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.