My name is Johnny. I work as a tour leader and I run the Scandinavian travel blog Johnnybajdzjan.com, which is one of the biggest travel blogs in Sweden. Three times, I have visited and traveled around Iran. First time was spring 2011. A friend of mine studied half a year in Tehran, and finally I had the reason I was looking for. No more waiting, no more thinking, no more considering the alternatives. I bought the ticket and almost got fired from my job since I didn’t ask for leave.
The second time I visited Iran was autumn 2016 and the third time autumn 2017. Then I had gotten the job as a tour leader, taking Scandinavian groups of tourists to Iran, working closely with local guides.
Iran is a country that sometimes appears on the news. Mostly short updates on something that has to do with nuclear technology or the war in Syria, seldom deeper analysis. At the same time, Iran is not an unknown country for us living in Sweden. About 90,000 people, or about 1% of the population of Sweden, were either born in Iran, or were born in Sweden having Iranian parents. Therefore, I would say that one way or another, Swedish people have some knowledge about Iran, and not only from the media.
- Iran through the Eyes of Western Explorers
- Breaking Prejudice, Building Trust: Swedish Runner’s Journey through Iran [Interview]
- Travelling to Iran during Ramadan- a Survival Kit
But how is it for us when we travel to Iran? What can we as foreign visitors expect, or rather, what is it that we shouldn’t expect if we go to Iran? I got this question from PersiaPort and I accepted the challenge to write about this topic. Because after all, for making an experience in a different country as positive as possible, some things can be good to know in advance. Here are some tips on what not to expect:
Paying with credit card
The economy of Iran is suffering from international sanctions. As a tourist, this means for instance that you cannot use your foreign credit or debit card; No VISA, no MasterCard. Sure, you will see cash machines everywhere in the big cities of Iran, but these are for local cards. Don´t use your foreign card here, you will not get any cash. Therefore, bring the amount of money you think you need for your trip, and preferably a little bit extra. Euros and dollar are working well, and in some places you can exchange other currencies too.
Iran is cheap
Many people might think that Iran is a rather poor country with Turkey and Iraq on one side, and Afghanistan and Pakistan on the other. However, despite economic sanctions, Iran is not a poor country. Of course, some people are poor while other people are rich, that is the situation in Iran, but that is the situation in many countries.
Accommodation in Iran is a lot more expensive compared for instance to Southeast Asia, and the same when it comes to food. I have definitely had better hotel deals in, let’s say, Poland or Greece than I have had in Iran, but then again, Iran is not cheap.
One thing, however, that is relatively cheap is transport, and of course, if you look, you will find both cheap food and accommodation.
Can I use Internet as I am used to?
Of course, there is Internet almost everywhere, and also in Iran. However, some websites are filtered. This means that you most probably can check your e-mail and your Instagram, but maybe not your Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. This might not be a major concern, but in case it is, then it might be a good idea to install a VPN-client on your phone or laptop before you leave home. The negative thing about this is that a VPN-client can make the Internet rather slow, but then again, at least you are online.
As a woman, shall I cover up completely?
Iran has laws regarding dress codes, which means that you to a certain extent has to cover up when you go out. It does’t mean that you have to look like a tent or be completely covered in black, absolutely not. If you google for instance “Iranian women fashion” you will see lots of examples of what is OK to wear. Cover your hair, or at least parts of it, and wear a long top that also covers your bum, and you should be perfectly fine. As men, wear trousers and not shorts.
Can I use bathroom just as I do at home?
Well, not really, cause in many places, the toilets in Iran are different, at least if you compare to Western Europe.
In hotels, most of the toilets are, what we would consider, normal toilets, except that the toilet paper is unusually thick. That is because you are supposed to clean your bum with the water hose next to the toilet, and then use the paper to get dry yourself.
When you leave your hotel, things can get different. In the restaurant, they might not have the kind of toilet where you can sit down, neither at the mosque, the museum or other public toilets.
I repeat, they might have a sit down-toilet, but not necessarily, so make sure you have muscles in your thighs to get up again, if you decide to get down. Also, just to be on the safe side, bring your own toilet paper, and throw it afterwards in the bin, not in the toilet itself. There is almost always running water next to the toilet, and you will very like find a 10 litres bucket of soap when you go to wash your hands. Iranians love soap and so do we! But just to be 100% on the safe side, also bring some disinfectant in your bag. It is better to have it than not to have it.
Communication is difficult since not that many people speak English
Many people in Iran do not speak English. On the other hand, many people also do. And among those who don´t, there is still often a will to understand and people do their uttermost effort to understand you. I do not speak many words in Farsi, but I have never had any major communication problems.
What can be difficult is to understand a written menu, and even the prices can be difficult if you don´t know how the numbers are written in Iran. Because yes, it is not only the alphabet that is different, but also the numbers are different. The number, on the other side, are not that difficult to learn, so google it and start right away.
Did you see a price tag and thought, wow, that was incredibly cheap? In that case, multiply by 10. Is the price still human? In that case, the latter is probably the correct. The thing is that the currency in Iran is the rial. On all the banknotes, you see it is written rial. But, when a salesman gives you a price, it will probably not be in rial, but in toman, an older currency unit, and 10 rials are equal to 1 toman. So, if the price 5000 is given to you when you buy some snacks at the local kiosk, it will be 5000 toman, equaling 50000 rial. Think of what sounds fair, and if you are uncertain, just ask.
Alcohol is illegal, but at the hotel, I will be able to enjoy a beer?
The answer to that is a simple NO. Alcohol is forbidden in Iran for everybody except the Christian and Jewish minorities, which means that the hotels are not allowed to serve you beer, wine, vodka or whatever.
But it says beer on the menu? Yes, it says beer on the menu, but then it is either an imported non-alcoholic beer, or a local non-alcoholic beer that can taste very nice, but not exactly like beer, as we know it. Illegally, it is of course possible to get alcohol, as there is a black market for most things. Many Iranians love to drink, and by that I don´t mean only tea. Please ask any Iranian that you trust, but don´t ask for a glass of wine in the hotel lobby.
I have to add that in some English language menus, I have read both bacon and ham. Sure, it is written bacon and ham in the same way as it is written beer, but no, you will not get bacon and ham as you know it, but a rather well done imitation that I think is made from turkey.
This is of course not everything. I could have continued bargaining in the bazaars, about the taroof and about the gardens of Shiraz. A blog article like this on the other side, can´t say it all. I have tried to present a few of the things a visitor should expect, or rather not expect when travelling in Iran. I have written this text based on my own experience from three journeys in Iran, from Tabriz to Mashhad, from Tehran to Shiraz and to the empty deserts near Kerman. If everything goes as planned, I will be back in October 2018.