Getting the VIP treatment in Iran

Having bought tickets for a VIP bus from beautiful Esfahan to Rasht, a beautiful town in Northern Iran, I was prepared for comfortable seats and Iranian entertainment I did not understand.

But the VIP treatment I got was something I never paid for: A wonderful conversation (thanks Google Translate!) with an Iranian woman, a former math teacher, in her 60s. Within ten minutes of us meeting, my lap was covered with pomegranates, oranges and a stray lemon (for my Kebab meal provided by the bus company). We exchanged numbers and stories and soon she offers her home to me.

That is Iran for you – full of surprises and warm hospitality. Couchsurfing, the popular hospitality service that allows locals to host travelers for free, is very active in Iran. Before I left, I received almost 60 messages from Iranians inviting me to their homes all over the country. During the course of my trip, I stayed with and hung out with locals who made my trip unforgettable.

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My couchsurfing hosts, Solman and Ehsan, in Shiraz. I hate random, weird food combination but eggplant yoghurt and chips were the best!

This may come as a surprise to those who know Iran for its association to the “Axis of Evil”, popularised by former United States president George W. Bush. More recently, Donald Trump passed an inexplicable (really) travel ban that banned people from seven Muslim-majority countries including Iran from getting a Visa in the United States.

Despites America’s animosity toward Iran, Iran has enjoyed a strong presence on many travel bucket lists. In fact, to match an increasing demand, AirAsia offers direct budget flights to Tehran for less than $600.

Tourism figures in the nation have doubled in the last year but it is still void of tourist trappings – for now. Even the most tourist-friendly places are still favoured and populated among locals.

In Iranian capital Tehran, there is the hip Darband. Darband lies at the foot of a popular hiking trail, and it is dotted with small teahouses, cafes and restaurants – almost all of which offer hookah (or shisha). It may be an uphill walk, but the best, most secluded spots are found further up along Darband where you can sit on carpeted platforms right next to a water fall.

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In Iran, hijabs are compulsory for both locals and tourists. Many in Tehran take the law as a suggestion – merely covering up just a little of their hair. At Darband, we see women letting loose, with the safety of seclusion, as they take off their headscarves showing off their coloured hair, piercings and tattoos. They lean on their boyfriends’ shoulders and show affection freely.

While Tehran is Iran’s cosmopolitan city (complete with modern pollution), Shiraz is the nation’s cultural capital. It is known for its stunning mosques, gardens and its literature. As I head out to The Tomb of Hafez, the most celebrated Iranian poet, late on a weekday evening, it is packed with locals. Some are taking selfies, laughing as they enjoy one other’s company and others are sat on the ground in circles reading the poetry of Hafez out loud.

I am invited to join one of their circles. One of my new friends then tells me that along with the Quran, many Iranians keep a collection of his works at home. I may not understand Farsi, but I have gained an appreciation for Hafez and his musings on love.

Iran has many beautiful mosques but Shiraz, in my opinion, has the most beautiful ones. Traffic can be crazy in Shiraz and I found myself seeking refuge and peace in the mosques and its gardens for hours.

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Eram Gardens

One of the most popular mosques is the Nasir ol Molk Mosque (below) – otherwise known as the Pink Mosque. Arrive before 7am, and you will be treated to a kaleidoscope of colours filling the small room. Also, remember to look up when you are in any mosque or bazaar in Iran. It is very likely that the ceilings may take your breath away with its intricate carvings, colours and symmetry.

IMG_0884.JPGEqually breathtaking is the city of Isfahan, the most beautiful city that I have ever been to. Situated at the center of Isfahan is the magnificent Naqsh-e-Jahan Square (also known as the Imam Square) – the second largest square in the world followed by Tiananmen Square. (80 per cent of my time at Isfahan was spent without my phone because I ran out of battery so I have terrible pics of the place. You just gotta trust me on this – it’s beautiful).

Surrounded by two grand mosques, a huge bazaar, and several teahouses, it is easy to spend an entire day here. But the best activity is to do what the Iranians are doing: Sit down and have a picnic, an activity common throughout the rest of Iran wherever there is a patch of grass. At the square you will see artists painting the sights around them, young teenagers gossiping, and horse carriages riding delighted families around the square.

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After spending time at Imam Square, you can take a long leisurely walk to Isfahan’s famous bridges including Siosepol Bridge and Khaju Bridge – both of which are gorgeously lit up at night.

The bridges are a perfect backdrop for a romantic date as the arches are occupied by older Iranian men singing beautifully in groups. Romance is a language clearly not lost in translation. Local couples have the same idea too as they snuggle up close to each other in the arches of the bridges.

Once you have explored the three main cities in Iran, it is worth going up North to explore some of Iran’s beautiful nature. Masuleh is a village where houses are built into the mountains and where the streets are built on top of the roofs.

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There is nothing much to do here except taking hikes, and drinking copious amounts of tea, and non-alcoholic beer and smoke Shisha but it is worth spending at least a night there. Several games of Backgammon  as well as a free flow exchange of stories and 3/4 of a Fargo episode kept my Dutch friend and I more than occupied for three days.

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Close to Masuleh is Rudkhan castle, which was a challenging two-hour hike through dense forests and up a mountain. You may want to give up mid-way through but just curse your way throughout and you will be there in no time. The view left me speechless (but it may also have been the exhaustion).

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Photo: Sjoerd van Baarsen 

Iran is a beautiful, complex country that has many beautiful views, cities, and mosques but it is undoubtedly the people of Iran and their warmth that will lead to repeat visits to the country.

Tips:

  • Due to the sanctions imposed on Iran, you will not be able to use your credit or debit cards so make sure you withdraw enough money. For mid-range travelers, I recommend 50Euros per day.
  • Taxis are very cheap but they tend to rip tourists off. Always bargain down to at least 70 per cent of their asking price before settling on 50 per cent of the fare.
  • Traveling between cities is easy and cheap (around 20 Euros). Just take the VIP buses from bus stations.
  • Women must follow the dress code and wear a headscarf at all times when in public spaces. They should also wear loose-fitting shirts that cover your bum.

P.S. If you’re visiting Iran for the first, second or sixth time, make sure to go to Dina’s blog. Her Iran travel guide is the best Iran primer you can find out there – it has all the information you need and then some. She is a Singaporean that has been to Iran many many times – and she is basically an expert (in my opinion).