It’s been some time since I went to Iran (the trip took place back in March) but there are so many thoughts and impressions that I have been bursting to share with you ever since, so the topic has been brought to the top of my brimming “to-write” list.
“Is it safe to travel to Iran?” - this is a question I was asked many times since I started planning to go there. Hell, it’s a question I even asked myself a couple of times! Before I went to Iran I had an image of it in my head similar to the ones I have of Afghanistan and Iraq: desert, a couple of camels, and loads of terrorists! Add to that the impressions we have of Iran’s political aggression towards the West (which, by the way, is a fact - albeit with a highly complex background) I imagined that the place was swarming with government agents ready to arrest people for trying to access Facebook, or religious zealots with a blood-thirsty hatred of the West.
I’m sure there are many reasons that contributed to these (mis)conceptions (the political situation, the bias of western media, the fact that few of my friends had ever been there) and although I don’t want to assume anything, I imagine that these are impressions shared by many other westerners.
While I can’t give a definitive answer to the question “Is it safe to travel in Iran?” (and you should always research the situation yourself independently) I can share some of the fears I had before going to Iran, and how they stacked up against the reality of my experience.
It’s full of terrorists, right?
Before going to Iran I was firmly convinced that it was a hotspot for terrorism with a high risk of attack. And in a way, it’s hardly surprising. In the lead-up to the trip I consulted several government travel warning websites: Australia, Canada and the US all advised a high degree of caution, specifically citing a risk of terrorism. I was checking this around the time of the Brussels terror attacks, and the travel warning was lighter in Belgium than it was in Iran.
But something was bothering me. While I could remember reading a lot about Iran’s nuclear program, about the government’s refusal to submit to weapons inspections - I did not recall ever reading about a terror attack in Iran.
When I typed “terror attack Iran” into Google, it brought up a lot of articles. There were articles about terrorist groups originating from Iran, articles accusing the Iranian government of funding terrorist groups in other countries (which admittedly is not reassuring!) - yet I didn’t find anything about a recent attack on Iranian soil (according to this Wikipedia article, the most recent attack was back in 2008 )
In Iran, local people wax lyrical about how safe the country is, how free it is of terrorism. "The West may criticise our form of government, but there is no crime here!" they would exclaim, referring to Iran's Islamic theocracy, which is governed by a Supreme Leader who is appointed rather than elected. And it is true that I would certainly not want to be arrested by the government in Iran! Whatever the reason, we always felt perfectly safe in Iran, and saw absolutely no sign of crime or violence while we were there.
Don’t they want to kidnap and torture Westerners?
I am certainly no expert on the history of Iran, or its political relations with the west, but I did do a bit of reading before setting off there, and it is this background which I will use to quickly preface my answer to this particular question.
In 1972, Iran’s Pahlavi dynasty, which had basically become a puppet government of the British and American governments who wanted to exert influence and control over one of the world’s largest oil-producing nations, was overthrown - ostensibly by the Iranian people - as part of the Islamic Revolution. The US embassy was sieged and 52 hostages taken for some 444 days, paving the way for Ben Affleck to star in the 2012 film Argo ;P.
Following a national referendum, the old regime was replaced by a clerical government, which set about expunging all supporters of the past regime in a not-so-nice way, and eventually exerting its own conservative influence on the Iranian people. Women were forced to wear hijabs in public, alcohol was banned, and many western products came to be banned (website such as Facebook and Twitter - curiously, Instagram is immune - Coca Cola and KFC).
It’s fair to say that this an influence you feel immediately upon entering the country. As the pilot announces the descent, women scramble to don their hijab (which by the way they had clearly not been wearing at their former destination), your bags are checked for alcohol upon entry, there is a painstaking wait to obtain a visa at the airport, and all the aforementioned western media (Facebook, Twitter, or any other webpage with content deemed by the government to be offensive) is completely blocked. There is also a lot of off-putting anti-western artwork: creepy billboards depicting the defeat of the west, gruesome graffiti on the walls of the old US Embassy.
But did this affect my experience? Of course I disagree with the rules and restrictions, which go against all of my own values, but for two weeks I could handle it. Did it affect the way I was treated by the Iranian people? Well, it could be that as an Australian travelling with a German (Australia seems to be a rather unknown entity to Iranians, certainly without the notoriety of the US or Britain; and the Germans are practically fawned upon - especially beautiful blonde Germans like the one I was travelling with ;)), but I have never before experienced kindness as a traveller such as that shown to me by the Iranian people.
One day when we were having trouble find a taxi downtown, a local man drove us back to our hotel himself; on another occasion a lady noticed us eating ice-cream which wasn’t exactly the local specialty - so she bought us one each so that we could experience it. No matter where we went, people asked us - with decent English and huge friendly smiles - where we were from. They would then proceed to tell us “welcome to Iran” in an extremely warm and generous fashion. They seemed genuinely excited to have foreigners visiting their country.
Day 5: The thing about this country that I love so much (apart from the awesome scenery and the tasty food) is the people 😍 everyone here is amazingly kind and genuinely interested in foreigners. Everyone we meet wants to know where we're from (people seem more interested in Germany than Australia 😜) and wish us welcome in Iran. In Yazd, we decided to buy some oranges from this street stall. First of all, the guy insisted on selecting different ones for us (apparently we did a sh*t job 🙈). He then kept on following us down the street insisting that we take more. We originally wanted 2 oranges and ended up with 7 🍊😳😂
On another occasion we met a tour-guide in Isfahan who offered to take us out that night to smoke water pipe. Embarrassingly enough I thought he was touting a tour, and asked him how much it would be, but it turned out to just be an offer to show us around. He drove us to a restaurant on the top of a hill with an amazing view of the city, which we would never have been able to do without him.
But he also happily answered an onslaught of questions from my side (with which I besieged him after becoming sufficiently confident that he did not work for the Iranian government). It was a valuable lesson for me about just how far our preconceptions often are from the truth - and how similar the human race really is.
Question: “Do you really live without Facebook?”
Answer: “Of course not - a lot of Iranians use a VPN to access Facebook, or any other content blocked by the government. When the government tries to censor things, it only makes young people want to access it more”
Q: “Do young people find ways to drink alcohol?”
A: “Oh, you should see some of the parties they hold in Tehran, you would probably be shocked! And it's not just the alcohol that would shock you, it’s the promiscuity. These are basically sex parties. Young people do what they want - the drink, they have boyfriends, they have sex, they take off their hijab - Iranian girls often have tattoos, even! Their parents know, they just don’t talk about it.”
Q: “If the government came out tomorrow and said that Iranian women no longer need to wear hijab, would women continue to wear it?”
A: “Probably only about 60% would. The thing you need to understand about Iranians is that we are very political. We have witnessed a lot of political change over the last couple of decades, and we probably will continue to do so for the next couple of decades. The hijab, the alcohol, the censorship - this has little to do with religion and everything to do with politics. We will just keep on going with it until it changes again.”
Isn’t it especially dangerous for women?
I’m not going to beat around the bush here - I hated wearing the hijab. It is annoying (it falls down all the time and you are constantly having to fix it lest the religious police tell you off for sloppy hijab) (yes, that did actually happen to us once!), it is restrictive (there is no way you could ever go running in a hijab for instance, which is one of my greatest in life) and to me it is ludicrous that we should be shamed into hiding any part of our bodies even if it is sweltering hot and you are boiling hot (not that I am advocating that we go completely naked, that would also be a little awkward).
As a woman you will need to wear hijab in public; as a woman you will be obliged to travel in a women-only carriage on the metro; as a woman travelling without a man you will be met with some sideways glances (but where are your HUSBANDS?). But this is basically the end of it.
I will refer back to my previous assertion that there is basically no crime in Iran, and as long as you are sensible, discreet and respectful of the customs, travelling as a women is more of an inconvenience rather than a danger. And definitely not a sticking point in my experience!
Is there even anything worth seeing?
As I’ve already confessed, my first imaginings of Iran consisted mainly of desert and camels. I don’t recall seeing any camels, and although we did see some desert, there was much, much more to see!
You can come face-to-face with modern history by walking past the creepy old US embassy in Tehran, or take a step back in time to ancient Persia by visiting the UNESCO World heritage ruins of Persepolis. You can see the most stunningly patterned and lovingly preserved mosques in Isfahan; tour the quirky desert houses in Yazd; or stroll lazily through the picturesque Eram garden in Shiraz.
Day 9: And the winner of the award for city with the nicest people goes to Shiraz.. Last night when we couldn't find a taxi to take us home after dinner a stranger drove us there himself; and now today a lady and her daughter noticed us eating ice cream which wasn't the most traditional variety - so they simply bought it for us so that we could try it 😳😍🇮🇷
The best thing about travelling to Iran, aside from the adorable people, and the fascinating sites themselves, is the fact that there are basically no other tourists there.. yet! Sure, it’s amazing to see the Acropolis in Athens, or the Roman Forum in Rome, but unfortunately there are thousands of other tourists who have the exact same idea! And there is something about the masses, with their fanny-packs, socks and sandals, and selfie-sticks, that somehow stops you from connecting fully with the history of the place.
In Iran there is no such problem, at least not for the time being. There was only a smattering of tourists (mostly German, but also some French) when we were there. But now that the sanctions have been lifted and business is being renewed between Iran and the West, and more and more airline carriers are offering services into the country, this can only change. If Iran’s charm was ever really a secret (beyond ignorant people such as myself) it cannot remain one much longer, and I can only urge you to go there while you still basically have the place to yourself.
One thing to keep in mind!
Although the balance of my experience in Iran was an overwhelmingly positive one, there is one negative aspect which I would be remiss in omitting. As of 1 January 2016, the US Government changed it’s border protection rules to restrict visa waivers for anyone who has travelled to Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria on or after 1 March 2011.
This doesn’t mean that you would not be allowed entry to the US, it just means that you would not be able to apply for the automatic ESTA visa-waiver (which is not actually a visa, but rather a document stating that you do not need a visa for entry into the country under certain conditions). Instead you would need to apply for an actual visa, and wait for up to 3 months in order to obtain it.
I find this a very sad development, and one that will surely hurt the Iranian tourism industry by deterring potential visitors. I have not been back to the States since going to Iran (and I am very interested if anyone else has and wants to share their experience) but I hope that it will just mean that I need to plan future trips to the US in advance. However I also wanted to be open about this potential sticking point..!