Sunday, 6 August 2017

Traffic-stopping


I watched in disbelief as the oncoming vehicles slowed to a halt in the middle of a road that had no traffic lights/signals anywhere. It did not make sense until we turned to face the other direction, and saw the policeman -- the same one we had met at the ticket office -- in the middle of the road, his palms sticking out to both sides. Then he turned to us, tilted his head, and gave us the signal to walk without fear to the Roman archaeological site at Sbeitla. 

I'm not sure about Matej, but I felt a mix of guilt and self-importance. We did not require such special treatment. We were, after all, regular tourists to this country. But that was probably it: we were two out of a handful of tourists still visiting Tunisia, despite warnings from several countries not to.

Those travel warnings and advisories stemmed from two terror attacks in 2015: one in March, at the Bardo Museum in the capital Tunis, and another just three months later in the resort city of Sousse. Scores were gunned down in total. Visitors have since started streaming in through the doors and security checkpoint of the museum, and you'll find a mosaic plague at the foyer listing the names and nationalities of those who died in March 2015. Walking around the museum you find some areas off-limits, no thanks to that attack. But the mosaics, one of the most impressive collection from the Roman and Byzantine eras, make you forget, if even for a moment, the grim episode which took place here.

And it's the same story in Sousse: people have moved on. But while not everyone is convinced, the Russians seem unfazed. The security situation in other Middle East favourites, Turkey and Egypt, have pushed them to Tunisia. And the locals are keen to keep them coming, especially since the country relies heavily on tourism as a source of revenue. There's added security in the main thoroughfare in Tunis. Ironically though, it's become a bit of a catch-22 situation: while it's a measure to assure the public that security forces are on top of things, it scared a Russian couple I stayed with at a B&B.

I suppose they had reason to be fearful. They stood out. My tan and physical features let me blend in seamlessly. I had no problems hopping into louages (inter- and intracity minivans) for the northern port city of Bizerte for a day trip, or taxis to and from the UNESCO-listed Roman site of Dougga, said to be the largest and most dramatic in all of Africa.

Yet, I can't deny my own apprehensions. What if something happens?, I asked myself. I don't even have an embassy I can turn to (the closest one being in Cairo, Egypt). But stronger than the fear was my conviction that if something is meant to happen, it can happen anywhere: Tunis, Ankara, Paris, Brussels, what's in a name?

Alas, Tunisia may currently be at a disadvantage where worldviews are concerned. And it may take time for opinions to change. But until then, those who dare, will find a people raring to ensure you feel safe, and have entire museums and archaeological sites to themselves. 

Friday, 3 February 2017

Trip Report: Tunisia

I visited Tunisia in late September 2016, a country I'd been wanting to go to for some time. I came away with no regrets. Alas, I understand people may have concerns in the wake of 2015's two terror attacks. So here's my list of FAQs, and my itinerary, if you're thinking about travelling to this North African country.

beyond the sea, at Sidi Bou Said
My itinerary:
day 1: arrive in Tunis
day 2: day trip to Dougga (louage and taxi)
day 3: Bardo museum and Sidi Bou Said (by TGM train)
day 4: train to Sousse; walked around a bit
day 5: day trips from Sousse to Kairouan and Sbeitla (louage)
day 6: day trips from Sousse to El Jem and Mahdia (louage)
Downtown Tunis' main thoroughfare
day 7: train back to Tunis
day 8: day trip to Bizerte (louage)
day 9: fly out of Tunis

Is it safe?
Yes. Along the main thoroughfare in Tunis city centre, you'll see security personnel stationed at various points (including outside the French embassy). The only hotel I stayed at during my trip was in Sousse (I did Airbnb otherwise), where security would deny you entry unless you are staying at the establishment.
Should I really go to Tunisia? My government has issued a travel warning/advisory...
a section of the wall at the Sousse fortress
This is something you have to decide for yourself. Given today's security climate, a bomb could easily go off in Paris or Port Said. I have to admit at some point I was apprehensive, but I wanted to find out for myself just how serious a threat it is.
intricate mosaic on display at
the Bardo Museum, Tunis
How are the Tunisians?
Friendly, approachable, and very helpful. A couple of times I had wait staff switch to English when they realised I'm a foreigner struggling with French. My "poulet, oui?" would be met with "yes, it's chicken".
Do I have to watch what I wear?
sunrise in Sousse
Tunisia does not fit neatly into any one box. For every woman you see wearing a hijab, burqa, there's one wearing a dress, or a blouse paired with jeans. So once again, it's pointless assuming that just because it's a Muslim country, women can't dress as they want. In fact, they drive too and I've sat in louages (shared mini-vans) with solo (local) women travellers. Having said all that, if you're going to visit a mosque, wear something that goes beyond your knees, if they can't reach your ankles. In general, men can get away with shorts, but same rule applies as women when going to a mosque. When in doubt, take the cue from locals.
ruins at Dougga, a UNESCO
World Heritage Site
Visa requirement?
I'm from Singapore and didn't require one. Check with your individual government agencies. 
Getting to the city from the airport
the Great Mosque in Kairouan, considered
the fourth holiest city in Islam
There are public buses you can hop onto on the right side, after you exit the arrival hall (you can't miss it, there's a departure point). There's also a taxi stand on the left after you come out of arrivals. It should cost you about 3 euros (which is about 7.50 Tunisian dinars) to get to the traffic circle at "Big Ben" (their version of it). The most you should pay is 5. You could ask for a metered fare but even that runs into its own set of problems (with traffic and all).
Getting around
The louage (a minivan/minibus) became my best friend. Remember I don't speak French or Arabic, so all I would do at the louage point is "excuse me, Tunis/Sousse/Bizerte/etc?" and they'd point me in a general direction where I'd repeat the question. Never had any trouble with getting where I had to, that too in a jiffy. The only downside is that you have to wait for these vehicles to fill up before they push off (my longest wait was 1hr 15mins). That, or the passengers in the vehicle have to decide to pay a little more for the driver to set off sooner.
coasting along in Mahdia
El Jem, Tunisia's own Coliseum
If you don't like the unpredictably of the louage, the bus might be the next best option. But do note that they don't travel everywhere. For example, I went to Dougga by hopping onto a louage and switching to a taxi.
Trains are reliable. My airbnb hosts provided me with a timetable of train services to and from Tunis.
Money matters
the well-maintained ruins of Sbeitla
Tunisia uses its own dinars, which you can change at the airport when you get in. There are several money changers in the arrival and departure halls. If you intend to exchange your dinars for euros/dollars/etc when you're leaving the country, make sure you retain the receipt the money-changer gives you when you buy your dinars. Otherwise, the banks at the airport won't accept them. Do keep in mind too that the airport shops/cafes accept dinars (can't remember now if they'd take euros) so it'd be good to have a few of those on you when you're leaving, in case you get hungry.
entrance to Tunis medina
How expensive is it?
This is what I had for breakfast at a cafe near by airbnb place: a chocolate croissant, an almond one, and a coffee with milk. total cost: 2.85 dinars, or just over 1 euro. A regular chicken sandwich came up to about 2 euros. A cafe au lait set me back about 1.50 dinar (at best).
Tourist sites aren't too expensive either. A visit to El Jem's Roman amphitheatre costs 10 dinars, but it includes admission to an archaeology museum a little south from there (worth a visit).
Bizerte, northern Tunisia's
port city
Staying connected
You should be able to get a wifi connection at some cafes, and hotels.
Read!
The People Want the Fall of the Regime: The Arab Uprisings by Jeremy Bowen




As always, if you have any questions, feel free to ask.
I've also posted photos on instagram.com/kevuzingh if you'd like some inspiration. :)

Monday, 12 December 2016

Declaration

When you enter Uzbekistan at Tashkent airport, you're required to fill up a declaration form, indicating the amounts of all the currencies you have on you. When you leave the country, you fill up another such form, to show how much you're leaving with. Uzbek authorities want to make sure you leave with less than what you bring in, to curb money laundering or some such racketeering. They do this by making you fill up two declaration forms upon your arrival -- one for their records, and one for you to present upon departure.

As I woke up to my first morning in the country, it dawned upon me that I had filled up just one of these forms. A quick search online, and a chat with a fellow tourist staying in the same hotel, confirmed my worst fear: this could become very unpleasant. With this little predicament weighing heavily on my mind, I went to a travel agency, where I was told I'd have to make my way back to the airport to resolve the issue. The only consolation at this point was the fact that the airport's a mere four to five kilometres away from the city centre.

So I repeated my spiel to virtually every airport official and security personnel I met, about how I'd forgotten to fill up the second form, and how the passport control officer said nothing when he stamped my passport and let me through.

I eventually landed up at Customs House, right next to the airport terminal. There I met Javed, and some of his subordinates who took some interest in my peculiar story (which, I found out later, was not unusual -- coming in with just one declaration form was not unheard of). Not that many of them understood what I was saying anyway. Their English was only as good as my Uzbek or Russian.

But everyone knows the universal language of money. I was asked how much cash I'd brought in, and how much I had on me at the time. Very quickly I understood where this was probably going, and I feigned ignorance. Although I have to say, I could have been making a huge assumption.

Eventually Javed agreed to help, but not before enquiring about my love life.
'No girlfriend?'
'No.'
'Ah. Uzbek girl, very nice!'
'Ah yes, I've seen some on the streets.'
'Yes! Very pretty, and very good! You marry Uzbek girl!'
I chuckled. I don't think he necessarily believed what he said though. A scan of his office, and I was greeted by posters of Katrina Kaif (a Hindi film star). But yes, everywhere I went in Uzbekistan, the question about marriage would come up. One 23-year-old student I met in Samarkand found it strange that I was still single at my age. According to him, most Uzbeks marry by their mid-20s and would have had at least one child before 30. He pinned my different perspective to a Western-style upbringing -- something I did not agree with, but I'd decided not to pursue the matter.

But I digress.

My two weeks travelling across the breadth of the country whizzed by and I was back at Customs House to see Javed, hours before my flight out. He'd found the declaration form I'd submitted on my arrival and had a made a copy of it. But instead of giving it to me, he slipped it into the folder he'd taken it out from. I found this peculiar. Instead, he handed me an official-looking document written in Cyrillic script with the numbers denoting the foreign currencies I'd entered the country with, and his signature at the bottom of the page. I was to present this to an officer at a counter before passport control.

The officer was not entirely convinced though. He seeemed hesitant to stamp the letter and my declaration form (the one you fill up before leaving the country). All the knots untangled themselves the moment he waved me on. Thank you Javed!

Or so I thought.

Passport control was next. The counters next to me stamped passports rhythmically, while my officer pored through my pages. Which objectionable stamp was he looking for? Or was it something else altogether? It reminded me of Tashkent's metros, where security staff would check your bags before you enter the station. If you're a foreigner, they ask for your passport. After a while, I'd figured that they were just browsing a document they might not again nose through for a long time.

As the stamps continued to slam at the neighbouring counters, I felt myself relax.


Sunday, 24 January 2016

Even stevens

There were at least 4 lines, but owing to the size of the hall, everyone waiting to clear immigration was virtually pressed against one another. I somehow managed to join a queue which was not particularly long, but it was further away from the currency exchange office. I don't remember seeing anyone behind the desk, now that I think about it, but it would have been nice to exchange a few US dollars for the local currency, som. Bearing in mind, of course, that the official rate for Uzbekistan's currency is much lower than that which is available on the black market (at least two times more). Mustafa, my companion during the flight from Beijing to Tashkent, had told me as much. You can get at least 5,000 som on the black market for every 1 US dollar, he declared proudly.

When you exit the terminal building, waiting relatives and taxi drivers come into view some 70 metres away. As I cross the narrow road and cut across a pavement towards them, I can't help but feel like a sheep walking straight into a slaughterhouse.

Three taxi drivers stand before me, making outrageous claims about how much it would cost to ferry me to my hotel in Tashkent (I'd lost Mustafa in the baggage claims area). I know the city centre is a mere four to five kilometres away, and refuse to offer anything more than 2 US dollars (which I found out was excessive as well). One cabbie eventually agrees, perhaps seeing an opportunity to earn something off me.

In the taxi, the conversation leads to the next most pressing issue.
'You want Uzbek som?'
'Yes. How much?'
'1 US dollar, 4,500 som.'
'Oh. Hmm. I was told I could get 5,000.'
'5,000 too much!'
'It's ok then.'
A pause.
'Ok, 4,800 for you.'
That's pretty easy, I think to myself.
I agree to buy 100 US dollars worth of the currency.

After a quick phone call, we zip towards the railway station, turning left into a wide road just after the Holy Assumption Cathedral. I have a gut feeling I was going to be robbed.

We stop behind a car and a man in a leather jacket. My cabbie excuses himself, walks over to talk to the man, and comes back barely a minute later with a plastic bag filled with bundles of notes. It's my Uzbek soms. I don't manage to count the cash. This being an illegal transaction, they are afraid of being caught by the police, which, by the way, are not an uncommon sight on the streets of Tashkent. I do however manage to make sure all my notes are in denominations of 1,000 (apparently a common scam is for the black market dealers to slip in 500 som notes).

What follows is a fifteen minute ride around the city. The cabbie says he's not sure how to get to my hotel. In the meantime, he gives me a quick tour of some sights that I could consider visiting during my time in Tashkent. I politely marvel at the sights.

My hotel is in a residential area. The streets are generally dark save for a couple of lamp posts erected in what appears to be an afterthought. The hotel is on the first floor, while a restaurant takes the ground level. My cabbie gets out to help me with my bag. Thanking him, I pull out two dollars from my wallet.
'No, no. you pay 78 dollars.'
'What? We agreed to 2 dollars!'
'Yes but it's very far from airport, and we drive 26 kilometres. One kilometre 2 dollars.'
'No, I'm only paying 2 dollars because that's what we agreed. Take it or leave it.'
Not wanting to draw too much attention to himself from some diners exiting the restaurant, he quietly accepts. You're not cheating me, I say before walking off. 

I go to bed soon after checking in, exhausted after a long day all over the place, even though I still have a nagging feeling that something isn't quite right.

The next morning I pull the notes out of the plastic bag. They are definitely in denominations of 1,000 soms. But they fall short.

Shorter than what I'd have gotten from the airport.

But as it turns out, this isn't the worst of my problems.
Something more pressing has happened, and it requires an immediate trip to the airport.

(to be continued) 

"No Farsi"

If there's one thing visitors to Iran swear by, it's the hospitality.

One German tourist I met on a tour to Persepolis said he became friends with an entire family in Esfahan who were picnicking next to the river. An Italian woman I had breakfast with at my guest house in Yazd spoke of a similar experience, where she was taken out for dinner by a group of Iranians she had met at a cafĂ©.

Me? No such luck.

Maybe I look arrogant, something I've been accused of several times (yes, the problem with first impressions). But as it turns out, they (the Iranians) thought I was one of them.

By the time I reached the desert city of Yazd towards the end of my trip, I had gotten used to being taken for a local. Virtually everywhere I went, people would speak to me in Farsi until I convinced them I have no knowledge of the language. Many times they would refuse to believe me. One guy at a train station even looked at me in disdain.
'Oh, no Farsi!'

He probably thought I was a foreign-returned Iranian for whom speaking Farsi had become uncool.

But Farsi wasn't entirely foreign to me. Hindi and my own mother tongue, Punjabi, owe parts of their vocabulary to the language. For example, some numbers are similar, which made learning them that much easier. I was also told that many Iranians watch Hindi films and though they may not know the language, they understand the gist of the dialogues (a little bit of trivia here: the 1975 classic, Sholay, is wildly popular in Iran).

On some level then, maybe I wasn't a complete stranger to Iran, and visiting the country felt like returning to a faraway homeland. It made travelling to Iran that bit more special, never mind the countless incidents of mistaken identity, one of which puts a smile on my face even now.

In Yazd, I was walking to guest house a Swiss couple I had met in Shiraz were staying at. The road was a narrow one, with a vintage car parked on one side. A group of four to six tourists were blocking the path. Two were posing next to the vehicle, one was armed with a camera, while the others stood by. I managed to vaguely identify the words that escaped their lips as I slowed to a halt a short distance away to let them finish. Judging by their appearance alone, I narrowed their origin to Malaysia or Indonesia. But the vocabulary was not Indonesian. As I waited for them to finish, I concluded they were from Singapore or Malaysia.

Walking alongside them, I contemplated being friendly. As if on cue, one of them smiled, giving me the sign I was looking for.

'Awak semua dari Malaysia (Are all of you from Malaysia?)'
One shot back a look of horror, another stopped dead in her tracks.
'How do you know Malay?'
'Oh, I learned it while I was in school. I'm from Singapore.'
'Ya Allah! We thought you're one of them!'

Friday, 18 December 2015

16 days in Uzbekistan

Long overdue post on my solo September/October trip to Uzbekistan. Here are the details: 
Day 1: arrive in Tashkent at 1935hrs (from Beijing)
Day 2: Tashkent
Day 3: train to Samarkand (high-speed rail which took just 2 hours)
Day 4: Samarkand
Samarkand's famed Registan 
Day 5: train to Bukhara (took about 6 hours)
Day 6: Bukhara
Day 7: Bukhara
Day 8: morning shared taxi to Nukus, with a change at Beruni (all in all about 8 hours)
the lone mulberry tree in the courtyard
of Kalon Mosque, Bukhara
Day 9: day trip to Moynaq; Savitsky Museum, a bit of a walk around Nukus
Day 10: shared taxi to Khiva via Urgench (approximately 3 hours)
Day 11: Khiva
Day 12: Khiva
Day 13: Khiva; night flight to Tashkent (Uzbekistan Airways)
Day 14: Tashkent
Day 15: Tashkent
Day 16: Tashkent; flew out at night

Samarkand: 2 nights felt just about right. There are a few places to see in the city.
Bukhara: 2 nights here are good too. It helps that your entrance ticket for a number of sites are good for at least 2 days (ditto Khiva).
Khiva: spend a night here if you don't want to linger too long. Or two nights, provided you leave in the morning.
Tashkent: some interesting architecture (look out for the rocket-looking Banking Association building near Navoiy Park).

Some things to take note of

Amir Temur Maydoni as seen from
Hotel Uzbekistan, Tashkent
Visa: I'm not sure who won't need a visa to Uzbekistan. It's neighbours and Russia perhaps? :) but depending on which country you come from, you might/not need a letter of invitation before the embassy will process your request. This you can arrange from travel companies such as advantour.com or arostr.com

Flying in: plenty of airlines can get you to Tashkent/Urgench, e.g. Uzbekistan Airways, Aeroflot, Asiana, China Southern, Air Astana

ceiling work at Tosh Hovli, Khiva
To/from the airport: taxis are available though you're going to have to haggle before you get into one. I paid 2USD (about 10,000 som on the black market at the time of my visit) for my ride into the city which is about 4-5 km away. Buses and marshrutkas are available right outside once you manage to walk past the many cabbies waiting to pounce on you (ok not quite). Their routes are marked out on a board at the respective bus stops. Note that they operate only till around 10.30pm. If in doubt, ask someone.

Travelling around Tashkent: the city has a pretty good metro system. get a token (1,000 som) at the kassa office. do note that you'll be stopped for bag checks before you're allowed on the platform. Once there, don't even try to take photos. apart from the metro, there are taxis, buses and marshrutkas.

a mausoleum at Shah-i-Zinda,
a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Inter-city travel: trains are clean and reliable. Tashkent's railway station connects you with most parts of the country. There are buses too but I was told not to bother. Shared taxis are another option, but you'd have to wait till the car is filled to capacity before the driver decides to push off. Flights are available too, which you can book on sites like expedia.com.

panoramic view of Khiva
Money: you'll pay for virtually everything in the local currency (soms). You can exchange them from the airport. Problem is, the rate isn't particularly attractive, especially since the black market rate could get you double or more (even if it's illegal to do this). However, refrain from changing from your taxi driver. Pay him in USD (they're usually willing to accept this). Do your exchange at your hotel/guesthouse, or ask them where you can get the black market rate. Then again, you might just find the dealer coming to you instead. Do check to make sure you're getting the right amount. It's not uncommon (especially if you fall into the trap of changing money from cabbies) to find yourself with less than what was agreed, or your stack of notes interspersed with smaller denominations. 

if you have a camera, you're going to make instant friends

Dressing: Uzbekistan may be a Muslim country but it's secular to a fault. Having said that, don't be mistaken into thinking that walking around in a pair of tiny shorts will be ok. To be safe, stick to T-shirts/blouse, jeans/pants, knee-length shorts, or observe how locals dress before toying with the idea of something a little more adventurous.

Ship Cemetery at what was once the Aral Sea, Moynaq
What if I don't know Cyrillic: Most places have signs in Russian and Uzbek, the latter being written in Roman alphabets so you shouldn't feel completely helpless. Having said that, you'll definitely find people who can speak English. Most tourist sites/restaurants/cafes would have signs/menus in English. If eating establishments don't, they'd at least be able to verbally tell you what they have (even if it's in halting English).

How safe is it: I found Uzbekistan to be very safe.



Read!

Inside Central Asia by Dilip Hiro 
The Railway by Hamid Ismailov
Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron

More images at instagram, @kevusingh

Thursday, 7 May 2015

"Iran? Are You Mad?"

Stained-glass windows of Masjed-e Nasir-al-Molk, Shiraz
My trip to Iran was at least 5 years in the making. It was either a case of not finding the right time, worrying about the visa, or having to deal with my mum who vehemently rejected the idea. But as they say, some things are better late than never. This entry hopes to fill information gaps you may still have about this beautiful country.

Is it safe?

Tehran's iconic Azaadi Tower
Often the first question people ask about Iran because of all the negative media attention the country gets. Some colleagues of mine thought I'd lost my marbles when I told them where I was going. But I'd go as far as saying that Iran is as safe as Singapore. People don't bother you because you're a tourist. Instead, they're as curious about you as you are about them. They'd want to know what made you decide to visit Iran, what your experience of their country has been, or if you've run into any trouble. Don't be surprised if you randomly get invited to tea/lunch/chat with locals. I didn't though because I apparently looked Iranian (that's a story in itself, which I'll leave for another blog entry).

Aren't all Iranians fiery-eyed and anti-American/Israeli?
UNESCO-listed Persepolis

Granted, I witnessed two rallies against the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia (for the bombing campaign in Yemen), but these attracted small crowds of about 100 or 200 at most.
Here's another story: the first meal I had at a sandwich joint, I was asked if I'd like Pepsi or some other carbonated drink. It took me a while before I realised I was actually drinking a can of Pepsi (Coke is available too)! Some things, as they say, are worth way more than principles.

Should I really go to Iran? I don't want to be spending money in a country with a regime like that..

Oh don't worry about it. Your government is probably doing that already. Like I said, some things are worth more than principles.

Aren't all the women covered up in burqas?

Courtyard of a traditional house in Kashan
Women in Iran don't don the burqa, they wear chadors (literally tents, though the same word in Hindi and Punjabi means blanket). Then again, not everyone does. You'll see women who conceal their hair under their headscarves, while others show off fringes and part of their crowns. Some forearms are also visible (especially in the big cities like Tehran) and make up and nail polish are not unheard of. Of course, as with any other country, religiosity varies from city to city, town to town. For instance, I saw more women in chadors in Yazd than in Tehran or Esfahan. One of my bus drivers was a woman too.

Speaking of women..
If you're a guy and are introduced to a woman, shake her hand only if she offers it first. The same applies with family members.

Contemporary art exhibition, Tehran
So as a tourist, how much must I cover up?

Women are required to wear a scarf and dress modestly, which means no tank tops, no spaghetti straps, no shorts/skirts. Loose pants and tops would be best, though I saw some Iranian women in relatively tight jeans. If in doubt, go with slightly loose bottoms. Same goes for the tops. Men too have to adhere to some rules: no tank tops, no shorts. T-shirts are fine. In fact, some Iranian men themselves have a thing for wearing tight tees to show off how hard they've worked in the gym.

Dome of Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfolla, Esfahan
OK..but what about getting INTO the country in the first place?

Citizens of most countries can obtain a visa on arrival (for a 2-week stay) unless otherwise stated. The cost depends on where you're coming from. For Singaporeans, it's 60 euros. When you arrive at Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran, go to the Foreign Affairs/Visa counter. They might ask you for a visa authorisation code, as I was. I just told them I was applying for a VOA and they gave me a form to fill. Once that's done, go to the bank adjacent to the counter and make payment for your visa. Then you have to go back to the visa counter and hand over your passport, the filled-up form and receipt from the bank. Make sure that you have the name and contact number of the hotel you're staying at. The officer may also ask for a mobile number of someone in Iran. If you don't have a friend in the country, try getting the mobile number of whoever it is you've liaised with for your hotel stay. Oh, and make sure you come with travel insurance. Then again if you don't, there's a counter right across from the visa office for you to make the purchase.

How do I get around?

Golestan Palace, Tehran
Tehran has a modern metro system (4 lines are operational), otherwise you could try haggling for a taxi. Speaking of which, there are two fare systems for cabs -- dar baste (closed door) and na dar baste (open door). The former means you'll have the cab for yourself, the other allows for other passengers heading in a more or less similar direction to share the vehicle with you at a cost of 20,000 rials (about 60 US cents). As for inter-city travel, you can opt for buses, trains or flights. I took buses all over the country and they were really comfortable. I've heard a similar report about the trains.

Can I use my credit/debit cards in Iran?

No. They won't work due to the sanctions imposed on the country. So bring everything you need in cash (USD, Euros or UAE Dirhams). It also means that your bus, train and flight tickets have to be booked in Iran itself, unless you have a friend there who can do it for you before you get there.

How expensive is it?

Tourist sites will set you back by about 3-5 US dollars each, although Lonely Planet's 2012 edition claims otherwise. But if you look Iranian and manage to get a local ticket, you'd pay just about 50 cents per entry.
A latte costs about 2.50-3 US dollars, and lunch at a decent enough restaurant can set you back by at least 5-8 US dollars (depending on what you order). Mineral water is cheap though. So is public transport.

The garden at Naranjestan, Shiraz
Rials or Tomans?
This is something that requires getting used to. The official currency is Rial, but you'll be quoted prices in Tomans. The difference is that Rials have an extra '0' behind (for example, 4,000 Tomans means you'll have to pay 40,000 Rials). Turns out the currency was changed to Rials by Reza Shah over 70 years ago, but Iranians continued being more comfortable and familiar with the Toman. The central bank has plans to revert to the use of Tomans. Until then, it'll be useful to know the difference. It'll save you the embarrassment of thinking your dinner was dirt cheap.
Masjed-e Shah, Esfahan

Staying connected

Most cafes have wifi, so do the hotels. I usually had a pretty good signal. Do note though that Facebook is blocked, and access to Twitter is a bit patchy. If you absolutely must access Facebook, you'll have to do it via a proxy server (ask the locals).
You'll also need to get a local SIM card if you want to make calls/send SMSes (your home networks won't be available in Iran). For this, go to the Imam Khomeini metro station in Tehran and look for the mobile shop/centre. Take a queue number and wait. Don't forget your passport and the address of your hotel. Let the staff know if you need data, and make sure you check that it works before scooting off.

Read!

- The Ayatollah Begs To Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran by Hooman Majd (highly recommended)
The abandoned village of Kharanaq
- All The Shah's Men by Stephen Kinzer (how the CIA overthrrew a democratically-elected Iranian leader)
- Days of God by James Buchan (details the lead up to the 1979 Revolution)
- Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski (a profile of the last Shah of Iran)
- Poetry by Hafez (They say all Iranian homes have two books at home: one book of poetry by Hafez and the Quran)
- Poetry by Rumi, Sa'di, Khayyam