I Will Burn Your Country to The Ground – Iran Tour Report

Iran Tour Shiraz Ashura
Typical street scene, Shiraz, Iran.

I

t’s difficult, often impossible, using words alone, to convince someone that almost everything they’ve ever been told about Iran, is wrong. Really, and I’m not being facetious, it’s been much easier to open minds about Iran, by quitting my job, living from a backpack for over fifteen-hundred-days, risking a trusted online audience I’ve spent five years building by introducing independent commercialism, and shamelessly promoting my own tours to a place almost the entire planet has been conditioned to be fearful of. This has required some effort, and over the last two months I’ve sometimes quietly questioned if it’s all been “worth it”.

Over four years, I’ve been flying in and out of Iran, spending three months on-the-ground here (so far) this year, organising hotels, guides, drivers, restaurants, malfunctioning fireworks, co-ordinating tourist visa’s for foreigners from all over the planet, carrying a whole pile of cash to a country where international sanctions prevent me from using my credit card or any form of electronic banking transfers or payments, where I can’t read or speak the local language beyond the level of a small child, having to learn local business customs and negotiation tactics, and worrying about the never-ending risk of losing everything due to uncontrollable geo-political events. It’s kind of, some kind of a living.

However, my “Untours” – showing small groups of fellow-foreigners around the Islamic Republic – have made a far bigger impact in upgrading and correcting the image of Iran, than any article I’ve ever written.

So, of course, it’s totally worth it. The people who travel through Iran are changed, forever. They fly home and spread the stories of “real” Iran, and most dream of returning one day. Personally, I have a great time here, and I genuinely feel the satisfaction of doing something good. I’m incredibly fortunate to spend every minute here with so many people from around the globe, at this juncture in the the history of the world, where Iran remains with somewhat of a public-relations image problem.

There’s a very specific reason for that “image problem”.

An Iranian recently said to me: “I will burn all of your country to the ground”. He was from Shiraz, the same city where I was recently surrounded by thousands of Muslims dressed in all-black, swarming through the downtown streets, cheering on a group of men waving flaming torches as they pushed through the dense crowd, some of them on increasingly spooked horses, setting alight huge petrol-soaked nylon-tents, burning them to ashes.

Chador wearing ladies navigated through the flames, and watched on through thick toxic smoke, everyone being blasted by networked speaker systems loudly shouting “HUSSEIN HUSSEIN HUSSEIN HUSSEIN HUSSEIN HUSSEIN” on infinite loop. I was told a story where last year one of the torch-carrying men was mob-attacked at the same procession, so this time around, he had body-guards.

Just around the corner, late one night, I watched a live lamb being slaughtered in the dark downtown Shiraz streets, a pool of fresh bright red blood streamed down the asphalt, illuminated by the toothy smiles of children crowding and jostling for the best viewing position. For weeks on end, countless pitch-black flags have been flying all over the country, mostly adorned with white Farsi script that’s indecipherable to me. I’ve seen rows upon rows of men putting their foreheads to the floor, or chanting and hitting their own chests so hard in perfect unison that I could feel the air reverberating, at holy shrines and mosques all over the Islamic Republic. On one occasion, they were carrying a dead body.

I’ve watched on, as thousands of disposable paper-cups filled with hot tea, and rice-based takeaway meal packages, all adorned with messages of “Down With USA/Death to America” (and Israel, and Saudi Arabia, and sometimes, the UK), were being freely handed out to eager crowds of locals in the most beautiful city square in Iran. Above us, were giant portraits of the Ayatollah. The next day, cute groups of school kids were smiling and fist-pumping, as their high-pitched voices all chanted “MARG BAR AMRIKA!”, “MARG BAR AMRIKA!”, “MARG BAR AMRIKA!”.

Literal translation – “Death, to America”.

Certainly, throw in a background shot, showing a reporter standing beside any of the various Tehran buildings and walls painted with giant anti-American murals, and any of these scenes would provide some terrifically fear-inducing “news” footage of Iran, perfectly suitable for any of the major mass-media-networks in the Western world.

And, without context, or explanation, this wouldn’t even necessarily be “fake” news.

But, it would be misleading.

Cut, that’s a wrap, we’re going live.

Steve: “Wow, powerful stuff out of Iran, and now, it’s over to Bob with the Weather…”

<camera three pans to Bob who is smiling, chuckling, and pretending to play golf>

“Hey Bob, how’s that rain looking for the big game tomorrow?”

“Great story about Iran, Steve, really informative stuff, and… WELL it’s looking like we’ll have a TERRRRIFIC day here in Springfield, the sun will definitely be shining ALL DAY so don’t forget to bring a hat for those of you that are heading out to the big game, and if you can’t make it, join us here live <theme music starts playing> we have it all here LIVE on WWTF starting at 3pm tomorrow, right after our Best of the Kardashians Repeat-a-thon <Bob starts speaking faster> don’t forget to tune in, it’s reality TV weekend, all weekend, here on WWTF…we’ll be right back after a short break to tell you more…”

<theme music getting louder, camera pulling back>

<Bob aims his finger at the camera, Bob shoots, blows on his finger, laughs at himself>

<camera continues to zoom out>

<camera one, switch to anchor desk, theme music blaring>

<add Beer-sponsor overlay>

<Steve holds up stack of papers and taps them on the desk>

<add sparkling shiny overlay for Kardashian Repeat-a-thon>

<Steve smiles and pretends to talk to thirty-year-younger female co-anchor as camera zooms out>

<fade theme music>

<fade out>

<commercial for anti-depression mind-altering drugs>

<commercial for anti-depression mind-altering drugs>

<commercial for anti-depression mind-altering drugs>

Nate.

 

PS, below there’s a LOT of photos I’ve taken over the last two months here in Iran, using only my phone, as those keeping score know that my beloved Fuji X-Pro 1 camera died when I recently visited the radioactive Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Just a coincidence, I guess. In any case, the phone camera isn’t as great as the Fuji, but it aint bad.

PS, for continuity, and to let my mother know whats-up, I’m currently in Shiraz, Iran. Today is day number 1576 that Phillipa and I have been travelling the world, living entirely out of our backpacks. Our two-month Iran visa expires in a few days, I haven’t booked any flights, and could end up anywhere.

BTW, our Iran Untours for 2017 (next year) are already almost sold out (two seats left for the entire year). And, despite any impressions you may have, Iran is the safest and most impressive country you will ever visit. Iranians on the ground here absolutely love and respect all foreigners – and Americans in particular. And, despite incessant calls for WiFi passwords, the continual need for explicitly detailed minute-by-minute daily itineraries, and the statistical over-representation of vegetarians, I also love all of my American friends who have chosen to travel through Iran with me – they’ve ignored their friends, their family, and their main-stream media, and this, particularly for Americans, is a big deal – they should be proud.

IMHO, after personally spending time in over sixty countries, Iran remains my number one travel pick on the entire planet. If you like travel, and you have the means, I would suggest visiting sooner rather than later. Lastly, to say I’ve been busy lately would be an understatement, but I’ll attempt to bring a new article to Yomadic very soon – photos from my Fuji pre-Chernobyl, inside a place I’ll guarantee almost nobody has seen the inside of. If you don’t want to miss that, jump on my free VIP email list, and I’ll send it to you automatically. My email followers have always been my favourite followers…

add your email for free updates and exclusive content…

 

tower of silence yazd
The Zooastrian “Tower of Silence”, Yazd.
kashan bazaar iran
Kashan Bazaar, Iran. Since 2012, I’ve been clambering over the roof-tops of this bazaar.
mosque detail esfahan
Incredible detail of the glazed-tile-work inside Iranian mosques – perhaps the city of Esfahan offers the finest examples.

iran tourist police
This man works for the “cultural” police, entrusted to protect one of the thousands of historical sites throughout Iran.
shiraz tea house
Shiraz remains my favourite city in Iran. Located inside the “Vakil Bazaar”, this is my favourite tea house in Shiraz. Good prices, great music, fresh air, a quiet spot away from the hustle and bustle, what’s not to like.
iran yazd ashura tour
We were fortunate enough to tour Iran during the annual “Ashura” events, which commemorate the murder of the Prophet Mohammed’s Grandson. This photo is from Yazd, where, as tourists, we were warmly welcomed, given a hot cup of tea, the ladies in our group were given scarfs, and the men were given commemorative souvenirs. We were guided to a prime viewing platform above the crowd. Earlier this night, our group was walking through this scene – men, and women, alike. For those who wanted more information about what was happening, a multi-lingual Mullah was on-hand. This is a typical Iranian welcoming – there is no attempted “conversion” to Islam, it’s simply to answer any questions and misconceptions we may have about this important historical, cultural, religious event, in an open and honest format.

iran banana man
Sitting under the hot-desert sun, by the side of an inter-city highway, this man had one job to do – sell bananas. Of course, as we were guests to his country, he felt obliged to give us some bananas for free, refusing payment.
grand bazaar tehran iran
Photogenic rope shop, inside the enormous Grand Bazaar, Tehran.
esfahan bazaar iran
Three photographers stared at this door for thirty minutes. Esfahan Bazaar, Iran.
chai bar esfahan
Phillipa, Danielle, and Ana, Esfahan, Iran.
yazd towers of silence
There are two Towers of Silence in Yazd. One is 500 years old, the other, 1500. Inside the round building, members of the Zooastrian religion would bring the bodies of their deceased loved ones, allowing vultures to remove the flesh from the bones.
yazd city view
Some people don’t consider the city of Yazd as a “must-see” when visiting Iran.
worlds best tree iran
Most perfect dead tree in Iran. If you find this tree, you have found the place where we spend a night in an ancient Caravan Sarai. Somewhere near Yazd, Iran.
worlds best paykan iran
The “Paykan” is perhaps the most iconic of all the made-in-Iran cars. They’re everywhere, but this is clearly the best one, ever.

tour tehran bazaar
As soon as they saw me taking a photo, they offered their lunch. Typical. Tehran Bazaar, Iran.
shiraz shop
Shiraz, Iran. I could easily do a photo series of Iranian shop-keepers.

shiraz shop
On the last night of the Iran tour, we were sitting outdoors, on the terrace of a fairly luxurious coffee-shop, watching the sun set over Shiraz.
shiraz hafez tomb
Tomb of the famous Iranian poet, Hafez. One of the most beloved Persians that ever lived, people flock to the tomb in Shiraz every single night of the year – just to hang out, talk, meet people, relax, and have a good ol’ time.
shiraz ashura
This happens a lot. Shiraz, Iran.
secret iran tour destination
Despite mentioning this place before, and placing photos all over the internet, with three more recent visits I’ve still noticed almost no tourists. Indeed, on the most recent visit, there wasn’t a single tourist. It’s not even hard to get to. For now, I’ll keep it a secret.

qom iran tour
For the first time, I visited the holy city of Qom, hugely important in Iranian history.
persepolis iran tour
Iranian cowboy searches for his heard outside the lesser-seen side of Persepolis, Iran.
mosque ceiling esfahan iran
Esfahan, Iran.
minaret view yazd
Pre-dawn, looking over Yazd, Iran.
main street yazd iran
Downtown Yazd, Iran.
kharanaq iran
This village dates back to around 4000 years ago, and is now totally abandoned. Even up until recently, attempts were made at tourism, with a hostel being built inside the ancient town of Kharanaq, Iran. However, it remains well-and-truly off the typical tourist trail – for now.

kashan tour houses
This is actually a typical house in the city of Kashan, Iran, being enjoyed by one of our guests from the United States of America.
kashan street photography
Mean streets of Kashan, Iran.

kashan night iran
Kashan is definitely my favourite “small-city” in Iran. Worthy of an overnight stop at least, in reality, there is enough here to stay a month.

Kashan Iran tour night
Kashan Iran, Ashura decorations.
iran honda
Outside the “secret” destination I mentioned above, a local man stops just to say hello.

iran tour kashan
Looking down on the roof of Kashan Bazaar, just after sunset.
iran paykan
There is nothing a Paykan cannot carry.
iran mural tour
Locals checking out one of several anti-American murals outside the former “Den of Espionage” or “Nest of Spies”, also known as the former US embassy in Tehran, Iran.
iranian tour bus
When we run our Iran tours, we do things professionally. This is Morteza, my Shirazi “brother”, and his immaculate van. He’s on-call for us the entire time we’re in Iran, driving us wherever we would like to go, at whatever time. When you have your own driver, you can see so much more each day, in comfort. Our Iran tours wouldn’t be possible without this human GPS. Thank you, Morteza, see you next year Kako!
house kashan iran tour
There is just an endless stream of portrait opportunities in Iran, these photos are forever.
historical bath house kashan
Until last month, I’d never seen this historical bath house in Kashan. For a small city, there is so much to see. At this spot, one of our guests said to me “this is what I thought Morocco would look like, but it didn’t”.
esfahan main square iran
They say “Esfahan, is half the world”. I say, “Shiraz is all of the world”, and I was paid to say that. Thanks Vahid, the next Mocca is on me.
desert tour iran road
We saw a lot of these roads over the last two months, again, Morteza at the wheel taking us wherever we needed to get to.
camel burger iran
Future Camel Burger, Iran.

bridge esfahan
Each night, the ancient bridges in Esfahan come alive.
bath house kashan
Vahid, wondering how and why he ended up guiding people like us through his country.
ashura yazd iran
Ashura procession, Yazd, Iran.
amu hussein abyaneh
Mr Amu Hussein, runs probably my favourite place to get a hot cup of tea and a biscuit in all of Iran. And, he’s got great taste in music. Abyaneh, Iran.
abyaneh village iran
Abyaneh, Iran, as seen from the surrounding hills.




37 thoughts on “I Will Burn Your Country to The Ground – Iran Tour Report

    1. I have so much to say about this, and also wish we could sit and chat about your subtle comments about your last two months and so on, for I have similar feelings. Will just keep reading. And keep truckin’. Peace.

    1. At first I thought you said “the single best collection of *paragraphs* on the internet, that would have been cool as well.

      Love you Corey!

  1. Seeing George P’s pics from October, plus Michelle T’s FB shots (bringing her parents, that’s awesome!), and now these fantastic photos, it all takes me right back to a year ago, I miss you guys! Any news to report on a “North Iran” trip for us Untour veterans???

  2. Dear Reader,

    Take this blog at face value. Iran DOES look like this and what Nate says…goddamn it, it is true! I know, I was there (I am on one of the photos).

    Nate, keep it up!
    Alex

  3. Thanks for letting me know you are in Shiraz! Amazing fotos! ALL of them! Love the one of Phillipa and girls. Also the one with the camels.

  4. Those biscuits & tea in Abyaneh were dabomb.com

    Also, it DOES look like Morocco… just waaaay better (and with better people).

    Iran 4ever yaaaas.

  5. Wow – what an amazing collection of photos! If they are all taken on a phone then I need a new phone (actually I do). Loved the story too – and yes you should do a photo essay on the shopkeepers of Iran. I love them. This place is definitely on my bucket list.
    Cheers
    Janie

    1. Thanks Janie… it really is great having a phone that has a quality camera, it’s the first time I’ve ever had a “good” camera-phone in my life!

  6. Well Nate,

    It has been an adventure even though it is thru your eyes, words, thoughts. I was lucky to have Rumi poetry read to me in Persian, in Taos, NM, back in the early aughts of this century. My book of Haifetz ( spelling , I know ) with me now for decades along with, Rumi, the hagakure and the book Illusions, by Richard Bach. Keep me in hope, dreams and mysteries of life.

    As to your Fuji, we already discussed that. I hope it has found a lead box and a cement coffin, Ha! But it is not the camera, by the eyes, spirit, couriosity of the man behind the lens that matters. And these images bear that out.

    Would be neat if you found a few dervishes and imbibed in the ecstasy of trance inducing whirling. How wonderful that tale would have been.

    Zoroasterism a deep mystical religion, in which you have tasted the sands of human life, past, present and future.

    Keep sending out your posting updates, as Long as i have eyes, and nerves that can lead me to typing out a response, i will keep on keeping on as a traveller albeit, by proxy…

    Be well

    Laurence

    “In the driest whitest stretch of pain’s infinite desert, I lost my sanity and found this rose” – Rumi

    1. Hey Laurence, hope you’re good today.

      So, it was my birthday recently, and I was given a book of collected works of Hafez, by a good Iranian friend of mine. And then, I left it on a table at a cafe in Tehran. The book is safe – but I won’t be able to get it back until April next year.

      The poets are really like Gods here in Iran – so much admiration – particularly in Shiraz.

      Take care mate.

  7. Great phone images. Too bad your X-Pro1 died, Fuji would be smart to just give you o ne though.

    1. Ya know, Hector, I agree with you. Fuji should do some kind of deal with me :)

      In the meantime, I’ll look into getting my XPro 1 repaired, as my finances won’t stretch to an XPro2 at this time. Such a great camera!

  8. Nicely written and useful thanks for letting us know what Iran really looks like and you have stunning photos. Thanks again for sharing.

  9. Stunning, as always. We’ve been trying to make our schedules fit one of your Iran untours for ages. Someday the stars will align. Can’t wait. :)

  10. After my last visit to Iran I wasn’t much thinking of returning, for now, but after our meeting in Kiev and talks about Iran I really want to go there again, to some less known places. So thank you again for restoring my interest in the country! Hope to see you guys somewhere again!

  11. Nate, what an incredible collection of photos. This is one superb example for why most of us don’t need expensive camera gear. You triggered my gear acquisition syndrome to buy the beautiful small 18mm while reading your 2013′ articles, now you’ve convinced me to spend the money on food and travel (;

    But damn, the 18mm would be the perfect match for my XPro^^

    1. Cheers Rene!

      You know, I need to write something about this. But, in summary, I’m finding that my phone is around 90% as capable as my Fuji. And either way, I can’t see myself every needing a better quality camera than my Xpro/18mm combo (I just need to get it repaired!). But, spending the money on travel is a *much* better idea!

  12. I am certain I already commented haha possibly on instagram, possibly above … I don’t know.
    All I do know is you’re brilliant and this is true ethnographic anthropology typed with that wry Nate smile and beard rubbing as you go.
    *claps, bows, and misses you both furiously*
    **claps again and taps cigar on glass… **
    ;)

  13. Great post! I have a small issue with your captions on these two pictures:
    1- horseman – “TYPICAL STREET SCENE, SHIRAZ, IRAN.”
    2- girl in a house in Kashan: “THIS IS ACTUALLY A TYPICAL HOUSE IN THE CITY OF KASHAN, IRAN, BEING ENJOYED BY ONE OF OUR GUESTS FROM THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA”.

    Neither one of these is typical – the man on the horse is part of the “Ashore” festivals which is like a passion play so the dude is playing someone from 1400 years ago and the house with the american tourist is only typical if you re talking about 19 th century, rich family homes of Kashan.

    My 2 cents. :)

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