Old 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 Iranianvisa.com – 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.