Tehran – An introduction to Iran

I was experiencing a broad spectrum of emotions prior to arriving in Iran. I was excited because it was a new and foreign land; some trepidation because it was always in the news for political reasons; exhausted from the travel burnout, and anticipation because it was my final stop before I’d head back to SE Asia. I felt that I needed to go out with a bang and make the most of it. In a way, it’s these range of emotions that I used to feel before prior to going to a new place, but lost it somewhere along the way. However, it was great to be experiencing them once again.

Iran doesn’t receive the most glowing endorsements in the media. Most of us are familiar with US Government branding them as a part of the “Axis of Evil” – so why go then? There were four main reasons: Firstly, it was an image of the Pink Mosque in Isfahan that sparked the initial curiosity to find out more. It was something about the symmetry, colours and textures that wrapped around the mosque and it’s place in the local history – the elements of a great photo that drew me to it. Secondly, my experience from these past twenty months of travelling have taught me that you can’t entirely judge a country and its citizens by how their government is branded by foreign policy or travel warnings. Thirdly, of all of the places I’ve been to, the countries known as being dangerous turned out to have amongst the friendliest and most hospitable people who I’ve met. Finally, my travelling style has changed significantly since I left in April, 2013. I’ve now left behind the backpacker party trail, for which my liver is thanking me, and now seek out those places both with photogenic landscapes and with a skew to where others may not have considered going to.

tehran mosque

The minarets from a mosque, seen from the bazaar.

So with that in mind, I booked a ticket to Tehran and after a delay with my visa, had planned what I considered an “introductory itinerary” over sixteen days from the north in Tehran, to the south in Shiraz. During the initial research phase, I discovered that a few of my friends had already been to Iran and when I enquired about their experience, they had nothing but praise for the country and its people, which put my mind at ease.

Not the ideal start to the trip.

There was a lengthy queue waiting to be processed at immigration Tehran Airport, and during the first hour of waiting, only one person had been processed. While we were waiting, people were blatantly pushing in from every angle, upsetting quite a few of the locals who later told me were from Pakistan. I had no idea how to make that distinction – everybody looked foreign to me. Amongst the chaos, I had somehow ended up being pushed from the middle of the cue, right to the end. I was feeling pretty nervous and didn’t want to pipe up and start an argument or get into any sort of trouble. I had just finished watching the previous season of Homeland where Brody, one of the lead characters, is hung by the Iranian police and it was instilling a hint of paranoia in my mind.

During the wait, I struck up a conversation with an Iraqi. He was from Kabul and used to be in the army and served the full length of the Iran/Iraq war that lasted 8 years. He now works as a high school teacher and had come to Iran to visit some of the holy sites – a practice by many muslims from around the middle east.

Eventually, after three hours I passed through immigration without any dramas. The baggage collection area was empty, with the carousel at a standstill as everybody had pretty much collected their bags. There were a few bags that were stacked in pile on the floor by staff, waiting to be collected, but mine was not amongst them. After fifteen years of travelling, I knew that it was bound to happen – I just hadn’t expect it to be in Iran.

tehran shopping

Was I going to be wearing blue and frilly underwear on this trip?

tehran shisha

No point worrying over the little things. Time to enjoy an apple tea and shisha.

Earlier on that day before I even left Turkey, I had a feeling that this would happen; so it didn’t come too much as a surprise that my bag wasn’t to be seen anywhere at the airport. As I sat in the window seat in Istanbul, waiting for my Turkish Airlines flight to depart, I was in full view of the baggage handlers unloading the bags from the trolleys and onto the plane. It was at that point where I had an uncomfortable feeling that my bag wasn’t amongst the load. However, I was so exhausted from getting up at 4:30am for the flight that I fell asleep before the bags were fully loaded.

It probably wasn’t the most ideal place to lose my backpack, but I wasn’t too concerned by the incident and started thinking of what the fashion trends were in Iran and the kind of ensemble I’d purchase to last me throughout the trip. In the end though, I didn’t have to go on a shopping expedition as my luggage arrived and was delivered the following day.

The smog is intense.

As I left the airport, the light was transitioning into dusk. The air was dry and not as hot as I had expected; perhaps the Mediterranean heat in Turkey had assisted me in acclimatizing for these conditions. It was over an hours drive from the airport to the city and the first thing that struck me was the traffic density and the choking levels of pollution.

With the trade sanctions imposed on the country and the lack of domestic car manufacturers, the supply of cars hasn’t been able to keep up with consumer demand. As a result, a large portion of registered cars in the country are over twenty-five years old, using old technology and producing an unhealthy level of pollution, leaving a constant blanket of pollution over the major cities. I’ve been to China and nothing will ever come close to the poor quality of air there, but in Tehran, I struggled to keep my lungs squeaky clean.


Overlooking the city of Tehran on sunset.

Taxicab survival skills.

As soon as the taxi left the airport, my taxi driver had his foot flat-out on the accelerator as though he was inserted into a real life version of Grand Theft Auto. I’ve been in crazy taxi drivers before in Quito, travelling at crazy high speeds, and here it was no different. Although he wasn’t going that fast, it was the combination of the soft suspension on the vehicle, an inability to distinguish between the left and right lanes and a disregard for all the road rules that was worrying.

With the seat belt slot missing, I was constantly thrown across the slippery back seat as I tried to find a grip on any fixed objects as he ducked and weaved in and out of traffic like an orchestrated stunt driving manoeuvre.

No gap was too small as he nudged his way in and while still at speed. Leaning to his left, his head poked out of the window for a clearer view, left arm stretched out and hand flapping up and down being used as some form of indicator. The entire time he was waving down traffic in order to let him through as the car, constantly in third gear and leaving a plume of smoke spewing from the car exhaust.

azadi tower tehran

Looking up at the Adazi Tower in Tehran which marks the western entrance into Tehran. It was originally called Shahyad and built to commemorate the 2,500 year anniversary of Persia but was changed to Azadi after the 1979 revolution.

Closed off but still connected to the world.

I was introduced to Sogol, a local Iranian, through an ex-colleague of mine who he had met through Couchsurfing when he travelled through Iran. Couchsurfing is fairly popular in Iran as it’s a popular way for the curious youth of Iran (a large percentage of the population is under 30 years old) to meet foreigners and discover more about the world. I also had quite a few Iranians contact me to organise catch ups and offers to be a tour guide while I was in the country. For the few days that I spent in Tehran, she was my guide and I saw the city through her eyes and got to meet her friends.

It was interesting to mingle with Sogol’s friends. As I got to know them, the more I realised that they are just normal people just like all of us – educated in one of the many Universities in Tehran, have jobs and despite the restrictions on the internet, are connected to what’s happening in the world, with hope that one day they can freely travel and explore other countries. What surprised me the most was how I would be drawn to the way in which they spoke. Farsi is the main language in Iran and with the absence of inflections noticeable in the other middle eastern countries languages (ok I’m no expert), the way it’s spoken can be described as soft and melodic. In everyday conversation it sounded as they were reciting poetry – I could have listened to them speak all day.


Sogol, my wonderful host.

Restrictions on what we take for granted.

Many of Sogol’s friends are quite talented and creative in the arts; something that can tread a fine line in Iran depending on the context or interpretation. Most artworks that go on public display require pre approval from the government, music performances are regulated and rock music is definitely forbidden. Something that I found most odd was that women were forbidden to sing solo in public in front of men, unless if it was performed by a group of three or more women. The reason being so that they couldn’t stimulate any immoral arousal – Adam and Eve anybody?

One of the cultural adjustments that I was aware of and thought that I would struggle with was not drinking alcohol as it has been banned since the revolution. As a traveller, in most places it’s the one thing used by hostels to encourage people to meet other travellers. Last year, there was a hazy period of travelling along the gringo trail in Central America where I wouldn’t have gone a day without having at least a few rum and pineapple juices and a couple of beers to pass the day and meet other travellers.

The longest that I have previously gone without a drop of booze would have been five days, so I thought I would have struggled to adjust. However, as there was a blanket ban, I felt that it wasn’t so difficult to adapt as everybody had to deal with it and they dealt with it in their own way, mainly through drinking in tea houses and also hanging out in cafes or getting together for picnics in the parks and large public spaces. In a way it’s a little bit like here in Vietnam where there really isn’t much of a drinking culture. As a result, a thriving cafe culture fills in that void there’s a place for the people to hang out in.

It was an eye-opening experience for me as I had to reprogram the previous eighteen years of conditioning that has led to a reliance on alcohol as social lubricant in order to function socially.

A history lesson.

With a history that extends beyond 4000B.C, Iran has one of the oldest civilisations in the world. Previously known as Persia, its history isn’t taught in any of our schools and most of our exposure to it is probably through watching Prince of Persia movies. It’s endured invasions by the Greeks, Turks, Mongols and Arabs and played and was a key location along the Silk Road. Over a thousand-year period from 500 BC, Persia became one of the greatest empires in the world and it was the pre-Islamic period that interested me the most.

We went to the National Museum for an afternoon of history and despite its small size and the fact that it was actually hotter inside than outside, it was probably one of the better museums that I’ve visited. There were displays on that went back as far as 7,000 years and also a corpse of a man found in a salt mine, but I was most impressed with the artefacts from the ruin city of Persepolis during the Achaemenid Empire – a place that I would visit on this trip.

national museum of tehran

A bronze statue of a man believed to be General Surena dating back to 200 BC.

When I returned to Tehran prior to leaving Iran, we went to the Golestan Palace for some more “modern” history dating back 400 years. A World Heritage listed site, Golestan Palace is a collection of royal buildings that is a result of 400 years of continued upgrades and modifications put in place and was inhabited by royalty up until the revolution of 1979.

Built in the old citadel, close to the grand bazaar, there’s a distinct feeling of separation from the outside would, literally and figuratively. You couldn’t tell that you were in a city of eight million people as it was peacefully quiet and serene with a small grove of maple trees providing a blanket of shade over the gardens . The first things we encounter as we enter is the decadent marble throne in the outdoor terrace. Built from yellow marble, it reminded me of similar sized thrones used by the emperors in the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Golestan Palace Tehran

The Marble Throne

Containers Hall

Inside, it became even more decadent with separate halls adorned with intricate mirror work and chandeliers. Further along, the Containers hall showcased the gifts that were presented to the Shah by visiting dignitaries from Queen Victoria to chinaware dedicated by King Nicoli the first. The final room we visited was the Hall of Ivory – a large hall used as a dining room where we’re greeted by a pair of elephant tusks that must have been over 2m in length each. The entire space is decorated with elaborate gifts presented to Nasereddin Shah by other European monarchs.

Escaping the heat and the morality police.

There’s a group, external to the president’s authority who regularly patrol the city referred to as the morality police. Their official duty is to look for those who don’t meet the standards of attire and behaviour. In a nutshell, women are expected to wear the appropriate Hijab to cover their hair, long sleeves to cover their arms, loose clothing or a buttoned up manteau to cover any curves as well as long pants down to the ankles. Men get the better end of the bargain and only need to wear trousers.

Since president Hassan Rouhani came into power, the policing on those standards seems to have been unofficially loosened despite internal protests from the hardliners. I saw quite a few shops selling super tight jeans, button-less manteau and hijabs of every colour imaginable that would miraculously cling to the back of women’s heads. PDA or signs of affection in Iran is also a definite no-no. There’s no kissing, holding hands – I even read that some women don’t shake men’s hands, so it was an area of confusion for me at first. Do I shake hands or give a friendly wave, and  are friendly hugs off-limits as well?

On my final day in Tehran, Sogol and I headed to Baam-e Tehran, high up in the hills of Tehran and away from the heat and choking pollution. In winter, this area is actually a ski resort, but on this balmy September day, it’s a popular location for many of the youth of Tehran to hang out, relax and appreciate a hazy an orange drenched sunset. I could sense the casual nature of the place as people, friends and lovers sat on benches overlooking the city below, shoulder to shoulder, some holding hands and sharing plenty of laughs as the saxophone melody from George Michael’s “Careless Whispers” (minus lyrics of course) could be heard playing from the distant restaurant.

Baam-e Tehran

Clean air and a place to relax.

Tehran isn’t a difficult place to get around, but my time there was made much easier with Sogol’s help. Even before we met she helped with a tonne of issues and even called my hotel to check my reservation when they wouldn’t respond to my emails.  As we hugged and said our goodbyes on the metro, I knew that my first taste of Iran was only a tiny peek into its history and a view into a modern and youthful culture, with a regime that seemed to be changing very slowly, but in the right direction. Although I had only spent just over a few days in Tehran, it was the perfect introduction to a country that I knew very little about, but felt certain that I’d be returning  to experience again once more.

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Tehran – An introduction to Iran — 6 Comments

  1. Fascinating glimpse into a country that Tony & I are unlikely to visit any time soon. (As much as I’d love to visit Iran, currently Canadians and Americans can only do so on an organized tour, so I think we’ll be waiting a while before we finally make it there.) I discovered during our time in Malaysia that I’m a huge fan of Islamic architecture, so getting to visit Iran would be a dream for me; your pictures from Golestan Palace are unreal!

  2. Great article! I’m also planning a trip to Iran and now I’m even more excited!

    But why do you have to spoil Homeland!:( I just started watching it!

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