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April 17th 2016
Published: May 5th 2016
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The Islamic Republic of Iran has a long and interesting history that goes back several thousand years. It has gone through various dynasties and was part of the famous silk road. This was home to the once mighty Persian Empire. In 1979, the Shah was overthrown, Iran became an Islamic republic, and as a result became polarized by many nations of the western world. Some might say that Iran does not respect human rights, and is fronted by religious zealots but it is also home to some of the friendliest people on the planet. One thing is certain, it would be an fascinating place for any traveler to get a glimpse. I was looking quite forward to it.

I had been toying with visiting this country for a while, mainly based on feedback from other backpackers. Of course, the main challenges of doing so was getting a visa. The only way to get a visa is to first get a visa authorization number from the IMF. I tried everything to get it independently but in the end the only way I would be able to visit Iran would be if I had some sort of organized itinerary. Canada has spoken up against Iran's poor human rights record and as a result was placed among one of three nations that could only visit if guided (the other two are the USA and the UK, no surprise). I hate going on organized journeys but in this case I weighed out the pros and cons and just went for it. I chose an agency that would give me as much independent freedom as possible and of course that was as cheap as possible. It made it much harder that I had to try to arrange all this while I was on the road. When I was in Colombo, Sri Lanka I had been granted my authorization code to pick up at that embassy. This was the reason I had to backtrack to Colombo. Let's go back to that day; I was stuck in traffic and only managed to make it to the embassy with only an hour to spare. They were only open three times a week so I had to get it done. Of course, once I got there, they needed to have bank statements, visa payment at a different bank, forms to fill, etc. I ran out, found a rickshaw driver and together we tore through the town trying to get everything together that I needed before the hour was up. I made it back with minutes to spare, and it was really stressful. But I came through and so did my visa. Of course I was still unsure if I would make it into the country without an issues. Considering how my experience getting into the UAE had been, I had my reservations. In the end though, I was let in without any fuss at all. And before I knew it, I was in the biggest country in the middle east and at the heart of what had been the former Persian empire. The people of Iran had suffered quite a bit in the last years, mainly due to water shortages and brutal sanctions put in place to try to prevent the regime from developing nuclear weapons. Whether they were doing it for energy or weapons is of course up to debate. One thing I want to distinguish is that the government of Iran and the people of Iran are very different. The people I would encounter wanted the same exact things as anybody else in the world, and they wanted to have more freedom.

Hamid met me at the arrivals area, and was the first Iranian I would meet. He made an instant impression. Incredibly kind and gentle he led me to his car, where we would drive the 30 kilometers to the capital of Tehran, a city of about 15 million people (there are about 80 million in all of Iran). Hamit gave me loads of information of the city and the country as we drove along the modern highway. He went over some basic Farsi words with me and I tried to practice them back at him. The proper city of Tehran was congested and had a lot of pollution. Many Iranians living there preferred to get out when they could. Hamit drove me to the Khayyam hotel and I immediately met Hosein, who would be my guide for Tehran. He spoke great English and was one of the nicest people I think I might have ever met. In fact, it kind of felt like I was hanging out with a local I had just met. Soon after I also met Karl, Nicole and Rebecca. They would be part of my "tour" and were from the UK (hence why they also needed a tour). All three of them were teachers and currently working in Qatar at an international school. This was just a stone throws away for them. I dumped my stuff at me room and then we all headed out in the late afternoon. We walked about ten minutes towards the metro. Hosein basically asked us what we wanted to do, and we all shrugged, responding that he should just show us something cool. So we headed into the busy main metro line an went up to Northern Tehran, getting off at Tajdish station. People on the train gazed at us with curiosity. Once we got there, Hosein brought us to see the Emam Zodeh Holy Shrine. We got to see the beautiful architecture of the dome and minarets by night. I went into the mens section with Karl and people were praying and giving offerings to the departed Emam. The girls went into their section and had to cover up completely with sheets. We then went for a stroll through a busy bazaar and sampled some food. I noticed there were many homeless children in this area, who were begging. Hosein told me that Tehran does have a lot of poverty especially in the southern area, as well as many people including children who made their way in from Afghanistan. It was sad to see, but I've seen loads of poverty in so many places Ive traveled to. We concluded by asking Hosein to bring us somewhere where we could get some authentic food and were treated with a small shop serving what is arguably the most famous food in Iran, Kebab! Iranians seem to love their meat. We took the last metro back to the hotel. That night, surprisingly, we all got destroyed by mosquitoes swarming the place. I had not expected they would be out in such force. There must have been some stagnant water somewhere nearby, or maybe it was just the amount of people in the area. Needless to say it was a very itchy night for all.

The next day we were joined by four others. An elderly French couple, a young guy named Vince who was living in Australia but was originally from Indonesia, and a Bulgarian woman named Vilina who was working in Brussels. All of us had come to catch a glimpse of Persia. Our group was now at eight, and everyone seemed relatively laid back which was welcoming. We got to know each other as we headed towards the Golestan palace, a tribute to the Shah dynasty. Hosein was very laid back and would ask us where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do. In fact, at times he was so indecisive that we pretty much just told him to lead the show. Had I been traveling on my own, I would have had a much better idea of what I would have wanted to do and see. At this point I was fine with just taking a backseat and letting things unfold. To be fair, it was a kind of break to just have things taken care of for a bit. Independent travel is more rewarding but also requires a lot more work in terms of logistics and preparation. Golestan palace was full of opulence from the Shah era and the architecture was impressive. Hosein had a wealth of knowledge regarding his peoples history. For lunch we went to a very busy local restaurant called Moslem, one of the oldest and most popular in the area. Of course I had Kebab. Some of the others who were vegetarian had a hell of a time making themselves understood. Iranians don't seem to get the idea of vegetarianism. After lunch we proceeded to the jewelry museum which showcased relics and treasure from early dynasties. heavy security was in place and I couldn't even bring in my camera. Then we headed towards the Milad Tower by taxi. At 462 meters, it's one of the highest towers in the world and would offer a great view of Tehran. It wasn't part of the itinerary but we asked Hosein if we could check it out. It turned out to be a good choice and we spent the rest of the afternoon there. It also gave us a wonderful view of the Alborz mountains which contains some 5000m peaks and surrounds much of Tehran. That night Hosein was being picked up by his family and I was going to go out to find some food in the area. He invited me to join with them and I got into the car and met his mother, sister, niece, and brother in law. In true Iranian fashion, they took me out to a famous shop to enjoy a snack called Maajun, made of ice cream, nuts and topped with coconut. It was one of the best things I've ever eaten. I got to chat with the family and Hosein was the translator. They were genuinely curious about my thoughts on Iran so far, as well as what my home was like. It was a great in terms of getting some of the local experience.

The next day would be our last in Tehran and we started early to see the Saad Abod complex in northern Tehran, full of palaces and historic sites. We could only visit a few and chose the white palace and the Royal Clothing Museum. Hosein gave us plenty of historic info about both. For lunch we stopped at Farhang restaurant and yes, I ate more Kebab. Hosein admitted to me that he eats Kebab everyday. His cholesterol must be through the roof. Since we were running short on time, we headed back to the hotel to gather our things. We had a flight leaving from the domestic airport to the historic and beautiful city of Shiraz, situated 700 kilometers south of the capital. At one time, this was the international airport and was made famous by the movie Argo, in which several American embassadors hid out in the Canadian embassy and then were smuggled out of the country to safety following the Islamic Revolution. At check-in, we hit a snag. Apparently, five of us, myself included, did not have seats on the flight and it turned out that we were booked on a different date. A pretty big screw-up. Hosein was severely stressed out by this and had to call the agency and micromanage the situation. We were running out of time, but he managed to buy us all new tickets and the whole group made the flight. Hosein bid me goodbye and I was going to miss him. Our flight was on Mahan Air, and I didn't really know what to expect regarding Iranian airlines, but this turned out to be one of the best flights I had ever been on. It was only an hour flight but we were served food, had loads of leg room and the service was incredible. A very pleasant surprise. Once we landed I chatted with a young Iranian guy who worked in the Gulf in the oil industry and was on his way back from Tehran. Our conversation wasn't long, but it concluded with him giving me three giant cookies and his contact info in case I needed anything. This was cementing the point of the genuine people I was encountering here. We walked out of the airport and Shiraz awaited.

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