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 media. 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.
(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.
‘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.
(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.
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 we went 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:
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.
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.