A selection of titles were appropriate for this article: Inside the Axis of Evil / Hitchhiking Across Iran / Ancient Empires and Forbidden Parties / The Last Backpacker Paradise
The car skidded to a stop, dust spiraling into the sky. A hand, clad in heavy gold rings, stretched forth from the window, beckoning me forward. I raced over, my cardboard sign flapping in the wind and my hand held high to shield my eyes from the piercing sun.
“Salaam, chetoree?” I inquired in my best Farsi.
“What country are you from” came the predictable reply.
Foreigners in Iran are rare and a spectacle to be enjoyed by all. Foreigners on the side of the road, waving cardboard signs around and attempting to hitchhike in a country where nobody understood the concept of hitchhiking – these were the rarest of them all.
I had tried to blend in; growing a beard specially, but my battered backpack and my fair skin gave me away almost instantly. Luckily, being a foreigner in Iran comes with numerous privileges, namely that the local people will do absolutely anything in their power to help you out.
Thirty seconds later, with my brief presentation on the concept of hitchhiking – “I come for free?” – complete, I was climbing into the car and on my way further South, to the fabled ruins of Persepolis.
The landscape slipped by as a patchwork quilt of reds, golds, oranges and browns. We snaked through the desert as my new friend excitedly pointed out notable rock formations. Up into the hills we went, with snow beginning to fall softly against the car.
On one side, icy peaks stretched away into the distance, on the other, blood red sand dunes formed up in endless rows as if readying for battle. Ten minutes later and we were passing through lush farmlands with soft pastel greens sloping off towards the horizon. The landscapes of Iran are vast in both their size and their diversity; this is a country that truly has everything.
After a couple of hours of driving interspersed with basic conversation about my origin and why the heck I was in Iran, I said a friendly farewell to Mohammed and proceeded on foot – I was close.
Ahead of me, stretching into the distance, lay a vast and ruined city; the capital of the once mighty Persian Empire. It was from here that Persian monarchs, The Xerces of 300-fame amongst them, had controlled an empire that was the largest the world had ever known. In 330BC, Alexander The Great, an unstoppable force, had washed across the land with his armies in tow, crushing all resistance and finally arriving at the very heart of the Persian Empire, Persepolis itself. After spending a few months chilling out within the city and shipping off the royal treasury’s gold and silver back to Greece, a task that required over three thousands camels and mules, Alexander had ordered Persepolis burnt to the ground.
I headed further into the tangled ruins, examining exquisite stonework depicting lions and soldiers, mythological beasts and mighty kings.
Ancient stone pillars scraped the sky, anxiously awaiting a purpose. The roofs they had been built to hold havd been burnt to nothing and now they stood lonely and desolate amidst the ruins of temples and palaces, stables and shrines.
The most impressive building of all was carved directly into the cliff; I approached in awe and quickly spotted a narrow goat-path leading round the side and up, up, up into the clouds. I took a quick glance around, checking there were no security guards nearby and began to climb; I was determined to get on to the roof of this mighty building. I spent the day happily exploring the site, enjoying a cheeky smoke atop the hills overlooking the treasury and imagining what this massive complex must have been like in its heyday.
Iran holds a unique geographical position in the world; it is in many ways the gateway to Asia, a crossroads for cultures and religions, armies and ideas. The Iran of today is often depicted by the media as a place of flag-burning, America-hating, nuke-building extremists bent on the destruction of, well, everything, but the reality is very, very different.
I did not particularly know what to expect when I first came to Iran. Many of my friends had begged me not to come, convinced that I would end up on the front page news as the latest casualty of ISIL, a group which has never even operated in Iran. Iranians seem to be painfully aware of the grotesque caricatures that the media has painted them to be and 99% of the Iranians whom I have met have gone out of their way to prove the media wrong. There truly is no hospitality in the world like Iranian hospitality.
With every new town and every new interaction, I have been ushered into homes, kitchens and living rooms. I have been fed, watered and provided with a place to sleep – even by folks who speak absolutely zero English. Hitchhiking in Iran has been ludicrously easy. I have rarely had to wait longer than a couple of minutes. In just one month here, I have hitched over two thousand kilometres.
Many of the folks have not exactly understood why I am travelling by thumb but all have been eager to help and eager to show me that Iran is a country well worth visiting. The Iranians I have met have been much like the folks in other countries I have visited; they have hopes, they have dreams, many want to travel and to explore life outside of Iran. Like many countries, some are unhappy with the Government and others simply do not care.
One universal theme I have encountered has been pride – Iranians are proud of their country, proud of its history, its landscapes, its mountains, its beaches and its culture. And they should be. When it comes to beautiful sites, Iran is hard to beat. I have explored far and wide, visiting the fairy-tale mosques of Shiraz and the gilded palaces of Esfahan.
I have hiked deep into the snow-capped mountains of the North and camped beneath the spectacular skies of the desert. From secretive house parties in Tehran to the bustling bazaars of Yazd, everywhere I have been, I have been met my inquisitive, polite and incredibly generous people. At no point have I felt unsafe. Iran is, in my opinion, one of the safest countries to backpack through in the world.
Iran is changing, fast. Just two weeks ago, Iran’s Tourism Minister announced that the country would be making the visa process significantly easier and, by the end of 2016, Iran will be implementing a visa on arrival scheme for upwards of 130 countries. The time to get to Iran is now, as soon it will change irreversibly. Right now, Iran is one of the cheapest backpacker destinations out there – it is possible to get by on as little as ten dollars a day.
But Iran offers far more than just good value; this is backpacking at its finest, this is the opportunity to truly immerse yourself in a very foreign, yet very safe, country.
Iran offers a unique opportunity to visit a country that is still finding its feet, to meet with folks who desperately want to interact with foreigners, to explore a country that does not get many visitors…
Hands down, Iran has some of the coolest people I have ever met; I have made lasting friends here, relationships that I did not expect to forge whilst in The Middle East. To say that Iran has captured my heart would be an understatement. This is a country that I know I shall return to; Iran feeds my imagination, soothes my soul and reignites my belief in humanity…
Every year, you should do something unexpected. This year, travel to Iran.
Writer and photographer. Adventurer and vagabond. Master of the handstand pushup. Conqueror of mountains, survivor of deserts and crusader for cheap escapades. Will is currently preparing to hitchhike from England to Papua New Guinea, a journey which will take over 18 months. Will blogs over at The Broke Backpacker about his adventures in some of the world’s least visited countries, you can follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.