Couchsurfing in Iran: A country of culture

Stuff.co.nz | Sean Nugent : Iran is not the first place on most people’s list of travel destinations. The Middle-Eastern nation has been virtually cut off from the majority of the Western world since the Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979. It is often aligned with neighbouring nations struggling with war, terrorism, anti-US sentiments and an overwhelming amount of sand.

But the reality is far different. Iran is a country full of culture, history, welcoming people, and a surprising amount of greenery.

The capital Tehran can overwhelm even the most experienced travellers, with a population of 15 million people, as well as more than 5 million cars. At times, the noise can be deafening, and tourists should be extremely careful when crossing the road in front of some of the world’s craziest drivers.

The Grand Bazaar food stall rivals that of the same name in Istanbul.
SEAN NUGENT

The Grand Bazaar food stall rivals that of the same name in Istanbul.

Due to strict sanctions enforced by the United States, Iran is a cash-only country. There are no ATMs and foreign credit cards are useless. There are money exchange offices throughout the city that accept US dollars or euros.

Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are blocked and your best bet of keeping in contact with friends and family is via WhatsApp. Due to all of the above, the chaotic state of Tehran will come as a huge culture shock for most first-time visitors to Iran.

Golestan Palace, the former home of the Qajar royal family.

Nonetheless, the city is full of energy and excitement. The hustle and bustle of the Grand Bazaar is comparable to that of the same name in Istanbul. Bargains can be found throughout the labyrinth of corridors, and travellers should check out the collection of high-quality Persian rugs and artwork.

Just a stone’s throw away is the architectural beauty of Golestan Palace, the former home of the Qajar royal family. Arguably the greatest attraction in the city, the palace has several unique structures set in a large quiet complex with a beautiful garden. One could easily spend a few hours here viewing the nine separate museums and sites, or lounging in the shade next to a dancing water fountain.

Head to the streetside market and buy some fresh cherries and peaches, a range of nuts, or even a salami-filled sub. Iranian food is not of the same calibre as Italy, France or Greece, but it is cheap, healthy, and filling. A kilo of cherries is around NZ$6, a price you would be lucky to find even during peak season in Central Otago. For dinner, it’s hard to go past a succulent lamb or chicken kebab. Accompanied by rice and a selection of vegetables, it is simple, but affordable, usually costing around $5.

A view of Tehran on Mt Tochal trail

Tehran sits more than 1000 metres above sea level and lies at the foot of the imposing Alborz mountain range, where Iran’s highest peak, Mt Damavand, rises to 5610m. In the foothills of its neighbour Mt Tochal lies the serene village of Darband, a definite must-visit while in Tehran. Like something out of a fairytale, a crystal clear river runs down through the village, with waterfalls, chasms, and an abundance of greenery creating the perfect setting for relaxation. For hiking enthusiasts, a trail out of the village winds its way up Tochal and provides an outstanding view of the city below.

Despite the size of Tehran, the drinking water is safe, as are the streets. Iranian people are remarkably friendly and will often approach you to ask where you’refrom and welcome you to their country. Thieves are very uncommon, and you will feel safe wherever you are in the city (although watch out while crossing the road!). As is the case in other Middle Eastern nations, women are required to wear a hijab in public and it is customary for both genders to cover their shoulders and wear some form of trousers. In summer when temperatures in the city often hover around 40 degrees celsius, this way of dress can be difficult to maintain. It’s best to think ahead and pack very light clothing that will suit the conditions.

As Tehran is so high above sea level, winters often bring snowfall to the city. In 2014, one snow drift left over 2m of snow in parts of the city. The surrounding mountains are also home to some of the best skiing in the world. Dizin and Shemshak resorts are both less than two hours’ drive out of Tehran and cost less than half than what it does for a day’s skiing here in New Zealand.

The serene village of Darband, a definite must-visit while in Tehran.