Iran is a very interesting country. Its rich history and current strict Muslim government makes the place unique. The fact that they are currently cut off from the rest of the planet politically and economically in some way adds to the experience there as they have little influence from the western world that we are used to. And for me that’s a very good thing. There was something very unusual for us, Europeans, in every aspect of life in Iran and that made our time there unforgettable!
I’ve compiled a list of 20 things that you need to know before traveling in Iran overland based on what I’ve learned when visiting it during the month of November in 2017.
Have your papers. You can’t make a spontaneous decision to ride your motorcycle or drive you own car into Iran unless you have a lot of money to spare – on the border they will ask you to leave a deposit equal to 400% of you vehicle’s value. A bit less painful way is to have a Carnet de Passage, but then again, the same Carnet de Passage (CDP) becomes much more expensive if you include Iran into the list of countries you want your CDP to be valid in. And then, of course, you need a visa for yourself. Obtaining one is a quick and easy process for a European, a bit more complicated for a UK, Canada or US citizen and impossible for an Israeli citizen… Nevertheless visiting Iran is definitely worth all the hassle with paperwork – it’s a fantastic experience.
Bring more clothes. One of the most well known facts about Iran is that you have to pay attention to what you wear while visiting it. The biggest difference from “our world” is the requirement for women to cover their head with a scarf (hijab) not matter if they are Muslim or not. It must be done even on the picture for the visa application! In addition to that in public places women are also required to wear long sleeves leave alone long pants (with longer shirts over them to cover one’s bottom) or very long skirts. At home they mostly get relaxed, but if the family you are visiting is more conservative, women may keep the scarfs (hijab) on and you should do too unless you confirm with them that it’s ok to remove it. Men also have a requirement about clothes - you should not wear shorts in public places. At the beach you may, but not on the streets. Long pants are a must. This is a good reason to consider visiting Iran in early spring or autumn, since the temperatures at summer can reach 40C degrees and it definitely shouldn’t be pleasant to wear all those clothes in such conditions…
Meanwhile, as I was riding motorcycle with my riding gear on and simply didn’t have a long shirt to wear over my pants while off the motorcycle, I ignored this part of the dress code and only stuck to covering my head with a scarf and never had any problems.
Shoes sleep outside! In people’s homes they have an interesting system with footwear. All the shoes are taken off while entering the house and left outside. Rain is rare in most part of Iran, so there is no problem with that. And while for most of the area at home they walk with bare feet (or with socks on), in the toilet or in the kitchen they often have separate sets of slippers which are not there for your comfort - it’s obligatory to use them to avoid taking any food crumbles, dirt or anything else from the floor in these rooms to other places in the house.
Get familiar with legendary local travellers! Apparently before motorcycling around the world became a pop thing in western world, before Ted Simon learned how to ride a motorcycle and left Britain on for “Jupiter’s travels”, before Helge Pedersen got on his BMW called Olga to ride his “Ten years on two wheels” and way before Ewan and Charley got to New York taking the “Long way round”, Iran had its’ Omidvar brothers, who left Tehran in 1954 on two English 500cc motorcycles called Matchless to travel around the world for 10 years in search of most primitive human tribes. One of the brothers, Abdullah now lives in South America, while the second one, Issah, has opened a museum in Tehran to exhibit some of the impressive souvenirs they have brought back from their travels. The museum is worth visiting!
We were very lucky to have met Issah himself in his own museum when we were visiting it. He greeted us very warmly and became our private guide in the exhibition, telling a lot of amazing stories from their adventures!
The world is full of amazing people. Hospitality in Iran is at a whole different level than anywhere else in the world. They get excited to see tourists visiting their country or their city and are ready to do anything to make you feel welcome. We just entered Iran form Azerbaijan and stopped in the first bigger city Ardebil and next thing we know - a man is inviting us to stay at his home, the whole neighborhood is explaining us how to get there and eventually we get to follow a random guy on a small motorcycle to that place where his son meets us while the man finishes work that day and comes home. In bigger cities people often stopped us to ask where we are from or to make selfies together.
Many times we were invited to visit locals through Instagram (it’s a number one social network platform in Iran) or simply on the street. Iranians also use Couchsurfing a lot and love hosting travellers.
Connection to the world. Internet is censored in Iran. Sites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Couchsurfing or anything that is related to Israel are blocked and can only be accessed via VPN. People widely use VPNs and there are a many options which are free and work quite well. We used Psiphon app on our iOS and Android phones and Windows laptop. Meanwhile Instagram, most of Google services and many other sites are accessible directly. Although internet speeds are quite slow throughout the whole country.
Local TV channels are also very Muslim – many unacceptable scenes in the movies are censored and cut out, sometimes even changing the whole idea of the plot! At the time of praying (they are Shia Muslims, so they pray 3 times a day, unlike most of the rest of the world’s Muslims who are Sunni and pray 5 times a day) every TV station pauses the program and broadcasts a recording of Azan – a religious song which is sang in mosques as a call to pray. However many people get the satellite receivers to gain access to foreign channels and are able to watch programs like Victoria Secret fashion show on TV :)
Braaaaaap. Only small motorcycles are allowed in Iran - they can only be up to 250cc and single cylinder (with exception to sports bikes which can be used only on tracks or for short distances to get to the track), therefore our 800cc bikes and us on them were something like a small street performance anywhere we went. People took pictures of us, asked to make selfies together, kids were more than happy to use a chance to sit on the bikes or just to come closer and stare for a while.
It is forbidden for women to ride motorcycles in Iran. But this rule just as the one about the engine size restriction is not applied for tourists, therefore I was able to road freely in their country on my relatively big bike and received hundreds of encouraging thumbs up from local women.
What’s the day today? Iran lives according to different calendar - now it is 1396 for them and you should not expect that everyone will be able to answer questions like “do you start school year in September?” They also count weekdays differently and weekend in Iran is Thursday and Friday instead of Saturday and Sunday. The time zone there is not the most common too: it’s GMT+3:30
So, if I was an Iranian, my birthday would be 1366/05/18 :) And even on our visas, the dates were written according to their calendar, but since they use different numbers, it’s difficult to understand that.
Alphabet and numbers. Speaking of numbers (and letters) – they use Perso-Arabic alphabet and Persian numbers, so don’t expect to understand anything in the beginning. The numbers are not hard to learn to read and I even managed to learn to pronounce numbers from 1 to 10 just in case, but letters is a whole different thing – when they are written separately they often look completely different from when they are written in the word. So the best is to learn at least the numbers to be able to read the prices in some places should you need that and just go with the flow…
Road signs. You shouldn’t have many problems reading signs while in the traffic as most of the signs are written in both Perso-Arabic and Latin alphabets and even the warnings and instructions are translated to English! Speed limit signs have both Persian and Arabic (the ones that we understand) numbers on them, but we have seen very few locals who actually obey these signs, so in Iranian world they are pretty much useless… There are also signs showing that the motorcycles are forbidden on highways, but just as locals ignore speed limit signs, we ignored these ones and never had any trouble – highway police would give us thumbs-up and smile if they saw us riding. Also there were stations to pay road-tolls on those highways, but we were always waved to ride on without paying by the people responsible to collect money from drivers.
Who needs rules anyway?! In general Iran is a safe country to travel, but for those who are traveling on their own wheels, be prepared to face life threatening situations on the road every day. It seems to me that many years ago there was a person in Iran who knew the principles of driving rules, proper road infrastructure and everything else that we know about driving in Europe. He apparently designed a good road infrastructure for Iran, pedestrian crossings over the road, signs, speed limits and everything else. And then he probably died without passing his knowledge to anyone else and so now people use that relatively good road infrastructure applying the principles you would apply as a pedestrian while moving in the crowd at a small town fair rather than the proper traffic rules. Lanes are something they have never heard of - cars, busses and trucks float left and right as they wish on 3 or 4 lane road… The fact that you have to soon turn right for them doesn’t mean that you have to change lanes in advance and make the right turn from the right lane - no, you can very often see locals shooting through 3 lanes at a last second to take the turn they needed. The fact that you are riding in the main road which has priority over others, doesn’t mean that you won’t have to slam on breaks for the truck that is slowly, but without hesitation turning out of some side road right into your lane. To make things worse, locals in their cars are just as curious as they are on the streets, so more often than not a passing car on the highway slowed down next to us to open the window and take pictures or simply to say hello. That’s a lovely gesture, but when there’s a truck in front of you floating between the lanes and two cars from both sides are maintaining the same speed as you do while filming you and they of course try to get as close as possible (ignoring the lanes as usual) - the situation can soon get unpleasant or even dangerous.
Got gas? After riding in Uzbekistan where we experienced terrible lack of proper quality petrol or in some places… simply PETROL, my hopes were high for Iran. It’s a country which has a decent quantity of its’ own oil after all! However, having in mind that the cars that are mostly used in Iran are Iranian brands, with the exception for some well known names like Peugeot for example, which are also made in Iran! The interesting fact about those Peugeots is that the model that is manufactured and widely used in Iran until this day is a Peugeot 405. Yes, the same one which was popular in Europe back in 1990s… And such cars work well on 91 octane petrol which as we found was available everywhere and sold for 1000 Tumans (or 10 000 Rials – remember the money system?) per litre in every gas station. The filling stations for this type of petrol were usually painted green.
We preferred to have the best quality of fuel for our motorcycles (having in mind how little it costs in Asia, compared to Europe) so we searched for Premium petrol (that’s supposed to be 95 octane) and could find it in some gas stations along the main highways or in the cities). One litre of Premium costs 1300 Tumans and the filling stations are painted red.
Diesel is only used by trucks, and locals were saying that the quality of the local diesel is appalling…
Know the people. Iranians are not Arabs and they get offended if you call them that. They are Persians and they speak Persian. That is different from Arabic. They are Shia Muslims while Arabs are mostly Sunni Muslims. These two different directions of the same religion are in constant “competition” of who are the better or more true Muslims.
“Money money money, must be funny…”! Money is a tricky topic in Iran. Not only none of the international Visa or MasterCard bank cards will work in Iran as their banking system is disconnected from the rest of the world because of sanctions, but they have a tricky system in displaying prices too. The currency in Iran is called Rials, but the prices are usually displayed in Tumans. At this moment 1 euro is about 40 000 Iranian Rials and that equals 4000 Tumans.
Also, the actual exchange rate that you get on the streets or even in very fancy looking official exchange shops is much better than it is in the bank – banks use official exchange rates while those exchange shops use…something else!
Tourist prices. Don’t get surprised that you’ll need to pay up to 10 times more than the locals for tourist attractions. That’s normal. In some places you can ask a local to buy tickets for you, but in others it may not be possible since it’s most of the time obvious that you are not a local.
Do you think you are flexible? Never in my life would I think that my body lacks flexibility for some everyday activities… until I visited Iran… Sitting on the ground in Iran is such a natural and common thing to do! They sit on the ground with their legs crossed in front of them in every possible situation. A family dinner – everyone gathers in a square around the area on the ground that should act as a table and enjoy their meal. A women preparing the food for the family – sitting on the ground in the kitchen or in the room and carefully sorting out the rice. I’ve even seen a woman who needed to breastfeed her baby while visiting the ruins of ancient Persian city Persepolis – she chose a remote location in the park, laid a thin cloth on the asphalt and was comfortable sitting on it with her baby on her crossed legs!
Have you ever tried sitting like that for an hour or two? I tried in Iran and after 5 minutes it becomes painful! Nevertheless, Iranians were always very attentive and numerous times they offered us to take a chair or a pillow to ease our struggle at the „dinner table“. But if you are planning to vist Iran – be prepared to test your joints and tendons ;)
The potty business. Iranians are of course Muslims, and Muslim people usually do not use toilet paper, they use water for washing themselves after „the procedure“ instead. So either learn to use water or prepare your own toilet paper and stuff your pockets with napkins... And also most of the toilets in Iran are squat-style. The ones that are normal toilets for us (the sitting-style) in Iran are called European toilets :) In most homes you will find squat toilets – sometimes even in the freshly built houses!
If you’re happy and you know it – clap your hands! Don’t get confused if you get on an intercity bus or a minivan for some tour and right after the driver turns on some unusual for you local Iranian music, all the local people in the bus start to happily clap their hands into the rhythm. That’s just their way of having fun.
We took one night bus between the cities and even on that one, somehow the driver came up with the idea of turning on the local music loudly at about 1 A.M. and locals suddenly woke up and started clapping!
Are you up for a party? Muslims don’t drink alcohol and it is forbidden in Iran. Some people say that they do drink wine which they buy from Armenians, who live in Iran and are not forbidden by their God (as they are Christians) to make wine, but most of them happily live their lives without it. Youth seem to smoke marijuana (judging by the occasional smell we could feel while walking in the parks and streets).
We were once invited by the locals to have a fun night out and so the programme of that evening consisted of getting a big cup of cocoa in a nice coffee shop and then taking a long walk along the streets of that town.
American dream. So when you think about the fact that American companies are restricted from operation in Iran, you would expect to not see any of the famous fast food brands there, but think again… You will easily find eateries which are decorated as KFC, Burger King (or King Burger) or big yellow letter M (as in McDonald’s) in most big cities – they make good looking copies of American brands are probably proud for it :)
As for the local food in Iran – it’s mostly chicken and rice, but every region has different specialities and you can find nice lamb, goat meat or fish and seafood meals too. Bread is a separate family of foods that they consume a lot and it’s really tasty!
Overall, after traveling through different continents and experiencing so many cultures in so many countries, I can confirm, that Iran is truly special! It stands out in so many ways and sometimes is even overwhelming. We were surprised by something new every day, met so many different but oh so friendly people and I’m sure we will keep in touch with some of them even after finishing our travels – we have become friends!
But also sometimes Iran was really tiring – that 50th selfie that we were asked to make with strangers, that 100th time we had to smile and tell a random stranger that we are from Lithuania because he even stopped his car next to us parked on the side of the road to ask this! After a challenging long day’s ride, getting stuck in a traffic jam in the big city, I must confess, I was sometimes swearing and shouting on local drivers around me (poor Linas had to listen to all that through our helmet radio…), who were jumping into my lane nearly hitting my front wheel, pushing me to the side of the road, slamming on breaks in front of us because they suddenly decided to park in… a roundabout (!) – there were moments when I would rather have been somewhere else. But I’m sure that with time these memories will fade and only the good ones will last – all the friendly smiles, all the welcoming families, all the tasty homemade dinners, interesting traditions, amazing architecture, beautiful history and fantastic mountain roads!