Demystifying Iran by Simon Patterson

Demystifying Iran

Clearing Some Commonly Held Misconceptions About a Beautiful Country

by Simon Patterson

Are you a hardcore adventure traveller who wants to experience a danger filled, terrorist riddled nation full of crazy fanatics? Want to travel to a place with a myriad of draconian laws and an easily offended religious police force? If so, travel to Iran will leave you exceedingly disappointed! Two weeks in Iran was one of the easiest and most pleasurable travel experiences ever for this budget conscious traveller.

The fertile Aras River valley. Iran is on the right bank and Azerbaijan on the left.

The fertile Aras River valley. Iran is on the right bank and Azerbaijan on the left.

For example, take my encounter with the Iranian police force. I’d just stepped off a train near the small, hot, dusty town of Shush in western Iran. I like trains, so snapped a quick photo of the departing carriages. Suddenly I heard a policeman approaching, speaking the local language in my direction. Uh oh!

Several station staff followed the cop. “No photos” said someone who spoke some English, to which I replied “oh, I’m so sorry”. I made a show of replacing the lens cap and putting my camera back in its bag, wondering what kind of adventure I’d just brought upon myself.

The quick snap that got me into trouble

The quick snap that got me into trouble

“Passport!” said the policeman. My passport was in my hotel, about 120 km away! Crap! Was I to be locked up in some concrete encased hell hole, fed only stale bread twice a week? Is there even an Australian consulate in Iran? I didn’t know.

I had a digitised image of my passport’s photo page on my phone, which I whipped out and handed to the policeman, hoping this would suffice. He took a cursory glance at it, as did the English speaker. Unexpectedly, the policeman then signaled that I was free to go. He knew his message was effectively communicated. Whew!

But it was what came next that sums up my Iran experience. As we left, the policeman attracted our attention once again, gave a big smile and wave and said “Welcome to Iran!” Thank goodness I was in the safety and comfort of Iran. In some western countries, people are charged with terrorism offences for such inadvertent indiscretions! The most common reaction to us by Iranians was summed up by this policeman. “Welcome to Iran”.

Interesting remnants of the ancient city of Susa, near Shush in western Iran

Interesting remnants of the ancient city of Susa, near Shush in western Iran

 

Quiet contemplation on the Khaju Bridge across the main river in Esfahan. Bridge built circa 1650AD

Quiet contemplation on the Khaju Bridge across the main river in Esfahan. Bridge built circa 1650AD

The initial attraction of travelling to Iran for me was the ancient history and natural beauty. Iran has incredible archaeological sites dating back thousands of years. It was fantastic to walk in the places that historical figures such as Cyrus the Great, Daniel, Darius, Xerxes, Esther and Artaxerxes lived approximately 2,500 years ago. Reaching even further back in time to 3000+ years ago is the Elamite history, featuring fire temples and enormous ziggurats. Very early Christian church history, dating back to the time of the apostles, topped off the historical tour. Add deserts, bazaars, caravanserai, cities, lush valleys and snow capped peaks, and my two weeks in Iran was barely enough to scratch the surface.

The Armenian church, Kara Kilise, near Iran's border with Turkey. Site reputedly first used as a church in 68 AD, soon after the apostle Jude's missionary journey there.

The Armenian church, Kara Kilise, near Iran’s border with Turkey. Site reputedly first used as a church in 68 AD, soon after the apostle Jude’s missionary journey there.

One thing that made travelling in Iran so easy was its infrastructure. Tehran’s metro train system is equal to any developed country’s, and the ticketing system is easier for a tourist to manage than Melbourne’s. Roads are generally smooth and well maintained, especially in cities and on highways. Taxis are ubiquitous, and in fact seemingly anyone is happy to give a price to take you somewhere in their car. This all made transport readily accessible and cheap.

Locals advised us that buses were the best way to travel long distances between major centres. Initially, this did not thrill me because I usually despise buses and love trains. However, Iran’s intercity buses have enormous, wide reclining seats with more than ample leg room, even for my 187cm (6’2″) frame. Snacks and drinking water are also provided on these buses, making Iran the first place that I actually liked bus travel. Bus journeys are also a steal for the international traveller, at equivalent to about €20 for a 500km journey.

City square at Esfahan

City square at Esfahan

The hygiene and cleanliness of both people and places in Iran also impressed me. Tap water was potable almost everywhere. Restaurants all had a sink for patrons to wash their hands in, which people did both before and after meals. Streets were largely kept clear of litter, and graffiti was almost nonexistent. We stayed in cheap two or three star hotels, which were all neat, clean, provided soap and towels, and included well functioning ensuites. Most also had reasonable wifi, although western social media sites are blocked in Iran.

Modern, occupied buildings in cities and towns were sometimes interspersed with broken but well contained old structures. This conveyed a rustic quality, rather than imparting a decrepit or ramshackle feeling. Iran’s unique combination of old and new gave it a comfortable atmosphere that felt rich in character.

A highly decorated restaurant in north-western Iran

A highly decorated restaurant in north-western Iran

It was the people of Iran who really made my holiday there so enjoyable and comfortable. The friendly welcome from so many Iranians on the street, without guile, helped us practically and showed us that we were genuinely valued.

In the space of about 2 hours in Tehran, approximately twenty people either said hello and welcome, offered us their seats on the peak-hour metro train, took time to ask around to help us get to our destination, chatted to us as we travelled by foot or on train, and offered us their phone number in case we ever needed any assistance in future. Not one of those 20 tried to sell us anything or seemed to be trying any kind of scam. People offered us their food, invited us in for a cup of tea and a chat, asked us about ourselves, and happily chatted about all aspects of Iran. No topic seemed off limits.

Tochal ski fields, only 15km north of our central Tehran hotel

Tochal ski fields, only 15km north of our central Tehran hotel

Of course, human nature being what it is, not everyone is wonderful, even in Iran. Particularly the very occasional taxi driver.

Once, we negotiated quite a generous price for a driver to take us to visit a ziggurat in the desert. Upon arrival, he told us goodbye, he was leaving us there! We convinced him to wait, so he could return us the 100 km to our hotel. This was primarily achieved by keeping his fare firmly in our wallets. Given we were all going back to the place we started at, as well as the fact that no other similar arrangement in Iran worked this way, his suggestion of leaving us in the desert was ludicrous. Finally, he did try to charge double upon our return, which did not surprise us by this stage. However, he gave up his final scam within a few seconds, shook our hands, and took the originally agreed price.

But this was a unique exception, rather than the rule. A number of taxi drivers in Iran went out of their way to help us catch trains and buses, with no gain to themselves. This helpfulness was very normal from strangers, although we really appreciated it each time. The rest of the taxi drivers were straightforward, delivering us to our destination at the agreed price with no fuss or shenanigans.

Chogha Zanbil ziggurat, built circa 1200BC

Chogha Zanbil ziggurat, built circa 1200BC

We asked Iranians why they were generally so friendly and welcoming to visitors. They unanimously replied that it is embedded in Iranian culture, and is not for religious reasons. Some traced it back to King Cyrus the Great, a Persian king who conquered everywhere between India, Greece, Russia and Libya in roughly 600-500 BC. Cyrus was known for respecting each nation’s culture and religion, rather than trying to quash them. For example, it was he who conquered Babylon and returned the Jews and their possessions back to Jerusalem from their Babylonian exile. Some Iranians say that Cyrus’ respect and reverence of other cultures is the foundation of their culture’s hospitable nature towards visitors.

A local paying his respects at the tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasagardae. Cyrus died in about 530 BC and this tomb has been here ever since.

A local paying his respects at the tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasagardae. Cyrus died in about 530 BC and this tomb has been here ever since.

Religion clearly does affect everyday life in Iran, though, including tourists. Alcohol is not legal in Iran, and we did not encounter any. There is a dress code for both men and women, which I understand is based on Sharia law. We were advised that men must cover their legs (I saw nobody in shorts), are not supposed to wear tight form-fitting clothes, and must cover their shoulders. Women additionally are supposed to cover their hair and arms, and must wear a loose fitting garment to cover their legs.

A normal busy evening in the south-west town of Ahvaz. Every vehicle in this picture is a taxi.

A normal busy evening in the south-west town of Ahvaz. Every vehicle in this picture is a taxi.

The way the dress code played out was fascinating. Some local women wore their headscarves so far back that almost all their extremely well-coiffed hair was showing. Local women wore everything from colourful, fashionable western attire (plus a headscarf) to the all-black “chador”. The chador is a black, loose fitting garment that usually leaves only the wearer’s face and hands uncovered.

I also spotted an Iranian woman on a street wearing the tallest pair of stilletto heels I’ve ever seen. Even the chador sometimes revealed designer jeans or tight yoga pants. Several European women in a tour group wore scarves and untucked shirts that barely covered the bum of their pants, and they didn’t have any trouble on the day I toured alongside them. This seemed out of step with local women though, who usually seemed to cover their legs with a skirt or dress down to at least their knees.

Some of the younger local men wore t-shirts that made it very obvious they spent long hours in the gym, undoubtedly aided with protein powder and the like. Of the hundreds of thousands of people I watched in Iran, I saw only one woman whose face was completely covered except for a slit for her eyes. Everyone else’s faces were uncovered.

Remains of the ancient palace of Persepolis, built circa 500 BC

Remains of the ancient palace of Persepolis, built circa 500 BC

Finally, a word on safety. Iran borders 7 countries that all contain war zones not fit for tourists (or anyone). Iran’s police force are therefore excused for being slightly nervous of a foreigner like me photographing their critical infrastructure! However, Iran is a large country and we were easily able to stay well away from Iran’s borders with war zones, as recommended by the Australian government’s online travel advisory.

I felt completely safe at all times, with men, women and children also appearing comfortably out and about day and night. Nobody loitered about, glancing sideways at passers by for a sly opportunity. I did not observe anyone following me in a crowd looking to procure my possessions, which I have sometimes noticed in other countries.

The tombs of Darius, Xerxes and Artaxerxes near Shiraz. Circa 500-400 BC

The tombs of Darius, Xerxes and Artaxerxes near Shiraz. Circa 500-400 BC

Iran’s police force were almost always unarmed, except for a baton. After two weeks in Iran, I feel it is probably an even safer country than Australia for a tourist. Note that Australia is one of the safest countries in the world, even though of course Australia is not completely immune to radical terrorism and other violence.  The biggest risk in Iran is from their fast, busy traffic. I would not like to drive a vehicle in their cities because the pressure would be immense and the likelihood of me crashing would be high!

In conclusion, I would heartily recommend to anyone a trip to Iran for sightseeing and photography. Just don’t photograph at a railway station!

The very impressive mausoleum of Iran's revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Khomeini

The very impressive mausoleum of Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Khomeini

About the Author

Simon PattersonSimon Patterson is an enthusiastic hobbyist photographer who also likes discovering the truth about things. He loves hiking and camping in the wilderness and the challenge of learning to communicate through the art of photography. Simon aims to create images that affect people emotionally. When not out shooting or processing images, he reads everything he can about photography. Simon resides in country Victoria, Australia.

Comments 4

  1. Thanks mate. A great perspective and superb photos. Definitely bumped Iran up a few places on my ‘Must See’ list!

  2. Pingback: Polishing a turd in camera | F Stop Lounge

  3. Great article, Simon, could not agree more. I’ve visited Iran several times for work and I have many friends there. It’s a beautiful country with friendly people.

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