Edit Blog Post
Published: October 18th 2015
The train came to a shuddering halt at a station around 05:30 which pulled me from my sleep. Dozing until each station wasn't a viable option and I gave up around 8am. Looking across to Steph and Quinn, they had found the bizarre but inventive 'cappuccino in a can' which was self heating. They followed the instructions while everyone else stood around, fascinated. It was definitely hot and for the price, I think they wished they'd bought more.
We arrived in Astana not long before 9am and were met by taxi drivers ready to whisk our luggage into their cars and be on their way. But Suse needed to get across that we wanted to go to Customs, not the border and to do that she rang the apartment owner in Baku to translate. Once sorted, the three taxis bounced along terribly potholed roads to the Customs' gates where Suse and Alex were greeted like old friends.
After unpacking, filling up the jerry cans with drinking water and rolling the sides up, we drove past the line of trucks waiting to cross the border. Number plates advertised countries of origin as diverse as Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey and
even Germany, France and the UK. Bicycle sellers walked alongside them selling perfumes and other wares but with their eyes on us.
We pull in behind a bus to await a search, hanging out the sides talking and waving at people. It's the same in all the windows of nearby buildings: one head will appear, disappear, then reappear with many heads. It's a long wait and when we're told to get out, we loiter next to the truck awaiting further instruction before being shuffled into the oversized shed.
It's immediately apparent what the hold up is. Although the bus in front doesn't have passengers, they are full to bursting point with goods. And everything needs to be unloaded and checked. At least two dozen boxes of lamps; what looks like two metre long strips of framing; lots and lots of non-perishable food and litres and litres of soft drinks. I interpret it as my first look at what sanctions mean for people.
Our passport and visa details are recorded by hand in a large book by a gruff man who sends us through the metal detector. Considering our handbags aren't checked, it seems useless. Inside the office
hall we hand our passports under the glass partition, stand for a comparison with our passport photo and then line up against the wall. He won't process us until we're all present. An older uniformed man at the end of the room calls for 'Susannah' in a commanding voice, only to give her a handful of sweets to pass out to us. Everyone is lovely and wave goodbye when we leave.
Suse only has to show the officers the tent locker and one of the food lockers before they request to see upstairs. They walk the aisle, pose for a photo with Suse that Nic goes up to take, pose for a photo next to the truck and with us and we're sent on our way. Brilliant.
Back on the truck it's time to start dressing up. There is a strict dress code for women in Iran, even if you're a tourist: long, loose fitting bottoms, long sleeved top that covers your bum and a headscarf. Once we're ready we crawl towards the Iranian border and climb back down, locking the door and heading into passport control after getting approval from the guards. Suse is told to change
Welcome to Tehran!
Azadi Tower (Freedom Tower) in the middle of a giant roundabout. 50 metres tall and covered in cut marble, it was built in 1971 to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. 2,500!!
out of her jeans and does so, putting on a long skirt.
The air inside is stuffy and the queuing system is chaotic at best. The crowd surges forward as one whenever someone is stamped through. Everyone is openly staring at us but the women are lovely. They give us the once over but then ask where we're from and nod, the extent of their english exhausted. Steph has given up trying to explain where or what New Zealand is and has started saying she's from Australia much to our amusement and Quinn's disappointment.
Once the room empties out and the doors are locked for lunch, the officials come over to us and hand back our passports. Nat is told her top isn't long enough and one of the Iranians goes out to the truck and brings her sarong to tie around her waist, sufficient until she can change on the truck. They wish us well and we head through, looking for the truck and not seeing it. But the local guy who has adopted us - and who is coincidentally ridiculously good looking as we women have unanimously voted - ushers us into two taxis and takes
Cars have stopped on the roundabout to help us with our directions. The Iranians were an incredibly friendly, helpful bunch.
us several minutes down the road to where the truck has cleared immigration and sits patiently waiting for us. He even pays the drivers, knowing we don't have money and I'm pleasantly surprised by this introduction to a country which gets only bad press. Though anything I've ever read about the people had been overwhelmingly positive. And now I can personally say the same.
We change money and a few climb down the rocks we're parked next to to dip a foot in the Caspian Sea. Being female and in long pants, I stand on a rock close to the edge and wait for a wave to get me. It doesn't take long and then I make the slippery climb back up to the top. We drive further into the border town, also known as Astana on this side so that cook group can get food and we can take a few minutes to look at our new money.
The Iranian currency is rials and although the official exchange rate is approximately 25,000 rials to the dollar, we've exchanged at 33,000 rials, all of us having large denomination USDs. Suse has a ridiculous amount of 50,000, 100,000 and
500,000 notes plus a few smaller ones. Each of us wait patiently for Nat to come over with our money and count it out, feeling rather rich as we look at all the zeros. But here's the catch: although the notes are rials, the Iranians talk about tomans. It will take days for this to make sense, even though it was relatively simple. I go across the street and buy a bottle of Coke and a packet of saffron and salt pistachios where he shows me a calculator with 7,000 on it so I give him one 50,000. He tuts and shakes his head, asking permission to help himself to my wad of money with some unspoken language I understand. I nod and he takes another 50,000, holds them up for me to see and then gives me 30,000 change. I thank him with the informal 'mersi' which is much easier to remember than the more formal 'moteshakeram' and he's pleased with my effort. But I leave the store confused. Days later, we will all be up to scratch. Due to the number of zeros, Iranians drop one and call them tomans. So 13,000 tomans is equivalent to 130,000 rials,
the price of a chicken kebab with rice I have for lunch. But on this first day, I've pretty much resigned myself to showing them a few notes and having them select what they require.
Standing at the intersection opposite the truck I watch as a black mass moves towards me. It's a group of women, dressed in the traditional black chadors while men walk behind a car. It's a funeral procession and what little traffic there is on the road makes allowances for them to cross and stay together as a group.
Back on the truck I lay down so I can take my headscarf off. It won't stay on anyway (I'm using my sarong because it seems I left my beautiful emerald green scarf back in Baku) and I've pins stuck in my head. Steph and Nic aren't faring much better and we're all a bit flustered, wondering if we'll be able to remove them when we bush camp tonight.
But after a few failed attempts to get us onto the Caspian Sea coast for the night (we're unable to clear the overhead gas pipes and narrow gates), we end up under tall pine trees
alongside a creek on a busy-ish intersection. People either slam on their brakes to get a better look or beep their horn a dozen times and yell out the window. The first few times I wave but then give up. Talbot and Scott have been whisked away to see a 'better' camping spot and return to tell us the beach is only 200m or so down the road, hence the traffic. But we've already lit the fire and begun putting up tents so we're not interested in moving, especially as there's been a bit of rain already.
Unlike in Tbilisi, everyone cleared out after dinner and it was a quiet enough night with a smattering of rain. I didn't see anyone before we drove off; only three horses grazing, keeping us in sight. We pottered around the camp with headscarves at the ready but not quite in place. Taking down a tent can be tedious enough without material constantly falling across your eyes.
We'll be spending three nights in Tehran, staying in a hotel so we're within walking distance of attractions or at least within distance of a metro station. Traffic was full
Milad Tower (or Tehran Tower)
At 435 metres, it is the sixth tallest tower in the world. Unfortunately we went up to the top during a storm and therefore weren't allowed out on the observation deck. Bummer.
on and the pollution immediately apparent but again people were smiling and waving and called out greetings. Here was that bizarre celebrity feeling again.
Once we found the hotel, the truck needed to be reversed into a nearby carpark and that meant halting what should have been three lanes of traffic but was closer to four with motorbikes filling every available gap. People had their phones held high filming and photographing us while we watched the ceiling and sides to make sure we would actually fit!
The manager of the Kayaam hotel was at the carpark to greet us and once we had our bags packed, we shuffled towards the road. Having been to countries like Vietnam where I found the traffic terrifying (especially as there was no respite from motorbikes on the footpaths!), I wanted to make sure I was with the manager to get across. Or he'd probably have to come back and collect me.
Rooms were organised and we grabbed a partner and then a key. Scott picked one and we walked up the stairs to the second floor, finding our room at the end of the hall with a balcony overlooking the hotel's
front courtyard. The twin rooms have a basin which was handy but the toilet and shower were down the hall which meant making sure my headscarf was on and I was dressed appropriately if I left the room.
After a brief rest we went downstairs for a meeting and met Nikolai, Peggy and John who are joining our trip. All have travelled overland before and Peggy and John know a few people I travelled with in Africa. Following the meeting to discuss visas and such they showed us a local place for dinner, just as the storm kicked in. Wind blew the rain horizontal down the near empty street as Talbot, Scott and I went in search of a phone store to buy a SIM card for Talbot. When I stuck my head in the store to see what was taking so long, I found him trying to convince the Iranians to support Australia in the World Cup. I left him to it for a few more minutes. We're going to need all the support we can get!
A handful of us made an effort this morning to go sightseeing and made our
way to Galastan Palace, only to find out it was shut. Luckily the bazaar is right there so Nic, Steph and I made plans to meet the guys for lunch and threw ourselves into the crowds in an effort to find cooler clothes that were suitable for the dress code. Outside a scarf shop, a man offered to show us clothing in the old bazaar; it seems we were in their version of a shopping mall. We followed him out into the sunlight and across the square where men waved fistfuls of rials over crowds of men. I did ask what they were doing but missed the response and then we were back in the crowds. The bazaar was both familiar and fascinating. All of us had heard stories of Victoria's Secret lingerie parties and what women wore under their chadors but here it was for sale. Racy lingerie was on display in store fronts whose door was hidden behind a curtain. In other open stalls, packets of bras, underwear and stockings were on sale, all visible skin having been coloured in! And Nic has a brilliant photo of mannequins wearing 80s style prom dresses with the naked arms covered
in aluminium foil!
But we weren't there for any of that. The store that we were taken to had the 'correct' type of clothing but was something my grandma wouldn't even wear. Drab, depressing colours combined with shapeless cuts. And the man wasn't budging. It turns out he had a carpet shop he hoped we'd visit. We moved onto the next store and slowly drifted away and decided to head back to the section we'd started in. Easier said than done. We found the guys wandering around; Nic picked up a top and skirt, her shopping now complete. And we got hopelessly lost. Every person that stopped to help us owned a carpet store or had a family member who did. All we wanted was sunlight. Eventually, just when I think proper panic was about to kick in, Nic remembered reading that the exit was 'up'. Looking to our left, we noticed that the store fronts were higher than those to our right and off we went, vowing not to veer off. The guidebook had been correct and we were eventually out in the bright sunlight once again.
But Steph and I still had no clothes except for
It's kinda hard to make out but the revolving doors have finches in them!
what we were wearing. Distracted only once more by a woman who tried to lead us back into the old bazaar, we turned and headed for our original starting point and had more luck there. Was it long, shapeless and thin enough without being sheer? And in our price range and relatively nice looking? If so, we bought it. I settled for a black top and a silk headscarf while Steph managed to get a couple tops and leggings. For even though Suse was pulled up at the border for her jeans (that were fitted though not skin tight), a lot of the more modern women were wearing skin tight leggings or jeans. So we assumed we'd be able to do the same.
The guys were waiting in the shade and the seven of us made for the Khayaam restaurant, a traditional place that was expensive by local standards and a treat for us budget conscious travellers. Couples sat close together sharing shisha pipes (most women do not smoke and especially in public) and an assortment of plates. There was both tables and chairs or the more local way of eating: on the floor. On raised wooden pallets, we
sat on the carpet with our backs against firm cushions having removed our footwear before climbing up. Plastic was laid in the middle and held with cutlery and plates until the food came. A few tried the local drink 'doogh' which is a yoghurt and water mix with herbs. A mouthful of Nic's was enough to confirm my dislike of it. But the saffron rice was perfect, as was the chicken kebab. Tea was served with dates and sweets that reminded me of churros that I unfortunately couldn't eat. I think we all agreed next time we'd sit at a table though, if only to hide our horrible feet...
I had wanted to see the old US embassy which is now known as the 'Den of Espionage' so we took the subway which dropped us off right in front of it. Coming up the stairs, the 'down with the USA' written on the wall was the first thing we saw. We walked a short distance then doubled back, snapping a quick pic of it before turning our attention to the graffiti on the walls. Obviously most is in Farsi but the pictures spoke loud enough. The Statue of Liberty
View from Milad Tower
It would've been incredible if we could've gone outside :(
with a skull head rather than a face. US and Israeli flags surrounded by writing I wish I could read. The gate was open so we could see the main building across the garden but didn't dare take a photo, just in case the guards did confiscate our cameras.
There wasn't anything else in the area so after a lap around the block we took the subway back, us three going into the women's only carriage. It was rush hour and the carriage was full but Nic, having travelled the London Underground for several years was adept at gently moving people to make space. We got on. A woman next to us started a sales pitch selling what looked like prayer cards while another sold make up. They both got a few sales. I tried to look at the cards but with little luck, instead being asked where I was from. There seemed to be a murmur of forgiveness for the earlier pushing after that!
Up bright and early, we were at the Turkmenistan embassy for 9am having walked, trained and taxied there. Luckily it was relatively painless and with the paperwork in,
we were free to go. We'll be picking up the visas in Mashhad. Talbot had been quite keen to take the gondola up Mount Tochal to just under 4000m for a view over the city, the area being known for skiing in the winter. Walking until we found a van we could all fit in, we were more than happy to split the 300,000 rials between the ten of us meaning we each paid less than $USD1 for the steep drive none of us wished to walk.
He dropped us at the car park entrance to avoid having to pay and we walked across, under a mountain but still not sure if we were in the right place. We were, then hopped on a bus to take us up a winding road to the drop off point with cafés and amusements. Both the gondola and chair lift weren't operating much to our disappointment (I've never been above 3000m so I was keen to go up) but there was a decent view over smoggy Tehran from there.
After lunch (where Quinn pointed at a random menu item, the entire thing being in Farsi. He ended up with chicken wings),
Talbot and Diego decided they'd walk up the mountain, having learnt that the gondola started operating at 6pm. We later found out that they made it to about 2,700m before turning back exhausted (it was a steep, winding path and the sun was hot) and that the gondola kicked in just as they reached the bottom...
A taxi dropped us at Tajrish Square, Tehran's oldest, and we headed for the bazaar. We stopped at the nearby mosque, admiring the architecture from a distance and watching women enter a change room and come out the other side much more modestly dressed, wrapped in a chador. The bazaar was busy but less chaotic than the big one we'd been to but we didn't spend long there. I had an afternoon date with my bed.
Dinner was a special affair. I'd read about The Armenian Club where we could removed our headscarves! There were also rumours of alcohol so Nic, Scott, Nikolai and I set out to meet Diego and Talbot there. With no advertised name, we were told to look for the yellow awning. In the end we found Talbot and Diego who had already found it, warning us it
A wedding car
I motioned to the grinning groom (who is driving) if I can take a photo but I still missed the shot of the bride. She is in the passenger seat, head to toe in white, face covered.
was a bit more posh than we were. And they were right. But the staff were lovely and welcoming. Upon entry, the woman in the reception hall mimed to Nic and I to remove our headscarves which we gladly did, me wishing I'd washed my hair before coming. Then amusingly, we were seated in the furtherest corner of the last room, as if hiding us. We took no offence and pretty much agreed with their decision. The patrons were all seemingly ex-pats and dressed up. The more skin the better. I asked our waiter if he was Armenian but he was Iranian and I wondered what he made of all this.
One of the tables we'd passed did indeed have a bottle of wine, a napkin tied around the neck of it to 'hide' it. But when we asked our waited if there was beer, he shook his head. Everyone voted for me to go and ask and I found they served an Italian red wine only. For 1,500,000 rials (around $50). The debate was short. Five of us agreed to buy a bottle "just because we could'. It wasn't the nicest I've ever had but it was okay.
Shrine of Imamzadeh Saleh, Tajrish square
Imamzadeh means descendent of an imam. Here lies Saleh, a son of a Shia imam. It is one of the most popular shrines in Tehran.
I had a few sips and tipped mine into Scott's glass. I'd also watched a couple arrive to meet two friends and she pulled out a bottle of vodka and a bottle of Bailey's. Who knows how and where they got them but I assume that maybe they work for an embassy. Anyway. We were happy enough settling for the amazing creme caramel and tea.
Walking the three kilometres back to the hotel, the streets were unrecognisable. It was empty, quiet. We came across the now abandoned British embassy but again, weren't able to take photos. It was perfect evening weather: warm and only the slightest hint of a cool wind.
I slept too long yesterday afternoon so I awoke early and read, listening to the sounds of the city outside our window gradually increase. The African Grey Parrot in reception wakes early as well and I smile when I hear him quack like a duck. He's a vicious little thing though and I'm not sure my finger would still be attached if I gave it to him.
With the rules changing almost hourly in this country, we've been told we need
In with the unworthy, out with the worthy
Women used this room to make sure they were suitably dressed to enter the mosque. They would then return via here to drop off the borrowed items
a guide for our entire stay here. At breakfast two mornings ago a man came up to our table of six and told us he was our guide and had all our details. I instantly didn't like him for whatever reason and politely but firmly dismissed him, telling him he needed to talk to our driver. Which he did. Suse was also suspicious when things he was saying didn't add up, like the total number of people in our group. It's frustrating when the hotel hands out our personal details to a stranger who walks in as a guide (which, to be honest, he is) but that's the way it's done here. Anyway, he resigned yesterday and his boss has threatened to have us deported for whatever reason. Thankfully everyone finds this amusing, not worrying. So now we have a guide that Suse had been dealing with over the phone and is much happier with. She's meeting with him this morning and some people will avail of his time whilst in Tehran for a bonus extra day. The one major drawback is that we won't be able to remove our headscarves when out of view on the truck now. Aaaaahhhhh...
This morning we made it to the Palace and after seeing the phenomenal room of the wind towers whose walls and ceiling are covered in mirrors except for the front facing stained glass window, we chose to other sections to look at (the ticket allows three) before the main palace and then went looking for lunch. For me, this is the hardest meal of the day, being coeliac. Whilst others can go to a bakery for something small or pick up a burger, I either require a sit down meal or end up eating fruit which is great but not overly filling.
Gandom cafe was a funky theatre café that had nothing I could eat and after a fruitless (no pun intended!) search nearby, I waited for the ice coffee Scott had ordered me while he waited for his pasta dish. There was no point both of us wandering around hungry. The ice coffee was delicious so I ordered a second one which was followed up by a free top up. Now I was in trouble. That amount of caffeine on an empty stomach meant I was jittery and probably rather annoying. I needed food. We found Sepidgaah
cafe which was also a theatre and filled with a bohemian crowd and I ordered a salad and people watched. On a nearby table a young 'couple' sat talking animatedly, arms waving, heads leaning in, eyes sparkling. When I next looked back they had been joined by another boy and the effect was unreal. Both sat back in their chairs, heads lowered. The new addition was the only one who spoke while they nodded. Complete conversation killer. But when he bent his head to his phone, the couple exchanged looks over his head, smiling. I hoped their next meeting would be in the not too distant future, sans chaperone.
We had another meeting with Suse this evening where she gave us an outline of our itinerary in Iran. Yes we women had to cover up, yes it was going to be hot but it sounded awesome. I was finally in Iran to see it for myself and not rely on news reports that had only ever portrayed it in a negative light. There might have been a lot I didn't agree with but I don't agree with my government. I was looking forward to talking with more locals as
The beautiful Building of Windcatchers, Golestan Palace
As the name suggests, it is built to allow the cool wind to move through the rooms
we went along.
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