Saturday, 12 October 2013

Hidden Beauty - Tehran (Iran Part 3)

After getting out of Chalus, the road quickly becomes more mountainous. However, being as it was the last weekend prior to the schools starting again, the traffic was heavy and constant. It was slow going, but the beautiful scenery definitely made up for it. Sadly, as seems to be the case on almost every main route we have driven here, the roadside was scattered with rubbish, and we saw several offenders chucking litter out of car windows. It is definitely not the majority of people who do this, but the problem seems common enough to be the work of a sizeable minority.

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As the journey was not too long in miles, we failed to account for the intense sun and the slow going. Because of this, we did not stop enough for water and food, and as we reached the outskirts of Tehran I started to feel unwell. We pulled the bike over on the side of the motorway, and managed to find some scrubby trees by way of shade. After eating our remaining plums and glugging some water, I was feeling a little less faint and managed to get back on the bike. It was a scary ride to our destination, as I was genuinely afraid I might pass out.

Luckily we made it to our Couchsurfing hosts in the south of the city without incident. We even managed to escape the experience of the crazy Tehran traffic that we have heard so much about. Our hosts, Abbas and Zahra, were a lovely couple, and actually gave us the use of an entire studio apartment rather than a couch. The flat belongs to Abbas's mother, but she was not currently living there and was happy for people to stay. We felt very lucky to have stumbled across such generous hosts.

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After some food and a rest, Abbas and Zahra drove us to a beautiful park known as Fire and Water. As we arrived in the main square, the water part of the name was immediately obvious from the pretty fountains. Around it rose huge columns, decorated with scenes from folk tales. This was where the fire aspect came in, as after we had been there a few minutes flames appeared at the top, regularly puffing into impressive balls of fire. From this area, we walked across the bridge to a skate park, spread over an impressively large area. Some brave teenagers showed off their skills on their BMX bikes and rollerblades, as we watched admiringly from the sidelines.

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The next day Oli and I fancied a rest day, and were mindful that many things might be closed as it was Friday. The first stop for the day was the old U.S. Embassy, or the U.S. Den of Espionage as it is now (admittedly somewhat fairly) called here. Although the building is only open to visitors for ten days a year, the outside is still well worth a visit for the colourful political murals that adorn the walls. We had heard that the guards might be twitchy about photography here, but after taking a couple of subtle test shots nobody seemed to mind, and we carried on without issue.

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From here, we strolled slowly to Laleh park for a barely earned rest from the city. It was a fairly long walk, and we ended up going past a large mosque shortly after Friday prayer. They were handing out juice and cakes, which we did not feel entitled to as we had not attended. However, an elderly man insisted that we had some and despite our protests, disappeared into the crowd and came back with the goods. This is just one example of the sort of kindness and generosity we keep experiencing in Iran, and one of the aspects that makes it such a rewarding place to visit.

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Strengthened by our refreshments, we made it the rest of the way to the park and sat on a bench after a brief wander around. As seems to be the case for every park we have visited in Iran so far, it was a thoughtfully laid out and beautifully cared for space. We enjoyed a spot of people watching and marvelled at the stray cats, which are truly enormous here.

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We decided to round off our day by walking to the Gandhi shopping centre, which according to Lonely Planet was a nice place to hang out. We massively underestimated the length of the walk, and were disappointed to find that it was just a small outdoor centre, with a few shops and cafes. It will definitely be the last time we trust Lonely Planet's descriptions of anything, but we did find a nice cafe that served decent (albeit pricey) coffees. Oli has now resolved never to listen to Lonely Planet ever again, and has never quite forgiven them for the fact that they once recommended a hostel in Italy that turned out to be a homeless shelter.

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The next day we planned to be proper tourists and see the main sights. A kind Couchsurfing member runs free guided tours once a week, so we decided to join the group. The tour began with a quick visit to the main Tehran Bazaar, focusing on the attached mosque. This was a surprisingly peaceful space, away from the crazy hustle of the shopping area. It was a fairly modern building, but beautifully tiled and with a large pool in the centre.

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From here, we went to the nearby Golestan palace. Originally constructed under the Qajar dynasty, it was rebuilt to its current form during the latter half of the 19th Century. The interior was lavishly decorated  with mirrors, tiles and antiques, but for us the main draw was the gardens and beautiful exterior. Sadly, some of the water features here are no longer flowing, as the supply had to be cut to make way for the Tehran underground. However, it was still a lovely oasis from the city traffic, and the experience was made richer as we were regaled with tales of intrigue and revenge from the history of the ruling dynasties.

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The last stop on our tour was the National Jewellery Museum, located under the Central Bank of Iran. As it is opened for only two hours a few days a week, it was busy with tourists, and getting everyone through security took some time. Once inside, we saw a vast collection of precious stones, gold, jewellery and ornaments. The wealth on display was astounding, and the ostentatious tastes of the old powers almost unbelievable. One item that particularly illustrated this drive for riches was a huge globe, made from 35 kg of pure gold, with the countries of the world and the oceans coloured with diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires.

After our busy day, we headed back home for delicious food cooked by Zahra, and also contributed some of our own cooking. We were also joined by Reza, an Iranian couch surfer also staying in Tehran for a few days, and is a great guy full of interesting stories. We spent a lovely evening eating, drinking tea and chatting. Full of food and tired from a day of walking around the city, Oli and I called it a night earlier than we would have liked, and slept like babies.

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We had originally planned to leave the next day, but Abbas invited us to stay an extra night and asked if we would like to join his English conversation group in the evening. Having a great time in the city, we readily agreed. We had met a lovely Couchsurfer named Sana the day before on our tour, so decided to meet up with her again that afternoon so she could show us the north of the city.

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Sana took us to see the Imamzadeh Saleh mosque, an important site for Iranian Shi'ah muslims. To visit here, she and I had to cover fully with borrowed chadors, essentially a large sheet of material which veils the body completely. I was no expert at handling this, and ended up getting tangled in the vast swathes of fabric. Although I have managed to get fairly used to the headscarf and tunic I have to wear here by law, the chador was a nightmare and I was glad to get rid of it when we left the mosque area.

From here we wandered up to the museum of cinema, which is housed in a beautiful old building surrounded by lush gardens. We skipped the museum itself, and sat down for a drink in one of the cafes instead. It is a really lovely location, and well worth a visit if anyone ever finds themselves in Tehran.

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Time had run on, and we needed to get to Laleh park for Abbas's conversation group. Thankfully, Sana decided to accompany us and helped us negotiate the bus network. The buses in Tehran are segregated by gender, so Oli had to sit alone at the front whilst Sana and I went to the back. This was our first proper experience of Tehran traffic, and as we crawled along it quickly became apparent that we would be late for our meeting. After what seemed like an age, we were at our destination, and happily managed to get off the bus without losing Oli.

Although we were an hour late for the discussion group in the end, we joined the debate at an interesting point. The subject was social networks and their benefits and pitfalls. We found a lot of common ground between Iranian and Western cultures with regards to concerns about privacy and the effect on face to face interactions. However, there were also differences in perceived issues, and we enjoyed learning about these and getting an insight into the social side of different cultures. Towards the end of the session, discussion was slightly hijacked by a hot air balloon using the adjoining space as a base, but the conversation was nonetheless an interesting experience.

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We endured a packed metro journey home, then spent the evening chatting with Abbas and Zahra over cups of tea. We had enjoyed a great few days in the Iranian capital city, and our experience was enhanced by having such kind hosts. We hope to see them again one day, wherever we may end up in the world.

Tehran may have a reputation as a traffic-choked concrete inferno, but Oli and I both think this is undeserved. Yes, the majority of the development happened in the 1960s, 70s and 80s and there is a lot of concrete around, but there are many surprises. Typically ugly buildings are often transformed by colourful murals, and at night clever lighting colours and brightens the city scape. Numerous parks provide respite from the urban environment, and there is always a pretty detail lending some unexpected beauty. This is truly an interesting and unique city, and should not be skipped if visiting Iran.

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