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Published: January 14th 2019
Perhaps Tehran's most iconic building.
Twenty years ago, if someone had told me that I'd one day be going to Iran, I would never have believed it. In fact even now I was met with raised eyebrows when I told friends and colleagues of my holiday plans.
Requiring a deal with major world powers to curb nuclear ambitions, being a conservative Islamic republic and having recently and arbitrarily detained foreign nationals, the country gets a bit of a bad rap in Western media but even taking this into account, I was still slightly concerned about what might happen to me while over there.
But then on the other hand, I had heard of many tourists who had been there and I had never heard anyone say a single bad word about it; only that the food was amazing, the architecture beautiful and the people the most hospitable they had ever met. So this reassured me a little.
But only a little.
I knew that I could get a visa on arrival at the airport in Tehran - and that it was pretty easy to get - and that I could speed up the process a little by applying for an e-visa beforehand online.
In some ways, all of these restaurants have ruined the mountainside village of Darband but at the same time they are all tastefully decorated and makes the place look rather stunning.
two days before I was due to fly out, I got an email back from the Iranian Ministry Of Foreign Affairs saying that my application for an e-visa had been rejected! The response came back in just a few hours - so very quickly - and the reason given was "Please apply via a host in Iran". So...pretty vague. What was I to do? To make things worse, I had read that if you had had an application for an Iranian visa rejected in the past, then you wouldn't be eligible for a visa on arrival. So by trying to expedite the process and help myself, had I just shot myself in the foot?
I had also read however that it was probably just an automated response, that the e-visa scheme isn't working properly and that I could probably still get a visa on arrival. I even called a company that arranged Iranian visas and the girl on the phone told me that what had happened to me was quite a common occurrence and that she knew of people who had still gone anyway and managed to get a visa on arrival; but that she couldn't guarantee I would get
One of the "badgirs" (wind towers) in the Golestan Palace that acts as an old-school air conditioning system.
one. To be 100% safe she recommended trying to arrange a visa before going; the only problem was that I was leaving the next day.
I decided to take my chances; if they had to send me back to Germany, a fight back would only cost about 100€, although I'd be gutted if it came to that.
On the five hour flight over and on arrival at Imam Khomeini International Airport, I was actually pretty relaxed.
After purchasing the mandatory travel insurance I then went to the visa on arrival counter where I was invited to fill out a short form and then wait. About twenty minutes later, a man in a suit approaches me in the waiting room and asks me to take a seat. He asks me some standard immigration officer questions about how long I was staying, where I was going and return flight details, all of which I had prepared. He then started asking questions about New Zealand and started gushing about how beautiful it is. Being a Kiwi has definitely done me some favours over the years.
"Enjoy your time in Iran", he says, as he walks over to interview some other tourists.
Iconic pedestrian bridge that soars above a motorway, connecting two sides of a valley. It is a relaxing place to hang out despite the incessant noise of the traffice below.
minutes later and my passport is returned, although there is no stamp and no visa - I am told just to go straight to immigration.
The border officer smiles as he takes my passport and then processes it. He hands it back, still with a smile - I was in!
It was easy-peasy in the end - I had tied myself in knots about nothing.
Walking outside the arrivals hall to pick up a taxi to get to the hostel a man comes over asking me if I needed one. I tell him I need to get to Baharestan metro station (the metro itself was closed at that time of night) and he instantly knows where I am going.
"Baharestan two-two", he tells me, twenty-two being the street number of my hostel.
"How much?" I ask him.
He takes a while to answer the question, either deflecting it or ignoring it until we get near his car in the car-park which is miles away. I know at this stage that this was no official taxi. I've taken loads of these however and they all turned out fine; yet I was still a little apprehensive having just arrived in the
Featuring a statue of Ayatollah Khomeini, the first Supreme Leader and the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He was considered the highest legal and religious authority in the country and led the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In the background is the Iranian flag.
"Four hundred", he tells me.
"You mean four hundred thousand?"
I was expecting to pay about 900,000 Iranian rials
so this seemed like a bargain. It also seemed a bit too good to be true, but I got in the car anyway.
"You give me money now" he then says.
I didn't mind paying up front so I gave him a 500,000 rial note.
"No, four", he then tells me.
"Yeah...this is five."
"THIS IS FIVE!"
"NO...four of this!"
He meant 4 x 500,000 - or double what I should have been paying with an official taxi.
"Oh, no way!" I say, and I get out of the car and start walking back to the taxi rank.
"OK, OK, 30 euro, no problem."
I laugh at his face.
"OK, OK, 15 euro."
"10 euro, no more!" I reply (10€ is about 1,000,000 rials).
"OK, OK...", he agrees.
It's a long ride to the city centre from the airport as it is some forty-five kilometres out of the city. And the whole way, the driver keeps asking me if I can give him an extra 500,000 rials.
"No more money for you!", I forcefully tell him.
Colourful Tile Work
Inside the Golestan Palace.
big Tehran", he tells me. "Five hundred more."
"No", I reply.
We then get stuck in Tehran's infamous traffic at 12.30am. It starts feeling like the longest and most awkward taxi ride ever.
"Lots of traffic", he tells me, "you should give me extra 500!"
I was just praying this taxi ride would be over soon.
When I was backpacking and was watching every cent, I probably would never have agreed to go with a random, unofficial 'taxi driver'. But now I had money again, I didn't care so much about getting ripped off - I still didn't want it to happen but I knew that it wouldn't be as much of disaster now if I did. I had also been in similar situations so many times before with no problem and combined with the honest reputation of Iranians, I had become complacent.
Sitting in that 'taxi', I now had no idea where in the city I was (I had neglected to load Google Maps and I now had no mobile data), where we were going or if the driver was now planning something sinister - I was at his mercy now. After over a year of not travelling much,
Khalvate-e Karim Khani
This terrace was where Nasser al-din Shah often wiled away his during his leisure time. Notice the cabbage flowers - actual cabbages that are decorative features in almost every garden in Iran.
I've lost my edge.
Thankfully, we arrive at the door of the hostel.
"Five hundred more!" he begs one last time.
I know that it's just 5€ to me and a lot to him, but getting ripped of is one of the most chastening of feelings one can experience.
"No", I reply, and I leave the cab. Finally.
I was super-confused by the money situation when I first arrived.
First of all, there is an official exchange rate - 47,000 rials for 1€, which is the rate I was expecting and the one listed on my currency app - and a market rate which is closer to 110,000 rials per euro. I had no idea about this black market rate (which is actually not that black market, since it is openly used for exchange all over the country) so imagine my surprise when I got twice as many rials than I thought I was supposed to get, when changing money for the first time at the airport.
With the Iranian rial going up and down like a yo-yo - no thanks to US sanctions - the locals are desperate for foreign currency that will hold its value. Thus the
The showpiece mirror hall of the Golestan Palace.
number of cambios
on the street. It reminded me of when I was in Buenos Aires
And then to confuse you further, Iranians commonly use a measure of currency called a toman
where 1 toman = 10 rials. So when a shopkeeper gives you a price of "ten thousand" they usually, actually mean one hundred thousand
. So many times a local has named a price and I have given them ten times too little.
"If you wanted one hundred thousand, why didn't you just say one hundred thousand dammit!"
But sometimes they are actually stating the price in rials - so you have to make clear from the start if they are talking in tomans
. So super confusing at first.
But thankfully Iran is cheap, so even if you do get ripped off, it won't be by much. ATMs don't take foreign cards over here so you have to physically bring over stacks of cash to exchange; but already I reckon I'm not going to use more than half of what I brought over. Almost all entry fees are about 2€-3€ and you can get a solid, high-quality meal for less than 4€. For around 6€-7€ you’re eating like
The dazzling "Brilliant Hall" inside the Golestan Palace.
As I get on the internet at the hostel, I then realise that certain websites load super-slowly or not at all. In a country literally ruled by religion, freedom of expression is tightly controlled and the government aren't keen for their population to know about certain things; therefore I needed a VPN to be able to properly access Facebook and The Guardian. It was like being in China again!
As I set out to explore the city the next day, one thing became immediately apparent; the air.
Choked with traffic using cheap and dirty fuel, Tehran has one of the worst air pollution rates in the world. Combined with being some 1,500m above sea-level this makes breathing a difficult and unpleasant experience.
The Islamic Museum was supposed to be worth its salt so I thought it'd be a good place to start. Although an art museum, it serves as a good primer of Persian history as I examined pieces from the different dynasties of the Persian Empire including the Seljuks (11th and 12th centuries),the Ilkhanids (13th and 14th centuries), Timurids (14th and 15th centuries), Safavids (16th to 18th century) and Qajars (18th to 20th century).
Home of many intricate pieces of art.
Like much of what I was to see later on, the carvings and pattern work on many of the pieces were amazingly intricate in a way that only Islamic art can be.
I then took an annoyingly long time to find the entrance to the Qajar-era Golestan Palace, supposedly one of Tehran’s highlights. The external tile work on the buildings here is stunningly colourful and a couple of the other structures in the complex were also pretty impressive. Some of the building interiors - and particularly the Mirror Hall - were even more awe-inspiring. But apart from those highlights, a palace is a palace so there wasn't really anything else that blew me away.
Generally speaking, Tehran isn't a pretty city. A view over the city would reveal a jungle of stained-white high-rises, with buildings getting newer and newer the further north you go. The average building in Tehran has little character.
In saying that, there are some architectural gems around and in terms of Islamic architecture, even at this early stage of my trip I struggle to recall seeing anything prettier in any other Muslim country. The pedestrianised area where a few state and municipal buildings reside
Portal Of Bagh-e Meli
This beautiful gate marks the main access point to the National Garden, a public and pedestrianised area where the Qazaq Khaneh, the Ministry Of Foreign Affairs and the Malek National Library reside. It is the nicest part of Tehran, in my opinion.
was probably the most attractive part of the city that I explored.
Tehran's cause however, is not helped by its constant congestion. Tehran is hectic. There is always a constant buzz of engines and loads of traffic although surprisingly, not too many horns. Adding to the chaos, drivers don’t tend to stick to rules too closely where driving against traffic and simply ignoring red lights is commonplace. Crossing roads as a pedestrian can be a challenge but having visited Ho Chi Minh City
and more recently Beirut
, I’m pretty well trained in doing so.
With my Italian dorm-mate Niccolo, I had my first taste of Iranian cuisine that night at a restaurant near the hostel called Mes Mes. I had a traditional stew of lamb, beans and vegetables called ghorme sabzi
- which was a little similar to an Indian saag
curry - which was really nice. The restaurant's 'signature' sour drink? Not so much. The barberry and pomegranate concoction was far too sour and tasted like a cold, sour, turnip soup. Even if I don't like something, I try to get through it in order to be polite but I couldn't even down half of it. The staff were super-friendly
One of the main lanes of the Grand Bazaar.
though and I found it so cute of them to take photos of us for their Instagram feed (which isn't censored here and is Iran's Facebook equivalent).
Back at the hostel, Niccolo and I got talking to group of travellers which included Jasir and Kristina from Germany and Salih from Bulgaria. We were mainly confusing each other about exchange rates, tomans and rials. It was nice to meet a whole lotta like-minded travellers who were all like me, travelling the country on their own. As we discussed our travel plans, it became apparent that there is a distinct backpacker trail in Iran. We would no doubt all be bumping into each other again.
On the second day, I visited the Grand Bazaar which is a massive city within a city. This literal neighbourhood of winding alleys flanked by stalls, shops and mini shopping malls very much reminded me of Marrakesh’s medina
. Some parts were super-busy too. There are different areas selling different things; jewellery, spices, clothes, carpets, everything. Like India, there doesn't seem to be a lot of supermarkets around and the locals still all rely on traditional markets and bazaars for their shopping. It's nice to see that
Covered Courtyard Inside The Grand Bazaar
There are many beautiful courtyards such as this within the Grand Bazaar.
there are some areas of daily life around the world still not taken over by big corporations. I was pestered occasionally by carpet sellers and of course I get the odd cry of “Japan? Japan?”, but otherwise I didn’t get nearly as much hassle as I did in Morocco. The hawkers are actually pretty respectful here and leave you alone with a smile after being rebuffed. They're not too persistent if they know there is little chance you are going to buy something.
Tehran is really spread out - "L.A. with minarets", I read once - so I had to get on the metro to continue my exploration of the city.
The first thing that you immediately notice is that the trains are full of sellers trying to flog off their wares. The carriages are all internally joined so passengers are treated to an endless stream of people selling everything imaginable. They all give you a good long spiel too, even if they’re just selling chewing gum or plastic razors. The guys selling wallpaper, belts and electric massagers however, are probably a bit more justified in delivering their monologues. It was as if you were watching a late-night shopping
Most of these charming arcades in the Grand Bazaar are less then 200 years old.
channel but live. It reminded me a bit of the chicken buses in Central America.
You could see why these sellers were giving it a go though; no matter what day or what time of day, the trains were always rammed. And 95%!o(MISSING)f passengers would be male; the women have their own carriages at the front. Even on the street however, there is definitely a patriarchal dominance which can sometimes feel a little intimidating in the same way that I felt in Tangier
and New Delhi
Tehranis are rather more polite than Tangerians or Delhites however. For example, seats would always be offered to elders on the metro. The people seem laid-back too, which I don’t usually associate with people from the Middle East. Many have lazy-looking expressions on their faces but most are more than willing to help you if you ask. Put it this way, no-one has appeared angry with me yet!
As is normal, I’m a bit of a curiosity here as I’m definitely getting stared at a lot although not as much and for as long as I did in India! Many come up to me to start conversations, asking me where I am from and
Bridge Of Martyrs
Exhibit inside the Iran Holy Defence Museum dedicated to Iranians killed during the Iran-Iraq war in the 80s.
welcoming me to the country. While this was nice, when you don’t speak the same language it becomes a bit of a waste of time and gets rather annoying after a while. It is probably not just this trip but the accumulation of almost twelve years of travelling but I am definitely over being asked where I am from!
Getting off the metro I was now at the iconic Azadi Tower. Built in 1971 to commemorate 2,500th year of the first Persian Empire, it manages to combine both traditional and modern architecture. I thought it would be taller than it is to be honest. Going inside the tower gives you an idea of the structural design but the views up-top are so-so. Underneath are galleries and exhibition spaces that look like a Bond villain lair from the 60s.
Perhaps the most interesting sight of the day however was the Iran Holy Defence Museum, which was a pretty cool experience.
The museum ostensibly covers the Iran-Iraq war which occurred from 1980 to 1988. Inside, they certainly don’t hold back with their opinions on Iraq, Israel and the US! All Western nations in fact, get a rap on the knuckles
There were many artful and symbolic displays inside the Iran Holy Defence Museum such as this one full of papers, which is about how foreign media reported on the Iran-Iraq war.
for helping Iraq during the war. Western media get a pretty bad rap too for the propaganda they supposedly spread. The museum was open in 2010 and is gargantuan. There are massive sets recreating war rubble, an aerial bombardment simulation chamber (which was pretty harrowing), many artful and moving displays, as well as immersive audiovisual experiences. Successful military operations are also detailed and military weapons are proudly displayed, including the full-size rockets outside. The museum itself is typical of the imagery portrayed by Western media when depicting Iran as some sort of crackpot nation. Overall however, the museum was unsurprisingly one-sided and although many salient points were brought up, I did find it a bit over-the-top.
In saying that however, the US does have a lot to answer for in terms of meddling in Iranian affairs, from the CIA-led coup of the democratically elected Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, the backing of the politically oppressive Mohammad Reza Pahlavi until the Islamic Revolution that overthrew him in 1979 and the recent pulling out by the US from the 2015 nuclear deal and its subsequent imposition of sanctions.
However, the situation in the Middle East is by far the most complex in the
Crossing The Tabiat Bridge
On the first level of the Tabiat Bridge.
world, with so may nations involved in protecting and/or furthering their own interests - it is impossible to say who is on the 'right' side and unexpected events, proxy wars and economics continue to muddy the waters. Depiction of Iran as a volatile and provocative regional power is both deserved and undeserved.
I did get the feeling however, that there is more than a whiff of propaganda, brainwashing and censorship in Iran and that the Iran Holy Defence Museum - fascinating as it is - is just one part of this drive.
Nearby the Iran Holy Defence Museum is the Tabiat Bridge.
This modern, three-level bridge soars above a freeway and is a favoured hangout spot for locals with its views, its benches and its food court. It is impressively lit-up in the evenings and acts as a floating park of sorts. In warmer weather, it would be a great if somewhat strange place to come and relax.
For dinner, I metro-ed across the city once again to the Azari Traditional Teahouse where I had the authentic Persian dining experience of eating dizi
is basically a meat stew that is named after the small clay pot that
A delicious and filling Iranian stew. The white drink is dugh, a sour, slightly carbonated yoghurt drink similar to Turkish ayran, but which wasn't my favourite.
it is cooked in, which resembles a large earthenware mortar. The stew is served in this 'mortar' and comes with its very own pestle, which you use to crush the solid contents of the stew to the bottom, thereby separating the meat, chickpeas and potatoes from the oily, broth-y liquid. This liquid is then poured into a separate bowl into which you also put torn-up pieces of bread to soak up the 'soup'. You can then eat this delicious mush with a spoon while using the leftover solid stew still left in the original pot to scoop into pieces of bread for consumption. It was delicious although in saying that, I was absolutely starving at the time. All the oil, bread and meat however, ensures that it is a hearty meal, perfect to eat in the winter.
The teahouse itself was also genuinely atmospheric, with patrons sitting crossed legged on traditional day beds and smoking shisha pipes while sipping tea, if not stuffing their faces with dizi.
On my final full day in Tehran, I set off into the foothills of the Alborz Mountains to the north of the city to check out the S’ad Abad Museum Complex that
Inside the Sa'd Abad Museum Complex, which was the official residence of the Pahlavi dynasty, the last royal rulers of the Persion Empire before the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
used to be the summer residence of the old royal family. The palaces on the sprawling estate are now museums although the only ones that were really worth visiting were the White and Green Palaces. The White Palace in its manicured grounds looked like Uncle Phil’s house on The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air (sort of) but only the Green Palace was actually open for visitors. It was quite small but the first floor rooms (including the Shah’s old bedroom) are all mirrored like the halls in the Golestan Palace, which were both opulent and rather stunning.
The compound of the S'ad Abad Museum Complex allowed one to escape the noise, fumes and traffic of Tehran and I decided to continue my escape by exiting the complex and walking into the Alborz Mountains themselves. It was a bit of a slog to walk up there but the exercise and the promise of something a little different to urban Iran kept me going up to the village of Darband.
A path follows a river that leads you through the ‘village’ which is flanked by many a restaurant, teahouse and conserved fruit stall. Before all this commerce showed up, I imagine it was
View from the Green Palace inside the Sa'd Abad Museum Complex.
probably a lovely walk up through the hills. While it was sad to see how over-the-top some of the establishments were in Darband, it was also very impressive at the same time. The proliferation of hawkers however, does ensure that you get hassled a bit by everyone trying to get me into their restaurant or to buy some conserved fruits on the way up.
There was definitely something familiar about Darband however; like walking through a Nepalese village
but with the commercialism dialled up to something approaching Aguas Caliente levels
I did enjoy a lovely meal in Darband though, at lovely restaurant with lovely service. The waiters - all with matching tuxedos and somewhat bizarrely, matching glasses - sat me down and then one of them asked me where I was from. Telling him I was from New Zealand he then proceeded to bring out two desk flags, a New Zealand one and an Iranian one, which I thought was a really nice touch. I was eating outside where the temperature was hovering around five degrees so the waiter switched on the under-table heating as well as moving one of those lamppost-style heating lamps next to my table. The restaurant was very plush looking
The facade of the main halls at the Golestan Palace. The palace was the official residence of the royal family during the Qajar dynasty.
in the 1950s style. I had the bakhtiyari kabab
which consists of lamb chops and chicken and came with Iranian-style rice, which is infused with saffron, tinged with lemon and blended with butter - perhaps now my favourite style of rice!
Perhaps the highlight of my time in Iran so far has been the food and for dinner later that evening I had what was probably the best I have eaten so far; qeime nesar
. I returned to Mes Mes for have it, much to the delight of the owner there, where I got my picture taken for their Insta feed once again. The dish itself is basically rice with chopped almonds, chopped pistachios, dried barberries, sweetened carrots, glazed orange peel, sultanas and a small bowl of lamb stew, with saffron rice sprinkled over the top. You mix everything together along with some fresh mint and parsley, and the result is delicious.
Like every city, Tehran has its wealthy pockets and its poorer ones and Northern Tehran definitely counts as the the city's former; much wealthier and calmer. Although I am sure that there are mansions dotted across the foothills up north, where I was walking it wasn't
View of the city looking north from the Tabiat Bridge.
really houses that made up the majority of residences but apartment blocks; some nice ones too, although I’ve seen flasher. I always enjoy walking through a rich suburb, enjoying the architecture on view, the calm of less traffic, the tree-lined streets and the relative safety.
But in general I was glad to be leaving Tehran; it is an interesting city and a good place to get an insight into urban Iran but the sights here aren’t really too spectacular and you don’t feel you get too much value for the vastness and the busyness that you have to put up with. I didn’t feel like there was too much character to Tehran; just a huge sprawling city. I am sure that there are pearls awaiting me further south of Tehran - starting with my next destination, Isfahan.
زود میبینمت (zood mibinamet),
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