Looking back: no couchsurfing in Iran

The plan

Recently I noticed more and more articles about people travelling Persia or – as it’s called nowadays – Iran.
There is a very popular book about couchsurfing in Iran which seems to inspire a growing number of people to have a look at this unknown, wild and interesting country by themselves.

While we did not use the couchsurfing platform at all, my girlfriend and I travelled through Iran in October 2016 and as it seems Iran is getting more and more popular for travellers and there is a growing demand in information on Iran while the country is slowly opening up to the west again.

So I decided to write a bit about our experiences there in retrospective because I started this blog only after we came back.

When talking to people here in Switzerland about our upcoming trip most of them declared us straight crazy even before we were planning our trip. This is probably caused by a lack of knowledge about Iran and a lot of confusion with other countries in the middle east. Iran is located in an area which most of only know from the news and if so – it’s mostly very bad news. Some people probably even mixed up Iran and Iraq so hopefully this article will help clarify this a little.

Iran was better known as “Persia” for most of its history and is neighbors with troubled countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan. It’s history goes back 6000 years and during the centuries the country has had many roles everywhere between a world empire, a great influential scientific and artistic contributor for mankind and a rogue state as it is depicted by western media nowadays. In contrast to its neighbor Iraq there has not been any war in Iran during the last decade and it mostly is a very safe country to visit apart from some areas near the borders to Iraq and Pakistan of course. Small crime is something that hardly happens in Iran according to the German state department (which is our usual source for safety hints about any country). So there should be much to discover in Iran if you are open enough to give it a try.

Today Iran suffers sanctions that isolated Iran politically and economically from the rest of the global community, due to its nuclear program. So it is not the easiest thing to get there in the first way. You need visa (as we have German passports this was not a hard thing to do but very unusual to us) and a so-called reference number which is given out by Iran’s state department. We got our reference numbers through an agency which was pretty much straight forward but paying the bill for this agency turned out harder than it sounds. Due to the economic sanctions some banks will not allow you to send money with any reference to anything Iran-related to anyone. So we had to find a way to pay for the reference numbers first and the visa later. We finally succeeded and could plan our trip through Iran.

To us it seemed to be the best idea flying from Zurich to Tehran as it is Iran’s capital (and the country’s largest city) which has an international airport and it is connected to many European airports. We chose flights which had a stopover in Kiev, Ukraine but from there it was a direct flight with no further stops.

The trip

Starting the journey in Tehran – as busy, chaotic, surprisingly modern and badly polluted it may be – was a great thing as we were just thrown into Iranian culture, the daily life and the culture of the country. We had so many nice encounters in Tehran (as in Iran generally), people are interested in foreigners from the west and very open and curious. It’s incredible how many time we heard “Welcome to Iran” even from people who didn’t speak any English but this small sentence. It was a good start in a completely new (to us) part of the world. We had quite a bad hotel but it was located perfectly in the center of Tehran which made it easy to get around town.

Tehran is a very interesting place with more places to see than you can possibly ever do in a lifetime so we cut it to some bazaars and mosques and some other popular places while also seeing some residential districts.

Our next station was Shiraz which is a much smaller, calmer city in the south of Iran, not far from the Persian Gulf. We took a night train from Tehran and we had a very comfortable sleeping apartment for our 15 hour trip through Iran’s countryside. I can totally recommend taking the train instead of the domestic flight that look tempting because they are cheap and fast. In my opinion it is always a great experience taking the train abroad because you get in touch with local people much easier and it is a simpler, lighter way of moving.

We happened to be in Shiraz during the Ashura which is an islamic holiday that is celebrated for several days in fall all over Iran. The celebrations took place in the whole city of Shiraz, on the streets and on all public places pilgrims gathered and showed off their belief. Food and drinks were given away for free and it was a great adventure to be within all the religious pilgrims who were very passionate about this holiday. On the other hand most of public life stalled during these few days. Shops and museums were closed, public transportation was limited to the most necessary because everybody was involved in the holy celebrations one way or another.

To get to our next stop after a few days in Shiraz we had to hire a private taxi for the almost 500km to Esfahan. Our landlord in Shiraz (we stayed in a small home-stay) went through great efforts to find someone who would drive us in a small car all through the desert to Esfahan for a very low price so we could continue our journey.

We spent a few days in Esfahan and visited most places that the other travellers, who are mostly Iranians themselves, visit too. That means more mosques and bazaars and I won’t go into too many details. We had a great time in Esfahan and really enjoyed our stay there which was also due to our hotel’s receptionist. This guy was incredibly educated in European and Iranian history and he gave us so many great tips on where to go and what to see that we could still be walking through Esfahan until this very day without ever getting bored.

Next up was a stop in Varzaneh which was easily reachable within two hours by a public bus from Esfahan’s bus terminal. Varzaneh is a small village very close to one of the most spectacular desert areas in Iran. We stayed in a small hostel for a few days and took some trips to the nearby desert and some historic sites like a 1000 year old town build built from mud. It was very calm and relaxing being on the countryside at once and we really enjoyed the great landscapes and the silence out in the dunes.

As we continually planned out next stay on the road we were happy to get some tips on where to go next from our landlord. First we wanted to stay in a town near Tehran during the end of our journey but we could not find accommodation because Ashura was still going on. But this guy recommended the north-western part of Iran which is actually Kurdish area and very hardly travelled by western tourist. So we decided to take a bus back to Esfahan and to take another bus from there over night to Kermanshah, close to Iraqi border.

In Kermanshah Iran showed itself from quite another side. People were rather shy and seemed a bit suspicious of us. It turned out that we were probably the only westerners in Kermanshah as opposed to Esfahan and Tehran where we met other western travellers from time to time. So people in Kurdistan were perhaps a bit overwhelmed by seeing Europeans in their city. Still it was a very impressive time for us there because it was extremely remote and very authentic. We had a good impression of the daily life of Iranians and we saw many nice places in Kermanshah as well.

Again we had to take a bus back to Tehran before flying back home after a few days in the capitol and time went by much too quickly. Before we even noticed we were back in Switzerland and had to get used to the perspective of a very cold and grey winter.

The conclusion

While this is just a very quick and short summary of our experiences in Iran, looking back at our days there I come to the conclusion that it was a great time there and we had so many heartwarming and nice encounters with the people who I wish I could fly back there any time soon. Although there is not too much infrastructure for foreign travellers and the tourism industry is still developing it is still easy to get along there as people are very helpful and always ready to give you a hand if you need anything.

I wish in the future Iran will open up more and more people can travel there while on the other hand I wish that the country and the Iranians will stay as they are – helpful, open and happy to meet strangers. I fear that if the tourism industry takes up speed in Iran they will also face the downsides of travellers flooding the country and behaving disrespectful and Iranians will slowly get sick of foreigners.

The photography part

As I want to focus on the central topic of photography in this blog you might wonder – why did he not write anything about taking photos in Iran? Well, there is just nothing very special to say about it considering our holiday in Iran. I just packed my Leica MP and a couple of color and black and white films and took photos whenever possible. As usual I took a lot of photos of people in the streets and unlike other countries people were very happy to have their photo taken in Iran. I never had one single bad encounter in our time there but I got asked many times by complete strangers to take their photo.

To me this trip was not so much about photography but rather to get a glimpse at the country and the daily life of the people there. I tried to catch that in my photos as well, in a journalistic way if you want. But to me this holiday was more about meeting people, having a good time with my girlfriend and seeing a part of this planet that many people will never see. If you feel a sense of that in my photos that would be my greatest achievement.

The things I did not tell you

I am totally aware that there is much criticism that you can bring up regarding Iran be it political issues or their interior affairs like treating their own people and cultural history. I want to keep a positive vibe in my blog and I am in no way an expert on political issues in-depth so I spare you all the negative things one could say about the country while trying to focus on all the positive experiences we had. I am open to discuss anything Iran related so if you feel the need to contact me – feel free to do so.

See more

If you want to you can have a look at all the pictures I published from this trip here. Some prints of the pictures featured here are available for sale as well. Get in touch with me if you want to invest in my work.

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