Outside immigration, we hailed a taxi who agreed to take our UAE dirhams. There are no banks on Kish Island that accept U.S. or European bank cards. Credit cards are also not accepted anywhere. Cabs on Kish Island do not have meters, so we negotiated a 15 dirham (~$4) rate to take us to the city centre. I had read the Wiki Travel guide for Kish Island, but had not examined a map of the island and had only a vague idea of what to do or see during our brief stay in Iran.
As we drove into town, we passed numerous large propaganda-style posters of Ayatollah Kohmeini, Ayatollah al-Sistani, and even one of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad which unfortunately I was unable to snap a picture of. We were truly in Iran now.
Dropped in front of large mall, we found the town eerily silent for 2pm. Most businesses were closed (they would re-open in the late afternoon) and there was not a person in sight. Traffic was light and there was no sirens, horn honking, or music. My friend was hungry, so we stopped at a “Hypermarket” – a small department store that reminded me of a Target with a grocery section. The restaurant was fast-food style and featured a very western menu of hamburgers, french fries, and pizza.
The Iranian man at the cash register, who introduced himself as Kamran, could not have been nicer. His English was not great, but after I identified myself as a tourist and asked for some advice on what to see on the island, he was eager to assist. He wrote out a list of things to see in Persian, then whipped out his mobile phone and called his brother, who spoke better English, to help with the translation. He handed me his phone and told me to speak to his brother.
His brother, Faheem, welcomed me to Kish and laid out an itinerary for the afternoon. Handing the phone back to Kamran, I thanked him profusely for his help and asked if he might know when the bank would re-open so that we could exchange some money. I still cannot get over his response:
He responded that the bank would not open until 4pm, but said, “Don’t worry, I will give you money,” and proceeded to open the cash register and pull out 300,000 rial (about $30). I thanked him but refused, stating that we would just use our dirhams, but he was insistent, shoving the money in my hand and stating, “This is a gift. We are happy you came to Iran.”
I was floored. Where else in the world would this happen? I simply smiled, shook his hand, and warmly thanked him, promising to bring him back 300,000 rial once the banks opened. He stated that would not be necessary and wished us a pleasant stay in his country.
Outside the store, now with six 50,000 rial notes in my pocket, we hailed a cab to take us our first point of interest, the Underground Town of Cariz.
Originally used as an aqueduct over 2,500 years ago, Cariz sits 16 meters below ground and is now a popular tourist destination showcasing Persian innovation, architecture, and artwork. Entrance was rather steep at about $10 (100,000 rial).
Once done with the self-guided tour, we stepped outside into the sweltering heat to find a way to get back to the city. There were numerous minibuses waiting outside and I asked a couple of the drivers if we could join the group. One said no while another invited my friend and me to join his island tour. We would have done it in a heartbeat but he said the tour (which would have been in Persian anyway) would not conclude until 2030. Considering that our flight back to Dubai was scheduled to depart at 2045, that would have been a problem.
Two boys, who looked to be about 8 and 10 years old (in the picture above), ran up to me. The older one asked where I was from. When I said “America” he smiled and reached out his hand, stating “I am very happy to meet you.” I shook both their hands and they ran away grinning. On the whole, I found the Iranian people–of all ages–to be exceedingly kind and not the least bit hostile when they learned I was an American and my friend was a Brit.
We hailed a cab and returned to city center, where the banks were now open. I certainly did want to insult Kamran by refusing his gift, but I would have felt guilty not making one more attempt to pay him back–afterall, this was not just loose change. I exchanged some money then headed back over to the hypermarket. Inside, Kamran greeted me, but when I pulled out the money he smiled and pushed it back, stating that it was a gift. All I could do was thank him again.
We purchased some sweets and yogurt from the grocery store and sat down for a bit, enjoying the oasis from the hot afternoon sun. Time was limited, though, so just after six we walked back outside and hailed a cab that took us to the seaport. By now, the sun was beginning to set and it was a pleasure just walking along the seashore and down the boardwalk. A man aggressively tried to entice us to hire his boat for a tour around the island, but we politely refused, citing the limited time we had before our flight.
Click to enlarge the picture–through the clear water you can see hundreds of tiny fish
Near the seashore was a smaller mall with a food court on the top floor where we stopped for dinner–I couldn’t leave Iran without a Persian dinner, even if it was at a shopping mall! We chose to eat at a place that had a sign resembling McDonald’s, only was called Mr. Mahmoud (see the picture below). Despite the trademark violation, I somehow doubt McDonald’s will be sending lawyers to Kish anytime soon…
Mr. Mahmoud cooked up some nice rice and kebabs. The dinner was outstanding and reasonable as well–about $7 per person. The best part of the meal was the hot bread, fresh from the oven and holding the perfect flavor and texture.
Our time on the island–at least we thought–was drawing to an end. We hailed a cab to take us back to the airport (a flat 500,000 rial rate) and made it back in under ten minutes. Then things got even more interesting.
It was an hour before takeoff and when the Kish Air ticket agent saw us walk in, he made the “no” sign with his hands and said, “Finished. Finished,” while shaking his head. We pulled out our handwritten paper tickets and showed him that we had confirmed seats on the flight, but he kept repeating, “Finished, Finished.”
We were quite angry, naturally, but did not express it just yet. We had confirmed tickets and arrived at the airport early enough. What gave? Apparently, Kish overbooks their flights and gives seats to the first (164 in this case) passengers who show up. We still were not ready to give up and began pleading with the guy, stating that we had a flight from Dubai back to Germany that night and could not afford to miss it. We offered to fly jump seat or in the flight deck (that would have been interesting…) but he refused.
The flight was full and we were out of luck. Come back tomorrow, he said. We attempted to go over to the departure area of the terminal, in case he happened to miscount the number of passengers who had checked in or a passenger decided not to fly at the last minute, but the government border officials would not let us through, listening to our pleadings but saying that we could not leave the country that night and they would not let us through passport control.
Now we were in a bind. The flight tomorrow, which we were not even guaranteed a seat on, did not leave till 1130 and we had nowhere to spend the night. In Iran, foreigners must book hotel accommodations through government travel agents prior to arrival.
The next few hours would be very interesting.