IS IT SAFE TO TRAVEL TO IRAN?
Is it safe to travel to Iran? Can you travel to Iran as an unmarried couple? Can you backpack in Iran and how much will that cost? These are only some of the questions we had before our journey to the land once known as Persia. It took us several weeks to hitchhike to Iran all the way from the center of Europe, but when we finally did it, it was the the beginning of an extraordinary adventure. Are you planning a trip to Iran? It is extremely important that you read this till the end then...
WHO KNEW HITCHHIKING TO IRAN WAS POSSIBLE?
"Are you idiots?",- our relatives asked, when we first told them about our unbelievable plan. As I have already mentioned, it took us a few weeks to hitchhike all the way from Lithuania to Iran. The route extended across 7 countries: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Georgia. Who would have known, hitchhiking to Iran was even possible?
I will answer some commonly asked questions about traveling to Iran, Turkish-Iranian border crossing, how to get Iran visa, etc. in the second half of this article. Right now I would like to tell you a tiny bit of our story, about some of the most unique adventures that we experienced during our 30 days in Iran.
Crossing Gürbulak Turkish-Iranian border was not as difficult as we expected. Iranians often go to Turkey to do the shopping. All of their bags are checked very well when they decide to go back. However, officers are usually extremely nice to foreigners. They just checked our visas and let us go, wishing us to have a nice visit. As you can see, Kamile was wearing a scarf. There is a law in Iran that all the women must wear them when they go out. Including foreigners.
THE WORST DAY IN PERSIA
Every single traveler in the world knows that there are some easy days and there are some challenging days when you are backpacking. You have even more of those challenges, if you are on a tight budget. Our Iranian friend Farzad has warned us, that hitchhiking is not a common thing in Iran at all. Actually, most of Iranians do not know what this word "hitchhiking" means. Despite all the warnings, Kamile and I were determined to try to hitchhike all the way from "Gürbulak" border crossing to Tabriz - the most populated city in northwestern Iran. This was how our problems started.
Long story short, we had an honor to meet some scammers. There are some of them everywhere, but when you meet quite a few in a short period of time, this can really drain your energy throughout the day. What is more, some of them are harder to recognize than the others. All the scammers we met during our first day in Iran were true experts of their field. Some of them tried to trick us with a terrible money exchange rate, some of them agreed to give us a lift for free and asked for lots of money once we were already in their car. We met dozens of kind and helpful people too, but in the end of the day we felt completely drained.
When we finally reached Tabriz, it was already midnight. Luckily, some guys agreed to help us out and we were taken to the cheapest hotel. Technically, unmarried couples are forbidden to stay at the same room, but I guess they make some exceptions for foreign tourists. Kamile and I had to pay for separate rooms (around 5$ for each one), but we were allowed to sleep together. I must say it was not the nicest place we had been so far. That is why I did not want to leave my girlfriend alone.
UNFORGETTABLE JOURNEY TO THE NORTH OF IRAN
Next day in the morning both us agreed that it would be best to go to the bus station. In European standards, traveling by bus in Iran is pretty cheap. Back then one hour bus ride used to cost around 1USD. Because of the inflation, some of the prices might have changed significantly since then.
Despite some negative experiences on the first day, things were getting better and better for the rest of the trip. When we arrived to Zanjan, we met a guy, whose name was Mehdi. After a short talk he said,- "I am sorry I can not host you, because I am leaving the town for a few days. However, it would be an honor if you decide to come with me and my friends to the North of Iran." "How cool is that!",- we thought.
For all my life I believed, that Iran had nothing but sandy deserts and dead mountains. I was so wrong. For the next few days we traveled all around the North of Iran and had a chance to see Elburz mountains, Caspian see and the world famous town of Masuleh. Mehdi and his friends wanted to do something special so we decided to rent a cabin high up in the mountains - higher than the clouds.
COUCHSURFING IN IRAN
I would like to say a few words about couchsurfing in Iran. The reason why we agreed to join Mehdi and his friends to go to the Torth of Iran so easily was that Mehdi was a respected local couchsurfing.com host and he had a few dozens of great references. Is it easy to find a couchsurfing host in Iran? Yes, it is. During our 30 days in Iran we spent only 4 nights at hotels. All other nights we stayed with locals. It is difficult to express how hospitable Iranians are.
Kamile and I traveled to around 30 different countries in the last few years and tried couchsurfing pretty much everywhere. It is important to say that Iran was one of the easiest places to find a good host and a place to recover. It's not a secret, that couchsurfing and hitchhiking are two easiest ways to meat some locals and learn the culture. We found out, that it is actually easier to find a host in Iran, Turkey and some other Muslim countries, than somewhere in Europe. I guess it's because they have this saying, that the guest is a friend of God. If you invite guest to your house, God will join him too.
Mehdi and his buddies met each other while participating in French courses. After a while they became very close friends and they make these kind of meetings every now and then. Every time in a different place. We were lucky to meet Mehdi at this particular time of the year. If not him, we would not have seen this part of the country. At least, it was not in our plans in the beginning.
MEDIEVAL RUDKHAN CASTLE
Rudkhan castle, also known as Roodkhan Castle, is a brick and stone medieval fortress that was built to defend against the Arab invaders during the Arab/Islamic invasion. With the fall of the Sassanid Empire, this area became a defensive position against the Arabs in then newly established Tabarestan. Some people think that Iranians are Arabs themselves, but they are not. Iranians are Persians. The truth is, many years ago Iran was invaded by Arabs and their cultures mixed a little bit, but Iranians are definitely NOT ARABS.
Anyways, medieval Rudkhan castle is located 25 km southwest of Fuman, in Gilan province. It is an impressive military complex which had been constructed during the Sasanian era, and later rebuilt during the Seljuq era by the Nizari Ismailis. The castle is built on two tips of a mount, with an area of 2.6 hectares. Architects have benefited from natural mountainous features in the construction of the fort. After crossing a mountainous winding route with dense forests, the first thing that we noticed was its big entrance gate. Worth to see, if you decide to visit Iran.
To get to Rudkhan castle we had to climb up more than one thousand slippery stone steps. Ticket prices for foreigners and locals are different. However, Mehdi and his friends did not allow us to pay. After a few days in the North of Iran, we came back to Zanjan and it was time to continue our adventure. Next destination - Tehran.
TEHRAN - 10 MILLION PEOPLE MEGAPOLIS
"Going to Tehran and not visiting Azadi tower would be the same as going to Egypt and not visiting Pyramids",- I said. Tehran is the capital city of Iran and its most famous architectural structure is Azadi tower. As an engineering student I used to dream about seeing it for at least a few years. Another famous structure I always wanted to see was Burj Khalifa, located in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. I had a chance to see it in 2016, when I was traveling all around UAE with my father. I must say that Azadi is not nearly as impressive as Burj Khalifa, but it is still a spectacular peace of art.
I guess it would be nice to share a few interesting facts about the Azadi tower. Just in case you are interested in architecture. The tower was built in 1971 to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of Persian monarchy and became a symbol of freedom during the 1979 revolution which toppled the reigning Pahlavi dynasty. The height of Azadi tower is 45 m. During Mehrabad’s status as Tehran’s international airport, it was Azadi Tower, the sentry to the capital city, that welcomed all visitors. A silent witness to Iran’s major historical events, this tower remains Tehran’s most iconic landmark.
IS THERE INTERNET ACCESS IN IRAN?
Is there internet access in Iran? Yes, there is. However, it can be much slower than most of the westerners are used to. Here in Lithuania we have some of the fastest download speeds in all around the globe. This is why Iranian internet looked slower than a turtle. However, having a possibility to use internet while backpacking can make your life much easier. Especially, when you are in such a wast Megapolis as Tehran. If you plan your trip to Iran there are a few things you should know.
Keep in mind that most hotels have Internet access; however, it may not be reliable up to the standards you are accustomed to at home. You can also buy a local SIM card at local stores. At least it was possible in 2016. Please be aware some websites are not accessible in Iran. Some of the social sites and Messenger Apps like Facebook and Twitter are blocked. However, WhatsUp, Instagram and Telegram are widely used. Some of the locals use VPN (Virtual Private Network) applications to work around these rules. I guess Kamile and I were happy to have some rest from social media and all that stuff, so we did not use VPN much.
Visiting Azadi tower and other famous landmarks was not our main intention. All that we wanted to do after seeing Azadi tower was to meet our old friend Shahram and his lovely family. We met this guy a few weeks ago in Batumi, Western Georgia. Because of all the Western countries sanctions, there are only a few countries that Iranians can travel easily.
CAN YOU TRAVEL TO IRAN AS AN UNMARRIED COUPLE?
Can you travel to Iran as an unmarried couple? As you already understood, yes you can! This is another commonly asked question that we get all the time. Travelling to Iran as an unmarried couple is not a problem. Most hotels, like everyone else, won’t ask or care about your relationship status. In case they do care, it is up to individual travelers to decide how they respond but no proof of marriage is required. In this case some of the travelers decide to pretend they are husband and wife.
In the very worst scenario, you may be required to take separate rooms but this is rare. However, you should remember that unmarried Persian couples are not able to get a hotel room. If you’re married to an Iranian woman, it would be best to carry your marriage certificate with passport as a proof of marriage. What is more, you are not allowed to kiss or hug your girlfriend or boyfriend in public. Do not forget that or it might get you into some serious trouble. Respect local laws and you will be respected!
The next destination - Kashan. Kashan is a town, located in Isfahan province. It is believed that the first settlement in this place appeared more than 9000 years ago. Our couchsurfing host tried to trick us, so we decided to go to the nearest park and decide what to do next after having some rest. This was where we met Sayed and his brother. Sayed was university professor, currently working and living in Paris, France. Sayed came back home to Iran to visit his brother. It is needless to say how happy we were when they offered us to stay with them in Qom for a while. That's what we did for the next few days.
IS IT SAFE TO TRAVEL TO IRAN NOW?
Is it safe to travel to Iran? My answer would be, it is not less safe than traveling to France or England. You can get yourself into trouble pretty much everywhere if you don't use common sense. Safety is one of the major worries that people have when thinking about travelling to Iran. The recent rise of groups such as ISIS have heightened those fears. However, Iran represents one of the safest places in the Middle East to travel to.
Some areas of the country, particularly close to border areas with Afghanistan and Iraq, the Baluchistan province are seen as areas of higher risk by Western government and are generally not recommended as a travelling destination. Those who travel to Iran tend to report that they feel most unsafe as a pedestrian, as particular norms that are followed in many western countries such as cars stopping automatically at pedestrian crossings aren't acting the same in Iran.
I have written a 4000 thousand words article about all the history between Iran and some of the Western countries. If you want, you can use "Google Translate" to translate it, as it is written in Lithuanian. It is called "Irano ir Vakarų pasaulio nesantaikos priešistorė" (Eng. Conflict between Iran and the West). Keep in mind that before 1987 revolution Iran looked a bit different. You would be surprised if you see some the videos from those days.
OTHER FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
WHAT SHOULD WOMEN WEAR IN IRAN?
Women in Iran must always wear a long coat or tunic over their regular clothes and are required to cover their heads with a scarf. It's the law, and not only for women. If women decide to go for a swim, they must wear clothes too. If you would like to see how it looks like, you can always check out our video "What to wear in Iran when you go swimming". There is some kind of dress code men should follow too. They have to wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts. Wearing shorts and tank tops is not appropriate.
HOW AND WHERE TO GET IRAN VISA?
How to get Iran visa is another question we get pretty much all the time. If you travel by plane, you can get your "VISA on arrival" in Tehran airport. If you travel by land, it depends which border crossing you would like to choose. For example, Kamile and I chose to apply for our visas in Trabzon, Turkey and we decided to cross the Turkish-Iranian border in Gürbulak. As we could not apply for a "visa on arrival", we had to wait for our visas for about three weeks. This is how we realized we had enough time to visit Georgia. If you need a detailed step by step guide how to get Iran visa, you can find it here.
It is not a secret that Qom is considered to be one of the most religious cities in Iran. Most of women were wearing black burkas. We met this girl accidentally. She could not speak English, so Sayed had to translate. She told us she was trying to find a husband and asked us to tell about her to all of our single friends. What a nice person indeed. I hope she has already found her prince Charming.
BRING CASH: VISA AND MASTER CARDS ARE NOT ACCEPTED!
For those who are planning their dream trip to Iran it is tremendously important to bring enough cash. If you have USD, you can exchange them anywhere. If you have Euros or British Pounds, you can find some places to exchange those too. Because of all the western sanctions, Visa and Master Cards are not accepted. Iranians have their local debit cards, but foreigners have to bring cash. How much is "enough"? It is difficult to say. First of all you must check the Iranian Rial (IRR) rate right before your trip, because inflation is huge. Don't exchange all your money at once, because the rate is changing very quickly.
How much money should you bring to Iran depends on many factors. Kamile and I had a very strict budget, but it was more than enough. In 30 days we were not able to spend even 300 Euros. Some of the people bring that much for a few days, but we did not stay at hotels and used mostly couchsurfing.com. Food and transportation is very cheap and all the locals were extremely hospitable. All of these things helped us to fit in our budget.
These girls and their father are Afghans living in Qom, Iran for many years. Kamile met them while taking pictures somewhere in the old town. We were invited for a cup of tee. In the end of the day we ended up drinking 12 cups of tee, having a delicious lunch together and discussing about various things for more than 8 hours.
WHAT IS ISFAHAN FAMOUS FOR?
Isfahan is Iran's principal tourist center, situated in central Iran, south of Tehran. Our friend Shahram once said,- "We have a city, which has nothing less than Istanbul itself. That magnificent city, famous for the beauty of Imam Square, beautiful bridges on the Zayandeh River and other masterpieces of Persian culture, is called Isfahan. Kamile and I came to Isfahan right after we left Qom.
Isfahan and Tabriz were the only places where we stayed at hostels. The reason is Isfahan is highly touristic city and it is not so easy to find a couchsurfing host available. Probably the most popular backpacker friendly hostel in all Isfahan was called "Amir Kabir". It had a perfect location and the price was sensible. This is where we met an amazing Taiwanese couple you already saw in the first picture.
Our Taiwanese friends were well prepared. This is why we chose to follow them. The most popular things to see in Isfahan that we decided to visit were Naqsh-e-Jahan Square, The Grand Bazaar of Isfahan, Jameh Mosque, the world famous Siosepol bridge and a few others. You can find a broader list of sites to see and things to do in Isfahan over here - "18 Best Places to Visit in Isfahan".
WHAT ARE THE PLACES TO SEE AND THINGS TO DO IN SHIRAZ?
What are the places to see and things to do while you are in Shiraz? There are actually plenty of them. If you don't have too much time, you can choose a few main ones. At least this was what we did. Like almost everywhere else in Iran, it is truly easy to find a local host. Our host Muhammad was an exceptional one. Not only he organized a mini party with traditional Iranian dances and flavorful local dishes, but he also was our guide while exploring the city center.
Places we visited were the colorful Vakil Bazaar, The Citadel of Karim Khan and the Mausoleum of Sayed Mir Mohammad and Ali Ibn Hamzeh Holly Shrine. My favorite was Ali Ibn Hamzeh Holly Shrine where women were given some kind of special robes and we got a guided tour for free. Ali Ibn Hamzeh Holly Shrine was also a place where we were lucky to meet some cheerful Belgian tourists. Half aged travelers revealed that because of all the negative Western media influence, they were not sure if it was safe to travel to Iran and they did not expect this country to be so colorful and welcoming.
It's not a secret that my wife and I just love improvising and not having any strict plans. It feels so good to forget what time of the day or which day of the week it is. It feels so great to get lost sometimes. I call it freedom. We had a chance to experience some of this freedom while staying in Shiraz too, as we did countless hours of random exploring and even got lost in the narrow streets in a non-touristic part of the city. One communicative old man showed his pigeons, another guy invited us for lunch. When these things happen you just have to relax and observe what life is going to bring you next. This is what I call traveling...
PERSEPOLIS - CAPITAL OF PERSIAN EMPIRE!
I feel a little bit nostalgic when I remember myself sitting in history classes, listening to all those exciting stories about almighty Persian Empire and imagining how things actually were in those glorious times. Who could have known that one day I will have a chance to see the ruins of ancient Persepolis myself. Former capital of Persian Empire is located about 60 km. from the city of Shiraz.
Persepolis is an unbelievable place with unique architecture and 2500 years of history. The ancient city of Persepolis was built by Darius - mighty Persian king of Achmenid dynasty. This site is 125000 sq.m. with 9 palaces and 3000 reliefs. About 80 km. from Persepolis there is another breathtaking Archeological site - ancient city of Pasargad. However, both of them might be too much for one day.
HOW TO GET FROM SHIRAZ TO PERSEPOLIS?
How to get from Shiraz to Persepolis by public transportation? The easiest way to do this is taking a mini bus from Karandish terminal to Marvdasht and then taking a taxi from Marvdasht to Persepolis. As I mentioned before, Iran is a very safe to travel, but there might be some crooks everywhere in the world. If you are on a tight budget you might want to be extremely careful with those taxi drivers. Technically, for taking you from Marvdasht to Persepolis, all of them should ask you for the same fixed amount of money. What are the prices for getting a taxi from Marvdasht to Persepolis right now I can not say, because it has been couple of years since we have been there ourselves.
BUSHEHR - AS HOT AS INFERNO!
Weather in Iran is another key topic for those who are already looking forward to getting there! If you are interested in what type of weather does Iran have or what is the best time to visit Iran, I must say that there is no short answer. Iran has a tremendously variable climate. Some of the hottest and coldest places of the world are located in Iran. In the northwest, winters are extremely cold with heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures during December and January. Spring and fall are relatively mild, while summers are dry and hot there.
On the other hand, Dasht-e Lut Desert holds the record for the highest surface temperature in the world, reaching 70.7°C. Across a large area of the central Lut not a single creature survives, even bacteria. Yazd is Iran's driest city and it borders the deserts of Dasht-e Lut and Dasht-e Kavir. This time Kamile and I decided to leave crazy Iranian desert experiences for another time and head to the Southernmost are of Iran. To the city of Bushehr to be exact.
While weather in Tehran was getting colder every single day, the weather Bushehr was crazy hot! Kamile feels great in temperatures that hot, but for me it was way too much. What can I say? I am more like a snowman type of person indeed. When we arrived to Bushehr bus station my first thought was,- "What have we done!" We came to conclusion that it would be best to wait for the evening and leave the station only then. That's how hot it was and that's how it is in Bushehr pretty much all year long.
INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT IRAN!
- Prior to the 1930s, Iran was called Persia.
- Iran translates to “Land of the Aryans” in Persian.
- Iran is the 4th-largest producer of oil in the world.
- About 70% of the population in Iran is under the age of 30.
- Girls and women over the age of nine must wear a hijab when out in public.
- Iran is the only habitat of the Asiatic cheetah, which is extremely endangered.
- Iran is the 18th largest country in the world with a total area of 1,648,195 square kilometers.
- Iran is one of the oldest civilizations in the world with settlements dating back to the year 4000 BC.
- Iranians are world-renowned for their Persian rugs, which they have been creating for over 2,500 years.
- Iran borders Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Iraq and Turkey.
- The Persian cat is one of the most popular cat breeds and it originated in Iran. These animals lived in the high plateaus of Iran, and the long fur kept them warm in the cold.
Is it safe to travel to Iran? I will repeat myself once again. Yes, it is pretty safe indeed. Just use your common sence and you will be just fine. Now you know a little bit about this magnificent country. Of course, I have told you only a small fraction of what really happened in those 30 days. All day would not be enough to tell everything.
Do you have plans to go to Iran in near future? Do you have some more questions you would like to be answered before this adventure? Maybe checking out our Youtube channel would help? It is called "Invisus Mundi". Just type "Iran" in the search box. Last but not the least, you are more than welcome to message on Facebook anytime and I will be more than happy to help you!
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