The capital city of the world’s strongest Islamic Republic is Tehran. It’s unknown and enigmatic, mysterious and unfathomable even to those who have spent a lifetime in the shadow of the towering Alborz mountains – which on this day remained perplexingly dusted with snow, even though the sweltering temperature on the streets below would fry an egg on the bonnet of a Paykan. There was one reason I was here – I’d decided that Iran would be a nice place to organise a “group tour”. Of all the countries in the world, I chose to organise a tour in Iran. Paris in the spring came to mind. No. I was in fucking Iran. With a gang of people who, I guess, trusted that everything I had told them about Iran was actually true.
It didn’t take long for the real Iran to reveal itself to eight new Western witnesses. On the way from the airport to the hotel, we made an unplanned stop at the iconic Azadi Tower (Freedom Tower). An enormous 1970’s futuristic marble-clad monument, celebrating the two-thousand-five-hundred-year anniversary of the Persian empire. The site of protests, and of revolutions. Within a few minutes of arriving, a young guy sidled up. He looked me in the eye. I’d seen that look before. In Hong Kong, it was a guy trying to flog me a fake Rolex. In New York city, it was crack. Istanbul, a day-cruise on a boat. But, this was Tehran. He gave me a refreshing orange juice and a packet of snacks.
The guy couldn’t speak English, so I asked my friend to translate. “He’s just saying welcome to my country, and he hopes you enjoy yourself here”. We shook hands, he waved, and walked away. No big deal – for him. For me, this was the legendary Iranian hospitality I’ve experienced many times before. About twelve hours later, standing with the gang outside our modern downtown hotel, looking out over a modern leafy city, a cool breeze blowing, every local in eye-shot was smiling and genuinely interested in getting to know us, I was offered a classic Iranian car. Offered, as in, the car was mine. Keys were put in my hand, and it was a lengthy struggle to have the owner take the keys back.
It took less than 24 hours, for a small gang from the four corners of the Western world, to realise that, yes, everything they had read about Iran was slightly misguided media reporting at best, or outright mischievous and machiavellian government propaganda and lies at worst. I had no feelings of “I told you so”. It’s so beyond “I told you so” that really it’s laughable. Despite what you may have heard, Iran is by far the most interesting, safest, welcoming, and life-changing travel experience on the entire planet. There are now eight more people who share my opinion, and I couldn’t be happier for them, for me, or for Iran.
One of the trippers summed it up perfectly – “Nate, we know nothing”.
I’ve always considered myself a travel evangelist. Going on the regular messages I receive, Yomadic has inspired more than a few people to visit places they never thought of visiting. Considering I’ve achieved this level of inspiration with pages filled with such a small amount of facts and actionable information, I’m pretty chuffed, because all I do is go places, write slightly hyperbolic and always heartfelt articles, show a few pretty photos, and then other people become convinced they must visit those places. I love it. It’s a victimless crime, and somebody has to do it.
But, for many people, visiting the Islamic Republic, well, it’s not so simple.
In fact, visiting Iran can be kind of complicated.
If you’re from the USA, Canada, or England (AKA, the bizarro-world-axis-of-evil), to get your Iran tourist visa you have to join an official group tour. And, all of the existing group tours in Iran, well, they’re a little sucky. Ten museums in one day, following a guy with a lolli-pop from one historical site to the next, listening to non-stop Wikipedia-esque spiels, sticking to rigid-timetables, there’s little interaction with locals, and guided tours of the bazaars and markets where your guide will take you to his preferred high-commission carpet and souvenir merchant. You pay big dollars for an Iran group tour, but you might get poorly located one-star hotels sharing with all the other tour groups, with some very average breakfasts included. You’ll probably be using public transport, you’ll need to be negotiating with vulturesque taxi drivers just to get from the airport to your hotel, and I could go on – the point is, the experience these traditional group tours offer, is often surprisingly close to my personal version of a hellish nightmare.
Unfortunately, for citizens from the bizarro-world-axis-of-evil, you can either choose shadowy, money-making, Western travel corporations who are all doing much the same thing – they’re farming you off to Iranian tour providers with white-labelled pre-packaged tours designed last century. Or, you could choose one of those unknown Iranian companies – step one is being asked to transfer a large cash payment to a Turkish bank account number. It’s not their fault – due to the economic sanctions Iranian companies can’t accept your payment to an Iranian bank account, nor via credit card.
Of course, you might be adventurous. Many nationalities can travel independently to Iran, and that’s great, however there are issues. Booking anything in advance can be challenging. The web-presence of hotels is scant. Credit cards or any foreign bank-cards of any type aren’t accepted, anywhere in the country. If you do get an email response from a hotel, you’ll often pay “foreigner prices”, and it will be very difficult to find the good hotels anyway. Language barriers are real. Everything you need to pay for, anywhere in the country, for anything, will be cash-only. You won’t be able to access any more cash, than what you bring into Iran.
Iran is big. Getting around can take a lot of time. It’s truly difficult, or expensive, or both, to reach remote sites. Guide-books are outdated. Some are, very, very outdated. Information on websites is either inaccurate, incomplete, or out-of-date, and there’s not much of it anyway.
Despite all of this, truly, you’ll have an amazing experience travelling independently through Iran.
So for those people with time, and a genuine sense of adventure, go for it.
Visit Iran. Now.
Honestly, just go.
As long as you don’t count that one time where one of my guests shot an Iranian in the chest with a firework, the first (of three) Iran Untours was an uncompromising, relentless, roller-coaster of success. Oh, he was fine, but a little shaken up. I’m not sure how the Iranian guy pulled-up. He seemed a OK. I jest. One of the guests really did shoot an Iranian with a firework. In the middle of a desert. It was really cool. Iran, for real.
It all worked out, because, in general, we did the opposite of every other tour in Iran.
More time was devoted to Tehran. It’s a bustling metropolis, one of the world’s largest, with ancient dusty backstreets, leafy modern boulevards, enormous bazaars, a community of contemporary creatives, engineering and architectural marvels, cafe’s, views, stylish people, shopping, food, history, and more than a few corners of complete and utter chaos. What’s not to like? However, when I was outlining the proposed tour to my partners in Iran, I was told “you’re spending too long in Tehran”. This is what decades of cookie-cut packaged group tours has done. Their mantra says tourists only want to see museums and historical sites out in the deserts. Even independent travellers gloss-over Tehran, they’ve also been infected with the mantra, such is the power of suggestion.
As it turned out, for us, three nights in Tehran wasn’t nearly enough time.
With just two weeks, you can’t see everything. And, we didn’t want to over plan this thing. There were deviations and changes when it made sense to do so. Late nights and sleep-ins. Of course, we checked out the unmissable historical sites all over the country. And in between, we dined at a variety of restaurants – traditional hole-in-the-walls, through to cool and contemporary. We drank tea and smoked Qalyan inside unfindable chai-bars with Iranian TV celebrities, and sipped coffee at cool cafes playing 1950’s country music, surrounded by portraits of The Godfather and Scarface. Most importantly, there was time for everyone to get their own personal Iran experiences. We also managed to just relax and let Iran come to us.
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I love independent travel, I’ve been doing it for more than 1000 days in a row. I’m not that fond of traditional group tours. In Iran, there needs to be a middle-ground, because the thing is, travelling independently, you’re going to miss a huge part of Iran. I know, I’ve been there. Without some local Iranian knowledge, you’re simply going from one Lonely Planet listing to the next. Even the friendly and well-meaning locals will encourage you to see the same things that all the other tourists see – they don’t realise that thousands of years of historical sights can be eclipsed by the experience of sharing a slice of watermelon in the lounge-room of a friendly Iranian family.
Until you’ve visited Iran a couple of times, you’re not going to know that although the ancient Zooastrian Fire Temple in Yazd sounds impressive – it’s not. And, it’s not really that ancient either. Or, that Persepolis is an unmissable highlight, and Cyrus the Great’s Tomb at Parsagad is, in my opinion, only for the die-hard history buffs – of which I include myself. But the whole Parsagad complex is not for everyone, and for most people, maybe it’s not worth the time. Guide books won’t tell you that. Iran has a very, very, ancient tourist circuit – just not very well trodden these days – and it’s hard not to just slip into the same route as everyone who has come before you. The contemporary aspects of Iran remain almost undocumented, and it would be a big shame to miss out on the whole picture.
Sure, no matter where you go in Iran, it’s the real Iran.
But, it’s not necessarily Iran for real.
For me, chatting with locals inside a third-wave cafe in downtown Shiraz, was just as memorable as exploring the ancient ruins of Persepolis. There’s a juxtaposition awaiting you – old and new, well-trodden and unexplored – and it would have been impossible to see what we saw, from Tehran to Shiraz, without the knowledge, advice and street-smarts from my group of friends and associates who spend their entire lives in this remarkable country. Thanks to them, this was an unforgettable experience.
Even so, one truth remains – for me, the group of eight that I untoured around, and all the other foreign tourists that come to visit – we know nothing about Iran.
Which makes right now, a totally unique time to head there.
I’m at risk of sounding like a broken-down-record. We get it, Nate, Iran is fucking great and it’s totally safe and all that with the other thing. Sure, I’m passionate about Iran. The reason for my passion – I’ve been living a nomadic-travelling lifestyle for more than a thousand days now, and sharing this experience with a small gang of friends was pretty much the highlight of my last three years.
I know this article sounds like a bit of an advertorial. This is the truth: two Iran Untours have sold out already, and I know the final couple of places in November will sell. I don’t need any more hype about Iran, it seems to be gaining popularity all on its own, interest is increasing rapidly, so for now it’s kinda nice to have the place almost to myself, with just a small gang of trippers. The point is, if you take away just one thing from this article, it’s this:
If you’re thinking about visiting Iran, do it while we still know nothing.
PS, all of the Iran posts I’ve ever written, since way back in 2012, are right here. UPDATE: sorry, all trips for 2015 have now sold out. If you would like more info, to help you decide if a Yomadic Untour in 2016 is right for you (spoiler: it is right for you) – pop your email in the box below, and I’ll make sure you’re the first to know when any new Untours are launched.
PPS, right now I’m in Bulgaria, relaxing in Varna, on the coast of the Black Sea. Coming up, I have stories from recent non-Iranian and Iranian adventures, plus I have a journey planned through my favourite region of Europe – the Balkans.