The Islamic Republic of Iran (part 1): 2 months for a visa, Tehran lockdown

Two months to get a visa, worth every minute. In February 2011 I traveled to Iran. Sadly, little has changed geopolitically or for the Iranian people in the intervening years. Two years of sitting on my to-do list is embarrassing, and with me on a contested regions trip this week, I have dusted off the pictures and present The Islamic Republic of Iran. See also parts 2, 3, 4, and the photo album.

“You didn’t even verify my visa.  It took me two months to get that!”

“Oh ok, where are you going again?”

“Tehran.”

Blank ‘does not compute’ look from the check-in agent, not the look I was hoping for!

Two months prior the wheels began turning for my Iran tourist visa. American citizens are required to travel with a licensed guide, and to have the itinerary and visa approved by the Foreign Ministry in Tehran. This process took about five weeks, as planned, and I was duly notified that my visa was approved, with instructions to send my passport to the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, DC, which handles consular matters in countries without diplomatic relations with Iran. I sent the passport off, a week later receiving a voicemail from a consular official wondering about my visa approval, which had not come in from the Foreign Ministry.

So started two weeks of frantic calling between the Pakistan Embassy and my tour agency in Iran, no one seeming to be in a hurry or worried, my efforts complicated by office closings on Fridays-Sundays. Through persistent questioning it came to light that the Foreign Ministry was sending to the wrong fax number, the consular officer saying sometimes the ministry sends to another office that unhelpfully does not forward the approvals. With the right fax number, my agency made a last-minute minute effort and I finally got the visa two days before departure of my nonrefundable ticket.

Back to the scene at departure from Atlanta Airport, and a smooth ride over to Amsterdam later, I was boarding KLM MD-11 ‘Audrey Hepburn,’ for a hop across the Mediterranean. A preview of the secular views of many Iranians, flowing heads of thick female hair were not covered by scarves until moments before touchdown at Tehran IKA Airport. Despite the rhetoric, Iran is the least overtly Islamic of the Muslim countries I have visited. I saw relatively few mosques, never heard the call to prayer that echoes so loudly from Africa to Southeast Asia, and everywhere I went, women daringly pushed their scarves as far back on their heads as possible. Some scarves even had the Versace Medusa logo staring back at the world.

The Islamic Republic 001

The Islamic Republic 002

I was first in the foreigner immigration line, but last out, US citizens receiving special fingerprinting treatment.  The officers were in no hurry as I was led around the airport to the fingerprinting booth and the machine dusted off and started up.  The 2 am ride into Tehran showed nothing more than a grayish, blocky city.

Next morning I met my tour guide and group at a simple breakfast that would not vary throughout the trip: Orange Tang, milk, sliced cucumber, tomato wedges, a parchment-like dimpled bread called lavash that turns stale moments after being pulled from the oven, and various toppings for the bread such as cream cheese, butter, carrot jam, and honey.  I chose to join a group rather than pay the high cost of a private guide, and was happy that the group was only two others, an Irish NGO worker who has lived years in Afghanistan and Pakistan among other places, and an ethnic Indian Kenyan, now working as a free-lancer in London. They are both nice people but we did not see eye to eye on the trip, they wanting a very relaxing, limited itinerary with plenty of time each evening to smoke water pipes, while I wanted my typical hard-charging, do as much as possibly itinerary. I tried to stay out of their way as much as possible, breaking off in the evenings to do my own thing, but my frustration during some of the days at the languid pace shown through and was not appreciated, for which I feel bad.

The tour had started the day before, and I had chosen to add a private day at the end to make up for it.  I did not count on the guide flipping the itinerary so the day one stuff of little interest to me was now on day two. This started a pattern of the agency not communicating with the local guides, and everywhere cutting costs.  The local transportation for day one turned out to be our own feet and the subway, which was fine in practical terms, but not in principle when we were surely paying more than our calories in the tour fee.

The Islamic Republic 003

The Islamic Republic 004

We walked to the National Museum, nice but small, spending an hour and a half there, tediously examining each piece, then were supposed to go to some palaces in the north of town but inexplicably the guide refused, saying she took the others to alternate palaces the day before. So we went to Ebrat Museum about political prisoners during the Shah’s rule, which would have been interesting, but was closed for the day. Then the guide decided to have us walk past the sprawling bazaar, but she was not willing to go into the scrum. Finally to kill more time, we went to the nearby Post & Telecommunications Museum. All fine if I had a week in Tehran but nowhere on my list of ‘must-sees.’

The Islamic Republic 005

The Islamic Republic 099

I was furious but trying to bite my tongue.  The other two loved the guide because the night before she took them to her home for dinner, so I did believe she was well-meaning. We did see the National Jewels Museum which has some spectacular pieces, and my intervention during the final blank stretch of time got us to the ‘US Den of Espionage,’ the former US Embassy, with its remarkable revolutionary murals.  Pictures not allowed.  No actual sign to say pictures are not allowed, but plenty of reports of Revolutionary Guards dashing out to seize cameras kept my camera holstered.

Heading for Shiraz in the evening, our ride to the airport did not show up and finally the guide got a taxi. Running quite late we had trouble wading through the city as it was being locked down due to protests at the university. Major roads were lined with police and soldiers, heavily armed and with full riot gear. Good to get out of town.

The Mehrabad International Airport, now limited to domestic flights, is a chaotic mess and the guide didn’t know where to go, but we finally found the right building and made it to our flight south to Shiraz. The guide remained in Tehran with the promise of a new guide for Shiraz.

I had planned this trip so long with such high expectations that I was feeling sick at devoting a week to what was shaping up to be a dull bummer, notwithstanding the menacing riot squads.

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  1. […] Two months to get a visa, worth every minute. In February 2011 I traveled to Iran. Sadly, little has changed geopolitically or for the Iranian people in the intervening years. Two years of sitting on my to-do list is embarrassing, and with me on a contested regions trip this week, I have dusted off the pictures and present The Islamic Republic of Iran. See also part 1. […]

  • How did you actually book the plane ticket to Tehran? Whenever I’ve done a casual ticket search to Tehran or Havana, I’ve come up with errors.

  • Curtis

    Interesting report. The more I travel,the more I have learned to just have patients for the unexpected and different lifestyles of other countries (and speed of them!) but it does seem like you’ve run into quite a few more slow downs and detours than normal. Then again you have to consider the part of the world you are touring in the first place and it is pretty amazing that some people such as yourself are even able to figure out how to get there in the first place (and allowed). I’d certainly expect the risk of these kinds of things to be pretty high up there in Iran.

  • James K.

    Thanks so much for reporting — such a rare destination to read about

  • @Kay – I booked through KLM.com at the time, never had issues in 2011 but sanctions may have changed things.

    If you have a VPN with IP addresses for different countries you can get around geographic restrictions.

  • @Curtis – I am not well-suited to group tours. After that first disappointing day the trip picked up. Iran is a bit complicated for US and UK passports, many other nationalities can travel on their own.

  • John

    Great report. Trips like this are worth reading. So tired of the Hawaii and Rio reports! I am planning a weekend trip to Tehran in a few months. Can you please give me the contact info for a private tour guide? Much appreciated. So excited.

  • Enjoyed part one and looking forward to the rest of it.

  • Babak

    Great Article. For countries such as Iran, I would suggest connecting with an Iranian friend abroad and seeing if they have family back home and using them as tour guides. Iran plays by its own set of games and its people although very well meaning are poor at western styles of business. From a cultural perspective, time is NOT of the essence and relationships and face saving are more important than anything else. The reality is that when you go on tour, each country has its own cultural norms, and you have to adapt to local behavior. I hope that helps.

  • john

    interesting. I did not realize you could go there on a us passport. I visited independently on a non us passport. I was wondering if you could have ditched the tour once in country, but I guess with a us passport on your own you would quickly become conspicuous.

    In terms of religion, I think the reason Iran was not as overtly religious to you was the sunni vs shiite thing. I thought the shiites are all about individually interpreting religion vs sunnis all about the imam. So yea, less usage of mosques or public stuff and more private vs all the other countries where they call you to prayer.

  • @john – I did check into ditching the group, they were OK with that as long as I did not change hotels which meant no different cities, they were adamant that there would be issues for me and them if I tried to go to a hotel not on my approved itinerary. Each day after the first I spent a fair amount of time on my own without issue.

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  • PedroNY

    Thank you for your report, truly enjoy reading about this destination, keep up your off-the-beaten-path reporting, it keeps me coming back to your blog!

    Cheers,

    PedroNY

  • John

    Any contact for private guide?

  • @John – I will get it to you later today, been on the road, should have internet at my next guest house.

  • @John – I was not happy with my agency but of the guides they contracted, I really liked Mehdi Fatemi, I believe he lives in Shiraz but goes all over and if not able to be in Tehran he surely can find a suitable guide. If you need someone to do a visa, and especially if you are US or UK passport, you will likely need to go to a full agency, but many nationalities can get in much more easily. Mehdi’s email is mehdi_fatemi1973 -at- yahoo.com.

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