In 2017, I was lucky enough to spend a month in Tehran – I was there from late January until the end of February – deepest Winter!
There was snow everywhere and the mercury stayed below freezing for the first week of that trip, the first time I had experienced temperatures that low for many years!
The image above shows the entrance to the Tohid Tunnel, on the way in to the city from the airport. The Milad Tower is visible between the buildings, with the mountains North of Tehran in the background.
As you can see, the traffic is a nightmare..!
My second project in Tehran
I was there as part of a team to work on a project. That brought me into day-to-day contact with the local people who, without exception, were warm, friendly and could not do enough to help.
It was actually my second trip there, having done a short project for the same client 18 months previously.
Given what we hear in the media about Iran, I was a touch nervous when I arrived for my first trip, back in 2015, but completely needlessly.
The immigration officers were friendly, greeted me with a smile and wished me a pleasant stay. The driver was there to meet me, as arranged, and, although his English was not good, he did his best to point things out to me as we drove into town from the Airport.
It was the same when I arrived for my second trip.
I’ve stayed in two different hotels and, in both cases, the staff were wonderful. Here’s where I stayed on my second trip:
There are, though, a couple of things that can cause unease for first time visitors.
The hotel keeps your passport
The first is that the hotel takes and keeps your passport for the duration of your stay.
I always feel a bit exposed when I’m in a foreign country without access to my passport, and this did cause a problem when I was trying to buy my local SIM card.
Persuading the hotel that I needed my passport in order to buy my local SIM was difficult, because a mobile operator had a shop in the hotel!
Why couldn’t I buy my SIM there!?
The problem was that the shop in the hotel was owned by a competitor to my client.
So I had to pay my hotel bill up to that point in order to get my passport back, and then promise faithfully to give my passport back to the hotel once I had completed my purchase – and it had to be back before 8:00PM!
I managed to persuade the hotel that, because the client was paying the hotel costs, the hotel should return the money I paid when I gave my passport back – which they did (after some lengthy discussions!).
Cash and credit cards
The second is that you have to carry a lot of cash in with you – enough for your entire trip.
Non-Iranian credit cards do not work, and there’s basically no way for a foreigner to get cash, so you need to take all the cash you will need for the trip in with you.
This can make for some budgeting worries, particularly when you have no idea of the costs you will encounter!
Greatly to my relief, as I said earlier, the hotel invoiced the client directly, so I didn’t have to pay the hotel costs other than for extras. Also, the client gave me a daily allowance that more than covered meals and other incidentals – in fact, by being careful I was able to make money on the per diem!
As a result, I carried out most of the money I took in, plus a bit extra that I had saved from the per diem (which I converted into US$ at a money changer to which I was introduced by a colleague).
If you’re planning a visit, though, keep this in mind and make sure you can pay for as much as possible before you arrive (i.e. pre-pay your hotels or, if you’re on a project, make sure the hotel bills are settled directly by your client).
Get a local SIM card
The other thing I had to do, as I said earlier, was to get a local SIM card.
This is a pretty complex affair when you have no idea of the packages, everything is written in Farsi and none of the shop staff speak any English..! Again, a colleague helped me out.
This was only problem for me because I needed to buy my SIM from one of my client’s outlets – and they didn’t have an outlet in the hotel.
Both hotels I stayed in did have mobile phone service shops – just not the right brand!
The staff spoke good English and I would not have had a problem if I’d been able to use those.
English is not widely spoken, so if you’re planning a trip of some kind it’s worth getting the hotel or a friend to write out where you want to go in Farsi, which you can give to the taxi driver.
Alternatively, you can just do what I did: walk!
Once you’re set up with your local SIM you can access Google maps and find your way around with that.
In future posts, I’ll give descriptions and images of some of the places I visited on my weekend walks – there are many beautiful places in Tehran.
The next thing to remember is that the Internet is heavily censored – I could not access the BBC or any Western news sites. On my first trip I needed to arrange flights for an upcoming project and I could not access the Cathay Pacific website (Cathay does not fly to Tehran).
So you either need to get set up with a VPN (here’s the one I use) or accept that there will be many sites that won’t be available to you.
There were some reasonable cafes near the office where we could go for a confidential meeting (the work area we were assigned was very public!) and a cup of coffee, or to get some lunch.
We adopted one, which called itself Café Manger and served simple but very good food – here are the owners and the team I was with:
We weren’t allowed to take any pictures of, or in, the office, but here’s one I took of the steps leading up into it. Note the street musician – there were lots of individual musicians and bands that played on street corners, particularly in the more affluent parts of Tehran.
I thoroughly enjoyed both my projects in Tehran. There are some ornately designed mosques, some beautiful parks and the architecture in some of the residential areas could make you think you were somewhere in Europe.
Add that to the friendliness of everyone that I met and I would seriously recommend you take the opportunity to visit Tehran if it were to arise.
Stay tuned – in future posts, I’ll publish pictures and descriptions of some of the places I visited on my walks.
Have you been to Iran? Do let us know if you have (in the comments).
The Expat Traveller