Bucket List: Hitchhiking In Iran
Biotech professional lands in Iran—seeking street food, ancient ruins and authentic connections
"Iran? Well, why not?" This sentiment pretty much sums up how biotech professional Anusha Shankar found herself hitchhiking around Qeshm, Iran, with her brother and cousin last month. All three of them hail from different cities—Anusha and her cousin from Stuttgart and Leipzig, Germany, respectively, and her brother from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. They looked at a map to find a halfway point ... and bam! An epic Iranian adventure was born.
A lot of Americans think Iran is a scary place. Where you concerned at all about safety?
No, I wasn’t concerned about safety, though many of my friends and colleagues were. Perhaps because I have met some Iranians at university and work, which made it less of an unknown to me. The irony of the situation is that there have probably been more violent attacks in Germany, where I live, than in Iran in the past year.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about Iran?
Safety is probably the biggest misconception. I felt incredibly safe in Iran, safer than I’ve felt in Rome or Paris to be completely frank. A big part of this was due to the people. The Iranian people are some of the most friendly and welcoming people I have ever met. They go out of their way to be helpful and are genuinely curious to meet tourists. I think it’s important to separate the government from its people. Whatever your view is on Iranian politics, don’t let it taint your view of its people. They have big hearts and come from a rich culture. The infrastructure was also pretty impressive as well. No matter how remote the place was, they had good roads, potable water and clean toilets (the squatty types, so better practice those heel stretches).
What surprised you about Iran?
It may seem unusual at first, but Iranian people may come up to you and invite you back to their place for tea or a meal. Go with it. It’s a great way to meet the locals. We hitchhiked around Qeshm, and never had to wait longer than a couple of minutes for a willing driver to pick us up. We often rode on the back of a pick-up truck which was so much fun.
How did you find your accommodations and what were they like?
We used a bit of CouchSurfing and a bit of staying at hostels. We never paid more than 15 euro per person. Our hostels—including Noghli Hostel in Kashan and Golshan Traditional Hostel in Shiraz—were clean and well located. Just book your first couple of nights, and then wing it. Between talking to backpackers and the multitude of taxi drivers who all seemed to have a good friend who runs a B&B, you needn’t worry too much.
What advice do you have for first-time travelers to Iran?
There are a few things that are perhaps a bit different when traveling to Iran. Your credit/ATM card probably won’t work, so you’ll have to carry all your cash with you. Women need to wear a long-sleeved, mid-thigh length blouses plus headscarves when in public.
Perhaps bring some photos of your family or of life back home—the locals are genuinely curious. Bring some small gifts like chocolate, for those kind people who will invariably help you along the way.
What would you do differently knowing what you know now?
If I had a do-over, I would probably skip Tehran. It wasn’t the highlight of the trip, and there was so much more to spend time on elsewhere. I also would have liked to learn a few more phrases in Farsi so I could better communicate with the locals who so wanted to get to know us.
I would also recommend checking out the See You in Iran Facebook group. You can post your questions there to get tons of helpful suggestions from locals and fellow travelers.
Is Iran pretty affordable once you get there?
Iran is actually not as cheap as some might expect. We budgeted about 50 euro per day, not including airfare and visa fees, and we stuck to that budget. We ate mostly cheaper street food, stayed at hostels and took buses between towns. It’s a big country, and bus journeys can eat up a lot of time. So if you don’t want to splurge on a driver or flight, consider taking an overnight bus so you save on accommodation and don’t lose precious daylight hours. The VIP (first-class) buses are affordable and have big, reclining seats.
What was the food like? Any recommendations?
My impression was that there isn’t really a big restaurant culture in Iran. Much of the available food stalls sold kebab, burgers, falafel, pizza or aash (a hearty soup). The bread that’s baked fresh at all hours on virtually every street corner is amazing, as are their nuts. You can buy a huge bag of delicious pistachios and cashews to keep yourself fueled between meals. Also, try the biryani in Isfahan and the cheap and yummy samosas sold everywhere.
We found a really great place in Shiraz called Qavam House. It has a good selection of local food and a few vegetarian options. Firouz Sherbat in Isfahan was good too. It can be tough being a vegetarian in Iran, so learn how to say it in Farsi to avoid any surprises.
Let’s talk visas and entering Iran. Was it difficult to get into the country?
The visa to get into Iran can be applied for upon arrival at the airport. Inform yourself of your nationality-specific visa fee (they accept euros), and bring printed proof of your travel insurance if you want to avoid buying it at the airport. Your proof of insurance must explicitly state that the plan covers Iran. A policy that says “worldwide coverage” is for some reason insufficient—don’t even bother arguing this one. They will ask for a contact name and address on your visa form, and they will actually call your emergency contact to check. So, make sure the contact is aware of this and knows to be available at the time.
Is it true that, after visiting Iran, some nationalities have to apply for a visa in order to travel to the U.S.?
I didn’t find out about this till I got back! If your nationality permits you to enter the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), but you’ve been to Iran in the past few years (check the relevant U.S. government website for details), you’ll need to apply for a visa like non-VWP passport holders. This involves a payment of about 155 euro and an appointment at your local U.S. consulate prior to your visit to the U.S. It’s a hassle, but worth it.
Americans can travel to Iran under certain parameters, and we suggest starting the visa application process at least three months prior to your desired departure date. Contact an Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs-approved travel agency or tour operator to get started. As an American, a guide must accompany you and your group at all times.