Thoughts on leaving Iran.

Under Khaju BridgeUnder Khajou Bridge, Isfahan

There were moments while travelling around Iran that I almost thought that this land could knock India off the number one spot as my favorite place on Earth. It had everything I love: amazing architecture, an ancient civilization, art, beautiful people, poetry but as I was walking along Isfahan’s most famous avenue Chahar Bagh one afternoon the displays in shop windows made me realise that if you just changed to advertising for something more European and changed the people you could practically be walking along Las Ramblas in Barcelona. The thing that edged Iran to second place was lack of street life that I seem to thrive on. There were no elephants walking down the street or transvestite dancers wishing people good luck or monkeys running across balconies and the thing I disliked most was the lack of music anywhere. Shops were eerily quiet, I just couldn’t get used to this.

There were many things that are so wonderful about Iran. It’s that time warp thing, this country lives mostly in the 1970s. I had a right giggle to myself one moment on a long distance coach peering out of the window I caught a glimpse of a man getting out of a car, he had big coiffured hair and was wearing the same suit John Travolta wore in Stayin’ Alive.

Have you ever walked along a street and saw someone so poetic? Well, in Iran you will, in all their melancholy. The people that stood out most for me were the silent men who push carts through the streets. Of all the people on all the streets it is these people who are for me the most Persian.

Bastami RestaurantPainting in Bastami Restaurant, Isfahan

There were so many incredible things that I couldn’t list them all here. The laughing children playing infront of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, the little cage full of vibrant singing birds in the middle of a garage full of car parts and diesel fumes, the man wife and four children all on the back of a motorbike racing through the Tehrani streets without helmets, a homeless man in a park with his ragged mat praying in the direction of Mecca, the gentle faces of the martyrs painted on the walls of highrise buildings surrounded by white doves, the little boy running through the courtyard of the Jameh Mosque trying to catch pigeons, small pools of goldfish in courtyards tucked away in a maze of shops, the sad eyed little fortune teller who reminded me of Hans Christian Andersen’s Matchstick Girl, sunset reflected in the tiles on the dome of the Imam Mosque.


Chehel SotounInfront of Chehel Sotoun

Chehel Sotoun ReflectionsThe pavilion Chehel Sotoun and its forty pillars

Ali Qapu Palace The back of Ali Qapu Palace

Children in Isfahan Isfahan

Inner Chehel Sotoun Chehel Sotoun ceiling

Khaju bridge at night Khaju Bridge at night

Isfahan River The drybed of the river that flows through Isfahan

Ali Qapu Palace at sunet Ali Qapu Palace at sunset

I first mentioned visiting Iran in 2009 although never thought it would be possible. I was put off by the idea of the process in aquiring a travel visa plus the thought of travelling with hard currency and not being able to use plastic in an emergency. Then there was the thought of as it is a country with negative travel advice maybe my medical insurance would not be covered there. Well, the standard international medical care I have covers Iran. There is alot to take into account when visiting this country and while it seems complicated once you get started its really straight forward. I managed to find a plane ticket from Amsterdam to Tehran for only Euro 180 return so for me Iran was basically handed to me on a silver platter.

Chehel Sotoun freascoFresco is Chehel Sotoun, Isfahan

Will I ever return to Iran? I would most definetly love to return to Iran, maybe next time to Khoraran or the Caspian Sea coast. I will never forget driving into Tehran that morning and seeing the first martyr paintings on the side of buildings and how alien, almost disturbing, and exciting it felt. Then as days passed slowly the country revealed itself as a land of kind strangers where almost everytime you buy something you are handed a little extra for free as a welcome to their country. Where else in the world would you find that?


The Abbasi, Iran´s most famous hotel.

If you are trying to make up your mind about going on a  tour group or travelling independently I would advise you to choose the latter. Iran is one of the easiest countries to travel around with a good transport system and good tarmac. I know at the moment if you are an American citizen it is obligatory to choose a tour group. It is more difficult to be able to rent a car as the mileage is limited and they also prefer you to take a driver. Planes are amazingly cheap but due to sanctions you have to take into account the condition of the planes. I chose to travel around Iran by bus.

My first trip involved going to Tehran’s Southern Bus Terminal. I didnt even need to bother going into the terminal and finding a ticket counter. Just stand at the exit where the buses are leaving as the drivers shout out their destinations in a hope of filling vacant seats. The taxi seat to bus seat transfer  must have took no more than two minutes and before I knew it I was on my way to Isfahan.

Abassi Hotel GardenIn the garden of the Abbasi Hotel

Driving towards Isfahan I was reminded time and time again of Arizona and sometimes how I imagine Mars to be. At police checkpoints the bus driver’s assistant would rush along the aisle telling people to put their seatbelts on. The authorities seem to be strict with buses which is a good thing compared to my experiences in Africa. The people on the bus were very nice, an old lady gave us pomegranates and another man handed us a box of sweets. We spent time talking about politics and conspiracies, one man was shocked to hear that Dutch politicians cycle to work and the royal princesses go to regular schools. We wished we had took photos of the country we live in as it would have made explaining things much easier. All the while a man near the front of the bus kept turning around and staring at us as if he needed to talk to us urgently. In the end we never had time to talk to him. As a foreigner you will get alot of attention, not on the superstar status like you get in India so it’s not overpowering.

Street in Isfahan IranTypical street in Isfahan

The taxi drivers are not as friendly in Isfahan as they are in Tehran. A passenger on our bus told us from the Kavah Bus Terminal to our hotel would cost IRR 50,000 but the drivers were quoting us three times as much. We refused as a matter of principal and in the end paid double the standard fare to perhaps Iran’s most scheming taxi driver. Driving along Isfahan´s most famous avenue Chahar Bagh I realised I liked this city. With a lot of squinting of the eyes you could block out the traffic and just imagine how this avenue used to be lined with palaces and parks.

Abassi Garden in the hotel.

Abassi Hotel Isfahan

We stayed in Iran´s most famous hotel, the Abbasi. By Iranian standards it is five star although everything, like most hotels, are worn out. The building of the Abbasi looks beautiful, it used to be a caravanserai centuries ago. The only charm left is the actual building and some chandaliers and paintings inside but I was disappoined with the tattered rooms and staff who couldn’t care less about their guests. You wont find the legendary Iranian hospitality here. Nevertheless it was central to all the sights and within walking distance to Naqsh-e Jahan Square.

Noor alley Isfahan In Isfahan you can still find buildings made of mud and straw!

Back streets of Isfahan

I had heard from many people that Isfahan is the world´s most beautiful city but I had yet to see it with my own eyes. That would have to be another day.

Tehran, Iran 01.10.2013

ayatollahHuge mural of Ayatollah Khomeini on the side of a building

Tehran is like nowhere I have ever been before that it’s almost impossible to describe. Sure, it’s like any other major metropolis across the world with all the things that come with them – traffic, shops, apartment blocks, rich, poor … but every now and then you’ll spot something that will just, well, scream at you. The first thing I noticed were the buses and trucks and how old they were. You begin to realise that you could be in another decade – go on Youtube and watch any old Turkish film from the Seventies and you might begin to understand where Iran is. Paradoxically can you believe that Tehran has an Apple store and streets with row upon row of shops selling nothing but Samsung LCD’s? I kid you not!

Then you’ve got huge paintings on the sides of buildings of Ayatollah Khomeini and soldiers who died in the Iran-Iraq war. Why don’t we have paintings of our war heroes all over the place? Afterall they gave their lives for our countries. One moment in Tehran I actually stopped on the spot utterly terrified when I noticed a huge photo of the face of a blood splattered corpse (see photo below) – that for me was going too far.

Iran posterThe only thing I found disturbing in Iran were these corpse posters!

ayatollah mural tehran

tehran skyline Tehrani skyline

Somehow I had the perception that there would be soldiers with machine guns riding around in trucks barking orders through tannoys but I hardly saw any soldiers and the ones I did see with machine guns were stationed near national landmarks. I did see alot of tanks on the outskirts of southern Tehran and what i’m convinced were surface-to-air missiles on the backs of flatbed trucks. Combine all of that with lookout posts and “designated areas” with barbed wire and you can imagine how electrifying Iran really is. That, though, is the modern political Iran and later I was able to slowly peel the layers away to discover a highly emotional, inquisitive and cultured society. After a time you begin to notice that this astonishing country gets under your skin – but in a good way.

I longed for the Tehran of Iranian New Wave cinema, that poetic almost melancholy Iran where everything moved at a slower place where on street corners you would find a blind man with a budgie on his arm and a box of cards where the bird would pull out a prediction with it’s beak. All I was getting were people staring into their smartphones with endless din of traffic in the background. Then I got my first glimpse of the Iran I had loved, it was an old dishevelled man pushing a overloaded cart somewhere amongst the diesel fumes and chaos of rundown South Tehran – he was singing what sounded like a spellbinding heartbreaking love song, the composition of the notes alien to my ears. I secretly smiled to myself knowing that the Iran in the films of Majid Majidi thankfully still exists.

Iranian fortune tellerThis girl sells little folded pieces of paper which you chose. It turns out they are predicions,

Another odd thing were taxi drivers. I must have crossed Tehran many times in the back of taxis and depending on the drivers age he would take you through ‘his Tehran’. Older drivers with deep, intense eyes would play old songs while pointing out the palace where the Shah used to live or stop near a statue of someone important and sigh deeply as they tried to explain how it was before. Young excited drivers with awkward haircuts would play everything from Iranian Pop to Rhianna while speeding through the new Tehran of Japanese electronica while flirting with girls with pancake makeup and nosejobs who incidentally weren’t afraid of flirting back.

Mural in Tehran

North tehran North Tehran

While reading about Tehran I had been attracted to the South of the city, the older, ramshackle districts sounded somewhat charming although in the end I loved North Tehran more. The South was too chaotic where everytime you risked your life trying to cross the street due to the lack of traffic lights and choking diesel fumes. You are advised to just cross the streets and the drivers will stop but try doing this at 6am when the streets are almost empty and every boulevard is turned into a highway with speeding insane drivers trying to get to work.

One day I walked for almost an hour in the oppresive heat trying to find somewhere to eat and what made it worse is i’m vegetarian. All I could find were places selling rice and various types of meat. This would become a problem all over Iran. The first place I ate was a “fastfood” joint just off Imam Khomeini square, were I was served by a group of men wearing dirty, flouresent orange aprons. The only thing vegetarian on offer were french fries on a baguette! I quickly changed my mind about the baguette when I saw the cook scraping some of the soft bit of the bread out with his dirty nails.

Azadi tower

Azadi tower at night Azadi (freedom) Tower at night – Tehrans version of the Arc de Triomphe

South Tehran is very similar to Old Delhi – whole neighbourhoods selling nothing but car parts. I think because of this there are hardly any women on the streets which I was very aware of. If you have ever been to Turkey and India well, Iran seems to be a mashup of these two countries. Sometimes with my boyfriend we would point out the “Indian element” or  “Turkish element”, giggle and agree.

North Tehran is wonderful. Most intersections have traffic lights where surprisingly the drivers stop at red. The streets are designed on a grid so if you remember the mountain range is to the north of the city then it’s almost impossible to get lost. Another curious thing is if you ever find yourself walking uphill or up a sloping street then chances are you are heading north. I loved the northern districts, many fine places to eat and good little cafes selling delicious coffee and cake. North Tehran reminded me alot of Manhattan, only ofcourse here the buildings are much smaller – but the same busy, exciting vibe.

U.S. Den of Espionage Outside the U.S. Den of Espionage

U.S. Den of Espionage

Down with USA in Tehran North Tehran street scene

All in all I liked Tehran, not because of the way it looks but because of the many contrasts and the street vibe. I felt very safe in Tehran too, you can walk around without being worried about being mugged. Once I thought two pickpockets were following us on the subway but it turned out they were just curious about where we came from which filled me with guilt.

I would have liked to stay much longer in Tehran but it was time for me to head south and into the desert.

Things to avoid when applying for an Iranian travel visa.

iranOld photo taken flying over Iran in 2009

Two news stories were somehow ingrained into my mind when I was growing up. The first was the storming of the Golden Temple of Amritsar in 1984 and the other, the actual first news story I can ever remember, was the American Hostage Crisis in Tehran. Decades later I find it so strange that I have now visited both of these places, as if it was always meant to be.

Why on earth do you want to go to Iran? This was a question I would hear often from friends and colleagues. It got to the point I never bothered telling anybody else about my trip and just kept it to myself – while looking on slightly disturbed at the brainwashed individuals I have just mentioned. Why Iran???

Are you kidding me! Iran is up there with Greece and Egypt when it comes to the ´civilization scale`. Everything I loved about Delhi, the poetry, architecture, art, design, the Mughals all have strong Persian influences brought over when Babur fled his homeland and set up his new empire in northern India. One of the first books I ever read was `The Persian Boy` by Mary Renault which revolved around Alexander the Great, King Darius, Persepolis and Susa. The icing on the cake was waking up one morning on a flight from Delhi to Istanbul and peering out the window over the mountains of Iran with a snow capped Fujiesque Mount Damavand in the distance. I knew then and there that I would visit Iran.

When travelling there are always so many worries beforehand. Will the ATM work? is the airline safe? street crime? malaria? food hygiene? dehydration? but the main worry about travelling to Iran was the possibility of being denied a travel visa. There are some important things you must remember when applying for a visa, here they are:

(1) Most people search for a company online to help them get the authorization code from Tehran. One of the first companies you will find is – I´m not saying this company is a scam or to avoid them, it´s just there are alot of forums where people vent their anger about this company and how they never got a visa because someone had messed up. I chose a company called ‘Persian Voyages’ based in the U.K. to arrange my authorization code. I’m glad I did – they were professional and from the time I first emailed them to getting my passport back – visa included – took 10 working days which is amazing. It is better you get your travel visa before buying a plane ticket as in the application forms they don’t ask to see a copy of a plane ticket.

(2) The next important thing is either to deal with a company based in your home country or in Iran or elsewhere. ‘Persian Voyages’ are based in the U.K. so it was easy for me to transfer the money from my bank to theirs. If you have to transfer money to say Iran or more likely an Iranian’s account in Turkey it’s going to get complicated. One very important thing to remember, when transferring money never mention the word “Iran” in the bank transfer as that will most probably delay the transaction.


(3) After getting my authorization code back from ‘Persian Voyages’ I had to make my way to the Iranian Embassy in The Hague to get the visa put into my passport. Next came the dilemma…passport photo with or without headscarf? Should I wear a headscarf inside the Embassy or not? Well, the clerk behind the counter in the Embassy told me it doesn’t matter if I have a headscarf in the photo or not. I wore a headscarf inside the actual Embassy and my perception was I was helped “more efficiently” than the other women without headscarf.

(4) The Embassy will take your fingerprints. Take some wet tissues with you as they didn’t have any tissues for me to wipe the ink off.

(5) Some professions are welcomed more than others. Are you a journalist or fashion designer? Well, good luck in trying to get a visa. The authorities want to know where you will travel in Iran but when I was actually in Iran this was never checked. Also at immigration in the Iranian airport it took 10 minutes of standing waiting for the customs officer to type away on a computer but I was never asked any questions, he just looked once at my face and then stamped me into the country.

Walking through customs and into the arrivals hall and then stepping into a taxi and driving along an Iranian highway is the most exhilirating but strange feeling. It’s like all those months of apprehension seem to fade away and you’re just sitting there trying to fix your headscarf while noticing the diesel fumes and old trucks which look like something out of Pyongyang or 60’s Communist China. The nicest welcome I got was when driving from the airport to Tehran at 6am and seeing Mount Damavand on the horizon. I had seen it once before, but now this was from a different,more exciting, angle.