08/09/2013 - 11/09/2013
On arrival at the bus station we decided to plan ahead and book our tickets from Esfahan to Tehran airport for in a few days' time. We knew we needed to use the same bus company we'd just arrived by, so we found the right office nice and easily, but knowing who to speak to and how to communicate what we wanted was a bit more daunting. Thankfully we didn't need to be daunted for long - a girl spotted our confused foreigner looks and offered to help us. Not only did she book the tickets for us, she even offered to pay for them! We were blown away by the generosity. We didn't take her up on it, of course, but the fact that she offered, when she'd only just met us, was incredibly humbling.
After thanking her as much as we could, which didn't seem like enough, we got a taxi to our hotel. The taxi driver charged us a pretty high amount for a fairly short journey. High by Iranian standards anyway. We knew they raised their prices a bit for tourists anyway, but still, this was the only time in Iran that we felt ripped off by a taxi driver. Only a minor annoyance though.
We stayed at Iran Hotel. Not an imaginative name but a decent place. It was kinda similar to the hotel in Shiraz, in terms of the quality and general feel of the place, but without the mess and fumes. The breakfast was basically the same as well, but very slightly nicer - a choice of jams, nicer bread and a bonus glass of orange squash. We had a similar toilet problem to when we were in Tehran though - it got blocked and kept filling up. Someone came fairly quickly to sort it out though and then it was fine after that.
If, for some strange reason, I had to live in one of the places we visited in Iran, I'd choose Esfahan. It seemed cleaner than the other cities, plus a bit more... upmarket, for want of a better (and less snobby) word.
The main area to visit in Esfahan is Imam Square. We went there a few times, both during the day and at night. Weirdly, the first time we were making our way there from our hotel, we bumped into the French couple we met in Shiraz! They weren't staying in the same hotel as us this time though.
Imam Square is a popular tourist spot but also a popular place for the locals to hang out, especially in the evenings. Iranians seem to like sitting outside and having picnics in the evenings. We'd noticed it in other cities too but it seemed particularly prevelant in Esfahan. Imam Square seemed to be a favoured spot for this for some people as they like getting to chat to the tourists. I lost track of how many people approached us and chatted to us while walking around the square. Teenage girls seemed especially keen; wanting to get photos with us and exchange e-mail addresses and stuff (though none have actually e-mailed me thus far). There was also a young guy who wanted to add us on Facebook. Facebook's one of the websites that's blocked in Iran but plenty of Iranians seemingly have software to get around that problem.
As well as the main square and a few mosques that are worth taking in, there are a couple of bridges that are must-see tourist destinations. They get crowded with people in the evenings too. Here's one of them during the day (note that the river was completely absent, which was a shame):
Iran Hotel doesn't have its own restaurant, sadly, so after the convenience of Silk Road we were back to needing to hunt out purveyors of food. Unfortunately, the area we were staying in seemed to consist almost entirely of clothes shops and small fast-food outlets with entirely Persian menus. On our first night, after walking around for quite a while, we settled for a pizza and burgers place, largely because they had English menus. On our first full day, however, we ventured further afield for food. We'd done some online research and noted down a few possible places. However, these turned out to be either too expensive or impossible to find. We ended up going to a restaurant near Imam Square, which hadn't had great reviews but looked ok, had English menus and was open. That was good enough by this point! It was a traditional-style restaurant, in the sense that you sit down on the low wooden platform things with rugs on top. I'm sure they must have some kind of name, but I don't know what it is. Anyway, they look really cool and it makes everyone seem quite relaxed, though they're really not that comfortable. Your bum goes numb fairly quickly. Still, it's a cool experience. The food there was ok, though not great - we could understand the mediocre reviews.
Here's Jamie in the restaurant:
On the following day, however, we went to another restaurant near Imam Square. It's just through one of the bazaars that surround the square and there are quite a few signs to it. It's just called something like Traditional Banquet Hall. We'd spotted it on the previous night but it hadn't been open yet, so we decided to go there the following day. It was a similar set-up to the other place, being another traditional-style restaurant, but the food was so much nicer. We both went for an aubergine dish, which was really really nice - possibly my favourite meal I had in Iran. It was a fairly basic thing really, not dissimilar to babaganoosh, but with some salad bits and lots of bread, it was the perfect meal for our last full day in Iran.
We still had most of the next day in Esfahan but just chilled out at the hotel after checking out; using the wi-fi in the lobby. We nipped out for some food quickly and then got a taxi to the bus station.
On arrival at the bus station, the taxi driver didn't just drop us off, he actually parked up and helped us find out where we needed to catch our bus from, which was really sweet. He charged a lot less than the guy had who'd driven us into Esfahan when we'd arrived, so that guy had definitely ripped us off, but hey, he was a definite minority in an incredibly generous country.
We were on another VIP bus - this one travelling into the night and dropping us off at Tehran airport in the early hours of the morning. We then didn't have too long to wait until we could check in for our flight to St Petersburg. I remember spending quite a bit of time queuing in Tehran airport, but aside from that it was all fine.
It was quite nice to get on the plane and to take my head scarf and ugly shirt off, though it felt a bit weird as well; I'd gotten used to needing to wear them. I also took full advantage of the free booze inflight! After nearly 2 weeks of being tee-total, it was quite a treat to have a G&T and a glass of red wine. Thanks Emirates!
I referred to our flight to St Petersburg but we actually flew to Dubai first and changed flights there. Our Iranian adventure had ended but our Russian adventure was about to begin.*
*Apologies for that mega-cheesy ending!