Iran: A Breathtaking Travel Destination
"You're going where?" my boss asked incredulously. "Don't you know how unsafe Iran is? You've gone suicidal!" She said the last sentence hysterically, throwing her arms up wildly in the air, as though I were a madwoman clearly incapable of being reasoned with. I smiled placatingly in response, explaining with modesty that based on all my research, Iran was indeed safe—even for American women—and that nothing anyone could say would stop me from fulfilling my deeply-felt desire to experience this most exotic, misunderstood corner of the world.
Telling friends and family about my travel plans yielded similar responses: my conservative father reacted reticently, shaking his head uncertainly; my closest friends thinly concealed their bafflement; my mother, being an intrepid traveler herself, was one of the few who understood my urge to travel someplace far off the beaten path, but not without adding uncomfortably, "But you have to wear a hijab the entire time?" She frowned and said no more.
Tehran's iconic Azadi Tower
At the beginning of January 2016, just as the crippling three-decades long economic sanctions were being lifted, originally enacted in response to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, it seemed like every other day an article was published detailing the wonder and beauty of Iran as an up-and-coming tourist destination. I continued researching just exactly how I was going to make my trip happen, impressed with a newfound sense of urgency to see this country before its inevitable and dramatic commodification, and discovered that as an American I by law had to travel with a certified guide. Hm, a guide? That's not really my style...
After a bit of digging around the internet, however, I discovered a small tour operator, a company whose itinerary offered an ideal compromise: a group of ten to fifteen international tourists would have access to the prerequisite, government-approved guide, while being driven to a multitude of fantastic sites throughout central Iran with transportation, accommodation and meals included in the price, all while having the flexibility to venture off unattended whenever viable. Without a second thought, I signed up for the last available spot on the tour.
I was officially leaving for Iran in April.
The next few months flew by in a whirlwind of activity. I'd just returned from South Korea and Vietnam and only had a few weeks after returning from Asia to recover from the jet-lag and scrap together my flights and plans for the Middle East. After scouring Google Flights obsessively for hours late into the night, I finally booked a series of flights that would not only get me to Iran, but also allow me to visit Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates as a solo addition to my upcoming adventures in the Middle East—all for the same price as a roundtrip flight to Iran, thanks to my ruthless research. Not bad. Everything was coming along beautifully, and all I had left to do was apply for my visa after successfully getting a letter of confirmation from the tour operator.
I drove over to Walgreens the next morning and approached the passport photo counter. Before the attendant pulled out her camera, I wrapped the scarf that had been around my neck and draped it on my head as a hijab. "Uh, you're not supposed to wear anything on your head for a passport photo, lady," the woman informed me, the boredom of having seen it all evident in her voice.
"I'm going to Iran!" I chirped innocently, secretly delighting in my subversiveness. "I have to wear a hijab for my visa photo." She snapped my photo wordlessly; I caught sight of a few shoppers throwing me disapproving looks. That same day I mailed off my passport, visa application and photos.
My visa arrived in the mail one hour before I made my way to San Francisco International Airport. Unknown to me, I'd filed my application right before Norooz, also known as the Iranian New Year. The consulate office in Washington D.C. was taking forever to respond to my increasingly frantic emails, but thankfully my paperwork came in at the last possible minute. I boarded my flight for Kuwait, feeling both excited and nervous to begin my travels unaided in the Gulf, before making my way to Iran one week later.
Peeling mural of Iranian flag outside the former United States Embassy, Tehran
Several days later, just after landing at the airport in Tehran and dutifully adorning my hijab before exiting the aircraft, I made my way toward the visa and immigration line. Pulling out my passport nervously, while trying to seem self-possessed and not in any way like a potential American spy, I smiled politely and averted my eyes as I handed over my passport to the man behind the counter. He looked at my visa for a long time—too long, I thought—before flipping quickly through the rest of my passport, stopping at my Communist-looking visa for Vietnam. "What's this?" he asked pointedly.
"Ah, just a visa for my vacation in Vietnam," I replied evenly.
He beckoned over a colleague, and by this point I was acutely aware that I was holding up the sole line for foreigners, and my fellow passengers were peering over at me impatiently. The man behind the counter pointed to a set of chairs just down the hallway and instructed me to sit there and wait. He handed my passport to another man who walked off to some unknown destination with my only form of identification in hand. Obediently, I sat in the hallway for five minutes, which felt more like fifteen to my racing mind. What if they arrest me? Maybe word got out that I wrote a sharply-worded email to the Iranian consulate in the United States when asking for my visa processing to be issued with greater expediency?
Eventually, one of the agents approached me with my passport and returned it to me, beaming unreservedly, "Welcome to Iran!" I was free to exit the airport and finally explore the streets of Tehran.
First Impressions - "How Much, How Much!"
As I stepped out into the crisp morning air of springtime Iran, I was amazed at how quiet the airport felt. I was expecting much more chaos akin to airports in Cairo or Kuwait City, but instead I was pleasantly left to my own devices as I glanced down the line of taxi drivers, often notorious for being scam artists behind wheels in so-called "developing nations." I approached a man who seemed good-natured enough and showed him the address of the hotel I'd be staying at, but he couldn't read the Latin alphabet and beckoned over his younger friends who then translated the script into Farsi. The men smiled at me curiously, a glint of awe and humor etched into their kind features, and I easily returned their smiles which seemed to say: we don't see Americans very often. Especially not young women all on their own.
The taxi driver opened my door to the backseat and after closing it behind me, he got behind the wheel, adjusting his mirror and fiddling with the radio. Wanting to avoid getting scammed at an outrageous price for the upcoming ride, I asked him in the simplest terms I could, "How much will it cost?"
He looked at me in the mirror, smiling a toothy grin and repeated, "How much."
I cocked my head and asked him more emphatically, "No, how much?" I rubbed my thumb and forefingers together, mimicking the universal gesture for money.
"How much, how much!" He smiled triumphantly and drove off with me safely buckled up, clearly ecstatic to have an exotic passenger in his vehicle.
View of Tehran city from a rooftop cafe
My fears were unfounded and the taxi driver accepted a very reasonable price for the forty minutes' commute skillfully navigated through rush hour traffic before dropping me off at my hotel. The reception staff all spoke English and warmly directed me to my room, informing me that breakfast was included in the room rate for the following morning. Closing the door behind me, I basked in a moment of joy at beholding my hotel room: I was finally in Iran! My excitement waned quickly, however, suddenly transformed into the exhaustion of several days' sleep deprivation, and I crashed onto the bed, still retaining the foresight to set an alarm for 5 P.M. at which time I'd meet the other tour participants—but not without a desperately-needed nap first.
I awoke to the repetitious beep of my alarm and quickly got dressed, eager to get out to the lobby and meet my fellow travelers. As I grabbed the doorknob, I immediately realized that I'd almost forgotten my hijab in my haste. Oops, I'd better get used to this thing since I'll be wearing it for the next two weeks. It's actually not that bad.
I trotted down to the lobby and saw a group of tourists who were undoubtedly part of my group. I eagerly introduced myself and sat down on a red velvet chaise, waiting for the rest of the group to show up. One by one they trickled in, completing our group at twelve well-traveled persons. We were all excited to get out and explore Tehran, and as soon as our guide and driver introduced themselves, we boarded the van and set out for the city.
Tehran proved to be a dynamic metropolis, animated by the sights and smells of whirling traffic; fragrant spices; chicly-dressed youth; and ostensibly conservative elders, women adorned in the black chador signifying superlative modesty, often accompanied by her husband or male relative.
It was clear from first glance that Iran is a country experiencing rapid change, and our guides confirmed as much, explaining that women and men have expressed far greater liberties now than anytime since the Islamic Revolution. There was a sense of excitement in the air for the unknown future; with sanctions lifted, Iranian officials and entrepreneurs alike were preparing to mobilize toward global markets.
Further, recent activism in Iran has brought attention to proposed cultural and legal reforms: women are seeking to repeal the mandatory hijab, and more recently, men have begun crossdressing in hijab as a show of support. Crossdressing shouldn't sound too surprising given that Iran comes in second in the world for countries performing sex changes (yes, it's true!) right behind Thailand. Tehran in particular is well-known for its secret, underground nightlife where many Persian millennials indulge in the same vices of comfort as in the West: alcohol and marijuana. Clearly Iran isn't the irreversibly punitive and hopelessly backward nation that Western media portray. Change has been slow, but persistent.
Was I scandalized or shocked by what I saw, I who grew up in the United States, rife with propaganda about the evil and corrupt peoples who inhabit Iran? Not at all. I felt wonderfully free and at home in Iran, feeling the pulse of life that seemed to course through each alleyway and street.
The next few days flew by in a blur as our group dined in fantastic restaurants serving mouth-wateringly tender lamb, kebabs, saffron rice with barberries, fresh salads and pomegranate juice. We meandered through the endless maze of Tehran's 1000-year-old Grand Bazaar; marveled at the intricacy of the Golestan Palace; were all hailed by passersby so enthused to take our photos and ask all about life in our home countries that one would think we were celebrities; were the first tourists to be permitted to enter the former American Embassy in six months (apparently due to a scandal involving a "Jewish Spy"); and finally slept soundly our final night in Tehran before continuing south toward Kashan.
Golestan Palace, Tehran
Continuing South, It Just Gets Better
Kashan was no less inspiring than Tehran despite its population being only a fraction of the capital city's. Mud brick and cob homes lined the ancient cobbled alleyways, snaking through the residential quarter, eventually leading us toward the central bazaar where we all enjoyed hookah in a traditional 16th-century bathhouse, reclined on green pillows, sipping hot chai spiced with saffron sugar. This, I mused, is incredible.
Family walking toward Kashan's bazaar at sunset
Kashan's oldest bazaar
Woman wearing chador walks with husband, Tabatabaei House, Kashan
After spending two days in Kashan, we continued our journey south toward one of the oldest villages in Iran, Abyaneh, which is reportedly more than 1,500 years old.
Women adorned in traditional Abyunaki garb, Abyaneh
We found a sign indicating a tea house just down the way. After hours of trekking through the mud brick city, we were all eager for refreshment so we descended down into the tea den where our host began brewing chai in what looked like a twenty-pound, iron tea kettle, coming to a slow boil atop a wood-fired stove. Reclining on the wooden bench, reaching for a handful of dates occasionally, I basked in the moment backed by the soothing sound of Persian folk music, a moment to me which signified a personal transformation of embracing the Unknown in my life, open to the vastness of the human experience, captured here in this clay dwelling radiating the day's gentle heat.
Tea house in ancient Abyaneh
View of Abyaneh from a nearby hillside
Continuing on toward the city of Yazd, we continued our adventures with full momentum at this point. Every morning after breakfast and chai we'd set out as a group, or at times would branch off for a solitary excursion, and each day we would pass by gorgeous mosques, friendly locals, spice and Persian rug shops, vista views, and countless other sights and novel experiences. We were all loving Iran and were received with unmatched hospitality.
Jame Mosque at night, Yazd
Making our way still further south, we stopped the van beside a 4,000-year-old village, Kharanaq, which had been abandoned years ago due to severe drought. There were no tourists in sight, and yet in almost any other country, an ancient mud village would have been swamped with busloads of tourists snapping photos. More room for us to roam! I wandered through the village alone, noting the cob work (having once been a cob builder and enthusiast, myself), and noted with curiosity that some of the homes had once, not too long ago, been retrofitted with radiant floor heating, but now stood entirely deserted.
4,000-year-old village, Kharanaq, abandoned due to severe drought
Kharanaq outskirts, a few farms left running on irrigation
After days of staying in rural towns and small cities, our group finally headed toward the famed city of Isfahan, self-proclaimed as one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Half the World: Isfahan
Opening the door to my room in Isfahan, I was pleasantly surprised to see that I had an entire one-room apartment to myself, complete with a kitchen and living room. Eager to explore the city, I threw down my bags and headed out toward the Naqsh-e Jahan Square which was only a few blocks away. I was struck by how verdant the streets were here in Isfahan: the full length of the main boulevard was lined with trees, and as I made my way to the square I marveled at the giant fountains lined with topiary cypress.
Fountains in Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan
I didn't have long to marvel, however, as a group of schoolgirls spotted me—something in my demeanor or dress evidently gave me away as being a foreigner. One of the girls let out a delighted squeal and ran up to me, taking hold of my arm and asking enthusiastically, "Where are you from?"
I responded, "I'm from the United States, from California."
Soon the entire class had surrounded me and were taking my photo, reaching in one at a time to be photographed by their friends beside me, beaming ear to ear. "What is life in the United States?" one girl asked and the others watched me attentively. Their teacher began to interrupt and feebly tried to shoo them away, clearly embarrassed by the nuisance, but one of the students let out an impetuous Shhh! directed at her teacher, and they all looked on at me expectantly.
Unsure of what to say, I briefly told them that the United States is huge and very diverse depending on where you are, "And, uh, where I live, the weather's really great," I added as an afterthought, laughing at my inability to answer such a complex question. The girls seemed delighted, though, and after numerous hugs and smiles, I asked whether I could take their photo and they gladly agreed.
Schoolgirls of Isfahan eagerly welcome me to Iran
The rest of Isfahan was equally delightful: I enjoyed shopping for hours in the gorgeous central plaza where I purchased a camel bone painting, hand-dyed tablecloth, and gaz - a delicious kind of Persian nougat. Later with the rest of the group we all visited the Zayandeh River with fortunate timing, as the usually dry river had begun flowing again that same day; families gathered to celebrate and elderly men sang underneath the Khaju Bridge, drawing a respectful and encouraging audience. Isfahan was by far my favorite city in Iran so far.
Families gather to celebrate the Zayandeh River's unexpected flow under Khaju Bridge
Necropolis, Persepolis and Shiraz
Nearing the end of our trip, we pulled into the gravel parking lot outside Naqsh-e Rustam, a necropolis dating back to 1000 B.C. which houses tombs decorated with relief artwork commemorating the Achaemenid kings. Once again, I was surprised by how few tourists were on site. Other than our group, there were exactly zero tourists. Persepolis, also known as Takht-e-Jamshid, which we visited next, was similarly empty although there were several small groups of tourists. We spent a few hours exploring the ancient city and its ruins before continuing on to the final destination of our journey, Shiraz.
After the excitement of visiting Necropolis and Persepolis, we drove a short distance into the city of Shiraz where we'd end our journey. The following morning I set off alone to explore the central bazaar where I hunted for saffron, dried lime, rose water, hibiscus flowers and other spices to bring home. While shopping I noticed a procession of men marching solemnly in my direction; curious, I ventured to ask a man standing nearby what the men were doing, and he informed me that a well-respected merchant had passed away. As if reading my mind, he told me it wouldn't be rude to take a photo if I wanted, and I did.
Men gather in procession to mourn the passing of a local merchant, Vakil Bazaar, Shiraz
In the morning, our group headed to Shiraz's most famous and ornate mosque.
I approached the entryway to the Nasir al-Molk Mosque with a presentient feeling of reverence—this was the dazzling mosque I'd seen in so many photos and was one of the main attractions which originally drew me to Iran. I took off my shoes as is customary when entering a mosque, adjusted my hijab and stepped inside. Photos don't do the interior justice; the hand-painted tiles, stretching into perfect geometric infinity, seemed an immaculate depiction of the beauty of man's desire to worship the divine.
Tile work outside the entrance to Nasir al-Molk Mosque, Shiraz
Nasir al-Molk Mosque interior
Stained glass reflections inside Nasir al-Molk Mosque
Exiting the mosque and slipping back into my shoes, I felt a sense of completion for our trip, knowing that the following day was to be our last. To celebrate, we all went out to dinner at an upscale restaurant where we sat cross-legged on the carpeted area of our dining platform, passing around flatbread and jovially sharing memories from our incredible trip together.
The next morning, I woke up and slowly packed my bags, feeling surprisingly sad to leave Iran, a country I'd fallen in love with for its friendly people, delicious food, amazing architecture and totally unique ambiance. As my taxi driver took me toward the airport, I couldn't help but think fondly of "how much, how much" Iran had meant to me.
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