City of Nose Jobs and Paykans
22.04.2007 - 26.04.2007 28 °C
Once settled in the Mashhad Hostel (a favorite with cockroaches and mosquitoes!) in the heart of the car parts and hardware district, we set out to explore. Still sore from the rough train ride we boosted our spirits with some freshly squeezed melon juice (Iranian towns are full of these small juiceries which try make up for the almost universal lack of cafes and small kebabis). The sights themselves were not hugely impressive (Majlis parliament building, an old medresseh, the US Den of Espionage)...people-watching is far more rewarding. The women are evenly split between the highly conservative and hidden inside all-enveloping chadors (literally: tent) or those wearing tight manteaus and colourful headscarves with a lot of make-up. Tehran boasts over 7,000 plastic surgeons (more than Los Angeles!) and on the streets this really shows, either with a large bandage around the nose or a face like something out of the Rocky Horror Show.
The Paykan is the ubiquitous state-manufactured Iranian car and most of our time was spent dodging them on the roads. In fact the traffic never stops, the city has given up on the concept of red lights (most just flash on/off in meaningless patterns) and there is only one rule: Survival of the biggest. The size of a car is judged on how loudly it can horn and at the sound of a large truck the traffic shudders to a halt to let it pass before resuming the struggle (indeed some Paykan owners have fitted truck horns onto their somewhat smaller cars). Absolutely anything goes, including reversing down the freeway against the flow of the traffic because you missed your exit, or even four people riding on the same scooter in the inside lane of a motorway!
Having spent four nights in Tehran we had time to visit the Bazaar (which accounts for a third of the entire retail sector in Iran!), the Golestan Palace (rather uninspiring Palace of the 19th Century Qajar Shahs), the Iran National Museum (whose entire exhibition could have fitted into a pick-up truck, everything else is in London and Paris) and the S'ad Abad Palace built by the last Shah in the 1950s and with some really bad interior decoration...
Once again we bumped into the English couple we had met in Urfa, Turkey - they happened to be staying at the same hostel. It was in the hostel that we met an old Iranian who had emigrated to the US before/during the 1979 Revolution and was back in Iran on holiday. He made clear his dislike for the Mullahs in power, and maintained that they were in the pay of the CIA as much as the last Shah. Supposedly there were CIA agents around every street corner in Iran, and he himself was a well-known political dissident who for some inexpicable reason the authorities could do nothing about. He also seemed very proud of his visits to a friend of his who worked in TV, with whom he would drink whiskey and say bad jokes at the Mullahs' expense ("really, really bad jokes") He did, however, manage to mention how much his house and some of his carpets were worth completely out the blue and as if he were trying to impress us with his wealth. To further undermine his credibility, he tried to convince me that England was the country that had been invaded the most in Europe...the following night he was giving the exact same speech to the next group of tourists! A dangerous dissident indeed!
Tehran is divided into the very prosperous, leafy and (relatively) liberal North and the very poor, crowded and dirty South. The contrast is staggering and highlights the rapidly widening income gap and disappearing middle class. Needless to say the North was much more pleasant but less friendly than the South (where occasionally drivers would stick their head out the window, honk, and shout "Welcome to Iran") Nevertheless, there were some splendid views from the mountainside over the entire city. Also, having eaten in a place selling brains and with rats in the kitchens (one ran out into the street), it was a welcome diversion to treat ourself to the best Japanese cuisine in Tehran. Unfortunately, it seems the original Japanese teppan-yaki chefs left in 1979 - and took the fresh fish with them, but for the equivalent of $20 each we spent less than you would in Pizza Express! Eating at the same table were some (very nervous) Russian and Iranian oilmen who were a little surprised at seeing a couple of unwashed backpackers in the restaurant...
Alex, writing in Kashan.