Are Iranians as friendly as travellers describe?

The Grandeur of Persepolis intrigued me, and eating Biryani in its birthplace attracted Ashrith. Every blog and documentary I watched had one thing in common -Iranians are the kindest people they have ever met. Though there is a strict code of conduct for women, solo woman backpackers loved Iran. After reading dozens of blogs, we weren’t ready to believe what was written everywhere. We thought about how they could be different from other parts of the world. So with an open yet cautious mind, we landed in Iran without much expectation.

Here are our short stories about why we join the other travellers to say, ” Iranians are the friendliest in the world.”

Some may be too simple for you, but for two browns travelling often facing racism and being ignored by local hosts, these things mean a lot.

Tehran heritage hostel & Karaoke night.

Scribbles and doodles depicting various country flags and a beard man sketch on black wall of Tehran Heritage hostel in Iran

We were told that Iranians don’t listen to music in public and hence no clubs. After ending our day, we returned to our room in the Tehran heritage hostel on a chilly night. What surprised us was the staff had geared up for a Karaoke night. The young receptionist lady sang Adele’s “Someone Like you” beautifully. After dozens of Shisha puffs, I tried to sing “Rolling in the deep”, and the entire crowd burst into laughter – I am, after all – a bathroom singer. The hippiest vibe I have ever felt is in Tehran heritage hostel – Beat that. So this was our first incident that was opposite of what the media has shown us and began to realize that Iranians are friendly.

An old man driver and Lavashk at Darband.

Indian traveller walking with and old friendly Iranian man at Darband market in the night

I and our kind Iranian Taxi driver walked and talked without understanding each other’s language at Darband

On that rainy evening, we had to take a taxi to Darband. Khuyar from Tehran Heritage hostel called someone he knew for a cab. An old man with his yellow Saipa car came to pick us up. Neither he knew English, nor did we know Persian. All the time, he was smiling, trying to make little conversations.

It was snowing heavily, and we were bargaining for Lavashk at night. The old man came up from the parking lot to help us negotiate further. We hadn’t called him to help us, but he saw us struggling from far and came out to help us even when it was snowing badly. We didn’t know how to thank him, so we tried to tip him for extra money after returning to Tehran. He refused to take it and said, ” Happy Happy something something” in Persian, hugged Ashrith and left with the same smile he had while he came to pick us up.

Sharing earphones with a shopkeeper to listen to Mohsen Yeganeh at Darband.

The rain and Snow of Darband made it difficult to walk on the street. To grab some heat, we stood under the roof of the fruit shop. The shopkeeper asked the usual questions – Where are we from? Why Iran in Persian-ish English. We replied in English-ish Persian. Suddenly the shopkeeper pulled out earphones and said, “Persian Music?”, gave one wire to Ashrith and played a Mohsen Yeganeh song. That 10 minutes wait was never boring with a stranger singing and grooving in a language that sounds most melodious. Finally, the rain stopped, the song stopped – we shook hands with him. He gave us a few salted boiled nuts and said goodbye! That song “Behet Ghol Midam” remains our favourite forever.

Are you lost? Let me drop you wherever you want in Tehran.

That beige building with coloured glazed tile is the palace’s backside and we didn’t know it!

While walking to Golestan palace, we missed the route and ended up where the data network was feeble. We were Puzzled, and stood on the sidewalk, wondering which direction to go. A man wearing a nice white jacket was walking swiftly (to his office maybe), suddenly stopped after seeing two confused souls in the middle of Tehran’s chaotic traffic. He asked in English, ” Hi, are you lost? Do you need help? I can accompany you to your destination.” Once we said Golestan palace, he walked with us for 500m until we could see the back entrance of the palace. He was even ready to walk further so we wouldn’t get lost again. All we could do was stand there wondering how an unknown Iranian genial man walked us to the destination in an unfamiliar land without expecting anything in return.

Let me take you to my favourite restaurant in Tehran.

After 3 hours of nonstop walking in the most colourful Golestan palace, we were craving delicious food. While returning our audio guide, the attendee and gatekeeper began talking. Who can suggest a good restaurant better than a local, right? So when asked, they told Moslem restaurant. They talked to each other about something in Persian, and the gatekeeper said he would take us to the restaurant! Though we insisted on him not accompany us as we were disturbing them during their official work hours, he walked us to Moslem restaurant, 200m away. He asked Ashrith to take Bhaigani Polo and left with a broad smile, waving hands.

Chai from Afghan refugee in Tehran

The small park on Dawar street is where we met an Afghan Chia seller

After Ashrith hogged on Bhaigani Polo in Moslem restaurant, he was almost immoveable with stomachful. Deciding to people watch, we sat on a bench at Davar street. An old lady was begging, and an older couple checked their shopping bags to see if they had bought everything they needed. Middle-aged men were busy walking to their work. Some like us were sitting and chatting. A man came with a flask and packet of paper cups selling Chai.

Our physical appearance and curious face made it evident that we were tourists.

The conversation began after buying Chai from him when he asked why we were in Iran. He was an educated (studied till 10th grade) Afghan refugee who fled to Iran to escape the Taliban terror. He never wishes to return to Afghanistan and wants to make his permanent home in Iran. Most of his family members are dead because of the bombing there.

He refused to take money from us as he knew India and Afghanistan shared a friendly relationship. We would have been totally wrongful not to pay for Chai from a man struggling to build his life – Terrible problems & Beautiful hearts.

Labyrinths of Tehran bazar accompanied by a stranger.

After buying jackets in Grand Bazaar, we wanted to get to the Stationary selling part of the bazaar. Understanding two tourists’ difficulties, the Jacket shopkeeper’s assistant took us to the exact stationary alley after we showed the Video of this Pencil shop. He waited until we finished talking to the “Pencil shop man” Mohammad Rafie to drop us back at the Panzdah Khorad street so we could catch the shuttle vehicle to go out.

First-ever hitchhiking -A helluva triple bike ride in Tehran.

The grand bazar captivated and made us forget the world. Unfortunately, that plan of watching a sunset behind the Azadi tower was about to crash, as we were not getting any public transport. Standing on Panzdah Khordad street, we waited for the electric bus to arrive (That is the only public transport to get out of that road). The motorbikes were vrooming as usual & we two were walking left-right desperately searching for a bus.

One of the vrooming motorbikes that passed us returned in reverse and asked.

Him-“Where are you going”.
Us -We want to be at Azadi square in 20 minutes “
HIM – “It is 8km from here. There is too much traffic on the way. You can’t make it there before sunset. Sit behind me; I will drop you there in 20 minutes.”
Us – ” Thank you, but we both have to come, so bike may not be possible. Plus, we don’t have helmets.”
Him – “ No problem, let us go on a triple ride. It is Iran, no need for a helmet. Make it quick; let us leave.
Us – “That is good; what if police catch us, and how much shall we pay.”
Him – “I assure you, no police will catch you. I am on my way home after work. You are our guest; I don’t want any money from you. I want you to enjoy Iran.”

The Tehran Bike ride Began

We both sat without a helmet, and he drove through the dense, chaotic traffic at the maximum speed possible. At the same time, I managed to hold on to my Hijab & shopping for things. Within 20 minutes, he dropped us at the exact square while the sun was setting behind the waffles of Azadi tower. He left vrooming before even we thanked him after a Saipa yellow car honked.

A gift of a delicious breakfast in Kashan.

Stained glass windows creating patterns on the floor of a luxury hotel

The pinch of luxury to our budget trip was Saraye Ameriha hotel. As part of our one-night stay, a one-time breakfast was complimentary. Since we arrived in Kashan early in the morning, we had breakfast on two consecutive days- One of the most elaborate, delicious and authentic rich Persian breakfasts. The manager forgot to bill us for the extra breakfast while we were leaving the next day. When we reminded him, he was surprised to know two tourists reminding him to charge for something. Surprised/ shocked, he refused to take money from us because he was overwhelmed with our honesty (apparently).

After 10 minutes of argument, we came to a “Neither your’s nor mine” decision, and he asked us to pay only for one breakfast instead of two.

Outfit admirer – A Persian lady driver and my gown.

Beautiful Indian woman wearing cyan flowing gown and a hijab sitting beside a highly decorated stucco wall in Kashan

At Kashan

The long Cyan floral gown I wore was a perfect backdrop to the Turquoise glazed tiles of Bathhouse and Agha Bozorg Mosque. Iranian women were mostly seen with denim and solid tops. So roaming around in long floral gowns was unusual there. It was definitely not out of place, but many Iranian women on the street smiled and made signs saying, “Your outfit is beautiful.” 

After exiting Kashan Bazar on that freezing evening, we were shiveringly walking back to the hotel. A lady driving stopped beside us, got off the car, and asked us where we were from. The conversation continued with exchanging our thoughts on each other’s nations. Lastly, she asked, ” Do you want me to drop you somewhere? Where are you heading to? I was also there at Mozzafari restaurant when you both came for lunch. I stopped to tell you that I loved your outfit, and I wanted to drop you at your destination.”  That drop was badly needed – The temperature was dropping down every second. Though the journey of 2km ended in two minutes, we talked nonstop for two minutes, and she was the one who spoke to us about Rumi and the roses of Isfahan.

A walk with a policeman in Kashan

Old and friendly Iranian police walking in the alleys of Kashan

Our Persian knowledge was poor. To top it off, our accent/pronunciation is way different from actual Persian pronunciation. Agha Bazorg mosque looks simple to pronounce. When we asked for directions to Abbasi house, locals wondered and said there is no such place in all of Kashan. We were carried away in the historic homes, forgetting the time, and we were late for sunset at the mosque. Finally, an old man came smiling and asked. We showed an internet image to convey the problem.

Then all the locals who said there is no such place sighed in relief, smiling. That man walked with us to the mosque because he didn’t want us to get lost. Walking in the side streets, he looked at us, smiling in appreciation and talking about how small Kashan is. Once he dropped us, he showed his pistol and said, “I am Police. I show guns, and tourists fear.

No fear. Iran is nice, and Iran’s Police are nice. I will help you. Friends”

A hipped cafe of a handsome man in Kashan.

A cafe with brick wall and modern decor run by a friendly Iranian men

After the lady drove us to the hotel, we wanted to spend more time outdoors, but the weather wasn’t favourable. A cafe’s glass facade with its rustic interiors called us. The vibe inside was in total contrast to Kashan’s historic Persian vibe. The cafe looked more like a place in Amsterdam than Iran. There was neither Saman Jalili nor Hossein Alizadeh music. Instead, it was “When you say nothing at all” by Ronan Keating. A hot cup of refreshing cappuccino and apple pie was obviously more European than Persian. While buying the second cup of coffee, the conversation cracked between the handsome owner and us.

After the regular wheres and hows, he asked, “What do you think of Iran and why are you in Iran travelling.” 

We started with how I wasn’t happy about Hijab, how excited I was for Persepolis and Ashrith’s fantasy Biryani in Isfahan to smoking donkey dung at Yazd. He explained how reality in Iran is different from what the media shows. From him, we clearly understood how different Iran’s government is from its people(most). Politics, smoking, Rose fragrance, “Fairytale” movie – After all these topics, he invited us to his home for dinner. We had to reject his warming invite as we had already booked a table at Hall of Mirrors Restaurant. Though we had been experiencing the warmth of Iranians, our guards were strongly up. It was the first time ever a stranger invited us for dinner in a foreign country. We carried two pieces of freshly baked apple pies he gifted instead.

Saman Jalili and the taxi driver grooving.

Tehran heritage hostel Karaoke night was fun. But we weren’t sure if taxis were allowed to play music. Because the previous day taxi driver kept quiet throughout. On our way to Abyaneh, the landscape was unique. The rolling red mountains with depressions and undulations had a backdrop of snow mountains from far. On straight clean roads amidst an amusing landscape, a journey was enchanting and exciting when our taxi driver played grooving upbeat Persian music.

He asked us if we wanted to give him our playlist – We were in Persia, and we listened to only Persian music, we said. Out of all the songs, his favourite was “Ghalbe Toh” by Saman Jalili, and it became our favourite too. We must have asked him to play 5 or 6 times. All the time, all three of us were either moving our hands in the air or shaking our heads to the rhythm joyfully. We were told that Iranians aren’t allowed to listen to anything other than Islamic prayers!

Minakari Man’s infectious smile at Isfahan.

A friendly Iranian man at his shop selling highly decorated blue Minakari artefacts

Isfahan bazar is a delight for shopaholics and a pleasure for those who love people-watching. There is so much happening inside you can’t decide what you want to do. One shop near the Keysari gate caught our attention. The owner welcomed us smilingly to his shop full of blue turquoise Minakari items and other artefacts. Like any other clever seller, he talked to us nicely – you may say. But he went beyond that and explained every theoretical part of Minakari art. At the end of the conversation, he gave his personal number and asked us to give him a call the next day to take us to the workshop and his home for lunch. Sitting with a cup of saffron chai he got us from a nearby cafe, we were all set to spend our next day with him seeing Isfahan. What happened on the next day? – Read this.

The girl who loves Hrithik Roshan & us in Isfahan

A group of friendly Iranians inside a beautiful cafe at Isfahan

The Pars Hotel in Isfahan is in a peculiar locality. The neighbourhood is the local’s pick for evening gettogether. Hence it is full of shops and eateries around a green patch. The hotel manager seemed to be “not-so-friendly”, unlike other Persians. Once she heard we were from India, she said, “ Oh, I love Hrithik Roshan. Recently I watched the movie WAR. I love him. I want to see him once in real life. She talked about other Bollywood movies, her famous fast food joint – Chikawich, Azadgaane tea shop and Ostrich meat. Religiously we followed her words and went to the same places she mentioned.

The next day when all the drama of leaving Iran happened within fractions of a second, we were numb. She is the one who helped us to get in touch with local Qatar airways staff to get the tickets. Later she went on arranging a taxi to Shiraz immediately. She walked with Ashrith to ATM to help him transfer money to the driver’s account. She was the one who solved that day’s “Evacuate immediately” situation.

Aeroplane crash and taxi to Shiraz

Indian travellers with a Friendly Iranian driver

The unplanned preponed departure was the most painful part of our Iran trip. That last-minute taxi journey to Shiraz from Isfahan was the most mentally grievous of all the journeys we have ever made. With our Iran travel dreams cut short, we sat in the car for hours without eating and not talking. The driver observed me in tears at one point in time. He stopped the car, typed something on his translator and showed it. He wanted to know if we were ok and why I was in tears. The translator’s conversation continued, and we told him all the stories and facts.

The driver said not to worry, and he would drop us at Shiraz safely.

He stopped now and then, buying us fruits/canned juices and some dry fruits to keep us from hunger. Reading our sad minds, he even asked us to connect our phones to his music system. He played mostly their songs when we told him we liked Saman Jalili and Mohsen Yeganeh. He tried his best to cheer us up by stopping at beautiful spots for pictures. The sudden departure was so heavy that nothing could suffice the sorrow.

At Shiraz airport, we tipped him extra and refused to take money for the fruits he bought for us! Again a translator conversation continued, and he wrote, “ Go home safe now, come back to Isfahan again when the time is right. I will take you around Iran then.”

Airport chronicles at Shiraz.

The sorrowful ending made us miserable. Still, the shopping spirit continued in Shiraz’s tiny airport. While buying a shawl for a friend, I struggled to converse with the seller. Without a good network, the translator wasn’t of much use. After observing my struggle, an old lady in Burqa got up from her seat and came to me and said something in Persian.

Obviously, I had no clue of what she was saying. She signed and said, wait. After a minute, she returned with her son, who spoke English. Trust me, I did shopping in Shiraz Airport’s three shops for 20 minutes with these two folks! The old lady helped me choose the best items while the man bargained on my behalf.

When it was their time to leave for Tabriz, I introduced Ashrith.

The lady hugged me and kissed me on the forehead. She pointed at my tummy laughingly and asked me to have a kid sooner. Then, she held my hand, said bye-bye, kissed my palm, and I kissed her back – It felt as if I knew her as my close aunt or something.

Iranians are friendly- the kindest, and sweetest as their Shirin.

These are the stories of less than a week. If we had stayed there longer, I am sure we would have had more warming stories to talk about. Iranian hospitality is so great that you may find yourself in a position where you can’t believe it. We were often shocked when strangers helped us and forgot to ask their name – Name, no name, Love is in Iran’s air. This is one country where we both felt most welcomed and warmed by people.

Like Rumi says – “Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

Are Iranians friendly? Let us know in the comment section below

Published by Sahana Kulur

Traveller | Blogger | Architecture and history

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