Iran, part 3 – A Day in Tehran

There are a few ways to survive crossing the road in Tehran; one is praying, an act which even the staunchest of atheists would succumb to when taking that fateful step. The second is that you could wait for the endless stream of cars, trucks and motorbikes, some weaving dangerously from side to side under a heavy, creaking load, to peter out.

These are both options, but the more practical one for us was to wait for a woman and her kids to cross the road and use them as a kind of human shield by walking alongside them. We quickly came to the conclusion that women and children, grandmothers included, are far less likely to be run over; it proved to be the most effective means of crossing busy roads.

The traffic wasn’t just crazy in Tehran, it was the same all over. During the trip, it became a habit that when we wanted to cross a street, our heads would swivel automatically in search of women and children. I recall us trying to cross a large, busy road with trucks, buses and cars whizzing past and Denis saying:

‘Shit, we’d better wait for a family to cross.’

‘Yeah, good idea,’ I would say, nodding in full agreement.

Moscow is a vast city, but somehow Tehran seems bigger. Estimates put the population at around 18 million people, taking into account unregistered inhabitants. Denis had already been there a day when I arrived and we decided to see some of the sights before catching the night bus to Isfahan.

We were fortunate that it was a clear day, so we could see the mountains overlooking the city. One thing that became almost immediately apparent when walking the streets or taking the metro, was the level of curiosity towards two individuals, clearly not locals, taking pictures of seemingly banal things like propaganda posters warning parents of the dangers of social networks. Perhaps it was partly due to the fact that there were not many other tourists.

We found Iranians to be extremely friendly and welcoming to foreigners. This was expressed not from a desire to sell something, but out of genuine curiosity. While walking along the street, someone would stop us and ask where we were from.

‘Ireland,’ I would say, and nine times out of ten this would be greeted with polite interest. ‘Beside Britain, but not Britain,’ I would then prompt. More polite interest followed by a slow nod.

‘Russia,’ Denis would say.

‘Ah, Russia! Welcome, welcome to Iran, enjoy your stay!’ and he would shake both our hands and walk off.

This happened so often, that I all but gave up on saying that I was from Ireland. During that first day in Tehran, we were taking a picture of a propaganda poster in the metro, when a passersby stopped to say hello.

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(Above: Government warning against social networks)

‘Where you from?’ he asked.

‘Ireland,’ I answered, hopefully.

‘Ireland? There is street called Bobby Sands Street in Tehran,’ said the stranger in broken English.

‘I didn’t know that,’ I said. This really did come as a surprise, as the previous ten or so people did not seem to know about Ireland. Now we’d met someone who knew Bobby Sands! Before I continue, I am going to assume that some people won’t know who Bobby Sands was. He was a political figure in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, who died on hunger strike while in prison.

‘It where British Embassy,’ he said. It should also be noted, that Bobby Sands Street, as it turns out, used to be called Winston Churchill Street.

‘And you?’ he said to Denis.

‘Russia.’

‘Oh, Russia! Vladimir Putin good friend!’

Denis turned and muttered in Russian, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been to a country where I’ve been greeted by locals and told that Putin is a good friend.’

This was to become something of a trend throughout the trip.

*

I wouldn’t necessarily describe Tehran as a city of aesthetics. In fact, I can honestly say that it’s downright ugly for the most part. Nonetheless, there are some really beautiful sites which are worth visiting, Golestan Palace being one. This was the residence of the Shahs until the last one was toppled from power in 1979.

Golestan Palace

(Above: Golestan Palace)

What I’d been especially looking forward to about Iran was the food. It’s a cuisine that in the West people aren’t too familiar with; at least, not when compared to, say, Indian or Chinese food. Strange, divine, full of cholesterol fatty goodness, sweet, sour, nutty, fruity, juicy, salty, are all aspects that can be found in a lot of Iranian dishes. The main street food, though, is the kebab. We had a kebab almost every day while we were there. I think I probably had enough kebabs to make my arteries scream holy murder.

The first meal I had in Tehran was in a very basic restaurant in a side street where local workers ate. I recall how the owner asked us in Farsi what we would like (I assumed that’s what he’d asked) and a man opposite us pointed to a dish which another man was eating and indicated that it was tasty. It consisted of saffron coloured rice with a piece of fried fish and a bean sauce. We took the man’s advice and two portions came to about €3. The rice alone was an explosion of flavour.

I will not forget the first time I tried a kind of sweet and sour dessert/snack made from dried pomegranate (I don’t remember what it’s actually called); it came in sheet form and had a sticky, chewy texture. The reason it sticks to mind is because the second that my taste buds made contact and sent signals to my brain, my lips curled so far in that they sang melodies to my tonsils, while my eyeballs withdrew to examine the back of my skull up close.

Pomegranate

Sweet and sour is an understatement, but the thing is that it was oddly addictive.

*

So we wandered Tehran for the day and towards the late afternoon wevwent to the far north of the city where the wealthy inhabitants live. After exiting the last metro station, we found ourselves climbing a steep road leading up to lots of modern high rise apartment buildings.

Going inside one which we thought was a hotel, we asked the receptionist if we could possibly take a photograph from the top floor. He explained to us that it was actually an apartment complex, but that the caretaker could take us to the roof, if we liked. I can’t remember the caretaker’s name, but he was an Afghan with pretty good English and he was telling us about how he’d just come back to Tehran after being in Afghanistan for three years.

‘It’s too dangerous there. You can’t live, it’s just not safe. That’s why I’ve come back here.’

It was strange to think that we were in a country bordering Afghanistan, a place that had always seemed so far away. It was also odd to think that we were in a country that had been placed on Bush’s so-called “Axis of Evil”, even though so far it didn’t feel very evil and everybody had been very pleasant towards us. It just goes to show how skewed politics is, when compared to actually meeting regular people face to face.

The picture below doesn’t really portray the true vastness of Tehran, even though it was taken from the roof of the apartment complex:

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The caretaker told us that only the very rich lived in that district and that apartments were upwards of 250 square meters and began at prices of $800 a month.

On the way back to the metro, we stopped by the bazaar. One shop was selling freshly made halva which would make your teeth hurt from the sweetness. I bought two 500g tubs of it.

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Just outside the bazaar entrance, we stumbled across a restaurant buffet and didn’t hesitate to go inside. After several hours of walking, I could have eaten a horse between two mattresses. Instead, I had baked aubergine with beef in an oily, lightly spiced sauce, bean soup and bread; again, for a very reasonable price.

When we finally got back to our host’s, Alex (he wanted us to call him that, although it’s not his actual name) a couple of hours later, we gathered our things and he brought us to a kebab restaurant not far from the bus terminal. Surrounding us were tables occupied by families, all eyes on a stage at the far wall where musicians and singers were playing Iranian pop songs. Very conscious of the fact that I’d only just eaten barely two hours before, I managed to pack half a gigantic lamb kebab in, much to my stomach’s dismay as it yelled “stop what you’re doing, right now, or else!”

At the bus terminal, we said our goodbyes to Alex, and wished him luck with his trip to Europe. We found the bus and getting on I was awed to see how much leg room there was between the recliner seats. Thus ended my first day, lying stretched out as the bus whizzed us  off into the night on the road to Isfahan.

Iran – Part 2 (Moscow-Baku-Tehran)

‘The day John went to Iran,’ said my flatmate, Gweith (I call her that as an affectionate means of irritation), letting a characteristic chuckle and sipping some white wine.

‘Ha… ha… ha…’ I said.

It was the evening of the day of my failed attempt to leave Russia. I was in a slightly morose mood about missing the flight.

‘Well, at least you didn’t get stuck here for 7 months, like I did,’ said Gweith. That episode will never be forgotten. When compared to that, mine was a minor incident.

The next day, I was flying with Air Azerbaijan to Baku, where I would get a connecting flight to Tehran. The flight was uneventful, but I did see the Caspian Sea for the first time ever as we came in to land.

Baku international airport showed all the signs of wealth:

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With a couple of hours before my next flight, I strolled around for a little while, but as everything was ridiculously expensive I went and found a sofa to nap on. Woken sometime later, by my stomach groaning loudly, I gave in to the idea of buying an overpriced sandwich from the cafe.

It was when I was about to pay that I realised my wallet was missing. “Oh, you bloody plonker,” I thought.

*Dice Clattering* ‘Whooo! I told you I’d get him to lose his wallet!’

I looked sheepishly at the man behind the till and said ‘I’m sorry, but I seem to have lost my wallet.’

‘Your wallet?’ he asked. ‘Come with me, we’ll get it back.’

He called over a security guard and explained, speaking in rapid Azerbaijani. The guard turned to me.

‘Where did you last see it?’ he asked.

‘I think I must have left it on the plane, because I haven’t used it since then,’ I said. I was horribly aware of the fact that even if I did get it back, if the cash was gone I’d be stuck. Visa and MasterCard are useless in Iran because of sanctions.

‘Okay,’ he said, and radioed his colleagues. ‘Empty out your bags just to make sure you don’t have it.’

I already knew that it wasn’t there, but did his bidding. ‘What the fuck am I going to do?’ I thought.

At this point a bearded man in a business suit approached and spoke in Russian with an accent no less foreign than my own.

‘What’s the problem, gentlemen?’ The question was directed at the security guards.

‘A missing wallet,’ said the head security guard.

‘Oho, is that so?’ He turned and looked at me curiously. ‘Where are you heading to?’ he asked.

‘Tehran,’ I said.

‘I’m on that flight as well. What are you doing over there?’

‘Tourism, but I won’t be doing much if I don’t get my wallet back,’ I said.

‘Don’t worry about your wallet,’ he said. ‘If they don’t find it I can give you three hundred and fifty dollars to tide you over. How long are you going for?’

I was momentarily speechless. ‘Ten days,’ I said. ‘Thank you so much for the offer, but..’

‘Hmmmm…,’ he said, as though he had not heard. ‘Three hundred and fifty dollars should be enough if you’re just travelling around to see the sights. Intercity buses and accommodation are cheap. Iran is a beautiful country, you’re going to love it.’

‘That’s very kind of you,’ I said, putting my passport on the table alongside my other belongings, as I continued the search. ‘At least I didn’t lose my passport.’

‘Money is just paper, documents are the real gold, my friend,’ he said. ‘Where are you from?’

‘Ireland,’ I said. ‘And you?’

‘I’m from here. That’s why I couldn’t pin your accent,’ he said.

‘Yes, we have different accent, you could say. So what are you doing in Iran?’ I asked.

‘I’m there for a tourism trade show. That’s the sector I work in, but I’m also a dentist. Why don’t you pack your things away and we can get a coffee? We’ve still another forty five minutes until the flight.’

‘Well, if you don’t mind,’ I said, involuntarily adopting the typically Irish over-politeness.

‘If I minded I wouldn’t have offered,’ he said.

As we were having coffee, the security men approached us and handed me my wallet.

‘Count the money,’ said the head security guard.

I checked and everything seemed fine (the following day I would see that in fact one hundred euro had been taken, but I was so relieved to have gotten it back that I did not notice, nor would I have cared at that moment). I thanked the security guards and told my new, unexpected friend that if he was ever in Moscow, he’d be welcome to come for dinner or I could at least buy him a drink.

‘Oh, I do go to Moscow from time to time. My friends run a business in the Sokol district.’

‘That’s where I live,’ I said, ‘small world.’

‘Really? You should visit them, they run a large gym,’ he said.

As we went to board the flight, he handed me a business card and said ‘stay in touch.’ According to the card, his name was Hamed.

The flight from Baku was only an hour. I caught glimpses of Iranian towns illuminated below and could hardly believe where I was headed.

I made another new friend on the flight over. An Iranian business owner who told me he owned a factory that made foam, like the sort of stuff you see in sports halls, and that he was supplying a guy in Moscow.

‘I have lovely girlfriend in Moscow. Her name Svetlana,’ he said in broken English, showing me a picture of him with a tall redhead. ‘She very beautiful,’ he said unnecessarily.

Tehran_IKIA_at_NightImam Khomeini International Airport (Above)

Overall, it was a pleasant flight. There were a few curious glances thrown my way, as I was pretty much the only pasty, white tourist on the flight. When we landed (it was 23.30 local time), I said my goodbyes to my Baku friend, and made my way to the visa section. The visa took about half an hour to get and cost €60. The next task was to change hard currency into Iranian Rials. I went through the passport control without any problems, the border guard smiling, and saying’Welcome to Iran’ as he stamped my passport. This was such a stark contrast to the passport control experience of the previous day in Moscow.

It was when I entered the main area of the airport, glanced around for a currency exchange, that I heard a voice call my name. I turned and saw my bearded friend from Baku airport standing with a tall, slightly Asian looking man.

‘Neither of you speak the language, it’s late, so I thought we could all share a taxi into town. This is Marat, he’s also new here,’ he said, indicating his tall acquaintance.

We shook hands. Marat was from Kazan, in the Tatar region of Russia, and was visiting Tehran on a work trip. When I answered his question “Where are you from?” he said ‘I stayed up late to watch that Conor McGregor match, and all he gave me was thirteen seconds. He’s some fighter!’ It turned out that Marat had trained at karate for over ten years.

I exchanged some money and received a thick wad of large banknotes with Ayatollah Khomeini’s angry face on them.

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Outside the main exit, we were immediately met by a group of taxi drivers and Hamed spoke Farsi with one, haggling over the price, or so I guessed.

The journey into Tehran took nearly an hour. I quickly learned that Iranians are crazy drivers, something that would become tattooed to the inside of my head during the trip.

Hamed was telling us about his work, and about the first time he went to Russia in the 90s with a couple of hundred dollars in his back pocket with the intention of doing business. I was taking in the surroundings, the Iranian flags, the billboards of the ayatollahs, as well as various landmarks. I was also carefully observing the traffic, its movements making me very aware of the fact that I had no seat belt.

‘I’m going to get out first,’ said Hamed, ‘then the driver will take Marat to his hotel, and then he’ll bring you to your friend’s place. He has the address.’ During the drive, he had obligingly rung my couch surfing host and got him to explain to the taxi driver where the apartment was.

We pulled in outside a hotel and Marat and I simultaneously reached for our wallets.

‘Don’t worry, lads, I’m taking care of the fare. Just stay in touch, alright?’

We got out, shook hands and thanked him profusely.

Marat got out next and we exchanged contact details and agreed to stay in touch.

Finally, we got to the apartment building of my couch surfing host. As I got out of the car, I heard a voice.

‘John! John!’ It was Alex (that’s what he wanted us to call him), my couch surfing host. ‘Hello!’