This Sort of Thing...


Ticket to Tehran



Part 1 of my personal magic carpet-ride through Persia. 

Pulling away from the front of my house in the small Wiltshire town of Chippenham, it was obvious that the taxi driver with the local accent, the facial features and the worldly knowledge of a beetroot was struggling to get his head round the concept of anyone wanting to travel to Iran for a holiday. Before I’d even fastened my seatbelt he’d asked me where I was going and why, and from that point on he did his best to join me in my state of excitement at what lay ahead. Travels beyond the magnificence of an out-of-order KitKat machine, a pack of rabid teenagers attempting to perform death-defying stunts on Poundland skateboards and a fat bloke with a flag in his hand and a fag behind his ear on the two draughtiest concrete platforms of the most remote stretch of the Great Western Railway to the lands of the mystical East were beyond his comprehension.

In between periods of utter speechlessness, he fired questions at me about what the beaches might be like over there and would the beer be really cheap. He repeatedly asked if I had perhaps misheard the travel agent when making my booking, listing other potential destinations beginning with an ‘I’, such as Italy, Ibiza and Ireland. The most exotic that he could think of was Istanbul, and he threw in Ipswich where one of his neighbours often went to stay with her sister because they shared a great fondness for budgerigars.

At the railway station, after lifting my luggage from the boot of his cab and remarking that I travelled with a backpack rather than a suitcase, he shook my hand and said ‘Adios’, the only word in his foreign vocabulary. Then he drove away, shaking his head and chuckling to himself, no doubt itching to tell his mates that one of his fares that day had been a suicide bomber.

He hadn’t been the only one to question my wisdom in this respect. The very first person to do this was me. I vividly remember one wild and windy Saturday night in February 2011, sitting alone at home after having had an unexpectedly difficult day at work. I was feeling a bit sorry for myself because my weekend break would amount to only a single day, during which I had a multitude of chores to attend to and many of which involved venturing out into the abysmal weather. A little wine would cheer me up, I thought, as I read a few pages of the book that I hadn’t had the time or energy to pick up since my previous day off a week earlier. I couldn’t be bothered reading. I couldn’t go out. In a town as abysmal as the weather, there was nowhere to go. My kids were out (in other towns) so I had no one to talk to. I was wondering how I could justify the amount of time and effort that I had thrown into my working week; that week and almost every week.

Leaving the bookmark exactly where I had found it, I drank a little more wine. I switched on my computer. I do enjoy red wine, I said to myself as I typed the words ‘where can I go for a holiday that’s a bit unusual?’ into the little enquiry box on the Google page. I drank a little more wine and searched and scrutinised website after website before drinking a little more wine. I must have smiled when I saw the City of Shiraz appear on a trip itinerary, so I drank a little more wine. I particularly enjoyed red wine. I’ve never had a drink problem except when an uncorked bottle has been standing within a metre of where I’ve been sitting. And being a bit of an eco-warrior, I was always conscious that kettles and percolators consume so much electricity, leaving me wracked with guilt whenever I turned one on. Red wine seemed so green.

I would guess that it was round about ten hours later that I woke up in bed with a head full of nothing which slowly morphed into a head full what I needed to get done during the course of my Sunday. This wasn’t easy as I came to realise that upon moving my head it contained a significant amount of pain, delightfully juxtaposed with an enormous numbness that had taken over my body and limbs. And then came the question that no one ever really wants to have to ask themselves in the abyss of a hangover… had I really booked a trip to Iran?

My chosen adventure holiday company (let’s call them X Travels) had to be congratulated on their efficiency. There, in black and white (and intermittently in duplicate) was an email they had sent me at 1:37 a.m. to confirm my booking on their One Hundred Mosques in Ten Days expedition and to thank me for paying the hefty deposit with my flimsy credit card. Rebecca, the Senior Sales Executive in the Theocratic Asia Overland Department, had excelled herself so it would have been rude of me to back out, and a week and a half in a country renowned for its teetotalism as much as its totalitarianism seemed to me like an excellent idea on that shameful Sunday. 

Over the course of the next few days my body and mind returned to their normal state, that being the model of clean living and good health. Thoughts of ornately decorated minarets and vast deserts and delicious exotic food and mind-blowing archaeological sites collectively overcame any inkling I had of a cancellation refund request and my planned voyage became a major talking point with everybody I knew, many weeks before the need arose for me to dust off my old keffiyeh and camel-riding togs. My flicker of interest roared and soared to become a fiery furnace of anticipation as I read Persian guidebooks and novels, watched documentaries on the worldwide web and bought CDs of Iranian music. The track Dashi, by Abdolnaghi Afsharnia, absolutely rocks by the way; it will be the first record to be played at my wedding.

After the taxi experience, a variety of modes of transport, none of which was a magic flying carpet, took me to the appropriate airport terminal. This, only days after a friend had pointed out to me that, if you don’t mind the gap, only one letter makes up the difference between Heathrow and Death Row. His approach to pessimism had a much more amusing angle to it than that offered to me by family, other friends, neighbours, business clients and keffiyeh salesmen.

As I sat alone in a departure lounge waiting to board something shiny and fast and eastward bound, my mobile phone suddenly erupted ‘bon voyage’ messages from the aforementioned pessimists suddenly remembering I was going away on my travels and that they would probably never see me again. Text messages seemed to contain a profusion of words like good luck, hope, thoughts and prayers, and last will and testament.

By this stage I was oozing excitement from every pore. I love airports, especially on outward journeys. I love looking around me at the fascinating things that are going on. Other excited travellers, nervous travellers, and travellers who I fear will miss their flight because they’re overindulging in fluids to help them relax, celebrate or sleep. Some struggle to overcome their phobia of flying while others struggle to overcome their phobia of flying whilst sitting near to passengers with children who insist on kicking the back of the seat in front of them until someone agrees to spend €40 on a fluffy toy helicopter gunship from the glossy pages of the in-flight magazine. There are always some travellers who are dressed appropriately for their tropical or arctic holiday destinations hours before they even climb aboard a plane to leave English Home Counties airspace. And there are travellers like me who might have interesting things to say about their travels if they weren’t so busy looking around at other travellers. Where were they all going, and why, and did they have mothers like mine who wondered if they would come back alive?

I’ve often regretted not taking advantage of some of the retail outlets that I have found in airports, especially the Caviar House & Prunier which I was pretty sure there wasn’t a branch of in Chippenham High Street. The shops selling traditional tartan-kilted soldier dolls (the height of authenticity for the Hounslow area), tea cosies in the shape of the Isle of Wight, and Theresa May patterned erotic underwear amused me but never tempted me to part with my money.

The departure board was something I had kept my eye on even more than I had on the group of women in one-size-fits-all (well, almost all) swimsuits waiting to fly away with Coconut Airways for a hen party in Barbados in the sunny Caribbean Sea. My heart leapt each time it flashed with updated information. I came close to having an embarrassing intimate accident in my undergarments when eventually I read ‘16:35 - Flight BD931 - Tehran via Yerevan - Go to Gate 21’. Although in my time I had already travelled quite a bit around the world, the thought of walking towards a departure gate from which I would be whizzed off to such an exciting destination was something that will stay with me forever. I can categorically state that those flight details are one hundred percent accurate because I took a photograph of the departure board. Sad, eh? But had anyone else ever in the history of our planet been so blissfully happy whilst being within ten miles of Slough?   

The eight-hour flight was a frenzy of free wine. I had five bottles. They were only very small bottles but they numbered four more than what I had been expecting and five more than I had ever before enjoyed free of charge on a plane journey. Conscious of the fact that we were en route to a place where alcohol was completely forbidden, everybody was quaffing the complimentary plonk with gusto and cashew nuts. The pilot explained over the public address system that he was only going to have a couple of glasses himself as he would be flying back to London the following day but we, the passengers, should all get stuck in and cherish our final hours of liquefied debauchery.

As I knocked back the strong drink I chatted to my new travelling companion, Connie, who was going to be a member of the same X Travels group as me and coincidentally was sitting right beside me. An amazing American lady of eighty-four years who had been everywhere except Libya, the Moon and Watford. This was her third trip to Iran, the first having been in the 1950s when more oil was sold in barbers’ shops than in petrol stations and before dangerous levels of carbon emissions had become fashionable.

The plane landed to refuel, and probably re-wine, in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. This was a place to add to my frustratingly long list of countries I had seen from the other side of a border or landed at but not actually set foot in. I wondered if some of the hundred and thirty independent states that had made it on to Connie’s list were there for the same reason. Smiling, I asked her this but it became immediately apparent that her sense of humour fell a long way short of her sense of wanderlust. Still, it was quite exciting to be in this mysterious place on the edge of Asia in the middle of the night even though I could only catch a glimpse through an aircraft window from which the view was restricted by an aircraft wing. Wings, I find, are always a bit of a nuisance on aeroplanes but people seem to get into such a flap if they’re not there.

Just over an hour later, as our descent to Tehran commenced, the cabin crew’s preparation for landing procedure was a bit like the early hours of the morning at a teenage party just before the unsuspecting parents are due to arrive home. All bottles, whether empty or not, were quickly cleared away and all passengers appeared to be sitting up straight, smartening their appearance and pretending not to be a bit squiffy. There isn’t an airline carpet in the world that doesn’t have a stain on it so we didn’t need to worry about that bit. However, such blemishes may have contained alcohol and the potential consequences of scrutiny by Iranian police sniffer dogs passed through my mind. But that was something else that it turned out we didn’t need to worry about because the dogs, by virtue of the stringent laws of their homeland, had no idea what alcohol smelt like. Obeying orders, I fastened everything that needed fastening, returned everything to an upright position and turned everything off that could be turned off which excluded Connie who still had a lot to tell me about her 1972 visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo accompanied by a young guy from Michigan named Ralph.

I’m usually pretty good at being patient and remaining in my seat until I’m told otherwise. At Tehran Airport, however, as soon as the plane’s engines had cut out I couldn’t wait to get down the stairs and onto the tarmac which I was so pleased to see that I had an overwhelming urge to kiss it in that old Pope John Paul II way. But they don’t have much time for popes in Iran, or for over-excited tourists with bladders half full of intoxicating fluids. For the next ten days I would be on my very best behaviour. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is the only option.


Ticket to Tehran


Photograph: The cabin crew on Flight BD931 from London Heathrow to Tehran. But I jest, as really it is the very friendly and entertaining wife and daughter of an old weaver who I met in the Iranian city of Rafsanjan.


Link to Part 2: 

A Fistful of Rials



Number of comments: 2

12/01/2024 12:39:14


12/01/2024 12:47:47 - Joe le Taxi

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