This is the story of Iran, a country we once expected to visit last, as a final bow wrapped around a journey that tells the story of making human connections around the world. It's also an explanation of why we're traveling to Iran this Friday.
Yes, you read that correctly: Iran. Conjures up mixed emotions. Of all the places perhaps least understood (or perhaps entirely misunderstood) to America, Iran.
In fact, I’d love to get a read on the first word or two that pops into your mind when you hear “Iran” and also when you hear “Americans traveling to Iran.”
But we know there’s an Iran that goes beyond what you see in the news. This is what we’re hoping to see and experience for ourselves over the next two to three weeks.
Why Iran? The Backstory
Our fascination with Iran began many years ago when we lived in Prague. We watched a presentation given by a couple fresh off a trip around Iran. What struck us were the stories they shared of the people and hospitality they encountered, and the fact that those stories stood in such stark contrast to the images we were used to seeing on the news. Not to mention that their photos of Persian architecture — colorful mosaicked domes and facades — were like nothing we’d ever seen before.
Then we made friends with Iranians living abroad. They shared with us a sneak preview of their country and culture — translating Persian poetry, inviting us for feasts. We wanted to learn more.
Fast forward to the end of 2006 when we began our current travels. Thinking it would take 12-18 months to complete (yes, we are a tad off those estimates), we planned to visit Iran last as a way to poetically conclude our around-the-world journey.
Why Iran and why last?
Iran: for all the culture and history, and to satiate our curiosity. And finally because we thought it a fitting destination to end a journey that aimed to tell a story of citizen diplomacy — two ordinary Americans making connections with ordinary people around the world.
Five years has gone by; our journey around the world is not yet over. An opportunity arose to visit Iran now, so we seized the moment.
But You’re American. Is it safe?
Before we get to the colorful stuff of Iran, the elephant in the room. Safety.
“Aren’t you worried?” we're often asked.
That about sums it up, with the tiniest of caveats. The same caveat that holds each of us and our next steps in the same random balance.
We understand that the history of America’s recent relationship with Iran — or at least the relationship between the two governments — is rocky (I state the obvious). With the recent release of American hikers and the even more recent dust up over the alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., an already difficult relationship has been made even more so.
In a way, I suppose we couldn’t have timed our visit better. Or worse. Anyhow, we understand why some of you may have concerns for our safety. We want to alleviate some of those fears and let you know we’ll be in good hands.
We’ll be on the G Adventures Discover Persia tour with six other travelers (including a couple of other Americans). I don’t doubt that we’ll have many people minding our well-being.
Furthermore, our experience in other places perceived as unsafe – from Burma to Uzbekistan – tells us that the story on the ground is often very different than what appears in media. And no matter what happens between governments, politicians and “leaders”, at the end of each day, people are people — they are generally good and life goes on for them in many fundamental ways just like it does for you and me.
What to See and Do in Iran?
Now that we’ve dispatched with the elephant, let’s focus on the fun stuff.
Our first stop is Tehran, Iran’s capital city of 15 million people. We’re taking a private tour to get extra time in the city to see local markets, eat some street food, visit tea shops and do ordinary things like ride the metro (yes, we are public transportation dorks).
From there we’ll make a loop around the country with stops in Hamadan (mausoleums of Alisina and Baba Taher), Ahvaz and Susa (Palace of Darius), Shiraz and Persepolis, Yazd, Esfahan, Abyaneh and back to Tehran.
Besides being home to some amazing Persian and Islamic architecture, Iran is also a culture of bazaars (markets). Many of these have been operating in the same traditional market areas for hundreds of years. As market aficionados, we’re especially looking forward to visiting as many of these as we can.
After the group tour with G Adventures ends, we will remain in Iran for another week on a private tour, spending much this time on public transport. From Tehran, we'll head in the direction of the Caspian Sea and visit Rasht, Masouleh and Ardabil before spending a couple of days in Tabriz to visit nearby mountain villages and castles.
From Tabriz, we'll hop a 2.5 day train over the Iran-Turkey border through eastern Turkey to Istanbul. Yes, it's long, but it's supposed to be beautiful and we are big fans of train journeys.