Iran is a pariah in the Western world, currently the subject of crippling economic sanctions and international condemnation. It is a theocratic republic with a poor human rights record, and Australia’s current official advice for the country is “reconsider your need to travel.” It is also, without a doubt, the friendliest country I have ever visited.
We arrived at Imam Khomeini International Airport around 3am, bleary eyed after an exhausting 8 hour lay-over in Turkey. Australians are eligible for a visa on arrival, though visa fees are reciprocal; meaning that because Australia charges Iranians exorbitant fees for visas to Australia, Iran in turn charged us €145 each (approx $230AUD).
Because Iran does not have access the international banking system, electronic transactions through EFTPOS or credit cards will not work, so this transaction (like all our transactions in the country) was made in cash. In total we withdrew approximately $4,000AUD cash (in Euros) for our month in Iran, and ended up spending less than half of this. When in a country where you’ll have difficulties accessing money, it always better to grossly overestimate your possible expenses, rather than be stuck without cash.
Tehran is a bustling, populous city
On our first day in the Iranian capital we took to the streets to get a feel for the city. We were immediately struck by the hecticness and number of people in every direction. Tehran is a bustling metropolis of over 9 million people, and it was a stark contrast from the quiet, slow-paced European cities from which we had come. On every corner, in every alley there were people hard at work; buying or selling things, performing manual labour, or just purposefully walking to their destination. We noticed that it was quite rare to see anyone just relaxing or taking a break, and as Australians this was a fairly novel concept to us.
A New Level of Friendliness and Hospitality
The language of popcorn is universal
From the moment we caught a taxi from the airport, the overwhelming friendliness of the Iranian people was evident. Despite his limited English (and our barely existent Farsi), the taxi driver was clearly eager to welcome us to his country, and was genuinely happy for us to be here.
This continued through every interaction we had in Tehran. It’s difficult to overstate how friendly, enthusiastic and polite Iranians are to visitors. My friend Sam (who has visited Iran previously) probably put it best when he said;
“You know how you naturally become wary overseas when a stranger approaches you in the street? You think, ‘they’re trying to scam me or get me to buy something’ In Iran, you need to turn that voice off. They don’t want anything, they are genuinely just happy to meet you”.
He is 100% right. We were approached by so many people, young and old, who just wanted to tell us “Welcome to Iran!” I accidentally dropped €50 on the street (about half a weeks wage for an average Iranian), and was chased around a corner by a man trying to return it. People respectfully asked us for photos, or to simply practice their English. Of all the countries I have ever been to, I’ve never experienced hospitality close to that which we received in Iran.
A family who asked us for a photo – the son only knew the word “hello”, but he said it enough to make it count 🙂
Bashid and the boys
Driving in Tehran is an Extreme Sport
Iran is an incredibly safe country, with very low crime rates, particularly crimes against tourists. At no stage during our time there did either Ashlea or I ever feel threatened or unsafe, even when walking at night through dark narrow alleys which we never would have risked in Australia. The only time we genuinely feared for our lives was while attempting to cross the road in Tehran.
Traffic in the city is insane. Having visited Mumbai and Ho Chi Minh city we thought we understood dangerous roads and crazy drivers, but Tehran makes these places look like sleepy Swiss mountain roads. Road rules are barely a suggestion, indicators are the mechanical equivalent of an appendix (everyone seems to have one, but it really has no purpose), and the soundscape of the city is thousands of car horns constantly beeping.
It is common for drivers to perform U-Turns in the middle of the highway, drive the wrong direction into oncoming traffic and seemingly consider pedestrians to be little more than squishy speed bumps. According to UNICEF Iran’s rate of road accidents is twenty times higher than the world average, and after one day trying to brave the roads and caught the highly efficient and easy to use Metro system. We’d strongly recommend that any other traveller do the same.
Sights of Tehran
On our third day we were fortunate enough to meet Koohyar, an absolute legend who taught himself English by watching The Simpsons online, and runs the aptly named travel company Why Not Iran. Kooyah took us on an epic tour visiting all the attractions of Tehran, including;
The Former American Embassy
The scene of one of the defining moments of US-Iran relations, in 1979 the embassy was stormed by students supporting the Islamic revolution, and over fifty US citizens were held hostage for more than a year. The former embassy remains under Iranian control and is now a museum known locally as the ‘US Den of Espionage’, a reference to the countless documents and tapes which were destroyed by US staff as the students were attacking the embassy. The US has had no formal diplomatic relations with Iran since 1980.
US ‘Den of Espionage’
US Ambassador’s desk: “They’re storming WHAT?!”
Holy Defense Museum
The poignant and beautiful Holy Defense Museum is located on a hill in the middle of Tehran, complete with gorgeous gardens and a Mosque. One of the largest museums in the country, it commemorates the eight year long Iran-Iraq war, in which hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives.
This stunningly modern structure, known as ‘the nature bridge’ provides unparalleled views of the city. The bridge spans across a highway yet connects two beautiful green parks, once more highlighting the contrasts of the city.
Of course no tour would be complete without finishing off at an amusement park, so that’s exactly what we did! With a roller-coaster, bungee jumping, zipline and paintball, and expansive mountain views over the cityscape of Tehran, Mount Tochal is the perfect place to spend action packed day (or night).
The Magical Mountain Oasis of Darband
Darband – Straight out of a Hayao Miyazaki movie.
One of my favourite experiences in Tehran was actually escaping the bustle of the city and making our way to the beautiful mountainside district of Darband. At the end of the metro line, this area can only be described as a magical oasis, seemingly a different world from the frantic and overcrowded capital. The air was cold as we trekked up the hundreds of stairs ascending the mountain, flanked on both sides by countless picturesque cafes, teashops and lounges and bisected by a trickling stream.
Every so often we needed to pause to allow a store keeper and his merchandise-laden donkey to pass (the only means of getting stock up the mountain). You are spoilt for choice of places to settle in and soak up the incredible atmosphere, yet a good bet is to pick a place popular with locals.
Though Darband has the potential to slide into the realm of becoming a tacky tourist trap, this wasn’t our experience. The vast majority of people we saw and met were locals, particularly young couples and groups of friends, and you certainly can’t blame them for wanting to spend a day in such surroundings.
We settled into a carpeted lounge which was in the middle of the stream, across from a few other young couples. There we received a veritable banquet of breads, kebabs, vegetables and tea, followed by a fruit-flavoured shisha for the completely authentic Persian experience. Lying back on the rug, with the cliffs of the mountain on either side of us and listening to the trickling stream, we could have been anywhere, in any time in history. It was one of the most thoroughly relaxing experiences of my life, and the perfect way to end our visit to Tehran.
Verdict: The frenzied nature of Tehran is matched only by its diversity. Only here can you see your life flash before your eyes while trying to cross a road populated by thousands of manic drivers, then later that same afternoon fall asleep by the peaceful sounds of a mountain stream. It is the most avant-garde city in Iran, filled with young, educated people who represent the future of the country. Judging by the people we met there, it’s going to be a bright one.