~ G is for George Bush ~
"Do you all hate us or is it just the Americans?" The question was asked one evening as we wandered the streets of Shiraz. It was asked in curiosity rather than anger and we resisted the temptation to say "Actually, the Israelis and Iraqis hate you too, but we wouldn't be here if we didn't like you".
The point is that at the time of our visit, one of the biggest concerns that most would-be tourists had was that Dubya was going to pop over and bomb the country back to the stone age – and let's face it, that would put a real damper on your holiday. Writing in 2009, things look maybe a bit less shaky than two and a half years ago when we went but it's natural that the relationship between Iran and the USA will always be something to keep an eye on.
You may meet locals - particularly young ones - who will tell you they pray for GWB to invade and get rid of the government. I can't suggest they are drunk - on the 0.0% beer substitute - but they may well be crazy. Be careful what you wish for guys.
~ H is for Hijab~
Hijab - the word sends a shudder down the spines of most women – or those who know what it means anyway. It's the 'Islamic Dress Code' but it doesn't have to be a nightmare if you prepare well. Chadors are not compulsory in Iran but you may have to wrap up in a sheet to get into some shrines - the local ladies will be happy to giggle and help you. Most of the time the requirement is a headscarf or other head covering (I got by with a Buff tube hat because I just couldn't do the scarf routine) and a 'manteau' - a knee length shirt or coat. In general the style is like 'The Queen walking the corgis at Balmoral' without the wellington boots.
In the big cities the manteaux are getting shorter and more tailored and some of the interpretations of the code are bordering on risque but out in the sticks, black is very definitely 'the new black'. Young women in Tehran over-compensate for the headscarf by using masses of make up and teasing their hair into soaring back-combed monsters seldom seen since the demise of Dusty Springfield. Then they pin their scarves as far back as possible so they are perched as far back as they can be.
Since we got back there have been rumours that the morality police were getting a lot stricter about how people – women in particular – were dressing but as a tourist, they are mostly so glad to see you there that it's unlikely you'll get any trouble.
~ I is for the Iran-Iraq War - or the so-called 'Imposed' War ~
For ten years Iran and Iraq had a big dust up on the border. It cost millions of lives- estimates vary between one and three million. It cost the Iranians a trillion dollars (that's a million millions – though in these days of banking collapses I think everyone knows what a trillion is); and at the end of the day the borders were almost exactly where they started. Those who died are considered to be 'martyrs' and you will see photographs and murals of the local martyrs on the roundabouts and walls of every city. There's even a TV channel which we dubbed 'Martyr TV' which shows photos and honours the dead all day long. The Martyrs' Cemetery in Tehran is a moving monument to the futility of this conflict.
~ J is for Journeys ~
Flights in Iran are amazingly cheap - you can fly from Esfahan to Tehran for less than £20. Coach or bus travel is also really cheap - keep in mind that the fuel costs are silly. Iran has plenty of oil. There are a lot of police road blocks and your driver will sometimes have to negotiate eight lanes of traffic to get to the policeman, thus ensuring his passengers dig deep at the end of the tour in respect for his bravery. Most of the roads are in good condition although some of the mountain passes are a bit pukey.
~ K is for Kebabs ~
Chicken kebab, minced lamb kebab, whole piece lamb kebab. That's your standard menu - take it or leave it. You might think you like kebabs - after 28 of them in two weeks you may be ready to change your mind.
~ L is for language ~
Iranians speak Farsi - it uses an Arabic script but sounds softer and has less throat clearing. Thank you is - conveniently - Merci. It's pronounced as if pleading for mercy rather than doing a French accent. And hello is Salaam. But don't worry - all tourists are assumed to speak English so you'll hear "Hello", "Welcome to my country", 'Thank you for your visit" wherever you go. Iranians do 7 years of English in school and all the street signs are in both Farsi and English.
~ M is for Mountains ~
Iran's a very mountainous place - in fact the highest peak between Kilimanjaro and the Himalayas is Mount Damovand, just outside Tehran. It's 5671m to the summit and it's a very pretty cone volcano shape - a bit like Mount Fuji. Many of the cities popular with tourists are set on high altitude planes with stunning mountains as their backdrop. In Tehran you can spend your free time skiing in the mountains right up against the city limits and a visit to the ski-lift will give you fantastic views over the city. Be aware though that Tehran is at altitude and you may get a bit light-headed.
~ N is for Nuclear Power ~
One of the most controversial issues of the moment is whether Iran should be 'allowed' to develop nuclear power and would it lead inevitably to weapons development? A simpler question might be why does a land with 8% of the world's oil reserves need nuclear power? Should we be worried or should we assume that a country that thought the Hillman Hunter was state of the art until a few years ago shouldn't be too much of a threat? It's a tough issue not least because their bitterest enemy Israel already has the bomb (not that they'll ever openly admit to it). You know what - I'm not going to say any more on this topic because I'm inevitably going to offend someone, whatever I say.
~ O is for Ordinary People ~
I doubt you'll get a warmer welcome anywhere in the world than you'll receive as a tourist in Iran. Estimates vary but it's thought that the number of European or 'western' tourists is running at about 3000 per year - not enough to make any impact on the economy at all. As a tourist you can't help but stand out and people will stare but not in an unpleasant way. Most of the locals did a bit of English in school and total strangers will say 'hello' or 'welcome' or ask you where you come from without any intention to sell you something or engage you in a long conversation. They are curious and enormously welcoming. Even those who don't speak any English at all will offer you sweets, dates, cakes or nuts and share what they have with you. In one small town a local man heard there were tourists in town and sat in the lobby of our flea-pit hotel for two hours waiting for the chance to practice his English. We pushed him towards the mad Irish-Serbian in our tour group and left the chattering away over 0% beers for the rest of the evening.
~ P is for Persepolis ~
In the middle of the first millenium BC, Darius the Great and his successor Xerxes set out to conquer the world and build the first 'world empire' stretching from Greece and North Africa, through the Middle East, and way into Asia. They built Persepolis as a grand city where they could celebrate the Zoroastrain New Year which took place during the spring equinox. For this special occasion they would invite people from all over the empire to come and pay tribute to the Emperor (by tribute, read taxes!). Persepolis today is the sort of archaeological wonder that would be knee-deep in bus-loads of tourists if it were anywhere but Iran. It's a UNESCO world heritage site but on the day of our visit, there can't have been more than a couple of hundred visitors spread across the city. This is a truly world class attraction and definitely not one to be missed.