Iran must be the most misrepresented country in the world. Unfortunately, due to its strict Islamic government's lack of diplomatic relations with many countries in the world, the media exposure the outside world receives of this incredible country and its people isn't a very realistic one, so people cannot be blamed for their lack of information.
I was told by just about everyone I told I would be travelling by myself to Iran for two months, that I was absolutely crazy and should think twice, but having read a lot about the country and chatted with many Iranians living abroad before going, I was confident an incredible trip awaited... And I couldn't have made a better decision! My aim in this first blog post on Iran is to focus on the preparation required to venture into Iran – which will be followed by a few other posts focusing on the journey in itself.
Know before you go – Preparation is a must
Getting to Iran, from the get go, isn't an easy process, I will not lie. However, the rewards of experiencing this fantastic country and its completely outweigh the preparation hassle, so do persevere! It is beyond worth it!
Visas to Iran
The annoyance starts with the difficulty acquiring visas. It isn't necessarily difficult, to put it in a better way, I would describe it as time-consuming and somewhat bureaucratic. Most European nationalities require a visa prior to arrival, as well as Canadians, Australians and a few other nationalities. The visa regulations have very recently changed, as the country is finally starting to pay attention to the importance of tourism, and some Latin American, Asian and African countries can now obtain a visa upon arrival. American citizens, unfortunately, are not allowed to travel around Iran independently, and must visit as a part of a tour group, should they wish to make the trip.
Getting the visa can be easier if travellers choose to pay a little bit more to some Iranian visa agencies that are able to obtain a pre-authorisation for a visa directly from Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The cost isn't too high, and such companies also put together a travel plan as a suggestion for the traveller (who isn't at all obligated to follow through), and along with scanned document copies, they sponsor the traveller. Once the pre-authorisation is granted, the traveller can choose to have it sent to a consulate or Embassy of their choice, and at that point, simply send their passports along, knowing a visa will be granted for sure.
Those with more disposition can choose to deal with the consulates directly, but unfortunately they will be subject to a rather high visa refusal rate.
I got my visa in a matter of 2 weeks, and felt a lot more motivated to continue researching about how to backpack in Iran!
Hotel bookings and transportation
Travellers will not find much information about Iran hotels or hostels online, such as they would when going to most other countries, where you are usually able to pre-arrange bookings online and organise your itineraries ahead. But not in Iran. This is largely due to the sanctions from countries abroad, making booking websites and international credit card usage impossible when dealing with Iran.
But travellers, despair not! This is in fact a great opportunity for old school travelling, like we all used to do in the old days, prior to the internet. Grab a good old guidebook and plenty of information will be found there, including phone numbers as well as emails from reputable establishments! Forums and message boards are also a great tool, as most people that travel to unusual countries such as this one are more than happy to share their experiences!
Through the use of a guidebook I was able to organise my first night of accommodation as well as an airport pick up. From there, everything got a lot easier, as I met lots of locals and a handful of travellers with whom to travel around. There was no shortage of accommodation options at any given time, whether I was looking for a simple hotel, a nicer one or invited by many locals that were exhilarated to see me and invited me to be their guest.
Bus and train schedules in Iran are somewhat hard to find from abroad, and at times, the information on guidebooks might be outdated. However, Iran is very well connected by bus routes, and there were many options for bus travel linking most cities to nearby major cities in many different standards of comfort. My first choice on a long journey was on a VIP bus service, and it was fairly inexpensive, for the comfort level provided. Even when I took the ordinary bus I was very pleased to find lots of kind people doing their best to communicate in English with me and present me with the best hospitality they could. Once in the country, schedules were extremely easy to find and the booking process, a rather simple one.
Some travellers might choose to cut the long distances (Iran is a very large country) by taking a couple of flights. There are two major airlines operating in Iran, and both are equally easy to book in the many travel agencies found in most cities.
Hitchhiking, unfortunately, isn't legally permitted. Especially for a solo female traveller. There are many restrictions between unmarried women being around other men that are not family members, so for a stranger to venture into someone's car makes no sense at all. Having said that, along with a local friend, I managed to hitchhike once, and I have heard stories from a few fellow backpackers that did include a lot of hitchhiking. Although they might be fearful of the governmental restrictions, Iranians are fascinated about foreigners, and curious to find out more about their lives, about what else is happening out there, as well as what brought these foreigners to their contry, so I would imagine that even though it isn't technically legal, getting a lift from drivers should be very easy for male hitchhikers.
Dress code, the language and access to money
Travelling to Iran is certainly a lot more hassle-free for male travellers than for us females, that is for sure. But to be perfectly honest, the dress code impositions are not as bad as they initially sound. As per government rules, all women in Iran, from a young age, are obligated to wear a veil covering their hair, long skirts or trousers as well as a long blouse or "manteaux" - basically a jacket that covers them from their neck all the way down to their knees. It is a lot easier than it sounds, as long as one is not travelling during the scorching summer months.
Having a lightweight jacket to go on top of your T-shirt or blouse will quickly become second nature, and covering your hair is in fact, rather practical (I didn't need to worry about bad hair days!) – I quickly got used to it. And Iranians wear their hair veils in a very casual way, when compared to other parts of the Middle East, specially in the bigger cities, where they basically just wear it from the middle of their hair, displaying their faces, hair colour, hair bangs and whatever they can get away with. Iranians, are in fact, very modern. It shouldn't be forgotten that until the Revolution in the late 1970s, Tehran was considered the "Paris of the Middle East".
People are highly educated and well cultured, and surely, they are the first ones to disagree with the impositions of their government, but they have no choice at this time but to cope with it. So they cope as well as they can. Women wear make up, beautiful outfits and beautiful hair veils. It should be noted that such impositions are only for the outdoors, so at home (and travellers, you will enter many Iranians households!), they are as casual as it gets, aside from in a few more conservative parts of the country.
Money in Iran
There are no international cash machines in Iran, and although I have read reports that travel cards are now being made available for use, I have been told this isn't exactly true. So, how to go about handling your cash? Well, you will have to bring all the money you might need with you. Money wiring can be organised, but it is troublesome and time-consuming – yet great in the event of an emergency!
The best way to go is to try and over-budget (it is a cheap country after all), and do remember to carry enough for the ocassional plane tickets you might need to purchase, as international credit and bank cards cannot be used. I felt comfortable carrying cash when needed, as it is an extremely safe country, and overall, rather inexpensive.
Well-educated Iranians are often fluent in English or French, but they won't be easy to find while travelling on public transport, eating at cheap restaurants and so on. Occasionally a person in such places will speak English or they will do their best to try and find someone that does, but I found carrying a phrasebook rather advantageous, as it brought me closer to the people. Another thing to notice: travellers ought to be very careful when taking pictures of governmental buildings. Often, people just do not know these are official buildings, and might run into difficulties with local authorities. A good idea is to take a look at people around or simply ask.
Ready, set, go!
With a better idea of what to expect when travelling to Iran, travellers can now jump right into the exciting part of the trip: Getting to know the country, and its greatest asset: its people! Itineraries in Iran offer countless activities ranging from incredible history, landscapes, traditional markets, beaches and much more. The following few blog posts will focus on my experience on the road, on the many places to go an things to see. Until then!