After arriving in Imam Khomeini International airport and whisked into town in a taxi at 140kph. All the while the driver was skyping his friends and the car was forlornly warning that drivers seatbelt was undone. Eventually I arrived at my hotel in the central Tehran in double quick time but a bit frazzled.
National Jewel Museum
My first stop was the ‘National Jewel Museum’ in the vaults of the central bank. The collection is almost unbelievable – they have it divided by stones and objects so there is an emerald cabinet, ruby cabinet, diamond cabinet and the objects are exquisite if incredibly bling.
The size of the stones and the number make you feel like they look cosmetic but they are not! The famous Noor diamond currently in the Tower of London used to be in Persia before some invasion and looting eventually saw it in the hands of the British. One spectacular piece was a globe with over 50000 stones with emerald for the sea, ruby for the land and diamonds for Persia, France and Great Britain!
Unfortunately no camera are permitted but you can get an idea of some of the objects here
Just around the corner is the British Embassy compound which is in the process of opening having being closed for a few years due to safety concerns. The Iranians really know how to stick two fingers to the British and have named one of the streets bounding the compound as Bobby Sands Street.
The British – aggrieved by the implication that they would need to change their letterhead to have address with Bobby Sands in it blocked up that entrance and knocked an new entrance on the other side of the compound.
Apparently there is a burger joint called Bobby Sands which for a hunger striker memorial is a bit dark.
Former US Embassy
Nearby is the old US Embassy – now known as the ‘US Den Of Espionage’. It was from here that the coup to restore the Shah was plotted by the CIA and also the site of the storming in 1979 by student revolutionaries and the capture of US hostages. Tours are only possible once a month but the compound has plenty of propaganda murals for the curious tourist
While I was taking photos people would spontaneously come up to me in the street and ask where I was from and welcome me to Iran which was ironic standing in front of a ‘Down With USA’ mural. A man in the Jewel museum even gave me his number in case he and his friends would be skiing in Dizin at the same time as me.
People have been very open and warm, perhaps curious as there appear to be very few tourists here at all.
Getting to the Tehran Bazaar, the largest market in the country, early is advised before it all becomes hectic. With around 10km of maze like alleys one quickly becomes lost which is part of the fun. There are various sections (clothes, nuts, spices, carpets, etc.).
Being in Persia I sought out the carpet section where each stall appeared to have their most intricate and beautiful carpet hung on the back wall as an advertisement. Some of the intricate pieces are really works of art and I’m sure have a price tag to match.
With sanctions preventing credit card payments directly all manner of roundabout ways via intermediaries in Dubai are set up to allow tourists to buy without a brick of notes – they can even arrange a cash advance a part of the deal, nothing if not resourceful!
Ten minutes away from the Bazaar is the Golestan Palace which was a royal palace and location for the coronations of the last two Shahs.
Inside the main halls are the most opulent hall of mirrors with gleaming crystal everywhere including the dome and multiple reception rooms.
Intriguingly though the style of these borrows heavily from European style (e.g. French) with a few local touches – quite different from, say, the Ottoman palace in Istanbul. The building of multiple buildings, it was noted, was after visits to Europe by the rulers.
Getting down to the Azari Teahouse on the metro was a confusing process as the metro map shows intersections between lines which don’t exist – possibly the map is aspirational! Some trudging to other stations had me back on track down south near Tehran rail station.
Inside groups of men or families sat out on carpets and ate dizi stew. I went with the crowd and had the set lunch of aubergine and chick stew but had no idea how to eat it when it arrived!
A friendly Iranian man with his wife patiently explained the process and even gave me his phone number in case I had any questions in Tehran – almost embarrassingly welcoming. He was astounded that I was in this place in the middle of the Tehran suburbs from Ireland!
To wash it all down was a really relaxing drink made with mint and yoghurt called Doogh which was slightly carbonated. The obligatory tea (chay) and sweets to finish completed the job and all for a fiver.
In my hostel I met a Ukrainian traveller, Oleg, who you might call an eccentric character. Travelling already for a year with no money he had lost his travelling companion on the first day when they both showed up late for their flight and were both denied boarding as Oleg had pepper spray on his person!
As we hopped on the metro after dark he had a waxed whisker beard, hat, big coat with a blue and yellow Ukrainian coloured belt. As we were speaking in English we were watched with intense curiosity by all in the car. Oleg was completely prepared and told me he was wearing sunglasses to make it less intense – I didn’t point out that wearing sunglasses at night on the metro might be attracting the attention to begin with.
In any case we visited the Azari Tower – a quite elegant arch built in 1971 as part of the celebrations of 2500 years of Persian Monarchy. Also part of that celebration was an enormous and opulent party in Persepolis with global royalty and presidents – the subject of a great BBC documentary which charts how this was a catalyst in the downfall of the Shah.
During the day many women, alone and in groups, are visible. After dark the dynamic of people out changes markedly – women are largely absent and is more male oriented. A group of Iranian guys were completely astounded to meet these two tourists and we took selfies and photos for posterity.
Running for the last metro the gracious line guard let us through for free as we were visitors – you don’t get sort of service in London!