Day three in Tehran and I was starting to get my groove. A bit. Over the past two days I’d managed to get my head around fundamentals like money and food, grappled with the basics of the language, worked out a couple of bus lines and the metro, and discovered how utterly exhausting it is to do stuff in a city like Tehran – especially with 40-degree weather like Tehran’s. The day before I’d gone too hard, spending most of the day out and about trying to do too much, too quickly; I had blisters on my toes, aching leg muscles, and pretty decent dehydration. So, this day I planned for only one activity, starting later in the morning and running for about four hours, allowing time for a rest and a shower before my night bus to Tabriz.
Catching a bus from my hotel in the extreme south of Tehran to the northern tip of the city nestled in the foothills of the great mountains was easy enough, and so should have been what came next. But the one-and-a-half kilometre uphill walk from the bus terminal to the Sa’d Abad Museum Complex was anything but easy. The Lonely Planet offers no enlarged map of this part of town so I had to rely upon the tiny-scale version with only main roads shown. I walked for ages in what I thought was the right direction, and followed the pointed hands offered with a smile by Tehranis in response to my, “Salam, Sa’d Abad?”, but still I could not find it. I can only guess how many kilometres I walked in the baking heat, mostly uphill, but by the time I stumbled across the complex over an hour after I started walking I was already wasted. Nursing feet that felt like they were bleeding inside my shoes, and cultivating what felt to be a nice dose of sunstroke, I bought my tickets and entered the museum grounds.
The Sa’d Abad complex houses a couple of palaces and many, many other buildings. One palace used to be the royal summer residence – I can see why they would want to climb the mountains to escape mid-year Tehran – and the other one housed the Shah for a while. The two palaces were in use for most of the last century and hosted visits from Jimmy Carter and Charles de Galle. The design is totally over-the-top with one of the bedrooms coated on every square centimetre of wall and ceiling with shards of mirror. Apparently dude didn’t like the bedroom, but only because the bed was too soft.
I checked out both of the palaces and walked around to check out some of the other buildings. It’s very pleasant up there away from the noise, heat and dirt of the city and I was a little hesitant to go back down into the city, but I chugged the last of my water and set out for the bus station, this time making it down to the main square in one go.
Passing a Western-style coffee shop I had a sudden mental image of an iced coffee and almost dived through the door. At the counter I was confronted by the craziest looking Iranian I’d seen yet. He was wearing a black death metal t-shirt, mercilessly-ripped black jeans, about a dozen assorted necklaces including one razor blade, long and wild hair surrounding him like a halo, and iPod headphones positioned carefully so they were sticking out of the top of his shirt just right.
“Salam,” I said.
“Hi,” he deadpanned in English.
“Um, Iced latte,” I ordered.
“Sure, he said. “Would you like it with caramel or vanii?”
“Okay. Twenty-two-hundred bucks,” he drawled, meaning tomans.
When I got my drink it didn’t taste anything like latte, and it only tasted about 80% like coffee, but it was ice cold and exactly what I needed. I drank it while watching punk dude shred some awesome air guitar to a Phil Collins track that had just come over the stereo. At about that point I decided that my day was getting better. Recharged, I headed for the bus station.
Once there, I set about trying to find my bus. I’d previously tried reading the signs on the front (I can decipher the Farsi alphabet because it’s the same as the Arabic with a handful of extra characters) but never had any luck working out which bus is what. I asked around, having no luck with about half a dozen people around the station. Just then two young women approached me and asked if I needed any help. I told them I was after Imam Khomeini Square and we went investigating. After a while they told me the direct bus was some time away but there was a two-bus-and-a-metro combination. I said I was happy to wait for the direct bus to arrive but they insisted that this would be quicker – and anyway, they were going that way themselves.
We hopped on the first bus and they sat in the rear compartment for women and told me to look out for when they got off. I did so, and we all disembarked soon afterwards. I went to pay (you do so at the end of your ride in Iran) and the girls insisted that they pay for me. We argued back and forth the requisite three or four times before I was firmly told I was not paying. I thanked them profusely and let them guide me to the next bus. By this time we’d started having a really good conversation and they decided to ride in the front men’s section with me, which I know is risque enough, but then they sat next to me as well which is definitely frowned upon (unmarried people sitting next to each other). I asked them if they were going to cause themselves any trouble by doing so and they said that in Iran old people are stuck in their old ideas and young people have new ideas. Fair enough.
After getting off the second bus and losing another argument about who was paying I followed them to the metro station. On the way we passed a juice store where they insisted on buying a round of sweet lemon waters. “Couldn’t I get these since you bought the bus tickets?”, I argued, but they were insistent. “You are in Iran and you are our guest. You do not pay.” Then they tasted the drink and found it not to be exactly ice cold, but only 90% ice cold, and so they apologised for that, too.
We descended the stairs to the metro and I proffered my pre-paid ten-trip ticket and begged them not to buy me another ticket. They conceded and we chatted some more while we waited for the train. At this stage they asked if I would like to join them and their friends for a picnic to which they were headed in a park near my hotel. I was gutted to have to say no – if I hadn’t pre-booked my bus ride due to depart in a couple of hours I would’ve been there without a second thought. Could it get much better than chilling in a park on a hot summer evening with young Tehranis?
We said our goodbyes and swapped email addresses. I walked from the metro to my hotel feeling buoyed by the sheer joy generated by such human interaction. While I was lost in these thoughts, a man on a small scooter pulled up next to me, pointed up the long road, and motioned for me to get on and ride pillion.
“Na, mamnun”, (no, thankyou) I smiled at him.
“Not a taxi!” he insisted. “Free! Ride!”
“My hotel is just here. 100 metres.” I pointed at it up the road.
“Ok,” he said, flashing a giant grin and snapping a crisp salute from his forehead.
Seriously, in just three days these people have won the friendliest, most generous nationality on earth competition. Hands down.