Unless you’re Israeli or American passport holder of course.
We know what the media shows us, and in fact, what the media shows us is partially true. The black veils on women’s faces, the internet filtering, the rule of Islamic religion. What the media doesn’t show us is in plain sight, and you just need to step across the Iranian border into the country to see what this country really is, in its history, in its religions, in its people.
Me and my Australian friend applied for the visas in Baku, Azerbaijan. Prior to our visit to the consulate we had to go to a photo studio and take our head shots with a proper clothing and covered hair. It looked pretty ridiculous – wearing a scarf on my head for the first time. A few days later, still awaiting the application results, we watched that film of Kiarostami, ‘Tam-e guilass’, or A Taste of Cherry. In it, a truck driver in suicidal mood is looking for someone who would bury his body under a tree after he’s done. All the movie he is driving on what appears to be an endless desert/construction site, full of tractors, trucks and – one tree. “I hope Iran is not like that,” – I mumbled.
I crossed the land border (that looked like prison) a week later. I stayed with dozens of CouchSurfers and I hitchhiked with my friend from the North to the South. Iran was much more than that.
Now I know that you must also visit Iran in order to…
1 Admire the wonders of Persepolis – remains of a magnificent city built thousands of years ago. When you walk through the ancient arches and climb up the hills to see the yellow-ochre panorama as the sun is setting down, it feels like traveling through time back to Achaemenid Empire.
2 Stroll around Isfahan – one of the oldest and most conservative cities in Iran where natural beauty goes along with architectural wonders: Naqsh-e Jahan Square, and the bazaar, and Palace of Eight Paradises with curvy arches and colourful frescoes beyond your imagination, 33-arch bridge across the river (that was dry until recently when the new mayor magically brought back the water!) and hundreds of hidden patios with fountains and coffee-shops.
3 Up in the North of the country, visit the shores of Caspian sea and the town of Lahidjan that produces vast amounts of tea. As you walk along the streets and pass the gloomy-looking once-been-white factories, you can inhale the smell of fresh tea leaves and dried processed tea. No matter how much Farsi you can understand, you will be invited for a cup multiple times and shown around the factories by the managers and staff.
4 If you are a fan of roses, you can not miss the city of Kashan, famous for the variety of rose products, such as jams, rose water, soaps, etc. – the palace gardens are full of pink, red and purple flowers that will captivate you with their smell.
5 Get lost among the old houses in the ancient town of Yazd, all built of clay and straw. Stroll into one of the bakeries, attracted by the smell of fantastic Iranian bread, and the owner most likely will not charge you and give you an extra loaf, blessing you for the road.
However, nowadays Yazd is famous for one more thing: probably the best CouchSurfing host you can get in the whole community. Meet Balal. Smoke shisha with him. It’s worth all the treasures of Yazd.
6 Get arrested. For anything. Probably attending one of those epic illegal house parties. Or snapping a photo of something that looks ordinary but turns out to be a military base that you were not supposed to take photos of. Talking from personal experience.
7 Admire the variety of graffitis on the walls of Shiraz. Amongst iranians, the city is famous as a birthplace of many ancient poets, including Hafez, and for its bohemian culture: the citizens here still drink locally produced wine – despite the ‘non-alcohol’ law across the country. However, I found the contemporary wall paintings around the city much more entertaining and interesting than the traces of literary history.
8 Get invited to people’s houses. A lot. Eat weird local food, which varies from North to South and from East to West. In the north, for instance, they like everything minced: meat with vegetables and what not turns into a paste with a lot of salt and spices. Even watermelons are served with salt here. Yuk. One time, we got a ride in a truck with three men from Baluchistan, and around midnight they stopped on the highway, opened the front of the vehicle and served us food on the carpet. It one of those moments of the trip when everything feels surreal but then you suddenly realize that this is how the life on the road is.
9 Hitchhike through the desert under 50*C in an open-pickup truck. The sun is melting on your head, and all you see around is just sand and sand and sand, occasional signposts saying “Beware of camels on the road” and – camels themselves from time to time. This journey we could take only for 30 minutes and then got off to hitchhike a less adventurous transport.
10 Buy, photograph and touch the colourful stuff at textile markets all around. My favourite was in Zahedan, the capital of Baluchistan province.