Where it all began. The US Den of Espionage. A quick shot over the wall into the old US Embassy compound.
Wednesday 25 September:
All morning spent travelling. Picked up at hotel and taken to the airport in Istanbul. Check-in, Immigration no problems – smooth as. After that – well I won’t complain about Sydney International Terminal again. The arrivals area is friendly and airy, the people helpful. Sort of the opposite in the departure area. People (shop assistants in Duty Free) less than helpful and give erroneous advice. Would you believe that there is only one ATM in the whole departure area at Ataturk International Airport and that is hidden away in the HSBC VIP lounge. Doesn’t dispense USD – only TL, Euros and GBP. Had to withdraw in Euros.
The Flight I was on was Turkish Airlines TK 0870 and was code share with Iran Air. The departure boards at check in and throughout the terminal showed that the flight was leaving from Gate 503. So at the appointed time I made my way to the gate after checking the info board. Got to the gate to find out the departure gate had been changed to Gate 212 – almost the other end of the terminal. So back I went, retracing my
Anti-American street art on the wall outside the old US Embassy. Not the Statue of Liberty represented with a skull.
Flight to Tehran was comfortable. The lunch that was served was delicious. A baked chicken and vegetables dish on a bed of potato puree (mashed potatoes). During the flight I had an exit row – lots of leg room but the seat did not recline. Ah well can’t have everything. The flight was only half full. An American (with a mildly loud mouth sat behind me). An Iranian sitting in the same row was trying to be friendly with him but he was sort of – not rude but uninterested, and a little denigrating. Thought he was important as he made a point with the steward that he was “a very, very frequent flyer” with Turkish Airlines.
Well what an entrance to a country. My instructions were to look out for someone standing there with a Persian Tours sign. This person was supposed to take me through Immigration and Customs including getting my visa. Just before immigration there was a chap standing there with a card with my name on it with CIP underneath. He said follow him so I did – to the visa office. He asked for my passport and handed it to a guy
Poster of Iranian Martyrs. These posters are everywhere at the moment. You have to remember that there is not a family in Iran that didn't have someone killed and/or maimed during the war with Iraq.
behind a screen who wrote 70 Euros on a piece of paper and handed it back. I was then escorted into a room sans passport. When I entered the room, or to be more precise, the lounge, I was sat down and given hot water to make tea or coffee. The gent asked for 70 Euros which I gave him, and which he handed onto a second guy who also got my luggage receipt. I was left sitting there watching Soccer on the TV with the staff of the lounge. The second guy returned and gave me a receipt for 70 Euros plus 10 Euros change (I only had 20 Euro notes).
After a short interval guy No 1 came back and escorted me to an immigration desk where I was handed my passport with visa in it and stamped as having entered the country. We then proceeded to the exit where there was a bit of a delay – they couldn’t find my guide/driver. Eventually he was found (downstairs). Going down I was thinking what about my checked luggage. Not to worry Emir my guide/driver had it with him. No lines, no customs check. Straight through in comfort
This chap (a sign writer) was adding to the War Remembrance art assemblage. He was quite friendly and eager to pose for me even if he was working on a Revolutionary Guard building.
in under 20 mins. I did find out what CIP stood for – it was on all the doors I went through – Commercially Important Person.
Then the 40 km drive to Tehran. Not as hectic as some places I have been in the Middle East and Asia – lanes however were an optional extra and not obligatory. Not too much use of horns either. The roads were moderately busy – vehicles a mix of new and old – mostly in the not too new, not too old category. Going back a bit - when the plane landed and we were getting ready to disembark all the Muslim women on the aircraft were putting on jackets and head scarves, covering the fleshy bits they were flaunting before.
On the road in we passed a number of military installations – easy to spot: fences, guard towers and gate guards - old T 54/55 tanks (Soviet made). One installation was surrounded by AA guns. Also saw a couple of buildings in Tehran that had AA guns mounted on their roofs. There were a lot of banners, billboards, street art etc with pics of soldiers killed during the Iran/Iraq War. This
Tehran - Golestan Palace
View of the "marble throne" in one of the open pavilions in the palace complex. Check out the decorations.
week is the anniversary of that war – sort of like our ANZAC Day.
There were also a lot of traffic police on the road (with radar guns). Saw a couple of motor cycle cops talking very severely and wagging fingers at driver – pens and notebooks out. The vehicle we made the trip in was Emir’s own vehicle and will be the one we tour around in. Was a slight problem – in Tehran they have a system where on odd days cars ending with an odd number can enter the city centre. On even days only even ending registrations. Monday Wednesday and Saturday are odd days, Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday even – Friday doesn’t count as it’s a non-workday. As a result we had to change vehicles. Emir tried to get a taxi at a major rank but no one wanted to go into the city because of the traffic. Don’t know what they were complaining about – Canberra is busier on a weekend. So after a telephone call we met a “taxi” at a specific place and were driven to the hotel.
While in Tehran I am staying at the Parsian Enghelab Hotel which is
Tehran - Golestan Palacemore or less in the centre of the city. Reasonably modern, very clean and comfortable, but a little tatty around the edges. The International Airport was a bit weatherworn but generally clean and modern (10 to 15 years ago would have been very modern). Again a bit tatty.
I was able to snap this as soon as I entered the Reception Building. No Photos. Gives an idea of the opulence of the place.
OK just got back from an evening walk and dinner. The latter was in the hotel in the round restaurant on the 16th Floor. Was sitting there and thought the tooth problem had affected my inner ear – NO, they turned the revolving floor on. Dinner was quite nice – main dish Chelo Khoreshte Fesenjan - chicken cooked in a crushed walnut and pomegranate paste. During dinner I tried the local beer (non-alcoholic). Sorry I did, it was revolting. Very sweet and not quite sure of the taste description – probably vinegary – that’s it lemony. Tried it – won’t make that mistake again. Three weeks without alcohol. Can I survive?
Thursday 26 September
Well I have now spent my first full day in Iran, well at least in the capital Tehran. The city in its present form is probably no more than 200 years old. About
Tehran - Golestan Palace
One of the lesser rooms in the complex. This section pales into insignificance when compared to the Reception Building.
the same age as Sydney. It is quite modern despite the sanctions in place. Had a full on day. Covered most of what was to be covered tomorrow as on Friday everything (just about) is closed.
Surprisingly I was up early at 06:30 so I had a shower and went for a short walk. After breakfast as I had a bit over 2 hours to kill I went for a longer walk which took up most of the 2 hours. Firstly I walked up to what is known in Iran as The US Den of Espionage (ie the old US Embassy). It’s currently used by a fundamental Islamic group as their HQ. The group see it as their responsibility to protect the Islamic Revolution (more later). Not much to see as there is a high fence around the grounds, however there was a gate open so I went in as far as a checkpoint and was told that the museum was closed and was politely told that I couldn’t take a photo of the building. The museum in the place is dedicated to illustrating US Interference in internal Iranian affairs prior to the first revolution that toppled the Shah.
View from the high point I reach looking down the gorge towards Tehran City.
It was at this time that the Embassy was stormed, not by religious “nut cases” but by students who remembered what happened last time their country sought independence from the west. The Islamic Revolution followed the student revolution, basically when the Imam Khomeini returned no one was in charge so the religious leaders stepped in.
So whey was the Embassy invaded and taken over. In 1953 the first freely elected government in Iran came to power. One of the first tasks of the then new PM was to try and negotiate a better deal from Anglo-Iranian Oil for Iran. Anglo-Iranian refused and with the backing of the British Government told the Iranians to sod off. The result was that the Iranians nationalized the oil industry. That, as might be expected, didn’t go down too well in London. Churchill who was back as PM went to his buddies in the Whitehouse and asked for their help in getting rid of the “Leftist” Iranian Government. The CIA, which was then still relatively new planned and backed a coup which was foiled at the last minute when the plotters were arrested. Not to be beaten the Americans tried again a few weeks
Tehran - Imam Khomenie's House
The pavilion in which he gave his audiences. The old guy sat in the chair at the right hand end of the elevated platform. The door behind the stage leads to his residence.
later and were successful. The Shah was back in charge with all that meant for the Iranian people. The Shah denationalized the oil industry and the US for its trouble got 40% of the taking from the Iranian oil deposits.
The repercussions of that first CIA coup has not gone away. After that the US via the CIA ran Iran from a bunker in the Embassy. The Iranians after the Revolutions were able to get the proof as they were able to stick shredded US documents back together. Hey these are the guys and girls that make Persian Carpets. The rest as they say is history, and Good Ole Uncle Sam never forgives.
Emir met me at the hotel at the appointed and took me to the Bazaar (which is shut on Friday). Now I have walked around bazaars/markets in a lot of Asian countries, but nothing compares to the Tehran Grand Bazaar. Wow – a sea of humanity and bedlam. I actually got caught in a traffic jam, gridlock really, of pedestrians. I have learnt how to get around – just shove your way through the throng. We spent several hours just wandering among the crowds. Each
Tehran - Imam Khomenie's House
Me, myself outside the Imam's quarters. The house is simple as can be seen. The elevated walkway was put in so that he could walk from the house to his stage without climbing stairs. He was quite old when the walkway was built.
time we got caught in a crush Emir would say to watch your valuables. The Bazaar is the main shopping complex in Tehran, and most Tehranis use it for shopping. Its patronage was tailing off 10 years ago due to major traffic congestion in the area. After the Metro was extended to the Bazaar it came back in favour – and everyone wants to shop there (especially on Thursday). For an indication of its popularity at a corner near the hotel is a building that sells itself as the largest shopping mall in Iran. I went in – you could have let off a bomb and not hurt anyone. So I really believe that most Tehranis do use the markets and the shops along the main thoroughfares in the city centre. The Thursday crowd at the Bazaar was probably due to the last day it was open before the weekend. From what I saw you could get just about anything there.
In the same district as the Bazaar, in fact just around the corner is the Golestan Palace, which Emir tells me is hardly visited by Iranians. The Palace was built by the Qajar Dynasty, in fact by one
Now when you see something like this outside a restaurant - you know someone has money in Iran. An Iranian American standing near me said - If you owned that you could f*** anyone.
Nasser al-Din Shah who ruled between 1848 and 1896. The longest reigning Shah of the Dynasty. The complex used to be much larger but the “extraneous” buildings were pulled down by the Pahlavies the last ruling Dynasty. What can I say about the place: sheer bloody opulence. The main building, which sadly no photos were allowed, was stunning. There were mirrors of all shapes and sizes everywhere. The Dynasty was noted for its love of fine jewelry. None are in the palace – the collection is either in the National Jewelry Museum of the Central Iran Bank Museum. The latter is only open on special occasions. Anyway, the main building is full of great works of art and antique furniture. There is a gold statue of a Chinese pagoda scene about 4 foot high which was presented by Queen Victoria to Nasser al-Din Shah. In some of the smaller buildings it was possible to take pics. They give an indication of what the interior of the main palace building was like. Earlier Emir and I were discussing the ways that Iranians Shahs tended to die – not by natural causes. I jokingly said that with all the mirrors in the
Tehran Station - had to have a look.
palace no one could sneak up behind the Shah and knife him. Emir chuckled.
I’ll go back a bit – why don’t Iranians visit the Palace complex? The answer is simple the Qajar Dynasty is hated by the Iranian People. It was this family that has been blamed for the breakup of the Iranian Empire which at the time included Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Crimea, and Armenia etc. The Qajars more or less gave the Empire away to either the Russians or the Turks (probably for a nice sum). Emir said that Iranians are taught at school to hate the Qajars as much as they hate the Pahlavies (the last Shahs).
Whilst in the Bazaar we visited the Imam Mosque (used to be the Shah Mosque). This is a beautiful building dating to the early to mid 1800s. Sadly again no photos. It was interesting that during the call to prayer and while men were doing their ablutions before entering the mosque, and even after prayers were started I was not asked to leave. In all other Islamic countries I have been in – during these times non-Muslims have to vacate the premises. I took my lead from Emir.
View from my window on the 11th Floor. Took the pick while the call to prayer was being made from the minaret in centre of pic.
In one smaller Jami Mosque (Friday Mosque) we sat there during the start of prayers and an old chap told us about the building.
I’ll make an observation now about what I have seen in Iran with regard to Islam. I think people are freer than in a lot of other Islamic countries, but I’ll say that with a caveat. The overall authority is the Conservative Imams who lay down the rules regard religion and the interpretation of the Koran. However the people, especially the women, seem to push the boundary as far as they can. Yesterday I mentioned the women on the plane covering up. All women in Iran (even tourist) have to wear the head scarf. There is no burkah or face covering in Iran. Women, not only young ones push the boundary of the head scarf to the point that it is more a head band than a scarf. They are also expected to hide their figure which again they seem to get around. I went past a PJs shop that catered for women this evening on a walk – some of the bed wear was very un-Islamic and very sexy. In Iran you see men and women of all ages and social levels walking down the street arm in arm or holding hands. Definitely not allowed in some other Islamic countries: Saudi, UAE, Turkey, Jordan, Malaysia, and Indonesia just to name a few. The Iranians are Shia by the way which is why a lot of their neighbours (eg Saudi and The Emirates) hate them.
Under the last President, Ahmadinejad, the Morality Police were very active, but under the new regime less so. A backlash occurred against the Police when they started to clamp down in Northern Tehran (if you live in the northern part of any Iranian city – you got money). There was serious trouble with police cars wrecked etc. The Mullahs don’t like it but they seem to be losing influence especially over the young.
As for Tehran, if you ignore the traffic on the wrong side of the road and the signs in Farsi, you just might be walking down the street of any city in the world, east or west. Generally it is a lot cleaner than other Middle Eastern cities and there are not the cats and dogs you see elsewhere. In fact all day I only saw one cat (and no vermin). I have been for extensive walks around the streets near the hotel. I felt entirely safe and was not hassled in any way. Emir was surprised when I told him that during my after breakfast walk I was approach four times by Iranians asking for directions. When I said sorry don’t speak Farsi and I’m a tourist the people were slightly embarrassed at having annoyed me. Emir said it’s probably because I look a little like an Iranian myself. Thanks very much! He was told in India that he looked like an Israeli!!!!
The only annoyance I have experienced so far is the traffic. The cars are easy – when crossing the street make sure there are at least three locals between you and the oncoming traffic. They’ll form a cushion on the front of the vehicle and …… Joke. The only things I am wary of (and I don’t know why) is the motor bikes. Ha! Ha! Ha! Really the Tehran bike traffic is notorious for accidents and unpredictability. They seem to think red lights are an optional extra to be used only if they want to (or there’s a cop around). They also ride on the footpaths to avoid the log jam of cars on the street. This is actually a bit more nerve racking than in China where everybody rides on the footpath. Here it’s the odd one that comes at you out of a crowd of people.
All in all though I enjoyed my first day in Iran. Tomorrow Emir is driving me up to Darband in the nearby Alborz Mountains. This is the place that Tehranis go to get away from the city. During winter you can go skiing there. Apparently it is a very attractive place. More tomorrow. Oh yeah! At dinner tonight when I asked for a lemonade (they didn’t’ have any) the waiter tried to talk me into having an Iranian Beer – said it was nice. I declined politely and had a cola instead.
Friday 27th September:
Well back in the hotel absolutely stuffed. Today was an all walking day. After breakfast Emir picked me up and drove me to Darband, which is actually not all that far from the centre of town. For those who have been to Vancouver, sort of like Grouse Mountain. Anyway we had extreme difficulty finding a parking place. Remember all the people at the Bazaar, well I know where they were this morning and it wasn’t at prayers. We eventually found a spot outside a shop (the owner said it was OK to park there). I asked Emir if the shop was a Real Estate Agent – yes it was. The guy looked like a real estate agent, and who else would be dressed in a suit on “Sunday”. That’s when the walking began. I don’t know how far we covered but I would guess probably at least 10 km (most uphill).
What was the walk like? Well if anyone has climbed the 1000 odd stairs at Marble Mountain in Da Nang, well this was worse. Why? Well there were steps, but there were also steps missing. The footpath is also the easiest route for water from the numerous springs in the area to make it down the hill. The place was crowded – however the higher you got the less people there were. Along the route there was almost a continuous line of Tea Houses – tea and water pipes the main items on the menu. Oh yeah and water. We climbed and climbed to about 2,050 metres (we started at a tad below 1500, and then stopped for a tea. On the way down Emir asked if I would like to take a different route down. I said OK. Thank god I did – this route was smoother and easier but less adventuresome. Halfway down we met a paved road. Above us was the chair lift that led to the summit. Back at the car Emir asked if I was hungry – I looked at my watch – 14:00. Yep I was hungry.
It was interesting on the mountain mingling with the locals. Several tried their English out on me. One thing stuck out – there are some very pretty girls in Tehran. They are also trendy when it comes to clothes, and like girls everywhere they wear the most inappropriate shoes for the occasion. I mean open weave dress shoes are not suited to a wet muddy walking track, nor a high heels (even if they are low) don’t suit a very rocky footpath. Ah! But we have to look ice. I’ll wait for the brickbats when I get home ladies.
We then proceed to get lunch. All restaurants in Tehran close at 15:00 (reopen at 19:30). After much driving and stopping for directions we eventually got to a restaurant that was open. More late as again I have to back track. On the way to the restaurant we took a detour and as before after much stopping and asking directions (most people didn’t know where the place we were looking for was) we arrived at our destination. It was sort of an interest thing. The place was the Imam Khamenei Tehran house. Long story about the history of the place. Nearby was the building in which he gave his speeches and interviews to the press. The house is much like Ho Chi Minh’s – small and simple. Khamenei’s place consisted of two rooms and a kitchen. It’s now turned into a shrine. At the entrance we were signed in by a very friendly (and chubby) Revolutionary Guard. The other Iranian visitors were very pleasant and friendly and seemed to approve me visiting the place. Technically we weren’t allowed to take photos – as the locals were – when in Rome (or to be precise Tehran).
On to the restaurant. This was up market. Right in the middle of North Tehran. Those Tehranis (the rich ones) who weren’t on the mountain were her. Men and women strutting their stuff. You had to get a number from the guy at the door who controlled entry. Some people, regulars went straight in – hey money talks. The outside was typically Tehran – bedlam. The women, both old and young, were done up to the nines. The cars were definitely upmarket – BMWs, Mercs, Top of the Range Toyotas etc. Emir had never been there before but had heard about it. He was intrigued by the carryon of the Up Towner. Emir is from Yadz, not Tehran. Emir badgered the doorman who let us in an hour before our appointed time which was16:30. I was all for going and getting a sambo, but am glad that Emir persisted. The food was great – the restaurant was busy and noisy. The staff (at least 20) would have a table cleared in seconds. It was expected that as soon as you had your meal – hop it. Which we did.
On the way back to the Hotel Emir took me via the railway station for a look. Couldn’t get inside due to the crowds, but had a look at the exterior of the building. On the way in Emir got booked for using a bus only lane – got caught in the wrong lane due to road works and Metro construction. $10 fine.
Here ends the Tehran sojourn. Tomorrow we head off to Hamadan and points south. Will blog when I can.
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