Days: 551-552 (10 Dey 1394 (28 December 2015) – 11 Dey 1394 (29 December 2015))
Total distance travelled: 138,854.00 kilometres (86,244.73 miles)
“Welcome to my country!”
We were ten minutes into our Tehran experience, but for a few minutes at the bus station collecting our packs and getting our bearings, a time spent pretty much exclusively in the city’s impressive subway system (to our surprise, the majority of signage was in both English as well as Farsi).
We’d already been greeted by over half a dozen smiling men, each eager to try his English on us and both welcome and thank us for visiting their country.
Sure, there was that brief moment where I’d mistakenly thought one gentleman was saying “Will come to our country?” to which I’d said yes… turns out he’d also just meant ‘Welcome’, but we’d already had seats found for us in what was a jam packed carriage, and another man had insisted we take his subway map.
With this new guide to the Tehran underground railroad system safely in my chest pocket, eight stations later we were above ground, and trying to get our bearings on the crazy streets above.
It was bedlam, and it was a few moments before I realised why it reminded me so much of Asia. Okay… so yes, we are already in Asia, but I mean like the South-East Asia with which we’re familiar, with its chaotic traffic and exotic smells.
Truth is, the smells (both delicious foods and stinking sewers) were mostly absent, replaced by the stench of exhaust fumes, but it was the bikes, weaving their way through traffic that had elicited that sense of South-East Asian nostalgia.
Our second parallel wasn’t long in coming, as the traffic seemingly (at most intersections anyway) never ceases, so crossing a road is something like a leap of faith, where a slow and steady stride (similar to the street crossing thrill of Vietnam) should see you through, as long as you keep at least half an eye on the oncoming traffic.
Having not had the use of one since our days in South America ended (almost six months ago), it was odd finally have something solid to use in our hands (a Lonely Planet travel guide that is), rather than just information we’d recently googled. It had also provided us with our present destination, a cheap sounding dig not so far from some of the sites we wished to visit.
As we wandered along what looked a main thoroughfare, but not at all resembling a district where we might be able to find ourselves a bed, we wondered how accurate our three year old book with its likely four year old information might be.
In each direction, at least as far as our tired eyes could see, it was auto shops, or those selling car related products.
Tires, side mirrors, headlights, floor matting, batteries… you name it, I’m sure we could have found it.
But a hotel, it just didn’t seem likely.
Eventually, as all Iranians seem fond of doing, somebody asked us if we needed assistance, and we quickly discovered we’d passed our hotel entrance perhaps one hundred metres back (in our defence, we had been on the other side of the road).
We quickly found it, and ourselves a room, made use of their currency exchange service, and ducked out to explore.
Finally, it felt like we were in Iran!
No real plan had been formulated, so we figured we’d walk our way towards the bazaar and see what we stumbled upon.
Our rationale was we’d likely fade before the day was done (given our rough sleep on an overnight bus), but anything we did today, would make our following day just a little more relaxed.
A slight distraction along the way saw us both suddenly munching away on a huge bun full of fried falafel, before a slightly larger distraction forced an even greater delay to our bazaar arrival.
Marching with renewed purpose after our unscheduled, but certainly filling, falafel stop, a quick glance to our left spotted a fairly magnificent structure and gardens.
Turns out this was the Golestan Palace, a UNESCO listed location that now serves as a rather expensive museum (a fact we were soon to discover).
After we’d sauntered in and discovered there was an eight tier pricing structure (basically there is an entrance fee for the grounds only, then you can select which other areas you wish to pay to see), we retreated to consult our guidebook to see which places we actually wished to pay to visit.
The result was, we only paid the entrance fee and the price for one additional area, as we were in a little shock as to how high it was now priced, only a few years since the publication of our guidebook.
With our decision thus made, we quickly entered the large gardens to get out first good look at the place, a large party who’d arrived just before us convincing us to wander the gardens first to let them get a little further ahead.
In the shaded areas it remained cool, but it was nice to have a leisurely wander, time to appreciate the colourful tiles, some which were simply painted, others with a textured look, it was all quite beautiful.
After admiring some patios festooned with mirrors and probably the most attractive façade to a public bathroom you’ll ever see, it was off to investigate the one section of the palace we’d actually paid to enter.
Sadly we soon discovered that photography within was forbidden, and you’d simply be telling a lie if you claimed that you hadn’t noticed the countless signs informing visitors of this.
We were also politely asked if we could pop some plastic slippers over our shoes and up and glittering staircase we ascended to the first floor, or rather the staircase didn’t glitter, but the mirrored walls and ceiling gave this impression.
The prohibition of photography was a real shame, especially given the steep entrance fee, but it was a fee that we probably felt comfortable paying having seen this part of the palatial building.
Once we were done, we had to contend with the effects of Mawlid.
What’s that you ask?
Through some dumb (or perhaps fortunate) luck, our arrival coincided with the two day observance of the Prophet Muhhamad’s (PBUH) birthday, so it certainly gave us a crash course in what the PBUH abbreviation meant (every time they utter the Prophet’s name, they must finish with the words Peace Be Upon Him, or PBUH when written as an abbreviation).
What it also meant, was that many stores, the bazaar and tourist sights were closed or closing.
The National Museum of Iran however was not closed, and it was here I was especially keen to check out the Salt Man (although these days there are several, so really it’s the Salt Men). The incredibly preserved, roughly seventeen hundred year old remains found Zanjan province of Iran.
Fabric, tools, limbs and obviously heads replete with hair and skin… they can even identify (apparently) the individuals blood type!
Our next stop was the bank, although we had no need to make any cash withdrawals.
Rather, this was the Central Bank of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which curiously, also plays host to the National Jewelry Treasury.
Open only in the afternoons, and even then only for a couple of hours, it houses, as you’d expect an incredible array of priceless objects.
The former crown jewels, amongst other curios (who doesn’t need a globe of the world made entirely out of precious stones), it was indeed an interesting place.
As the sun began to set on these two tired travellers, unlike us, the streets around our hostel/hotel showed no signs of slowing down (holiday or not), and after poking our heads through a few different doorways, our evening meal came from the streets themselves.
Outside a strip of stores illuminated in that artificial glow you can only get from fluorescent lights, a pair of gentleman had a huddle of locals gathered around.
Over hot coals and utilising a grill that may or may not at some time been a shopping cart, skewered chicken was cooking, and this both looked and smelled the business for us!
A pair for myself and another for Sarah (all wrapped in some flat bread), and our true take away dinner was served.
The following morning, yet another full of sunshine, found us again utilising Tehran’s clean and efficient metro system.
Rather than change lines a couple of times, we simply chose the station nearest to our destination and simply walked the few blocks to our ultimate destination.
Walls of painted art… and a very well worn (think damaged) great seal of the United States of America.
This was, the US Den of Espionage!
In reality, the US have not had a presence here since just after the fall of the Shah, a little over twenty five years ago.
The site is perhaps more famous these days thanks to Hollywood since the Ben Affleck film Argo gave the whole 1979 hostage crisis a fresh lick of paint with a new brush (and in doing so made heroes out of the Canadian Ambassador, despite reality apparently having several countries diplomatic missions involved).
These days it is a museum, although its doors are apparently rarely open.
It didn’t matter, we were here for the art.
I wasn’t sure if I expected any sort of morality police to appear and confiscate my camera at any point, but we were soon headed back towards the metro and on to another iconic Tehran image.
An afternoon subway journey back out to where we’d first arrived in the city, had us very close indeed to the Azadi Square, and as such by default, the Azadi Tower.
As far as squares go, this one didn’t appear to have too many right angles, in fact it looked fairly circular, and smack bang in the middle stood the impressive Azadi Tower, although again, there was enough scaffold about to have us initially disappointed.
It was a mission of sorts to navigate our way across the busy, multi lane thoroughfare to get to the tower, which itself sat on what is really a glorified round-about.
The tiled pools were largely empty, although a couple of larger inactive (at the time) fountains did offer some lovely reflections.
Locals lounged about, I’m assuming taking advantage of both the lovely weather, as well as the second day of the prophet’s birthday (PBUH).
Vendors sold steaming plastic cups of overly sweet tea, and we thought why not, it was as good a place as any to relax in the sun!
As with everywhere we’d been, the locals were friendly, and it wasn’t long before we were chatting with a young couple, who ultimately asked if they could take a picture with us on their smart phones (yes they have them), and also allowed me to take one of them as well… as long as I promised to respect their wishes and not post it on social media.
For this reason, I still have not.
That night we dined on a delicious bread, bought for only a couple of rials from an old man that wandered a surprisingly quiet street (it was so good we went back for more, but could never find him).
We were checking out (well in truth we’d already checked out that morning), yet another night spent aboard a bus ahead.
Next stop, some nine hundred kilometres distant, Shiraz!
* The 24 hour (or more) bus from Yerevan to Tehran cost 25,000.00 Dram per person.
* A two trip Tehran metro ticket costs 10,000 Rials per pass.
* Entrance into the expensive (by Iranian standards) Golestan Palace can cost as much or little as you would like. The basic entrance per person starts at 150,000.00 Rials, and you can then pick and choose which areas you would like to visit (all the way up to 780,000.00 Rials). We paid only for the basic entrance, plus the next level of accessibility which saw us fork out 300,000.00 Rials each.
* It cost us 150,000.00 Rials apiece for entrance into the National Jewels Museum.