Nasir al-Mulk Mosque shiraz

Why Visiting Iran is No Big Deal These Days

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here were four or five pretty young ladies, touching me, stroking my forehead, grabbing my arm, all doe-eyed and fawning, soft-lighting, holding my legs high, cruising at 40000 feet, and well, in that moment I completely forgot about reality. After I’d passed-out and came-to laying down in the aisle of a plane, despite the loveliness of the situation, the ridiculous world I naively wander through had just became very real.

At least three unplanned events had occurred in the lead-up to this moment. Thirty-six sleepless hours. Rapid onset of a killer flu. A crooked Tajikistan police officer attempting to extract a bribe from me, holding my passport hostage in a dark room at the end of a dark corridor (another story, another time). I only had one “official” travel plan – beguilingly simple – reach Iran, today. After the bribes and blackouts, despite my failing health, I was more determined than ever to complete the plan. Because, I know what most of the world doesn’t know – in Iran, I would be safe, comfortable, relaxed, and taken care of.

But, this flu was no joke. Leaving the first plane in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, I faced up to my choices. Stop in modern and tourist friendly UAE, recover, rest, and head to Iran another day. Or, catch a cab cross town, jump on another flight, and fly straight into the mysterious ancient city of Shiraz, Iran – with no visa, no bookings for accommodation, nor any proof of onwards travel. I needed to make a decision.

I did what any sane traveller would do. Spent the last of my UAE Dirams on an Egg McMuffin, smoked a cigarette, drank two black coffees to stay awake a few more hours, coughed a lung up outside the terminal entrance, sat down and caught a few well-needed rays (after spending four months in a bleak post-Soviet winter), and made up for all of those Central Asian Lada-taxis by riding a pimped-out black-on-black Lexus from Dubai to Sharjah. It was time to visit Iran – the sanest travel choice, in an increasingly insane world.

To many people, visiting Iran seems to be a really big deal.

Narenjestan e Ghavam, Shiraz, Iran.
Narenjestan e Ghavam, Shiraz, Iran.

My friends, family, and every person I’ve ever met, has said the same things about Iran. The comments range between “be careful” and “you’re fucking crazy”. This week, I had one reader contact me, explaining that due to the events in Paris, I should be extra careful in Iran. Fortunately, Iran is much safer than Paris.

It’s an insight to the extent of the almost global brainwashing – Iran, a peaceful country who has not been involved in a war since the US backed war with Iraq in the 1980’s, is still considered a key member of the “Axis of Evil”. Unlike nearby nuclear armed Israel and India, Iran has signed a nuclear weapons non-proliferation agreement. They don’t even have any nuclear weapons. For thirty-six years, Iran has undergone crippling economic sanctions from most of the world, for a never ending roster of non-nonsensical non-reasons. And now, Paris. But, there’s always something – the irrational Western fear of Muslim nations knows no bounds. These are the preconceptions that Iranians have to deal with – a French citizen in Paris goes crazy, therefore, Iran is more dangerous this week. And this is why visiting Iran remains a big deal – just because a few exceptionally influential governments and media organisations insist that visiting Iran, really is a big deal.

“Oh, you’re visiting Iran…. hmmm… where is your Visa? And… you don’t seem to have any further flights booked… hmmmm…”

This had happened before. In Malaysia in 2012, they would’t allow me board the flight to Tehran, visa-less, until several layers of managers had discussed my “situation”. The conversation ended with “we’ll let you board, but if it doesn’t work out, you must understand you’re on your own”. Of course, it all worked out. Because Iran is a normal country. With exceptionally welcoming people. And they love tourists.

At Sharjah airport, I’d anticipated this same moment. I knew exactly what to say. However, due to the flu and lack of sleep, I couldn’t I think straight. I just explained myself in the most persuasive way possible.

“Don’t worry about me. It’s all cool. We’ll be fine. I will get an Iranian visa on arrival.”

Seriously, I waved my hand across the desk, just like Ben Kenobe.

“OK. It is all cool. You will be fine. They will give you a visa on arrival. Enjoy Iran.”

My luggage was checked, and a boarding-card issued.

Further along, at the Sharjah customs, the veiled girl with the badge and the pretty eyes gave me the same pause, once she realised I was heading to Iran.

“Oh…. you’re visiting Iran… there is some paperwork you need to complete, especially for you, I’ll just have to get it.”

I waved my hand over the desk.

“There is no paper work for me to complete.”

I looked into her eyes.

“Um, OK, just wait here, I’ll be back with the paperwork.”

The force was strong with this one.

Visiting Iran, is kind of a big deal for the Sharjah authorities. I completed the “special” form, in duplicate. Ticking boxes that indicated I was aware of the “security situation” in Iran. I wondered, what exactly was the security situation in Iran. They wanted contact details, preferences for funeral proceedings, and a complete list of the other fifty-eight countries I had previously visited. A lot of questions later, I was cleared through customs. The flu was catching up again, so I headed to the departure lounge to rest, and await the inevitable next-step.

Over the airport intercom, a “special” announcement was made. Just for travellers bound for Iran. We were to report to a different gate than previously advised, for “advanced security processing”. To Sharjah airport security, travelling to Iran was a big deal. Around an hour earlier than the usual time, we were checked and processed by multiple staff and multiple scanning machines. Then we had to wait in a closed-off section with no option to return to the “normal” part of the airport.

A man was walking around. He was exclusively chatting to tourists bound for Iran. There were four other tourists on this flight. Compared to 2012, an increase of four. That’s a statistically significant 200% increase in tourist numbers to Iran.

“So… you’re going to Shiraz. Do you have a visa? Hmmm. No? Show me your passports……”

I handed them over.

“Oh, so you’re going to get a visa on arrival? Cool. Enjoy Iran.”

Yes, he said “cool”, smiled, and returned our passports. Then he walked away, muffled something into his collar about “affirmative, target has been contacted, returning to ghost-surveillance mode and awaiting further instructions for… ”

Reality was returning. The shackles of Iranian preconceptions were dissolving. The globally constructed media meme of “terrible naughty Iran” was slipping away, I knew everything would be fine from this point, so I passed out for a few minutes rest.

Arriving in Shiraz, the airport bus from plane to terminal confirmed that yes, I was really on the ground in Iran, and so obviously surrounded by Iranians. To understand Iranians, you need to understand “Tarof”. A specifically Iranian social construct that’s far beyond politeness, chivalry, and civility. Tarof permeates Iranian society. The rules are unfathomable to a foreigner. In general, you are obliged to offer whatever you have, to all guests. As a guest, you’re equally obliged to politely refuse. This will go back and forth. On a bus that only has eight seats, with about fifty passengers, this was a glorious game of Iranian musical chairs, both fascinating and heart-warming to be a part of.

With Tarof, does a young lady struggling with a small baby trump a middle-aged lady with a walking stick? Who gets the seat? What about a man who looks kind of young for his age, clearly very fit, but is probably, I guess, sixty or so… does he get the chair, or, as a guest in Iran, do I trump everyone? It was a maelstrom of “please, take the seat”, “no, I insist, you take the seat”, “no, no, please, you take the seat”. When you mix Tarof with the Iranian respect for the elderly, as well as the chivalrous nature of the men, things could get complicated. I decided the best thing to do was just smile wildly, which really, is impossible not to do in this situation, and continue to offer the last remaining seat to every other person on the bus. I knew it would sort itself out, and everyone would be happy no matter what, because Iranians, are just so fucking nice.

I’ll just expand on Tarof, because it really is fascinating. We don’t have Tarof in the “West”. The closest we have is the “who is paying the restaurant bill” – the dance where everyone reaches for their wallet, awkwardly insists on paying, simultaneously hoping that the richest guy at the table will pay for everyone. In Iran, Tarof is that bill-paying moment, several times a day, every day, for the rest of your life. Catching a taxi, a driver told me “no no, your presence as a guest here in Iran is enough. I cannot accept your money”. At the market, I’ve been told at the checkout not to pay, and “may your footsteps fall onto my eye balls”. I’m not joking. Maybe, it seems like it would be annoying, but it’s not. It’s a game, and who doesn’t love games.

Entering the Shiraz terminal, I would soon find out if visiting Iran was a big deal to the authorities – who most definitely do not engage in Tarof with visa-less foreigners.

Iran street photo shiraz
Mean streets of Vakil Bazaar, Shiraz, Iran. He was amazed that *I* could speak English.

fake kfc fried chicken iran
Karen Fried Chicken (fake KFC), Shiraz, Iran.
Vakil Bath, Shiraz, Iran.
Vakil Bath, Shiraz, Iran.
Vakil Bazaar, Shiraz, Iran.
Vakil Bazaar, Shiraz, Iran.
Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz, Iran.
Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz, Iran.
Back streets of Shiraz, Iran.
Back streets of Shiraz, Iran.
Naranjestan, Shiraz, Iran.
Shiraz is full of centuries-old courtyards and gardens. Naranjestan, Shiraz, Iran.

 

“Hello Sir. I would like a visa.”

“What is your purpose for visiting Iran?”

“Tourism.”

“OK!”

He smiled, and walked away with our passports. The next I would see of him, the passports would contain Iranian tourist visa’s. No further questions. One small form. A payment of 100 Euro per person, which came with a receipt and a packet of Banana flavoured gum. No checking, or even asking, about my accommodation or onward travel plans.

By extension, even the Iranian government understands what most of the world doesn’t – these days, visiting Iran really is no big deal. But, it remains a nation full of unparalleled experiences – thanks to the Iranian people.

When I was waiting for the visa, a small girl approached. She sat next to me. Her mother sat a few seats away, veil covering her face. The little girl looked at me, and smiled.

“What does that say?”

I was surprised at her English. She was pointing up, at a sign that said “Welcome to Shiraz”.

“It says Welcome to Shiraz”.

She giggled. And looked at her mother, who smiled.

I pointed up at the Arabic script on the other end of the same wall. Same colour letters, same positioning.

“I guess that says Welcome to Shiraz as well… maybe in your language.”

She giggled again. Eyes so wide.

“So, anyway, I really need to get some rest now, I’m not feeling great”.

She giggled.

“No seriously, I feel pretty shit.”

More giggles.

“Phillipa, I’m going to pass out. This little girl next to me won’t stop giggling. I don’t know what her fucking problem is.”

I didn’t really say that last bit. Well actually I did, but purely for comedic value. I winked at the little girl.

She giggled. Her smile absolutely beamed.

I placed my jacket on the bench, used it as a pillow, and instantly passed out. When I awoke to collect our visa’s, Phillipa told me that the young girl slept next to me the whole time, her head next to mine. And, her father would come over every now and then – he could tell I was sick, and was making sure I was OK. This, is Iran.

Outside, I caught a taxi straight to the hotel I stayed at here in Shiraz, back in 2012. The man at the front desk recognised me.

“Oh my… you have returned! How are you! Have you come straight from Australia?”

I explained that since staying here 2012, I had continued to travel around the world.

“Mr Nate, can I say, you are not a normal tourist. Don’t you get tired of so much travel?”

I explained that no, normally, I don’t get tired. But today, I was absolutely exhausted. He giggled. Must be an Iranian thing, laughing at sickness.

“Do you remember what room you were in last time?”

I had kept the receipt from 2012, and checked the room number. Within a few minutes, I was laying down in a familiar bed.

In Iran.

Oh, one last thing. The Iran tourist visa-on-arrival – it’s for 15 days. I asked if I could extend it, and was told yes, for an additional 15 days. So, I asked if I could extend it a third time.

“ohhhh no. No no. Only one extension.”

He must have seen the look of disappointment on my face, because he winked, and added…

“unless, say, you were sick…”

Nate

 

PS, if you’re a citizen of the United States, Canada, or England, you are unable to get a visa-on-arrival for Iran. The only way you can obtain a tourist visa, is by taking part in an “official” tour of Iran. This is exactly the reason why I have partnered with a local agency in Iran, to offer the most unique “untour” of Iran to my American, Canadian, and British readers. In my opinion, it’s the best travel opportunity of 2015. You can read all about the October Yomadic trip through Iran, right here. Hope you can join us, no matter what your nationality.

PPS, if you’re on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, you’ll see my very regular photo updates from here in Iran. And, if you’re reading this on the email list, apologies, my new post format means you are not seeing the very-large featured photo at the top of this article. I’ll work on sorting out this issue, but check the blog if you would like to see the photo. If you’re not reading this article by email, why not? My email followers are my favourite followers… just pop your address in here…

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38 thoughts on “Why Visiting Iran is No Big Deal These Days

  1. I’m a Canadian who turned down a chance to visit last year — shortly before we got nailed with the tourist visa sanctions — and it’s haunted me ever since. This post is funny yet informative as always and I appreciate everything you’re doing to make this country accessible. One day I’ll get a chance to visit the beautiful mosques or Shiraz (at grad school now, or I’d totally look into your tour!) In the meantime, thanks for sharing!

    1. Hey Jeff… yes, the visa options are disappointing for Canadians/USA/England… but they do seem to change fairly often, so hopefully, you will get the chance to visit soon. Totally worth the trip!

  2. Lovely photos. And your storytelling made me smile.
    Last year I met two Belgian girls who told me they had overstayed their Iranian visa for a couple of days. The immigration officer wasn’t angry – he was worried that they now had to pay a fine…

    I’ve decided to make Iran my top travel priority so I can hopefully finally go in 2016. Or this year, should they manage to follow through on their plans and arrange direct flights from Bishkek to Tehran.

    1. Hi Kathi, very timely story – I was at the immigration office here in Shiraz this morning, extending my visa, and I wondered hmmm what would happen if I overstayed ;)

      Bishkek is a favourite city of mine – a direct flight from Bishkek to Tehran would be fantastic!

  3. Unfortunately, the people/government create these horror stories so that we dont go and see with our own eyes that there is nothing wrong, that we should not help to get the word out and make that region prosper. A similar situation is with the east of Turkey. “No you cant go it is so dangerous, terrorists , extraordinary military measures”. Yet my brother and cousins went and to their surprise realized a whole different peaceful world hass been shielded from our eyes.
    Glad you are having great time! Enjoy tarofing :)

    1. Thanks Ikle…. yes, I visited the East of Turkey last year, and again, it was probably the friendliest and safest part of anywhere I visited in Turkey (I should note, Turkey in general is very safe, perhaps there are some places along the Syrian border that maybe aren’t, but I’m not sure).

      And, I will enjoy Tarofing :)

  4. I keep hearing people saying that Iran isn’t safe too, unfortunately the media have a huge influence and they might brainwash people at times. I’m glad they are wrong about Iran because it’s a country I’d love to visit :)

  5. Hi! What’s the censorship situation there? Are you using a proxy to bypass the block on FB or did they lift the ban?

  6. For some reason I can’t remember, I stopped reading your blog in early 2014. I rediscovered it this weekend and spent a few hours reading about all your recent trips. Great fun and great writing. I really enjoy the way you describe your travels. If I remember correctly, when I first discovered you, you were using a Fuji X-Pro1. Is that still your camera?

    1. Hey Kevin, glad to have you back :) Your memory serves you well, I’m still using the same Fuji X-Pro1, with the same 18mm lens, for all my photos. I’m now on my fourth UV filter, from dropping/banging the camera so many times… but the camera (now about three years old, used daily) operates just like new.

  7. We also had no trouble what so ever getting a visa on arrival in November. Ours was only €50 per person. We only stayed 15 days and it was NOT enough. You’re right, visiting Iran is no big deal… So we’ll just have to return!

    1. Hi Sarah, yes, I extended my visa today for another 15 days. I’ve had differing reports as to whether or not I can extend a third time, I will try and see how it goes. I met a French, and Swiss tourist, who were applying for a VOA at the same time as me – they also paid 50 euro each. Australians/New Zealanders pay 100 Euro, and I remember from my last visit a guy from I think either Indonesia or Malaysia, and he paid a very cheap price (maybe 20 Euro).

      Either way, it is worth it!

  8. Interesting article. My mother spoke well of her visit to Iran in the 70’s. Recently, there was an episode of Anthony Bourdain that covered Iran. In it, he repeatedly spoke of the wonderful people. There was one big fly in the ointment of the episode: a pair of husband and wife journalists who were included in the episode were disappeared after shooting. The wife was released weeks later, but the husband still remains in secret custody. Neither expressed the least revolutionary ideas, instead acting as goodwill ambassadors. Things like this make me exceedingly reluctant to visit theocracies in general, and Iran in particular. This is a shame, as the individuals, culture and history make for a compelling destination. I’d love to visit if a sane government ever is in charge, but it could be argued the sane government is a contradiction in terms.

    1. Hi Christian. Yes, I’m familiar with the Bourdain episode, and the journalists you speak of. As for visiting Iran, or the USA, or any other country for that matter – it’s an individual decision, whether to visit a nation whose politics/actions you don’t agree with. There are certainly governments I disagree with far more than Iran, however, I will still visit those nations as I see a huge difference between a government, and it’s people. By the same token, I respect any individuals decision to travel, or not travel to any particular nation.

      I appreciate your comment, it’s something I think about regularly, visiting so many different nations.

      (it’s worth noting that the TV show you mentioned is produced/aired by CNN, they have their own bias on Iran)

  9. If ever we get the chance to in the future Franca and I are dead certs for your tours, especially if you discuss Iran in person as well as your monologues here on Yomadic.

  10. So, does this mean you are not American? I thought there was so much hassle in the media on your previous visit because you managed to get a visa on arrival as an American? I even told someone that you knew a way for Americans to get into the country without a tour, but this is wrong, it seems.

    If not because you were American, what exactly was the media stir about then?

    Thanks!

    1. Hey Steven… no, I’m not American. The media reports were purely due to it being “unusual” for any tourist to arrive without a visa, in 2012. It was difficult to find out if it was even possible in 2012, and the airline would (initially) not even let me board, as they thought there is no way I would get a visa on arrival back in 2012. Unfortunately, for Americans, they do need to be part of a tour. Hopefully this will change in the future…

  11. Would love to visit Iran but unfortunately there’s no way I could justify spending the money on a tour when all I want to do is explore the country by myself with no strict itinerary.

    Unfortunately the British Home Secretary appears to be doing everything in her power to slow, and even deteriorate relations with Iran: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/11359054/Theresa-May-accused-of-jeopardising-Iran-embassy-deal.html Here’s hoping she won’t be the Home Secretary for long…elections coming up in May.

    1. I understand, Duncan. Yes, you’re right – not only Britain, but the US and Canada are also doing their best to deteriorate relations with Iran. As an Australian, I’m concerned our politicians are also following the lead of USA and Britain, and perhaps in the future I won’t be able to travel independently through Iran. Time to get a second passport!

    2. Geeze, this comment is a bit sad reading it a year and a half later…

      Nate, I just discovered your blog after returning from a month in Bulgaria and Romania and feeling sad that we didn’t go to Macdedonia, now the last country in SE Europe I haven’t been to! You’ve inspired me to go back to Albania (we were in the north, and yes, our experience was amazing but also no rubbish) and now I have a burning desire to go to Iran. Thanks and please keep it up.

  12. First, I hope you are feeling better! Traveling and being sick is not funny at all, I unfortunately also had this experience…
    I did not know you could get a visa on arrival in Iran. Is this new? We were there last April, and had to get a visa at the embassy in Vienna, which by the way way rather straightforward and easy.
    I fully agree with everything that you wrote: Iran is an amazing country, Iranian people are the most welcoming I ever experienced, this is probably the safest country to travel (it is the only place where I had the feeling that anything should occur, 10 people would immediately help).
    Iran is a must-see country for anyone who loves to travel, and I will definitely go back there soon: the 2 weeks we had were not merely enough, one month would be ideal, and one month it will be next time (I hope this year or beginning of next year).
    We wrote quite a bit on Iran, in the hope that people would change their opinion.
    Thanks again for sharing
    Cheers, Gilles

    1. Hey Gilles, thanks, feeling much better now!

      I first got a visa-on-arrival for Iran back in October 2012, although I think it was quite new at the time. I’m not 100% sure, but I think Austrians should be able to get a VOA.

      And I agree with you 100% – two weeks is not enough. I’m here now, but contemplating returning for two months when I return in May of this year….

    1. Hey Simon… different prices for different nationalities. I’ve seen it range from 20 Euro through to 150 Euro (discussing with other tourists). But, yes, I heard the prices have increased for many nations. I think mine was about the same in 2012 as it was now, in 2015.

  13. I guess the fact that most tourists have been avoiding Iran altogether makes any visit to the country very authentic. Too often we see how mass tourism changes local people into more money-oriented and brings touts and scams to the usual touristy places. I love how that old man was amazed that you could speak English! :)

    1. I visited Iran in mid 2015 and was surprised at how many tourists there were. A distinct lack of American, Brits and Canadians for the reasons discussed but many European and other nationalities.

      The other thing which had not occurred to me, but was very apparent after traveling through and talking with locals was that there is a huge domestic tourism market. With a population of some 80 million people, many families with plenty of wealth and few counties willing to issue a visa, Iranians travel extensively for leisure as its one of their only affordable options.

      This means that travel and tourist infrastructure is quite readily available. So whilst there certainly isn’t mass tourism as some other countries might have, there is still large amounts of ‘tourists’ moving around the country.

  14. Hi Nate, been reading your articles for hours now and thoroughly enjoyed your account of experiences in Iran. Being a British-Iranian living in the UK, I have visited a lot of attractions you’ve covered many times myself. However, I find it fascinating to read about the country from a foreign visitors’ perspective; also for me, it feels like traveling back home for a few hours! I just find it strange that I’ve only just discovered your site, even though I search such articles often. Anyway, I have come across a few articles now written by independent travelers to Iran that are from Australia. Is Iran one of those destinations that is gradually attracting seasoned Australian travelers? I know most young Iranian migrants’ destination of choice has over the years changed from the US to Canada and now to Australia… I can see a pattern?!!

  15. Oh, I almost forgot. Although I love all your photo-shoots, my favorite for tonight is that of Karen Kentucky Chicken! I could not stop laughing. I guess that photo would soon be heading for the archives soon if president Obama gets his way in lifting the commercial sanctions on Iran. Ps, keep hold of that photo Nate, you never know it may be worth something in an auction some day ; )

  16. Hello Nate, firstly, my compliments regarding your article, adequately informative and done in such readable and entertaining fashion: Iran really appeals again as a result. It’s been on my ‘hit list’ for many years, I wanted to go to Tehran on business back in the early 2000’s but my Italian employer wouldn’t let me (precious metals, jewellery) they had trepidation by the bucket load, whereas I only had a few drops.
    It was a let down to know about passports (not your fault of course) although it was crucial to learn that, as I am a UK passport holder (Scottish), currently living in Malaysia, with a Malaysian work & residence permit valid until 2017, but employed by a Japanese company with HQ in Tokyo…phew! I work from home in Kuala Lumpur but also have a virtual office in the city.
    I also opted to visit Kuwait City on business in the past, which I did in 2007, again because Italians are generally afraid of the whole Middle-East, but I had no issues there at all. My biggest passport problem was on arrival in Tel Aviv in 2005/6, when they stamped my passport at immigration: I was supposed to go onward to Dubai then South Korea so those plans were scuppered before the booming thump from the stamp had trailed off and the ringing in my ears had stopped. Dubai appointments were cancelled, and on leaving Tel Aviv, to reach South Korea I was obliged to fly via Jordan, Bangkok and Hong Kong.
    Anyway, your article link was sent to me today by an Iranian friend who lived in KL until 2014 and ran a restaurant/bar/cinema here for about 7 years. We became friends, kept in touch, she went back to Iran, and I read another great article about Iran a few weeks ago on her FB page which stirred up my interest again.
    So she is also trying to get info for me as a British Citizen/UK passport holder, as I really would like to visit, and having her as a guide would obviously be ideal.
    Thanks again for the article, a delightful read (despite the misery of the flu which you turned nicely into entertainment when it is anything but, and especially in that situation).
    I sincerely hope to ‘do’ Iran in 2016 if not before, just hope that any permanent entry/exit stamps wouldn’t cause issues elsewhere? I travel globally on business (all over Europe, including Russia, USA, Japan, HK, Australia) so need to find out about that as well…

  17. thank you for your article about this piece of heaven ! i invite all travel visit Qazvin and valley of assassins (alamut) that has magnificent landscape with rich culture behind it .. i would be more than happy to help you

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