Nobody goes to Iran for a holiday, and particularly nobody takes their young kids with them on that holiday. Or so my colleagues had disapprovingly told me when I broke the news we were off on our next adventure. As did the lady at the Iran embassy that had been processing my visa. Well then, we were going to make history and show the world just how doable traveling around Iran is. And then revel in rubbing our awesome photos and kebab-filled bellies in their proverbial noses.
The trip into Tehran was uneventful and we got our first dose of Northern Iranian scenery. You don't think about snow when you think about Iran, but the first thing you see as you pull out of the airport are the imposing Alborg mountains - Mt. Kilimanjaro-esque monolithic blobs that rise up from the flat plains and dusted with snow. And you don't think of lush green plains when you think of Iran but there they were. Iran's claim to fame is having the hottest point on earth (Lut Desert) that's within 90km of snowfields. It has so-called jungles, beaches, desert, snow and everything between. A country of diverse habitats (ironic given its
lack of diversity for women's habits ... think on your English to get than pun).
Our attention quickly was shifted to more important things as we pulled into Tehran. Women. And most particularly, their ankles, their wrists and their neck lines. Colors of head scarves. How much hair was showing. Its a requirement that foreigners don Hijab (muslim ladies dress standards). As an engineer I thrive on specifications. Alas Hijab is poorly specified. Particularly if you rely on what's published on the web in English. Technically women need to be covered head to ankle. But what exactly does 'to ankle' mean? Does it include the ankle, or do you stop above the ankle. Sleeves need to cover your wrist ... but where exactly does the wrist end and the hand start. Can you look at your watch? Colors should not be bright. But what is a bright. When does a color transition from dull to bright. Is a dull fabric with colored spots bright or dull. These philosophical questions had been at the heart of our last minute preparation coming over here. And so you can understand why it was now ankle gazing time.
Conclusions? What women wear
in Iran (or at least Tehran) is far from Hijab specifications. We knew already that Iran was well past its full black chador wearing days. But we were seeing hair everywhere. And sleeves pulled back. Fitted jackets with tight waist belts. Foundation so thick you could write your name in it, and red lipstick bright enough to guide you through a stormy night. Iranian women push those Hijab specifications to edge and then ten miles further.
We didn't stop our ankle gazing till we pulled up at our hotel. Which is when we realized we actually had neglected looking at the wonderful country we were in. So after chastising ourselves, we got changed and headed out to explore Tehran. Though, after about 20 meters of walking, we were back to ankle gazing.
Our first stop was the money changers to change money. Alas they were all closed. We had forgotten Thursday/Friday is the weekend in Iran. Oh darn. No money. And no visa cards or international ATMs in Iran thanks to sanctions. Luckily we managed to find a black market exchange - old guy on the side of the road, and soon were Iranian millionaires (1USD = 30000
Iranian restaurants have truly invented a millions ways to take what is essentially roast meat and call it a hundred different things to fill a menu. By the end of the trip we were kebabed out.
Rials, so its doesn't take much to get a million).
We then hopped into the subway and headed over to the Tehran bazaar. The subway is excellent though overpacked. There are special women's only carriages and we were slightly confused whether we had to split up since we didn't see any women in the so-called carriage we were in. Turns out it doesn't matter - its not scandalous at all for a women to be in the men's carriage. Thank you western media for completely misrepresenting this country.
The bazaar was alas closed because it was a Thursday, but luckily the outer parts were still buzzing with life. Iranians are super friendly and lots of folks wanted to talk to us and just say hi. We just walked around people watching, and stopped periodically to enjoy the fabulous fruit juices. They make honeydew juice here which has the consistency of drinking fresh cream and tastes like deliciousness with a sprinkling of ecstasy. I'm juicing honeydew as soon as I get home. They also make pistachio milkshakes which are out of this world. Juices are now the defacto ice-cream treat for the kids.
We were also able to
Garlicy eggpant stuff
Bademjan something something. Infinitely tasty.
watch the Iranian gold stock market in full swing. In a small square outside the bizarre there were a bunch of guys standing on a raised platform yelling numbers, and below them a crowd of traders screaming and swapping pieces of paper. What's going on here? Its not what you would expect. Due to sanctions, getting money in and out of the country is difficult - there are no telegraphic transfers due to sanctions. Thus people do it the old way. They swap rials for gold. Then gold gets transported out of the country and sold for silver. That silver is then exchanged for sink taps, and those sink taps for clothes pegs, and then eventually once the chain is sufficiently long, swapped for USD. Its the old system of bartering and essentially money laundering. So what we got to watch was the first part of this intricate chain. We filmed a part of it, and one of the guys jokingly warned us not to post it their faces on youtube.
Tummies were getting hungry so we headed down the road to a tea house. Iranian food from what we saw consists of kebabs, stews, dips and bread. And
the occasional salad. A meat eaters delight. Our favorite for that day was 'special olives', which we later found out is readily available everywhere in a jar, and is some delicious combination of olives and I think nuts and smashed up stuff that is just delectable.
Final destination for the night was to the Den of Espionage, which is what the ex-US embassy in Tehran is called (if you've seen the movie Argo, this is where it took place!). Its now used as a training center for the revolutionary guard (I think). You can't actually see the embassy since its behind high walls (though we did get a brief glimpse as one of the gates opened to let a car out ... nothing exciting inside). However the large walls outside are covered by anti-American murals, such as the statue of liberty with a skull face (see pictures below). They portray a very strong anti-US sentiment but this was the one and only anti-US expression we saw in our entire trip.
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