Iran Chronicles Part 2: The modern capital Tehran

This is second of a series of posts on my recent Iran trip. For all posts in the series, view the Iran Chronicles tag.

Arrival in Tehran and Money Exchange

After the hassle-free exit from the Tehran IKA airport, I faced my first task to do: get the currency exchanged. The US imposed economic sanctions on Iran means no banking relationships with Iran – effectively none of the debit/credit cards work in Iran and one has to bring all the money required in cash. I struggled for half an hour to get some of my US dollars exchanged with Iranian currency at the airport but all of the half-a-dozen bank branches were on break for some reason. A local approached me, decrypting the confused look at my face and offered the on-spot exchange at a good rate – within minutes, I had enough local currency to pay for the cab and the hotel I had booked earlier in Tehran.

Iranian Currency note valued 2000 Rials showing Revolutionary guards

Iranian Currency note valued 2000 Rials showing Revolutionary guards

100, 000 Rial Iranian Currency note showing Leader of Revolution Khomeini

100, 000 Rial Iranian Currency note showing Leader of Revolution Khomeini

Ironical it may sound, but the most acceptable foreign currencies in Iran are US dollar, the Euro and the British Pounds. One can get them exchanged pretty easily even if there is no currency exchange office around; try any shop or even a local passing by you. Why should one just not get Iranian currency before traveling into Iran? Well, to finance a two week trip for two in Iran, one needs a sack full of Iranian currency, considering the exchange rate. At the time of my visit, 1 GBP was equal to 17, 000 IRR (Iranian Rials) – although the smallest denomination I saw was 500IRR, still none will be comfortable carrying a separate bag for cash. But, one can get a tourist ATM card (a prepaid ATM card) from most of Iranian banks, available even at airports or any bank branch.

100,000 Iranian Currency note showing Tomb of Saadi in Shiraz

100,000 Iranian Currency note showing Tomb of Saadi in Shiraz

500,000 IRR Iranian Currency note showing Imam Raza shrine in Mashhad

500,000 IRR Iranian Currency note showing Imam Raza shrine in Mashhad

Tehran Airport and the cabbies

Tehran IKA, now the capital’s primary airport, was opened in 2004 and almost all international flights have been transferred here from the old Mehrabad Airport in downtown Tehran, which still is the main domestic flight hub. IKA is situated about 30km south of Tehran on the highway to Qom. With no public transport system yet in place, the only way to get there is by private taxi, the rates for which are fixed by the state. Tehran Metro is planned expansion will connect the airport to the city through two lines, scheduled to be completed by the end of the year 2012.

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The cab drivers at Tehran airport, like everywhere else in the world, were a bit arrogant and not too welcoming. Their monopoly on the transportation between airport and the city explains why. However, they do not try to rip you off – the fares quoted were reasonable and when I tried to negotiate with a young cabbie, he waved his hand in a Ja-Oay! gesture and walked away without saying a word. Luckily our midnight arrival allowed us to avoid the traffic clog and busy roads of Tehran and our middle aged cabbie took only 45mins to take us to the Southern part of the city. Our driver took a while to find our hotel while wandering through streets of this middle/lower-middle class neighborhood which was very quiet at this hour of night. Finally, he found LP recommended Khayyam Hotel (B&B actually) hidden in an alleyway off Amir Kabir Street which is dotted with motor workshops. The nearby Mellat street is home to home appliances market and the Saadi street for tool fittings, ceramics etc – all of these three merge at Imam Khomeini Square. For Lahori readers, Imam Khomeini Square was like Mozang, Amir Kabir Street being the Lytton Road, Mellat Street being Abid Market and Saadi Street being Ferozpur Road and Ichrra.

The middle-class Ichhra-like neighborhood of South Tehran

Khayyam Hotel is a bit dated (built 1976) simple B&B with basic rooms and overpriced for what it offers. The owner, Mr. Ali Jasbi who is occasionally available at the reception is welcoming, friendly and always ready to help. In addition to this, the other plus side was the location of the hotel – excellent suburban rail connections through Mellat Metro and Imam Khomeini Metro stations (both 10mins walk away), extensive bus connections through Imam Khomeini Square (10 min walk) and 24X7 availability of cabs (from Amir Kabir street) and shuttle taxis (from Imam Khomeini Square, 10 min walk).

It was 34C with the sun shining straight on our heads as we headed out on the first day in Tehran. We had a confusing start of the day wandering through Amir Kabir and Saadi Street where we found ourselves a bit lost and couldn’t find anything other than spare part shops and motor workshops. We didn’t expect being based in middle of a Montgomery Road in Tehran but this turned out to be quite a learning experience. I quickly deciphered trade links: the sings on the shops had bits of Urdu and Turkish; the goods delivery-agents had signs reading Quetta, Karachi, Istanbul, Baghdad and other cities of the region;  and the cheap hotels in the area (primarily for traders on trade-trips) had Pakistan and Turkish flag visibly hoisted. To my surprise, as we walked past tool fitting shops, I heard a Bollywood item number being played out loud and then another guy saying “Pakistani?” quite loudly, in a questioning tone as we walked past his shop.

First Chelo Kebab

Within a couple of hours, the heat and surprises drained our energy and it was time for first meal in Iran. We struggled in this part of the city to find a decent/interesting place to eat and ended up having Chelo Kebab (boiled rice with minced meat Kebab) at one of these small road-side restaurants. Chelo Kebab can be called Iran’s national dish – this is essential for every Iranian kitchen irrespective of social class or financial status.

I struggled again when it was time to make the payment as it takes a bit of time to get used to the local Iranian currency – which you have to carry loads. Confusingly, Iranians talk of money in different system/units (Tomans) than what is printed on currency notes (Rials) – the reason being the IRR has gone so down in terms of its value that even a loaf of bread will cost several thousand rials (1 GBP = 17,000 IRR). The locals came up with an easy solution: another unit of currency i.e. Toman which is equal to 10 Rials. With filled tummies and blistering afternoon, it was by default time for a siesta and thus we headed back to the hotel passing through the endless maze of stores.

Golestan Palace

Later in the afternoon, I unpacked my customized list of places to visit in Tehran and headed straight to Golestan Palace [Eng site] which was once enclosed within the mud-thatched walls of Tehran’s Historic Arg (citadel). The green-tin tuck shops which dot Tehran’s landscape, regulated by state in terms of location and prices had an obvious presence in this area too. On the 20min walk, we had to pass through the same streets, the busy Imam Khomeini Square which serves as transport hub in this part of the city and then a boulevard which hosts the administrative offices like Department of Justice and Central Bank of Iran [Eng site].  Next to these is the 400 year old Golestan Palace. When Tehran became the capital during the 18th century in Qajr era, this palace became the court and official residence of the royal family. The palace was also used for royal receptions during Pahlavi era and the coronation of Pahlavi kings also carried out in this palace. This is for sure one of the most beautiful palaces in Iran and definitely one of the most well preserved and well managed historic buildings I have seen so far, at par with Hampton Court Palace in the UK.

Qajr era tile painting on Golestan Palace walls showing war scene.

Golestan Palace, Tehran

Golestan Palace, operated by Cultural Heritage Organization of Iran (administrated and funded by Government of Iran) is home to fascinating architecture, beautiful wall paintings and tile work, amazing marble based designs, refreshing greenery spread around ponds and fountains and mind boggling glass work. Takht Marmar (Marle Throne) made from yellow marble from Iran’s Yazd province is one of the oldest structures in the palace. Coronations of Qajar kings (including Raza Shah Pahlavi in 1925), and formal court ceremonies were held on this terrace (iwan). Khalvat Karim Khan, hosting amusing and geometrically appealing tile patterns dates back to 1759 – this building was a part of the interior residence of Karim Khan Zand. The Negar Khaneh exhibits amazing collection of artifacts, paintings (showing evolution of painting in Iran), jewellery, furniture and valuable objects . Talar-e Berelian (Hall of Brilliance) was named so for it is adorned by the brilliant mirror work of Iranian artisans – the mirror work and chandeliers are absolutely mind boggling. Then there is reception hall called Talar Salam, Talar Zoroof and the Museum of gifts which shows collection of gifts received by Qajr and Pahlavi kings as well as works of ceramics and chinaware. Talar Adj (Dining Hall) and Talar Aineh (mirror hall) are the most famous of the palace halls. Shams-ol-Emareh (Edifice of the Sun) is the most stunning structures of the Golestan Palace. The Monarch, Nasir od Din Shah wanted a structure from which he could have panoramic views of the city.

National Museum of Iran

Our next stop that day was The National Museum of Iran located on a walking distance in the same area. This museum is supposed to celebrate the rich heritage of Iran, home to Empires, known as Cradle of civilizations but unfortunately this hosts a modest collection of sculptures, ceramics and seals that date back to the 4th and 5th centuries BC. The museum displays artifacts from Paleolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic, early and late Bronze Age, and Iron Ages I-III, through the Median, Achaemenid, Seleucid, Parthian, and Sassanid periods in three halls. The artifacts from the post Islamic period are housed in separate building in the same complex.

The museum is well laid out, the building is quite impressive and is managed really well considering the entrance is dirt cheap but it doesn’t do justice to Iran. I was told parts of collection is displayed at local museums in different parts of the country and an even larger proportion is in the EU museums specially in the UK and France e.g. the famous Cyrus Cylinder is one of over a hundred Iranian artifacts displayed in British Museum in London. Not too impressed by the museum itself, we looked around and found this excellent little Souvenir Shop in the museum courtyard. The shop displayed an amazing collection of souvenirs, gifts, decoration items etc at amazingly low prices. If there was no baggage allowance limit on my flight, I might have ended up buying half of the shop but we had to cease our shopping desires after buying Achaemenid decorative items to give a flavor of Persian civilization to our living room. On top of that, the ticket officer on entrance of Museum of Islamic Art, which is housed in the same complex, was really friendly and asked the usual question which every Iranian will ask after encountering a foreigner – “where are you from?” He was quite excited to find out we’re from Pakistan but couldn’t let us in, despite the obvious I-wish-I-could-help-look on his face, because the museum was closed for renovation.

National Jewels Museum

The other museum which we visited was National Jewels Museum/Treasury – the biggest tourist draw-card in Tehran. This has to be the most stunning collection of jewels on the planet and I can bet you haven’t seen anything like this and will never see. This is absolutely astonishing and you can literally spend hours and hours trying to absorb the detail and beauty of this lovely huge collection. We had to struggle a bit to find the museum as this is located off the main Saadi Street behind a tall structure of Bank Melli. There is no visible sign on the road front but reading through the directions on my Lonely Planet guide, as I tried to enter a fenced area, a security guard ran towards me saying “Kojaa, Kojaa!” (Where?) to which I responded saying “Moza Jawahir”. He asked the usual question and felt a bit comfortable knowing we’re from Pakistan, then guided us to the museum entrance where we could buy tickets and wait for our turn to go inside. Only a limited number of people are allowed to be in the museum at a time until the earlier batch, or some of them come out. The museum itself is located in an underground security vault with rigorous security measures with several checkpoints – both electronic and manual. You are not allowed to take literally anything within the museum and deposit that at entrance. The beauty of this collection cannot be explained, it can only be enjoyed while being there. I’ll only add that this museum alone justifies a visit to Tehran. This was again very well managed and clean, better than some museums I have been to in the EU and entrance was cheap as chips. The art gallery in the Golestan Palace and The National Jewels Museum in combination display the incredible jewellery with which the Safavid and Qajar monarchs adorned themselves.

You can spend several weeks in Tehran, visiting museums only

The same area is home to a few other museums including Iran Ebrat Museum, Glassware, Post and Telecom Museum. We tried to visit a few other museums but could not manage to sync with the opening times. The city has a museum for everything you can imagine – jewels, post, telecom, natural history, science, history, Islamic period, ancient history, geography, archaeology, revolution, Quran; you name it. There is a museum every few miles, spread all over the city. You need weeks, only to see the museums. Since we only had three days allocated to Tehran, we sufficed with those we visited and decided to see what else the city has to offer…

Iranian encounter: Shared table with Zoroastrian Tehrani couple at Azerbaijani restaurant

The nearest restaurant recommendation on my LP guide was Ferdowsi International Grand Hotel which has a variety of restaurants, famous of which is their traditional restaurant/cafe especially popular among the young Tehranis. We were a bit late as they were closing the kitchen but the restaurant was still very crowded – apparently because of pipe smoking and chae which is served hours after the kitchen is closed. They let us order provided we are okay to share a table with another couple, who gladly allowed us to. When we were being hesitant, the young Iranian couple sitting on other side of the table break the ice and made us feel very comfortable. You don’t have to be shy and reluctant. You’re in a very difficult city – it won’t work if you’re here, the guy smiled and said while his partner seemed to agree. Within minutes, we were chatting on stuff ranging from politics and religion to food, culture and sports. Bahman is a self employed trader exporting mechanical parts to the middle East. He explained how difficult it is to manage businesses considering the economic sanctions and the absence of banking channels. He briefly talks about the state of minorities specially the Bahais and didn’t sound very comfortable with the Islamic Government in power, who in his view had done little for protection of human rights in Iran. The couple help us choose what to eat and made us share their starters which included delicious Azerbaijani and Kurdish snacks. The couple left giving us their contact number which we used extensively during our stay in Tehran get directions and advice. The second day in Tehran ended on a pleasant note and we were back in our hotel before mid night taking pictures along the way. We felt very safe even in later hours of the night wandering through the streets of Tehran…

Azadi Square: site of two of Iran’s most epochal protest movements

Yes, I did it!

Yes, I did it!

Even before planning the trip to Tehran, I visualized myself jumping in front of Azadi Square and somebody capturing that moment of joy. To make that happen, enjoy a view of Tehran from a considerable height, and to visit the hotspot of all political activity in Tehran, we decided to start the next day with a visit to Azadi Square. In Iran’s modern history, Azadi Square –  site of two of Iran’s most epochal protest movements, is second only to Tehran University in terms of its symbolic political significance. It has been the centre of all political or religiously inspired movements and protests whether it be the Islamic Revolution of 1979 or the recent Green Movement.

Maidan-e-Azadi (Azadi Square), Tehran

The Azadi Tower, in centre of Maydan-e-Azadi marks the entrance to the city and was built in 1971 to celebrate 2500 years of Persian Empire. The architecture combines elements of Sasanid and Persian Islamic Architecture. This is one of the most fascinating works of modern Iranian architecture – very well placed in the middle of a huge square. Arrays of flowers of several varieties, starting the outer end of the square and merging at the tower create a beautiful enjoyable scene. Ofcourse there are fountains around the tower which add to the beauty. A lift leads you to the top of tower to the viewing platform from where one can enjoy amazing view of Tehran city. Apparently photography isn’t allowed at viewing platform but the attendant, after knowing that we’re from Pakistan reacted very warmly, shook hands, escorted us to the viewing platform and said “take photos, but slowly, I wait for you there”. I took my time, captured some lovely shots and then spent some time trying to absorb the spread of the city. Those colourful cabs which come in yellow, orange and green variety dot the landscape in all directions.

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Tehran from the top

Underneath the tower, there are a couple of museums, galleries and a cinema. The outer walls are adorned by the wall painting of protesters from Revolution of 1979. One of the halls inside is dedicated to photographs of the Revolution while audio tapes play famous speeches of Khomeini and other leaders all the time. This creates quite an interesting atmosphere, considering where you are, and one can get a bit of feeling of what really happened back then. The other halls are dedicated to Jewellery, Iranian culture and history etc but the place of honour is occupied by a copy of Cyrus Cylinder.

 And Shopping like Tehranis…

If you really want to challenge yourself, go try crossing a road midday in Tehran. The traffic is crazy and can scare the hell out of you if you have no experience of traffic in this part of the world. My Lahore-traffic-skills came to rescue and soon we were headed off to Vali Asr Avenue in one of the shared taxis. The shared taxis in Tehran are as critical to city’s transportation needs as is the Metro. Cheap, quick and take you everywhere from everywhere; it’s a travel option of choice for many. Paying 18,000 IRR (nearly £1), both of us were in Vali Asr Avenue fairly quick. But why we were there…. ?

Tehran Couple hands in hands

As I spent time in the city, I was noticing how the women were dressed. Some took fashionable liberties with coats tailored to button closely around waistlines and display that, yes, they had rear ends. Designer bag in hand, pointy-toed shoes peeking out beneath trousers, silk scarf tied under the chin or hanging at back of head, make-up carefully applied (with great attention paid to the eyes), they were amongst the most fashionable and trendy women I had ever seen. Contrary to the popular belief that one would find black chadors, there was plenty of color and shades on the streets in Tehran. After the first two days in Tehran, Madeeha knew I was already in love with the Manteaus which young women in Tehran wore. It’s like a regular shirt, sometimes long, sometimes T-shirt length normally sewn to fit with belt at waistline wore with jeans. So, my excuse for being here was just to see and get the feel of the place I had heard and read a lot about and Madeeha’s excuse, as one would expect, was shopping Manteaus (after feeling a bit insecure may be).

Tehran Fashion - Menteaus help Iranian women to be trendy and fashionable while softly defying the state's dress code restrictions

Tehran Fashion – Menteaus help Iranian women to be trendy and fashionable while softly defying the state’s dress code restrictions

Not a lot of shops were open as we were a bit late but we were quite surprised to find what was on offer. It’s interesting to see how Tehranis have managed to be trendy and fashionable softly defying the dress-code rules of the regime. Atleast we were not able to spot a single burka or black chador on sale in Tehran. The shops offered an amazing variety in design and color for Manteaus. Young Tehrani girls have replaced black chadors with a T-shirt length manteau wore with jeans, a roosari (which is a loose scarf covering some part of head but allowing them to display their hairstyles) and trendy athlete shoes. That’s all you can find in this shopping region with some more surprising outfits like sleeveless shirts, swimming costumes, bikinis, very fancy skirts and even miniskirts. Surprisingly, this was all on display publicly on several shops.

Tehran couple, hands in hands, on a rainy day

Tehran couple, hands in hands, on a rainy day

The Zoroastrian couple we met earlier in restaurant had recommend Madeeha to visit Tajrish Square for shopping and I am so glad we acted upon their recommendation. This allowed us to have a quick look of North Tehran region which is dramatically different from South Tehran where we were based. Courtesy the Alborz Mountains, the region enjoys fairly mild weather; you get a cool breeze and can avoid Tehran’s pollution. Tajrish Square, the Liberty RoundAbout of Tehran is home to several shopping Plazas, modern hotels and restaurants. Male salespersons were ready with assistance, striking me as odd given the Iranian code of public distance and non-touching between the sexes that goes so far as to divide the seating in public buses into two areas – men in the front and women in the back. But here, men were helping women try on manteaus, tugging and touching here and there while pinning alteration markings.

MPs Residency and Tehran’s Parks

We were back later that evening in Southern Tehran and decided to wander around to just to see what else is out there….

Wandering through this lower-middle class part of the city, we found signs reading Government hostels for members of the Assembly. These were small cubicles on top of ground floor shops. The Shared taxis stopped near the shops for the MPs to transport them to other parts of the city. The same area is home to dozens of banks. One Tehrani commented, “Saadi Street area hosts more bank branches than any other part of the world, and I can bet on that”. I’ll probably agree seeing several dozen of them.

Tehran Laleh Park

Tehran Laleh Park

Traveling through the city, I noticed countless signs with directions to parks. According to estimates, there are more than 800 parks in the city – some huge large scale parks with lakes and boating facility, many mid sized parks and then hundreds of those small parks in localities for locals to enjoy the shade in sunny days. The city’s local Government has converted every small corner or open area into a park growing grass, planting a few trees and beautifying it with flowers and a fountain. I saw several of those walking through the streets of residential Tehran. Locals enjoy their chae or smoke pipes under the tress. This is critical and a breather for a city which is amongst the most polluted cities on Earth courtesy the vehicles from 70s.

Absorbing Tehran on last day

Tehran Couple in North Tehran

Tehran Couple in North Tehran

It was start of our last day in Tehran and we still had loads on our list still to visit.

Considering time was running out and we still had loads to experience in Tehran; we planned a hectic eventful last day for ourselves with intention to experience city’s religiosity, get a flavor of history and political struggle and finally absorb everything in city’s affluent neighborhood in North enjoying views of city’s skyline at night from the Darband mountains.

Bibi Sheherbano’s shrine atop a hill in outskirts of Tehran

Bibi Sheherbano’s shrine (daughter of Yazdgerd-III, the last king of Sasanid dynasty of Iran and Imam Hussain’s wife) is located atop a hill in the outskirts of Tehran. The cab driver Abbas told me it will take an hour and a half to get there; but with my little Persian, I failed to understand the reason he quoted. Soon I discovered this was quite a challenge he took. Tehran’s traffic is crazy, literally fanatical. Forget Lahore’s traffic which we blame all the time; this city of 16 million with countless motorcycles, buses and specially cabs of as many colors as you can think of could be the biggest traffic challenge for any driver. When you’re on a road, you are basically at your own to ensure you return home in one piece – nobody seems to care much really. Anyway…apparently it was Abbas’s first time to visit the shrine although he had been living in Tehran for years but he didn’t seem too excited, as most religious people from sub-continent would be for something like this. Asking people for directions on the way, we finally reached the end of a straight road which faced a huge hill – a road going upwards, a small sign pointing towards the shrine atop the hill and a 8X8 small cab office which apparently was not in use. Another 10 minutes driving uphill and we were there – a few buses, a couple of motorcycles and a few cars in the parking area; didn’t look like a very busy place. The shrine complex occupies a small area on the hilltop, not more than a few kanals. Men can access the shrine from a small door while most part of the complex is reserved for women – this looked more popular amongst the women as majority of the visitors were women or children. The environment inside the shrine was relaxed and calm, I couldn’t hear much wailing and crying as one would expect; kids continued playing in the courtyard when their mothers paid homage to Bibi.

Harm-e-Motahar (Harm-e-Khomeini) – Tehran’s favorite family picnic spot

Our next stop Harm-e-Khomeini, located South of Tehran in Behest-e-Zehra cemetery unpacked loads of surprises. Abbas dropped us off in the parking area and we parted ways. I opened up my LonelyPlanet guide and read “while the scale of the Holy Shrine of Imam Khomeini is quite enormous, for the time being it looks more like a shoddily built and empty aircraft hangar than one of Iran’s holiest sites”. I had a look around and nodded my head in agreement. The shrine structure has a golden dome in center and has four towers in four sides of the mausoleum which are 91m in height in memorandum of Imam Khomeini’s age. Seventy-two tulips adorn and surround the dome symbolizing the seventy-two persons who fought with Imam Hossein in Karbala and were martyred. The Haram has five entrances, again symbolic either to the Islamic theology (5 elements/pillars of religion) or the Shi’ite Panjtan ideology.

Men, women and children seemed enjoying the sunny day. I could smell Kebabs and Chae as we walked past hundreds of families scattered in the complex grounds, towards the complex entrance while the Sun shine on our heads. You have to handover all your belongings at the office at entrance but surprisingly, you don’t have to wear a chador to enter the building or roam around anywhere in the complex. No guardians of Hijab to point towards your head instructing you to cover your head. The interior hall is enormous, measures nearly 400 feet, I was told and it is being expanded. Like the structure itself and the exterior, the interior is unfinished too. There are huge wall hanging covers showing how the tile work will look like when it’s done. The atmosphere is very relaxed – men playing cards everywhere, women gossiping in small groups, children playing here and there. Kids roll coins along the marble floors or go sliding around in their socks. Inside it can seem like more of a playground than a sacred site. Watching the rambunctious families at play is, in fact, the most interesting thing about this place. For middle class Iranians, who are frequent visitors of the shrine, Khomeini is more of a saint than a Ayotullah, a Supreme Leader or a holy figure. The complex includes a university, a seminary, several shops, a post office, a bank, restaurants, shopping complex, hotel to stay, 20,000-car parking lot and snack bars. With its 5000 acre spread, it is huge without seeming particularly grand or impressive.

Harm-e-Khomeini Complex, Tehran.

No gender segregation in Harm and no enforcement of Hijab/chador. Thousands of families setting up camps, partying with qalyan/huqqa and food, kids playing everywhere, men playing cards inside the Harm and women gossip and laughing out loud – this was biggest surprise of the trip so far.

Tehran Metro

Surprised to find out the relaxed environment but not too impressed with the complex itself, we decided to move on and it was time to experience Tehran’s Metro, spread over 250KM in distance. The complex is connected through the Red Line (Line 1) on the Metro which runs North to South of the city while the Harm being on the Sothern end. Single Journey ticket is 1200IRR (£0.07 or 9Rs) which you can use to travel from anywhere to anywhere. Four lines are operational (while another two are under construction) which carry over 2.5-4 million passengers every day. One distinctive element of the trains is that the cars are interconnected, you can sit in the last car and see through all the way to the first car – it appears from inside as it is a single car. This makes it easier in rush hours allowing people more space and opportunity to move.

The tunnels are air-conditioned while natural lighting is provided in the tunnels through air ducts. Axial fans are used to lower the air temperature in the underground stations. The facilities at stations include toilets, snack bars, telephone/internet etc which was a bit surprising for me with the experience of London Underground, ten-fold in cost with little to offer. You do not lose your mobile signals anywhere underground and are able to make/receive calls and even connect to Metro WiFi. The trains on Tehran Metro, project supported by companies from China and Austria, run very frequently- every few minutes and this RTS was nominated for 2011 Sustainable Transport Award. Trains run both underground and over ground with an average distance of 1-2KM between stations. The single most interesting aspect about Tehran Metro was the interior of the Metro stations. They are a well thought out show case of Iranian cultural heritage, traditional and contemporary Persian art. From Cyrus to Khomeini, from Persepolis to Qom, from Achaemenid empire to Islamic Republic, everything is well represented. This was a strong contrast to the kind of bland Underground stations I am used to.

Tehran Metro, the efficient Rapid Urban Transportation system provides quick, cheap and easy way for Tehranis to move around the city avoiding the pollution and crazy traffic.

Tehran Metro, the efficient Rapid Urban Transportation system provides quick, cheap and easy way for Tehranis to move around the city avoiding the pollution and crazy traffic.

Tickets are valid for 1, 2 or 10 trips (including change of lines). There are ticket booths at every station. You can also buy a contact-less fare card (weekly, monthly, quarterly or yearly) which is the best option if you are going to use metro a lot, or simply want to have less hassle by paying for a card and use it on both metro and some city buses. Metro can whisk you quickly from one end of the city to the other without having to deal with the noise, pollution and chaos of Tehrani traffic and that’s exactly what we did as we headed North of the city to feel the change of atmosphere and avoid Tehran’s noise and pollution.

Darband Mountains

On way to Darband, I got involved in a lively discussion about politics with our taxi driver who was eager to talk but language barrier didn’t allow us go too far. He said he opposes the current regime, but he would pick up a gun to defend Iran if the United States ever attacked….

A view of Northern Tehran urban setting

A view of Northern Tehran urban setting

This city of over 15 million has spread to the foothills of the mountains in the North. The image shows the spread of the city with Milad Tower in the background.

This city of over 15 million has spread to the foothills of the mountains in the North. The image shows the spread of the city with Milad Tower in the background.

Tehran is probably the most polluted city on face of earth today – credit due to the economic sanctions because of which almost all taxis and an overwhelming majority of vehicles are from 70s, mostly old Paykans. They are very inefficient in fuel consumption and deadly for the environment. However, as you move from South to North of the city, the temperature and atmosphere changes dramatically and we experienced that as we traveled to Darband. Darband Mountain is a popular mountain in the north of Tehran where chadors are completely absent. It becomes very crowded with mountain climbers on Friday mornings. The area is full of traditional restaurants and a popular dating spot for Tehranis, you can spot couples walking everywhere holding hands or enjoying a cup of tea. As we waited for our dinner, several groups of young men and women walked past, or came in to reserve a table. Women are wearing makeup and manteaus and scarves in every color you could imagine, and the styles are much more trendy and tight fitting than one would imagine. The conversations were frank and the communication casual as between young friends anywhere. The couples and groups of friends seemed to be enjoying their day and were fairly relaxed. There didn’t seem to be a lot of pressure as they enjoyed their time together with lots of touching, laughters and casual hugging.

Bye Bye Tehran

That was the end of a very hectic day with every hour planned to do something and it was time to catch our late night train to Mashhad. Tehran’s Railway Station is well managed and clean, as every public building in Iran. I had booked only standard seats in 2nd Class on purpose to allow me the opportunity to travel with middle class Iranians and I was expecting some warm hospitality and opportunity to make some good friends. Apparently it was the end of School Holidays and thus a busy time to go to Mashhad. We had to struggle a bit to find the right carriage but the train was exactly on time, not a minute late. Considering the cost (only £5 for nearly a 1000KM journey) the service was excellent. The train was very clean, the seats comfortable with good leg space and the mineral water and snack box was a pleasant surprise.

Tehran Railway Station
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Within minutes after the train headed towards Mashhad, one of the families sitting on our right showed signs of hospitality and the urge to start a conversation. We started with usual questions but within minutes, Manijeh and her young brother moved from their seats to the seats in front of us so we can converse easily. I couldn’t ask for more. This was my first chance of proper conversation with a Persian family. Manijeh knew good English and Muhammad could do good as well while their parents kept offering one thing after another very graciously. I thoroughly enjoyed their mint+cheeses wraps followed by Pistachios. They told us they visit Mashhad every few years and since Muhammad was starting university, they wanted to visit Imam Reza shrine before everyone gets too busy with work and life. We talked nonstop before all of us dozed off a few hours later…

Early next morning, there was breakfast for us ready on the table as we opened our eyes. Whenever we tried to resist, Manijeh’s parents on the other side would insist with their smiling warm gestures. I found them very welcoming, friendly and eager to learn from us and help us learn about Iran. This was some of the best time I spent in Iran and we are still in touch and hope to be so in the future. I will always regret I could not accept their offer of dinner at their place but hopefully I’ll see them again.

Other surprises and nuggets from Tehran?

Now that I had left Tehran, I recalled some of the surprises on train…

  • I had seen men’s hairstyles of all varieties, dyed in all colors and styles – spikes, scissor cuts, short length, gelled back, shoulder lengths and even longer. I also witnessed young men wearing earrings and tattoos all over their arms and necks moving freely using public transport. Either than news of prescribed hair styles by IRI was wrong, or not enforced at all, I thought.
  •  Recalling my clever observations of Irani women, no matter which part of the city you’re in, you will always be able to see a lot of women (and a few men sometimes) with fresh nose-jobs and bandages still on. Cosmetic surgery is flourishing in Iran and the people seem to be very conscious about their looks.
  •  Literally every woman has bleached hair. That appears to be quite a significant cultural factor now and irrespective of the social or financial status, you will hardly find women with hair in their original color. More evidence to my belief that Iranians are very conscious of their looks.
  •  There’s a revolution in street names. In every locality, there will always be a Khayaban-e-Khomeini and a Maydan-e-Khomieni. Streets and roads have been named after people who died during the revolution or the Iran-Iraq war.
  •  You will always be at a 5-10min walking distance from a park. There are more parks in Tehran, perhaps, than the local grocery stores.
  • One of the best things about the city is the paintings on the huge walls of plazas/buildings which face main roads. No wall of any of such buildings has been left blank – student artists are chartered to paint these on a variety of themes which include the Revolution, Iranian culture, Persian hospitality, Persian poetry and literature, caligraphy etc.
Tehran Wall Paintings - one of those several painted walls of plazas/buildings facing main roads under the city beautification campaign.

Tehran Wall Paintings – one of those several painted walls of plazas/buildings facing main roads under the city beautification campaign.

So, that was the end of eventful few days in Tehran. There is so much to Tehran that you can’t do justice to the city in days – it’s a matter of weeks. I still regret not being able to go skiing, visiting Alborz mountains, take Tochal cable car, visit Tehran University, the Grand Bazaar, the Parliament and the Melad Tower in the North which is amongst tallest buildings in world. Hopefully, next time I will be able to hang out with Bahman, Manijeh and Muhammad to experience Tehran from a local’s perspective.

 Life in Tehran

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say, and the guys at Tehran Live blog have been proving it for years. This blog regularly posts photos from Tehran which has helped me understand and learn a lot about life in Tehran. I have extracted over 1800 photos from the blog which can be viewed on my Flickr album here.

Life in Tehran

Life in Tehran

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