Travel to Iran – Episode 435

categories: asia travel, middle east travel

Hear about travel to Iran as the Amateur Traveler talks to Shara Johnson from about her recent trip to that country. George W. Bush called it part of the Axis of Evil but Shara found a warm and inviting country.


When asked why she went to Iran Shara says, “I had wanted to go to Iran for ages, largely because of my interest in ancient history, the Persian Empire and all that. I have always been interested in the ruins and the history, and the architecture and everything. The political climate seemed to be really good. This was in April when I went. The prices were affordable. My travel voice said ‘Go! Go now!'”

Unlike the previous Amateur Traveler episode we did on Iran (Travel to Iran by Bike – Episode 134) which was done by a couple with Canadian passports, Shara and her husband are from the U.S. and cannot travel independently in Iran. They were required to either sign on with a tour group or hire a private guide. Shara says, “That’s not my usual type of travel. I am normally a very independent traveler. I had no idea what to expect from this. My husband and I hired a private guide so he was going to be attached to us at the hip pretty much for 15 days and nights… and it was fantastic! It was totally affordable for one thing and our guide was just absolutely phenomenal.”

“We flew from Tehran to Shiraz. It is a really pretty city, well known for its gardens. It has some opulent palaces, beautiful mosques. The highlight of that city is this really sweet mosque which is relatively small, the Nasir-al-Molk Mosque. There are gardens called the Orange Gardens and this palace where we started to get an idea of one of the hallmarks of Persian architecture is they use mirrors in a lot of their interior design and cut it almost like tile. It is a place for literature and poetry, an educated kind of city. It was fun to meet local people and feel a friendship for them.”

“Shiraz is where you access Persepolis from, which is the highlight archeological ruin in Iran. There is also a necropolis nearby of the early rulers.”

“My ultimate surprises for Iran came from the people that we met, our guide’s friends. The younger generation is not at all how we think that they are. A lot of Americans tend to see the people of Iran as very religious, very traditional conservative. I think that has a lot to do with the way we see them dressing. The younger generation, aren’t really religious at all. They know more about American television shows than I do. They have social media even though it is illegal.”

Shara also visited their guide’s hometown of Kerman with its nice bazaar with a traditional bathhouse. “One thing I wanted to see is called The Kaluts and is just outside of Kerman It is a desert and the weather has carved out of the layers and layers of desert sand these amazing sculptures. It’s like castles made out of the sand. The bottom layer is black and then the sculptures are red. I have never seen anything like it anywhere else.”

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Show Notes

SKJ Travel
Shara’s photos of Iran
Travel to Iran by Bike – Episode 134
Visit Iran
Nasir-al-Molk Mosque
Narenjestan (Orange Garden)
The Kaluts of Kerman
Shahzadeh Garden
Towers of Silence
The “Red Village”
Rick Steves’ Iran


Leo wrote:

Hi Chris,

I’ve been listening to your podcast for many years and have found it helpful for my own travels to places I’ve already been and has inspired me to visit new destinations. So, thanks to you and your guests.

I was wondering if you would be kind enough to provide me with a list of the typical questions you ask your guests. The best part of the trip, the most unusual, the bit the travel guides didn’t mention, how would you describe etc etc.

I’d like to send them to a friend who has just left Perth for a holiday to the UK and parts of Europe and want him to keep your questions in mind while he is travelling, so as he gets the most out of his trip.

Hope you are able to oblige. I would be very grateful.



The  questions I usually ask:

  • Why should someone go to XXX?
  • What should you see?
  • weather / when to visit
  • What do the guidebooks recommend that you think are a waste of time?
  • What do the guidebooks/tourists miss?
  • Where should you stay?
  • Where should you eat?
  • How do you get around?
  • What side trips would you recommend?
  • what was the biggest surprise?
  • best day you had?
  • one warning you would give?
  • language
  • what do you wish you had known?
  • picture that best brings back your trip?
  • most memorable person you met?
  • best resources for planning a trip to XXX
  • when did you feel closest to home, furthest
  • one thing that makes you laugh and say only in XXX
  • one thing you should know and one thing you should pack before you go to XXX
  • What’s your best money-saving tip?
  • you really know you’re in XXX when
  • what 3 words would you use

Western Sahara, part of Morocco or not?


Chris: Amateur Traveler, Episode 435. It was called by George W. Bush part of the Axis of Evil; yet, we have talked to travelers who have found it to be a warm and inviting country. Come with us today as we go to Iran.

Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host Chris Christensen. This episode of the Amateur Traveler is again sponsored to you by Blogger Bridge. Blogger Bridge is my other company and that’s a company that helps companies connect with content creators like bloggers and podcasters and videographers. For more information, go to and see how content creators can help get your message out.

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Chris: I’d like to welcome back to the show Shara Johnson from who has come back to the show to talk about her trip to Iran. Shara, welcome back to the show.

Shara: Thank you so much.

Chris: And I say welcome back, Shara has been on the show one other time and that was Episode 360 talking about volunteer travel in Uganda. Again, you are talking about a destination that is not Paris, or France, or London, or some place that a lot of people go, but Iran. What made you go to Iran?

Shara: Well, the truth is I have wanted to go to Iran for ages, largely because of my interest in ancient history. So, the Persian Empire and all that. I’ve always been interested in the ruins and the history and the architecture and everything.

It’s just one of those things, I usually choose my travels sort of serendipitously. Usually from one year to the next I don’t know where I’m going but a good deal comes up or something and just the political climate seemed really good. This was in April when I went and I just found out the prices were affordable and I don’t know, for whatever reason my little voice, my travel voice, said “Go, go now.”

Chris: I will admit, the chair had a hard time pitching me this show because we’d done a show on Iran before and actually one of my favorite episodes of the Amateur Traveler. So that was difficult, but one of the things that was a show talking about biking around by two people who have Canadian passports. You have an American passport so you had a little different experience than we talked about last time.

Shara: I do, and I did. As was mentioned right before that, the thing about Americans is we cannot travel independently in the country. So we must either sign on with a tour group or hire a private guide through a travel agency in Iran. The visa approval process is a little more, it just takes more time. There’s no reason you would get declined but just some things like that.

Chris: And what option did you use?

Shara: We hired a private guide. I have never done, it’s not my typical type of traveling. I’m a really independent traveler. I was a little, I just I had no idea what to expect from this. My husband and I just hired a private guide to ourselves and so he was going to be attached to us at the hip pretty much for 15 days and nights. It was fantastic, it was totally affordable for one thing and our guide was just absolutely phenomenal. He was so great and we had such a good time. He just explained so many things to us that we could’ve never gotten for ourselves that amount of information.

Chris: And when you say affordable, I’m gonna push you on that a little bit, what is the range of affordable for that?

Shara: Okay, so yeah of course affordable is relative. We paid per person it was $1,800 dollars, which included all of the guiding services, hotel rooms which included hot breakfast. All of our admission prices for 15 days and 15 nights. I looked into tours that can be toured with a tour group where you’re travelling around with 10 other people on a bus and that kind of stuff through tour agencies based in America, or Canada, or something. Most of those were in the $2,500 dollar to $3,000 range for the exact same things, the guiding, the hotel.

So it was cheaper to travel, because we went through an agency reputed in Iran and so it was cheaper to have this guy all to ourselves. We got the same things. So in my mind for what we got it was a really good value.

Chris: Then let’s talk a little bit more about what you got. What itinerary did you do or what itinerary do you recommend?

Shara: If you have a limited amount of time, which I consider two weeks little which is all I had, I would basically do what we did which is the typical I’d say tourist route, which is basically right through the middle of the country. So you hit [inaudible 05:00] Shiraz, Isfahan, and Yazd are kind of the main highlights along that route. We did a couple other things, we stayed with some Nomads and went to Kerman and some things like that.

But that’s just that kind of middle strip. It’s like the [inaudible 05:18] where most of the ruins are and that kind of thing. That’s going to give you the most sort of succinct look at the country and what it has to offer.

Chris: And flying in and out of Tehran?

Shara: Mm-hmm, yeah.

Chris: Okay, and then let’s go back and do that more slowly. Can you walk us through your itinerary and what you saw?

Shara: I know the first one we went to was Shiraz because we flew from Tehran to Shiraz which was ridiculously cheap by the way. A plane ticket was like $40. You get your meal and everything, it was only like an hour but, so yeah Shiraz is a really pretty city really well-known for its gardens particularly, and has some really opulent palaces of formerly wealthy people, beautiful Mosques, that sort of thing. So the architecture there is really nice.

Chris: And as I recall from what we did before, Shiraz is known as a religious city, a center for Islam in Iran. Do I have the right city?

Shara: I don’t know if it’s particularly well-known for that. I’m trying… there is one of the shrines there, like a Mausoleum tomb of the Imams. I guess that could be considered a popular place for people to go. I think there’s other cities that are considered more.

Chris: So what did you see in Shiraz?

Shara: The primary, I’d say the highlights of that city, are this really sweet Mosque that’s relatively small. The Nasir al-Mulk Mosque and there’s a gardens called the Orange Gardens in front of this palace where we were. This is where we started to get an idea of one of the sort of hallmarks of the Persian architecture. Is that they use mirrors in a lot of their interior design. And kind of cut it, almost like tiles, and then place it. You feel like you’re in a disco ball basically, when you walk around these places. I really wish I’d had a laser pointer with me sometimes because it would’ve been really trippy. It’s kind of a place for literature and poetry and an educated kind of city.

So it’s… we stayed there several days and our guide’s girl that he kind of wished was his girlfriend was there and so we met her and went out to dinner with her and it was fun to kind of meet local people and feel a friendship for them. I was subsequently called on his phone several times during the trip, so that was a fun introduction to the country.

Chris: Okay. This being your introduction to Iran, any surprises?

Shara: At that time my ultimate surprises came from the people that we met. Our guide’s friends and other things like that. So it began there to some degree with his friend.

Chris: So what about those encounters surprised you?

Shara: How the younger generation is not at all how we think that they are. I think it’s true that a lot of American tend to see the citizens of Iran as very religious, very traditional, conservative, and just very into their religion. I think that has a lot to do with the way we see them dressing, the women, and we just sort of presume that they’re doing that voluntarily and therefore they’re really into their religion. But that’s actually not true.
The younger generation, most of them, aren’t really religious at all. They don’t like wearing these things, they clamor after Western culture, Western amenities. They know more about American television shows than I do and movies and they have social media even though it’s illegal. It’s sort of surprising how like us they are and how much like us they want to be and they’re very hurt that they perceive that Americans think poorly of them and that we seem to dislike them, and all those things. So I was kind of surprised about that.

Chris: Okay, and where did you go after Shiraz?

Shara: We went to Kerman which was the hometown of our guide. He still lives there with his parents when he’s not guiding. So he introduced us to his parents we went to his house for dinner and we met all of his, a bunch of his friend were there, so one night we actually played laser tag with his friends and all this crazy stuff. Kerman has a really nice bazaar, it has a really nice traditional bath house in the bazaar. Those were highlights in the city.

And then something I really wanted to see is called the Kaluts, which is just outside of Kerman which is a desert, basically, and the weather has carved out of the layers and layers of desert sand these amazing sculptures. So it’s like castles made out of the sand and fortresses and the bottom later of the sand is black and then the sculptures are red and we were there on kind of a foggy day, it almost looked like a shoreline and the black was the ocean, and just really fantastical, magical, kind of shapes. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else.

So that was kind of a highlight for me, seeing the Kaluts. And there were some other gardens and houses former princes and stuff like that, so there’s some good stuff to see there.

Chris: When you say some other gardens, were there any that stuck out for you in terms of the ones that you saw?

Shara: One of the ones that was kind of interesting just in terms of the story behind it. Because, as I explained, this is pretty much in the middle of the desert and so it’s funny to come across then these oasis in the middle of it, these opulent gardens. So this one this prince was apparently a real jerk and he had conscripted his subjects into building this just amazing garden. That’s almost more of a sign of opulence then some kind of architecture there is water in the middle of the desert. Just gushing water down these waterfalls and reflecting pools.

Anyway, so political climate changed, he fled his garden home, and everyone was so happy they dropped their tools on the spot and left. And so, somebody had maybe three tiles left to complete this beautiful thing he’d been working on for years, and he didn’t even have pride in his work to stay and finish it he was so disgusted with having been there. So they point out little things that were never finished because people just literally left on the spot and were so happy to be rid of this guy. Shiraz is where you access Persepolis from.

Chris: Okay.

Shara: Which is the highlight archaeological ruin in Iran. And there’s also a necropolis nearby of some of the early rulers.

Chris: And for those who don’t know, what is Persepolis?

Shara: Persepolis was basically a ceremonial city that was built…

Chris: For the ancient Persians.

Shara: Uh-huh, yep. I think it was built about 520 B.C. so it’s quite old. It was built about 30 years after the founding of the Persian Empire. It’s the ceremonial city and so amazing. Like, every surface of the rocks, the buildings, and the staircases, and the pillars, and everything was originally carved with these bas-relief figures of people and cuneiform text writing, and the entry is these huge arches and pillars and it’s just a beautiful, amazing place.

And to think they built all of this just for occasional use. The city where people actually lived was a ways away in Pasargadae and there’s hardly anything left of that. But that, for me as I said with my interest in archaeology and ancient history, that was really exciting to see that and I wasn’t disappointed.

Chris: And my perception is that one of the reasons it is relatively well-preserved considering it’s over 2,000 years old is that it is in the desert.

Shara: That would certainly help. The climate preserves it. The people also are very keen on taking care of it. Making sure basically it was destroyed by Alexander the Great and they still hold tremendous animosity toward the Greeks for that.

So they just also would take care of it. And in fact, when the Arabs invaded in the 700s, a little ways away at the tomb of Cyrus the great and some other ruins around Pasargadae, the Arabs wanted to destroy those. The Persians were so attached to these things that they lied and they said that they were actually the tomb of Solomon’s mother and these things so that they were related to Biblical figures and so therefore they weren’t destroyed. That’s how important it was to them to preserve these places.

Chris: Funny. And then we were going on from the place after Shiraz that I’ve lost track.

Shara: Okay, so the other two places that we went to next was Yazd. Which I would really recommend to people because it is also in the desert and it really preserves a lot of the ancient technologies of the Persians. Technologies that they used to make living in the desert tolerable. So, for example, they brought water into the city from way far away in the mountains through these series of underground canals called qanats. It’s really amazing, there’s a museum about it and you see how they dug them and just the network of how it runs through the cities and feeds the public places and then goes to the [inaudible 15:46] homes and the engineering feat is really impressive.

Then they have these things called wind towers that are kind of like swamp coolers. They’ll be very, very tall, square towers and they’re open on the side to catch the prevailing winds and basically pulls the wind down through the tower and by the time it gets to the bottom it’s this really powerful breeze. A lot of the times that even blows over a pool of water and then a series of ducts will run through the building that continues to pull the air through the building. So it’s like a natural air-conditioner.

Chris: Hmm.

Shara: It’s really, yeah, it’s amazing it’s just so ingenuitive. And there’s not a whole… I mean there are others that are preserved, but Yazd has the tallest preserved one and probably the most-like if you get to like a rooftop and you look out over the city you can see these square wind towers all over the place. It’s this totally ancient technologies that function completely well. That’s also the place where there’s the most preservation of the ancient Persian religion which was Zoroastrianism. So if you have any interest in that they still have a fire temple and…

Chris: And when you say preservation my understanding is there are still, and I think I was reading, 20 to 40,000 people who are Zoroastrians. It’s not just that they remember how it was worshiped, but that there’s still five to ten percent of the population in Yazd are Zoroastrian.

Shara: That’s correct, yeah.

Chris: Which is hard for me to say.

Shara: I know it is kind of a mouthful isn’t it? Yes, they do… we went to I think it was at the fire temple and they showed some of the festival ceremony things that they still do so in the Spring they go out and light a big giant bonfire to sort of wake the Earth up, warm the Earth up to help it welcome Spring, that sort of thing. The Towers of Silence are where they leave their dead, out in the open. They don’t bury their dead, they just leave them in the air to decompose naturally and then when there’s nothing but bones left, then the family will take them away and bury them.

The Towers of Silence are just these big round towers and that’s where they will put the dead bodies, just on a platform in these towers to decompose. And they actually used those all the way until I believe it was the 1960’s, or 1960. So the guy who was the last, sort of, keeper of one of these towers sits outside the tower now and you can have your picture taken with him or whatever if you want. So that was still practiced very recently for their death ritual.

I just think that guy, what a weird job, his only job is to watch over a platform of decomposing bodies. I think Yazd is really the city to visit for the best idea of preservation of the Persian culture, the Persian religion, the Persian technologies, that sort of thing.

Chris: Excellent, almost dead center in the middle of the country, it looks like.

Shara: Yeah, probably.

Chris: And that was your second to last stop?

Shara: Yeah, then Isfahan was our last city. Yeah, and so it’s a toss-up between… well, I don’t know, if you could only go to one city I would almost say Isfahan just has so much to offer in terms of architecture and culture as well. They have an amazing bazaar and just Mosques and Isfahar was the capital of Iran for a while so there’s a beautiful palace there. It just has a lot to offer, so we spent four days in Isfahan and my god there’s like everybody in the country, it seems like.

So, we would meet, we kind of had a routine there in Isfahan. We’d go to the bazaar every day and we went to this particular coffee shop and got to know some of the people there and we’d hook up with his friend that we met in Kerman because they’re guides also. We had a picnic in the big square one night and it was fun just to hang out there for a few days.

Chris: And describe the Bazaar for me, if you will.

Shara: I would love to have the top cut off of it and have an aerial view of it because it’s so hard to even picture in your head, it’s so extensive. So it basically rings, it used to be called the King’s Square, and now it’s called the Imam Square, which is this huge square or second largest after Tiananmen ringed by Masques and the former palace. So the Bazaar basically skirts the outside, it’s almost like you could consider it the outer wall of the square to some degree and as in any Bazaar it has a lot of off side alleys and various things. That’s just of course where all the stores are and they saw all kinds of things and they have like a special kind of…

Chris: Can I make you get specific? What kinds of things, for instance, did you spend time looking at?

Shara: Well, I’m not so much a shopper so I didn’t buy very much, but some of the interesting things are of course are always like spices, or flowers, or I couldn’t figure out one of the things they would have these tables with jars and jars and jars of different colored liquid in them. That turns out that’s the perfumery.

Chris: Interesting.

Shara: You could sample smell the smells from these jars out on the table and then when you selected one they would pour some into a smaller vial and that’s what you would take home. But actually, the thing that was so amusing to us that we probably spent the most time looking at and taking photos of are the mannequins.

Chris: Okay… I didn’t see you going there. [laughter]

Shara: I can only presume that mannequins are one of the things that are hard for them to procure because of the sanctions. There’s a lot of very interesting things we learned that are difficult to acquire because of the sanctions and so I’m guessing mannequins is one of them because a lot of them would be missing chunks from their face or their arms or whatever and would have painted, like the men in particular, they would pain on or draw on their sideburns or mustaches or something. Then their hair would be this crazy colored almost like they were science fiction characters and the children would have this crazy creepy hair. They look like kids out of some horror movie or something and the women, like I said, all of them it was just so strange. They looked like they had been recycled and used as kid’s art projects and who knows what else.

And it was also strange to see in some of the places the women mannequins were dressed in their Chadors which is the full black covering from head to toe. That’s one of those things you look at and you just, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore when the mannequins are all wearing these black robes. Those would be just like a fabric shop basically, like a Chador shop you could go in and select the type of black fabric that you wanted your Chador made out of. So yeah we had such a hoot just looking at those mannequins.

Chris: Well, I think you brought up a couple of things we want to talk about there. One is you brought up women’s fashion.

Shara: Mm-hmm.

Chris: So, if you go to a lot of Islamic countries you get quite often people wearing the hijab, just the simple headscarf.

Shara: Mm-hmm.

Chris: What would I expect in Iran?

Shara: The two requirements for women are really the hijab and you must wear a long shirt that basically covers your butt and is long-sleeved and of course pants.

Chris: So you don’t have to wear a veil but some women choose to.

Shara: Actually, there’s no veil that covers your face so for them it could be that just your face peeks out maybe.

Chris: So even in the chador it’s not like a burqa for instance.

Shara: Correct, right.

Chris: Okay, got it. I had the wrong picture then.

Shara: So that just wraps around your head, basically, like a hood and your face is completely clear.

Chris: Got it. I was interested to note that when I was in Jordan apparently some women in some regions of Saudi Arabia, for instance, are always veiled and yet no matter where you are from if you go to Mecca and do the pilgrimage, you have to uncover your face as you walk around the city as you proceed around the city no matter where you’re from. And if you don’t, then you haven’t done it.

Shara: Oh.

Chris: It doesn’t count and you’re supposed to go, my guide told me who was a guide for a while in Mecca, you have to go home and start again.

Shara: Oh my gosh.

Chris: But even people are from more conservative countries, that’s just the way it’s done. Now you also mentioned the economic sanctions and then you got a chance to talk to some of the locals about the sanctions and what was their, what did it look like from their point of view?

Shara: To a lot of people that just looks, they don’t hardly know anything different. I mean, they’ve been in one type or degree of sanction or another for quite some time. In an odd way it almost contributes to a source of pride to them because it forces them to a certain degree of ingenuity, creativeness to make things themselves in their country because they can’t import them. Of course they have to sort of make choices like mannequins. We learned that like camping gear, when we were camping with the Nomads, our tents were pretty ratty and they couldn’t get sleeping pads and things like that.

But so many things they have just learned either a way around it or a way to make it themselves. I don’t think… the people we spoke to didn’t really seem super sullen about it or anything because as I say it’s just their life. I think if the sanctions are ever lifted it’s gonna be amazing, an amazing new life, and they’re dreaming of all the things they’ll be able to get and stuff, but they don’t seem too downtrodden because of it.

Chris: Okay, anything else to talk about in terms of itinerary before we get into some more general questions?

Shara: So I’ve spoken all about the cities and the Kaluts, but actually my personal favorite time was a couple of days, one night two days, that we spent with some nomads. So this guy just calls up to see if they’re in the area and then we went and camped with them and met them.

That was one of those very, very different cultural experiences and I really enjoyed that so of course it was a big rough and we kept being, like I said we didn’t have sleeping pads or anything we were just on the hard ground. I didn’t really sleep, but it was very worth it. So anyone who is interested in the really traditional cultures, I would definitely recommend adding that on to your itinerary.

Chris: Okay, anything surprising about that particular experience?

Shara: In a way almost everything because I didn’t, it’s not like I had done any research into what I might expect from it. I guess maybe my surprise was how authentic the experience was because when I saw that it was something offered by the tour agency that you could add on it said, “Camp with the Black Tent nomads” and I was kind of figuring it was going to be a really, or at least a somewhat contrived experience. And you’d stay in some kind of posh tent outfitted just for the tourists or something like that and it wasn’t that all.

It was just like I said, our guide just called up to find out if they were in their particular place. Pretty much nowadays they just go back and forth between two different camps. So he was calling to see which camp they were at. We drive up in our little jeep thing and it’s just a handful of families, we set up our NorthFace tents, we go hang out with them in their yard. It’s just me and my husband there’s no other tourists or anything. So we met them, they fixed dinner for us, we just hung out all night and told stories and drunk tea.

Oh, this was surprising there’s sort of this tea and we’re drinking it out of our little tea cups and the father, the patriarch, says you’re drinking your tea all wrong. We’re like, what’re you talking about?

They pour their tea out of their cut into their saucers. So their saucers are more like really shallow bowls so the host pours from the tea pot into your cup and you pour from the cup into your saucer.

Chris: And you leave the tea leaves in your cup or something?

Shara: Actually it’s kind of like we would do. By the time the tea comes out of the tea pot there’s no leaves, that’s all brewed in the pot.

Chris: Did you find out why they drink from the saucer?

Shara: Never did.

Chris: Just to fool around with tourists, or…?

Shara: No, no, it’s really true. That’s how those nomads they drink. Also, if you want sugar in your tea, you don’t put a cube in the tea, you hold the cube in your mouth between your teeth, at your front teeth, and then you sort of strain the tea over the sugar cube into your mouth and then you modulate how much sugar you want to suck off per drink of tea.

Chris: I think they were punking you. I just really…

Shara: No, I promise they’re not. We got back and we talked to somebody who had been stationed over during the Army in that region and mentioned drinking a lot of tea. And they said oh yeah, the sugar in between your teeth. It was like, did you do that? And then like, oh yeah.

Chris: That’s funny.

Shara: It makes a lot of sense, really, because so you can get different amounts of sugar on each drink full if you want to.

Chris: On the same line, what do you wish you had done before you had gone?

Shara: Well, I wish I had known before I started the trip how much time Visa approval took for Americans. That can be up to two months and so we barely, the tour agency that we went through somehow didn’t catch from me that we were Americans so he was in no hurry to get our approval number. When he finally realized it, we were in a rush. We barely got our visas in time.

I guess maybe I should have thought of this because I knew that Western toilets are sort of a luxury in a three or four star hotels so I would’ve thought public toilets are probably pit toilets. I’d kind of forgotten that those sorts of places don’t have toilet paper so that’s some advice.

Chris: Ah, so something to pack.

Shara: Yes.

Chris: Okay.

Shara: In particular, always make sure you have some toilet paper always with you. That’s a good little thing to remember. As is, Americans also we can’t stay in really budget accommodations because we’re with the tours and stuff. We had three star hotels that are the lowest grade thing you can stay in so the hotels are quite nice so we had pretty much every kind of amenity that we could want. So it was a very modern type of traveling. I wasn’t sure what to expect, how modern their hotels would be, yeah but they’re perfectly fine.

Chris: I can’t remember who it was, but one of my travel blogging brethren actually just had something in China where they have a similar sort of rule where the police came in and took him from his hotel room and escorted him to the Western hotel where he was supposed to stay because he was not supposed to be in the other place. That’s the first time I’ve heard of that happening. I knew that they had that rule. But apparently, at least in some places, they enforce it.

Shara: They enforce it, yeah. They used to have, I think they still do, their friendship hotels or whatever in China you have to stay.

Well, before I was aware that American had no option to travel independently I had been talking to couch surfers and I was thinking that we would do some couch surfing. Not only is it pretty not doable logistically because you’re with a group, you would actually get your host into trouble and then a lot of people might not even realize that if they hosted an American overnight it would not be a good thing for them to do. But I did end up meeting some people that I had contacted on Couch Surfing in public places.

Chris: For tea, or something like that.

Shara: They didn’t want to have us over to their home. But we could, yeah, we met for dinner and things like that in a public place. So just, if you are American, don’t think that, “Oh, I’m going to try and stay with somebody for the experience” because you’re actually endangering your host.

Chris: Right, though if you don’t have an American passport that is something you might think about. But right, for an American not an option.

Shara: Right, yeah, that’s particular to Americans. The Couch-Surfing community otherwise in Iran is huge. There’s tons of hosts over there and it’s a very popular thing to do so if you’re not American yeah, go for it. There’s tons of people you can stay with.

Chris: Well, and I won’t get into the details here, but if you want to see some wonderful stories of hospitality-some of the most memorable stories ever on the Amateur Traveler-go listen to that other episode about Friedel and Andrew who biked through Iran. So they had ran into just quite a lot of out of the way hospitality. So here’s a question for you. You’re standing in the most beautiful spot of all the places you went to in Iran. Where are you standing and what’re you looking at?

Shara: Probably that small Mosque in Shiraz. Okay, so I would be standing in the door frame where you go into the interior of the Mosque so that I’m half looking into the outer courtyard and half looking into the inner area because they were both so pretty. The interior space was filled with these stain-glassed windows and very elaborate ceilings.

Chris: And when you say stain-glassed windows not with scenes like we would have in a Cathedral for instance, but just geometric shapes and light.

Shara: Exactly, they’re all about the color and the shape and yeah, there are no portrayals of animated figures and people or animals.

Chris: Right.

Shara: And the carpets, of course, are made by various members of the congregation and donated to the Mosque and some of those are just absolutely gorgeous. There’s something just really sweet about that particular Mosque and the outside was kind of an unusual use of pink in a Mosque. Pink isn’t a particular popular color in choosing a Mosque. Usually that’s the blues and the yellows and maybe a little bit of red or green, but really pink and gold and just beautiful outdoors. So, I think my favorite photos came from that place.

Chris: A lot of the questions that we ask when someone goes a little bit off the tourist path, when did you feel closest to home and when did you feel furthest from home, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Shara: Feeling closest to home, I think it’s the same answer that I gave about Uganda, but it was just when we were sitting around talking with people, especially the time we spent with our guide in his home town because we just happened to just get along so fabulously with him. He really took us into his confidence and his life and so like I said we were playing laser tag. This new laser tag place was going in and we were hanging out with his friends the night before at their house.

He invited us over, they had a small party basically for us, and they were all excited they wanted to check out this new laser tag place and our guide was in town just for these two nights and they asked if we’d come with them and so we did and it was silly. But that was really fun because we did feel like we could have been anywhere except that I’m running around laser tag just sweating and panting and I’ve got a stupid scarf on my head.

Chris: Right, well actually we didn’t mention that, but that is something that you need to observe too when you’re in Iran.

Shara: Oh yes, but once you get into a private home…

Chris: You can take it off, right?

Shara: If they invite you to and the younger generation is always going to invite you to. So I just thought, because I was always so hot in the darn thing anyway, and then I asked our guide, I’m like, “Do I have to wear this while we’re playing laser tag?” And he was like, “Well, it’ll be dark in there you can do whatever you want.” But the other women who were playing with us they had it on so I kept mine on. But I just thought, can’t you make an exception for something like this. But I survived, I survived.

Chris: Furthest from home.

Shara: I think that probably at which I mentioned seeing the mannequins of the women in their chadors. There was one place that we went in particular that was like an outdoor, it wasn’t a full on bazaar, but it was an outdoor shopping place and so their mannequins were all chained to these posts. So just the sight of these fake women in their black chadors chained to the post just seemed a little symbolic. Then real women walking past them with their chadors blowing in the breeze, fanned out on either side of them and that’s just a scene yes, very, very far from Kansas.

Chris: Before the last few questions, one thing you should taste to say that you’ve been in Iran.

Shara: Oh gosh. Well, of course they’re very big into their kabobs, their eggplants, their fresh herbs. Well, okay, two things that I would say are very particular to there. If you really want to be like a local, be sure to order a whole raw onion with your meal. Then you just eat it like an apple.

Chris: Whoa, okay.

Shara: I couldn’t really believe my eyes at first, either. The first time I saw it I thought that was just one weird person and then everyone, everywhere was doing it. So that’s very popular there. The other is they have this saffron-flavored sugar and they grow it like the sugar crystals you would buy as a kid on the candy sticks and so it’s yellow colored and you just buy the sugar on these sticks and you stick it in your tea and let it dissolve in your tea. That was one thing that we bought a ton because it was so cheap and it’s so pretty and it’s so different. So I actually got a lot of that to take home.

Chris: Excellent, anything else we should know before we go to our ad?

Shara: Probably just that you’re going to have an awesome time. I think I was really surprised and potentially even a little bit disappointed that everybody with extremely few exceptions who found out that we were going there was just full of apprehension on our behalf and very are we gonna be safe, are people going to be friendly, why are you going there? Because I’ve read a lot of other travelers who’ve been there I had absolutely no worries whatsoever. So I’d just tell to anyone else who is thinking of going that they might have some trepidation or fear of how they might be treated or something. Just know that those are completely unfounded, you have absolutely nothing to worry about.

Chris: Well, in a good resource if you’re going to Iran. Now actually, Rick Steves who is normally focused on Europe has done a video series about his trip to Iran and he had a similar experience and similar recommendation. I would recommend that to those who are listening. Last three questions, something that makes you laugh and say, “Only in Iran.”

Shara: The first part of your sentence, there’s something immediately leapt to my mind, something that makes me laugh. I don’t know if it would be only in Iran, but a very funny moment is that we visited this village, I can’t remember the local name of it, but it’s known as the red village between Isfahan and Tehran. It’s a very, very old traditional village and very few people actually live there. Now mostly they just keep it up for tourists, there’s one hotel there with restaurants and they call it the red village, of course, because the facing of all their buildings is this red mud plaster.

Chris: I’m going to say you’re talking about Abyaneh?

Shara: Yes, that’s it good job. So we’re driving out of there, we spent the afternoon and we’re driving out and we’re starting to drive past a man who is riding a white donkey and he just looks picturesque. So my husband rolls down his window, he’s gonna take sort of a photograph of him probably in the car, you know the back of him, but our guide drove past him too quickly so by the time my husband got the camera out we were right beside this guy and his donkey.

You never know how people are going to react to the fact that you’re taking a picture of them and this guy totally got this devilish look in his eye and he hunches over and he starts spurring his donkey on to race us. So we’re like racing this guy on his donkey in our car, and it was really funny. That guy just had a really fun spirit and we were just laughing really hard.

Another time we were driving down the highway and this was one of the few times where I could take my hijab off. Our guide said when you’re on the freeway don’t worry about it, you can take it off. So of course, immediately, as soon as we got out of the city I went to take it off. So we’re driving down the highway and I was sitting in the backseat and this car with three guys passes us and then kind of slows down and they had realized that there was a Western woman without a headscarf on in the back.
So they got their camera out and they took a picture of me. We were just laughing so hard and our guide said, “You know what, we should pass them and take a picture of them,” so we did. He rolled down his window and my husband got his camera out, we’re taking a picture of them, they’re hanging out the window and making peace signs and everybody’s just laughing hilariously. Yeah, only in Iran is someone going to take a picture of you on the highway because you’re in the backseat without a headscarf on.

Chris: Last two questions. Finish this sentence, you really know you’re in Iran when… what?

Shara: For me when I have all that gear on. [laughs]

Chris: [laughs]

Shara: If you’re surrounded by mirrors and you feel like you’re in a disco ball and you’re sitting around drinking tea with saffron sugar, I think those are all signs.

Chris: If you had to summarize Iran in just three words, which three words would you use?

Shara: History, architecture, and cultural pride. The Iranians are very proud of their Persian ancestry and their culture. They get very upset if you think that they’re Arab. If you call them Arab, or say that they speak Arabic or something like that they are deeply offended. You need to know that they’re Arabic, that they speak Farsi. They’re immensely proud of their culture that it’s been around for so long, continuously, and even though the country was conquered by the Arabs, they have maintained their cultural identity very fiercely the whole time. So they’re very proud of that, which I think is really neat.

Chris: Excellent, Shara where can people read more about your travels?

Shara: You can go to my travel blog which is where I’ve blogged pretty extensively about our trip. I have one more left to do, yeah, so you can see lots of photographs in all of my blog posts and stuff like that.

Chris: Excellent, Shara Johnson has been our guest. Thanks again for coming on the Amateur Traveler and sharing with us your love for Iran.

Shara: Thank you for having me, I appreciate the opportunity to share it with a wider audience.


Chris: I had an unusual question from Leo this week, who said “I’ve been listening to your podcast for many years and I’ve found it helpful for my own travels to places I’ve already been and has inspired me to visit new destinations, so thanks to you and your guests. I was wondering if you would be kind enough to provide me with a list of typical questions you ask your guests. The best part of the trip, most unusual, the big the travel guides didn’t mention, how you would describe, etc. etc. I would like to send them to a friend who has just left Perth for a holiday in the U.K. and parts of Europe and want him to keep your questions in mind while he is traveling so he gets the most out of his trip. I hope you’re able to oblige, I’d be very grateful.

And I’ll certainly send them off to you, in fact I’ll put them in the show notes of this episode when I sent them to you. I found it interesting to think about those questions not as a way to prepare yourself for being on the show, which a lot of people who have been on the show, who knew they were going to be or were going to pitch, do. But just as a way to get the most out of your travel, and that struck me as an unusual approach and I liked it. So Lou, thanks for the question, and again I’ll put a list of what I sent to Leo in the show notes of this episode at

I’ve mentioned recently that all of the shows for Amateur Traveler are now getting transcribed, affectionately getting transcribed thanks to that is sponsoring that. And as the transcription went up for the episode we did on travel to Western Sahara, parenthesis Morocco, episode 421. I received a tweet from someone who wanted to tell me that Western Sahara is not in Morocco, it’s illegally occupied and it needs its freedom. I don’t disagree with that at all, I don’t necessarily agree with that. I don’t have a particular opinion on that, I think that is something that the people of the Western Sahara should have the right to decide for themselves.

But it’s always interesting when we do an episode on even Taiwan, remember that if you are Chinese, mainland Chinese, you believe that Taiwan is a breakaway province. If you’re in Taiwan you believe that it is a country. There are a number of places that we have talked about on this show where there is a difference of opinion. When we do an episode of the Palestinian Authority we’re again in one of those grey areas where to some people it’s one thing and to some people it’s something else.

It may seem cowardly of me to not take a stand on Western Sahara, but again that’s not what we’re trying to do here. What we’re trying to do here is encouraging you to travel to a destination and to travel in such a way that it will be a benefit both to you and the people of that destination. We tend to encourage travel that is closer to the locale and we certainly would encourage you to travel in such a way that some of the money that you spend stays in that country.

So I would encourage you to go to Western Sahara, but I honestly don’t have an opinion because I can’t have an informed opinion what that is. Is that part of Morocco or is that a separate country? And just because it should be a separate country, even if we go that far, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. We try and address what is on this show, so you know for instance who to get your Visa from and we try to bring up the issues of what it should be.

Certainly when we talk about the Navajo nation in the United States, it is part of the United States. Whether it should be part of the United States and how the United States have treated the Native Americans of this country is not something that I think Americans should brag about. I think there has been a lot of injustice, but that doesn’t mean that it will keep me from describing what is in the situation right now and what you will find.

I hope that makes some sense in terms of how we will deal with these things as we go forward. We will try to bring up to you things that are controversial and let you know that they are controversial, but then we will talk about it as best as we can the situation you will find on the ground.

Since we were just talking about a Muslim country if you wanted to go visit one but you’re not quite ready for Iran, might I suggest the Amateur Traveler trip to Morocco in April of 2015. And you’ll find more information about that at the website look for the book travel link.


Chris:  With that we’re going to end this episode of the Amateur Traveler.

If you have any questions feel free to send an e-mail to host at or leave a comment on this episode at or leave a comment on this episode at you’ll find an exact link for that in the logs for this episode as well as links to everything else we’ve talked about. You can also follow us on Twitter @Chris2x and as always, thanks so much for listening.

Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.

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Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine.

5 Responses to “Travel to Iran – Episode 435”

Jeff Perkins


Hi Chris,

The drinking of tea from saucers isn’t uncommon. It typically occurs in cultures where the tea is served very, very hot; the drinkers pour some into their saucer, which has a wider surface area and is shallower and therefore it cools down quicker.

There is also a habit presumably derived from Britain, for some people to pour some of their milky tea into the saucer where it its easier to dunk their biscuit (cookie) or cake into the tea to make it pleasantly warm and soggy (avoiding dunking in the cup due to the high probability of some disintegrating and adding odd lumps to the remaining tea.)



Yes, you may find some people drinking from saucer, of course, more among working class people and out in the countryside. However, a mixer of milk and tea is something I’ve never seen anyone drinking or appreciating in Iran.



thanks for the clarification



What about the trip to Iran right now? Is there a suitable time to travel there?

Cynthia Talmadge


Hi I am wondering if Shara can provide the info for the guide she and her husband worked with.

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