Eight days ago I left Australia and immediately spent a most enjoyable five days in Ubud, Bali, with Lisa. We relaxed, ate way too much food, did a cooking course, ate more food, made some silver jewellery (hippies), swam in the pool, ate food, and slept in. Very nice, indeed. We headed down to Kuta on Tuesday afternoon so I could catch my early flight on Wednesday morning and so Lisa could head off to the Gili islands.
At 3:30am the next morning, after barely two hours’ sleep, I rolled out of bed in Kuta only to find that I had gastro, presumably as karma for having stayed in Kuta. Awesome. Gingerly, I flew to Kuala Lumpur where I endured an eleven-hour stopover, punctuated by dosages of stoppers, before flying to Tehran via Doha.
On the flight to Doha I had a chat to an Iranian woman who was flying home to Tehran after a holiday in Malaysia. She was a little shocked at the idea that I wanted to go to Iran for a holiday because it wasn’t very nice and there was nothing in Tehran or the other cities that she could imagine I would want to see and the hotels aren’t very nice and it’s dirty and polluted. I explained that a lot of travellers wanted to experience places and cultures different to their own even if it’s not a luxury holiday, and she understood this to a point but said that there are surely nicer places to experience.
Then we spoke about religion and she told me she wasn’t a Muslim (or anything else) but still believed in God; I asked if there were a lot of Iranians who had similar religious beliefs and she said quite a few. She asked me about tattoos and the reasons that Westerners might get them, we spoke about our families (she’s the youngest of six children and the last to get married and leave home), and we compared a dozen other points of culture and tradition. Suddenly realising in a panic that she had left her headscarf in her checked baggage, she went to see the cabin crew to find something to wear until she collected her bags from the carousel.
While stopped over at Doha airport I went in search of a TV that might be showing the Germany vs. Spain World Cup match. There was only one TV in the whole of the terminal tuned to the broadcast and it was inside the Qatar Airways lounge, so a couple of hundred people were gathered inside a narrow angle of viewing outside the lounge watching the TV through a window.
Four hours later – 30 hours after getting out of bed in Bali – I arrived at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport. Joining the foreign passport queue at immigration, which was about two-thirds shorter than either of the Iranian passports queues, I waved at my friend from the plane who had tied a tea towel around her head as the plane taxied to the terminal.
The airport is about 35km out of the city and is surrounded by exactly nothing. There is no public transport into town although an extension to one of the existing Metro lines has been planned forever and will take about forever to be completed. I jumped in a taxi driven by a younger man in a clean, crisp white uniform and sped through the barren landscape at 140km/h to a thumping soundtrack of Persian techno. As we hurtled up the highway towards Tehran we passed boys on the verge of the road selling flowers, people waiting in small groups to be picked up by vehicles, the enormous and unfinished shrine to Imam Khomeini, and giant concrete fists with fingers pointing to the sky. Although it was early in the morning, the thick blanket of smog hovering over the city diffused the strong sunlight and produced a bright, squint-inducing glare. Because of this pollution it took a while before my eyes picked out the imposing 4000m mountains that rise to the north of Tehran. I mean, they are huge, and it’s some pretty impressive car exhaust that produces a curtain of fumes thick enough to block them out.
As we entered the city I was surprised at the lack of traffic on the roads, but as I was later to learn the city doesn’t really wake up until midday and the mornings are eerily dead. The city itself looks as you would expect: lots of concrete in various states of disrepair, air conditioner units hanging out of every window at precarious angles, monolithic ’60s-era high-rises poking their heads above a sea of smaller concrete buildings, and lots of areas lacking in any sort of greenery or plantlife.
I arrived at my hotel and was told I couldn’t check in for three hours as my room was still to be cleaned after the last guests. But the manager looked at my drawn face, dark circles and bloodshot eyes and took pity on me, like the kind owner of a stray dogs’ home. He showed me to a room where I could sleep until midday and then he would come and show me to my actual room. This was my first experience of the much-vaunted and very genuine Iranian hospitality and helpfulness.
That first afternoon, still feeling groggy after the trip, I decided to bypass tourist sights and just walk around the city to get my bearings. Over the next four hours I must’ve walked six or seven kilometres in a 35-plus degree heat that’s concentrated and amplified by the concrete jungle. In contrast to the early morning the city was now pumping and the footpaths were packed with Tehranis going about their business. Some women wore traditional Islamic dress while some wore very Western clothing with only a token headscarf pushed dangerously far towards the backs of their heads. Two young locals had plasters on their noses indicating recent nosejobs which is apparently an important symbol of status in Tehran. There are blue metal boxes on practically every street corner into which many people were pushing coins and low-denomination notes for the poor.
I couldn’t seem to drink enough water and in the late afternoon an ice-cold Coca Cola – not normally my drink of choice – with its sugar and caffeine tasted like gold-plated liquid awesome. For breakfast/lunch I had one of the ubiquitous kababs which are sold out of shopfronts – chicken and lamb shoved into a long bread roll with onions and tomatoes cooked in the meats’ juices, pickles and mayonnaise. I’m not even going to pretend I’m vegetarian on this trip.
Three times on my walk I was approached by locals who spotted a confused-looking foreigner staring at a map. “Can I help you?” they’d ask, or “for where are you looking?” Always with a big smile and a big-hearted desire to help. A shopkeeper, fresh from gently chuckling at my confusion over banknotes* asked where I was from and after I’d answered, exclaimed, “karngaroow!” As so many who’ve been to Iran have told me, the openness, generosity and kindness of the Iranians is overwhelming, and my 24 hours of experience so far seems to confirm that view.
Having said that, I don’t think I’m going to stay too long in Tehran – it’s just a bit too large, dirty, hot and anonymous. I’m flying out of here in just under a month and will probably have to pass through one other time as well. I think I’ll get out in a day or two and tick off the rest of the things I’d like to do here on subsequent visits.
* The currency is the rial (one Aussie dollar is just under 9,000 rials) but prices are often quoted in tomans (one toman equals 10 rials). So many zeroes!