We arrived in Tehran, Iran’s teeming capital city of 8 million people on an Air Asia flight from Kuala Lumpur with our visas from the Iranian Embassy in Canberra firmly in hand. At $A165, these visas give you a solid month’s stay. Proof of travel insurance is needed but if you arrive without it, you can purchase it at the airport. Females need to don the token scarf over their heads upon entry into Iranian air space. Stash one in carry on luggage. Our entry and exit from Imam Khomeini Airport was quick and efficient.
I’d booked us into See You in Iran hostel for our 4 days in Tehran. This is a hostel run by a group of young men and women whose intention is to change the often negative perspective held by Westerners of their beloved country. They offer clean rooms with shared bathrooms, a lively cafe and very interesting conversations. We learnt a lot, not only about Iran, but also about Afghanistan and the roles played by foreign countries.
As a tourist, you never truly understand a country’s politics and a short visit certainly doesn’t qualify you as an expert. I do believe though, you can’t demonise an entire country and See You in Iran hostel is worth its weight in gold in supporting this position. If you are planning a visit here, be sure to check out their informative site http://seeyouiniran.org
Tehran is hemmed in by the Alborz Mountains and there was still snow on the slopes and a chill in the air during our visit.
Despite being chaotic and heaving with people and traffic, we found we could walk to the main sights. We learnt quickly that a pedestrian crossing or a green light gives you no advantage. There’s a wealth of great sights to see in Tehran and we ran ourselves ragged visiting these places: Here’s the fabulous Grand Bazaar with some of its 10 kms of alleyways.
Through this impressive gateway Portal of Bagh-e Meli, are some worthy museums and we did our best to fit in a few.
The National Museum has interesting pieces from Persepolis.
Nearby is the Malek National Museum, privately owned by one of Iran’s richest men in the 1930s. The paintings and manuscripts date back hundreds of years and are truly beautiful.
Golestan Palace is full to the brim with riches of the Qajar rulers of the late 1700s. There’s a myriad of different buildings within the palace, beautiful gardens and a spectacular Hall Of Mirrors. The final photo shows cabinets of incredibly rich gifts from countries like Russia and Great Britain.
The US Den of Espionage was high on our bucket list. This former US Embassy was the centre of the explosive 1979 revolution. Hundreds of students who supported the conservative Muslim cleric Ayatollah Khomeini demanded the return of Iran’s deposed leader, the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi who was residing in the USA. In protest, students stormed the embassy and held 50+ US diplomats hostage for 444 days.
A student organisation occupies the site today and students offer a most interesting guided tour which includes the well guarded documents room (last photo) and its extremely sensitive material collected by the US CIA. Of course, there’s plenty of anti western propaganda and no where is this more obvious than in the Museum Garden of Anti Arrogance where USA and Israel cop a giant serve.
The Islamic Revolution and Defence Museum set on 21 hectares is dedicated to the 8 year war between Iran and Iraq (37 years ago) and is a museum definitely worth visiting. We reached it by crossing the Tabiat Bridge (an award winning structure) which takes you high over a busy expressway. The pollution levels were quite noticeable and a tissue over the face came in handy.
The Iran Iraq War was not a war I knew a lot about, my understanding a bit sketchy, so this museum went a long way to filling in the gaps. One million Iranians died in the conflict and the museum honours them in the most noble way. I learnt that the soldiers, many of whom were teenage boys, went to their deaths with the unflinching belief that they would be entering a heavenly paradise. Much ado is made of martyrs. Like all countries’ war museums, there is a certain level of propaganda attached to it, a means of justifying war I guess in times that are blooded in politics, but the numerous exhibits (7 halls), the creativity and abundant information were nicely surprising. As I was nearing the last section of the extensive museum, I was approached by a curator who asked my opinion of the museum. We spent a good half hour in discussion with me reworking again and again my western perspective of this part of the world.
On the streets of Tehran, street art is gaining popularity. It’s guaranteed to transform some rather bleak buildings into something aesthetically pleasing.
Never too far away though are the constant reminders of who rules this country.
Tehran is full of bookshops just like this one, indicating that literacy is high. In fact, a whopping 97% of young adults aged between 15 and 24 are literate. Interesting days ahead!
We enjoyed our time in Tehran, but we are well aware that all is not good and people are doing it hard. The Iranian Rial is in trouble. Today, despite visiting numerous money exchanges, we were unable to exchange our euro. The government’s drastic action to close money exchanges is an attempt to halt the fast falling rial. Economics 101 tells us that this will stop Iranians from dumping their currency in favour of foreign currencies and hoarding.
One time we walked out empty handed from a money exchange and were met by 2 men who guided us into a stairwell of a nearby building. They could change our euro into rial. We listened, we negotiated a rate, notes were exchanged, hands were shaken. The entire negotiation was respectful and served both parties’ purposes.
Another time we reluctantly made our way to a bank. I say reluctantly, because in Iran, banks offer lower rates than money exchanges. At a very large bank comprising 50 tellers, we were told ‘no change’. Back to square one. However, before we left the bank, a young man approached us and indicated he could change our money. While he went to a teller to ask the current rate, an older man sidled up to us, peeled off from his huge wad of rial the exact amount we wanted and the deal was done in double quick time and at an excellent rate. The euro is king at the moment, nudging out the US dollar; making an all too obvious statement about the dismal relations between Iran and the US. Trump’s May 12 nuclear decision is tipped to affect the rial even more.
The places we saw, the people we met, the conversations we had, the things we started to understand about this country has filled our heads. It’s going to be an incredible month.
Off to Kashan on the bus tomorrow.