When telling people I was about to visit Iran, most reactions were ones of caution and surprise. Why would you want to go there – isn’t it dangerous? I do love a bit of danger (but no, its really not dangerous). In fact I felt safer than I do in some parts of London. I’ve been asked by a number of people for my tips on visiting Iran, so here they are. Better late than never! Bear in mind I am writing from a female perspective.
This was my first trip with my sister, and hopefully the first of many! She is half-Iranian so I was in good hands from the get go. She speaks fluent Farsi, which I would say is really helpful, since most Iranians don’t speak English, although lots of them know at least a few English phrases, especially the taxi drivers, who seem to have some tall tales to tell… some of them having come from a far more exciting profession (we met ex-pro footballers, pilots and pop singers….. allegedly).
1. At the Airport
Arriving at Tehran airport was fairly civilized – there are men who help you get your bags off the conveyor belt and into a taxi (completely avoiding the baggage scan queue). We went straight past the bag scanner with about 7 massive suitcases between 4 of us without being checked. Well worth the small tip we paid.
2. Dress code
We flew with Iran Air, and before boarding the plane we made sure our headscarves were in place and were wearing the long manteaus (or duster jackets) which should cover down to the knees at least. The dress code felt fairly cosy at first, but after a few windy motorway journeys and visits to the ladies, I soon realized how faffy it is and how I kept getting my headscarf caught in the car door and it kept slipping off my head. I found myself intermittently tapping the top of my head to make sure it was still there. I saw girls on the back of motorcycles on the motorway (no helmets), and somehow their headscarves were still intact, so there must be a secret to securing it which I didn’t learn about. If you really want to blend in, wear dark colours. ‘Morality police’ patrol the streets, but as a tourist, there is more leniency and I didn’t once get told my scarf wasn’t on properly. Going to the toilet with all this garb is a bit of an effort, especially since it’s a hole in the floor and there is NEVER any toilet paper. Always bring your own and leave your bags with a friend where possible.
3. Mosques & Photography
Visiting the numerous mosques is an incredible experience. The dress code goes one step further, and as a woman, you will be required to wear a ‘chador’ basically a bedsheet. Sometimes they are available to borrow at the front door, but on one occasion we had to buy our own. At the mere cost of £3, it’s so worth it for a beautiful mosque viewing experience. Some interiors are covered from wall to wall in sparkly glass which glitters like the universe. You will also be required to take off your shoes, so if you are wearing sandals, consider bringing a pair of socks with you. Inside some Mosques are ‘shrines’ where women will touch the shrine and cry with a lot of emotional noises. It can be very contagious, and I felt my heart going out for their anguish. Taking pictures is generally not ok, and I was asked to put my camera away a couple times. The Shah Cheragh mosque in Shiraz is particularly strict and they wanted to ‘look after’ my camera while I visited. I didn’t hand my camera over, instead preferring to sneak in with it under my chador while nobody was looking!
Discretion should be used when photographing everyday life. In Tehran, we came across the street equivalent of a trading floor where the exchange rate was being set. I was warned here not to take photos, but generally there wasn’t a problem.
4. Gender Separation
When getting on a bus or train, be aware that there are gender specific carriages, the same goes for beaches, praying rooms at Mosques and scanning at the airport. If you are a couple, its fine to hold hands in public, or hug for a photo, but kissing in public is off limits unless its just a peck on the cheek – incidentally, Iranians kiss 3 times on the cheeks when greeting each other. If you see an Iranian with a plaster on their nose, don’t worry they haven’t been in a fight, more likely they are recovering from a ‘nose job’ which is very common for women, but in recent years has also become popular among men.
5. Exchanging money
When you consider that £1 converts to roughly 4,000 Iranian Rials, upon converting a couple hundred British Pounds, you will soon find yourself a millionaire with wads of notes. All very confusing, and took me days to get used to. The surprising part about exchanging money, is that if you are not a resident, you will get a MUCH lower rate of exchange, than if you have someone who is resident exchange the money for you. It’s good to have Iranian friends…. As with some other countries I have visited, entry to various museums and galleries is cheaper for Iranian nationals and tourists pay a higher rate… unless, like me, you blend in so well, you get mistaken for being Iranian and pay the local rate (although we did get caught out on one occasion!)
If you do not like saffron, yogurt, walnuts and pomegranate, you might struggle! No seriously, the food is absolutely delicious. Dishes range from stewed aubergine, rice cake with barberries and pistachios, yogurt with cucumber and dill, cumin cheese, olive and walnut tapenade, lamb with rose petals and orange blossom, the list goes on. The average Iranian fruit bowl is home to mini cucumbers – which are usually peeled and salted before eating. Most meals seem to be accompanied by both yogurt and green leafy aromatic herbs, which taste like a mixture of basil, lemon and pepper. In between meals, constant snacking takes place, with Iranian side tables full of little plates of fruit, dates, walnuts, dried fruits, biscuits and other goodies. I found a new favourite on the streets of historical Esfahan, in the form of carrot juice layered with saffron icecream!
On another note, I was warned by some elders not to drink the tap water… but I did, the whole time, and I was fine. No belly aches for the most part. I had a belly ache one day which I’m pretty sure was caused by eating too much dried persimmon (also known as sharon fruit). Very moreish!
Firstly, food comes in huge portions, so if you are 3 people, you may want to order 2 dishes and share. If you are out dining as a couple in a restaurant, it is expected that the man will pay. In fact some places would not accept a woman to pay if she is accompanied by a man and we (the women) had to argue hard to get our money accepted while we were with men! We witnessed a few ‘marriage meetings’ while we were in one particular hotel restaurant. It’s a meeting of the potential bride and groom with their mothers… a bit like an interview!
Monobrows are something to be very proud of in Iran, and I witnessed some EPIC monobrows, some which even formed a V down the front of the nose! Check out this panting of Baby Jesus and Mother Mary by an Iranian artist. For art and street art lovers, there’s plenty on offer!
To sum things up… Iran people are warm, funny, sociable and kind people who made me feel very welcome. For architecture, food, history, art and culture, you really are spoiled for choice!