#3 Salaam Iran


Persian Shahnama manuscript public domain, creator unknown, via Wikimedia Commons - isn't it stunning?

Friday night:

It's so exciting to be writing to you from Iran at last. It's late on Friday night and we've just arrived at our hotel. I can't wait to share it all with you - the gardens and deserts, beautiful mosques and friendly people, not to mention the hijab or head scarf. It's compulsory for women to be dressed modestly at all times, including covering the hair and the neck, the arms to the wrist and the legs to the ankle. I'm in the zone.

When we touched down tonight, I put my scarf on before we left the aircraft. I've been practising for the past couple of weeks, so I was fairly confident it would stay put. As we walked out of the aircraft, two men standing outside the door spoke to a woman ahead of us about not having hers on. She quickly covered up with the scarf she had around her neck. I'm not sure if they were the infamous morality police. But it reinforced to me that this is not only a serious business: it's actually the law.

Making our way through customs and luggage collection took 2 hours and it was a long taxi ride into the middle of Tehran. We both fell asleep on the way.

This is a photography tour we're joining on Sunday, led by two well-known photographers. It's in the budget price range, so I probably won't be photographing the hotels. I'm trusting that the expert tuition will make it all worthwhile. On the other hand, I think you'll love the hotels in Oman, where I've organised the week's itinerary.

This is our hotel, the Ferdowsi Grand. It's named after a famous Persian poet. The photo at the top of this post is a painting illustrating one of his stories in his epic tenth century manuscript. It depicts the tragedy of a father who has just killed his own son: Rostan, a famous, fearless warrior has just killed a son he has never met, the only man who dared to face him. The son Sohrab was not aware he was fighting his own father either. Rostan realises that what has happened because he recognises a keepsake he once gave to the boy's mother.

I must tell you about our arrival. The decor was described on Trip Advisor as 'middle eastern bordello'. It made me laugh when I read it. The description is actually quite apt: there's lots of red, black and dark wood, with metallic triangles hanging from the ceiling. Our bedroom is gold satin (mmmm), the pillows are so big and heavy they could strike a lethal blow in a pillow fight. Anyway, it's home for the next few days and it's clean.

The two bellboys who brought up our luggage were quite the comedic duo, pushing each other and snorting with laughter all the way up in the lift and when we arrived in our room. The joy was infectious.

After they left I went to put our US dollars in the safe in our room but it was locked. It's not possible for foreigners to use cards and ATM's in Iran, or to charge to credit cards, although the locals can. So it's necessary to bring cash for every cent that you want to spend, although I've heard that the carpet sellers have credit card facilities.

John tried to flush the toilet and the bowl immediately filled nearly to the rim. In response to our phone call for help, a man came to fix both, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. I left John to it and went back downstairs to take some photos and to ask if it would be safe to go out to photograph at dawn.

A good-looking young man on desk said, No madam, don’t go out until 8am. So it’s dangerous? I ask. Oh yes madam. I doubted that but perhaps he thought I'd be on my own. Could you tell me where the pool is please? Through there, but it’s only for men. Oh I see. What about the garden? There is no garden madam.

I gave up and came back upstairs just now to find the repair man still here and our hallway quite wet. Our helper had put the bidet hose into the toilet before attending to the locked safe. While he was busy, the toilet overflowed, flooded the bathroom and then into the hallway. Another crazy late night sitcom arrival. The hallway floor was still quite wet. I mimed slipping over, indicating that it needed mopping.

The repair man did a Fawlty Towers Manuel-confused face. Suddenly he seemed to understand and beamed. He cleaned it up in a half-hearted way and when I showed him where he hadn't mopped, he pointed at the big white plastic flipflops above to indicate that the solution would be to wear these. Then he left. At least the toilet is working again. We were left laughing and shaking our heads. The flipflops are still in their packet. I put a hand towel on the floor and pushed it around with my feet.

Thank goodness I decided not to try to post to my website each day and send you the daily link as I normally do. I could run to Iraq in the time it takes to load a page, and I can't access my website at all. The message on the screen: YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO ACCESS THIS SITE FROM YOUR LOCATION. I'm going to surrender and go to bed.

Until tomorrow travelling buddies, when we'll explore Tehran together. But maybe not at dawn....

Saturday night:

What a great day! Today was free to rest up before the tour starts tomorrow, so we did a little exploring on our own.

The buffet breakfast was interesting to say the least. We tried a bit of everything.

Ali, one of the bellboys from last night, helped us make a choice by pulling a face at the green cheese above (not too bad really), and a thumbs up to the Persian fetta or panir, a huge slab cut into slices and presented on a large platter - truly delicious.

There was a huge platter of the freshest cucumbers you have ever tasted - snack-sized and as crisp as a crunchy apple. The watermelon was really sweet and cut into huge hunks. Yes, I was trying things in this order, on a plate at the table. It's a wonder I wasn't sick. Put it down to excitement.

There was a large plate of sweet halva, the most delicious I've ever eaten. Strange breakfast foods in bain-maries with exotic smells. Olives, dark green spinach pastry squares with coriander and crushed walnuts, fresh Iranian flatbread straight from the wood-fired oven. And a huge bowl of thick cream which John had on his Iranian cornflakes. I enjoyed an omelette with the lot.

And plenty for the sweet tooth. I did pass on these.

When it came to coffee, a big basic stainless steel urn had a stained paper label taped on it: “French coffee”. I don't think the French would have recognised it. There was also a bottle of instant Nescafé coffee so we had that. Tea might have been a better option. There seemed to be quite a few Iranians at the hotel and for them chai seemed a popular choice. Whenever I think of chai, I see an old Indian chai-seller at the markets in Kolkata pouring it from a dirty saucepan at a great height down into an equally dirty cup. I know it's becoming popular in Australia, but I've never tried it as a consequence.

We're in the centre of the CBD, in a quiet side street just off a very major road called Ferdowsi Avenue. It's within easy walking distance of the major museums and parks, government offices, the Grand Bazaar and a large city park.

After breakfast we walked out into the glare and heat of the city - 35 or 36 degrees today, but a dry heat thank goodness.

Tehran is like any other big city, the noise of lots of traffic, people selling goods on the crowded footpath, merchants getting ready for the day's trade in their shops, food being sold. A middle-eastern flavour wafted through the air from the smells of spices and food cooking, most women wearing colourful hijabs or headscarves, loose tops and pants, a few in long black like this girl. Only a few in the chādor, or black gown which covers the head and the whole body, except the face, all at the same time. Women wearing these seem to be holding them together at chest level from the inside. The men are dressed just as westerners do, and nearly everyone was wearing sneakers.

Many younger Tehrani women seem to be pushing the boundaries in a glamorous way. Their scarves are colourful, some right back on their heads showing lots of hair. Some draped loosely below the chin to show the throat, some have their sleeves pushed up, and under their loose tops, they are wearing skin tight jeans or tights. It seems to be a quiet revolution, bit by bit, year by year. I'm told that this won't be the case in the country, that there, things will be far more conservative.

One of the first shops we passed was this second hand bookshop, where this man was arranging his wares on a display outside. Inside, books were crammed ceiling high all over the tiny space. He was handling every book with love and when I asked if I may take a photo, he smiled gently and nodded.

People were lining up at this baker who was too busy to look up.

We walked on past a fruit and vegetable shop to another busy road. The streets are relatively clean and tidy, although you need to watch where you're walking for hazards.

Cars, motorbikes and trucks were whizzing past. There was a pedestrian crossing but it meant nothing. To cross the road is to take your life in your hands. Similar to Vietnam. Just judge a break in the traffic, weave through the oncoming vehicles, hope they'll stop. A hand up in the air and a smile helps a little. It's important to be smiling when you are skittled. There was a small gap in the low concrete barrier in the middle of the road where we could take refuge before we crossed again. They drive on the right, so we need to remember that the closest traffic is coming from our left.

Already we were perspiring heavily on a very hot day made hotter by my hijab. We crossed another road to look at a garden island in the traffic, huge jets of water spraying into the air, a cooling mist drifting off them. The lawns were lush and inviting, with many park benches. I was beginning to realise that although there is a huge water shortage in Iran, although they value it immensely, they use it freely to create cool spaces.

We passed the Imam Khomeini metro stop, an art deco building with this lovely window. Apparently there's a great metro system, which we didn't use. We were surprised that people kept coming up to us constantly, asking if they could have their photo taken with us, asking if we were enjoying their country, wishing us a happy holiday, wanting to chat about how long we are here, where we are going. We felt like rock stars! Some thought we were Americans and were still very friendly. It seems the Iranian people make a distinction between the ordinary people and how the two governments treat each other. The country is only just beginning to open up again to tourism, and they seem fascinated by the strangers in their midst.

On our way to the park, in the middle of the CBD, we passed lots of industrial shops selling pumps and equipment.

It was a relief to walk into Shahr Park where it was instantly cooler. It's a huge park in the middle of town with lots of tall shady trees, benches, paths, a lake, flowing channels, fountains. Just delightful.

Small patches of lawn were dotted with trees, with no mulching on garden beds. The technique for growing trees here seems to be to plant them in quite a marked round or square depression where they can be flood irrigated. It's working as everything looked lush.

There's the sound of water everywhere. Flowing water, gushing water, spraying water. It's bliss to hear.

There were cages of birds, flamingoes, and some curious ostriches.

Some gorgeous plumage.

A clever use of grass as a screen between cages in the small zoo section.

And always the friendly locals, sitting chatting to each other, stopping to call out a friendly greeting. I'm not begging I promise.

I enjoyed this skilfully laid brick work on the face of a city municipality building. Much of the beautiful architecture was destroyed during and after the revolution in 1979, when the US-supported shah was overthrown and replaced by an islamic government headed by the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Old doors and doorways.

A city of contrasts. We walked past the national museum and the communications museum, and ended up on a quiet street which turned out to be very close to the hotel, near the diplomatic area. The street was wide and empty of cars. Welders were completing some ironwork grille which I think will be a barrier to traffic in the future.

Architecture students were sitting in the roadway, sketching the building at the end.

Some buildings are crying out for restoration. It reminds me that Iran has been doing it tough since the UN sanctions. Perhaps when they're lifted hopefully soon, things will improve.

We saw the Department of Foreign Affairs, the column capitals topped with seated bulls.

There is a charge to enter the library building, but when I asked if I may only photograph in the grounds, I was allowed in with a happy smile. I saw one of the amazing stalachtite-inspired arched entries. How they were designed and constructed confounds me.

The tile work is as amazing as I had anticipated, decorated with flowing typically Persian lines, so different from the strict geometry of Islamic architecture. A plaque read 'Peace and Harmony are ways of God the Merciful'

I met this man in the remarkable blue suit who gave me his card. He's been to Sydney and loves Australia. The panel behind is a copy of one at Persepolis.

We walked back to the hotel for a short rest in the heat and then north along Ferdowsi Avenue looking for Berlan Alley with its small bazaar. There are public drinking fountains everywhere in Tehran, but we stuck to our bottled water.

The bazaar followed a narrow alley lined with colourful stalls, locals and tourists shopping.

Hot-roasted walnuts on a trolley.

Nuts, dried figs and raisins for sale everywhere.

Next to the hotel there's a pastry shop with absolutely stunning pastries!

By this time it was nearly dark and we were hot, tired and footsore. The hotel buffet didn't appeal and there was no sit-down restaurant close at hand apart from the fast food cafe on the street front run by the hotel. We dropped on to the seats in relief, shared a pizza and a wonderful fresh salad. I've never tasted anything better!

I meant to have an alcohol-free week before we left home, to prepare for Iran's no alcohol law. Somehow it didn't happen. John had a coke zero and I chose a local 'classic' non-alcoholic beer. It was slightly sweet but cold and bitter. Unusual. I I loved it. There were also fruit beers in the frig alongside - lemon, peach, etc etc. The thought made me shudder.

When we paid confusion reigned. One Aussie dollar is worth 24,000 rials. But the Iranians try to make the numbers smaller by taking off one zero, and calling them Toman, even though there is no Toman note. I think we kept trying to give the girl behind the counter about 40 cents (10,000 rials), thinking it was $4 (100,000 rials), which is 10,000 Tomans. See how confused you can get? And the notes have no comma in the figure, so the two notes look very similar. Plus talking in millions is very scary. In the end John just put the money on the counter and let the girl take what she wanted. It worked better. The pepperoni pizza was $8, the salad $2. I think. Not the price of a sheep station as we thought.

I think my brain is fried. I'm going to bed buddies. It's Sunday tomorrow, and the tour starts after lunch. Hope you enjoyed our first day in Iran. I bid you shab bekheir or goodnight.