That time we explored Iran’s capital city and nearly got run over a number of times.
Where? Esfahan, Iran
When? August 2015
With whom? Alone
Tehran was massive. I don’t know whether this was because I had come from rural Turkey with small settlements on my route, but as I drove into Tehran, its magnitude struck me. As I approached a layer of smog was visible resting above the the buildings, swallowing some up in the distance. The eight lanes of this road entering the city split up into what looked like a thousand bridges, taking vehicles in all directions on roads lined with huge Iranian flags like they were street lamps.
After getting lost a number of times and therefore seeing many of the city’s main roads, I finally made it to the hostel. Upon chatting with the owner, a group of us figured out public transport to get downtown to see the two things we all wanted to feast our eyes on: The former US embassy (anyone seen Argo?) and the Azadi Tower. The six of us headed out to hop on a bus and then a metro.
The public transport separates the men and the women, which was a very different experience from that West. It did mean that Tehranien women felt that they could approach us (now a group of 3) and start chatting. One was a structural design teacher, another a librarian and another friendly women who helped us secure our headscarves as they kept slipping off. We chatted away and the consensus was that Tehran was much more liberal than the rest of Iran, and as they explained they pointed out that most of the women had head scarves resting on their ponytail rather than the tops of their heads. We were too chicken to try that.
As we neared the building that used to house the US embassy, we saw guards standing sentinel around it. Not to protect but to warn. We slowly meandered up to the building, gauging their reactions as we did: No photos. No entry. That suggests we could have a look so we decided to do a lap of the premises to check out the graffiti that had been left lining the walls. The artists definitely had a lot of talent in their painting and imagination. One drawing still sticks out in my memory as the Statue of Liberty with a skull for a face, captioned with “Down with America”. Seeing all this hatred for the West was unexpectedly quite haunting, despite our awareness of the history here. We were suddenly very aware of how white our skin was as we wondered round surreptitiously snapping with camera in hand, so logically there really was only one thing we could do next: find pizza. I think we were all quite harrowed by seeing the relic of the events that took place here, as for the next few minutes nobody said anything.
Next stop: Azadi tower. Back on the metro for more segregation, spacious air conditioned cars and friendly chats, smiling smugly as we peered down the carriage to see our male counterparts being squished into another bloke’s armpit. They looked at us as though it was unfair. Yup, welcome to what it’s like being a woman.
The word ‘stressful’ to describe the walk from the metro to the tower would be an understatement. As we emerged from underground, we were immediately faced with five lanes of speeding traffic, each car careening faster round the corner than the last. We now faced the dauting challenge of somehow getting across this death trap of a road – a bridge or a subway would have been really helpful. What didn’t help was how illuminous our faces were, as drivers would slow down to get a good look at the foreigners. It felt like every time there was a potential break in the cars for us to make a dash across the unnecessarily wide road was filled with a slowing driver, winding his window down to ask us how we were. When we eventually did cross, there was a lot of screaming and swearing from all parties involved.
Alive and kicking, and now off road, we were able to take our time to get up close and personal with this awesome design feat. From the front, it looked a bit like a tripod, but from different angles it showed more dimesnions to it, with one angle having it look a lot like Saroman’s tower from Lord of the Rings. The design underneath the centre of the tower consisted of identical squares on a curved surface (no obviously not actually squares), which was mesmerising. We must have spent over an hour admiring the monument with the different coloured lights illuminating both the tower and its water feature.
I didn’t know what to expect from Tehran, or even Iran as a country; not enough people have been there for the internet to form a consistent opinion. At first I was very concerned about abiding by all of the laws or accidentally making a cultural faux-pas, but people are very understanding and amazingly helpful. There are certain topics I wouldn’t broach, like religion or democracy, but otherwise it’s so easy to get chatting away to a local and lose track of time. I can wholeheartedly recommend going.
Info: Iran, at the time, was a very difficult country to get into. You needed to apply for a letter of invitation, and then go abroad to find an Iranian embassy to apply for the visa, all of these things costing money, of course. The law requires the women to wear headscarves and have wrists and ankles covered, so invest in some lightweight material if you intend to visit in the summer. Due to the lack of tourism, I would have accommodation booked in advance and make sure it has good reviews. Most of the hostels I stayed in allowed the women to take their headscarves off once inside, but check first! The metro was easily navigated, as with most metros, but the buses were a bit more complicated, especially with limited knowledge of Farsi. The words are read from right to left, but the numbers are read from left to right.. The people in Iran are the friendliest I have met from all of my travels, partly because they are so interested on what it’s like outside of Iran. It’s such an interesting history, as if you google Tehran pre 1979 (Islamic Revolution), the photos show women in miniskirts with hair out and styled. It could easily be a photo of somewhere in America, and now their society is so different. I wholeheartedly recommend a visit but keep in mind that you may have issues entering other countries with an Iranian visa in your passport.
Product of the week: We stayed covered as per the law but it was extremely hot (which I loved but other people got very moany about the heat), so I’d recommend buying a pair of lightweight trousers to wear in theses types of places. Something like Asos’ printed trouser, but with this type of thing, cheaper is better!
Tip of the week: Don’t break the law. It sounds silly but it’s a good tip! If I had a penny for each person I have seen abroad who thinks that because they are tourists they don’t have to abide by cultural rules and laws (*cough* Theresa May *cough*), I’d be a very wealthy woman. It’s inconvenient, and it’s hot, and it feels unnatural to newbies, but wear the bloody headscarf.