I’ve spent the last three weeks in Iran. It’s a country where welcoming guests is a way of life, a country that never stopped surprising me from the moment I arrived. Sometimes, the greatest gift of travel is to challenge and dismantle what we think we know about the world.

I had been exploring the streets of Tehran for five minutes when the first Iranian local approached me. I was taking photographs of beautiful patterned tiles on the side of a building, but having heard stories about tourists inadvertently photographing sensitive subjects, I hastily put my camera away.

I tugged at my headscarf, lest it had slipped. But the face moving towards me was filled with a welcoming smile. “Hello! What country are you from?” he asked, in English.

“Australia,” I replied.

At this answer his already broad smile widened even further. “Welcome to Iran!” he said with genuine enthusiasm. “I wish you will have a good time in my country!”

Then away he went.

I waited for a beat. Wasn’t he about to invite me to visit his carpet shop or come to his money-exchange business? Jaded traveller that I sometimes am, when strangers approach I’m always alert to the catch, the hook, the sell. But this time there wasn’t one.

I few minutes later it happened again. Everywhere I went, smiling faces, warm welcomes, genuine hospitality, from women and men, old and young. It was unnerving, until I stopped being suspicious and embraced it.

This is the Iran that everyone might see if they had the opportunity to visit. A country of rich history and culture, and a people who consider hospitality natural. It’s one of the most welcoming and open places I have ever visited, entirely at odds with my prior views of it.

Come with me for the next few weeks as I travel through Iran, exploring its ancient history, its bazars and markets and its rich and varied cuisine. Iran’s greatest asset though, is undoubtedly its people. Meet ordinary Iranian women and discover what they really think, as I ride with them on the long-distance scenic Tehran-Shiraz train.

Tiled interior, Golestan Palace, Tehran

Tiled interior, Golestan Palace, Tehran

An Iranian woman in Shiraz, Iran

An Iranian woman in Shiraz, Iran

Iran's locals welcome you with a smile

Iran's locals welcome you with a smile

Decorative tiled doorway, Tehran, Iran

Decorative tiled doorway, Tehran, Iran

An Iranian woman and her baby, dressed for Ashura

An Iranian woman and her baby, dressed for Ashura

Hand-painted tiled wall, Shiraz, Iran

Hand-painted tiled wall, Shiraz, Iran

In the vegetable market, two young men welcome me to Iran

In the vegetable market, two young men welcome me to Iran

Ice cream sellers, Iran

Ice cream sellers, Iran

Vegetable market, Iran

Vegetable market, Iran