A lot has been written about Persia and its impressive cultural heritage sites. Having spent three months living with Iranians, diving into their culture, experiencing all different shades of grey – I would like to give you insights into the society and culture of the people rather than write just another to do list for your sightseeing itinerary.
Prejudices and cliches
Iran has fallen prey to many prejudices, especially when it comes to the question of safety. Before I came here, most of my friends and family members told me I must be suicidal travelling to this country ruled by a lunatic Islamic dictator building an atomic bomb and being on the edge of a war with the US.
Well, guess what. There are several other countries already having atomic bombs and dictators hardly ever have anything in common with the people they suppress.
What I heard from travellers who have been to Iran was exactly the opposite: stories of a beautiful country with cultural treasures, amazing landscapes and the most kind and hospitable people they ever met. Doesn’t sound too bad, does it?
So I decided to figure out myself, got a 3 month visa and a (very cheap!) one way ticket to Tehran.
The idea one gets from western media couldn’t be further from reality! Persia has an abundant, ancient culture with traditions that have nothing to do with war or any kind of violence and sometimes not even with Islam! People are super welcoming, curious about the few tourists who make it here and overly happy to help, show around or even invite you to their homes.
What probably impressed me most was seeing gay boys, wearing Makeup, holding hands in public spaces in Tehran. I didn’t expect that much tolerance, to be honest.
I did not feel unsafe at any time of my 3 month stay in this country. Actually, it is probably one of the safest countries I’ve ever been to. Iranians are kind and trying to be helpful wherever they can. Whenever I had a situation, there was somebody trying to help me, even if they did not speak a word of English. You hear stories about petty crime – something that exists everywhere I guess.
You will find that people look at you (maybe one could call it staring). This is because there are not many visitors in Iran and they are curious about foreigners. Everyone who speaks some English will most certainly ask you where you come from! To the pretty single ladies out there: men will try and talk to you and get your phone number. It is tiring at some point but I never felt actually harassed or frightened. They even stop with their cars and offer to give you a ride. I just ignored them and they leave once they realise you will not re-act.
Society and culture
Iran´s society is just as diverse as in every other country. Different characters, religions, philosophies shape the energy of its culture. My impression after staying here for a while and exclusively living with locals is this:
Iranians are very kind! Maybe not always to each other (some of them like to apologise for their own people) and maybe not necessarily committed long term. I discovered that many of my acquaintances were very caring for the first 2-3 weeks and then the contact subsided. Job done. At the same time I met some true human jewels that care a lot and whom I trust with my life!
Persians are, as most people in the world nowadays, addicted to their mobile devices and social media. Maybe even more than people in Europe. They left me with the impression of deep confusion. Talking to people, you will often discover that they cannot concentrate or they interrupt you in mid speech. Often conversations are pretty superficial.
Maybe related to the confusion and the religious suppression is a deeply rooted insecurity which leads to TAAROF (or maybe TAAROF is the root?) and to situations/ issues not being addressed or even mentioned. That leads to certain problems as you can imagine.
The insecurity shows up in people’s physical appearance as well. Plastic surgery is BIG in Iran, not only with women. Nose jobs, boob jobs, fake lashes, fake nails, coloured hair, tons of make up (this also goes for men, straight men by the way!) – you name it. I could not spot any spirituality whatsoever. Life is all about eating, internet, showing off, sleeping and dating. (I guess that goes for the western countries as well). Maybe having been ruled by unwanted leaders for decades, and consequently living in an undesirable reality holds responsible for the wish for constant distraction.
Basically all Iranians I talked to are desperate about the political situation and the strong connection between politics and religion. Many of them are not religious at all but could never go public with that fact. No woman I met likes to wear a Hijab, especially not during summertime at 40 degrees. Iran is a rich country with infinite resources such as oil and gas, yet the economic situation is a catastrophe. The inflation became a huge problem in the past two years and many people are really poor despite working hard.
Nature and outdoor adventures
Iran has tons of natural highlights to offer. Spreading from the green, lush forests of the coast of the Caspian Sea to the deserts between Esfahan and Shiraz down to the relentless heat of the southern coast with its islands, nearly every existing landscape will satisfy the nature lover`s eye.
A big surprise to me were the vast possibilities of outdoor sports. I went hiking in the mountains north of Tehran, canyoning in the stunning environments of Yasuj and Qazvin and paragliding with views onto Iran’s highest mountain – Mount Damavand. You might as well go diving on Quesm island or swimming in sublime and cool mountain lakes. The costs for these adventures are reasonable when you know the right people (around 30 Euros for 2 day trips). If you are interested write me a message and I will hook you up with some of the most experienced and trustworthy guides of the country.
Important travel tips:
Whether you apply in advance for a 1 month visa or for up to 3 months – you will be charged the same price, applying from Germany (50 Euros).
Two days before your visa expires you can extend it for another 30 days. Costs: approximately 5 Euros. Go to the immigration police (In Tehran it is on Valiasr Street) and get the required documents there. What you need is your visa and a Passport picture, the ladies ideally wearing a Hijab (If you don’t have that they photoshop a Hijab into your normal picture for 1,50 Euro -certainly one of the most hilarious parts of my trip).
Due to sanctions, Iran is not part of the international banking systems which means your credit card will not get you anywhere!! The amount depends on your way of travelling, naturally.
As of summer 2019 the economy is so bad that Iran is very cheap for foreigners (15 Euros for a simple but clean hotel room, 1-3 Euros for an ample meal).
Also, do not change any money in your home country or at the Iranian airport!!! Go to one of the exchange offices in Tehran, you will get up to 60% more your money´s worth.
There might be some confusion as the currency is Rial, but Iranians only count in “Toman”. 100 000 Rials equal 10 000 Toman. In shops and supermarkets and when doing money transfers, the official Rial is being used.
I travelled on a budget doing couchsurfing, at the same time not saying when it came to good food and fresh juices and I spent about 1200 Euros within 3 months (I could have spent way less had I wanted to!).
A very important and hard to understand part of Iranian culture. Persians are overly kind and hospitable, offering lots of foods and things to their guests. At the same time, they expect you to refuse their offerings! Yes, you heard right.
Who is doing TAAROF and when, even Iranians do not know!! So how would a tourist know? Most of my friends do not like this part of their culture and consider it as unnecessary and confusing.
So here, I am judging: I don’t like TAAROF as it leads to more confusion an misunderstanding plus it is hard to deal with for a straight German 🙂
Communication is cheap in Iran. You can easily get a SIM card (approximately 2 Euros) and lots of data (10 GB for 2 Euros) for little money. If you want to stay longer than 30 days make sure to register your phone otherwise they will shut it down (They actually do that, it happened to me).
WIFI is NOT common in Iran, so make sure to get a SIM card.
You will need a VPN App to access some websites such as YouTube or Couchsurfing as those are banned in Iran. Just install one of the free of charge Apps like “VPN cat”.
The spoken language of Iran is Persian, also called Farsi. It derives from Sanskrit like German and English but you will not find too many familiar words. The numbers share some similarities with the western numeral system.
Be aware that most Iranians don’t speak English. Like: not one word!! Maybe you want to learn the numbers and some basic sentences before starting your trip and install the “google translation” App.
You will want to follow the dress codes. It is a Muslim country and it’s better to stick to the rules. The body should be covered till elbows and ankles plus Hijab fo the ladies, proper long trousers and shirts for the men.
Transportation is easy and cheap. You can get a rechargeable card for public transport that goes for busses and metro. VIP overland busses are above comfortable and cost about 3 Euro for a 6 hour journey. Domestic flights are also inexpensive.
An App called SNAPP is like Uber and for me, especially in Tehran, indispensable!! It is possible to use it without speaking Farsi, just make sure to set the locations very correctly!!
Couchsurfing is a huge thing in Iran. As mentioned, Iranians are very hospitable and curious about other cultures. If you are travelling on a budget, check it out. You will receive a lot of offers, probably from every city. I could not have afforded to stay here for 3 months if it hadn’t been for Couchsurfing. With some of my hosts I stayed for more than a week or even longer as they soon became my friends. For the girls I would recommend to chose families or female hosts as some of the single guys have certain expectations. No worries about safety but you might want to have your peace.
Travelling in Iran as a vegan is far from easy. Iranians live on meat and dairy and bread. And they mostly do not understand when someone doesn’t eat meat.
On the other hand there are great fruits which are inexpensive, locally grown ad fresh. It’s also easy to find fresh fruit and vegetable juices.
My favourite cooked meals (and the only two vegan options I found) are a herbal soup called “Ash” with noodles and chickpeas and lentils as well as cooked eggplant with herbs. The eggplant dish is called “Kashke Bodim jun” and normally comes with Yoghurt but you can always ask to not add the dairy. Salads are a vital part of the Iranian kitchen, they are like the Arabic salads made of cucumber, tomatoes and onions.
The best part of Iranian food culture for me is “Sabzi”; fresh green herbs like basil, cilantro, radishes and onions accompany every meal and provide a feast for every health conscious foodie.
Iranians love their fruit juices and ice creams – if you are not vegan try the saffron ice cream with carrot juice.
Some habits one needs to get used to. I’m not judging here, just reflecting on some things that irritated me and I needed to get used to.
- When queuing you better be persistent. Iranians are kind but when it gets to shopping, they make their way to the front relentlessly.
- Traffic is absolutely crazy, like India-crazy, just without the cows. Watch your step and try not to get run over by a car.
- Men and women do not shake hands in public. You can see it sometimes but it is not common. On the other hand men hug and kiss each other and so do women.
- Eating and sleeping times are very different from Europe. Expect to have breakfast at 12 am and dinner at midnight. Sleeping happens somewhere in between and whenever one feels tired.
- When you stay with an Iranian family expect to sleep on some blankets on the floor. I personally love it and find it very comfortable. Also, you might eat sitting on the floor as many families do not have table and chairs.