I knew heading into my trip that if I wanted to visit Iran I would have to be covered for the two week duration of my stay as is required under Iran’s interpretation of Islamic law. What I found particularly interesting about this proposition,though, is that the mandate is not truly based on any teaching in the Koran. In fact, some countries require women to be covered up (Saudi Arabia and Iran) other countries do not. In addition, the style of covering varies from region to region. In this case, Iran’s dress code for women requires a head scarf and a coat like covering over pants called a manteau. So before I left Seattle, I had gone out and bought a far too large coat dress to wear off the plane that would have to suffice until I could go shopping for the appropriate attire in Iran. Anyway, shortly before we landed in Tehran around 8:30 on Sunday night, I donned the requisite hejab (head scarf) and dress so I could exit the plane. Not covered? … not allowed entry.
When we landed, I was one of the first off the plane and … was the last through immigration. For a while there I thought they were going to march me right back onto the Emirates plane and send me back to Dubai. The young man who checked my passport and visa was very nice, smiled at me, stamped my passport and then waved me to the side where I was met by yet another immigration dude who took my passport and motioned me to sit across the room on a chair. As my fellow Iranian passengers breezed through, I sat on the chair of shame and waited and waited and waited. The second guy who had my passport was talking to another fellow and I am not sure if they were doing anything official or just messing with my head. Was this payback for George Bush’s “Axis of Evil” branding or the more recent crippling sanctions? Either way, I can’t say that I would blame them.
Anyway, after about twenty minutes of nothing happening, the second fellow called out to me and motioned me back over to his desk. I was pretty nervous at this point, but he handed me back my passport, smiled broadly, said welcome and told me I was free to go. Huh?? No idea what that was all about So I said a very quick “Motashakkeram” (thank you) and hustled out of there and onto the escalator before they could change their mind. . Half way down the escalator I saw a rather handsome man holding a sign with my name on it. Well hello and yay! Still batting 100% in the airport pickup category.
The man with the sign turned out to be “Bahman”, my guide. (Double yay!) We grabbed my luggage, found the car and my driver, Hamid, and were on the freeway to Tehran in a matter of minutes. Bahman had no idea about the delay either, and I guess it didn’t matter at this point.
Bahman turned out to be a sheer delight and the best part was he was going to be with me for the next two weeks. (Originally, I was part of a tour group, but with all the recent talk about Israeli threats against Iran and “THAT” film, all the other folks baled leaving only me. So private tour it would be.)
Turns out that Bahman is a former national team basketball player and played in a professional league in Dubai for 3 years. Cool. He is clearly a bright dude so Bahman and I had quite the chat about world relations on the drive to the hotel. Bahman also provided some nice commentary about what I was seeing as we drove an hour north from the airport into Tehran (besides the horrendous bumper to bumper 4 lane traffic we were in). The drive took us past the Ayatollah Khomeini tomb – a huuuuuge complex with a masoleum in the middle and past a part of Tehran University.
And about that traffic. It appeared to me that like Cairo, lanes are optional. Weaving in and out and cutting people off appear to be a national sport, and patience is a must for even surviving the shortest of drives.
Anyway, traffic aside, what I found particularly interesting on the drive was the number of folks parked on the side of the road selling fruits, vegetables and even fish out of the back of their vehicles. Bahman told me that the sanctions are having such a crippling effect on the economy, that inflation is running at over 25% and that the rial (the Iranian dollar) was continuing to plummet in value. As a result, folks were doing just about anything to make a buck. Bahman also told me that because of the desperate state of affairs, crime (and in particular muggings and thefts) are spiking so I would need to be extra vigilant with my bag, passport, camera and cash.
We finally reached the hotel around 10:15 p.m. The “Lela” hotel is the former Hotel Intercontinental and doesn’t look much different than it did in 1979 when it was taken over by the new Iranian government. I was checked in (after many stares) and, after a cup of tea with Bahman, it was time for bed.
Monday morning after I grabbed a quick breakfast (still wearing the same coat dress, but with a very stylin’ headscarf), Bahman and I headed out to to the Golestan Palace. The drive to the palace took us past a number of parks (Tehran is very green) and down narrow roads all the while facing horrendous traffic. When we were within a few blocks of the palace, we got out of the car and walked to avoid the congestion.
The Golestan Palace is the oldest historic monument in Tehran, is know as the Place of Flowers and consists of a series of buildings which at one time sat within the walls of Tehran’s historic Arg (citadel). The present buildings were constructed over 400 years ago.
Each building was unique in its own right, but by far the most impressive was the Takht-e Marmar and the Talar-e Aineh. The Takht-e Marmar consists of a spectacular entrance and marble throne that form a gateway of sorts to all the other buildings. The throne was built in 1806 by Fath Ali Shah Qajar and sits at the far end of a reflecting pool on a raised terrace surrounded by tilework, stucco, mirrors, wood carvings and lattice work. It was gorgeous.
The Talar-e Aineh (Hall of Mirrors) is a relatively small room, but contained the most extraordinary mosaic mirror work. The walls and ceilings were covered in tiny cut mirrors that formed exquisite patterns and sparkled like millions of tiny diamonds. The room was dazzling.
We wandered around the palace for almost 2 and half hours. One building contained art work by Iranian masters, another building contained an exhibition of historic artifacts and still another contained an exhibition of historical Iranian clothing, costumes and folk art. We saw a room filled with china, which had been gifted to former shahs by the likes of Queen Victoria, Catherine the Great and Napolean and still another room (called the Talar-e Salam – Reception Hall) that matched any of teh dining halls I have seen in the many great palaces of the world I had visited.
Each building also had a unique exterior, but what was common to all was the exquisite tile and molding work that covered the entrances and many exterior portions of the buildings. And the walk was beautiful as we wandered by and through garden after garden. It was all really quite spectacular and a little oasis inside Tehran. (And oh yea … found squat toilet #1! – those of you who follow my travel blogs know I have this weird fascination with squat toilets and try to find one in the every overseas country I travel to… Western Europe excluded. I came out laughing and had to explain to Bahman … he didn’t seem as amused as me…)
Anyway, after our tour, we got back in the car and began the hour long drive to north Tehran to visit the last residence of the Shah Pahlavi. Tehran is an ginormous city of 12 million people and a traffic problem (as previously noted) to match the number of people. We inched along in traffic, but thanks to my driver’s expertise and quite a bit of bobbing and weaving down side streets we arrived in just over an hour. Now north Tehran is much different than the central and southern parts of Tehran. While all of Tehran is surprisingly green and filled with lots of parks, flowers and trees, north Tehran is really something special. Wide boulevards, high end stores and magnificent homes and condos. The area is very, very new and home to some of the wealthiest people in Tehran. It was gorgeous and as we drove, I thought I could be in any any European city.
Hamid eventually pulled over and Bahman and I got out and wandered the streets for a while. We stopped at a really cool little restaurant for lunch that served wood fired pizza. It was fabulous and but for the women wearing head scarfs and manteaus, I would have sworn I was in the U.S. As we sat and ate our lunch, I felt dozens of pairs of eyes on me. Great …I’m a novelty act. Periodically, a young woman would smile and wave at me. Bahman informed me that Iranians are fascinated by Westerners (probably because they are as rare in this county as a Sasquatch).
After lunch and a lot more staring we headed a couple blocks away to tour the last home of the last Shah of Iran … only to discover that the opening and closing times had changed and today was a closed day. Damn. Bahman kept apologizing, but I insisted it was no big deal (and it wasn’t). If we had time at the back end when we come back to Tehran Bahman told me would visit it then. Fine by me.
Bahman then suggested we head over to Tadjrish Bazaar where we could wander through the traditional market area and then head upstairs to the mall where I could buy a couple manteaus and matching scarves
The market area was located down a long narrow alley in what I can best describe as an underground section of the building. The array of produce and aromas was dizzying. We stopped at a date store and bought some dates from the vendor who spoke no English, but smiled and nodded repeatedly at me. (It amazes me that with all the sanctions and crap that goes on between our countries these folks are so so friendly).
After our purchases, Bahman and I headed upstairs where we spent the next hour or so wandering through stores where I tried on an array of manteaus. What really surprised me was the people waiting on me were men. It just seemed very odd to me that women are supposed to be covered to hide themselves from men, but it is men who are helping with the selection. Weird, just weird.
Anyway, I selected a couple of manteaus, found some matching scarves, handed over several hundred thousand rials and called it good. I have no idea how much I paid, but understood it to be under 50 bucks.
Bahman and I did some more wandering around the mall and the layout was really interesting. Each floor contained a different kind of product. You had the shoe floor, the clothing floor, the cosmetic floor, the art floor etc. Kind of made it easier than having to wade through whole sections of stuff before you found the section containing the goods you want to purchase.
Before we left the mall, we stopped for coffee where I was stared at all over again. I put on my best Queen Elizabeth wave and smiled. What else could I do? After coffee, we wandered downstairs and back through the market. I decided in addition to the dates, I wanted to pick up some fresh fruit. The market was teeming with vendors and the produce looked yummy. I ended up buying some funny looking flat peaches with white flesh and some tiny, tiny red grapes. Both turned out to be excellent choices.
By now it was close to 4 and Bahman suggested I head back to the hotel before rush hour began. Good call. I was back at the hotel by 5 and literally collapsed on my bed. I was exhausted from a long day and from virtually no sleep since I arrived in the middle east. I decided to catch up on some news on line, but when I tried to pull up BBC World or CNN … nothing. I then tried Facebook … nothing. Twitter … nothing. Uh oh. No internet connection to the West. Hopefully I am not shut out for two weeks. At the very least, I needed to post my blog, but for now I decided to call it a night and would figure out the internet tomorrow. We were off to Hamadan int he morning and it was going to be a long drive so it was time to catch up on my sleep.