Persia Beyond the MYTHS

Flights at Immam Khomeini Airport (IKA) in Tehran arrive and depart at very strange times. Usually, in the middle of the night. It was 01.00 and the airport arrival lounge was crowded. Friends and families were waiting for their loved ones with lots of flowers. And cookies. Everyone was happy, everyone was celebrating. The ambience was incredibly friendly.

Donation boxes are ubiquitous

At night, the megacity of Tehran was abandoned. Empty streets, except for few a lonely souls. The taxi driver got lost. We went in circles around the hotel for over an hour. On the way, we saw a few kids working late-night on road maintenance. They were painting the pole of a traffic sign. The driver stopped next to them and asked for our hotel. The kids looked back with big eyes and a curious face expression. They did not know either.

After only four hours of sleep, my phone rang. "Good morning! As part of your special welcome pack to Iran, we kindly ask you to get the f*ck out of your hotel and take a taxi to Tochal. See you there in one hour." Just what I wanted to hear.
First destination in Tehran: Tochal

Tehran is literally at the foot of a mountain range. The Tochal telecabin offers a 45 minute ride of stunning views straight up to the top of the mountains. We had to wait for half an hour to board the telecabin. The reason was not recomforting. A wheel on one of the supporting towers was broken. Our iranian friend joked recalling that the telecabin had been built in the seventies, and had not been upgraded since then. Awesome.

Broken wheel? No problem, the technician on tower 33 seemed to have everything under control.

Getting around in Tehran is hard. The city is enormous and traffic is horrible. Still, taxis are often the only means of transport. The prevalent driving style knows no limits. Talking on the phone while shifting gears with your left hand? That's the basics. Lanes and pedestrian crossings have no meaning. At all. My favourite driving experience in Tehran was when our driver decided to drive for at least four or five blocks on the bus lane. In opposite direction.

On the way to Isfahan, our bus missed an exit on the highway. The driver stopped mid-highway, reversed back to the exit, and continued happily on the correct route. What could possibly go wrong?

The Bazaar

While many locals may actually avoid the crowds at the Bazaar, it is undoubtedly a magnet for tourists looking for "authentic" shopping experiences. From jewlery to spices and underwear, all was available at the three bazars I visited in Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz.

Figs in Shiraz. At the bazaar, we tried many food samples. Nuts, sweets, fruits, you name it. I had no clue what I was eating but it was tasty. And of course, at lunchtime no one was hungry anymore.

I had never seen that many jewlery shops, one next to the other. Many sold pendants with the symbol of Zoroastrianism, a wide-spread religion in Iran before the arrival of Islam.

Tea sets for sale at the bazaar. Whenever we ordered tea, sugar came in a very special form. Instead of sugar grains, they brought large sugar cristals attached to a small stick of wood. The stick went into the tea cup, where the sugar would melt with the heat. To have it less sweet, one had to take out the stick before it finished melting.

All merchants at the bazaar in Tehran used the same model of wagon to move goods around. Exactly the same. And the wagons were (very) often packed to the extreme. Make sure to scroll down to the end of the picture below to actually see the tiny wagon holding the huge mass of boxes. Trucks were packed in a similar style. Safety first.

Either imported or built at large scale in the country, the wagons were everywhere

Golestan Palace

Golestan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the heart of Tehran. It consists of a number of buildings. The entry fee to each building seems low at first, but if one adds up all the fees, the price to visit the whole complex is about 30 €. We did skip parts of it.

This was the first time that I saw the amazing interior decoration of persian palaces. They literally cover walls and ceilings with zillions of tiny mirror fragments. Pictures cannot capture the light inside the palace. It was overwhelming.

This requires infinite patience
We had to wear overshoes to enter the palace
As we walked on the streets, unknown people would ask us all the time "Where are you from?", and start friendly conversations. It was not just once or twice. It was every few meters, on any street, at any time.
On day three, we headed south
We rented a full-size bus. We were only thirteen but renting the bus with driver for the whole day cost about 300 €. It picked us up at the hotel, had huge seats, stopped wherever we wanted. It was worth it.

We did not even plan for the stop in Kashan on our trip to Isfahan. But we ended up visting some historic houses in that city. And the hammam. I truly fell in love with the hammam. Not the inside, but the rooftop. The roof is full of domes that cover the rooms below. It looked like a colony on Mars. Or the houses on Tatooine. This was one of my favourite spots during the trip. The place was incredibly photogenic.

The hammam below the domes had become a museum.

We reached Isfahan late in the evening. We learned that the police had closed all shisha places for a couple of weeks. Apparently, too many girls were going for shisha regularly. Since shisha places seem to be great for dating, the moral police had decided to ban it for some time. Fortunately, I am not a big shisha fan anyways.

To get around the ban, youngsters smoked shisha below the arches of a bridge. The police showed up and they ran away like a bat out of hell.

Isfahan

The main place to visit in Isfahan is the Naqsh-e Jahan Square. The square features two amazing mosques and an impressive palace. Since the square is not aligned with Mecca, both mosques are rotated by 45º with respect to the side of the square.

Immam Mosque
Light rays inside the mosque
Iwan: from a square to a circle
The balcony of the palace
Si o Seh Pol Bridge

At sunset, I went back to the hotel. I headed out again to meet the others for dinner. We agreed to meet in the neighborhood of Jolfa. While looking for the restaruant, I tripped over a stone that was just lying in the middle of the street. Everything went very fast. I didn't realize what was going on until I felt the sudden pain in both of my knees. The bright side of this was that I forgot about the pain in my feet for a few days until my knees recovered.

On the Si o Seh Pol bridge, I sat down to take a rest. Soon, a man joined me. He told me about how great Armenia was, and about how bad cell phones were for people. The whole thing took like 20 minutes.
On the road again

We continued our trip again in a full-size bus. We had two drivers. While one was driving, the other one was resting in a tiny room next to the lugagge compartment. No windows, no space, no nothing. A worn-off mattress was the only amenity next to our luggage. And a wired phone. I found out that the other end of the line was next to the bus driver. Just in case it gets a bit rough in the sleeping compartment, I guess. Or in case the air runs out.

We arrived in Persepolis shortly before dusk. At the ticket counter, a large sign in English read "Foreign Tourists: 200.000 rials". By then, I had learned the numbers in Farsi. The line above stated 30.000 rials.
The stairs leading to Persepolis
Alexander the Great did not leave much
Representatives of all nations honor the persian king
A lamussu protects the entrance to Persepolis
As the sun went down, Persepolis lied at our feet

Food in Iran was amazing. My favourite starter were the olives in pomegranate paste. The taste was unexpected but very nice. Instead of tables and chairs, many restaurants had some sort of elevated round platform covered in carpets and pillows. We sat cross-legged on the platform, and food was served in the center. Eating there was quite some exercise.

Yes, that is a car hanging upside-down from the ceiling of a giant tent housing a restaurant
One thing was common to all of the three cities that we visited: neon signs. Iranian shops love blinking, scrolling and flashing neon signs in either red, white, or green. Streets at night were like a 90's website.

Shiraz

Our last stop on the trip was Shiraz. The city houses some of the most famous persian gardens, such as the Eram Garden depicted here. While we could visit it after paying the usual amount of 200.000 rials, the garden was under "winter maintenance".

The Nasir ol Molk mosque is famous for its colored windows. In the morning, the sun shines through them and tints the white columns in beautiful colors. We arrived just in time to see the colors on the lower part of the columns but legend says that if one is there at 08:00 am, the whole room is covered in colors. We didn't verify it.

Instead of Christmas, Iran celebrates the winter solstice. Also, New Year is not on January 1 but around March 21, that is, on the first day of Spring. This makes actually a lot of sense. The winter solstice was on one of our last days in Iran. Our hotel set up a table in the lobby displaying the typical nuts and fruits people eat to celebrate Yalda Night. I guess that this is kind of equivalent to a hotel setting up a Christmas tree during the Christmas season.

On Yalda Night, we went out for dinner. We ended up in a super shady place in the middle of nowhere in the outskirts of Shiraz. The bill: 10.000.000 rials.

I thought no more walls with zillions of tiny mirrors could impress me after seeing Golestan. I was wrong. The central room of the Qauam House in Shiraz was breathtaking. Words cannot describe it.

But the absolute highlight was Shah Cheragh, a mosque and tomb in Shiraz. It is a holy place where two sons of one of The Twelve Imams are buried. It is also an important center of pilgrimage.

Shah Cheragh is an active mosque. That is, it is not a museum or a tourist monument. Thus we had to be accompanied at all times by a delegate of the office for foreign affairs. Men and women had separate entries, and all women had to wear a chador instead of just a headscarf. Rules were enforced but fortunately it was not as strict as one may think.

The Shah Cheragh complex includes an office for religious questions. Two of our party went to the office and asked about the difference of shia and sunni islam. They got a very extensive reply.
Pomegranates ready for juicing

Toilets are somewhat different in Iran. The regular toilet is a squat toilet. In other words, it's basically a hole in the ground with no seat. International hotels typically have western-style toilets but public bathrooms do not. Fortunately, there is one exception: public bathrooms for disabled people. This saved me from having to use a squat toilet for the whole trip. Carrying toilet paper is recommended, since a water hose is the preferred local method.

Shop in Shiraz selling toilet seats for disabled people. Or desperate westerners.

Apart from complimentary soap, shampoo, and shower gel, most hotels in Iran also offer a complimentary toothbrush. This is actually very convenient. Moreover, the shower is often integrated into the bathroom. That is, the shower is not a separate area but is just installed on a wall of the bathroom. As a result, taking a shower means flooding the whole place. No shower plate, no shower screen, just a shower hose identical to the one of the toilet.

Instead of individual soap dispensers, public toilets have dedicated pipes that transport the soap from a central container to each washbasin. Really clever!
Gardens at the Qavam House
Columns at the Vakil Mosque
The citadel of Karim Khan
Reflections at the Tomb of Hafez

We returned to Tehran by plane. It was an Airbus A310 of Mahan Air. The last unit of that model was delivered in 1998. Still, the flight was suprisingly nice. Instead of the usual small screen at the front of the cabin, the plane had a huge TV screen showing live images from cameras outside the plane. Further, they served a full meal although the flight duration was only one hour and twenty minutes. It felt luxurious compared to flights in Europe.

We took a taxi at the airport in Tehran. My luggage did not fit the small trunk of the car but this was no big deal for the driver. He took a rope and fixed it to the roof of the taxi. Problem solved.

I only had a few hours in Tehran before my flight back to Madrid. We decided to visit the Sa'dabad Complex. It consists of a number of palaces where the Shah of Iran lived before the 1979 revolution that lead to the rise of the current Islamic Republic of Iran. The rooms in the palaces looked as if time had stopped at the very moment when the shah was forced to leave the country.

The complex is located in an enormous garden, including this statue of Arash the Archer. We rushed through it since we arrived shortly before the complex closed. In an attempt to find a shortcut, we got lost. We had to walk off-trail through the forest, climb over walls, and run up hills. When we reached the last palace, the lights were already off. However, the guards allowed us to take a quick look before politely asking us to get out of the place ASAP.

My flight left at 03:45 a.m. It was not the only flight at that time. The terminal at Immam Khomeini Airport was crowded with sleepy passangers waiting for their flights. I fell asleep as soon as I reached my seat on Alitalia flight AZ 757. On arrival at Rome, each and every passenger had to go through a security screening specifically set up for our flight. One by one, with a single metal detector. It took ages. As I walked to my connecting flight, I felt that something had changed. It took me a while to realize. No one was wearing a headscarf.

After the trip, I was often asked whether it had been dangerous. I never felt unsafe during the trip to Iran. Maybe it is a dangerous country but definitely not in the everyday life on the streets of large cities.

The End

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