Hitchhiking in Iran is an adventure that I cannot wait to repeat and definitely recommend to everyone who wants to get to know the country and its people.
I traveled Iran with a good friend of mine for about one month. At the bottom line, him and I not only felt very safe throughout the whole trip, we were also stunned by Persian hospitality and kindness, fell in love with the food, made new friends and lots of unforgettable memories.
There are, however, a few things that you should keep in mind when hitchhiking in Iran and exploring the country’s beauty.
Here’s all the information you need from catching a ride to respecting the culture.
Everything You Need To Know When Hitchhiking In Iran
Pat The Dog
Instead of sticking your thumb out like it is usually done in Western countries, wave your arm up and down, as if you are patting a dog on the back. The ‘thumbs up’ sign can be interpreted as insulting in Persian culture.
Even though I have heard lots of stories where the ‘thumbs up’ gesture was also used by Iranians to communicate that something is good or ‘everything’s alright’, stick to patting the invisible dog. You never know who you might offend.
Translate Your Request
Especially the older generation in Iran often doesn’t speak English. And even if they do, it is very likely that your potential driver has never heard the words ‘hitchhiking’ or ‘autostop’ before.
In order to save both sides from confusion and possible disappointments, write a short text that explains who you are, what you are doing and what you want.
You can obviously translate the letter online and keep it on your phone. I asked one of our Couchsurfers to write the translation in my diary. That way, it is free from embarrassing Google Translate errors, larger and easier to read than on a small screen, always available (because you don’t rely on your phone battery to last) and it makes for a nice memory.
While truck drivers usually don’t ask for money in exchange for the ride, it seldom happens that others will expect to receive a small sum. Make sure you explain that you are not willing to pay before you get in the vehicle. Mahjani means “without money”.
Iranians are incredibly hospitable and will most likely give you a lift for free.
Don’t Rely On Signs
It is debatable whether or not signs are necessary or helpful when hitchhiking in Iran. An argument against signs is that you might miss lots of ride opportunities because the drivers are not directly going to the place on your cardboard. Or they simply don’t understand why the hell you are standing on the side of the road with a sign that shows them where they’re headed.
If you don’t use a sign, you can ask the driver: Aya shoma be [city name] mirid? (Are you going towards [city name]?).
Mind The Gender Gap
Iran is an Islamic country with traditional values that you need to respect on your travels.
Shaking hands between men and women is not accepted in Persian culture. However, it always depends on the person. If they are less conservative, men sometimes don’t have a problem shaking a woman’s hand. If you are a female, rather wait for your male counterpart’s reaction, don’t extend your hand first.
Pretend You’re Married
Iranian law does not allow unmarried couples to live together. If you are traveling as a heterosexual couple (or friend couple) and want to avoid uncomfortable questions, simply tell your driver you are married. In my experience, that was enough and never got us into any kind of trouble.
Keep in mind that you definitely shouldn’t show public affection. The situation is a bit confusing when it comes to that. While it is nowadays mostly accepted to hold hands, kissing is highly inappropriate and can have serious consequences.
Sometimes it’s hard to start a conversation, when you don’t speak the same language. That’s why it can be helpful to show pictures of your hometown and your family.
Plus, learn a few basic sentences in Farsi. Not only will you impress (and amuse) a few locals – it can also be very useful. Seer shodam for example expresses that you’re full after a good meal. Trust me, you’ll thank me for this one.
Respect The Culture
When traveling Iran, you will most likely come across a cultural behavior known as Taarof. It is common that people are overly polite and insist on offering things to you. The thing is, sometimes they don’t mean it.
This usually happens on markets or after taxi rides, when a person refuses to take money (“ghaabel nadaareh“) for the product or service. Don’t accept anything when it is offered to you the first time. It will be seen as impolite.
The whole situation can quickly turn into a really awkward scene (a little bit like the “check dance”). Stay friendly and accept the offer the second or – to be on the safe side – the third time.
Don’t blow your nose around company
Blowing your nose in public (including the car that you’re hitchhiking in) is considered rude. While the best solution usually is to excuse yourself and do it in the bathroom, that’s not really possible when you’re on the road. Just try to be as discreet as you can.
Get Used To The Concept Of ‘Persian’ Time
In Germany, where I am from, punctuality is priority (yes, the cliche is real). When traveling Iran however, you will slowly (see what I did there?) realize that the Persian concept of time is a bit different to the sometimes stressful environment in lots of countries in Europe or North America.
Depending on where the person who is giving you a ride is headed, it is very possible that they will take several breaks to invite you for Chai or visit friends and family members.
Which leads me to my next advice…
It’s not uncommon (if not very likely) that the driver invites you for a meal with their family or even to spend the night at their home. Trust me, it will be worth it to cancel other plans and go for it!
Ask The Military For Help
The military and police in Iran are very friendly to foreigners and usually want to make sure that you are having a great stay in their country. On one occasion, they have even stopped a car for us and convinced the driver to give us a ride.
If you do ask them for help however, be aware that they might not understand and accept what you are doing and drive you to the tourist information or bus station instead.
Explain Your Mission (Patiently)
Because many people struggle to understand the concept of hitchhiking, they often come to the conclusion that you must be in an uncomfortable or even dangerous situation. It its up to you to explain that standing on the side of a dusty road is actually great fun and that you don’t need to be rescued or worried about.
Otherwise, you might end up at the next bus station or in a taxi that a worried passerby has paid for (which is something we wouldn’t accept).
As (very obvious) tourists, we usually attracted lots of attention. This lead to several déjà vus of us explaining who we are, what hitchhiking is and why we are doing it. It’s exciting in the beginning but after a full day of hitchhiking, it can test your patience…
While hitchhiking in Iran, we often spent the nights in the homes of families whom we had met on the road. Whenever that wasn’t the case, we used Couchsurfing or wildcamped.
Couchsurfing In Iran
Couchsurfing in Iran is illegal. In order to use the app, you need to download a VPN (Virtual Private Network). Which other websites are blocked (spoiler: Netflix, YouTube and Tinder are some of them), how to find the right VPN and everything else you need to know around that topic, you can find here.
I also recommend reading the book Couchsurfing in Iran (the name says it all) for a few magical impressions.
Wild Camping In Iran
Thanks to lots of awesome Couchsurfing hosts and welcoming strangers, we didn’t have to pitch our tent often.
Whenever we did wild camp, we made sure that we followed a few basic rules, like arriving late and leaving early, and practicing Leave No Trace. The picture above was taken in Kermanshah, where we slept after a 10 hour truck ride.
(Solo) Female Travellers Hitchhiking In Iran
If you are a solo female traveler and planning on hitchhiking in Iran – You go, girl! It will be an amazing experience.
Here are some useful tips to know before you go.
If you enter Iran by plane, make sure you pack a headscarf in your hand luggage. You must be wearing it from the moment you enter the airport.
You have to wear the headscarf at all times in public. When you are invited to a private home, you are often allowed to take it off. However, that depends on your host. Wait until they offer you to take it off.
I would also like to mention that there were a few occasions when I was walking around on my own, where I received a lot of unwanted sexual attraction. I didn’t feel like I was in danger, but I was very uncomfortable, despite the fact that I was dressed “appropriately” (and by that I mean rather wide clothes and a headscarf). It’s incredible how much that can change when you are accompanied by a “male protector”.
However, those occasions were the exception. In general, I never felt unsafe. And almost everyone I met treated me with respect and showed exceptional hospitality and kindness that are unique for this beautiful country.
Read more about hitchhiking in Iran as a woman here.