A Travellerspoint blog



City of Nose Jobs and Paykans

semi-overcast 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.

Posted by ameurice 10:43 Archived in Iran Tagged backpacking

To Tehran (تهران)

City of the Revolution

The train ride was an experience. We took second class, so we were packed into a small cupboard with 4 other people, who happened to be fulfill a stereotyped cross-section of Iranian society. There was a Qu'ranic scholar, a soldier, a carpet salesman an a businessman (who sold shirts and shoes).

They were very eager to talk to us, even with their limited english, and had lots of questions, ranging to when we are going to get married to where we are from (the discussion about my face lasted about 2 hours). Postcards from London and Time magazine also took up about an hour or so, which really got the interest of most of them, except for the carpet salesman, who played the "my culture is so much older than yours" card. The Qu'ranic scholar seemed very liberal, oddly enough, and had many questions about girls. The soldier insisted on paying for our meal (which was basically dog food), which was pretty akward because he earns about a quarter of a pittance a month.

After a long and sweaty night (it was really hot, and for some reason, the window had to be shut), we arrived to the legendary crazy traffic and tree lined boulevards of Tehran.

On the drive to the hotel, it was fascinating to look out of the window. The atmosphere is very different from that of Tabriz. Many more women in chadors (big black sheets), and there are murals everywhere of Khomeni, Khameni and other beardy-people, as well as slogans of "Down with USA" and pictures of the statue of liberty with a skull (on the ex-US embassy, now dubbed the "US Den of Espionage").

Military checkpoint count: 3 (although the border was a really crap one).

Posted by Nomadics 07:40 Archived in Iran Tagged backpacking

Tabriz, Iran

Into the axis of evil

sunny 25 °C

Our last morning in Turkey was spent accumulating enough money for the entire duration of our journey through Iran and Turkmenistan, both countries entirely cut off from the international banking system. From Doğubayazıt, we were dropped off by dolmuş at the heavily fortified Turkish side of the border, which we were hastily waved through. On our walk through No Man's Land we were mainly occupied in getting rid of a stubborn Turkish money changer charging derisory rates - we did however offload our remaining Lira, getting about a third of the Iranian Rial that he should have given us. The late Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini both gazed down on us as we passed through into Iran. In all, the border crossing did not take more than 20 minutes and we quickly made our way to Maku.

Maku (ماكو) itself is a pretty uninspiring town squezzed between the two dominating cliffsides of the canyon in which it is located. It is here, though, where we first came across the ritual of Iranian hospitality (called Ta'arof). On the point of paying at the Internet cafe, the owner insisted that we should not pay: "because you are guests in Iran." He was not joking, and after insisting on paying and getting turned down for a fourth time, we thanked him and left - leaving us with our first impression of how radically different Iran is to Turkey (in many respects Iran seems more European!).

Tabriz (تبريز), a short bus ride from Maku through impressive snow-capped peaks rising from the dusty plains, has always been one of the most independent-minded cities in Iran - indeed half the time it was a Khanate in its own right. Following an ever-more apparent trend in our journey, Tabriz was razed by the Mongols and much of the city now is very modern. Its tree-lined boulevards, more urbane peoples and multitude of book shops were in striking contrast to the quasi-warzone of the Turkish/Kurdish Wild East. We spent only one night here and were kept occupied by the Blue Mosque (actually sandstone-coloured after the last earthquake in which all the tiles fell off), the Elgoli Park and the Azarbayjan Museum, none of which are much to write home about...

Visiting the bazaar was perhaps the highlight of Tabriz, where we perused some carpets over a cup of tea with a one-eyed, two-teethed polyglot salesman and left soon after finding out the prices! Later we were intercepted by a couple of young Iranians (ethnically and linguistically Azari Turkish, like almost all of Tabriz) who showed us round the local medresseh (Qoranic school) and into its mosque - a great privilege for non-Muslims. The Constitution Museum was rather underwhelming, except that it brought to light the early 20th Century democratic movement in Iran which was soon forgotten after two coups d'etats and two revolutions. Finally, by coincidence we bumped into the English couple we had met in Urfa 10 days before, they were the only Westerners we saw in the entire city!

That evening we boarded the overnight train to Tehran...

Posted by ameurice 06:44 Archived in Iran Tagged backpacking

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