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Getting around

Part 6: Tehran, Mashhad

11-12.8: Munich -> Dubai -> Sharjah -> Shiraz
13.8: Shiraz, Persepolis
14.8: Shiraz
15.8: Shiraz -> Pasargadae -> Abarqu -> Yazd
16.8: Yazd
17.8: Yazd -> Meybod -> Chak Chak -> Kharanaq -> Yazd

18.8: Yazd -> Abyaneh -> Kashan
19.8: Kashan -> Tehran -> Polour
20.8: Polour -> Camp 2 -> Camp 3
21.8: Camp 3 -> Mt Damavand summit -> Tehran
22.8: Tehran
23.8: Tehran -> Mashhad
24.8: Mashhad -> Tehran
25.8: Tehran -> Kuala Lumpur

22.8: Tehran
Tehran Grand Hotel (also known as Bozorg hotel): 1040000 Rial for a room with A/C, attached bathroom with good shower and the usual stuff for a hotel in this price range (TV, phone, fridge etc. but no hairdryer in the bathroom). The room is a bit old, but perfectly adequate. Breakfast included. The room could cost a bit less although probably the price level for hotels in Tehran in higher than in other Iranian cities. The hotel is located along the main Valiasr street which runs north to south across Tehran, at the southern end of the upper level northern part of Tehran. The breakfast is of the Iranian type (no cereals, very limited choice of western bread).
Weather: as usual hot, sunny, blue sky with a few very thin clouds. Bearable temperatures due to the dry air.

I get up at 9:15am and after a shower have a long, Iranian style breakfast with Fatemeh and Hossein. Long chat about a wide variety of topics: the Damavand climb, travel in Europe and other places etc. It's almost 1pm when I leave Hossein and Fatemeh and take a taxi (80000 Rial) to the hotel.

Once in the hotel I get settled, check my emails and browse a bit the Internet. Brief discussion at the reception with the hotel staff what to do in Tehran today. They explain that today is the anniversary of the death of the first Imam and that the whole of Tehran is closed (mourning the death of Imam Ali). All museums are closed, shopping complexes, etc.

Around 3pm I leave the hotel with the idea of visiting the Milad tower for some nice views of Tehran. Outside the hotel I wave a taxi (have to wait less than one minute - lots of taxis on the streets). The curious thing is that the taxi driver already has a customer, but still wants to take me. So we first drive to the drop off point for the other customer, then the driver asks more details about where I want to go to.

The drive to the Milad tower takes around 20-30 minutes, also because the driver wants to get as close as possible and doesn't know the exact way. We finally reach the control gate which is closed. Brief discussion between the taxi driver and the staff at the gate. When the staff asks why they should let us in, the driver replies 'VIP'.

I have to grin a bit, suddenly I'm a VIP in this country. This is something I have noticed also elsewhere in Iran. Western foreigners are treated extremely well and with great respect in Iran. Iranians try whatever possible to help western foreigners when they meet them. Western foreigners are treated as VIPs in Iran.

Anyway, at the end of the discussion it turns out that the Milad tower is closed today, and with it the entire adjacent park. Which leaves me there in the taxi wondering where to go for some sightseeing. Looking at the map I notice that there is a park not so far away (the Haghani park) which perhaps is interesting. So I ask the driver to bring me there.

After some driving the driver tells me that actually the Mellat park is much nicer and open today. So I tell the driver to bring me there. We arrive there shortly after 4:20pm (taxi trip costs 120000 Rial).

It turns out that the Mellat park is really beautiful. It's a carefully designed and well kept park with trees, meadows, flowers and other vegetation, full of local Iranian people who have come here today. Young couples sitting on the well kept lawns under the tree shadows. This park is an elegant and cool place where to be on a day like this.

Around 5:30pm, while I'm wondering if I should get back to the hotel to have some drinks (since everything should be closed today), I get involved in yet another chat with an Iranian. This is guy who is sitting there on a bench, taking care of this children, who starts talking to me as so many Iranians have done so far. Turns out he has spent 20 years in the USA, even got a US passport, but for some reason decided to get back to Iran. Long discussion about a wide range of topics.

Towards the end I ask about Tehran, what photogenic places there are in the city. He mainly points out southern Tehran, which should have some interesting older architecture. Baharestan square near the parliament, the area around the bazaar, Ferdosi street etc.

At 6:30pm I leave the park and start looking for a taxi. I don't have to wait too long, as a taxi arrives with again another passenger already inside. The driver brings me to Baharestan square. Along the way I spot a number of interesting buildings and street decorations (vegetation, art, paintings and mosaics along the streets). This leaves the impression of Tehran as a nice and elegant place, completely different from a messy Arab or Asian capital.

Quite a contrast to the image people in the world might have of Tehran, the capital of a country under the Sharia law. Definitely this is not the capital of a country living in the Middle Ages. Tehran projects the image of a sophisticated, elegant and modern society. But I guess Iran is a society full of contrasts, with perhaps some parts of the country or society living under incredible conditions and the other part sophisticated and modern.

Even the old part of Tehran is relatively well kept and organised. No slums, bad neighbourhoods, dirty streets or broken buildings.

The driver drops me off around 7pm in Baharestan square (80000 Rial for the trip). Baharestan square, well, is not as impressive as I was led to think from the discussion with the guy in the Mellat park. There is just one photogenic building nearby and I take a picture of the gate which is a bit artistic.

Turns out that I photographed the wrong thing, because shortly after that I'm approached by two guys on a motorbike, both in some kind of military uniform, one with a machine gun. Very politely they ask something in Farsi, which I don't understand. We try some communication, they can't speak English.

But it seems that they are somehow interested in the photo I took. Could I get arrested for taking a photo? Some local guy jumps in and probably tells them that I didn't take any photo at all. I point to the nearby mosque which is quite photogenic. More discussion and I walk away.

Still the whole thing is a bit scary. It seems that you have to be very careful of what you take pictures of in Tehran (and probably elsewhere in Iran). If you are unlucky you might take a photo of some government building without knowing it and run into problems. I guess the situation in Iran is a bit similar to the situation in the UK and the USA, where people taking photos in the street have been harassed by the local security forces.

Iran is a country under special conditions (there is always the threat of a bombing raid by Israel and the threat of political unrest), so they are a bit sensitive about people taking photos in public places.

While driving from Kashan to Tehran a couple of days ago in the area around Natanz there were lots of anti-aircraft guns pointed into the sky. I guess I would have "hit the jackpot", should I have taken a photo of those anti-aircraft guns.

I continue walking a bit, trying to reach Imam Khomeini square. Walking takes quite a lot of time, even if the area looked small on the map, which shows that Tehran is a large city. The whole area is completely uninteresting and on top of that in Imam Khomeini square there is something which might be a government building.

It's about 7:20pm by now and I decide to get out of this area and to head to Azadi square with its cool Azadi tower monument which is quite photogenic at sunset. I take a taxi (100000 Rial) and by 7:50pm I'm there.

This Azadi tower is a very interesting structure. At night it's illuminated with lights which change colour every 10-15 seconds (from green to yellow, orange and red). Very photogenic structure, which looks great during the blue hour.

I'm in the Azadi square until 8:30pm, then take a taxi (100000 rial) back to the hotel. Also this taxi has a passenger which is dropped off after some time.

While driving the hotel, at some point the driver stops somewhere and returns with two glasses of orange juice, one of which he drinks and the other one for me. I'm actually really thirsty after spending the entire afternoon walking around so I gladly accept. But I have to say, it's the first time in my life a taxi driver offers me a drink during a trip. What a service, something like this is only possible in Iran.

I'm back in the hotel after 9pm and buy some drinks in a fast food outlet (by the way, people do not know how to queue up here - they constantly try to get past you).

23.8: Tehran -> Mashhad
Ghasr Talaee international hotel, Mashhad. 1030000 Rial for a very impressive and elegant room, with everything and more, very high level setup. Same price as the hotel in Tehran, but so much better. The Tehran hotel feels like a three star hotel, while this one feels like a five star hotel. Breakfast included, Internet (wireless in the room) costs $1 for 15MB and $3 for 100MB. VIP airport service included in the price.
Weather: as usual, hot, sunny dry. Same weather both in Mashhad and Tehran.

I get up at 9am, have breakfast by 10am, then pack my stuff and check out. Shortly before 11am I'm in a taxi (100000 Rial) to Mehrabad airport and arrive there at 11:20am. Everything proceeds very smoothly after that: two security checks, check-in etc. They seem to not care about the water bottle I have in my hand-carry bag. Compare that to Munich airport, where they are highly paranoid about everything.

The plane is an old Iranair MD-80 with adhesive tape used in the interior to fix seats and other parts. It takes off at 1:50pm, with a 50 minutes delay. On board they serve a simple cold meal and a bottle of water as a drink.

The plane lands at 3:05pm in Mashhad. When I get out I'm surprised by somebody who is waiting for me showing a paper with my name. It turns out that this is the VIP service of the Ghasr hotel. I'm escorted to a lounge with free wireless Internet where I'm served some tea and cookies. While I'm having the tea the staff takes care of my luggage. Then I board the shuttle to the hotel.

By 4pm I'm settled in the room. I walk onto the roof of the hotel, which today is accessible (somebody left the door open). From the roof I take some cool shots of Mashhad. Then I head back to the room and check my emails.

Shortly after 5pm I leave the hotel and start walking towards the Imam Reza shrine. The hotel lies on the street which directly leads to the shrine, about 1km south of it. There are actually not too many people on the streets, despite the peak Ramadan period. As usual for any Iranian city there are lots of small shops everywhere. It looks as if supermarkets and hypermarkets haven't yet been set up in Iran.

While walking I pass a square with a fountain with red water. Perhaps this is to symbolise the martyrdom and death of Imam Reza (the red water representing blood).

Shortly before 6pm I'm in front of the southern entrance to the shrine. Now comes the challenge how to get some shots of the shrine, given that you are not allowed to enter with the camera. After some searching I find a restaurant on the roof of a hotel with a great view of the shrine.

Then I continue walking around the shrine, looking for a new spot from which to photograph the shrine. Cool setting, lots of people on the streets, women wearing black chadors.

Shortly after 7pm I have finally found a spot on the roof of an apartment building. I'm there for the next 45 minutes, until after sunset, photographing the shrine. Then I walk down on the street and slowly walk back to the hotel.

Now it's after sunset and the daily fasting is over. Everywhere people are on the streets having picnics. On the road from the southern entrance to the hotel there are tons of people, many more than just two hours ago. It feels like the Oktoberfest in Munich, crowded like hell. I'm back in the hotel at 9:15pm.

Copyright 2011 Alfred Molon