A Flight to Tehran: The Full Story

What does it feel like to fly into Iran, to enter the country for the first time? Here’s the story of our flight to Tehran including some things you might expect, and some others you might not.

Destination: TEHRAN. I ogle my boarding pass at the departure gate in Istanbul. We bought the tickets months before, all easy enough. So easy in fact that we wondered if the day of our flight would actually ever come; a rejected visa application snatching it all away in a breath.

But our Iranian visas were approved and there we were waiting to board a plane — our plane — to Tehran.

We are going to Iran! Can you believe it’s actually happening?!” I almost squeal as we wait for the boarding call.

One of more exciting boarding passes in our journey. Tehran, here we come! #dna2iran
My boarding pass to Tehran.

But I am still a smidge apprehensive. The worries of my family and friends echo and seep in, re-seeding doubt. You simply never know. Expectations and delivery. Fear of the unknown. Man oh man, the mind plays tricks. And the more those wheels turn, the more trouble they stir.

Turkish Rock Star Flight

Our flight is with Atlas Jet, a Turkish low-cost carrier. Our reasons for choosing this airline are simple: the right price, the right date.

Little did we know we signed up for the party plane. The cabin is as loud as any in all my travels. It’s almost raucous. There’s no alcohol on this Tehran-bound jet, so I wonder whether maybe there was a group bender in the Istanbul departures lounge that we’d somehow missed.

The flight attendants are decked out in short, sexy red outfits and rock star hairdos. One, a Russian-style dominatrix with a bob, thick inky black bangs, another faux blonde, almost Marilyn Monroe with garishly long fake eyelashes. The crew is rounded out by a boyish first class attendant, long and lithe, who just might be the second coming of David Bowie.

Is this a flight to Iran? Or the Eurovision music trials?

Lesson one: There’s no telling. Ever.

My Iranian Guardian Grandma

There seems to be an unspoken rule in this part of the world (and by this part of the world, I mean Central Asia, the Caucasus and the greater Middle East) that if you are a female traveler, local women – especially older women – will seek you out and make certain you are taken care of.

It just seems to happen. And so it did with our flight to Tehran.

We find our seats next to an older Iranian woman clutching her purse and wearing a dark headscarf (I begin to wonder, “Is mine too light?”). She gets up and waits for us to squeeze in, but she’s eager to engage the moment we’re settled in.

Allemagne?” she asks. (Are you from Germany?)

No. America.”

Her eyes grow big, “America?

I nod and smile, trying to feel out her reaction. She continues, “Oh, good. Very good. American people good. Iranian people good.

Her maternal instincts take over. She looks at my uncovered head with concern, points to her headscarf and charades “Do you have one?

I pull out my newly purchased headscarf from Istanbul. I begin to put it on and she shakes her head, “Iran, you need this. Not now.

She gives me a big, warm smile; I can feel her relief that I’m properly geared up for her country.

Touchdown Tehran

We wake up at 2 AM for the descent into Tehran. I look over at my Iranian grandma. Two perfectly wrapped chocolates sit atop her tray table. You can tell she’s been waiting for us to wake up to give us this gift.

You need to stay in Tehran more time. Then you come to my home,” she offers. I thank her profusely but explain that we are on a group tour and unable to adjust our itinerary. The real story is more complicated, probably in a way that we are both aware, but there’s no value in belaboring this.

OK. Next time,” she smiles.

As I tie my headscarf with amateur hands, grandma nods in approval. “Iranian style,” she says.

I’ve got it right, apparently. Then I put on my long, butt-covering manteau-like sweater. Grandma flashes another smile of approval. “Yes. Better.”

There’s that mild anxiety of the unknown, again.

It becomes clear that her approval doesn’t originate from her desire to see me covered for religious purposes, but her wish for me to avoid any unnecessary scrutiny. I feel more comfortable with her blessing of my attire; she obviously knows lranian clothing norms better than I ever will.

I look about and notice that all the women around me have put on their headscarves and manteaux, too. I expect more black full-body chadors than I see, but our reading of the scene still suggests we are landing in a very different place.

As we exit, grandma pauses amidst the crowd of our fellow passengers to ensure I exit with her. She grasps for my hand to guide me into the correct immigration line for foreigners. Her responsibility complete, she waves, wishes us a good trip and ducks into her own immigration line.

Lesson two: The world over, grandmas keep you close.

Tehran Airport Arrival Process

It’s 2:30 A.M., an ungodly hour to stand in an immigration line. A few butterflies begin to collect in my stomach. We don’t have anything to hide. Regardless, I don’t look forward to enduring a round of questioning at this time of night.

The FOREIGN PASSPORT line moves at a trickle. Virtually everyone else in line is Turkish. From their body language, it seems like they’ve all been through this routine before.

Maybe this is the point where the Iranian visa process – with all its depth, all its background checks, and the hairline timing of the pickup process in Istanbul – comes full circle to bite us in the ass.

It’s our turn, our time to find out.

Trying to look alert, I hand my passport over to the immigration officer, my thumb marking the page with my Iranian visa. I hope to save him flipping through 95 other pages of stamps and visas — to make his job easier and to steer my way into his good graces.

STAMP! Anyone who has traveled knows the victory signaled by the sound of a passport stamp. The entry stamp is easy — perhaps too easy, for the immigration official takes our passports and motions for us to follow him. We are the only ones in line singled out.

We sit and wait.

A few minutes later, we are led by another official into a drywall enclosure marked “Fingerprinting.”

The fingerprint man asks the name of our hotel in Tehran. We fumble through the name. He offers a nod of approval: “Good hotel.”

I place my four fingers onto the electronic fingerprinting machine. The days of fingers in ink, even here in Iran, are gone.

Welcome to Iran. Enjoy your trip,” he smiles and sends us off to fetch our bags.

I wonder: “Is that really it?

At the foot of the escalator to baggage claim, a Tehran airport employee stands guard — with a basket of red roses. She hands them out to everyone – passengers on business, passengers returning home, and us. “Welcome to Iran,” she says.

We collect our bags, wait in line for another scanner to exit via the GREEN line, “Nothing to Declare.” All the fear of our photography equipment and laptops inspected – and possibly confiscated upon arrival — all for naught. We meet our guide, pile into a car and head off into the rain-drenched Tehran night.

Welcome to Iran, indeed.

This is only the beginning.

Lesson three: Be prepared to take what you believe you know with a grain of salt.

——

In recounting this story, I asked the others on our G Adventures tour – two other Americans, two Australians and a Dane — whether they felt the same emotions boarding and disembarking their flights to Iran. Yep – they’d all cycled through the various dramatic scenarios borne of lengthy visa processes and fears of Iran back home.

Like us, they all expected a shake-down but each reported an experience similar to ours, minus David Bowie and the dominatrix flight attendants.

Let’s hope our return to the U.S. this Thanksgiving is similarly uneventful.

Disclosure: Our trip to Iran is in cooperation with G Adventures as Wanderers in Residence. We paid our own transport to and from Iran, some expenses on the ground and for an additional one week private tour. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

————-

We traveled to Iran with the G Adventures Discover Persia Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission that helps us to continue sharing stories like this. Thank you!

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Comments

  1. says

    Again, I’m really happy you two are going to Iran and this confirms why I’m happy about it. Your interaction with the “grandmother” says it all: only say what needs to be said, start with the pleasantries, and everything else will follow. Too many times I’ve seen tourists eager to impart their opinion on unwitting listeners instead of just sitting back and going with the conversation.

    Eager to hear more!

  2. Joy McGinniss says

    From your first posting, this trip sounds like it will definitely be different! Will be looking forward to each post. Be safe and enjoy for those of us in the rest of the world who follow your adventures.

    Joy McG.

  3. Sutapa Chattopadhyay says

    What a lovely, lovely story!! Loved the story about the Iranian grandma!! So nice of her to guide you two through this. And your experience with Iranian immigration.

    Please keep on writing about Iran. A country that intrigues me no less than before..

  4. says

    Finally! Someone traveling to Iran! I’ve always wanted to visit, my citizenship allows me to get in for 15 days with no visa, it just happens that my current budget and its distance from where I am prevents me from doing so. But this is definitely something to do in the future, so I’ll be reading more about your adventures while you’re there.

  5. says

    @Claire: Glad you enjoyed this! We wanted to give people a personal look at what we experienced and what we were feeling at the time. From what we’ve seen so far in Iran, there are a lot of surprises that are very far from what we see on the news.

    @Kiran: Thanks!

    @Dustin: Yup, too late for that. The flight attendants were bustling around trying to keep up with the raucous crowd so weren’t able to get a photo of them. Perhaps you should book a flight with Atlas Jet to see for yourself :)

    @Dtravelsround: I love Nanas, both my own and all the ones who have adopted me on my travels. This woman was just pure sweetness. Thought she might cry when we said good bye.

    @Kyle: You are so right. Make yourself look open to interaction, start with the pleasantries and the rest will follow naturally. It’s heartening to know this is universal the world over.

    @Joy: This trip will definitely be different from much of our travels, not only for what we see and experience each day but for what is not said and understood each day. We look forward to bringing you many more stories (and photos) from Iran in the next weeks. Thanks for following along!

    @Drina: Yes, my Iranian grandmother did help to wash away my anxiety and restore faith in the kindness of strangers.

    @Sutapa: So glad you enjoyed this. And Gidi (Iranian grandma’s name) was such a lovely woman. Her English was broken, but she still managed to express so much in few words. We’ll be writing about Iran for some time now I think :)

    @Jeruen: Oooh, you’re lucky you can come to Iran without a visa! As you’re not an American citizen, you can travel through the country independently and Couchsurf along the way. The Couchsurfing community here is quite strong. Streetfood is also quite cheap ($0.80 for a falafel sandwich). So, even if you don’t have a lot of money now you can still travel through Iran pretty inexpensively.

    @Dave: No photos as they were busy trying to deal with being called back and forth by the passengers – this was a demanding group! You’ll just have to use your imagination on this one…or book a flight on Atlas Jet.

  6. says

    Loved your descriptive writing especially the flight attendants. Also made me realize things might be easier for travel than we expect. (Found you via Chris Guillebeau) RT.

  7. says

    I LOVE this. Can’t wait to read it all. I have goosebumps and yes, tears in my eyes. Your post encapsulates why, I too, love travel…all right there on your flight: the excitement, the slight apprehension, and…the GOOD people always taking care of us wherever we go. I wish more could experience this feeling. Have a wonderful time. Looks like I will have to start planning. :)

  8. says

    Audrey- this was a very interesting post! Ive always wondered what it would be like to visit Tehran when I pass through airports that offer flights to Iran. I write for The Amazing Travel Concierge and hope to make the journey to Cuba soon, much less intimidating than Iran but it still shares that unknown and forbidden vibe!
    Thanks,
    Dave
    The Amazing Travel Concierge

  9. John says

    As a fellow American, I had the exact same feelings on the flight over to Shiraz. It didn’t exactly help when the Turkish Airlines stewardess said to us “You’re French, right?” “Um no, American” “Really? Interesting…” and started to look sideways with the “oh wow, I really don’t know what to say to these folks” look. :-| And yup, those feelings evaporated as soon as we got into immigration and the officers greeted us with a warm “Welcome to Iran” and you could tell they really meant it (no roses for us though in Shiraz).

    I think the “no alcohol” part of your flight was due to the fact that you flew a low cost carrier. There was plenty of free booze (wine|beer|hard liquor) to/from Iran on Turkish Airlines (and plenty of Iranians partaking….The guy next to us had _lots_ of Jim Beam on the way over).

  10. John says

    @Audrey I’m curious, what was Dan’s feelings on the flight over? I know a big contributor in my own apprehension was the yet-unknown nuances of the Persian dress code for wife (I fully admit, I was far more worried about it than she was). Was she showing too much hair? Was her tunic too tight? Not long enough? Would she have problems with her hair color? (a naturally striking white that kinda sticks out like a sore thumb in some parts of the world). I found these questions rattling around my head tough to keep at bay as the plane descended.

    Oddly enough, a lot of people don’t consider that males too have to conform to a dress code in some parts of the world. Iran is definitely not the land of guys walking around town in Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts. Wait, maybe that’s not a bad thing :-)

  11. says

    “Allemagne?” she asks. (Are you from Germany?)

    “No. America.”

    Her eyes grow big, “America?”

    Haha. Nice humor. I guess, you must have had the fear of your life for some hours and then such a relief.Nice experience. Its once a lifetime and you are gonna remember it.

  12. says

    @Tony: So glad you enjoyed this! And, I’m happy to hear of more grandma experiences like this. Makes such a difference – talk about great first impressions of a place!

    @Sonia: Thanks for stopping by from Chris’ RT and leaving such a kind comment! Fear of the unknown is powerful – often we get ourselves worked up about things, but when we actually go through them it’s really not that difficult. We experience this over and over again with travel.

    @Nicole: I agree that Czech grandmas should be added to the list. We still have fond memories bringing Christmas cookies over to the grannie who lived next to you in Prague and then her returning the favor the next day with a massive pile of cookies. So sweet.

    @Lisa: Your comment made me so happy as it shows that I manage to convey some (if not all) of what I was feeling before and during the experience. Like you, I wish more people could experience this sort of kindness of strangers and just simple human interactions that show our similarities more than differences.

    @Dave: Like you, I love gazing at departure terminals and wonder about some of the far-flung places we haven’t been. When we flew to Cuba many years ago from France, our flight almost touched down in New York because someone was smoking in the bathrooms. We almost had a heart attack! Fortunately, that was the only frightening thing of our Cuba trip. Safe travels & enjoy!

    @Adrienne: We often find that when we travel — especially to little known areas (e.g., Central Asia, Middle East) — that there is another story than what is usually portrayed on the news. Iran is no exception. Stay tuned for more.

    @Erik: Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it!

    @John: The reactions from people when they found out we were American were both amusing, and made us pause as well. One of the other Americans in our group was asked by a group of Iranian-American women why she was coming over and over again. They couldn’t get their head around an American wanting to be a tourist. Kind of freaked her out at first.

    You might be right about the no alcohol being connected to flying a low cost airline. I saw a few bottles in the front for first class, but none was offered to us (even for a fee) in the cattle car. I’m not surprised everyone was putting it back!

    I’ll let Dan answer the question you put forth to him…

    @Azeem: Well, fear for my life is a bit of a strong descriptive – I was just a bit apprehensive for a few moments. Fortunately, grandma put my mind at ease very quickly.

  13. says

    @John: Very good question. I really wasn’t concerned about Audrey’s clothes. We’d received some reliable information in advance from people on the ground and therefore felt pretty confident that we would find ourselves comfortably within norms. (I also helped consult on the headscarf and manteau selection. (I’m not sure whether my involvement should really have instilled confidence, but…)

    However, as the plane descended into Tehran and women put on their headscarves and made obvious adjustments in advance of their arrival, I wondered to myself, “Shouldn’t *I* be doing something.” That felt odd to me. I mentioned this to Audrey after we got off the plane and those sentiments almost made it into the article.

    As for bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirts, I don’t find myself missing them in Iran at all.

    (By the way, my sincerest apologies to you — and all our users — for our rather outdated and cumbersome commenting system. This and more will be changing in the near future.)

  14. says

    Great story!

    I enjoyed how it changed my media influenced perception of Iran.

    Good people are everywhere.

    I guess only the government is the Axis of Evil. I’m happy to see the Axis of Good is alive and well there and most everywhere.

    Thanks!

    Mark

  15. says

    What an experience, I love the way that you detailed your feelings and the part about the Asian Grandma is dead on. Thanks for sharing your stories, looking forward to more first hand reports from Iran!

  16. milad says

    I’m so happy for you. Iran is great I really miss it and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. It’s been 12 years now since I left Iran at the age of 8 and want to go back so much. :'(

  17. says

    Thanks to everyone for their great comments. Apologies for the delayed response – we’re back in the world of uncensored internet :)

    @Mark: You are so right – good people are everywhere, even in places that we think of as dark and dangerous because of media attention. Most Iranians we talked to made a big point to differentiate between the government and themselves. Unfortunately, most people didn’t seem very optimistic that their government and Supreme Council would change anytime soon.

    @Zablon: The daunting bit is the unknown. Once we got on the plane and on the ground in Iran, the fear disappeared.

    @Kiran: Travel is one of the best ways to break down stereotypes and assumptions. So important.

    @LivingIf: Here’s to Asian grandmas and how they take care of us all! Keep checking back – we’ll be posting more on Iran this next month.

    @Milad: I can definitely imagine how you miss Iran. Hope you have a chance to visit sometime soon!

    @Thrill Seeker: Glad to hear we’ve woken up the travel bug in you. Where will be your next adventure?

    @WanderMom: Still have so much to process from the trip! Keep checking back in the next month for more installments.

  18. says

    I read your article spellbound. Its great to read a first-hand experience of someone who has travelled there. And it not turning out as you expected! My trip to Dubai this year was all I expected and a bit onto that. All in all, very adventurous to head to Iran.

  19. says

    @Kathleen: So glad you enjoyed reading this first-hand account of flying into Tehran. Fear of the unknown has a way of playing tricks with one’s mind and expectations. And the themes of this flight – being welcomed, hospitality and kindness – kept with us throughout our Iran trip.

    @John: Thanks so much for coming over here from Amanda’s great site and commenting! We’ll continue to write about Iran over the next weeks. Hope you enjoy hearing about the rest of the trip!

  20. Issa says

    Hey Audrey,
    I know it’s late for this.
    But thank you very very much for all the nice things you said about Iran and Iranians.

    You’ve made me so proud.

    Grandma, thank you very much, too.

    Good luck

  21. says

    @Issa: I am glad you enjoyed this piece and thank you for commenting here. And yes, I am also so thankful for grandma – she made my introduction to Iran and Iranians so wonderful.

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