair and their neck. But if they want to reduce hostile touches to a minimum a more conservative dressed are needed. Agnete and Laila choose a mantur instead of the more complicated chador; the mantur is a long black coat.
Restricted areas, there are warnings about Bam on different Foreign Office's homepages. Since we didn't go there I can't say for certain how things are, but all everybody we asked about this denied any possible problems in that region. If we have had more time I would definitely have gone there. You should still stay away from the Pakistan and Iraq borders.
Passport, some hotels want's to keep your passport, we denied that and gave them a photocopy instead. You can safely keep you passport at the hotel manager or in the hotel save - nobody can demand to see your passport, not even police, just keep some other identity paper on you an refer to the hotel you stay at. We was stopped in roadblock without our passport, we gave them just the name of the hotel and our names - no problems.
Money, bring American dollars, your will get the best exchange rate for new 100$ bills, less for old and smaller bills. The different are something like 10 or 20 rials per dollar. In the period we visited the country the exchange rate was 800-815 tomans per dollar. A toman are 10 rials. You will get a big bundle of 10.000 rials. If you change on the street, be careful in counting the bills; there will most likely miss one or two notes.

Night train, even though everybody we knew laughed at us, when we said that we wanted to take the night train to Esfahan from Tehran. But it wasn't offcource not that bad an experience. The sleeping wagon was an Old Spanish one, and the rooms were rather small. We have bought 6 beds, so we had the cabin all for our selves. The price was all in all 11$. You will need a sleeping heart or a quarter of a sleeping pill to get a good night, but then you also wake up fresh in Esfahan. The madras's was a bit smelly, but there was clean bed lined.
Buses, in Lonely planet there are mentioned luxus buses and superdelux buses. When we asked for the super version, the ticket man replied, this is not America… There are only aircon and super on a few destinations. Getting tickets, was easy, just go to the bus station, there are many private bus companies offering different departure times. It's unfortunately impossible to evaluate the quality of the buses before departure - but they seemed quit similar. We took the following trips by bus: Esfahan - Yazd and Yazd - Shiraz. The first trip was five hours and the last the unbearable length of seven hours.
Aeroplane, this is cheap an offcource fast, we flew Shiraz - Tehran with Iran Air, this cost 140.000 Rials per person. It's good at nice aeroplanes, so not hassle there; other companies may have Russian planes.. ups.
Taxis are everywhere, most of them are unmarked, and are private persons earning some extra, so just bargain about the price before you get in. The price varies a lot, depending on you bargain skills, you can get a descent trip for 2-5000 Rials and airport trip normally costs 10-20kRials.

Places to stay
Except from the days where we stayed in private homes, we stayed at decent hotels. There are a dual pricing system in Iran, foreigners will normally be charged a price similar to hotels in southern Europe, which is very unsatisfying. We meet a Danish man, born in Iran, he was staying at hotel Omar (five stars) in Shiraz for 140.000 rials per night for a double room, will we probably would have been charged 100$. But it's also this price difference you shall use while bargaining, but if you can't get a good price, the just pack you stuff an move towards the exit, then the price will drop..
Esfahan, Aria 20 $ per double room.
Yazd, Aria 12$ per double room (on shower and toilet on the room).
Shiraz, Sasan 16$ per double room.

Travel Diary:

12 October We arrived in Tehran and meet Leila. We were installed in her friend's apartment.

13 October Since we didn't get to bed before 03:30 we got a late start on the day. We wanted to visit the Friday prayer at Tehran University. Leila isn't a very religious girl, so she was not so happy about our request, but wanted to follow the wishes of her guests. We must have looked like tourist on a safari, that has waited a week to see a lion and finally get one in visual contact. Five westerns dressed tourist, cameras sticking out and a cowboy hat on top, in the middle of an ocean of black sheets. Man they weren't happy about that, off course we where angrily told to leave. How unprofessional of us. Right after this we went to a park in the northern part of the city, which is made on the slope of a mountain. There where a relaxed atmosphere, men and where walking hand in hand. Already in this early phase of the trip we found out that the Persian was an outmost friendly people. Walking around the park, we shook hands with several and random people yelling, "I love you". This was the to very opposite experience we got on 2 hours of our stay in Tehran. In the park we joined with a burger house and by pointing to the other tables, we managed to order 5 cheeseburgers and some orange stuff to drink. We returned to our apartment. When the hunger was wakening us up, we went to the nearest restaurant. It soon became clear that there was something different with this place. Not only did the soup taste of sheep wool, the pieces of meat in the soup could be identified either. But when the main disk arrived, everything became clear. It was sheep brain and sheep tongue… Ups.

14 October It was Saturday and we wanted to visit the Bazaar. On the way to the bazaar, we found out that our chauffeur had lived in Sweden for almost 13 years. Soon we taxi was full of Scandinavian languages. We will especial remember Claus's superb swe-nish, we where crying of laughter. Mehdi became our regular driver. Mehdi helped us with changing our dollars to a good rate. The problem was more that we had to count 162 lousy 10.000 rials. And off course we where missing on note. We split in a boy and a girl group. And on a three-hour trip we went through kilometres of bazaar, crawling with people and busy wagons. After that visit we went to the former American embassy. The Espionage museum wasn't open, so we strolled down the street with all the anti American slogans written on the wall. By coincident we discovered the martyr museum, further down the street. This was a wonderful experience. There was off cource all the official attitude of a regime museum and the stories told were heartbreaking. But the guide was a very wise man. We got a thorough tour and answers to all our questions. Laila came with our train tickets, for our next destination. We where invited on a walk in the mountains. On the way back we stopped and tried a bier with 0% alcohol. Well calling it a bier would be going to far. It was a malt beverage and where close to a waste of money.

15 October It was a rainy day, so it where obvious that we should visit some museums. We where kind of slow starters, definitely because of the bad weather. We decided to start with a grand tour in the Bookshop Street. Mehdi took us there; actually he dropped the taxi driving and went with us. We visited at least 10 bookshops and Claus did as usual buy a huge stack of book's this time primarily about Islam, books that isn't available in western countries. Mehdi found a good place to eat. And we went right away to the National museum of Iran. There where many interesting item on show, but there where only a few texts in English. The items where placed out of context and to be honest, it was bloody boring. The Islam museum was next door and we had tickets for that too. Contrary it was a much bigger building, but not more interesting. The day this country get more seculized, the to museums will change buildings!
At the evening we left for the train station. Leila had in several not so positive terms told us her view of the night train. But they weren't true. The train left exact at 22:50 and the compartments where similar to European night trains. I fact it was an Old Spanish train.

16 October At 8:00 we arrived in Esfahan, not completely "udsovet", but sharp enough to catch a taxi to the Aria hotel. We could get two rooms, one for the girls and one for the boys. After a small rest and a shower we went to see the famous city. Esfahan is known for its wonderful mosques and Emam Khomeini Square, which is one of the biggest in the world. The Square are absolute magnificent. Too the south Masjed-e Emam's are shining in the sun. In the inside of buildings on the square the bazaar are allocated. A palace and a small mosque also and some quality to the square. Today the girls had to find themselves a more traditional woman dress. We went together with them. Our "English teacher" helped us finding an appropriate mantur. Our "English teacher" showed us the most marvellous teahouse, in the northern end of the square. With a seat on the roof, we enjoyed a water pipe and tea. Gustav, Claus and I tried to send and email from a small carpet shop. Claiming to be an Internet cafe! Only Claus, who had a hotmail account, had success in sending. We rested our selves until 20 o'clock. We went to Saleh restaurant, where we got chicken and some pizza, for a total price of 60.000 rials. Under the Bridge Pol-é Si o Se, which view we had enjoyed during our meal, had a great teahouse. This place was only assessable from the riverbed!

17 October After breakfast, we had a meeting to make an outline of the rest of our trip. We decide to go for Yazd on Thursday by bus. Gustav and I were chosen to get us some bus tickets. We had an older Esfahan tourist map. On that map the bus station was in walking distance, but unfortunate that wasn't the truth anymore. We took a cab. At the bus station there where many private companies offering trips to Yazd, we just found the most appropriate departure time and took that bus company. It was impossible to make any other judgement, souge as quality of the bus etc. Back in the bazaar, we got our selves a nice sandwich with a coke at the same joint as yesterday, 2500 Rials. While we where waiting for the Mosque to open after prayer. Gustav and I went to send another email at the "café". Masjed-e Emam was fantastic, an unbelievable collection of mosaic pieces. We meet Steven from London, and we took him with us to dinner a water pipe later that evening. In the Mosque we did also establish contact with two architect students, Abi and Reza. They invited us on a tour in the university the next day 2 o'clock. Gustav and I went to the street from our hotel, to find a mailbox. For the first time, we where approached by to Iranian girls. We asked if the yellow thing where the right place to dump our letters. Even though they had an unbelievable bad English they wanted to help us. They where very pretty and we soon felt that we had the total attention of all male Iranian guys on the street, it wasn't to comphstable, so we did soon abandon.

18 October We went to the Masjed-e Jäme in the northern part of Esfahan. Personal I liked this mosque more than the Emam. It wasn't quiet so big, but I thought it was a better architect and artist decorated it. We weren't tired of the bazaar yet so we walked through it back to the Emam Square. We bought tree water pipes on way. We had lunch on a western look alike eating joint - Camel pizza bar. At 2 o'clock we meet Reza at the palace, we where allowed access to the university bye showing one of our student cards. It was an art university, there where approximately 700 students. After at brief tour everybody came to talk with us. That lasted for more than 2 hours and we couldn't almost get away. They gave Claus a picture that he particular had fancied. After this Agnete, Laila and I went to see the women's mosques. This was also a marvellous view, it was completely closed, there was only a small window. Also here the mosaic's was fantastic. Reza had invited us to the movies in the evening. We should see "the colour of God" an Iranian movie, which had received prizes in Europe. The special thing about this wasn't the movie it selves, it was more the loose attitude, boys meeting girls, girls wearing lots of makeup. In the movie, boys and girls could sit together in the dark a sparkling fantasy. The movie was good, but it was all in Farsi - so a bit difficult at certain times. The movie projector and the audio were so bad. But what the hell, boys touches girl..

19. October this was day that we are going to Yazd, it's a busride on 5 hours. We used the time before noon in Esfahan. Claus and I were first out in the town looking for a special horn. The special sound from the horn are impossible to describe on text, but the horn was only mounted on the busses, so we needed a special store. We didn't find it.

Usefull links:

Pierres independent Iran travel description

Ayse & Jan's Travelspot
Den Kongelige danske ambassade i Teheran

Updated the
8th July 2003