30/08/2013 - 02/09/2013
As our plane landed in Tehran, all the women started putting their headscarves on, so I followed suit. I was already wearing a top with long sleeves, so that was fine. As a visitor to Iran, the need to follow the Islamic dress code is definitely the biggest difference to visiting most other countries. For men it's not really an issue, just avoid shorts and you're fine. Women, however, need long sleeves (though 3/4 length seemed fine) and a headscarf. My main headscarf was one I got cheap in Primark, though I did also use a pink sarong as a headscarf a few times too. It took a while to get used to, wearing a headscarf all the time, especially with it being so hot, but putting it on becomes quite natural, strangely. Plus I didn't have to bother with straightening my hair - that was a bonus. Plus I only needed sunscreen on my face - so it did have some practical benefits. Seriously though, although it's law to dress a certain way, it's not as strict or restrictive as you might imagine. Some women will cover up more fully with the chador, but lots of women dress very stylishly - much more stylishly than me (not that that's difficult). Plus your headscarf doesn't need to cover all of your hair - some women had quite a lot of hair showing at the front of their heads. It was a lot more relaxed than I'd expected. Wearing tops with long sleeves was slightly awkward for me, just because we're mostly visiting hot countries and my travel wardrobe's suitably skewed towards short sleeves (or no sleeves). I did have one long sleeved top, which I bought during our break in the UK (and which I've actually worn as a dress in other countries - it's a decent length), but I figured that wouldn't be sufficient for nearly 2 weeks in Iran. So when we were in Sofia I went looking for a long sleeved shirt that I could wear over the top of my regular t-shirts. This was more difficult than I'd expected - I'd not realised that 3/4 length sleeves would suffice, plus I didn't want anything too fitted or short, as I'd read that tops should go over your hips - I assumed this was to hide the womanly curves of your waist, but plenty of women in Iran wore clothes that cinched at the waist, so I was slightly over cautious in my shirt shopping. I ended up buying a shirt that I didn't really like, which was a few sizes too big for me, just because it met the modesty criteria. It wasn't awful, it was just a plain white shirt, but it did have poofy shoulders that made me look like I was wearing shoulder pads. Ugh. Anyway, the prescriptive clothing thing's not a big deal, at least on a practical level - I'm not going to start a debate on it from an ideological or feminist perspective - as a visitor to their country I was happy to conform.
The best thing about visiting Iran, without question, is the people. The friendliness, kindness and helpfulness of Iranians was amazing. If we looked remotely unsure of where we were going or what we were doing, someone would offer to help. And it wouldn't be an attempt to extract money from us, like it tends to be in a lot of countries, it would be a genuine desire to help us out. Walking down the street we'd feel like celebrities as random people would say hello to us - including people riding past on motorbikes. Some people would also engage us in longer conversations - usually asking where we're from and what we think of Iran and the Iranian people. The people we met were very keen to stress how much they like people from other countries and how the image and actions of their government don't tend to accurately represent the Iranian people. They did seem pleased by the recent electing of Rouhani, however, as he has more liberal leanings than previous presidents. But yes, we definitely felt like celebrities. Kids would either stare at us open-mouthed, in that lack-of-self-awareness way that kids do well, or they'd get really excited and say 'hello' repeatedly to us until we said it back. Weirdest though was when we got people asking to have their photos taken with us. They wouldn't even chat to us or anything, they'd just want a photo with the tourists. Surreal.
Anyway, back to the specifics of our time in Tehran. After going through passport control etc. and then getting some money exchanged, we wanted to get the bus that goes to one of the metro stations so that we could then take the metro to our hotel. We'd read about it online in advance and were led to believe it runs quite regularly. Anyway, we followed the signs to where it looked like the bus should go from and waited around. A couple of other people were hanging around too, which was slightly reassuring. However, after a while of waiting and no bus turning up we were starting to wonder if we were in the right place. Thankfully one of the other people waiting filled us in - the bus would only leave when there were enough people wanting to use it. As there was just the 4 of us, we'd have to wait a while. So, to save our legs, we went and sat down inside for a bit. I'm not sure how long we waited in total - definitely over an hour - maybe close to 2 hours even. Anyway, the Iranian guy who'd filled us in on the situation carried on talking to us and introduced himself as Ehsad. After we were all sick of waiting for more people to take the bus, we walked around a bit and found out we could share a taxi between us and it wouldn't cost much more than the bus would, so that's what we did. We got a taxi to the metro station and then the metro to our hotel. Ehsad even paid the metro fare for us. He also gave us his contact details and said that he'd show us around Tehran the following day if we liked. Just a few hours in the country and we'd experienced so much kindness already.
Iran was much more developed as a country than I was expecting. Not that I thought it would be all desert and caves or something - I'm not some naive xenophobe - but I thought it might be more similar in feel to either Morocco or Cuba. Instead it was much more similar to Turkey and the other Eastern European countries we'd just been visiting. It was a very natural progression and not too much of a culture shock.
We stayed at Escan Hotel in Tehran. It was the most expensive place we stayed in Iran, by quite a bit, but it wasn't expensive really - just comparatively expensive. Hotels in Tehran were generally more than in other cities, plus we were limited by who replied to e-mails and weren't fully booked. It was quite a fancy hotel by our usual standards. There was a man who opened the front door for you (this is my definition of fancy). Our room was nice, with a regular ensuite - toilet, shower cubicle and sink. We had some problems with the toilet though - we flushed it one time on our first night and it wouldn't stop filling back up. Thankfully Jamie figured out how to stop it, otherwise the bathroom would have flooded. We reported it to reception but they didn't do anything about it that evening, so we mentioned it again the following morning. When we got back that evening it was working fine and we had no further problems, so that was a relief.
The only other minor issue we had at the hotel was the overly-keen maid! We came back up after breakfast one morning and she'd just been in to clean our room. I'm using a carrier bag for putting my dirty clothes in and I'd left it out in our room. It was next to all my other belongings, I'd not put it anywhere prominant, but for some reason the maid (ugh, I don't really like that word but I'm not sure what else to use - housekeeper??) assumed that I wanted her to wash the clothes in it. Thankfully we saw her before we went back into our room and she checked with me that the clothes were for washing. I was totally confused to start with - why did she have a bag full of my clothes? I was worried she'd washed them already and I'd end up with some huge bill for it all - the laundry was priced per item and the bag was quite full. A confusing attempt at conversation ensued. She didn't speak English and was wanting to verify she should take the clothes for washing. I didn't speak Persian and was keen to get my clothes back, plus baffled as to why she'd taken them in the first place! She phoned the receptionist from our room so that she could act as translator. This was a good idea but for some reason the receptionist struggled to understand me. She asked me if I wanted laundry doing - 'yes or no?'
I said 'no.'
She said 'What? Yes or no?'
I said 'no,' again.
She said 'Nine?/Nein?' (not sure which)
I said 'no.'
She said 'Can you speak English please?'
I said nothing for a few seconds. I was baffled as to what else I might have been speaking and how she was unable to understand the word 'no,' particularly when she'd preceded it with a question that specified a 'yes or no' response. I said 'No, I do not want my clothes washing.'
She paused like she still didn't really understand me, then asked me to put the housekeeper back on. Thankfully the housekeeper then went away and left me with my dirty clothes. I re-read the hotel manual thing afterwards and verified that the laundry service is meant to involve you filling in a request form and phoning someone to tell them; not just leaving dirty clothes in a carrier bag in your room. I guess she was just trying to be helpful, but still, bit of a palava. We think she also took some coins of ours from the bedside table. Maybe she assumed they were a tip or something, though they were worth practically nothing.
Anyway, on that first night we arrived at the hotel, we just went down to the hotel restaurant for dinner. There'd been a menu in our room and we'd spotted some veggie pasta on it, so figured Jamie could have that. However, we got down to the restaurant and discovered that those pages weren't in their menu. We didn't want to get up and leave though, so Jamie had 2 starters instead (none of the main courses were vegetarian) and I went for a traditional kebab dish, which was really good.
On our first full day in Tehran we met up with Ehsan. He came and met us at our hotel. First off we walked to the Jewellery Museum, which he wanted to show us. This was our first proper exposure to the roads and driving styles in Iran. The amount of traffic is immense, particularly in Tehran. There are cars and motorbikes everywhere, weaving in and out of lanes and looking generally chaotic. They all seem in control though - we didn't witness any accidents. Pedestrian crossings aren't really a thing though - you get the occasional one, but mostly you have to just walk out into the road. You can look for a brief gap between cars, but there's never much of one, so you just have to trust them to avoid you. It's quite intimidating to start with, so it was good that we had Ehsan to guide us.
We got to the Jewellery Museum to discover it wasn't due to open for a few hours, so we headed further down the road and ended up popping into a museum about the Iranian postal service. Ehsan hadn't been there before but it was cheap and we thought we'd check it out. It had a few interesting bits, plus Ehsan and Jamie enjoyed identifying all the flags on the top of the display cabinets. Also, while we were walking around, one of the staff members brought us a little sandwich each, which was really sweet.
After that we headed to the palace, but the entrance fee was pretty high so we gave it a miss. We then went to the National Museum instead. That had a more reasonable entry fee, though on reflection it was still high for the size of the museum. It wasn't tiny, but it wasn't big. There were some nice artefacts in there though, including some from Persepolis.
To finish off the day we went to a coffee shop and had a drink and a nice long chat. It was a great introduction to the city and we were very thankful to Ehsan for giving up his time for us.
That evening we went to the Iranian Artists Forum for dinner. We'd looked it up online - it was vegetarian, sounded good and was just up the road from where we were staying. Perfect. Jamie ordered a platter type thing that included lots of different little bits of stuff. I fancied a burger but wasn't sure if it would be filling enough on its own. Under the menu heading of 'sandwiches' there were burgers and hot dogs and stuff, but then there were also french fries, potato salad etc. We figured they were accompaniments for the sandwiches and should probably really be under a different heading, so I ordered a burger and also the Russian Potato Salad. I did get a slightly funny look from the waiter but didn't think anything of it. Have you guessed where this is going? Yes, I got a burger and I also got a Russian potato salad sandwich. And yes it was as strange as it sounds. I wasn't really keen on the burger either, but I ate as much as I could of both and Jamie helped me out with them too. To wash down my sandwich feast I'd ordered one of the non-alcoholic beers (Iran's a dry country) as I was curious as to what they'd taste like. It was kinda like shandy, but a really weak shandy, plus kinda different and not really beer like. Quite nice in its own way, but odd that it's made to look like beer. The drink that came with Jamie's meal, however, was just described as 'natural drink'. It turned out to be the same as the drink we'd been given a small glass of at the end of our meal in the restaurant the previous night. This time though, Jamie had a pint glass full of it. I've no idea what it was, but it wasn't pleasant. It tasted slightly medicinal, but not in a good way. All in all it was a bit of a disappointing restaurant experience, but maybe we just ordered the wrong things.
The next day we wanted to go see the Azadi Tower. We took the metro to Azadi Square and then made our way over to the tower. Unfortunately it's in the centre of a big motorway type junction area, so getting to it involves some scary road crossings. We actually made more than we needed to, just because we were scoping out the route to the domestic airport where we were needing to go the following day. Still, once we were at the tower it was surprisingly serene. There's a decent amount of space between it and the road, so you can switch off from the fact you're basically on a large roundabout.
After that we made our way to the Jewellery Museum, as we'd not managed to go the day before. It's not obvious to find, it's just inside a bank, so if we'd not briefly gone there with Ehsan I don't think we'd have found it. From the name 'jewellery museum' and Ehsan's explanation of it, I was just expecting lots of jewellery, so had quite low expectations to be honest. There is some jewellery in there, but 'Museum of Jewels' would probably be a better description. You have to go through a few security checks and leave your camera, phone etc. in a luggage check, but it's definitely worth doing. You know when cartoons show buried treasure and it's all elaborate gold and jewels? It's just like that! Our favourite was the gold globe with all the land mass represented in various precious stones. I overheard a guide say that it was one of the most expensive/valuable items in the world. We later found out that the items were unearthed from some kind of tomb in Persepolis.
That evening we decided to go back to the veggie place. Mostly for convenience, though I was looking forward to trying out something different and hopefully having a better experience. Pizza seemed like a good option. However we got there to find it was fully booked. They didn't give us the option of waiting or anything, they just said 'no tables'. There went that plan. We returned to the hotel in order to come up with a plan B. The hotel restaurant was a possibility, but Jamie would have been limited to just having starters again. There was also a coffee shop in the hotel though, just above the restaurant. I'd wondered if their menu might include the pages that were missing from the main restaurant's menu - the ones with the veggie pasta. We decided to give it a go and were pleasantly surprised to be right. Jamie had the veggie pasta and I had the chicken one (which seemed to be exactly the same, just with a few bonus chunks of chicken).
The next morning I had a dodgy tummy. Not sure what it was that had angered it, but it wasn't happy about something. I took some tablets for it which thankfully seemed to do the trick once they kicked in. We checked out of the hotel and made our way to the domestic airport. We'd considered walking from the nearest metro stop, as it wasn't far, but after scoping it out the previous day and noting all the crazy lanes of traffic we'd need to cross, we decided to get a taxi instead.
We had a little while to wait before we could check in, but that was nothing compared to how long we had to wait afterwards. Our flight was delayed due to some kind of technical difficulties. That was the only information we were given as well - no clue as to how long the delay would be for. I was very thankful that the diarrhea tablets had worked as there weren't any 'western style' toilets in the airport. Public toilets in Iran are basically a hole in the ground. As a woman I found that awkward enough when going for a wee - I dread to think how unpleasant it would be if you needed to use them for the other alternative. They do flush thankfully, but still, I was very pleased the tablets had worked!
While we were indefinitely waiting to board the plane, an Iranian guy started chatting to us. He'd already been waiting for hours as his early morning flight had been cancelled and then so had the one after that, so he was now waiting for the same flight as us. He kept going to check for any new information, plus he let us know when the airline provided us with our free meal to eat in the airport while we were waiting. We'd have been oblivious to that otherwise. He gave up after a couple more hours though and decided to try again the next day. It wasn't too long after that that we did actually get to board the plane, but still, I don't blame him for giving up.
Another guy helped us out at the airport too. We were worried that the hotel in Shiraz mightn't keep our room for us, as we were going to be arriving much later than we'd told them, so a guy helped Jamie buy and use a phone card so he could call the hotel and let them know we'd be late.
When we did finally board the plane and take off it was three and a half hours later than scheduled. Still, better late than never!