For a couple of months I had already been highly excited about my upcoming backpacking trip – and especially about my first destination; Iran. On my previous journey to Central-Asia, I met several people who had visited the country and recommended it to me as a “place to be” for it’s stunning architecture and wonderful people. The feedback for my travel plans from friends, family and foreigners was sometimes something else, though. It was quite normal to hear doubts about the destination due to safety reasons and such, which is easy to understand after the image given to us by media. But to me, open mind and some further research had already convinced me that Iran isn’t only sand, camels and terrorists. After a while, it also became evident that the negativity always came from the people who had never set a foot anywhere near, whereas hype and positive statements were from the ones who had visited the country. I felt really determined about the whole trip, but little did I know that my mindset could still be shaken.
I don’t think there could’ve been a more stressing start to my trip than reading about the reckless assassination of Iran’s top general only two days before my flight. The political situation suddenly got extremely intense as the whole world was watching and meme sites blasted WW3 jokes around. The last days I was repeatedly browsing news, interviewing the Iranian people online and even contacted the Finnish embassy and foreign ministry to see whether I should go or not. The answer still being: “have a nice trip”, I decided to stick to my plan. Funny thing is that for this moment and act that I’ve been called brave for, I remember pretty much shitting my pants in reality anyway. At the airport, my mental health status was bouncing back and forth until I finally got to the gate for the flight to Tehran. Needless to say, from us Westerners only me and another German guy turned up for the flight. Nevertheless, it was extremely calming to see how chilled all the Iranians were. Even I started to feel confident for a while again.
My first impression really did turn out to be something extraordinary and memorable. Most likely due to heightened security level, I was stuck at the visa issuance office for almost four hours with an extremely rude official who almost got me deported. After surprisingly still being let in the country, it was already morning and exactly the day and time when General Soleimani’s funeral was about to take place. Every single store was closed as in a ghost town and just hundreds and thousands of people dressed up in burkas and otherwise black clothes were marching on streets and even blocking whole highways. It took several hours to get through the city. At one point we were even stuck in the crowds in a smaller street. As the only blonde around, I was a little nervous about people’s reaction towards me so I tried to not drag any attention on myself in the car. Especially when for a short while there was a guy in army camouflage with some USA flag painted burning material standing two meters from our car. Finally in the evening, some restaurants opened up and the atmosphere in neighborhood seemed all normal to me for the while that I didn’t think of politics.
The first week was really all about mixed feelings. Every morning I read about the threats of Iran being targeted with missiles, bombings in Iraq etc. Even the Ukrainian Airline’s plane got shot down, following all sorts of pro and anti government demonstrations in the country that week. While all this happening, I was having quite a normal – and actually great time touring around the eagle’s nest, Tehran, and other main cities. When shutting my mind from the news and recent events, traveling and life was all great. The best tool to maintain a stable mental health was seeing how relaxed all the locals were. Nobody really seemed to believe in any near-future escalations, since these political tensions were relatively normal to them. They did laugh about me experiencing the whole revolutionary history of Iran in only a few days anyway. After the situation de-escalating and me realizing the middle-eastern mindset, I decided not to even follow the news too much as I trusted the embassy to contact me when needed.
The reason to make me feel so comfortable was the Iranians. I’ve been to a few countries so far, but never have I met people this amazing. Maybe not every single person looks at you like they love you, yet nobody bothers you in any way. But (most of) the people who like you and all the other foreigners, welcome you to their country and genuinely care about you having the time of your life. The Iranian people really love to have guests. No matter where I was and who I visited, I was always treated like a king. Tons of food and drinks always emerged on the table, and people really did everything to cater my every need. Everybody from total strangers treated me well (or extremely well) and seemed to care a lot about what kind of a view I have on their country. Several times I was asked to tell everyone back at home how safe it really is to travel in Iran and what the people really are like. Well, here you go then. Here’s some more detailed encounters and experiences that I remember:
- Visiting a local family in Tehran, I was insisted to borrow their smartphone and SIM-card for the rest of my trip as I had problems with mine. After some drinks and food, the whole family drove across the whole city to take me back to my place.
- In Shiraz, a local I met in a restaurant wanted to show me around in the city centre. She paid for all my drinks and foods, did all the bargaining for me at the bazaar and even bought me some handicrafts as a gift, despite me trying to decline.
- People starting from carpet salesmen to strangers wanted me to visit their homes as a guest or offered their company for restaurants.
- Even when hanging out with local students, I wasn’t always allowed to pay for my own tickets or shares of taxi and restaurant bills. A couple of times some more random people also paid for my coffee.
- In the street of Shiraz I was randomly handled an ice cream as a gift from a salesman who was just closing his store.
- “Welcome to Iran” was heard from several random people on the streets. Even on the way rushing back to hostel when accidentally running into a big anti-America demonstration in Yazd.
- Word to word: “You are always welcome in here” was the most meaningful and kind thing said to me by a poor looking mini store owner who very surprisingly spoke fluent English.
- In Esfahan a 2-year old little girl kept on screaming “DOOSET DARAM, DOOSET DARAM, DOOSET DARAM” across the restaurant, which stands for “I love you”.
The other tourists seen on the first weeks could still be counted with fingers. Excluding the one or two busloads of Chinese tourists who always show up even if the world was ending. Because of the non-existent tourism during the conflict, I had all the world-class attractions amazingly all to myself. Imagine getting to wander around Eiffel tower almost or entirely all by yourself and you’ll understand the surreal feeling that I had.
No matter how much I enjoyed the privacy, I felt sorry for the whole tourism industry. Because of the economy crippling sanctions, Iranian Rial has collapsed to only one fifth in two years making it the worst currency in the world. To me and you that means dirt cheap traveling for a smaller cost than your holiday in Thailand. To the Iranians it means that the times are pretty fucking hard. And the empty tourist attractions, hotels and bazaars at the moment are not helping them too much. It sure is the right time to buy, but spending money to support family businesses by using services and buying food and handicrafts felt as good as the products itself. Nowhere else can you feel like your act has that kind of an importance when you can feel every single penny hit the bottoms of the pockets.
The most frightening thing about traveling in Iran is your own ignorance. There’s not much information about the real atmosphere in Iran to be read and your image on the country and the people can still be built more or less on stereotypes. At first I was also extremely cautious with every single move on my trip but learned to ease up when time passed. The reality sure is that there’s just loads of stuff happening in the lives of Iranian people that vary from unfair to heartbreaking. The meaning of this post is more like to tell you that Iran is, nonetheless, an amazing and far better travel destination than the reputation it has.