“What country was the most amazing you visited so far?” How many times have I been asked that question? And always Iran was the place mentioned atop the list or around the very top. This time was my third visit to the country, as a whole I spent nearly five month there and visited many places from the westernmost, to the easternmost spots, from the northern to the southern coast. Following impressions will focus on the most recent visit and particularly consider Maria’s “fresh” observations in an equal degree.
Scenery: 6 out of 10
For a place most people associate nearly exclusively with desert, the variety of landscapes might come as a positive surprise. Indeed a vast amount of the countries area is covered by the two main deserts, the Dasht-e-Lut further south and the Dasht-e-Kavir further north. A good number of people travel to Iran exactly for being in the desert. It should be clarified that the romanticized, stereotypical image of smooth sand dunes with camels walking along and small green oasis villages here and there can definitely be found in various places – but the absolute majority of Iran’s desert area is a desolate place of rough rocks, salt surfaces and dusty wastelands.
That kind of landscape stretches all the way along the Afghani and Pakistani borders, along the Persian Gulf until the south western border with Iraq formed by Khuzestan. In all that space the spots of natural beauty a scarce and most accessible areas are severely deformed by reckless construction work – still the monotonous emptiness has something enchanting.
But should you be fed up with that, beautiful and for many unexpected mountainscapes invite adventurous people – the Zagros mountains in the west and the majestic Alborz range in the north, creating a natural climatic border between the deserts and Iran’s humid and wet Caspian sea coast. While most Iranians are enamored with the lush green and pleasant climate of “Shomal” (north), it is nothing too special for an European. The coastal plains are actually pretty crowded, overdeveloped and urbanized – coast and Caspian sea themselves rather unspectacular.
The magic can clearly be found in the far less developed and hardly accessible mountain areas just south, full of old forests, pristine village communities and a beautiful ethnic variety of the inhabitants.
In the right season, best would probably be late spring, the whole western area of Iran should make for a stunningly beautiful landscape of mountain peaks, green, flowery valleys with streams and waterfalls.
We found it especially visible at the gulf coast and in the north, but basically all over the country nature falls victim to a mind blowing level of pollution – from the fields of plastic trash everywhere, to oil spills and chemical waste. Add the equally shocking results of absolutely uncontrolled construction projects, half of those unfinished, eventually forever – and one rule is sadly nearly universally applicable: Does an area boast human development over the level of village communities and dirt roads, the nature is almost surely spoiled to a partly shocking degree.
Lastly, even the once grand and distinct styles of architecture in towns and cities start to be replaced almost exclusively by completely uninspiring concrete and brick building – the focus very obviously on economical and practical aspects.
People: 9.5 out of 10
Most travelers answer on what fascinates them that much about Iran with: ‘the people!’ Iranians are just one of a kind! It is a combination of boundless hospitality, general politeness (sometimes going too far even), regional distinctive characteristics while highly cultivated and aware of a common national identity. That’s only the base for a continuous stream of wonderful human encounters.
Sure, it greatly helps that due to Iran’s political isolation not many tourists and travelers visit the country. Combined with the urge of Iranians to set the outside image of their country straight means a traveler can expect help, generosity and attention in nearly all possible ways.
While we could rave a long time about the beauty of traveling among Iranians, we should mention two specific aspects that can be tough from a traveler’s perspective.
‘Too much sweetness causes cavity’ – to put it straightly: There will be the moment for most travelers, when all the hospitality and generosity starts to feel suffocating. When everything is provided in the blink of an eye, you are not allowed to help with anything and a program for your entertainment is designed with best intentions but without asking if it is what you really want, you might prefer to just camp in some quiet place for a while on your own, hang out with other travelers or just get a unsuspicious room in a guesthouse.
It can be tough if something well meant has to be turned down over and over again, due to the rule of “TAROF” when you really don’t want it but the other side feels you only decline out of politeness.
Be reflective about yourself and your own needs – if you don’t feel like socializing, rather decline invitations, as being guest in an Iranian family mostly means being the absolute center of every attention. Couchsurfing can provide relieve as well, as CSers are generally more aware of a traveler’s situation.
Secondly, while unfortunately nothing unique at all to just Iran, the level of racism in many people’s mind can leave a bitter taste. Very surprisingly hardly ever the United States or even Israel are the center of hate, but much more the neighboring Arabs. Why? Well, because a long, long time ago they are at fault of bringing Islam to Iran, severely spoiling the Persian identity. It doesn’t matter to many that this chapter of history is a whole bunch of generations away – the hatress refers to the present, even though many Iranians never interacted with Arabs.
After spending that much time in Iran, I could write a lot about my perception of Iran’s identity and the way it fascinates me – but to finish light and straight: Visit Iran and enjoy a nation of friends you just haven’t met yet.
Food: 6.5 out of 10
Alright, we are aware that this paragraph might result in serious offense especially to our Iranian friends whose pride in the traditional Persian cuisine is very easy to understand.
If it was just for the traditional meals – there would not be much at all to complain about! Iranian traditional food is very sophisticated, various and mostly even pretty healthy due to the slow way of preparation and the various fresh ingredients. Most regions have local specialties and are famous for certain dishes. The rice in Iran is as good as rice can get and fortunately forms the base of many meals. So what are we please complaining about?
We write from a traveler’s perspective. After Turkey, where all kinds of dishes were available nearly everywhere, we had to face the fact that most of those great Iranian dishes can only be enjoyed when actually invited to a family’s house! Cooking at home is still what happens nearly everywhere and it has to be appreciated. But the hungry traveler has to fall back on fast food more often than it is good. Restaurants serving traditional food are still quite easy to find in major cities, especially the more touristy ones. But nearly everywhere else the questionable pleasure of eating greasy sambuse or falafel in awful sandwiches over and over again awaits you. Or try hamburgers, hot dogs or shawarma of doubtful culinary quality. Freshly barbecued kebabs are a welcoming alternative but not exactly filling and sometimes the pizza (American style, thick and with ketchup) can be decent – but in general: Forget about eating healthy and various! Either cook yourself or eat with Iranians. Even the very tasty freshly baked bread is pretty hard to find! Many bakeries only open for a few hours daily and are often hidden in small streets. And while mouthwatering when warm and fresh, the traditional bread like Sangak and Lavash turns dry and drab way to fast. In most places you only find packaged thin and dry flatbread or hopeless hot dog style buns.
Lastly, another huge letdown after Turkey is the chai culture in Iran. After sipping strong chai from beautiful tulip glasses in every Turkish village teahouse, in Iran we mostly drank from plastic or paper cups, served on the go in kiosks or roadside places, often very weak and tasteless. We preferred to brew the delicious Iranian chai ourselves with added cardamon and / or cinnamon or enjoyed the same in selected coffee- / teahouses.
Prices: 9 out of 10
An area with not much to complain about – as a traveler! Due to the rapid decline of Iran’s currency, prices are rising but for foreigners the increasing buying power of Dollar and Euro cancels it more than out. For all Iranians it is a very different, incredibly tough situation we fully sympathize with and can only hope for a stop of all those useless western sanctions rather sooner than later.
Lastly, the money situation is such a matter of change, that it has to be read with caution.
Transportation in Iran comes incredibly cheap. While hitchhiking is very pleasant and easy, it is good to know that a bus for a few Euros will take you a whole night or day in most directions and if tickets can be obtained, the trains are an even better alternative at an even lower price in the lower classes. In cities, taxis – especially “na da baste” (non closed door = shared) – are usually below an Euro for most distances within the city. A bus or metro ride is about 10 cents, so nearly for free.
Fast food is cheap as mentioned (a falafel sandwich around 60 cents) and even many traditional restaurants offer huge high quality meals for less than two or three Euros.
Accommodation can be very cheap as well, especially if your demands are low and you stick to the Mosaferkhanes (Guesthouses) usually cartering local travelers. A room can be had for as low as 5 Euros – but especially in bigger cities or touristy places it can get more expensive quickly.
If the low prices are combined with he boundless generosity of Iranians, it is a travel destination for even the lowest budgets.
Summary: 9 out of 10
Iran is much more than the sum of its pieces. It was, is and hopefully always will be a unique and different travel experience. If you travel for people and appreciate human interaction that goes beyond the tiring cliche of rich white holidaymaker from superior world vs. local eying dollars and offering services, Iran offers exactly that. Feel like a guest and not like a tourist, start discussion in honest curiosity between both sides and return the many, many smiles – all images of the hostile media Iran will vanish quickly and forever. Especially when heading east overland, Iran is such a key piece of the cultural, political and historical puzzle necessary to develop an understanding of the whole. Yes, nature enthusiasts might be positively surprised by the variety of landscapes but disappointed by its destruction. It is definitely necessary to be picky in region as well as in season. For gourmets it is the same black and white situation. But nonetheless we are convinced, that there a few countries in this world worth more to be traveled than Iran. Ya’allah – go for it!