"Grand World Heritage Tour of Iran"
Coincidentally and without any prearrangement, 4 of the contributors to this web site (at least) seem to have visited Iran this April/May (Els, Parsons, Barabanov and myself). Indeed, Els and I only "missed" each other on our respective departures from Tehran airport because her flight details had been changed! I suspect this is the way things are going with regard to tourism in Iran, assuming that relationships with the rest of the World continue to improve following agreements regarding its nuclear program. Citizens of UK/US and Canada still face additional visa problems but the list of countries for whom VOA is available seems to be growing. At the most famous and popular locations (particularly Isfahan. Persepolis and Shiraz) the number of tourists was already approaching "uncomfortable" proportions - if anyone is thinking of going it might be better to do so sooner rather than later!
It might therefore be of interest to potential future "WH travellers" to Iran to have access to our actual route. In 24 full days in Iran we took in 18 of the 19 inscribed sites, together with 19 of its T List entries, including those which are active for nomination over the next couple of years. We also took in multiple locations from some of the sites (E.g Persian Gardens).
Our chosen travel approach was to hire a car with driver for the duration, on a circular route from Tehran, prearranged from UK via the Web. With costs spread across 2 PAX this, in my view, provides the best way of maximising use of time and number of sites visited. In our case the driver also had to act as a "guide" since UK citizens are currently not allowed to travel in Iran without being accompanied by a guide at ALL times. In reality ours was pretty flexible and we had many hours wandering around without him. He did however say that, in the case of US citizens, he would have had to stay at the same hotel as them (not the case with us) and accompany them at all times. For other nationalities, and if these rules are relaxed for UK etc citizens, a mixture of bus travel (including overnight journeys to eat up some of the miles and also save on hotels) plus local taxi hire will come out cheaper (though whether it would be as "efficient" on time and as beneficial in terms of "depth" is another matter!!) and anyone wanting to adopt that strategy might still find some aspects of our route of use.
All of Iran's current inscribed sites except 2 can be taken in on a reasonably "natural" circular route. The 2 exceptions are
a. Shahr-i Soktar. Out by the Afghan border in country generally regarded as "dangerous"
b. Gonbad-e Qaboos – N East of Tehran near the Caspian and not a lot else in the way of nearby "tourist sites" unless one wants to continue to Mashad.
We decided to add 2 days to take in Gonbad by driving out and back from Tehran, whilst all of the T List sites we took in fitted within this existing route without significantly adding to the overall distance. This turned out to be 8450kms!! See this link for a spreadsheet of our daily route, the approximate sector mileage and the WHS and T List sites seen on each day – http://www.worldheritagesite.org/sites/Iranroute.xls
I have highlighted the longest/hardest days as follows -
a. Day 3. The (very fine) trip up to Alamout is very slow across several mountain ranges –you are unlikely to get back to Qazvin before mid afternoon (we arrived at 4pm) and will have to make full use of the motorway to get to Soltaniye before it closes (just under 2 hrs from Qazvin)!
b. Day 7. Taking in 2 of the Armenian sites in a day and returning to Tabriz is a tough ask and took us 11hrs 30 mins. Most day trips from Tabriz take in one or other. I will try to address the pros and cons of each site in a review
c. Day 10. The journey from Kermanshah to the Susa area has been much improved with a new toll road from Khorramabad to nr Dezful (not on all maps) and you should be able to get to Susa for lunch time. Though this does mean the loss of a T List site on the old road at Pol-e Doktar! The problem then is to fit in 3 WHS (Susa, Chogha and Shushtar) along minor roads. But there were tour groups doing them together also – however this was all a bit tight and might justify extra time if you have it.
d. Day 11. Shushtar to Shiraz took us 12 hours with an 8.30pm arrival at Shiraz. This didn't matter as we had full days at Shiraz to come. We "finished off" the non "pay to enter" aspects of Shushtar before leaving and there was only one of the "Sassanian cities" at Bishapur to see on the way (could be missed I guess)
e. Day 22. Isfahan – Teheran. A lot to see on this day particularly at Kashan which probably deserved a bit longer. Then there is Qom and finally there is the traffic into Teheran. I wanted to change this route to avoid Teheran via a newly opened highway from Qom to Garmsar but for various reasons this wasn't done. I would still recommend NOT returning to Teheran unless absolutely necessary.
There is very little which, having been there, I might now miss out. Possibly the top of that list would be the Troglodyte village of Kandovan nr Tabriz. Very touristy, not a WHS nor on the T List. Of the sites I perhaps regret missing out (apart of course from Shahr-i Soktar!) – Firuzabad nr Shiraz.
With visits to this many Iranian WHS and T List sites you are going to be taking in a lot of "History" – from c3000BC Proto-Elamite through to 19C Qajar. Every one will do their preparation in their own way but some pre-study to sort out the Abbasids from the Sassanids and the Achaemanids etc is well worth while! I share my 1 page "crib sheet" spreadsheet - someone may find it of use as a "starter"! - http://www.worldheritagesite.org/sites/IranHistoryandWHS.xls
The main concern about a route of c 8500 kms in 24 days is the amount of time which will need to be spent "on the road". Iran does not start "early". Sites usually open at 9 am and continue to 7pm or later. Our driver (and probably yours!) stayed up until after midnight with dinner not starting before 9pm, Hotels won't start breakfast before 7.30 am (more often 8am) and we rarely got away before 9 am. We don't normally have lunch stops but it is an "Iranian" thing to have long ones across the heat of the day (particularly picnics under every available tree!)- so our driver was, I am afraid, "deprived" as we usually "travelled through" with nothing but a quick tea stop!. With several 10 - 12 hour days, that meant arrivals around 7-9pm – with darkness coming at around 8pm. Main roads outside towns are pretty good and the "cross-desert" and motorway sectors in particular will be covered at 100-120kms p hr. But towns or roads passing through villages are going to slow you down considerably with hidden speed humps as per Mexico! The police are also very active on highways with cameras or simply stopping cars in the hope of finding something.
It is perhaps worth mentioning that the fuel element of such a trip will be, to most people, amazingly cheap! Our car took dual CNG/Petrol but the driver managed to use almost entirely the former (even though this sometimes meant long queues at CNG stations!). We used around c500 kgms costing c3,000,000 rials @ 6000 per kgm (you will get used to "big" numbers with Iranian currency!). At c 34000 rials per US$ this meant a total fuel cost for the 8450 kms of around US$90!!!! It cost me almost that to fill up my car with a single tank of petrol to get back from Manchester airport!!! But, even though we did also "dip into" the Petrol tank on a few occasions to push up the total cost to c $100 -120 you will see that fuel is NOT going to be a big part of any travel costs you might incur!
Another factor to note is Iran's introduction within the last couple of years, of differential pricing of site entry for foreigners – and the growing differential (justified by Iran on the basis of what it sees as an "unfair" exchange rate). WHS prices are going to be 200000, 150000 and 80000 rials (For locals the first 2 are 30000 and 20000 respectively. The latter applies to extra rooms in sites such as Golestan). Most WHS are priced at 200k (approx US6) – but that probably won't be the end of it – museums will often be priced separately (At Persepolis another 200k). Even linked and "close together" sites will have double entry fees (e.g Bishapur and nearby carvings). Non WHS sites are usually going to be 150k as well –in Shiraz we had 9 "pay to enter" sites in 1 day -so it all begins to add up!
Choosing a local Tour operator directly from the Web is a problem in any country and requires "due diligence" and references. Financial trust and competence are obviously pre-requisites - but how to assess?
We used http://www.irun2iran.com/
- a very small company operating out of Shiraz. I can't of course say that it is "the best" since I have tried no others, but we found its performance good in all respects
a. A basic standard WHS tour on which to build, utilising mid range hotels
b. A reasonable price based on comparisons with other agencies
c. Fast sensible responses to all e-mails (across 5 months preparation!)
d. A good reference from a previous traveller and recommendations on the Web
e. No deposit payable until after Visa Authorisation received.
f. Deposit @ 10% payable to a UK bank account. Remainder payable on arrival.
g. Help in dealing with the Iranian Frankfurt Embassy to sort out visa issuing
h. Fair response to tour change requests whilst "on the road"
(Continued in next post)