Act 3: Tehran
So, onwards to Tehran, the beating economic and academic heart of Iran where the girls sail dangerously close to the religious dress code wind and the most radical apparently flit about. Tramped the streets for hours, days, in search of some hard line revolutionaries but found none. Their lairs lie too deep. Instead, I hung out with a young traffic policeman, a student learning French and a variety of randoms. I don’t want to say that there’s nothing to say about Tehran – because there is lots and I recommend it for a visit – but I don’t want to bore you with a list of museum catalogues.
Of note is the National Jewel Museum which puts Lizzie’s Crown Jewels to shame. Them Persians sure knew their shit about bling-bling. To get in, you have to go through a bank, deposit all your things in a locker (I tried to take my wallet with me but the gent behind the desk laughed and said ‘this is a bank’. Yeah? Fred Goodwin – say no more) and then enter a dimly-lit room beyond a vaulted door where glass cabinets of jewels are illuminated. James Bond would have a field day. There are sense detectors on the cabinets that sound an alarm if you lean on them to get too close to the glass…but these are only on two of the four sides so you don’t have to be in Mensa to work out which side to press your grubby little face up against.
Darya-i-Noor Diamond is a sister diamond to the famous (yes, famous) Koh-i-Noor diamond that we Brits nicked from the Indians. It is said that whoever owns it rules the world. Perhaps the Chinese stole it a few years back and the Crown has yet to notice. Anyway, the Iranians have the other bit of it and it’s one of the biggest, baddest diamonds on the block, available for viewing in Tehran city along with a jewel encrusted globe, about waist height, that is so riddled with precious jewels that they actually can’t put a price on it. Genuinely priceless and fecking cool. The seas are set with emeralds, the land is set with rubies and the best countries (Iran, Britain and France) are set in diamonds. Boom.
It wasn’t just jewels that the Persians were experts in. They were good at palaces too. Went to check out the Golestan Palace in the heart of the city, a big ol’ complex with shady gardens in the middle. At the time, they had an exhibition of all the different tribes, for want of a better word, in Iran in the courtyard. Was most surprised to find Chris Corander in the A-rab tent, dressed up in all his sword dancing finery.
My favourite bit was the Salaam Room, where the Shah used to receive all the movers and shakers back in the day. Now a museum, you enter through an entirely mirrored ante-room up an impressive flight of stairs to a large, airy room, also decorated with mirror fragments and a massive Persian rug. You can check out some pics here. Sounds gross, right? I know it shouldn’t work, but somehow it manages to stay on the right side of tasteful – unlike Versailles – and looks like a giant jewellery box. Me. Likey.
Taking respite in the shade of the former parade ground, I made friends with a traffic policeman who took me to see a Zoroastrian temple and a church in downtown Tehran before heading over to the student theatre to catch some National Dancing. Alas, the national dance was off for the night as there was an awards ceremony on for summat. Crashed it for a bit but it was all in farsi so a bit wasted on me. Nevertheless, I did get to enjoy looking at the male youths’ hairstyles. They’ve thoroughly embraced the 70s look, long hair and artful facial creations. Some pull it off and wouldn’t look out of place in Shoreditch. Others look like bad extras in a Starsky and Hutch film and I think it’s these that the religious police took offence to when they issued those hair guidelines, not so long ago.
There are a lot of students. Iranians are such driven, flexible and pragmatic people. Not one person that I’ve spoken to approves of the regime, everyone is looking forward to the day when the women can cast off the hellish scarf (which they do at the first opportunity anyway) and the economic sanctions are lifted. In the meantime, the economy is down, inflation is high and there aren’t enough jobs for the massive wave of youth coming through. What are they doing in the meantime? Studying. They’re fanatical. Everyone but everyone is holding down a job, often way below their qualifications, and studying for Masters, PhDs or another language in the evenings. Some want to emigrate, others are just biding their time until the economy improves and there are jobs to be found once again. The collective motivation is deeply impressive.
Many are studying in Iran but others are finding ways to study abroad. I was chatting to one 19-year old student who had just got back from a stint in London where he was learning English and holding down jobs in restaurants and Maccy Ds to make ends meet. He stayed for 17 months, which is remarkable given that he was plonked initially in the depths of knife-wielding South East London on his lonesome by the kindly language school.
The one other place that is of note in the capital is Damarband, a short trip up towards the Alborz mountains which loom over the North of the city. It’s much cooler up here, away from the smog, and the perfect place to come and hang out with a water pipe/nargileh/shisha (whatever you want to call it) and pot of tea or two.
Getting here brings you through the posh bit of town and by Christ what a lot of collagen they get through. No nose, lip or forehead is unturned.
Oh, and the US Den of Espionage? Despite a spectacularly good name, it’s not really worth the walk. Nothing to see except some over-blown, over-dramatised graffiti on the walls.
Act 4: Esfahan
Having taken my fill of the capital’s cultural delights, I headed on down to Esfahan, said to be the Jewel in the Iranian crown. I do wish they wouldn’t big places up like this; it can make them crushingly disappointing. Not that Esfahan is disappointing, but if they gave it the Cairo treatment (‘don’t go – it’s a total hole’, which it’s not) then I’m sure I would have liked it even more. And I didn’t find the nukes that Dinner Jacket is supposedly hiding under it. Rats. That would have been a coup for me and embarrassing for the UN.
Given my experience with night buses in Iran to date and the fact that I’m just not built for their buses (my femur is too long), I opted for the night train. Thoroughly enjoyable journey with two sisters and a separate group of a Mum and her two daughters sharing my carriage. Got on at 11pm, had a little chatter and then settled into our tripled-decked bunks for a kip. Ok, I was woken at 5.30am by a strip light to the face, but that’s marginally better than the conductor clanging a spanner on the metalwork of the bed back in Armenia.
Upon arrival, I went for a cup of tea and some breakfast with Hamid and his family. I’d spoken to Hamid’s daughter on the phone back at Tehran station after a bizarre mototaxi man had muscled his way into the waiting room (that lies beyond a police and a ticket check) to ask to see my ticket and tell those around me in farsi that I was his sister and needed to go home. If you’re going to lie, make it a good one, eh? Transparently bullshit so the punters around me gave him a communal raised eyebrow and he went packing. Ended up staying for a few days and getting the gilded guest treatment. Boyakasha. Although that did include being paraded around the entire extended family and respective workplaces for show and tell of the pale foreigner. Even went to Great Grandma’s house.
Although it’s not the city that I’d conjured in my mind on the back of such heady reviews, such as ‘it’s half the world’ (thanks, Renier), it is a lovely place. Lots of leafy boulevards, trickling fountains, beautiful tiled mosques, Armenian cathedral, an atmospheric bazaar and a bonza ice cream shop. Is there anything better than coconut icecream on a hot, sweaty day? I think not.
And my favourite bit? Souffeh Park at sunset with families picnicking, friends hanging out and amorous lovers hiding from chaperones. Just look…
Hope you enjoy the snaps cos on this heap of junk internet connection, I think it would have been faster for me to draw them and post them.