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Iran: 10 things that surprised me

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OPINION: It's been a long time since former US president George W Bush labelled Iran and its "terrorist allies" "the axis of evil", but 17 years on it still gets a pretty bad rap.

When I told people I was headed to Iran, the most common responses were "Is it safe?" and "Why"? The answers to those questions, in short, are "Yes" and "Where do I start?".

Here are 10 of the many things that surprised me about the Islamic Republic, one of the great empires of the ancient world and - I'm now convinced - great wonders of the modern one.

It's super safe and locals love visitors

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade's advice on travelling to Iran doesn't exactly inspire confidence. Do not travel within 100km of the Afghan border, 10km of the Iraqi border or east of the line running from Bam to Jask near Pakistan, it warns. And exercise "increased caution" elsewhere. The main risks: "the potential for civil unrest and acts of terrorism".

When my bank told me I wouldn't be able to use my credit card because the country was deemed "high risk", I began to wonder whether it was reckless to avoid so many red flags. Until I arrived in the country and realised it's one of the friendliest and most hospitable on Earth.

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Travelling between the capital, Tehran, and the cities of Isfahan, Shiraz, Yazd and Kashan - all well away from the border areas - our group of seven women never once felt unsafe. Decked out in the obligatory headscarves, long sleeves and long pants, I initially thought we'd disguised ourselves as locals pretty well. But the long looks we attracted wherever we went soon dispelled that illusion.

As soon as we smiled or said "salam" though, the stares would give way to smiles and greetings of "salam" in return. And then the barrage of questions would begin. Where are you from? Do you love Iran? Where have you been? Where do you love the most? What do people in your country think about our country?

Often no smile or "salam" was needed to elicit such questioning. Soaking up the buzzing Thursday evening atmosphere in Isfahan's Naqsh-e Jahan Square solo, surrounded by picnicking families, I could hardly walk 100 metres without being approached for a chat or photo.

A tall, blonde member of our group garnered even more attention. It was like she was Lady Gaga making a futile attempt to conceal her identity in public long after her star had been born. It was never sleazy or threatening; just appreciative, with men, women and children among her many admirers. And she wasn't exactly unhappy to discover she's every Iranian man's dream.

Inevitably these encounters would end in a "Thank you for choosing Iran" and, often, in following each other on Instagram. Perhaps it's because there are still relatively few Western tourists, but I have never been to a country where so many people are so genuinely pleased - and grateful - you have decided to visit.

Even wandering the dimly lit backstreets of the desert city of Yazd after dark didn't quicken our pulses. I, for one, have felt far more unsafe walking the streets of central Auckland on a Friday night. That no one in Iran is out of their mind on drink or drugs in public probably has something to do with it.

The female dress code is more relaxed than expected

Yes, women are required to wear the hijab in public, keeping everything other than their face, hands and feet covered (I'm guessing foot fetishes........

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