I decided a number of years ago to go to every country in the world. Things went pretty easy for a while as I knocked Europe off my list and most of South America. Lately, it’s been getting a little more difficult with revolutions, impossible visas and places that are just too dangerous for travelers. So I started looking for loopholes. Iran has a very difficult visa policy. They don’t give them away without a fight. However, there’s one chink in their collective armor: the island of Kish.
Kish is a little tiny speck in the Persian Gulf that someone in Iran decided would be the next Dubai. That plan turned out to be a little too ambitious, and they compromised by making it a free trade zone, easier to get into than the rest of Iran. How do they do that? No visa is required to enter Kish. It’s Iran lite, but it’s still Iran, and if you’re checking off countries like I am or just want a taste of what mainland Iran is like, then Kish is a perfect stop. It’s also turned out to be a convenient place for Filipino and Indian workers from Dubai to renew their UAE expired visas. Kish hasn’t seen the advertising that its Arab neighbors have, so there’s not a lot of tourists visiting. There’s also a few very strict rules that can put off would-be travelers. If you can get past that, it makes a great little island to visit for a day or two.
There’s some obvious tension between the United States and Iran, so there’s a few questions to be answered before you get your passport stamped. Since America has imposed economic sanctions on Iran, be forewarned that ATMs will not work with your debit card. Many signs are in English as well as Farsi, but there are a lot of places that just don’t bother, so you’ll always be the last one to know what’s going on. Alcohol is forbidden, as is staying in a room with a member of the opposite sex who isn't your spouse. Plus, you can’t just stay at any hotel. It’s either a dormitory-style place that looks like a cross between jail and college (designed for long-term visa waitees), or a tourist hotel that costs at least twice what it should. The good news is that your expensive hotel includes breakfast and lunch, a complimentary mini-bar, a bag full of perfume, a selection of toiletries, and other perks.
Iranians are charming, and the island is very attractive. Only a short 30-minute flight from Dubai, it's small enough to navigate easily. If you prefer to avoid taxis, it’s easy to rent a bicycle or an electric scooter. It takes four hours to bike around the entire island, and two and a half by electric scooter, although the battery will only last you two hours.
I rented a bike at the beach. The bike trails, it turned out, were a lot m ore fun than the roads. The beaches are beautifully covered with white sand, and the water is blue and crystal-clear. There’s a pier that extends a few hundred yards out that makes for a nice walk, facilitates fishing and provides access to small boats. Along the beach you'll find odd, oversized prop statues at random intervals. There’s a shovel and pail, a gargantuan girl lying on her stomach with her feet in the air, giant sand castles, and a colossal set of suitcases. Being a kid at heart, I was happy to pose with every single one of them.
The most touristy spot on the island is a restored underground cistern. It doesn’t really sound interesting, but it is. In the distant past, water was captured, purified and run through underground canals throughout Kish to make it accessible for the island's inhabitants. This is a very dry part of the world with no lakes, so it was necessary for survival. It’s fascinating to take an underground tour and see the tools, utensils and other items the ancient Kish used. The ceiling is so old it has fossilized, and other sections have been left as they were found. After the tour, there’s an area where you can drink tea.
There’s also the ancient city of Harireh, which is a big archaeological site on Kish. It’s no Pompeii, but the walk is beautiful, the area boasts a restored 3,000-year-old building and additional excavations. You’ll want to visit earlier in the day as there is little shade.
One of the more popular attractions, a mysterious Greek ship, is beached on the west coast. Yes, it’s just an abandoned ship that cost too much to salvage, but it's a Kish photo-op and something of a local hot spot for the island's many visitors.
The Iranians I met couldn’t have been friendlier or more hospitable. Most Americans are terrified of going to Iran, but guess what? Many Iranians are terrified of Texas. Just as we assume they're all burning American flags in the streets, they think we're all gun-toting cowboys. It's just as ridiculous a stereotype as what our media sometimes thinks of them.
So if you find yourself traveling in the Middle East and want to visit someplace new, a day or two on Kish might be just the stop for you.