At this time of the year (mid-March) there was two overnight trains to Tehran so opting for the later cheaper one at 9:30pm we were hoping that with the Islamic Law business the 4-berth compartment might not be full and we’d get one to ourselves (Sarah being a foreign female and all that). Wrong. Not only did we have to share but the trains are on narrower gauge tracks to those of Russia and therefore the wagons are slimmer meaning there’s less storage space.
With no storage under the bottom beds (like Russia) baggage tends to be piled in between and we had a fun time trying to maneuver our backpacks into a suitable position, considering we’d scored the two top beds. Firstly we’re joined by a man in his 60’s who must have had hearing problems and we watch as he turns on the TV and the volume dial on the screen nudges above 90 (top volume being 100). The ticket price includes a snack box where the only thing not loaded with sugar is a bottle of water and some sunflower seeds.
In Russia the trains are kept like mini ovens with the attendants stoking the fire to uncomfortable temperatures and windows sealed shut so you bake. The same goes for here in Iran only in these carriages you can open the window! So the old man below us, for reasons unknown to us, decides to put his blanket on underneath him instead of using it as a blanket like everybody else. This causes him quiet some discomfort in the middle of the night when he realises that the window is open and he has to rearrange his bedding. He uses this time to stomp around the compartment having an animated conversation with himself waking everybody up in the process…at the charming hour of 2:30am. Thankful for the fresh air as the body odour and heat of four people can at times become unbearable, we roll on into Tehran.
An easy metro ride from the train station and a short walk brings us to Baharestan Guesthouse, which we’d booked online, right in the thick of the action near Imam Khomeini Square. Expecting a dorm room when we booked we arrived to find we have a private double close to the shared bathroom for USD$30 a night. In need of a quick feed we visit the hotel restaurant where the only thing we ate was the omelette (really nice with some tomato paste mixed in albeit can be quite oily) and the coffee which is a 3-in-1 sachet brimming with sugar.
It’s still the Nowruz holiday and the streets of Tehran, known for its horrific congestion and resulting pollution, are all but deserted. First things first and after a short walk over to nearby Ferdowsi Street we have a suitcase full of Iranian cash at a rate that’s 15% better than the official bank rate. NEVER use the banks to change money in Iran. Our next stop was up to Taleqani Ave to visit the former US embassy, otherwise known as the Den of US espionage, where the high walls are now covered in propaganda graffiti and anti US paintings. Following the Islamic Revolution in 1979 got hold of 52 hostages here, holding them for 444 days in fear another US led coup against the government. Apparently photography here can forbidden though even the police and security need a holiday, we didn’t see a single one and were free to snap away.
Reading that the action of a night time is centred around Mellat Park we venture up there, through the recently (2009) built Ab-o-Atash (Water and Fire) Park where New Year’s celebrations are in full swing. Finding a food vendor and pointing at a pot of green soup we’re handed over two steaming bowls of Ashe Reshteh. The herb filled broth with spaghetti noodles swimming in it goes down twice as nice as a lovely couple paid for it for us because…
‘You are our guests in Iran!’
Walking miles up Valiasar street (which at 12 miles is the longest street in the Middle East) disappointingly the only action going on is at several ice cream stores. Locals swarm around attempting to eat their cones, some with a foot of ice cream adorning them, before it melts and falls to the pavement or is knocked over by the jostling crowd. The night was young and the sidewalk was already a river of sticky melted casualties. Grabbing a few non-alcoholic beers (well you have to try it) we jump on the BRT back to the centre and retire to the hotel to wash socks in the sink.
On this visit to Tehran we decided not to visit many of the paid sites as the prices were astronomical and the queues long enough to have you pass out before long. The bazaar cost nothing to cruise around and even though the place was deserted with almost everything closed up for the holiday it was still worth the visit to see the complete contrast when we return several weeks later to the full maelstrom that is everyday Tehran.
Walking past the throngs lining up to enter the Golestan Palace we notice the price for foreigners over the New Year period is upward of IRR1.1 million (over USD$30) if you want to visit every room. Happily passing the queue we head to the nearby Shahr Park where we escape the crowds, cars and noisy city environs.
Figuring we needed to see at least one museum whilst in Tehran the National Museum got to extract the ridiculous sum of IRR200,000 a piece (ten times the amount locals pays). This is for the Islamic History section only. It was another IRR300,000 to visit the Pre-Islamic section, which we thought would have reduced after Nowruz, but wrong, it’s this price all the time. Inside there is many fascinating pieces of old artistic work on display though it’s hard to say if it’s really worth the entry price unless you’ve not been into a museum of this sort before. It’s here at the end of wandering the exhibition that we flick through the guest book and discover a strangle passage written in both Farsi and English.
Something to the extent of
‘Kill the West, kill the East they are all our enemies’
Puzzled by this it’s while we are deciding what the hell is going on here that a younger Iranian male materialises.
‘Do you understand that it’s a joke?’
‘Um….yeah…we were wondering if it was a piss take or not’
Anyway we get chatting whilst viewing the ground floor black and white photography gallery on Persepolis that has us enthusiastically impatient to get out of the big smoke and out discovering the sights. Trying to leave the guards won’t let us, it seems they’re very proud of one of Iran’s latest discoveries housed in another ground floor room so we head that way. Turns out in several years ago they discovered a false eye piece buried with a woman, still in position in her socket, one of the oldest examples of such a thing in the world. Unfortunately the supporting information wasn’t very informative.
Again the hospitality is poured onto us as our new friend Peyman escorts us around the city as we desperately seek out a coffee shop that is open during the New Year Holidays. He walks us past the sight of the June 2009 shootings where protests after the potentially rigged recent election saw several people supposedly shot and killed by police outside Tehran University.
Turning down a non-descript side street of Valiasar Square the search is stretching our patience and we are about to call it a night when we enter what may have been an old house. The smoke filled room burns the eyes as they adjust to the sight of the modern day Tehrani semi hipster set in obvious discussion about the current state of the countries politics or the latest underground band or batch of LSD (apparently rife here). Facial hair, slung back hijab to the point of uselessness, tattoos and shoulder length hair is the pre requisite uniform in a two finger salute to the establishment. Hopeful for a touch of alcoholic liquid we’re again reduced to drinking tea, served with a sugar crystal lollipop that Sarah mistakenly starts to suck on but is meant to be stirred into the cup. We never did catch the name of the place.
Places like this start to become the theme for us and as we see so many empty areas with so much potential we begin to think that if and when the rules start to be relaxed we may make a return to Tehran to open up a bar. After hours of conversation about music, politics, Iranian girls (‘too much make up, too many nose jobs’) and life in general we part ways with our new friend. Just around the corner from the hotel we spy a kebab joint where we’re served up a whole chicken on a skewer, bread, rice, pickles, salad and yoghurt for IRR270,000 with enough to take leftovers for lunch.
Thanks for reading. Feel free to head over to Flickr and check out more of our travel photos from around the world!
Next up we eat a blessed meal on a day trip to the holy city of Qom.
Tips for Tehran
- Baharestan Guesthouse is in a convenient location within a five minute walk of the Imam Khomeini metro station, close to the bazaar, museums and other sights. It’s easy to book via hostelsiniran.com. We found that there are many other budget hotels on the same street though quality varies. Just look for hotel signs or lobbies with glass windows. Some buildings have a separate hotel on each floor. Just check your sheets are clean (speaking from personal experience…)!
- The fruit, veg and nuts guys will try to rip you off. Get to know the numbers in Farsi to avoid this.
- The 4-berth compartment on the overnight train from Tabriz was shared with two other men. There was a TV (Farsi only) and depending on how old and far gone there hearing is expect it to get louder the older they are. Everyone is friendly enough. You’ll get a food box containing juice and sugar filled cakes and biscuits along with a bottle of water. There’s a dining cart for breakfast which despite the menu options only served up one thing on the list (bread, butter and jam) for a coast of IRR30,000 (under USD$1). For IRR750,000 each it’s not a bad way to save time and is around the same cost as staying in a hotel with daytime transport costs.