“Only one or two thousand kilometres” said the man on the phone in remarkably good English. Unable to converse with my driver and noticing we were heading in the wrong direction I’d performed the international mime for a telephone so was now speaking to his boss, or perhaps just the only person he knew who spoke English.
After crossing the border from Turkmenistan on foot we’d been picked up and were driving to Mashhad to catch the bus to Tehran. Or so we thought. After a while I checked my phone, we were clearly not heading to Mashhad, we seemed to be heading towards Tehran but were 694km away at this point, a mere 15 hours more according to the app.
The call started so well, “Hello, how are you?” he said with such confidence. Going through the usual formalities I asked how he was too. It was at this point I lost confidence as he responded “Yes, yes, ha, ha”. I asked when the bus was leaving from Mashhad. His response of “Ha, ha, I understand”made me give up on the conversation — we were heading in the direction of Tehran and I assumed that was good.
Some 15 hours later we arrived. Thoughts turned to the comfort of a 2 star hotel room — would my bed be too hard or too soft? I woke from my daydream when our driver got out of the van and pointed at a taxi. I asked what was happening — no answer — he didn’t understand me. One of our group had the name of the hotel so we gave it to the new driver.
Arriving at our hotel, or so we thought, it was closed. Turns out this wasn’t our hotel but after driving in circles for a while we found the right one. However, they didn’t have any rooms for us. But we were at the right place at least… it was kind of a win. Several manic phone calls later we got hold of our guide and were told he knew nothing of our arrival… great. So, we headed to our third and final hotel.
After finally getting a room and a good night’s sleep I set off to discover that the Iranian people are the friendliest I’ve ever met. It was a bit weird at times, constantly getting invited to dinner at stranger’s houses. I even got invited camping by a group of three teenage girls. Sadly I was unable to take up any of these offers, as a British citizen I was supposed to have a minder at all times to stop me teaching them how to make a proper cup of tea or whining about Brexit. Mind you I don’t think my guide really cared, he was hardly ever near me — I’m not even sure he knew I was British.
At the weekend the locals head to the gardens and mausoleums with the intention of relaxing but perhaps more importantly for selfies and photo opportunities. Instagram is hugely popular here and most interactions with locals will result in a new follower. They’re more than happy having their photo taken and for a country with such a harsh reputation for religious law, the dress code is surprisingly progressive. The women have a Parisian style and although they cover their heads, they do so loosely with colourful silk scarves, they’ve turned a necessity into a fashion statement.
I felt at times people were quietly reaching out for help. They desperately wanted me to know they’re not like people think they are, they’re not terrorists. They also made it clear they disassociated with the republic and their government. Many girls told me they didn’t want to cover their heads. I felt sorry for them as I could do nothing except listen and assure them the world didn’t think like this. Even if I didn't really believe what I was saying.
Tehran is nestled in the foothills of the Alborz Mountains providing a 5,000m snow capped backdrop over the city. Driving to the north of Tehran, the city became more metropolitan, art installations nestled among the greenery and landscaped public spaces. This is where the middle class and elite live — enjoying the climbing and skiing offered by the mountains. Tree lined avenues, sheltering from the world. A giant red pencil sharpener sits atop a slim branchless tree, colourful roots descend under a concrete bridge, a large colourful statue of a boy awakens and arises from the earth. There’s a maturity to the public spaces and a progressive aesthetic.
For all the progressive public art here it’s hard to reconcile that with the public executions and easy to forget that adultery, drinking alcohol and homosexuality are all punishable by death. It’s a much worse deal if you’re female. A woman’s life is worth literally one half of a man’s here. Even the victims of rape have been executed, there’s a lot women can’t do but things do seem to be changing slowly. Surprisingly, women can drive here. Mind you, the traffic was terrible.
To avoid the results of this overly progressive approach to transportation we flew to Shiraz. Shiraz was beautiful although there was a disappointing lack of wine, they really should change the name. It just sets unfair expectations in a dry country.
I’ve been to funfairs in some unexpected places, Iraq and Afghanistan spring to mind, but nothing was quite as surreal as seeing a group of Iranian schoolgirls wearing black hijabs screaming on a waltzer. They were going crazy, the strobe lights were kicking in and Disco Bitch was playing so loudly that my head was visibly vibrating.
Another modern classic was playing by the trampolines, Fuck it was now being beaten into my head. Wanting to partake in the action we bought tickets for the trampolines, only to be told no by the Iranian carny in charge, we were too old apparently… you had to be under 6.
From Shiraz we drove to the remains of Persepolis and eventually on to Isfahan.
If I ever have to choose my top ten bridges I’ve now got two spots taken, both conveniently next to each other in Isfahan. Khajou Bridge and the difficult to type Si-o-se-pol Bridge are a pair of double decker stone arches built in the 17th century. At night they’re lit up and whether you’re walking across or sat by the river eating a kebab, they’re both beautiful.
Back in Tehran, to go along with my two favourite bridges, I discovered my favourite tower. Azadi Tower, built in 1971 to celebrate 2,500 years of the Persian empire is like something from The Empire Strikes Back. Its marble clad exterior is modernism meets classical Persian with a little Star Wars thrown in for good measure. There’s a strong 70s aesthetic in many places here including my hotel, the New Naderi, which felt like a Bond villain’s lair. Perhaps it was…
The abandoned US embassy is a strange attraction. Overrun by students in 1979 who held 52 US hostages for an astonishing 444 days. It’s now an anti-American museum and monument to hatred. The walls are adorned with anti-American murals and inside are propaganda posters. The locals I spoke to were clearly embarrassed but nonetheless here it stands. It seemed more of a tourist attraction than anything else.
Surprisingly, Iran used to be one of the US’s closest allies, this was until the Iranian Revolution in 1979 when the US-backed Shah was forced into exile and the country became an Islamic Republic, ruled by theocracy.
It makes me wonder how you define a country, the people and place haven’t really changed in all that time. It’s only the leadership. Yet, that’s where our perception comes from, from the actions of a country’s leaders. Perhaps never more relevant than the current climate in the West.
I always feel a bit uncomfortable in a mausoleum, they tend to be such imposing places and most visitors are there to pay respect to a powerful but dead man. They’re not the most comfortable places to be a gawping foreign non-believer. The trouble is the type of people that end up in mausoleums are usually controversial. I’m thinking of Mao, Stalin, the Kims and not forgetting the Ayatollah.
The Mausoleum of Ruhollah Khomeini is the resting place of Ayatollah Khomeini. It was eerily quiet when I was there but the car park holds a whopping 20,000 cars. Just a few weeks after my visit there was an attack here by a group of armed men, one of whom detonated a suicide vest. This was part of a simultaneous attack by ISIS, or ISIL, or whatever they’re called nowadays on the Mausoleum and the Iranian Parliament. They killed 17 people and injured 43.
It was quite a shock to me, not that I could have been there but that the people I saw there could have, the small child reaching up to get a look into the tomb of the Ayatollah, the women weeping and caressing the door to the tomb and the security guard who let us take photos of him after making us dismantle our cameras to check for explosives.
Even those strict Islamic theocracies can’t agree with each other. People often forget the biggest victims of terrorism are muslims. Different flavours of the same religion trying to dominate, they need to all get along like neapolitan or tutti frutti. There’s always room for more than one flavour. Perhaps the world’s conflicts can be solved through ice cream analogies — it’s worth a try at least.
I left Iran with a very different view of the people — not that I really had a view to start with, but it wouldn’t have been this. They were so friendly that they didn’t want me to leave at the airport, making up some excuse about how I didn’t have a visa for Iraq. But I could tell it was just an excuse, the Persian hospitality shining through, I managed to convince them I could get a visa on arrival before they extended the inevitable invitation to dinner and to stay with them.