Uncornered Market Q&A: Audrey and Dan on Iran

uncornered marketUncornered Market is one of the most popular travel blogs out there. A quick gander will demonstrate why this is the case. Audrey Scott and Dan Noll’s labor of love boasts some of the most arresting travel photography around. The subjects the two take on are of broad interest as well–from reflections on cultural traffic to recipes, to reflections on the importance of diplomacy on a personal level, and even to a particular brand of self-help.

Audrey and Dan talk to Gadling hot on the heels of their first visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran with a range of opinions, suggestions, and tips.

Q: Good day, Audrey and Dan. Define your occupations.

A: Storytellers, writers, photographers, world travelers. Mostly, we’re known as the husband-and-wife team behind the travel blog Uncornered Market.

Q: You recently traveled to Iran. Tell us how the trip came about and where you went.

A: Our interest in Iran dates back to 2003 when we befriended Audrey’s Iranian colleagues at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and attended a slideshow presentation from travelers who’d recently returned from Iran. Our curiosity was piqued; we wanted to see for ourselves what the country and people were like, to find an alternative story than what the media tends to portray.

We’ve been on the road for five years and now seemed like the right time to satisfy our curiosity despite the fact that our family and friends thought we were crazy given the current political climate.

Our trip began in Tehran and then made a loop through Hamadan, Kermanshah, Ahvaz, Shiraz, Yazd, Isfahan, Abyaneh, Rasht, Masuleh, Ardebil, and Tabriz. We finished the journey with an Iranian train trip from Tabriz to Istanbul, Turkey, which took two and a half days.

Q: In your interactions with Iranians, did politics ever enter the picture? Did you discuss geopolitics or the actions of the US and Iranian governments with anyone?

A: We never began our conversations on the topic of politics, but particularly after we earned people’s trust, it entered the discussion. Most of the Iranian people we met took issue with their government, its rules, its rhetoric, and its disengagement with the rest of the world. Many would conclude with: “People are good. Politics and governments are bad.”

The impression of America, and especially of the American people, was strikingly and overwhelmingly positive. The Iranians we met wished to engage more with the rest of the world. However, most Iranians we spoke to did not expect change within their own government, and as a result, they were not optimistic that relations between the Iranian and American governments would improve any time soon.

Q: How were you received, generally speaking?

A: Like rock stars. We traveled with a small group of Americans, Australians and a Dane. We were all well received, but as Americans we were often shown special positive attention. Being American got us a lot of handshakes, hugs and invitations to people’s homes.
Q: Did you find yourselves unpacking assumptions made in advance? Did you encounter any surprises along the way?

A: Yes. What we found in Iran – and particularly regarding ordinary Iranian people — was so profoundly different than the prevailing media narrative. Iranian people, as a rule, are kind and are not a bunch of terrorists.

Iranians also actively seek and find ways to circumvent censorship. For example, everyone seems to have Facebook accounts and satellite dishes, both of which are technically banned or blocked.

We were also pleasantly surprised by how often we managed to slip off, walk the streets, and talk to people on our own and how safe and normal it all felt.

Q: What were your favorite places in Iran?

A: Shiraz — like the wine, though they don’t serve wine there anymore. (Iran is a dry country.) The Shirazi people are friendly and the archeological sites (Persepolis, just outside town) and various religious sites like the Pink Mosque and Shah Ceragh Mosque really blew us away with their elaborate and dizzying designs.

We also really enjoyed the Persian Islamic architecture of Esfahan and the Zoroastrian burial sites in Yazd. Throughout the country, bazaars (markets) were fun and served as great places to meet people.

In the north, we were big fans of the ancient Armenian monastery near Jolfa and its ethereal mountain setting.

Q: Do you have any recommendations, logistical or otherwise, for Americans interested in visiting Iran?

A: Three things. First, Americans are required to have a private guide or join a group tour. The tour company will sort your visa paperwork. The visa process involves obtaining an authorization number from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then procuring an actual visa from an Iranian consulate. The entire process can take up to two months, so get started early.

Secondly, try not to bite off too much. There’s a ton of Islamic history and pre-Islamic history in Iran, including around ten UNESCO World Heritage sites. But the country is huge, so being selective will help you avoid spending all of your time in transit.

Lastly, always be aware of the context, but don’t be afraid to talk with people on the street.

Q: What’s next for the Uncornered Market duo? (Or should I ask where’s next?)

A: We are in the midst of planning 2012. Israel is near or at the top of the list. We’ve collected numerous invitations from newfound Israeli friends and travel companions. We’d like to see Israel for ourselves, especially after our experiences in other parts of the Middle East.

In addition, Audrey would like to visit Australia, which will be her seventh continent. Japan, Papua New Guinea, and the Balkans are in the conversational mix.

Our 2012 non-travel plans include redesigning our blog and completing several publishing projects. It’s also about time to write that book we keep talking about.