Our family thought we were nuts. So did most of our friends. You can’t go there, they said, it’s dangerous.
Other friends, who had in fact been to Iran, said, Go – you’ll love it.
You’ll have to go round wearing a black tent all the time, said the naysayers.
No, you won’t. Go – you’ll have a fantastic time, said the others.
It’s a hotbed of extremists and terrorists …
Go – the people are wonderful, friendly, welcoming …
We needed visas, of course. Iran is one of those countries for whom red tape and hoops to jump through were invented. It’s arguably not much more difficult to pursue a career as a hen’s dentist than to get an Iranian visa. An Israeli stamp in your passport rules you out before you can even say, Inshallah – and it’s probably not wise to mention an Israeli son-in-law or grandchildren either – but assuming you’re at the starting point, it’s a two stage process. Neither stage is guaranteed success.
First you have to apply for an authorisation number, which means sending off passport details (but fortunately not the actual passport) to Tehran. You also have to specify at this stage which embassy you’re intending to use to get the visa itself. The Iranian embassy in London has recently re-opened after a partial thaw in diplomatic relations – but unfortunately not their Visa section – so it’s a case of either going in person to Dublin, or arranging for an agency to courier your passport to the embassy in Frankfurt. We went for the Frankfurt option as we thought an agency would have more clout and be able to chase things up more easily if there were any hiccups …
After anything up to ten weeks from the start of the process, with luck you receive your authorisation code, which allows you proceed to stage two. Stage two for us meant taking our passports and other documents to the agency, Travcour, in Wimbledon. I checked out the route through the unknowns of South London using ViaMichelin.com. There were three alternatives, giving varying mileages and fuel costs, but my eye was particularly caught by the following notification:
The Hungarian motorway road tax is included in the cost calculation (price for 10 days).
We made the round trip in record time – without needing to cross the Channel. Then it was just a matter of sweating it out and waiting …
Time passed. Easter came and went. The Consul in Frankfurt decided that not only would he have an Easter break, he’d have an extended Easter break, and of course no-one else could sign off the visas. The stack of passports on his desk grew higher.
With only a week to go before our trip and still no visas, we started to get anxious. I phoned Explore, the company we would be/might be travelling with. Don’t panic, they said – things have been hectic and stressful but everyone managed to get away on the last tour.
I phoned Travcour – and found out that whereas people had got away the previous weekend, their passports hadn’t come through in time for their Saturday departure and Explore had had to organise new flights. Hmmm – not quite the whole truth from Explore, then.
Travcour also reported that the London Embassy’s visa section had re-opened in the meantime – and Frankfurt had decided to offload some of its pile of UK passports there. Some, but not all. Having it re-routed through the London Embassy meant that new authorisation codes had to be issued and applicants then had to attend in person and possibly be fingerprinted, as currently happens at some other embassies. Ours weren’t in the batch sent to London though.
Travcour’s Frankfurt agent requested an urgent release for our passports. I phoned Travcour daily for the latest updates … If any.
News came through on the Wednesday that the passports were on their way back from Frankfurt, so we could pick them up from the office on Thursday (again avoiding the Hungarian toll roads).
Er, not so fast … Fortunately, I had the foresight to phone Travcour before setting off for the wilds of Wimbledon. Just to make sure. Which is when I found out that German customs officials had detained the Travcour agent and seized the bag of passports just as he was about to board the plane. Whatever could go wrong had gone wrong. And then some. Eventually, after laborious checks with the powers that be in Frankfurt, London, Tehran and God only knows where else, the agent made it to Wimbledon – with the passports – late on Thursday afternoon. We went to collect them on Friday afternoon. Friday afternoon – a rainy Friday afternoon at that – is not the best time to drive across London. The round trip took us 5 hours. But we had our passports, our visas were in order; we were finally good to go. Phew!
Early the following morning we flew to Tehran.
We changed money and became instant millionaires. I never did get to grips with Rials and juggling all those zeros. It seems Iranians find their currency cumbersome too and have unofficially adopted the Toman, which drops one of the zeros. Same notes, different name. If the price sounded too good to be true (even in the thousands), you could be sure it was in Tomans. Taxi drivers and shop-keepers were very patient as we struggled with great wads of notes – even just to buy an ice-cream – and as far as we are aware, no-one ripped us off.
Tehran is not the place to go if you are nervous about crossing roads … Traffic comes at you from every which way. Lane markings and pedestrian crossings are there only in an advisory capacity – and are routinely ignored. What macho driver needs advice? There are dedicated bus lanes, counter to the usual flow of traffic, that are used by motorbikes as well (in both directions) and which also provide a useful ‘overtaking’ lane for taxis, who tuck neatly back in to the traffic flow just in front of an oncoming bus. Crossing the road in Tehran requires a steely resolve – and preferably an Iranian person ‘upstream’ crossing with you. Drivers are mostly good-natured, though, and often there’d be a friendly Welcome to Iran! or Hiiiiiii! as their car narrowly missed our toes.
We were shepherded round the Carpet Museum and the National Museum by our guide, Reza; the Golestan Palace wowed us with its opulence, glister and glitz; Reza got us into the Jewel Museum before they were officially open so we avoided the massive queues – although it was still crowded. Our jaws dropped at the vast riches on display: the peacock throne, the magnificent crowns, a bejewelled globe, individual rare stones … A pink diamond the size of a golf ball, anyone? Unsurprisingly, photography was not allowed – and everything was securely behind glass. Armour plated glass.
The next day we took ourselves off to the bazaar – a white-knuckle taxi ride there and a white-knuckle taxi ride back – and didn’t quite get ourselves lost in the hubbub of busy alleys. Everything was for sale: household pots, pans, furnishings, gadgets and tat; carpets of course, but none that could fly; bling and more bling; shoes; clothing, including bras and pants in violent colours (which leads you to wonder just what’s under those shapeless black robes); sumptuous fabrics crusted with imitation pearls and diamonds (when and where does anyone wear them?). There were also stalls selling designer labels: fake designer labels – but just the labels, no garment attached.
Most women in Tehran wore the chador or a manteau, but a few – particularly younger ones – paid scant lip-service to the dress laws: scarves failed to cover much of their hair (which was usually bleached but with dark roots), make-up was boldly applied, waists were cinched with a belt over their manteau, leggings or tight trousers emphasised shapely legs, sandals allowed tantalising glimpses of feet and, horror of horrors – bright red toenails! Later in our trip we heard that an extra 7000 Fashion Police (more properly known as the Morality Police) had been appointed in Tehran to crack down on the slipping standards.
We set off in the early evening by train to Yazd. The ride itself was remarkable only for the fact that the train had a prolonged stop at the first station it reached after nightfall: a prolonged stop so the train crew (or anyone else) could nip off to the mosque for prayers.
Yazd is one of the hottest and driest cities in Iran; apparently, it is also one of the three cities in the country with the lowest divorce rates. I’m not sure there’s any connection. The climate, though, has resulted in a skyline bristling with badgirs – wind towers – which ingeniously divert cool air to the rooms below; Yazd also has the largest network of qanats – underground water channels – in the country, as well as the best channellers.
Our hotel had been converted from a traditional house and was tucked away in the dusty narrow lanes of the old town. Our room/rooms overlooked a central courtyard where meals were served and were in a zigzag shape: you entered a narrow hallway with shower room off, (with slippers and shower shoes for three), zigged to the right to go through a narrow single bedroom, zagged to the left through the TV/sitting room before finally reaching the master bedroom. All very grand – although we rather came down to earth when we discovered that the sheets only fitted the bed edge to edge.
Yazd was formerly an important centre for Zoroastrianism and even today has a sizeable population of Zoroastrians. We visited the Towers of Silence, where up until as recently as the 1960s, the dead were laid out to be eaten by vultures – men and women separately. The women’s tower is higher than the men’s; even in death, Reza explained, men’s eyes could not be allowed to look down on the naked bodies of women.
We went to the Zoroastrian Fire Temple, which houses a flame that has burned constantly since 470AD; we visited the Jameh Mosque just before it closed for the three day celebrations for the birthday of Imam Ali, the first of the twelve imams as recognised by the Shi-ites; we wandered in the Dowlat Abad gardens which were filled with the sweet perfume of orange blossom and night-scented stocks and the tinkling sound of water – and schoolgirls in black chadors; at the Saheb Azaman club we watched a display of ancient warrior training performed with clubs and heavy chains to the accompaniment of chanting and drum-beats. In Yazd we discovered that Iranians, particularly those of student age, liked nothing better than to stop and practise their English with us – and to take pictures of themselves with us. Particularly Tony. Personally, I think his beard was the main draw. Perhaps they thought he was an ayatollah on holiday … In Yazd too we discovered the delights of the confectionery for which the city is famous.
We carried on by road to Shiraz, pausing at Pasargadae to admire Cyrus the Great’s tomb as well as the half columns and huge stone mortise and tenon joints that are all that remain of the palaces and pavilions.
Shiraz: city of love and poetry – and formerly, wine. We drove into the city past the Quran Gate, into a relaxed, weekend atmosphere. The Gate used to be the main entrance to the city, but now streams of traffic pour down the dual carriageway built alongside the old road; around the Gate itself is one of the places to see and be seen, where friends and families picnic on the grass verges in the early evening or go for a stroll, taking the air. We joined them a day or so later and the mood was still laid-back and fun. A little way up from the Gate, people had formed a circle round some musicians – on drums and what looked like green plastic bagpipes – and a few young men leapt into the ring to show off their dance moves. Men only, of course. And very briefly.
Shirazis also enjoy walking and talking – especially with tourists – in the city’s Persian gardens. To be a Persian garden, Reza explained to us, there must be water; without water, it was just a garden, however beautiful. We visited the World Heritage listed Bagh-e Eram gardens and also the tranquil gardens containing the tomb of Hafez. Hafez is probably the most famous of Iran’s poets and it is said that there should be a book of his poetry, in addition to a copy of the Koran, in every Persian home; it’s apparently a popular pastime to seek to discover one’s destiny by opening the poetry book at random and interpreting what’s written on that particular page. Everything, of course, is open to interpretation … Outside the gates to the shrine sat men who would also tell your fortune – with a bird trained to pick a card from a selection and on which was written your future. Maybe.
We also visited the shrine of Emir Ali. Flower-sprigged chadors were provided for us foreign ladies – flower-sprigged presumably to make sure nobody mistook us for locals (who were all in black) – and men and women had to enter the shrine by different doors. Walls to above head height divided the interior so men and women couldn’t see each other – although we could hear the hum of their voices – and we looked up at huge crystal chandeliers that sparkled and threw shards of light on ceilings and walls covered in mosaic mirror tiles. Despite the almost palatial surroundings, it was tranquil with ladies seated on the floor and praying or talking to one another quietly.
We drove to the ruined grandeur of Persepolis: built by Darius the Great, destroyed by Alexander the Great. Darius himself conceived the idea of broad shallow steps for the double flight staircase at the main entrance so guests could walk up elegantly and show off their finery – one flight was for nobles, the other for those bearing gifts. These days it is hordes of tourists who make their way up the 111 steps, with little regard for fine clothing. Once at the top we wandered between massive gateways and tall columns and past magnificent bas reliefs, dark in places from the touch of many hands over the years. (‘Sclaptures’, Reza called them.) Even in ruins, Persepolis is spectacular. Reza told us how Alexander had ‘concured’ (again Reza’s word) the city, ransacked the treasury and set fire to it all.
Back in Shiraz: more gardens at Naranjestan-e Qavan, more mirrored walls, more paintings – and more conversations, more requests for photographs! We visited the Nasir Al-Mulk mosque where sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows. We went into the citadel – with one tower wonky – and visited the bath-house. Reza treated us all to tubs of faloudeh which is a bit like ice-cream or sherbet, made with rose water and noodles of cornstarch. It’s a renowned delicacy of Shiraz and it was very refreshing – but tooth-jarringly sweet. And of course we went into the bazaar. In the carpet section, groups of two or three old men stood round chatting and setting the world to rights, but elsewhere it was busy, busy, busy. Between customers though, many stall-holders, like people below a certain age the world over, sat fiddling with their mobile phones. Were they on Facebook? Maybe. Maybe not. Facebook is officially banned. But there are of course ways round the ban … Foreign TV channels are also banned – but many homes have satellite dishes … (One of our hotels did too.) Every once in a while there’s a purge by the authorities: illegal dishes are seized, fines are imposed … and then people go out and buy a new dish so they can carry on watching the banned programmes.
We left Shiraz, driving past rounded hills that looked almost as though they had been scoured. It was a sere landscape dotted with scrubby bushes but with a very occasional bright green attempt at cultivation. We passed one or two small herds of goats grazing on gentle slopes, eking out a meal on a sparse fuzz of vegetation. We were on our way to Esfahan.