My name is Ahmed Saeed, and I’m a 29 year old Interior Designer/Fine Arts Graduate from Cairo, Egypt. Photography is my hobby with a significant chunk of photos taken and processed using only my iPhone. As a young man with dreams, working in an office did not make me happy, so I left my job. After a year of hesitation, I decided to travel to Morocco for two weeks by myself with just my guide book and backpack - that's where it all started for me.
How do you select the countries that you visit? What interests you most about traveling?
I definitely prefer more raw, undiscovered, and less touristy places which allow me to discover things for myself through culture, traditions, language, and of course food. Talking to locals, listening to their life stories, and trying to make friends is also very important for me. What I love most about travel is that there is always something unexpected around the corner and people are usually very nice. Travel makes you think about how different people are and yet, how similar! It also makes you appreciate what you have back home, and if you are an explorer who ventures to unusual places, everything that is new too. This feeling is priceless!
What brought you to Iran specifically?
Many great things usually happen unexpectedly and going to Iran was one of them for me. From photos and articles, I've always thought the country looked beautiful and mysterious. Not many people travel there, especially from my country. Luckily for me, a friend whom I met in Morocco briefly went and photos I saw from his trip made me even more curious. The same friend, Michael Hlavaty, fell in love with Iran and it didn't take him long to plan another trip. We then decided to go to Iran together, and have been traveling as a duo ever since!
How did you plan your trip?
For trips like this, you need to plan ahead. At the time I decided to join my friend (see his friend Michael Hlavaty's work here) in Iran, the route was more or less already established. We decided to travel in a circle around the northern part of the country as well as the Caspian area (Tehran – Sari - Bandar Anzali - Ardabil - Tabriz - Zanjan - Qazvin - Tehran). We approached a local agency and booked a car with a driver.
How easy was it for you to navigate/explore the region?
Each area we visited had its own special feel and unique vibe. We tried to cover areas behind mountains with colorful natural mineral springs and shores of the Caspian Sea through to the dry lake bed of Lake Urmia which is slowly shrinking and disappearing. With temperatures ranging from +4C to +25C we experienced almost all 4 seasons within the span of one week. Thanks to our driver Mehdi, it was also easy to stop anytime along the way, discuss possible changes to our itinerary, or add new places worthy of a visit. Of all the countries I've been to so far, Iran certainly had a special feel to it. I think this country truly needs more positive travel attention.
What were some of your experiences as a tourist?
It's very hard to describe our experience in full. Iran is very rich in history and the autumn daylight gave us a little less hours to explore. With ever changing picturesque landscapes, we already knew we wouldn't be able to see it all., so deciding what our priorities were was crucial. Despite food not being ranked high on our list, we were able to eat something delicious every day: lamb kebab, doogh, rice with saffron and butter, homemade pastries, fresh fruits, cheese, and healthy milkshakes. One night while having coffee and tea outside, a nearby family celebrating the birthday of their son noticed we were foreigners and offered us a few slices of their cake. This gesture embodied the spirit of Iranians. People love to chat and are very humble, friendly and kind. Younger generations possess a sparkle and energy that gives you hope for better times in this beautiful country. It's a hidden gem.
What do you think is the biggest misconception projected about Iran you would like to clarify?
This is a very good question. I'm sure many people have built their opinion on what they see on the news every day. However, I would encourage people to come with an open mind and respect for the culture; forget about what you think you know from the news. Iran is very safe, people are welcoming, and the country is picturesque and authentic.
What recommendations can you share for future travelers interested in visiting Iran?
- Sari & surroundings - While driving, I was literally stuck to the window looking at all those mountains covered in thick green forests and partially hidden in the mist. Once in a while I’d see a village down the hills under the mountain. I wish we had more time to explore this area and take a stroll between fields of rice and traditional huts.
- Badab E-surt - These natural springs are mind-blowing and pretty well hidden too (we were the only ones there)! They are so colorful and we were told they change colors depending on the time of year and chemical composition.
- Masuleh - This was probably my favorite place. The village itself is built on levels from the bottom of a mountain going up and was covered in mist, which gave it a very surreal and mysterious feel.
- The old Bazaar in Ardabil, Tabriz and Zanjan - Walking between masses of locals in this colorful lively environment is a unique experience. If you can, try to find a passage to a local old mosque or square.
- Karaftu Cave is a bit far but worth a visit, especially around sunset. You will catch one of the most beautiful and dramatic sunsets you will ever see and as a token, after sunset on the way back to the closest city, it's possible to see the Milky Way on clear nights.
- Kandovan- a village with cone shaped houses carved into volcanic rocks.
- Dome of Soltaniyeh - Once you stand in front of this mausoleum, no matter from what country you are from, or religion you practice, you feel small, humble and lucky to see such an amazing work of art that has withstood the test of time and very active seismic area.
- Being on the road, in general, was visually stunning for me. The weather and landscapes change all the time, so be prepared to have many short stops on the way!
- We were fortunate to visit many beautiful shrines and mosques along the way, wall decorations vary from geometrical mirrors, colored neat tiles, detailed plaster work or carved verses from the Quran.
What is your favorite memory from your trip?
The one encounter that resonated the most happened when we were leaving Masuleh. We decided to help Erich, a German tourist in his 70s, that was almost at the end of his month long trip throughout Iran who was alone and had chosen to only use public transport. We spent almost an hour in our car exchanging stories and listening to his amazing adventures. Erich had traveled around the world, and despite criticism from his community about his selection of countries, he always had an amazing time with no issues; even with his limited knowledge of English. It was amazing how strangers from four different parts of the world could have such a great time and share such genuine moments.
What advice do you have for individuals that want to start traveling internationally, but don’t know how to start?
The idea of travel always seemed so interesting and scary at the same time for me, considering that I live in a country where people usually don't invest much for travels - especially abroad. You can imagine how discouraging it could be at times, but I was fortunate to have friends who travel and helped me. A wise friend once suggested I take my first trip to Morocco alone, which became a great life changing experience. The trip gave me a completely new perspective on life, people, and my own country as a result of new daily experiences and challenges. This is my advice for anyone hesitating: choose a country, do basic research, and calculate inevitable costs. Everything is easy these days and you will find all the information you need online - photos, blogs, discussions, advice, weather forecast, etc. Don't be afraid to seek help and ask people who went to places you like. Many times you don't need big budget for a great holiday. Diversity in nature, culture, history, traditions, food - we should preserve it, not destroy it! Travel as much as you can, for as long as you can because it’s good for your soul.
What’s next for you?
I wanted to travel to Tunisia in October, but it will be probably pushed back for a few months. I might later venture to Spain, Oman or India... I have a long list of countries and places I want to see, but it depends on many factors. However, one of them is definitely happening soon.
Images Courtesy of Ahmed Saeed