Americans in Iran - an amazing 1-month trip

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Apr 10th, 2015, 07:48 PM
  #1
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Americans in Iran - an amazing 1-month trip

A belated brief trip report on an amazing 1-month trip my wife and I had to Iran in October 2014. A country with an incredible history and impact on the world (including the very first world empire), architecture and tradition of hospitality. Much misunderstood in the West, although my fingers are crossed that this may change for the better (in both directions). And it’s one of the few places in today’s globalized tourist trail where you can still see absolutely world-class sites and a proud, authentic culture with few or no tourists, especially off the standard route.

Our trip outline (we did a private tour with a local guide at all times - a guide is required for all Americans):
Tehran - Tabriz - Kandovan - Jolfa/Armenian&Azeri border/Ardabil- Masuleh - Ramsar -Tehran - Qom/Kashan - Abyaneh - Natanz&Isfahan - Na’in/Meybod/Zein-od-din caravanserai/Saryazd - Yazd/Karanaq/Chak Chak - Kerman/Mahan/Rayen - Shiraz/Persepolis/Pasargad

Highs:
- Iran is the country from which we have experienced the warmest hospitality and graciousness of any we’ve visited, and to our surpise, when you tell them you are American, they are even MORE enthusiastic. 
- Rich artistic traditions that permeate all areas of life - music, architecture, visual arts, poetry, etc...  Iran is visually stunning and a feast for the senses.
- The sweeping history and pre-history, beginning from 5000 BCE, is spine-tingling. As in Rome, you can visit the actual archeological sites, which are often right in town.  Unlike Rome, the protection for what has been found is minimal, which means that, for better or worse, you can get up close.
- Discovering the contribution of Iran to science, art, literature, and trade as well as awesome administrative and engineering feats: qanats (like Roman aqueducts, carrying water over dozens of miles - but underground to prevent evaporation), underground cities, ice houses, wind towers, early mail couriers, the caravanserai system, to name some of the more obvious ones.
- The exchange rate made it possible for us to live like royalty - hard to spend $10 per person at the fanciest restaurant in town.

Lows:
- Iranian cooking is wonderful - but it’s hard to find the good stuff consistently in restaurants.  We had a few memorable dishes and meals, but we could predict the menu in most places.  If you’re a kebab freak, you’re in heaven. But lack of veggies was hard for us (and we’re not vegetarian), and the meals are very starchy.
- The mandatory hijab and conservative clothing (not a chador) were often too hot for comfort for my wife, despite optimal weather most of the time.  In the summer, it must be awful.  
- The lack of access to Iranian homes for Americans, and the official paranoia about US motives is inhibiting (as a result your guide is supposed to be with you at all times outside your hotel if you are an American visitor).
- The urban traffic made even crossing the major streets in Tehran and some of the other cities feel like Russian roulette.


More details:
It’s easy to know that the must-sees include the magnificent sights in Isfahan, Persepolis/Shiraz, Yazd and the museums in Tehran. So I’ll just mention some other tips:
- The villages of Kandovan, Masuleh and Abyaneh are worth staying at for a night, rather than just day-tripping there: it’s a whole different atmosphere when the day trippers are gone
- Qom is worth stopping even for a couple of hours en route from Tehran to Kashan; the religiosity there is the Iran that people see on their TV screens in the West (and quite different from most of the rest of Iran). We were lucky that the guards allowed us to enter the Fatima Masumeh shrine complex - the female guards had fun swaddling my wife in a chador (just a hijab will not do there). It was also breathtaking - and moving - to see the religious ecstasy of the pilgrims (a bit akin to the temples in India), even if you are from a different (or no) religion
- If you’re there during the month of Muharram (as we were), ask your guide to take you (conservatively dressed) to a local mosque to observe the Muharram chanting and mourning: again, a powerful experience
- In Yazd, make sure to attend an evening session at the zurkhaneh - calisthenics set to wonderfully evocative live music
- In addition to the Islamic history in Iran, take some time to read about Zoroastrian and pre-Islamic history and culture in Iran; you can see a fair bit of it in the Yazd area. Also, reading about the interaction between Persian culture and Islamic influence will give you a lot of insight about the makeup of Iranian culture today
- Near Yazd, don’t miss stopping in Meybod for the vernacular architecture (pigeon house, ice house, old postal courier building, fortress) and if possible the fortress at Saryazd
- Kashan is also worth staying at rather than just making a stop en route to Tehran from Isfahan. In addition to the standard sights of the merchant houses, hamam and Bagh-e-Fin, there are lovely mosques, the fascinating underground city in nearby Nooshabad (Ouyi) as well as the archaeological site of Tepe Sialk dating from 8000 years ago
- If you have time to go to the northwest, in addition to standard sights in Tabriz, Jolfa area (St. Stephanos church) and Ardabil, there’s an epic drive along the Azeri and Armenian border with jawdropping scenery and villages that rarely see tourists. To give justice to this, I’d suggest starting off in Jolfa in the morning, and then travel via Hadishahr along the Aras river border till you finally turn south - you can spend the night in Kaleybar rather than pushing on to Ardabil which will avoid you being on a foggy mountain pass after dark
- If you’re staying at the Tabriz El-Goli hotel, do not miss the evening (especially weekend) promenade around the El-Goli park - families and flirting teenagers give you a “small world” glow
- We thought Gilan province (along the Caspian Sea) in general was overrated - Iranians love it for the wet weather and green nature, so different from the rest of the country, and tend to oversell it as a result (as a compensation, the food in Gilan is very good though)
- If you go to Kerman in the south-east, do not miss taking a day trip to Rayen (the “mini-Bam”); the garden and Vali’s tomb at Mahan are also worth a stop en route to Rayen. Best if you reach Rayen when the sun is lower, for more evocative lighting.

Our favorite restaurants:
Northwest: Roohi in Astara; Moharam in Rasht
Kashan: Manoucheri House
Yazd: the buffet dinner (yes, really) at Moshir Gardens Hotel; also the restaurant at Hotel Dad
Shiraz: Soofi 2
If you’re staying at the Abbasi Hotel in Isfahan, the ash-e reshte soup (practically a meal by itself) and tamarind tea at the hotel Teahouse are excellent

And above all, the incredible kindness and hospitality of casual Iranians we came into contact with. We went into a mosque and it turned out there was a kind of memorial service - but the family insisted on us staying for tea and sweets (others reported the same thing when they chanced upon a wedding). An impromptu meal shared with new acquaintances, and they would not hear of us paying for our own meal. And when we were asked (as we so often were), “Where are you from” and we replied America, a big smile would break out on their faces and they would say “You are very welcome to our country”, before eagerly quizzing us on how we liked it there.
krishnan is offline  
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Apr 10th, 2015, 08:18 PM
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Thanks for the report! I am so jealous... maybe next year.

How did you find your guide, and can you post the contact details?
thursdaysd is online now  
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Apr 11th, 2015, 03:25 AM
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Thanks for sharing. How far in advance did you apply for your visa and was the process cumbersome at the time? Also interested in the travel agency you worked with. Iran is also high on my list.
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Apr 11th, 2015, 12:42 PM
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So glad to see more American appreciating all that there is to see in Iran. We were there in 2003 and had the same sort of reception but with a month you saw some really interesting destinations and some places we have on our wish list. We'd love to see the North western areas you mentioned. WE flew from Armenia to Tehran but would love to the areas up near the border.

Thanks so much for posting, I'd also be interesting in knowing the agency you used, we used gashttour and one of the highlights was dinner in the owner's home. Your TR reminded me of how happy we were to enjoy some of the home cooking -which you just don't see in restaurants. One of my abiding memories of Iran was eating kebabs over and over. Though the guide and my husband were on a tour of the best pizza places , to my horror this was no joke!

Thanks so much for posting.
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Apr 11th, 2015, 07:08 PM
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We arranged the trip through Iran Traveler, which is run by Jerry Dekker, an American who is an Iran expert and has lived there for many years. He partnered with Orient Star, a local Iranian travel company that actually handles all the logistics in Iran. Iran Traveler also runs a small-group tour to Iran twice a year - check out their website at http://www.irantraveler.net/index1.asp?p=206

One big plus of working with a local Iranian company is that (at least when we did the booking) the travel cost is a fraction (I would say averaging two-thirds) of what the cost is of an equivalent tour with the foreign-based better-known tour companies I looked at (you can easily compare Iran Traveler’s standard tour cost with the others, since the core itinerary is for a roughly 2+ week trip that covers the same major sights). Another plus is that all our dealings before we got to Iran were with Jerry, and he was quick to respond, unstinting of his time on the phone and extremely knowledgeable about Iran.

Overall, things worked out great. Orient Star was very reliable on the ground, their guides and drivers were generally excellent, and we stayed at the best hotels available. The one sour note to the trip was the hotel bookings: despite Orient Star having confirmed to us the list of hotels booked a couple of months in advance (after much prompting from us), it turned out that several of the hotel bookings had not been confirmed, and there was a lot of last-minute scrambling while we were in Iran (including feelers to us as to whether we’d be willing to turn our itinerary upside down, substitute new locations for the ones we’d agreed on months ago, etc.) They claimed that this was because their bookings were getting bumped by those made by larger tour companies during high season. Maybe that’s true, but then that’s a disadvantage of working with a smaller company such as Orient Star, at least on a customized itinerary (I would guess that Iran Traveler’s group tours do not have the same problem). I don’t want to overhype this because in the end things worked out just fine, and in my due diligence on Orient Star I saw a blog by a previous customer who ran into some problems and Orient Star went out of their way to help her. Keep in mind also that if you are American, it may be difficult to make last-minute itinerary changes since apparently the itinerary has to be approved by the government in advance.

welltraveledbrit: Another local company I’ve heard good things about was Gasht Tours based in Shiraz (the same one that you used) - how were they do deal with? The advantage of the Iran Traveler/Orient Star combine is that you get the upfront American customer service of Jerry with the price structure of an Iranian company, so it would be interesting to hear about the pre-trip trip planning assistance of Gasht (admittedly in your case over a decade ago).

On visas, Jerry basically set it all up - he emailed us the forms, gave us instructions on how to fill them out, and we then sent it back to him, and then we went to the Iranian interests section at the Pakistan embassy in Washington DC to pick it up (we live nearby, but I would imagine you can have your passports mailed back to you). No problem, smooth as silk. The whole process took about a month, although we had planned early so it was completed a few months in advance.
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Apr 13th, 2015, 12:36 AM
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Thanks so much for your reply. You went an interesting route because you had the reassurance of the US based expert to deal with AND the advantage of a closer to local price. I think this could be a good way to go for lots of people. Having looked at some of the US agency prices for the same trip we took we were shocked at how much cheaper it was to arrange the entire trip for ourselves. Iran is one of those places where an individual customized trip (as you point out) will cost far less than going in a group.

We used Gashttours and had an incredible trip, they even arranged for us to camp with nomads outside Shiraz, we also went to Bam - it was before the earthquake. In general we try to work directly with local agencies and it has worked for us. We loved the guide and owner, but I other people I recommended the guide to (here on Fodors) found themselves drowning in his detail which we had loved! It's hard to recommend thing because ultimately what you are saying is this worked for us, the company is reputable, I had a great time and I hope you do to. There are no certainties when it comes to people's preferences!

The hotel situation sounds a hassle but we've had the same experience of secondary treatment because we are not in a group in other countries. When we were in Iran hardly anyone was there as it was the middle of summer and only a few months after the US invaded Iraq.

Though it's very bureaucratic we also found the visa was fairly easy to set up. I sent our passports through the post, though we did have a few stressful days when the chap at the Iranian Interest Section couldn't find my passport. Luckily it turned up and he was VERY apologetic!
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Apr 24th, 2015, 10:58 PM
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First of all I must thank you dear Krishnan for your report and introducing real Iran . I am really glad hearing that you have had a pleasant travel in my country .I believe each passenger who travel to Iran cant act as an ambassador .So, thank you again .
Samaneh
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Nov 2nd, 2015, 11:06 PM
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Join Date: Nov 2015
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I'm an Iranian. I'm glad you had a good experience visiting Iran. You text is full of energy and I enjoyed reading it.

It's important for Iranians to show tourists that they're peaceful and Iran is not like what most westerns may think of it.

Iran is a peaceful nation with rich history. And I'm glad you had enough time to get the most of it.

Ali
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