Friday, August 5, 2011

Iran

A Note: I didn’t feel particularly qualified to comment on how it is to travel in Iran as a woman, so to make sure anyone who’s planning a trip get’s solid advice on how to prepare and cope as a woman (advice we found sorely fucking lacking when researching ourselves — especially the Lonely Planet which gives precious little advice on dress etc.) Sarah is going to write up a special post on it which should follow in the next few days.


Turkey to Iran
Originally we had planned to take the Trans-Asia express from Istanbul to Tehran. The train (currently) leaves from Haydarpasa in Istanbul at 2355 on Tuesdays and arrived in Tehran 3 days later (by most account it generally runs about 6 hours late arriving — if you’re arranging a pickup it’s common to be asked to give a call when the train leaves Tabriz). Unfortunately unless you go the route of a travel agency it’s not possible to buy the ticket except in person at Haydarpasa. The number of available seats isn’t actually that high each week, and due to a large number of Iranians returning home from holidays “our” trainwas booked solid, so having arrived in Istanbul after 11 hours on a bus and heading straight to the train station we left disappointed. So it was either find some other way to go or wait 2 weeks until the next train. Because we wanted to finish up in Iran before ramadan got into full swing we really didn’t want to let things slide by a week, so on researching it wasn’t that expensive to fly we went for that. It was a disappointment, we’d be betting on thefew days on the train to see the countryside, talk to people, and make our plans, but what can you do. In the end we flew Pegasus Airlines from Istanbul S. Gokcen to Khomeini Airport in Tehran, the hostel did our transfer for 11 euro each (not bad given it’s a fair distance and the traffic was crazy) and the flight was on time.

Some General Advice
Money: Iran has no ATMs which work for tourists, so you need to carry in all the cash you’ll need (allowing for emergencies — it is as good as impossible to wire money in), this is annoying obviously and means you’ll have a moneybelt on a lot in 40º heat which will come to smell so bad that even burning it afterwards seems not extreme enough. On the plus side I know that out there somewhere now there’s a few Iranians with 50 euro notes wondering what exactly that smell is. Money can be changed easily in most towns, be wary of the rates offered. The rate in banks / airports is generally about 15000 rials per Euro. In moneychanging shops the rate advertised outside generally isn’t the rate they’ll give you inside, and the more you change the better the rate. It’s worth arguing if they say they need you to change more to give a better rate. When we were there 16300 rials per Euro was par for the course, 16500 if you’re dogged.

Money 2 — or how I learned to stop worrying and love Tomans: The currency in use in Iran is the Iranian rial. Confusingly however almost nothing is actually priced in Rials, instead the standard unit is the Toman. A Toman is 10 Rials. I must research what the origin of this is, if it’s a reaction to inflation then dividing by ten seems a muted solution. Anyway what this means in practice is that when someone says (when buying a bus ticket for example) 5000 they are talking Tomans, this means 50000 Rials. Of course for very cheap items the price generally is being quoted in Rials (there might be a convention to this but it seemed liked prices less than 10000 Rials would be quoted in Rials, anything more and you’re in Toman territory). Generally use your good sense: so if, as happened Sarah, you’re buying a shirt and the guy says 13000 it clearly can’t be 80c, so assume he means 13000 Tomans or 130000 Rials — or else you may get laughed at or revered as the world’s ballsiest bargainer. One place where this system takes another turn is Taxis. In a taxi prices get argued out using fingers, one finger will be 1000 Tomans or 10000 Rials, so if a taxi says it will cost “4” or holds up four fingers the fare will be 40000 Rials. Generally if someone invokes a finger it means 1000 Tomans per finger. Confusing eah?

Crossing the Road: Little can be said about driving in Iran except that one comes to appreciate certain aspects of more rigorous traffic codes more and more. The main thing to do is marvel at the skill of your driver in avoiding collisions, it’s quite a show if you go with it. The main piece of guidance comes when crossing roads. The key is to just walk, avoid altering your pace or paying any attention to the cars bearing down on you sitting on their horns, fundamentally it will ruin their day if they hit you so they will avoid you. For added reassurance wait until an Iranian is crossing also, make sure he (not being sexist here, but as Sarah will attest headscarfs do little for one’s peripheral vision) is upstream from you and keep in lock step with him. At least that way you’ve some element of a buffer. Honestly though you get into the swing of it pretty fast, soon you’ll be ambling across 6 “lane” (in Iran there are no lanes, merely short lived gaps which several cars at a time vie to possess) roads without even thinking to glance around. For a taste of Tehran traffic (and honestly this is tame stuff compared to the average junction) watch this video, the pedestrians at the end are good!
*Note we are not liable for any deaths or injuries caused to you or your loved ones when obeying this advice.*

Rosewater: Most things in Iran get flavoured with rosewater (ice-cream, jam, etc), it’s actually absolutely delicious, why we don’t eat the stuff at home is beyond me.

Come to think of it there are a lot of odd little things about Iran (carrot jam? I shit you not!) so rather than fill this post up with them I might come back to it again some time! So, on to the details…

Tehran
Everyone who goes to Tehran has one consistent piece of advice: stay in the Firouzeh hotel. There’s nothing special about it, the toilets are shared, it’s in the middle of Tehran’s auto-parts district, and it’s not in any way luxurious or even particularly quiet. It is however reasonably priced (26 euro or thereabouts for a double), and comes with Mr. Mousavi the manager. Mr. Mousavi is well known for being extremely helpful: he’s full of good advice, and always happy to make reservations for transport or hotels, rumour has it he even once sprung a guest from jail, literally. It’s fair to say almost every piece of advice he gave turned out to be solid. We booked ahead by email and arranged transfer from the airport, our flight got in at 4am and we just had time to get out and change some money before being met by Mousavi’s twin brother. Be sure that whoever is picking you up actually knows your name, it doesn’t seem uncommon for chancers to just mouth the names of popular hotels in hopes of scamming people into their taxi/whatever. Mousavi’s attention can almost have you wondering how far he’s going behind the scenes to ensure things go smoothly, when we woke up he insisted we go eat something to “get your strength up” and recommended a nice place 1o minutes walk from the hotel and drew us a map, when we got there there was a waiter outside who seemed to be expecting us, it might be our imagination but it almost seemed he’d called ahead to be sure they knew we were coming and didn’t get lost! People don’t generally recommend staying too long in Tehran, and in ways it’s clear why, it’s pretty chaotic with choking pollution and not particularly picturesque.

All the same it’s worth knocking two nights out of it (we stayed three). Some things which are worth doing in no particular order:

Go wander in the Bazaar: yes everyone says to do it, and it’s the first piece of advice you get about basically every city you visit, and you’re sick of bazaars and never buy anything in them anyway, but it’s a good way to see people at their daily grind and also has a refreshingly balanced ratio of women to men, the absence of women in some parts of Tehran can get frankly pretty strange at times.

The Golestan Palace: This is just north of the bazaar and you can knock a good few hours out of it, there’s lots to see, if I remember rightly it was 30,000 rials (a touch less than €2) each, the lonely planet has a decent walking tour you can follow. There’s lots of interesting rooms, and the courtyard is lovely.

The Jewellery Museum: This has odd opening hours and is pretty hard to find as it’s not signposted. Head up Ferdosi St, a few hundred metres short of the Istanbul cross there’s a large Bank Melli building on the left (on the west side of the road — it has steps in front), the entrance to the museum is just to the right as you face the bank (on the north side of it). Look for the twitchy lads with guns behind a gate. If you hang around here and look lost someone will point you in the right direction, they all seem to realise it’s stupid how hidden the museum is. Because the museum contains priceless jewellery and artifacts it’s actually housed in a bank vault. In itself this is worth seeing, when you watch some heist film and see these giant locking round doors leading to carpeted rooms full of laser protected glass cases and mood lighting that would make Barry White proud it all seems a little unbelievable, but it’s actually like that! There’s even a large warning to proceed briskly through an area where a giant steel door shuts automatically in event of an alarm lest you get crushed! Anyway I’m not crazy on royalty and jewels etc but this is worth a gander.

Anti-Imperialist Bric-a-Brac!: There’re a few priceless examples worth taking a gander at, a short walk north up Ferdosi St. from the Jewellery museum you’ll hit the British Embassy, turn left just before it then take the first right and you’ll find yourself on Bobby Sands Street! A swipe at those wily Brits this is too good to miss, the Iranians know a lot about Bobby Sands and the North, upon saying you’re from Ireland (one note, if you pronounce this as normal no one will have clue where you mean, say Irland (like in French) and they’ll understand) they’ll often ask if from the Republic or the North (this will then be followed by whether you’re from Belfast or Dublin), many Iranians have relatives living in Britain and Ireland so they’ve a decent grasp of the whole issue, one ould fella in a shop in Isfahan was full of praise for Bobby Sands and his ideas which he praised as being “Very good”. Anyone objecting is free to give him a visit, he’s at the pastry shop on the right as you leave Imam Sq on Hafez St. More about this later in the Esfahan section. The former US-embassy, now entitled “Den of Foreign Espionage” has a rather fetching painting of the statue of Liberty with a skull face, and there’s an entire building painted with an inventive “Down with USA” mural on the corner of Taleqani and Mofatteh St. Anyway I don’t want to make too much of these, because it’s obvious from talking to them that a lot of Iranians are very saddened by the way the world perceives their country / the image it projects itself.

We didn’t get to the National museum but by most accounts its worth having a look at too. Lonely Planet and other guide books list lots of stuff to do otherwise, I’d be lying if I said Tehran was enjoyable to amble about, but there is a fair bit to see. One final piece of advice: take the metro. There are excellent maps in each station, the ticket sellers speak English (or at least understand the phrases “one trip” and “two trip”) and it can save a lot of walking, especially if you want to go somewhere for dinner at night. There’s a set fare no matter where you’re going (or it seemed like that’s how it worked, and no one called us out if it was any different).

Esfahan
After Tehran we took a bus south to Esfahan. A word of warning here, the bus station in Tehran is sprawling and chaotic, we had a reservation for a specific express bus (courtesy of Mr. Mousavi in the Firouzeh), but on arriving there was precious little signage in english and we got hussled onto the wrong bus. There are some solid tactics to avoid this, firstly refuse to speak to anyone unless:

  1. They’re behind a neutral looking desk unaffiliated with a company, carrying a gun is a good sign here.

  2. You’re totally screwed, out of ideas, and have made several fruitless laps of the station first.

When you buy your ticket have your destination written in Farsi somewhere handy, be sure to compare this to what’s written on the ticket, we got tricked into buying a ticket for a destination further on than the one we wanted (increasing the costs basically). Luckily I caught this and the hoors refunded the difference. In the end the upshot of it all was that instead of a direct express bus to Esfahan we ended up on a bus bound for Shiraz (albeit stopping in Esfahan) which took bloody ages and dropped us in the middle of nowhere on the edge of the town at midnight. Now Esfahan taxi drivers apparently have a reputation as chancers, and I may have pushed my luck a bit with trying to bargain them down, but the driver didn’t know our hotel (we expected this, more further down), and named a street nearby. We agreed and using my compass we more or less worked out we were at the right end of the street getting out. Unfortunately it was very late, there were almost no signs, and we were up shit creek totally lost, again you live you learn, we should have nailed this down more (in my defence the Lonely Planet city maps are shite, they omit tons of lanes and are patchily annotated at best — although to be fair to them it seems like they had to make most of them by sketching aerial photos!). Luckily across the road was a porta-cabin with a soldier and policeman with little to do except sound a loud siren (attached to the porta-cabin) at youths joyriding past, three to a moped. The soldier had excellent english and we really owe him a lot, he phoned our accomodation, got directions, phoned a taxi, gave the driver written directions along with his mobile number and the number of the lady running the guesthouse, he even bargained down the price! He then gave us his personal number and told us to call him any time if we had any problems while in Esfahan. I know the Iranian army don’t exactly get great PR, but this man was our hero. The taxi driver brought us through the warren of lanes behind the Ali mosque and insisted on accompanying us to the door of the guesthouse to be sure we got in ok. We had arrived!

We were staying in the Dibai House — a spectacularly restored traditional Iranian house (nice pic on the left). The lady running the house was one of the warmest and most kind people either of us have ever met, I know it’s a little pricey but if you stretch your budget just once when in Iran this is the place to do it — why splash on a run of the mill hotel when you can stay in a real piece of history. The main problem is Dibai House is so nice you won’t want to leave to go exploring! Esfahan is very walkable and a really lovely change of pace from Tehran, it’s much less hectic, much more lush and laid back and you won’t be sneezing blood from smog anymore, which is always nice. It only takes one or two trips to master the walk from the house through the warren of lanes in the bazaar to Imam Square, and from there most of Esfahan is pleasantly reached on foot.



Imam Square is the second largest square in the world (Tiananmen square being the biggest) and is pretty spectacular, you can easily spend a day
wandering around it, and through the bazaars and gardens surrounding it, to fight off the heat be sure to buy lots of Ice Cream, it’s very cheap and absolutely delicious. It’s definitely worth getting the most popular ice-cream in Iran — palude! Palude is a bit like frozen fruity spaghetti covered with cold sweet rosewater, it’s brilliant in the heat! You can see Sarah valiantly fighting her way to the head of a crowd to buy some on the left! It’s worth taking a walk down to the south of the city to criss-cross the bridges over the Zayande river, Esfahan has been called the "Venice of the muslim world", of course it never occurred to us that the river would be bone dry in July and we could have criss-crossed without the aid of any bridges! A lovely walk all the same. It’s worth asking the advice of whoever you’re staying with about restaurants in Esfahan, on one occasion we got caught badly short one evening where practically everywhere recommended was inexplicably closed and had to fall back on our aforementioned Fenian baker friend on Hafez st. We spent three nights in Esfahan, there’s plenty to see and do in the time, you’d need the relaxation after Tehran too! We left Esfahan for Yazd, one thing to note if you’re doing this is that to travel to Yazd from Esfahan you’re better off going to the “Jey” minibus terminal, don’t let the name put you off, there are full size comfortable buses from here several times a day, the fare was about 7 euro each. Watch out for your first glimpse of dust-devil tornadoes on the trip, they’re amazing to watch churning up the desert nabbing any cardboard or rubbish they come across. The bus will leave you at Yazd’s new bus terminal, this is in the west of the city, not where Lonely Planet indicates the terminal is. A taxi into town will cost about 4 fingers. Oh, if the taxi you take is ancient (even for Iran) and it takes the poor ould fella about 10 minutes to get it running then tell him we said hello!

Yazd
Yazd, in the centre of Iran, is a unique city, it’s culture and architecture is heavily influenced by Zoroastrianism (the indigenous religion before the conquest of Islam), it’s a strange mix of warrens of narrow lanes amidst mud walls and buildings comprising the old town, and tree lined boulevards running outside of that in the newer sections. Yazd is a truly ancient city — continuously inhabited
for over 7000 years, which should give you food for thought the next time you smirk at an American for having no history on the basis of the dubious purported age of your local boozer. The skyline of Yazd is covered in unique towers called Badgirs, these towers are designed to carefully catch and channel cool air downward into buildings while extracting warm air. Think of it as passive heating a few thousand years too early to make an episode of Grand Designs. I could try describing the intricacies of the system but there’s a good article on Wikipedia for those of you who are curious: Windcatchers. Most people passing through Yazd stay in the Silk Road hostel, it’s set on a nice courtyard, reasonably priced, good and clean, and there’s a solid restaurant in house.
There isn’t so much a whole ton to point-by-point things to see in Yazd so much as the place being really nice too walk around generally, the best plan is to just set off wandering in the afternoon, get hopelessly lost, and then try to work your way back using minarets as landmarks. As we spent our time in Yazd in a much more unstructured way than the other cities it’s hard to know what else to say, except that much tea was drank, much reading was done, and Yazd is absolutely worth getting to to explore for a few days.

A note on getting from Yazd to Shiraz, Yazd bus station (aside from not being where the LP map says it is, Sarah said she’d heard it moved) is really confusing, all signage is in Farsi and it’s ringed by legions of touts, fear not! Head on into the building and proceed to the desk with the fella with the gun, he’ll set you right and point you to the appropriate ticket desk. One thing to be aware of is when we took the bus to Shiraz the main bus station wasn’t actually the last stop (my working theory is the bus goes on to finish at the airport), so keep your wits about you and don’t fall asleep. The bus takes about five and a half hours.

Shiraz
The first thing worth mentioning about Shiraz, and possibly the most important as it can make or break a useful itinerary, is that Shiraz International Airport (SHZ) is serviced very well (especially by Air Arabia if you’re willing to transfer in Sharjah in the UAE). This is pretty handy as unless you’re overlanding it out of Iran generally people found themselves having to backtrack to Tehran to catch a flight back out, which is a pain in the arse obviously. As we had decided against the rigamarole of going overland through Pakistan to India (for a host of reasons, but primarily it just not seeming very safe and being unwilling to have something go wrong that would ruin the trip before it had rightly got started) we needed to fly from Iran to India. Luckily the aforementioned Air Arabia Shiraz—Sharjah—Mumbai service was cheap and the best option so that’s what we went with. There’s not much to say about the flight itself except we had to allow plenty of time to get to and through Shiraz airport, the security was very slow, and try to eat before going because the options were minimal, especially once through security (the first level of security that is). The only other tip I’d give is try to sit on the right-hand side of the plane for the first leg: you’ll get a nice view of the Burj Dubai/Khalifa and the islands in the shape of the world which are slowly being reclaimed by the sea off Dubai. So, having so rudely ignored Shiraz itself thus far let’s get to the heart of the matter. Shiraz is a city (or region) well known to most people as the source of the Shiraz (or Syrah) grape which has sold many a pack of Alka-Seltzer in its time, alas for obvious reasons not much wine is brewed in the region these days. Shiraz itself is a pretty compact city in terms of things to see, and taxis are cheap and abundant if you get tired of walking. Accomodationwise we stayed in the Sasan Hotel, it was clean and in a great location, but they really pile on the pressure in terms of doing tours, and were a bit scabby in not letting us print an airline ticket (internet cafe around the corner got us sorted for a few cent).

There are a number of things worth seeing right in the city centre, we started with a walk around the Arg-e Karim, it’s three thousand rials to get in, and once in there’s the courtyard of the citadel with its pool, a museum of period clothing, and the original bathhouse which is well worth peeping in. Be sure to also check out the corner tower which looks like it’s about the fall over, apparently someone dug a sewer under it and now it’s subsiding. From there we took a wander through the Bazar-e vakil (Vakil Bazaar), it’s worth it for the lovely tiled ceiling. There’s a good spot for lunch hidden away in the south-east corner, Seray-e Mehr. After that we talked down to look at the Shar-e Cheragh mosque, now Lonely Planet is pretty vague about this, saying you can’t get in unless you’re Muslim and at the same time intimating that you can. Well, as we found out, you can. As is the standard routine we stood around outside looking confused for a few minutes and an old lady offered Sarah a giant white sheet covered in flowers to use as a chador (all the other women were dressed solidly in black, but we figured an old lady was surely to be trusted right? right…?). This cost us a deposit of four fingers (40,000 rials for those of you not paying attention), however be aware your deposit wont be returned. There’s an office where you have to deposit any bags you have, the lads there (as in all Iranian transactions after they’ve asked where you’re from) will give you a ticket, it was free I think. There are separate men and women’s entrances, I got a healthy frisk from a guard, Sarah disappeared into what looked like a garden shed with doors on either side (I’ll let her elaborate on what that involved in the Iran post she’s working on). We were in! The mosque itself is hard to describe, every surface inside is mirrored, it really is stunning. Anyone who has seen Koyaanisqatsi lookalike “Baraka” will have seen a clip of it, we couldn’t bring camera’s in but here a picture from wikipedia. Entrance to the mosque itself is segregated by sex so be sure to arrange to meet your loved one somewhere outside after. Apart from that we didn’t do too much walking around the courtyard except to do a pass around the museum which had some interesting artifacts including a collection of very old hand written Qurans. As it was upwards of 40º and Sarah was under her usual layers plus a bedsheet we decided to make a break for it. We wandered on up to the tomb of Hafez, the famous Persian poet, this is about two or three kilometres north, and once you’re there you’ll feel like taking advantage of the lovely park in the grounds to sit and drink ten litres of water or so. As an aside water in Iran is safe to drink, and there are water fonts along most streets, take advantage of these — the water is absolutely delicious and ice cold, it’s worth always carrying a large bottle to fill up. The water in Hafez’s tomb was particularly good (you can tell how dehydrated we were!). Iranian’s take a visit to the tomb very seriously, it really is a lovely experience to sit in the shade of the trees listening to his poetry being read, and one can only lament it isn’t possible to salute his memory with a glass of Shiraz’s finest — with which he famously stained his prayer rug once upon a time. There’s quite a few worthwhile museums (often paired with restored houses) in Shiraz, just take care to check opening hours as they seem to fluctuate wildly.

The one other thing which Shiraz is the ideal base for is a trip to the ancient ruined city of Persepolis, most hotels can arrange a tour (i.e. call a taxi and tack 100,000 rials onto the price he was going to charge you), any taxi driver you meet will offer also. We actually had a taxi driver make a phone call to his english speaking friend, then hand the phone back to us and have him ask if we were interested in arranging a tour! Most half-day tours will come in somewhere between 250,000 and 350,000 rials, and take in the city itself, and two other interesting nearby sites: Naqhsh-e Rostam and Naqhsh-e Rajab. It’s also possible to do a full days tour taking in another site at Pasargadae but it’s doesn’t seem like it’s worth it. Persepolis itself is stunning, try to go as early as possible in the morning (it’s about 45 minutes drive from Shiraz, we arrived at 8.45 am) when it’s a little cool and the bas-reliefs are picked out by the good sun angle. There is no shade at all in Persepolis and it gets intensely hot so you’ll need lots of water and a hat is a good idea.

And that brings to an end this rambling muddled post on Iran, over four thousand words by my count, never forget the productivity which can flow forth at night when you’re 500 kilometres from the nearest legally open pub. Now — To India!













We'll add links to more photos on flickr here when we get them uploaded, our connections here are too slow at the moment.

2 comments:

  1. Well done Niall, as I read I sense shades of the great Dervla Murphy, believe it or not - I am enjoying the travel without the discomfort

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  2. Excellent wordmanship Glynn/Sarah. I'll have to waterproof my laptop so I can give this a proper read in the bath!

    ReplyDelete