So good to be back
Dubai (United Arab Emirates) to Shiraz (Iran), February 2013

It is at the beginning of February when we leave the Arabian Peninsular and fly with Air Arabia from Sharjah to Iran’s capital city Tehran. The six weeks we spent in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates were great, and we got a good impression of the area. Our favourite destinations were without any doubt Kuwait and Oman. Only the United Arab Emirates didn’t really meet our expectations because it lost in our opinion almost its entire Arab atmosphere. Now we are finally on our way to one of our most favourite travel destinations on the globe: Iran.

It is our third visit to Iran, but it is the first visit in winter time. And we are looking forward to it because our two previous visits were in the tremendous heat of the summer, making it less comfortable to travel around and enjoy the many sights. The formalities at Imam Khomeini Airport are minimal and in less than half an hour we enter the arrival hall. We first have to change some money to get us into the city. We decide to exchange as less a possible because the bank at the airport offers horrible rates. The Iranian Rial fell last year enormously as a result of the ongoing economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the western world. The US and also Europe suspect that Iran is working on an atomic bomb and to discourage them to proceed with the project, economic sanctions are imposed. The results are harsh, especially for the normal Iranians citizens who suffer high inflation, restricted travel possibilities and increased unemployment. We exchange only 10 US-dollars which is more than enough to reach the centre of Tehran, which is a just bus ride and a metro journey away. In the centre of Tehran there are a significant number of exchange offices where they offer a much better rate than what the official banks do. At the time we were there, the banks offered around 30,000 Rials for a Euro, while the exchange offices gave 50,000 Rials for every Euro.

view on Esfahan's Naqsh-e Jahan Imam square

We spent a week in Tehran. In contrast to what many travellers experience, we like Tehran a lot. See also our photo-impressions of Tehran and its bazaar. Of course, it is chaotic and the air quality is poor, but the city has a lot to offer. The sights are interesting, the mountainous area in the northern part of the city is beautiful and the city offers some great day trips in the surroundings. We also needed to arrange our Uzbek visa in Tehran and started the process for our Turkmen transit visa. It is not allowed to travel in Turkmenistan independently. A guide is compulsory if you want to visit the country on a tourist visa. A good alternative is the transit visa. It allows you to stay only 5 days in the country, but you can independently travel around, as long as you stay on the stretch between your entry and exit point. A visa is only granted after approval from the authorities in Turkmenistan, so we decided to start up the process in Tehran, and want to collect the visa in Mashhad, the second biggest city in Iran which is close to the border with Turkmenistan. During our stay in Tehran we experienced again how friendly the Iranian people are. It seems that almost everybody wants to have a short chat with you and ‘welcome to Iran’ is the sentence we heard most, sometimes from people who shouted it to us from their cars or motorcycles when they drove passed. We also met several people who apologised for the fact that they have a ‘bad’ government. “We are no terrorists” is what they often said, but all had the confidence that it will be better in the future. Let’s hope so, because Iran is a great destination and much more traveller should visit it.

We also made a day trip from Tehran to Qom, a two-hour drive south of Tehran. Qom is a conservative city and the contrast to Tehran is huge. Tehran is the most progressive city in the country, while Qom isn’t. Qom is the second holiest town in Iran (after Mashhad), and it is also the home of most of the religious clerics that rule the country since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 (see also our article about our visit to Qom). After Tehran, we brought a visit to Kashan, a midsized town which we never visited before. And that is a shame because Kashan is a beautiful destination. It has a picturesque bazaar and some old historic houses that are worthwhile a visit (see also our photo impression of Kashan). Four hours further by bus is the single most popular tourist destination in Iran: Esfahan. This historic city is fabulous and even during our third visit we were still impressed as before. The old mosques are a must-see and also Esfahan’s bazaar is a journey back in time. We were lucky to visit the city in the low season, which meant few other tourists and very interesting prices for the accommodation (see also our photo impression of Esfahan).

Bazaar of Shiraz
Another city we visited before was Shiraz. This city which is famous because of its poets Hafaz and Saadi is also a nice place to spend some time. We experienced the Shirazis as people who are very proud of their city. Everybody we spoke gave advice about the sights to visits and the restaurants to visit. One of them sent us to the best buffet restaurant in the city where we tasted many of the famous Iranian dishes. Shiraz was also the city where we extended our visa. We heard that this is the best place to do it, because the process is short and efficient. It took us a couple of hours, due to the fact that many Afghan refugees constantly tried to skip the queue to renew their residence permit. But eventually we got the extensions without any fuss.
Traffic lessons on a billboard in Tehran
Tehran's Azadi Square at sunset
Tea house lunch in Kashan
Terrific fresco in Esfahan's Chehel Sotun palace

Street scene in Shiraz with Imamzadeh-ye Ali Ebn-e Hamze in the background

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