As your flight descends into the dark heart of the Evil Axis, rumours of 50c heat, a presumed threat of kidnap and the danger of a terrorist free-for-all weigh heavily upon the mind. However, Iran’s terrifying reputation and wildly inaccurate stereotypes mask what must be one of the friendliest and safest hidden gems in all of Asia. From magnificent mosques to bustling bazaars, the Islamic Republic is home to a sophisticated culture and rich history, all showcased with a famously heartfelt level of hospitality. And as for the intense desert heat – long-suffering Hong Kongers may actually find the lack of humidity strangely tolerable.
The lightly beaten tourist trail begins in the ‘City of Love’, Shiraz. No longer a wine producer, this small city is centred around the elaborate Vakil Bazaar. The colourful marketplace comes to life at night and shoppers exploring the endless maze will find locals offering to pay for things (or even dinner!) as shopkeepers chase them down dark alleys merely to return their change.
In my ongoing effort to find new and inventive ways to worry the crap out of my poor mother, I finally boarded a flight to Shiraz in Southern Iran on the Arabian take on Easyjet. After numerous payments to an extortionist sponsor in Tehran, an endless Sisyphusian battle with Iranian bureaucracy and a sizeable donation to furry-faced Armadinajad, I’d managed to secure a visa for a two week stint in the dark beating heart of the Evil Axis.
There’s no poetic way of putting it – after just 5 minutes of sitting on the runway, we’d barely gotten through the pre-flight prayer and it was brown trousers time. Minutes from takeoff, a fellow at the back of the plane suddenly started hollering something about God with half a dozen others. Embarrassingly, it was enough to induce a mini-panic attack – my heart raced and the colour must have visibly drained from my face since my fellow passengers (in a four-row radius) began cracking up. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for folks to get some jazz-chanting going when they’re keyed up – especially on flights or at a concert or celebration. Shouting on a plane is alarming anywhere – but especially when done in a Middle Eastern language en route to Iran. I eventually laughed along, but damn Iran – you scary!