Kazakhstan, nice to meet you

The first president’s park

I had a red-eye from Istanbul to Almaty, with the budget airline Pegasus who’s seats don’t recline and you don’t get fed in 5 hours, so I arrived a grumpy and slightly disoriented Katrin at sunrise, 4:50am Friday. After getting thru customs and finding some tourist info, I realized all the country was abuzz for Expo 2017. Public buses start at 5:30am so I slowly made my way into the city center. I don’t know why, but I was a little apprehensive about traveling alone there, a place seemingly so big but yet a huge question mark.

The President’s Palace

You can’t get your bearings that easily once you’ve arrived either. The faces are a mix of North and East, the language mostly Russian, the religion largely Muslim, and the streets and buildings a showy blend of big, efficient Soviet/communist architecture and Las Vegas wannabe. Shiny, glass towers and Dubai-like malls pop up between the concrete grey, and all the boulevards and blocks are twice too big. The cars are sometimes right-hand drive, even though the roads are too, and everyone has a brand new smart phone and is addicted to Instagram and selfies more than Chinese tourists are addicted to selfie sticks. There’s a significant minority of Koreans and Turkish residents, which also made race and language identification tricky. I barely heard Kazakh, and even ethnic Kazakhs sometimes speak only Russian, but only my couchsurf host and a few of her friends spared me with English.

My Kazakh friends

I saw faces which resembled ancient Mongol warriors, but with milky white skin and mouse grey hair. The city of Almaty was spread out below snow-topped mountains whose peaks make even the Alps and Rockies look small. The lush green-ness, even in the city center, slapped summer straight in your face, and a humid 30•c have warm tingly feelies to my barefeet toes.

Portraits by @ninachikova

The nightlife was slightly international but anonymous at the same time. I went to a whiskey bar that made Scottish choices seem limited, and a nightclub sigh exactly the same top40 as New York. I was randomly approached by two separate photographers to take my portrait, just because.

Kok-Tobe

I went on a roadtrip to two places out of the city, and it didn’t take long to feel like I was in the middle of nowhere. Only 25km away from the city center is Big Almaty Lake, a reservoir for the city’s drinking water nestled between white mountain peaks. I lucked out to be there at the same time a traditional Kazakh dance video was being made, and tried to photobomb it, just a little.

Big Almaty Lake

Me and my couchsurf host, her son, and a friend with his girlfriend took me to Lake Kapchigai, and nearby Ile river to picnic and swim. It involved an endless, open road, thru a semi-arid steppe where we only ran into horses and livestock, and one turtle crossing the road. We saw some petroglyphs of Buddah from some long-ago Silk Road traveling Buddhists, and marijuana weeds growing wild were just starting to bud. I didn’t try it, but I did have a horse pizza – not quite as exotic for an Icelander, but the local Kazakhs where thrilled I wasn’t offended or grossed out by horse meat, and even more surprised that it was also done in Iceland.

This river starts in China

I left Kazakhstan by road to Bishkek, a comfortable (and incredibly cheap – €5) 3.5hr drive away. The only stops were for a wooden squat toilet and to get gas, and this ‘Royal Petrol’ station whose service area and parking lot covered a plot the size of an American super Wal-Mart, but with only 6 pumps. I guess when you have so much space, why not be a little excessive.

Riding in Lesotho

Lesotho is a tiny, land-locked kingdom, surrounded by South Africa on all sides. There aren’t many road borders in or out, but you could easily walk into the country by accident. There are some beautiful mountains and National parks on the north side where South Africans can see Lesotho just across the valley, including the Drakensberg and Golden Gate National park, places I visited to flirt with the idea of Lesotho before arriving.

on the road in Lesotho

I found couchsurfers to stay with, a household of Filipino sisters and brothers and cousins. They’re all working in various businesses, from textiles to furniture and a car garage. We ate breakfast and dinner together every day, with a few other guests, and at one point I was in Lesotho singing Karaoke with 9 Filipinos drinking South African wine and couldn’t imagine expecting a more random experience to write home about.

bumpy road ahead

I borrowed a friend’s car from Johannesburg and drove to Lesotho. The roads on the South African side were excellent – and also filled with tolls and speed cameras. Once entering Lesotho, I didn’t see a single traffic police officer or camera, and only one traffic light, and the roads were full of potholes, where they were paved, and one big pot hole where they weren’t. I was driving a Ford Fiesta, not the greatest off-road car, and it took hours just to drive 80km, but I managed to get deep into the countryside and find some horses to ride.

riding off into the Lesotho countryside

Lesotho has an alive and kicking horse culture – people still travel by horse, shepherd on horse back, and use horses to work their fields and transport goods. I found a camp called Malealea where tourists can go on multi-day treks, up to 28 days, and basically see the whole of Lesotho from the back of a horse. I rode for only one day, barefoot because I didnt have proper shoes and it was too hot, and left my guide in the dust everytime I asked him if we could go for a gallop. We visited a waterfall, a cave, and some ancient rock art paintings, and by the end of the day I realized I should have stayed a week for this. But oh well, there’s always a next time. And next time I’ll bring riding shoes.

Pakistan – land of the pure and mixed up

I´ve always wondered what the -stan suffix means. It´s in the names of may central Asian countries, and I always assumed it means ´land´or ´area,´ but some argue it doesn´t refer to any geographical boundary. In Pakistan, someone told me it means ´race´ or ´nation,´ and ´Pak´ means ´pure,´ so I’m currently visiting the land of the pure race. The ironic thing is that this place is completely mixed up, not only the people, but their language, culture, religion and look are far from homogenous.

Karachi at sunset

Karachi at sunset

I arrived in Pakistan, a country wedged between Iran, Afghanistan, China and India, and felt, literally, like I was in the middle of the middle. Where east meets the west, the middle east meets the Orient, Islam meets Hinduism, and a minority of ex-pats and local Christians thrown in the mix. You can dress in jeans and a tshirt, a colourful sari, local Pakistani dress (pants with a matching long shirt and shoulder scarf) or a black burka covering everything but your eyes – and either way you´d fit in. Karachi is a sprawling town of 20 million, and feels a little like Dubai growing on top of Delhi. American fast food chains and European coffee shops squeeze in among the local food shops and bustling street food markets, and like everywhere else in central Asia, banks sit on every corner.

local friends and one big ex-pat

local friends and one big ex-pat at the Jinnah Masoleum

I met a lot of bankers in Karachi. I couchsurfed with one, and met a dozen others, and realized I had fallen into a circle of privileged friends. Similar to in India or Nepal, there´s a social stratification system which ensures good education for some, less for others, and none for the unlucky few. Health, religious freedom, and economic stability are of course affected by this, but strangely enough, arranged marriages were still a problem. I met  woman who´s in love with a man engaged to his cousin since birth, and another who took years to finally divorce her ex-husband (from an arranged marriage) and now lives without him or her 18 year old daughter.

Still, my Pakistani friends had their freedom – not conforming to the rules of Islam and indulging in the same things any corporate slave would do, we drove around in their new cars, rode horses on the beach, visited the few tourist sights, drank sun-downers at the yacht club, shared beers at the British Embassy bar, and smoked cigars and cigarettes from their rooft-top patios. We ate home-cooked meals, fast-food-street-food, and dined at Karachi´s best restaurants. My couchsurfing host´s mother fed me breakfast and milk-tea every morning, and told me she loved me as her own daughter.

buses in Karachi are a piece of art

buses in Karachi are a piece of art

Being pure doesn´t mean the nation has to be similar – for me it meant a land of genuine people, a place where people made me feel welcome and they all took personal pride in being able to share their home with me. They were as friendly to guests and foreigners as they are to their own families, and if they could, they would have wanted to show me all of Pakistan first-hand. There were some unfortunate events that happened in Pakistan recently – a hotel fire and a fatal plane crash – but I can still say I felt very safe in Pakistan. Accidents happen everywhere, (as well as terrorism – but don’t indulge in any of the stereotypes you think you´ve heard about Pakistan) so I hope this doesn’t hurt Pakistan´s chance of receiving more travelers and them enjoying the same kind of hospitality extended to me. I´ve already promised to go back, and made plans to see the north with a local friend and backpack thru the countryside with another couchsurfer. I plan on keeping that promise very soon.

Impressions of Afghanistan

Our first couchsurfing host was a 21 year old married man, living with his mother, wife, son, brother, 3 sisters, step-father, and some other cousins and extended family. One day we accompanied his older sister to school, where 650 of the 1000 enrolled students were female. Girls and boys only mix in the kindergarten classrooms, and the rest of the school day is split up – girls in the morning, boys in the afternoon. We met with the principal and the English teacher who acted as a translator. We learned that the school had been open (for girls) for the last 20 years, which includes a time under Taliban rule when they weren’t allowed to go to school. During those times, they taught the girls within an unmarked compound, and had a back door they’d let the girls run out of if any police came.

Band-i-amir in the north of Afghanistan

Band-i-amir in the north of Afghanistan

The English teacher talked a lot, and told us everything. He even asked me to help him find money or a wife, because currently he’s found a wife (his cousin) but his father says he can’t afford her at the moment. This happened more than once, also in Iran, that people looked at a visiting foreigner as a way out. The major difference is that in Iran, the government imposes most of the restrictions, and in Afghanistan, family is the most important rule-enforcement.

Here, wives are often chosen by the father, or given to a man by her father, in some cases as young as 13 or 14 years old. They’re not given away for free – a hefty price, in the thousands of dollars, is paid, and in Kabul, weddings are a big big business. Weddings are attended by thousands of guests, sometimes 4,000, and cost tens of thousands of dollars. In very small, traditional villages of Afghanistan, some girls are also given to the enemy’s family as a way of resolving (often bloody) disputes. It would be tough to be wedded to your brother’s murderer and imagine ever having a happy family life of your own.

Every person we met in Afghanistan told us not to trust anyone. This was hard to do, especially since we were couchsurfing, and meeting and staying with a stranger, meeting all his strange friends, and had little options of making last-minute changes or not trusting the people around them. Our host in Kabul had his driver and cousins take us around, his butler feed us and lit our nightly shishas, and even took us to work one day (he works within a government ministry) and had one of their drivers take us home. We had recently learned that ministers are a huge target for kidnapping, and ministries for attacks, and that very morning there was a suicide bomb attack outside the Ministry of Defense, killing six and injuring dozens. On our way to the Ministry of Commerce, listening to the news of that mornings bombing, literally nothing changed, and people were only slightly inconvenienced from the increase in traffic due to a few road blocks around the explosion. I cant say people weren’t affected, but I saw this as a sign of their resilience. In your average European city, any suicide bomb would have caused a state of emergency, and no one would consider stepping outside or going to work.

street scene from Kabul

street scene from Kabul

During the evenings at his home, we were surrounded by other ministers and important people in business and government, and one frozen yogurt franchiser. The first night we arrived to a yard of 14 men smoking shisha and playing badminton – at this moment I was very glad to be traveling with a fake husband. They all spoke perfect English, and had lived or studied abroad, and had many family members abroad. Still, some of them had left as refugees, and I cant believe their lives in Germany or elsewhere were any happier than in Kabul, especially since many of them had returned. Sometimes security is not as important as work and family, so they may be safer abroad but certainly not better off. They all agreed that the current safety crisis in Afghanistan is actually the reason why government officials and business men make multi-million dollar transactions; a state of peace would surely bring an economic crash. Can you imagine trading peace for money? Or job security?

Our host in Kabul explained it was dangerous to be in politics, work for (any) government, and all the international ex-pats or NGO’s or armies just make it more unstable. But without them, billions of dollars wouldn’t rush into the country every year. For him, the safest way to be was low profile. The same roads we had once driven in a bullet proof Land Cruiser with an armed guard, we would walk late at night, because of this reason. He felt safer walking in a hoodie in the dark than getting into a car where he was supposedly protected. During our night walks, it was always smoggy with a combination of fog, exhaust pollution, and the smoke of burning garbage. Seeing stars in Kabul was impossible, though the one I did see was a shooting star.

Bamyan from the top of Shahr-e Gholghola, or 'City of Screams'

Bamyan from the top of Shahr-e Gholghola, or ‘City of Screams’

Four foreigners were kidnapped the week before we go to Afghanistan. An ex-pat friend of mine living in Kabul told us not to worry too much about that – foreigners are usually stalked and specifically targeted after weeks of planning, so we were low-risk kidnap suspects. However, some instincts are hard to suppress, and once in Herat we walked into a tour agency office to ask for an ATM, and they told us sit down, they’ll make a call. We politely said no thanks, we’ll ask someone else, and got the hell out of there.

Wedding halls, malls, hotels and hospitals are some of the biggest businesses in Afghanistan. The biggest, brightest buildings were wedding halls, the grand casinos of Kabul, so to speak. The malls and hotels were hidden behind security checkpoint containers, walls and barbed wire, since they’re suicide bomb attack hotspots, and hospitals seem to run without making any difference except for the rich few. We visited one private hospital in Herat, and the 5 storey building had more doctors, technicians and administration than patients. The first hour of our visit there wasn’t a single patient to be seen, and the surgery room looked like it had never been used since the hospital was opened two and a half years ago. We met the hospitals CEO in his office, where an unplugged, unwrapped, printer sat on his desk. He told us Afghanistan is the only country in the world where polio is still present, few people can afford private care, and just the other day a woman’s child died after being delivered from a major tumor that could have been seen only weeks into pregnancy – if she’d gotten an ultrasound.

The Big Buddha's cave

The Big Buddha’s cave

We also traveled north to Bamiyan, a city only 2 or 3 hours away by road, but since its regularly checked by the Taliban, it was safer to fly. It costs $110 to fly 30 mins one way, but who can put a price on safety? Though we found out its probably more dangerous for the Hazare people, an indigenous group from the north of Afghanistan, to travel or be there. They’re characteristically more Asian featured, and having narrow eyes is seen as unlucky throughout Afghanistan. People believe if you paint black lines around a child’s eyes, it will make them open wider as they grow. I wonder if that’s been proven to work.

Being in Bamyan for a couple of days made the entire trip to Afghanistan worth it. We couchsurfed a construction site, with a man in his half-built home, and shared our meals with the construction workers, his son, and his daughter. We slept in a room heated by a coal stove, and there wasn’t any running water in the bathroom but we managed with our babywipes and one tap in the garden. Bamyan was a village in a valley, surrounded by caves dug out in cliffs from an ancient Buddhist civilization that once thrived there. In 2001 the Taliban tore down the 53 and 35 m budda statutes that had stood there for 1700 years, in an anti-islam purification effort, but their giant impressions still remain, hollowed out into the mountain, overlooking the peaceful village of Bamyan.

Planning a trip to Afghanistan

Traveling to Afghanistan has a lot of barriers, both mental and physical. Before going, you ask the inevitable question: is it safe? And everyone has a different answer or a different experience. Once you make a plan to go, you have to decide how to go – by road in almost any direction is risky. By air, you have to go thru multiple security checks just to enter the airport, and again before you enter the plane – to get in and out of Afghanistan. It’s hard to know what will happen even after you know how you’ll go.  Explaining to the Afghan consul in Tehran why I wanted to go as a tourist was as difficult for me to explain as it was for him to understand. So even after I finally had a plan and my visa, I still didn’t know if it would work out or be okay.

I made a plan to enter overland from Iran. I was going to couchsurf, but all I had was the names and numbers of people I had no idea where they lived, how they lived, or with who. So even though I kind of know where I was going, I didn’t have any idea how to get to the exact place. The border was fairly straightforward, but they never gave me a tourist registration card (which I found out later I needed to leave Afghanistan). I got to Afghanistan, and my host in Herat told me he doesn’t like living here because every time he leaves his home he’s not sure if he will come back home. Very reassuring…

the Citadel in Herat is a major tourist attraction with no tourists

the Citadel in Herat is a major tourist attraction with no tourists

We did get home, all three days, and spent a lot of time with him at work in a cell phone shop, since walking around was always a little stressful. I noticed an immediate change in the people, they were more intimidating, but though the people were taller and dirtier, they were somehow more handsome. There were no visible signs of danger – only a few armed guards – but the strange looks on peoples’ faces who saw us never allowed us to relax.

I was traveling with a fake husband, Michael from Germany, mostly because its unusual for females to move without other members of their family or a husband. He wore traditional Afghan clothes, and I was covered in black, but the way we walked probably gave us away. But every day, after we returned within the safe walls of his family’s home, we were surrounded by 12 or 13 family members (almost all female), and taken care of with a kind of hospitality even my own family wouldn’t give me. But every kind person we met still advised us not to trust anyone, even the next kind person we met, so we hesitated to ever fully enjoy all our positive experiences.

Kabul from afar - a little more inviting than on the streets beside the walls and barbed wire

Kabul from afar – a little more inviting than on the streets beside the walls and barbed wire

Leaving Herat by plane, but only to Kabul, caused the KamAir flight attendant who greeted us on board to flash us a worried look, so after boarding was completed he decided to upgrade us to first class and we sat in the first row with a hot meal – but no champagne. We relaxed a little, but still couldn’t understand why Google maps said Kabul Airport was permanently closed even though we were sitting on a plane bound for it.

If you’re planning a trip to Afghanistan, do trust people, and enjoy Afghan hospitality. Get your visa, if you can, and enjoy being one of the only tourists there. Travel by plane if you can afford it, and Kabul International Airport is open and has many direct flights daily. Don’t try to check in less than 1 hour before departure because they will leave you behind. And take into consideration there are about 5 security checks or searches before you even enter the terminal. If you want to overland into Afghanistan, the road is apparently only safe between Mashhad and Herat, and also one or two roads to Tajikistan might be passable.

Getting a visa is tricky for some (a German backpacker was denied a few days after me in Tehran) and I had to take a blood test against HIV, Hep B and Hep C. I tested negative for all of the above, thankfully, so I got my visa. Other countries need a letter of support, and other countries (mostly in the west) simply don’t give tourist visas anymore. Read more about the visa application process at the Afghan Embassy in Tehran at the Caravanistan website.

Customs in Iran

Iran was what I expected it to be, in many ways, but I learned about some very strange customs. I always thought Iran was a safe, conservative society full of fairly well-off, educated people – atleast compared to the rest of central Asia. I learned about siga, a form of legal prostitution supported by the government. It’s a system where men can pay a woman to marry her, for 1 hour, 1 week, or even 1 year, and during this rental time, the man can have sex with her without her being called a prostitute or insulting the no-sex-before-marriage custom. For women that do this, or just any ordinary girl who may have lost her virginity to a boyfriend, she can buy her virginity back, through a surgical procedure that takes less than an hour, but has a woman bed-ridden for a week or more, and may take a month or more to recover from. This is probably more expensive than the rental wife, but I don’t know the figures.

Cheaper for women is to spend money on nose jobs, and I don’t know the statistics on that but a lot of women do it. A cheap surgery can be under $1000USD, and wearing the white bandage on your nose out in public during the healing process is like an honour badge, a proud mark of being able to buy a more beautiful nose.

The eyebrows are arguably the second most important facial feature. The natural uni-brow is embraced as a traditional kind of beauty, grown only by the lucky few in the history of Persia’s great empire. Women with detached eyebrows often paint them darker and thicker, sometimes in unnatural shapes or lengths that don’t really make sense to me. Also their lipstick often spills out of the natural boundaries, and then you’re left with a lot of women who have a brightly coloured mouth under their cosmetic noses and piercing eyebrows, all carefully framed by a scarf or hijab.

Food in Iran was amazing, but I was unlucky enough to have my two worst meals within the first 24 hours of being in Iran, and this was because they weren’t typical Iranian foods. My first lunch was a $3 Turkish doner, 95% comprised of an oversized loaf of bread, and %5 shaved meat, and since I’m avoiding gluten, I ate the few scraps of meat and decided to stay away from doners unless Im back in Europe. My first breakfast was a green tea latte (quite good) and a bagel with cream cheese – the bagel was dry, fluffy bread in the shape of a circle and the cream cheese was like those pie-shaped spreadable cheese you get at hotel breakfast buffets. After that I decided to stay away from any international foods and everything was fine, except for being unable to avoid the inevitable bread that follows all meals.

I saw a lot of beautiful mosques and shrines, from behind my hijab and mandatory chador

I saw a lot of beautiful mosques and shrines, from behind my hijab and mandatory chador

All the Iranian meals I ate had that home-cooked feeling, even in a restaurant, and the sauces, pickles, spices, herbs and tea that followed them were equally delicious. Bread is always served with breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the bread type varied from home to home and city to city. You are meant to eat with your hands, usually with a piece of bread in it, or else you’re only offered a spoon and/or a fork. Knives were not part of the dining experience, even if you had a lamb shoulder or steak kebab.

Most meals were followed by an offer of fruit for desert, and now was the time for mandarins, pomegranates and apples. Strangely enough the fruits were always served on a plate with a knife, and I’ve rarely eaten fruit so often or formally.

Iranians have a word in Farsi called ‘ta-arof,’ and it refers to the kind of hospitality they offer that you cannot refuse – they insist until you either admit you’d appreciate it, or just take whatever it is to avoid the argument. When offered fruit, you’re directed ‘Eat pomegranate.’ Noone asks or cares if you want it, just eat it. If you refuse taarof, its an insult. If it is a question, like “what table would you like?” or “would you like to sit?”, then your answer is barely heard, since your host quickly refutes “no, this table is better” or “please sit here its more comfortable for you.”

Another unbreakable custom was some men’s insistence on not smiling in photos. “Real men don’t smile” I was told, and everyone kept their stone face in my selfies. I also couldn’t understand their strict rules on public behavior – unmarried or unrelated males and females cannot walk in the street together, even if they’re a meter apart on the sidewalk, but on my overnight train to Mashad I shared a 4 person sleeper cabin with 1 woman and 2 men. I could not sit on the back of my friends motorcycle and move thru traffic, but I could get into his car and drive away to anywhere we pleased. I rode one overnight bus as well, and it was the most luxurious bus I’ve ever seen. They call them VIP buses, and a single, reclining leather couch seat was on the left, and basically a loveseat sofa on the right, complete with armrests and a steward that served us snacks and tea.

Traveling times and daily routines were always a little surprising. Overnight trains and buses began in the afternoon, before sunset, and would usually arrive at their destination in the wee hours of the morning before sunrise, just in time for the first prayers of the day. The work week is Saturday to Wednesday, and staying awake til 2 am on a work day was normal, and waking up at 4 am on the weekend was also not unheard of. It’s the year 1395, and none of the months or days of the week are familiar.

I couchsurfed my whole time in Iran, so I often followed my hosts schedule or sleeping patterns. Sometimes I could nap or sleep earlier, but I enjoyed being awake from sunrise to sunset. There isn’t much to do in the evenings, since nightclubs are illegal, although Iranians are crazy about going to parks at night. The conversations I had with my couchsurf hosts were often the same, about my country, my family, my work, and my impressions of Iran. They talked to me about the same, but usually focused more on how they could get to my country, or a wife from outside, or a job in Europe, and shared their less-than-glamorous opinions of Iran. Everyone seemed to want a way out, to get any chance of escaping to the outside world, and had little hesitations about leaving Iran and never coming back. If they didn’t have the vocabulary to explain these feelings, they were still happy to use me as a means of practicing English, and then came more questions about me, my age, and my future plans for marriage and children – since every woman must have those plans.

In many ways, Iranian culture wasn’t so different from western cultures, and my first host in Tehran told me that women basically could act and do the same things we do at home. But after a few weeks of traveling alone in Iran, I realized the few things that do differentiate us are based on really strict, important customs, so it was better not to ask any questions and just conform.

Welcome to Iran

Here’s a letter I wish someone from the Iranian tourism authority had sent me before flying one-way into Iran alone. 

One of the many beautiful gardens, this one in Fin, Kashan

One of the many beautiful gardens, this one in Fin, Kashan

Dear Tourist,

Welcome to Iran. We are a land famous for beautiful mosaics, Persian carpets, and ancient empires, and a people known the world over for our hospitality and endless supply of tea. However, please be aware of the following things before traveling in Iran.

We have a rich cultural history surrounding our bath houses and hammams, but presently social bathing is illegal and all our historic bathhouses have been turned into museums. There are banks on every corner, but none will accept your debit card and withdrawing money from abroad anywhere in this country is impossible. Bring a lot of cash because visa and mastercard (or any other international credit cards) are not accepted, and get used to a lot of zeros because even small things, like a taxi fare, are counted in the hundreds of thousands. Our money is printed as and called rials, but people refer to tomans, which is ten times less, so don’t get ripped off by paying ten times too much or insult someone by trying to pay ten times too little. However, for anything touristic, such as entrance to a museum, you will have to pay for an entrance ticket three to ten times more than a local. Also a taxi ride or a hotel room will be (legally) charged at a higher rate, since the government enforces different costs for foreigners. The same cup of coffee will not cost the same for you and a local, even if you order together.

You are not allowed to wear shorts, skirts or sleeveless shirts or anything else that would show your knees or shoulders. Please learn how to read Arabic numbers, since house numbers, streets, costs and bus numbers will usually only be written with them. Drivers are a little crazy and crossing the road inside or outside of a car are equally dangerous. Make sure you ride the metro or public bus in the right compartment – men in the front, women in the back!

If you are a woman, please also note: You must wear a hijab or wrap your head in some sort of scarf in all public places and inside cars. You cannot wear a skirt, but you must have a long enough jacket or shirt or skirt over your pants to cover your hips, so make sure you layer your pants under more clothing, preferably black. You cannot sing or dance in public or infront of men. You are not allowed to drive a motorcycle, or get on a motorcycle behind a man driving, since touching another man who is not your spouse or family member is a crime. Walking down the street with someone of the opposite gender who’s not related to you is also not allowed. Depending on the city you’re in, it’s also illegal to ride a bicycle, smoke cigarettes, or play pool. You must sit in the women’s only section of public transport, and of course mosques have a smaller women-only section which you can enter after wrapping yourself (and every part of your hair) in a chador (a big sheet, usually supplied to you).

Facebook, Twitter, and wordpress are some of the websites blocked in Iran, so make sure you get a virtual hotspot app if you want to access any of these sites. Airbnb and Coucshurfing are technically illegal too, and some couchsurfers are simply using the site to find an outside connection for help out of here, either with a visa, a foreign wife, or better-paying job offer. If you are a single woman, some men may consider trying to marry you, so pretend you’re married and wear a fake wedding ring. Or better yet, travel Iran with a man; it will save you a lot of hassle from taxi drivers wanting your phone number, men in bazaars following you, or random creepy men that assume western women are all super horny and none of them are virgins.

Since you are a tourist, many of these rules slide, but if an ethics police officer harasses you more than 3 times for any of the above, the punishment is prison or lashes, and adultery or rape will get you executed.

Welcome to Iran. We hope you enjoy your stay!

Women only

Women only