Iran. Those who visit tend to love it, but for many, it’s become synonymous with travel bans, cultural restrictions, poor human rights and high security. But what’s it like to travel there? Here’s what featured contributor Leon McCarron says.
In late winter of 2014, my friend Tom Allen and I flew from London to the Iranian capital of Tehran, then traveled onwards to the ancient city of Esfahan by bus. Under one of the 33 arches of Si-o-se-pol—the largest and most beautiful of the major bridges across the Zayanderud river—we met our friend Saeid, who drove us high into the Zagros mountains.
He left us where the road ended, and we walked on, alongside a small trickle of water buttressed on both sides by deep snow. A few hours later, at around 3,500 meters, we stopped where the water too halted; or perhaps more accurately, where it began.
It’s this spring that gave birth to the Karun, the longest river in Iran and the natural highway that Tom and I would follow for five weeks, on foot and by kayak, until we reached the Persian Gulf. And so, we began the journey south, into a blizzard and, for me, very much into the unknown.
We found remarkable diversity in the terrain, from the high snowy foothills of the Zagros to the dry and arid deserts of the south, where eventually the earth succumbed to ocean in the deltas beyond of the city of Abadan.
We only camped once during our entire journey—because every other single time we tried to pitch a tent, we were taken in by generous Iranians who wondered why two foreigners would go on a kayaking holiday in winter.
Kindness was a central feature; when large dams made paddling any further impossible, we began walking again until a friendly stranger insisted on lending us two bicycles which we could pedal to the coast.
There were concerns too, of course: The cold, the white-water, the bears and wolves that we had heard so much about. And then there was the fact that this was Iran, home to an undemocratic and deeply conservative regime, with reports of an appalling human rights record and a reputation for oppression and persecution. More than once we wondered: Was this wise?
It’s almost a cliché by now, but Iranians are perhaps the friendliest people in the world, and just about anyone that has been will testify enthusiastically to this.
The history of Iran, or Persia as it was once known, is as fascinating as it is tumultuous. The Persian Empire was once among the greatest in the world, stretching from Egypt to India, until it finally succumbed to the armies of Alexander the Great and disintegrated into smaller states.
It was unified again in stages, and it was under the Safavid Empire in the 15th century that it first forged its identity as a Shia nation. The Shahs of the early and mid-20th century ruled in a secular fashion, bringing the country more in line with its European and American counterparts but, after a CIA-backed coup and growing resentment towards the west and its interference, a revolution in 1979 led to the creation of an Islamic Republic.
Now, theocratic Iran is ruled by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who controls everything from military to media to the president. The result is a repressive state that censors the press and enforces strict religious adherence and distributes harsh punishment to anyone deemed to have broken the rules.
All those places that you’ve heard about—Persepolis and Shiraz, the mosques of Esfahan, the Silk Road, the desert city of Yazd, the ski slopes of the Alborz and the otherworldiness of Qeshm island—they’re absolutely worth the hype.
So where does this leave us as travelers? The first thing to remember, of course, is that any concerns we might have pale into insignificance when compared to the many resident Iranians who disagree with the regime, but who have little scope for speaking out.
Mostly, for those wanting to visit, it’s the ‘getting there’ part that is the hassle. Firstly, the US has no diplomatic relations with Iran, so Americans can only visit as part of a tour group. The same rule applies to UK citizens, although a British embassy did re-open in Tehran in August 2015.
After many years of international sanctions, which have squeezed the Iranian economy almost to breaking point, there was something of a rapprochement under the recent presidency of Hassan Rouhani. This resulted in the much-feted “Nuclear Deal’ of 2015/16, in which Iran agreed to reign in nuclear activity in return for an easing of economic sanctions.
Any progress on that front, however, was rolled back in summer 2018 when President Trump, after months of rhetoric, eventually pulled out of the Obama-era agreement. Coupled with Trump’s much criticized ‘travel ban,’ which has also been labeled a ‘Muslim ban’ for the fact that it primarily targets Muslim-majority countries, we’re back to a situation where diplomatic relations are as strained as ever.
And as a result of the new sanctions imposed by the US on Iran, British Airways and a host of other European carriers put a halt on their direct flights to Tehran. The movement of people to and from the west is as tricky now as ever.
For non-British Europeans, it’s still relatively easy to get visas, and to travel via indirect flights through Istanbul or Kiev or elsewhere. If we do visit, we can expect things on the ground to remain much the same as before.
It’s almost a cliché by now, but Iranians are perhaps the friendliest people in the world, and just about anyone that has been will testify enthusiastically to this. One does have to be respectful, as always in such a conservative Islamic society. Women should cover their head and wear loose clothing, and men should avoid shorts. Alcohol is out of the question, and conversations about religion generally best avoided with strangers.
There are police—and secret police—everywhere, but if you’re following the rules and simply touring around, you’ll have no issues. Iran is not a dangerous place as such—rates of petty crime are extremely low, and the risk of a terrorist attack is much less than in major European cities like Paris and London.
And let’s not forget this is truly a remarkable country; inimitably rich in history and natural beauty, and home to some of the oldest civilizations on earth. All those places that you’ve heard about—Persepolis and Shiraz, the mosques of Esfahan, the Silk Road, the desert city of Yazd, the ski slopes of the Alborz and the otherworldiness of Qeshm island—they’re absolutely worth the hype.
Had I listened to the advice of the UK Foreign Office, I would never have gone to follow the river Karun. I’ve written elsewhere about the inherent importance of these government bodies (FCO, State Department and equivalents), but they also deal in generalizations, and nuances get lost. The challenges posed by a visit to Iran now, even for Americans and Brits, is still more logistical than anything else.
The best memories of my travels in Iran are from the time spent with Iranians, on the streets and in their homes. The film that Tom and I made was designed as our offering to the canon of alternative narratives from the country; adding much-needed humanity to a much-demonized country. Four years later, and in the current global climate, such storytelling seems even more important. If you look beyond the politics, deep into the heart of Iran, you find a very special place indeed.