Tourist First

Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Iran: Notes for the Prospective Tourist

     Our three-week March 2016 trip to Iran was not a typical vacation.  We spent the first week or so traveling and seeing sights, four of us (me, Jane, daughter Katy and new son-in-law Ali), and the rest of the time with Ali’s family in Mazandaran Province, between the Alborz Mountains and the Caspian Sea.  The purpose and highlight of our trip was Katy and Ali’s amazing and wonderful wedding celebration in his hometown. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking about Iran as a tourist destination – and how odd it was that one U.S. travel magazine, Travel & Leisure, had just listed Iran as a hot destination for 2016.  We encountered no other Americans. What appeared to be a small German (or German-speaking) tour group was at our first hotel in Tehran, and indeed the only other foreign tourists we spoke with were two German men and two Austrian women at a desert lodge hundreds of kilometers from anything. Iran is not so much a hot destination as one waiting to thaw.
     (For a detailed account of our trip along with links to hotels and restaurants, please scroll down to the previous posting, "Iran: A Unique Three-Week Adventure," or click HERE.)
     Here are some issues that might concern international tourists in Iran.

This little shrine in Esfahan (a.k.a. Isfahan)
probably isn't on many tourists' must-see
lists, but there were about 100 people
there when we stopped by to see how, when
one minaret is shaken (by a burly man who
pushes against the wall), the other one also
shakes. The shaking has been done daily for
centuries and the building still stands.
We were fortunate that the phenomenon is
explained in English, below.
.......
Women’s clothing: My wife and daughter knew in advance, of course, that they’d have to wear headscarves and loose-fitting clothing. What they didn’t know was how hot the clothing could become and how aggravating the scarves could be. Even while eating, women are expected to keep their scarves on. And it is scarves – I don’t think we saw a single woman wearing a hat.  Everyone says the standards are being relaxed, and some women put their hair in topknots and cover only from the topknot back, leaving a good bit of their hair exposed. Beneath the shapeless coats and capes it’s clear that a lot of Iranian women are wearing skinny jeans and tight sweaters.  But the scarves and shapeless coats remain, and I suspect a sizable number of Iranian women are perfectly fine with the requirements.  What I found weird, however, was the number of women who dressed head-to-toe in black, making themselves resemble Death in  “The Seventh Seal.”
Alcohol: Streets in Tehran and other cities look lively, with brightly colored and flashing LED and neon lights adorning all sorts of buildings, from auto parts shops to plumbing supply stores.  Even the new mausoleum for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini looks like an amusement park or a casino hotel at night. So you get these visual clues that there’s a wonderful cocktail bar nearby, always followed by the reality that you’re in Iran.  I think the population would love for this prohibition to end. One restaurant in Iran served water in what looked like whiskey flasks, and sparkling grape juice is often bottled to resemble sparkling wine and served in wine glasses. But you have to be prepared to do without.  On a poignant note, one man in his early 20s who has never left Iran, asked me what wine tastes like. “Is it really good?” he asked.
Currency: The Iranian rial comes in denominations at least as large as one million, which is handy because that one-million note is worth only about 33 U.S. dollars.  At this writing, Iran is still not allowed access to western banking networks, meaning that Americans cannot use their credit or debit cards there. The ATMs are for Iranians with local bank accounts. So Americans have to arrive with a good bit of American cash and then exchange it for rials. Change a thousand U.S. dollars and you get a huge stack of paper currency that you then must carry around with you unless you buy a plastic cash card at a bank, which is not the place to get the best exchange rates. Prices in stores may not be in rials; they may be in tomans, which is a notional currency (a calculating device, not a real currency).  One toman is worth 10 rial.  So you see something priced at 5,000. That’s likely to be 5,000 tomans (because you can buy almost nothing for 5,000 rial), and you pay 50,000 rial, which is about 1.5 U.S. dollars.  Handing a clerk a credit card would be so much simpler.
The northern part of Tehran abuts the Alborz Mountains. City streets narrow and become pedestrian-
only walkways lined with produce stands, cafes and hookah bars. Eventually the walkways
become mountain trails and then rock-climbing routes. This part of Tehran is called Darband.
This picturesque place in Shiraz is a reminder to take TripAdvisor
 ratings with a grain of salt. It's Shapouri Garden Traditional Restaurant,
highly rated in TripAdvisor and set in a beautiful garden that
is an attraction on its own.  We went one evening around nine,
prime time for dinner in Iran, and the place was empty. The menu
looked like fast food, but the prices looked like fine dining.
We left without ordering. Beautiful building, though.
Toilets: The most common bathroom fixture is the hole-in-the-floor squat toilet, even in modern airports, restaurants and hotel lobbies. We also saw them in private homes.  Most public bathrooms are a series of stalls with squat toilets, although I was told that sometimes the women’s restroom would have one western-style toilet.  Every hotel we stayed in, however, had western-style toilets in the rooms.  I don’t know the reason for this preference, but it’s clear that the squat is more popular than the throne.  All toilets are equipped with handheld bidet hoses, but remember to carry your own toilet paper.
Language: English is widely spoken at hotels and restaurants and is used in some street and traffic signage.  English is not so common in shops. Restaurant and hotel bills and receipts are likely to be in Farsi with Farsi numerals, which are not at all like the Arabic numerals used in most of the world.  I wish I had made a list of the Farsi numerals to carry around for reading price tags. Another language-related problem is the lack of consistent English-language place names. Esfahan (the spelling used by Lonely Planet) is also Isfahan (my son-in-law's preference). Qa'emshahr, Ali's hometown, is also Ghaemshahr. Road signs are not consistent.  I noticed one street in Tehran spelled one way on one corner and another way at the next intersection. 

Freeway through the Alborz Mountains between desert-dry
Tehran and the rain-rich provinces along the Caspian Sea. 
Road safety: Iran records 92 traffic deaths per year for every 100,000 vehicles on its roads. This compares to a rate of 13 in the United States and a rate of 43 in Mexico. You’re more than twice as likely to die in a traffic accident in Iran than you are in Mexico.  We were in taxis and private cars a great deal in Iran. Drivers who seem cautious by Iranian standards frequently straddle the center line, even in the face of on-coming traffic. A roadway divided into two west-bound lanes might have three cars abreast headed west, often with only inches between them.  I’m often astounded by how close drivers in some parts of the world (Central America, Southeast Asia) come to actually striking pedestrians, but in Iran it seemed worse.
Ascend into to Iran's royal past ... at the Golestan Palace in Tehran. 

Picnicking in Iran often involves tents, whether for shade,
rain protection or simply a private place to nap, I don't
know. This hookah-smoking party was just off the beach
at Babolsar on the Caspian Sea.
Sight-seeing:  Guidebooks and websites will point you to such obvious places as the Golestan and Niyavaran palaces and the Jewels Museum in Tehran, the square in Esfahan, and Persepolis near Shiraz. Don’t be surprised if your ticket prices are as much as 10 times the amount charged Iranians. Also, be prepared to walk – the Niyavaran palace complex is huge and some of the buildings are up a fairly steep hill, and the tombs that overlook Persepolis require clambering up a steep and rocky path. Be aware that signage and on-site brochures may be only in Farsi. You may find buildings even in the Golestan complex looking rather shopworn. Iran has preserved a lot of its pre-Islamic Revolution past, but it’s not always taking great care of it. An exception is Persepolis, where authorities seem to have struck a good balance between preservation and tourist access.  If you’re interested in a Caspian Sea beach resort, be aware that due to restrictions on apparel, beach resorts in Iran aren’t like beach resorts elsewhere. Also, at least in Babolsar on the Caspian, the beach was awash in trash, not attractive for swimming or even walking. One thing happened repeatedly in parks, at Persepolis and other places: Iranians asking to have their photo taken with us. Many people, apparently, had never seen Americans in person and wanted to document the encounter. Others also wanted a chance to use their English.
Infrastructure: Iran seems to have reliable electric and Internet service. The Internet was out for part of one day at our hotel in Shiraz, but we encountered no other problems. We stuck with bottled water in Tehran, Mesr, Esfahan and Shiraz, although we did eat salads and other foods that we generally avoid when traveling. We drank tap water in Qa’emshahr and Vaskas without any ill effect.  Iran also has a good highway system (unfortunately beset by what I see as reckless driving) and good domestic air service with a number of carriers. Again, Iran’s isolation from the international banking system makes things more difficult for tourists – you’ll probably have to go to a ticket counter to make an airline reservation. 
Environment: Most of Iran has been in drought for years. You’ll see dry riverbeds and trickles of water that once were usable rivers. As a result of drought, there is a lot of dust, much of which seems to stay in the air, joining with thick air pollution in cities to cover outdoor benches, parked cars and everything else with a thin, gritty coat of grime. Add to this a major problem with litter along major roadways as well as city and village streets, and one could get the impression that Iran is a dirty country.  Indoors, however, is another story, with restaurants, hotels, shops and private homes kept immaculate.  And even outdoors, city parks are usually extremely tidy and well-tended, and are often adorned with interesting modern sculpture.

The lobby of the Zandiyeh Hotel in Shiraz is adjacent to the hotel's small garden
 with fragrant plants such as night-blooming jasmine. The lobby was crowded in the evening
with guests (and non-guests, I suspect) taking advantage of free wi-fi.
Hotels: Other than having to be prepared to pay the bill in cash, a guest's hotel experience in Iran is pretty much what one would expect anywhere. Sometimes the front desk staff would be helpful, sometimes not. Most large hotels in Iran seem to date from before the 1979 overthrow of the shah. We stayed in relatively new hotels – the Aramis in Tehran, the Hasht Behesht in Esfahan, the Zandiyeh in Shiraz, and then in the Mashad Hotel our last night in Tehran – and all were decent enough. The shower in our room at the Aramis leaked and flooded the bathroom floor. This isn’t seen as a problem in Iran where bathrooms are often wet rooms with the shower nozzle simply on a wall and the drain in the middle of the floor. Hotels (and private homes) have plastic clogs for people to put on when entering a bathroom to keep their feet dry. However, we requested and eventually got another room with a shower that did not leak.  The Hasht Behesht, an apartment hotel, had sturdy shopping bags to give guests who spent too much time in the bazaar. The Zandiyeh has an expansive and beautiful lobby with free wi-fi. It was the only place we stayed, however, that made guests pay to access wi-fi in their rooms. The Mashad was right around the corner from the old American Embassy, and our room had a view of snow-covered mountains. The most interesting hotel we visited, however, was the Barandaz Lodge near the desert oasis Mesr, about 400 kilometers east of Esfahan. We ate and slept on the floor, rode camels and climbed sand dunes. One note: hotels may require that you leave your passport with the front desk for the length of your stay, so it’s advisable to have photocopies of your passport and your Iranian visa to keep with you.
The Shahrzad restaurant in Esfahan, easily the most elegant
restaurant we visited in Iran, and the food was excellent.
Restaurants: Iran does not seem to be an eating-out culture, and most restaurants are more like fast-food places with kebabs and other simple fare. And even though tea is clearly the national beverage, and bazaars and markets sell a wonderful variety of flavored teas and infusions, restaurants and cafes seem to offer only plain black tea. And don't expect to while away afternoon hours at a sidewalk cafe sipping that tea. Most places with sidewalk seating aren't places you're likely to be interested in. TripAdvisor, however, can help you find the few fine-dining restaurants, but don’t take the ratings too seriously. Read the comments. Also, familiarize yourself with Persian cuisine; there are a lot of Persian recipes and food discussions on the Internet. Even restaurants that have English-language menus are unlikely to have enough description of each dish. Beef and even steak, for example, are usually chopped or ground and at best taste something like Salisbury steak.  Lamb, however, is often still on the bone and almost always a good bet. Fesenjoon and dizi, two traditional dishes, are also good bets. And to drink?  That sparkling grape juice isn’t bad.