Transport with a splash of color

Recycled in Anatananarivo by Cori B (farflungistan) on 500px.com
Recycled in Antananarivo


Most trips overseas for the intrepid traveler involve overland travel.  There’s sometimes unavoidable on small islands in the Philippines and the desert expanses of the Middle East.  The road offers adventure, perspective to a new place and experiencing the local color.

Some of us have quickly found that schedules in most places do not go as planned.  I think back to my early travel years and the incredibly long ride from Ephesus to Istanbul. The bus ended up including a surprise ferry ride, arrived 4 hours lake, dropped me off way in the suburbs at 23:00 back in 2005.

Local buses usually run on the drivers schedule, make pit stops where they get kick backs and usually end with you saying you are never taking the bus again.  I have yet managed followed through with that promise.  As one fellow passenger said on a very bumpy road in India, “It feels like we are in God’s hands and he’s shaking our bus in them”.  I have taken plenty of  bus rides since , survived them all and will continue to ride (if there’s no other option).

Many claim that taking an airplane is much safer than ground transport but where’s the adventure in that. Airplanes don’t look like these colorful options and not nearly as fun.

VIP Bus in downtown Shiraz Iran by Cori B (farflungistan) on 500px.com
VIP Bus in downtown Shiraz Iran
Custom ride in Palmyra by Cori B (farflungistan) on 500px.com
Custom ride in Palmyra
El Nino Jeepney on Palawan by Cori B (farflungistan) on 500px.com
El Nino Jeepney on Palawan

First visit to a real Zoroastrian Fire temple in Yazd (Part 2)

The next stop was a short one to see a flame that burns in the honor of the highest deity in the Zoroastrian religion Ahura Mazda – the lord of Light and Wisdom

Fire Temple Atash Behram
Fire Temple Atash Behram

The fire found inside this temple in Yazd has been burning continuously since 470 AD.  It came to this simple building in 1932.  The fire is of the highest grade and is referred to as the Atash Behram or Fire of victory.  The flame is composed of fire from 16 different sources which have been collected from various flames.  This massive flame continues to burn behind the glass for us all to see.

Atash Behram
Sneakin’ a peek at the Atash Behram, “Fire of victory in Yazd

When visiting this site it is more for seeing the modern-day impact of Zoroastrian faith in Iran.  There is nothing more here then a simple building with signage only in Persian – this is where Mahmoud – our wonderful guide- came in very handy.  The purpose of our visit was to both pay homage to those who still practice this ancient faith and show support for the community.  Of course, this encouraged me to learn more about something I knew little about before our visit to Iran. Yazd has many of the few surviving followers of the ancient religious practices of Zoroastrianism in a country dominated by Islam.  I wish them well and hope their faith continues to prosper in the days ahead.

Iran Tour: the not so ugly four-letter word

Mahmoud and I
Mahmoud and I at the Jameh Mosque of Isfahan

We arrived in Shiraz in the early hours and there’s nothing like be greeted with a smile and have a car waiting at 4am.

The tour was going to take us through the center of Iran – starting in Shiraz and ending in  Tehran.  We decided to go overland the whole way for a few reasons:

  1. There’s no better way to see the most of a country then by taking the road.  We were hoping to use public transport but our itinerary didn’t give us many opportunities to do so.
  2.  Iranian planes not only lack the necessary spare parts due to the US embargo but they have more than their share of flight incidents.  It’s enough to keep me grounded.
  3. It was nice to have the ability to say that we wanted to stay longer or leave earlier.  The flexibility made it easier to make it seem more like our usual trips where we just travel vicariously – or at least feel a little less on a schedule.

Take the time to research and find a good guide

We were either lucky to get a great guide. Mahmoud was not only  a nice guy with a great sense of humor but a guide who loved history and his country.  We start at a reasonable hour of 10am, take a lunch around mid day, start-up again in the afternoon and finish the day with dinner.  He showed us Iran as we made our way through its historical sites.  He guided us through his home town of Shiraz and later to Persepolis, the remains of Bishapur and museums of Tehran – to name a few.  He never got annoyed by our questions and rushed us through places he has been to thousands of times.

Do your homework before going

There’s only so much you can pack into a guide-book like Lonely Planet.  A tour guide more than likely will contradict some of its facts.  It is a well-known fact that history is usually recorded by the victors.  Iran once known as Persia has a long recorded history and it’s people have had amazing military and cultural triumphs as well as suffered near catastrophic defeats.  Modern Iran is still obsessed with its past and wonder why they are no longer the superpower they were thousands of years ago.  The only thing he did do is make me feel guilty that I hadn’t done pre-trip studying of Persian history and culture before setting out on the trip.  The boundaries of Persia changed like the tides as they conquered and fell victim to foreign sieges.    Iran doesn’t disappoint especially when it comes to ancient history.

Khaneh Tabatabaei-ha or "The Tabatabaeis' House" in Kashan
A Friend at the The Tabatabaeis’ House

Be ready to meet people

We found that we could not go anywhere without being asked how we liked Iran, why we were visiting, and where do we come from.  It’s hard not to feel welcome in Iran despite what our leaders say and do to each other.  It’s easy making connections with  people on the street even though we had our fixer with us most of the time – we did manage to lose him a few times and managed not to make the headlines.

Rick Steves and other thoughts about Touring Iran

Jameh Mosque of Isfahan

Rick Steves managed to get himself and a film crew journalist visas to Iran back in 2008.  He too seemed apprehensive about the trip even with his travel resume and years of teaching others how to travel.  They were allowed to film 10 short days  and brought PBS viewer a very thoughtful piece about travelling to Iran.  It was a very bold move on his part since his target audience is made up of those who think European travel is exotic and a trip to Iran is not included in many of there bucket lists.  This show was all about going  in the front door of Iran with the promise that he would shed some positive light on country who can not escape its past thanks to western media.

The U.S. does it’s best to discourage its citizens from travelling to Iran.   The U.S. State Department Consumer Affairs site at least informing its citizens of the risks involved with travelling to that region and where the hot spots are.  It’s words should of course be taken seriously.

Taking risks is a part of everyday life and where you travel to may increase the likelihood of being harmed or taken advantage of.  Being well-informed and confident helps prevent such things happening.  Of course, personal safety is a concern for most travelers who venture away from home and into the unknown.  U.S. official warnings made me question what motivates me to travel to areas where there are potential dangers for me as a U.S. citizen.  The U.S. does it’s best to discourage its citizens from travelling to Iran.   The U.S. State Department Consumer Affairs site at least informing its citizens of the risks involved with travelling to that region and where the hot spots are.  It’s words should of course be taken seriously.

Is traveling to Iran was the smartest thing to do right now if ever?   The answer is yes there’s never going to be a good time it seems.   Researching the h@#ll out of it.  What else are you going to do while awaiting for the Fed-ex delivery person to come?

Thanks Rick Steves

Breaking the news to my family that a trip to Iran was going to happen was another thing.  Rick Steves  made it look so tempting since it’s been on our minds for years and guess what – my husband and I are going.   Couldn’t think of any reasons not to go – unlike family and friends who have lots of opinions on the subject.

The application process was underway and the journey itinerary with Pars Tour Agency in Shiraz on May 22nd.  I have to thank many including Rick Steves, a few supportive friends and family, and the large amount of positive trip reports made by others who had done the same journey for giving me the push to go.   I soon be relaxing in tea houses, getting lost in the alleyways of the souks and visiting Zoroastrian caravanserais and fire temples.

Surprisingly, many say that it’s common for US citizens to get rejected but this chart displayed on Iranvisa.com says otherwise.   We were well aware that we could get our visa within days of our scheduled departure.  A Persian-American friend of mine confirmed that we could be getting our visa one day and boarding a plane the next.  There’s nothing like watching airfares go up and down and not being able to take advantage of any deals.  No visa – No sense in buying tickets.

13 weeks later, our passports are back in our hands.  It’s late August and we leave in 2 weeks.  The scramble begins. We promptly booked tickets to Shiraz via Istanbul just in case we got rejected at upon arrival.  If we thought it would be wise to put Istanbul in the plan just as a back up.  It’s a pessimistic move but I’m getting practical in my old age.

The problems between the U.S. and Iran will unfortunately not be resolved anytime soon since some old wounds seems to take a very long time to heal.  History shows that there’s not good chance of the two countries will not be buddies anytime soon.  The most recent media circus involving a used Persian car salesman nicknamed “Scarface”, members of a Mexican drug cartel and an attempt to kill a Saudi Prince baffles me and many others.  I’m not sure what to make of it all.  Now, there’s even more travel warnings posted on the U.S. Travel site, the media and U.S. politicians are having a field day as the war of words resumes we have seen since the 70’s resumes.

Make sure and check out the travel warnings listed by the U.S. and even Great Britain but remember to also balance these warnings with some current information from those who have traveled to such areas.   Blogs and travel information boards found on the Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor sites are a great source for new and experienced travelers.   They are full of current information,  allow travelers to hopefully get answers to specific questions  and it’s a great place to contribute and help others in need of information.  Remember,  information is your friend.

Inspiration to travel to new regions, like Iran, sometimes comes from unexpected places like travel shows by Rick Steves and posts made by like-minded strangers on travel boards and blogs.    Do yourself a favor and diversify the information sources as much as possible before taking off.  You may even discover some “back doors” Rick is always going on about or make time to go off the beaten path and view the lesser known sites others usually miss.

The Skinny on the Iranian Travel Visa for U.S. Citizens

The process sort of reminds me of what it takes to get a Russian Travel Visa.  It involves some cash up front, a form of letter of invite, a detailed itinerary, and patience.  The Russian one seemed more to do with cash since it took a just few minutes to fill out the application, a few hours for a credit card transaction confirmation and later you have a letter of invite.    Iranian visas involve almost as much cash but require a little more patience.  In the end, a visa holder will be free to travel to a country full of hospitable people,  beautiful sights and see for themselves what goes on in a country who doesn’t get too much love from the mainstream media.

Here’s a breakdown of the Visa process:

Have plenty of patience because it can take some time to get your visa

Find a tour company that suits you and your budget.   Pars Tour Agency is our choice since they are based in Shiraz and came recommended..  Pars begins by providing the letter of invite aka Authorization Code for a small fee of 30 Euro.  It’s a requirement for U.S. citizens and the fees are different depending on who you use.

Wait for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran to fax the authorization code to the Consulate of your choice.

If not approved, the agency can resubmit the application again and hopefully it will go through this time.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will then fax the approval document on to your chosen consulate office.

If approved, send or bring the following within 3 business days to the chosen Iranian Consulate Office:

  1.  Application form (my case #101)
  2.  Money order of $112/ applicant and $20 return postage fee made out to the Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran
  3. Single Passport picture (ladies this means one with hajib and remember…no smiling) and your passports (see below)

It’s longer to get the authorization code  from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran then it is to get the visa from the consulate.  Visas get issued by the consulate with a week of sending your passport, appropriate photo (women need to obey Islamic code which means donning a Hajib and remember…no smiling)

Ultimately, everything works out and the scramble to get everything done and the real fun begins.

Short list of WHO WHAT WHERE and HOW for Iran Travel

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
Here’s my list of online sites which inspired and kept the dream alive while waiting to see if Iran wanted me to come or not.  I hope they are useful to others looking to go:

US Travel Warnings

British Foreign Office Travel Advisory

WHAT

Destination Iran Tour Site

Traveler Nico from Scotland’s Flickr Stream

Soorm’s Flickr Photos of Iran

WHERE/WEAR

Rick Steves Journal – Iran

WikiTravel – Iran

Wikipedia – Iran

Journeywomen’s Blog

WHY

Uncornered Market Trip to Iran Nov 2011

Why we travel by Paul Theroux

AND HOW?

Iran Railway Infomation

Pars Tour Agency

Magic Carpet Tourist Information

Americans in Iran 2011: Planning, applying and waiting…

It’s May 2011 and our next trip will be to Iran. Ignoring the propaganda and the fact that it could take months to get a visa we begin the visa application process and the trip research. It was now or never and we’re going for it. The trip will be at least 14 days which isn’t a whole lot but enough to get a feel for the country.  The itinerary will need shortening and compose a realistic travel budget and itinerary.   Some amazing things will unfortunately be put back on the wish list. This fairly quick trip will be more a best of Iran opposed to a full tour with no limits and a loose vicarious plan which is usually how we roll.  The classic central Iran itinerary that takes us from Shiraz to Tehran is perfect for 14 days by land.

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
Morning in the center of Esfahan

Traveling with a U.S. passport to Iran requires a guided tour.  Americans have a history in the area so it’s understandable that the government wants to keep tabs on us and we have to do it.  Finding a knowledgable local guide who will not make us feel as if we were on a short leash and hopefully compatible in personality is first on the to do list.   Reading other travelers blog posts, checking out Thorntree posts and Google searches lead me to finding Pars Tourist Agency which is a small but well-known tour agency based in Shiraz.  Zehra is very organized, patient and good at getting back to me despite the time change and how the weekends start on Thursday and end on Saturday.   They ended up putting together a customized tour which included all the attractions we wanted to see and within our budget.

The Somewhat Short List of why we decided to go to Iran:

1. UNESCO sites Iran full of them and we’ll be able to see a good chunk of them in two weeks – plus the flight isn’t that long – just 13 hours.

2. Politics aside The middle east has always a political hotbed so stayed informed, avoid any political discussion and enjoy the scenery

3. Low hustler level It’s not like Egypt, Turkey or Morocco where many rely on baksheesh to supplement their low wages (which is actually a Persian word) .

4. The US Dollar Woes For Americans, the dollar is still going down and the required tour and it’s prices just always go up and never down

5. Angry Israel It has been pretty trigger-happy recently and who knows when they will put their threats to action and each day there is something new like today (Nov 2) on Al-Jazeera

Travelling to Iran was always in our thoughts especially when we went to other areas of Asia and the Middle East.  Ancient history, architecture and modern culture is usually the draw to the places my husband and I visit.  The most influential were visits to the Persian designed Taj Mahal, Xian, Jordan and Syria. They are all connected to the former Silk Road and Iran has links to them all. We wanted to see and experience a different side of the region and dig deeper into how the traders along the Silk Road influenced and  shaped the lands they once journeyed through. I wanted to see where were the great battles were fought, learn more about the area’s history and see in person what in terms of physical structures (caravanserai, forts, and ancient cities to name a few) and various forms of art still remain today.   Additionally, I like to find answers to questions like did the travelers and warriors of those periods still have a place in present Iranian society?  How did the past influence today’s society?

If Rick Steves did it then why can’t we? He said himself that he regretted not travelling to neighboring Iraq when he had the chance. I personally want to see what goes on  in Iran – politics aside? How do people live and how will the receive me even after they find out where I’m from.   There are many questions that I hope to find answers to and some will have to remain unanswered until I return in the future.