Having slept most of the way from Andimeshk on the overnight train to Tehran we awoke at 7:30am as we were passing through Qom to see rain everywhere. A big storm had hit the Middle East and caused floods around the area we’d just come from. Typically dry countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were also suffering floods, something you’d usually never associate with this part of the world (although Noah might have something to say on the matter).
One of our carriage companions was a 25 year old Agriculture Engineer who pointed out the surrounding earth was so barren due to the high salt content and they’re unable to grow anything out here. He was on his way from Ahvaz to Tehran to watch an Iranian equivilant of the old Manchester Derby – Ahvaz (blue) vs Persepolis (red) – which attracts a crowd of 100,000. His team, Persepolis, lost 4-2 but that doesn’t stop the dedicated fans, including one woman who dressed as a man to sneak into the stadium. While not technically illegal, woman are often stopped from entering the stadium and in the article it states some people have called for the woman to be chained to the stadium gates and burnt to death. Imagine trying to stop a couple of scouse birds from attending a UK football match or some bogan Carlton supporters from the AFL! Not a chance. Good on this woman for standing up for her rights, just another example of the countries lack of freedom.
Arriving in Tehran our new friend gave us a gift of a tube of toothpaste, helped us check our baggages with luggage storage then walked 10 minutes to hunt out an internet cafe for us. Our first mission was to print off some documents and head to the Uzbek embassy to collect our visas. Documents printed and standard tourist price applied we hike to the embassy in the rain to find it closed due to a holiday. Heading back to the metro we passed a large tree growing out of the pavement whose trunk had split open and creatively been filled in with polystyrene and concrete.
In Tehran if you’ve lost your selfie stick, broken you headphones or didn’t brush your teeth never fear. Just board the metro! An endless barrage of salesmen pass through selling everything you need. Sore feet? Grab some innersoles. Forgotten your lipstick? No problem, head to the women’s only sections where it’s a whole new world of sales. Baskets pull of makeup and bags full of scarves will be paraded in front of you without having to leave your seat. We even saw one girl selling scarves stop mid carriage to but some clipin hair highlights from another girl before they both continued their sales pitches. And if you’re after a nose jobs this is the nose job capital of the world and you’ll see young women wearing their post operation bandage as a badge of honour. In a country where people often told us they couldn’t make any money we were surprised to be told by a young friend that paying USD$1,000 for a nose job ‘wasn’t that much’.
We spent the next few days waiting for the Uzbek embassy to open so set out to explore a little more of the city. We headed back north to the Water and Fire park to snap some night shots of the city and brightly coloured Tabiat Bridge among the crowds of weekend visitors. Heading back to the metro we were approached by two guys on a motorbike with flashing red and blue lights on the front. They stopped us, told us they were police and proceeded to point us away from the metro through a dark section of the park where nobody else was walking. Using hand jestures they told us if we walked back the way we’d come (down a main road and through a brightly lit construction sight) somebody would grab Matt’s backpack (demonstrated by physically tugging on it) and stab us in the neck (communicated by agressively feigning stabbing themselves in the neck). Showing us no ID and with no police markings on the bike as soon as they’d left we continued on our way and made it to the metro safely, convinced that if we’d gone the way they’d pointed us we’d find them the dark shadows waiting to stab us in the neck and steal Matt’s backpack containing our very expensive camera. Trust your instincts!
A great way to spend some time in the city on a budget is to catch a Persian film at the Cinema Museum of Iran. For just IRR60,000 you can wander the garden before joining the local crowd for an evening of brilliant film. If you’re lucky the film will have English subtitles (ours didn’t) but the Iranian film industry is huge and known for its cinematography so although we had to occasionally piece together exactly what was happening (sometimes making it up entirely) we enjoyed the experience. This area of town around the Tajrish metro station is worth exploring. Iconic plane trees line the famous Valiasar Street and light up with changing colours at night and things are a little more upmarket and a little less dirty than the centre of town.
Having already obtained our LOI for our Uzbekistan visas it was just a matter of waiting for the embassy to open, turning up with our paperwork, passport photos and fee, handing it all over to the little old lady and waiting under and hour. Passports and visas sorted we headed back to the Tehran bazaar which we’d previously visited during the Nowruz holiday. In complete contrast the place was heaving and we were almost run down by goods carts several times. Not far from the bazaar along Panzdah Khordad you’ll find a small alleyway full of food stalls serving up steaming bowls of soup and other Persian delights. A small doorway leads upstairs to the reasonable priced Moslem Restaurant. Recommended to us by a Tehranian local we met in Yerevan, the two story place was packed with locals and the food was hot and served fast.
Our last hurdle in leaving Iran had been to acquire our Turkmenistan visa. With around 90% of transit visa applications we met being rejected we decided to risk spending a little extra on an organised tour. We hit up Owadan Tourism, a well recommended budget tour option, who pieced together a personalised six day trip for us and made the visa application on our behalf with no payment up front. Unfortunately 31 days later the Turkmenistan government decided they didn’t want our money and we joined the 90% who were currently being denied a visa. After some last minute searching and planning we booked a couple of (indirect!) flights to Uzbekistan, packed our bags and headed to the airport.
Trying to avoid a USD$20 taxi to the Imam Khomeini airport out of town we’d read on several websites that there was a shuttle bus from Mehrabad airport which was reachable by metro. Arriving with all our baggage it turns out there’s not. So back to the by now crowded metro. An young woman’s headscarf slipped off her head and when the old woman next to her wrapped tightly in a chador pointed it out the look she gave her clearly said no fucks were given. Another jaunt across town brought us to the Shahed metro station (on the red line) where we’re ushered to a minibus rammed with people and bags and quoted IRR30,000 each to the airport. Quickly a man in a suit rescues us from the throng of minibus and taxi drivers salivating like a pitbull at a steak and shows us to a nearby bus. With his big wheely case and well groomed appearance we trusted him, and rightly so as the fare was only IRR15,000 each. Though the driver did try to make us (unsuccessfully) pay extra for our bags.
With quite a bit of time to waste until our flight we found some padded seats in the downstairs Arrivals area and made ourselves comfortable. While buying coffee Sarah met an Iranian lady who has been living in Finland and the UK for 30 years and had come back to visit her sick mother. She couldn’t wait to leave. The previous night she’d tried to check into a hotel in Tehran. As a middle aged Iranian woman travelling on her own she was told she needed permission from a male relative to say she would be ok staying on her own. Upon showing her Finnish passport the check in staff told her it was fine. She couldn’t wait to get on the plane back to London and take the oppressive scarf off her head and to be perfectly honest, Sarah couldn’t have agreed more.
You can read about our first time in Tehran and the sights we saw in our earlier blog Nowruz in the Capital – Tehran, Iran. Thanks for reading, we hope you enjoyed it. Next up our first taste of Central Asia in Uzbekistan!
- We used STANtours to obtain our LOI for Uzbekistan. They were professional, answered all of our questions and the LOI was issued within 10 days via email. For most nationalities it is possible to avoid needing an LOI if you want to wait 10 days for the visa to be issued, however the cost of extending your Iranian visa and extra nights accommodation may not be worth it. The visa fee is payable in USD directly to the embassy on the day you apply.
- If you’re lucky enough to get your Turkmenistan visa congratulations. If not join the club. Many people end up flying direction to Uzbekistan if their visa is rejected and if you’re travelling west to east it can work out cheaper to fly to Urgench (near Khiva) rather than Tashkent. We also have friends who flew to Aktau in Kazakhstan (north coast of the Caspian Sea) quite cheaply and many countries no longer require a visa for a 15 day stay.
- The cheapest way to get to Imam Khomeini airport is to take the red metro line south towards Kahrizak (metro map here) from where you can catch a bus that will drop you at the airport. The reverse is a little more tricky as there is no formal bus stop at the airport and most of the buses coming to Tehran will be full.