“I have always dreamed of going to Iran”
“Ok let’s go then”
I had just met my new flatmate, Vicky, 2-3 weeks before, but after a weekend of being stuck at home due to both of us being sick, we had already decided we were going to go to one of the world’s most secretive and fascinating nations. I had been intrigued by Iran for years, and I was not going to miss the opportunity to go, now that I had found someone as adventurous as me. It was December, and it took us the most part of 5 months to organise the trip. Going back to Spain just to get the visa (as the Iranian embassy in the UK, where we were living at the time, had been closed for years), buying ‘appropriate’ clothing that offered enough coverage (quite a feat when you are tall), being taught how to wear a hijab by a Muslim friend, deciding on the itinerary and what was safe for two women alone, having our payments to the Iranian travel agency frozen and our bank accounts investigated (“We have observed abnormal activity in your accounts”)… it was an adventure before the adventure.
Our trip was only possible thanks to the kindness of Iranians. Once we had decided on a potential itinerary, we asked all our friends if they had any Iranian friends – it was through them that we found our travel agent (as it is very difficult to book hotels and other things from outside the country), our amazing guide, Leila, and a very busy social life in Tehran.
We land in Tehran after a very long stopover in Dubai. We are nervous – is our attire appropriate? Will they let us in? We have watched way too many movies and tv shows that show the rough side of the country, so we do not know what to expect. Being Spanish, our country is in quite good terms with Iran, so we are not anticipating any trouble and we will not be needing an escort throughout our trip, like other countries do, which will give us lots of freedom. Our outfits are actually our main source of worry. We have spent hours looking at pictures of Iranian women on the internet to try to ascertain what is considered appropriate and what isn’t, and we are wearing hijabs for the first time in our lives and they keep falling off our heads.
The customs officer is actually very friendly and we make it through. We are in Iran! I still cannot believe we made this happen. Years later, they ask me in a job interview about something I am very proud of, and I say without thinking ‘I organised a trip to Iran by myself’. We have made possible something that most people think impossible – except both our mothers, who weirdly enough thought from the beginning that this was a very good idea and helped us hide the trip from our fathers.
The travel agent, Hadi, from Trip to Iran, comes to pick us up to the airport. He drives us to Tehran and we admire the landscape around us. Dry desert, rocky mountains, miles of nothing and the ever present mosques in every village. As always, my mind wanders too far – ‘if we continue on a straight line there’s Afghanistan…’.
We stay at the Laleh Hotel. It is not the most modern one (and being fair, it needs a really good renovation) but it was the hotel where foreign journalists stayed during all important events in the country and we want to feel the history. As soon as we arrive we are invited to a party – we fix our hijabs and go out into the night. Everyone we meet is incredibly friendly and welcoming, and culturally quite similar to Spanish people, making us feel at home from the beginning.
Photo by Victoria Aróstegui
The following day we start wandering around the city, visiting the Golestan palace, the bazaar and receiving our first warning when my friend takes a picture of a government building by mistake. Because of the sanctions, many things are not available in the country or have to be brought by truck from Iraq, giving many buildings and shops an old, decadent air, like Spain must have been 50-60 years ago. What shocks us the most is the paintings in the walls of some streets, honouring the fallen during the Iran-Iraq war or declaring America as evil. They are colourful but also sad and full of anger.
Moving around the city is easy. For once I am visiting a country where we don’t look physically very different from anyone else and we are left alone for the most part. The only issue comes when we try to take a taxi, as they ask us for an exorbitant ‘foreigners’ price. We proudly develop a trick where we find an Iranian woman who speaks English, ask her to stop a taxi and negotiate the price on our behalf, and once all is agreed we show up and jump in the taxi.
We also go shopping for ‘manteaus’, long jackets that Iranian women wear and stylishly cover all the body parts that need to be covered. We love them so much that buy more than we need, but we have to manage our budget as you cannot withdraw money in the country with a foreign card, and all our money is the euros we have brought with us from Europe and will have to be exchanged in the next days.
We meet a Spanish friend, Pati, married to a Spanish-Iranian, who gives us the lay of the land and takes us to an amazing restaurant to try local food. We will remember the restaurant for the rest of the trip as our diet will consist of rice and kebabs every single meal for the days to come. Another evening we go to Darband, in the outskirts of the city. It is a succession of restaurants and cafes encroached in the mountain, on the sides of a river, which lights up at night, making it look like a fairy tale.
The next morning we start our road trip. Leila, originally from Ardabil, in the north-west of the country, but based on Bander Abbas, in the south, will be our guide. We love her from the second we meet her and the trip feels more like a girls trip, rather than travelling with a guide. She will be driving us to Kashan, Isfahan, Yazd and Shiraz, where we will be taking a flight back to Tehran. It is only recently that female singers are allowed to be played in the country, and we leave Tehran to the rhythm of Shakira.
Kashan is the gateway to the Maranjab desert. We leave our belongings in the Mahin Saraye Raheb Hotel, a beautiful, palace-like accommodation, and are picked up by our desert guide, who will be driving us for the day. He has a very old but sturdy jeep and knows the dunes like the palm of his hand. Apparently a few tourists have died after wandering by themselves and getting lost, and we feel very safe with him. We go up and down the dunes, cross miles and miles of nothing but sand, and civilisation seems to be another planet.
Photo by Leila Hamzehzadeh
We have lunch in a traditional caravanserai, where the caravans that covered the Silk Route would stop for lunch and rest. After some rice and kebab, we have black tea and nap, kicking off what will become our daily routine during the hottest hours. The landscape is quite eerie and we have a weird feeling, like something bad happened here. We ask Leila to leave, convinced that blood was shed in this place.
We continue driving, admiring the silent beauty of the desert, the solitude. Eagles cross our path. Our driver says we are very lucky as people come from all around the world to see them and they are not always lucky. They are the only life we see for hours, until we stop for tea at a camel shepherds’ hut. We return to our fantastic accommodation to drink rose water and fall fast asleep.
Our next destination is Isfahan, by way of Abyaneh, a colourful village in the mountains that seems to be populated mainly by very old women. We wander around the town, silently taking in the landscape, much greener than anything we have seen before in Iran, and buy headscarves from the women. Time seems to have stopped here, and I feel like we are interrupting a time warp.
As soon as we get to Isfahan, we rush to the main square, Naqsh-e Jahan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our breath stops for a few seconds – it is one of the most beautiful man made constructions in the world. We admire the blue mosque, the fountains, the minarets. No picture will do it justice. I have heard this square is only comparable to the one in Samarkand, and that whichever you see first will stay in your mind as the most beautiful one. We visit the palace and the mosque, and admire the intricacy of its designs, every wall, every dome, every door. So many shades of blue, combined with the yellows. It’s amazing to think this beauty came from human creativity.
Photo by Victoria Aróstegui
We meet quite a few Iraqi families, visiting from Basra. They are Shias and come to Iran as tourists and also for religious pilgrimage. They are very friendly and all seem to love Spanish football. After visiting the bazaar, Leila finds a restaurant for lunch where we sit in lounge beds – ideal as we will be having yet another one of our epic naps there.
In the afternoon we go to the Jameh mosque, yet another wonder of Islamic architecture. It’s amazing how much beauty you can find in Isfahan, and yet most tourist attractions are empty, save for a few Europeans. The mosque is in a very traditional part of town, that for once looks like the images we get in the west of Iran. That, combined with the omnipresent paintings of the Ayatollah, prompts me to ask Leila if by any chance we could attend Friday prayer. I want to witness such an event, as it is then that the anti-west messages tend to happen. She asks the imam, whom doesn’t reject the idea from the start, but after some debating decides we can only attend with a special permission from the government. We decide to let it go.
In Isfahan we also get to taste faloodeh for the first time (the first of many), a refreshing desert of vermicelli noodles made of starch, often served with saffron ice cream. It’s one of the most delicious cold treats I have ever tasted and we go on to ask for it on every stop of the trip. In the evenings, we sit in the garden of the Abbasi Hotel and drink lemonade while we read and write. (We are staying at the Safir Hotel which is nearly not as nice, but the Abbasi hotel was full).
Our next stop is Yazd, another desert town and a very important site for the Zoroastrian community, one of the oldest religions in the world. We visit a fire that has been burning since 470 AD and (from the distance) a tower of silence, where the Zoroastrians lay their dead for excarnation. I first got to learn about this religion during my visits to Mumbai when I was living in India, so it is truly interesting to learn more about it where it first originated.
The architecture of Yazd has to be admired from the roofs, where the city blends in with the desert, making for a fantastic sunset view. The whole old town is made of clay and has been designed to keep the temperature inside as cool as possible- the undulations of the roofs, the holes in the walls in intricate designs. It’s amazing how human beings adapt to the environment. Despite the beauty of the city, we can tell it is the most conservative place we have visited in the country, and we feel uncomfortable for the first time since arriving to Iran. After eating more faloodeh, we go back to our accommodation, Dad Hotel, a beautiful Moorish-like palace, which offers outdoor dining at night in a fairy-tale like setting.
Photo by Leila Hamzehzadeh
We are finishing our grand tour of Iran with Leila in a spectacular way – visiting the ruins of Persepolis near Shiraz. We are incredibly excited, not sure what to expect. But before, we make a stopover in Fars. I didn’t even know this place existed, but it is one of the most impressive sites of the trip. In the middle of the desert, there are grandiose carvings of Persian kings in the face of the rock, and palace-like doors leading inside the mountain. It reminds me of something out of the Lord of the Rings, and really brings to life the magnificence of the Persian civilisation. We are so tiny compared to these sculptures.
After a fun stopover for more kebab in a restaurant decorated with dolphins (!?), we arrive to Persepolis. Again, it’s amazing that we can visit yet another World Heritage Site with no queues and have the place to ourselves. We wander around, admiring the beauty and precision of the carvings, the elegance of the columns, and wish we could have seen the place in its apogee. We really enjoy Persepolis but we were so awestruck by Fars that we are not sure how to continue taking in so much splendour.
We arrive to Shiraz to our first modern accommodation of the trip. Chamran Grand Hotel is newly built and very tall, miles away from our recent palaces / 60s construction. Leila takes us to meet her family, and we spend the evening chatting in their garden and taking in the magic of the city. Shiraz is a fun town. People are cheerful, everyone is on the streets enjoying themselves, especially in the evening, far from the rigorous conservatism of Yazd. Even the architectural designs differ – the mosques stray from the blue and yellow that we have seen so far, adding pink and whites and greens. The Nasir-ol-Molk is literally called the pink mosque, and both in the walls and the crystal windows the pink tones predominate. With the sunlight shining through the windows into the colourful carpets, the mosque seems like a garden out of a children’s book. As in every mosque that we visit, the caretakers and other visitors seem to be very understanding of the fact that we despite not being Muslim, (when they hear us speaking in English with Leila they come to talk to us and enquire where we come from) we can also use their mosque as a place of prayer and reflection.
We also visit the tomb of the famous poet Hafez, and make promises to come to back to Iran. We are amazed that the world is not seeing all this beauty. The trip has been incredibly easy and enjoyable, we have felt very safe at all times and everyone has been very friendly and respectful. There are few places in the world where I have felt this safe travelling only women.
After a sad goodbye to the wonderful Leila, who has been a friend, an interpreter, a driver and an amazing tour guide, we head back to Tehran for our final weekend there. Flying back is part of the fun, as our boarding passes are only in Farsi and there seems to be lots of confusion about if our flight has been delayed or has actually departed early. Once we finally board, the plane is a relic. It has been made with pieces from different planes from around the world, and there are signs in Russian, English, Spanish and French. We drink our sodas and refuse to think about the safety standards.
Back in Tehran our friends have a very special surprise for us. One of them, Nazanin, works for L’Oreal and is organising the first Fashion Week in the country. We are beyond excited to be part of such an special event. We are told to go to a newish shopping canter in the wealthy north of the city. Once we arrive, we are directed to the basement. A security guard takes our phones and female government officers, all wearing black chadors, supervise our outfits and direct us to seat in the female section, making sure we are not too close to the men. We are not very interested in today’s show, which is male fashion, but we feel like we are witnessing a historic event. The mood is electrifying. Everyone is very excited to be here and that the country continues to move towards modernisation. Once the show is over, we pose in the photocall and feel like (Persian) movie stars.
We leave Iran feeling that we have been let into one of the world’s best kept secrets and that we need to come back. To this day I continue to advertise the country as one of the most beautiful and special places in the world – and where people have been the warmest.
Arranging the trip:
- Guide: Leila Hamzehzadeh can be contacted on +98 914 455 6371, firstname.lastname@example.org. She can organise tours all around the country, including visas and hotel bookings (be aware that certain countries need a guide to escort them around Iran at all times (e.g., USA citizens))
- Visa: We did ours in Spain, it took around a week. If you have an Israeli stamp on your passport, you might be denied entry. We needed proof of travel insurance in order to get the visa
- Getting around: We took local taxis in Tehran
- Hotels recommended in Tehran are Azadi, Esteghlal and Laleh Hotel
- Hotels recommended for the rest of Iran, as per above, have to be booked through a local travel agent/ guide
- Books to read
- Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
- The book of fate, Parinous Saniee
- Full tilt, Dervla Murphy
- The cruel way: Switzerland to Afghanistan, Ella Maillart
- The road to Oxiana, Robert Byron
- Films to watch
- Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi, Winshluss
- Offside, Jafar Panahi
- Taxi, Jafar Panahi
- No one knows about Persian cats, Bahman Ghobadi
- Blackboards, Samira Makhmalbaf
- A girl walks home alone at night, Ana Lily Amirpour
- The salesman, Asghar Farhadi
- A separation, Asghar Farhadi
- Secret ballot, Babak Payami
- Women travellers
- We felt very safe at all times, and we found it one of the easiest places to travel around as women (excepting the restrictions regarding our clothing). All the men we encountered were very polite and courteous
- We only felt a bit uncomfortable in Yazd as it was very conservative and people were staring at us (Disclaimer: we don’t look very different from Iranian women, which made it easy to not stand out most of the time)
- Hijabs: We wore hijabs showing part of our hair, which we bought in Whitechapel Road Market in London
- If you are not used to wearing hijab, like us, the easiest way is to wear a hair donut (we bought ours at Boots), it prevents the scarf from sliding down. Sunglasses on top of your head also help maintaining the hijab in its place. After a while you just get used to eating and doing everything with your head more upright than usual
- Clothes: We bought long shirts that covered half of our arms and went just above our knees (we also bought them in Whitechapel, but if you are not as tall as we are, you should be able to find them in any shop). Once we got to Iran, we also bought manteaus, they are available in any shopping centre
- It seemed fine to wear tight trousers
- What can be shown: We showed half of our arms, as well as our feet and ankles (we wore sandals most of the time)
- We felt very safe at all times
- Don’t take pictures of official buildings and be mindful of Iran’s laws (e.g., alcohol is forbidden, women are not allowed to dance in public with men, ride bicycles, enter sports stadiums etc)
- We were there in June and it was relatively hot but still nice. Summers can be quite hot and winters quite cold, so Autumn and Spring might be the best options
- Other considerations
- Ramadan: Travelling during the month of Ramadan can be tricky, especially when you need to eat during the day
- Cash: You will need to bring all your cash from abroad, as foreign cards don’t work in Iran. There are many places to exchange currency (mainly for GBP, EUR and USD), but keep an eye on rates as they can differ a lot
- Money transfers: To avoid carrying too much cash, get your agent/ guide to book hotels in advance for you. We were not able to transfer the agency money from our UK bank accounts (the transfer didn’t go through and our accounts were put under investigation), we had to use our Spanish ones. Some agents have European bank accounts
- Forbidden items: Be mindful of what is is your luggage – e.g., topic of the books – as the authorities can register your luggage on arrival to Iran
- SIM cards: We got ours once we arrived, through the hotel, it was quite simple to do
- Entry to USA: If you have been to Iran, you are not allowed to get an ESTA to visit the USA. I got at 5 year tourist visa at the embassy, it was a very easy process