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Published: December 10th 2017
I can’t really remember when the idea of visiting Iran first made its way into my head. It might have been over ten years ago when I bought a book on Islamic architecture and gazed at photographs of amazing tilework at mosques in Esfahan. In late 2016 we started thinking of where to go for our next sabbatical and Iran had by then made it to the shortlist. When we started looking at the practicalities we realised that this wasn’t as simple as buying a plane ticket and making it up from there. Politics raised its inconvenient head and as Brits we needed to go on an organised trip.
Finding that a visa would cost £165 meant that we wanted a trip that would last a few weeks and found the Explore “Iran in depth” 20 day trip and booked ourselves onto it. The next obstacle/bureaucratic hurdle was to get the visa – a two stage process including providing a CV, a bit of family history and social media identities so we could be screened before getting permission to fill in some more forms and visit the consulate in person a couple of weeks before departure…. where
the staff were friendly. Two days later our passports were returned with a whole page visa added.
Preconceptions – living in the UK we don’t really see much news about Iran and when we do it tends to be negative, including pictures of dour clerics or we hear Iran associated with terrorism etc. And as it is not a prime destination for UK travellers we don’t hear much from our compatriots and I could only remember one person that I knew ever having visited. When we told friends, colleagues and family that we were going to Iran you could tell that there was a slight look of “OK, now you’ve lost it” and jokes about ending up in prison etc. Having previously been to Libya and Lebanon we recognise the reaction. This wasn’t universal, some were excited for us.
Clothing – Susan spent a bit of time during the months leading up departure finding suitable clothing – long loose-fitting tops, trousers and of course a variety of head scarves. I read conflicting guidance on whether I needed to wear long sleeve shirts so packed some just in case. I knew that shorts/cut offs were a non-starter.
after all of that we were on our way for the overnight six hour direct flight from Heathrow to Tehran. On a full plane our neighbour was a young man/student going to Tehran for half term to see his grandparents and great grandmother – and he was hoping to have some driving lessons (of which more later). Arrival in Tehran (21 Oct)
We arrived in the early dawn light at Imam Khomeni International airport, a modern facility with, slightly surprisingly, dual Farsi/English language signage – a recurring theme across the country. Far from being interrogated at length by scowling immigration or customs officers who would search our bags we were ushered through a lane reserved for Iranians and were met by a smiling man with a board for our group. We assembled, at this point a group of ten – four couples and two solo travellers.
Our guide for the morning, Yossi, helped us get some currency – we had all stocked up on Euros, Dollars or Sterling before we flew in. We have no access to obtain money from banks within the country and our debit and credit cards won't work. We were suddenly Rial millionaires
- at an exchange rate of 50,000 or so to the pound this isn't so hard to achieve. It took us all a few days to get used to the currency.
We then boarded the bus for the 30km journey into the city centre. The first 20km or so was simple on a motorway before we hit the early morning traffic, it was Saturday morning, the equivalent of a Monday morning on the M4 into London and the traffic slowed to a crawl. It looked as if there were three lanes but we realised that Iranians have no concept of staying in lane and that three lanes can cope with about 4 ½ cars …experts at dodgems. Although very busy and congested there was little hooting and it looked as if everyone accepted that this was the way to drive – I wondered what our plane neighbour would make of this if he got behind the wheel (he lives in Croydon…).
We ground our way into this mega city of 12 million, there was little impression of historic monuments and few skyscrapers. We eventually made it to the hotel and checked in – leaving our passports. From our
room we had a view of the impressive Alborz mountains just a few miles to the north, a view that was later obscured by the daily smog.
After some breakfast and a couple of hours of sleep we braved the streets. We saw no other obvious tourists as we stretched our legs in the sunshine. We had our first experience of crossing the road as a pedestrian – probably the most dangerous activity that anyone experiences in Tehran. Look right, look left (for the motorbike coming the wrong way), watch out for the moped being ridden down the pavement….and step out, keep going and be confident. In Vietnam two years ago we experienced crossing the roads of Hanoi and Saigon – our apprenticeship for this.
We popped into a local café for a cold drink and within moments were engaged by the staff in English conversation – they were curious not confrontational. Some students came in with a box of cakes and insisted that we share. Our first experience of Iranian generousity.
Darkness came quickly in late October and the sun had set by 5.30. Early evening we met our group including a couple of latecomers from
New Zealand and Australia together with meeting our tour leader, Vahid, and started to bond over dinner. Excellent and ridiculously cheap/good value food in a local restaurant. And of course alcohol free! Sunday in Tehran
After a good night’s sleep we had a leisurely start, we met Mr Ali who would be our excellent bus driver for the whole trip. We visited the National Museum which gave us the chance to see some of the best artefacts from Persepolis and other sites. In an adjoining building we also visited an interesting exhibition of Armenian objects. We had lunch at a buffet restaurant in a shopping centre- surprisingly good if a bit of a challenge to work out what is what!
We visited a former military barracks, now partly a post office, to see the tile work. We also went to the Golestan Palace, were given free tea outside. This was the first of several World Heritage sites in Iran that we visited. The interiors boasted impressive bling from the 19th
century but not my taste at all. The exteriors of the buildings and the grounds were nice.
Late afternoon we drove out to the Azari Tower
for the sunset. It sits in the middle of a large roundabout towards the west of the city. Slightly surprised that it is still there as it is a monument erected by the late and not very lamented Shah in 1971/72 to commemorate 2,500 years of Persia/Iran.
In the evening we strolled to another café (Sara’s on Vali Sadr St) and again were made very welcome – I had my first ever Apple Mojito – a non-alcoholic cocktail followed by hibiscus tea and something that we think was called Turt – it looks like chewed olive stones but is actually a tasty snack/sweet. Monday in Tehran
We headed slightly further north in Tehran to visit the shrine of Imamzadeh Saleh. This was our first experience of men and women entering separately and the latter needing to wear chadors – the head to foot covering that probably takes years of practice to wear elegantly….these ones looked rather like cast off nylon sheets. The shrine itself was very pleasant with devotees praying and leaving money. Whilst wandering in the courtyard a student offered me some fresh bread smeared with what looked like Nutella…not my thing.
Next stop was
the Tajirish bazaar where we wandered, bought saffron, bananas and nuts. It was obviously the week to buy celery - it was everywhere. We also got to taste fresh pistachios - slightly hard work with two layers to shell.
We then went to the Reza Abbasi museum, quite a small collection of objects including pictures. Many exquisite pieces, some of which at least had been confiscated from smugglers.
After a lunch stop we headed to the Jewellery museum, this is housed in a large bank vault. Whilst I could appreciate some of the pieces and the casual piles of gems and one massive diamond, it wasn’t really my thing – though Susan loved it.
In the evening we went on a walk to see one of the famous stars and stripes murals on our way to another nice café. Sadly a bit too dark to photograph the mural but suffice to say it wasn't pro USA. The Nazdik café was simple and busy – producing an impressive salad.
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