This Sort of Thing...


Lovely Palace, Must Fly



Part 3 of my personal magic carpet-ride through Persia.

Whenever people have asked me how I would like to spend my time during a day following a long haul flight, I’m sure I’ve never suggested traipsing round three museums, sitting on a tour bus amidst chronic city centre traffic congestion for two to three hours and then flying away to another city almost a thousand kilometres distant. But, due to circumstances beyond my control, that was what happened on this particular day. 

To save time whilst packing my bag to leave the Hotel Mashad in Tehran (at that point my favourite hotel in Iran) I left my comfy shoes under the bed. Clog-like and made from leather, they were as black as a 5,000 rials note so the chambermaid probably accepted them as my weirdo western way of offering a tip.  How Mahtab laughed when I asked her if she could recommend a shoe shop in the District 6 district of Tehran to replace them. I went to all the trouble of learning the words for ‘I’d like a pair of dark coloured, soft leather shoes please in a size forty-two but I don’t want any of your expensive footwear-cleaning products because I’ve already got a cupboard full of the stuff under the kitchen sink at home’ in my English-Farsi phrasebook, so I was quite offended when my request was met by nothing but mockery.

Always looking on the positive side of life, I learnt a valuable lesson from this experience and I will always heed the wisdom of an old Iranian man who I chatted to in the street later that day who said that if you wear your shoes all the time you will never lose them. So these days I travel with only one pair of shoes, partly because of his words and partly because I only have one pair of shoes; all others having been left behind in a variety of hotel rooms around the world.

Outside our hotel, the Shahid Mofatteh Boulevard greeted us with the winning entry from the 2011 World Traffic Congestion Championship; the extra density of the engine emissions having given it the edge over close rivals, Beijing and Buenos Aires. When we arrived there in the middle of the night there had been no sign of this. At breakfast we looked down from the roof and saw only what seemed like normal big city rush hour traffic. But in the five minutes that it had taken me to lose my shoes it seemed like all hell had been let loose, which would have been bad enough if all hell had been going somewhere but, until Tehran City Council agreed to install a few traffic lights and roundabouts, nobody was likely to be going anywhere, at least not at any notable speed. With this in mind we optimistically climbed into the X Travels bus.

Twenty minutes later we seemed to have moved physically but we could still see the hotel. Our driver, Javad, seemed to have moved mentally and we could see him mouthing something along the lines of ‘sod this for a game of goatherds.’ After a few discreet words in Mahtab’s ear a phone call was made, mutterings were muttered and then we were asked to abandon ship. As our twelve strong group, including tour guide, squeezed into an eight-seater minibus that stood idly at a nearby taxi rank any hope of maintaining Islamic culture’s gender etiquette went flying out of the window like a legendary carpet.

Iranians, I discovered, take a practical approach to most situations so it turned out that there were more than eight seats in the minibus but not all were immediately noticeable. A small ledge near to the handbrake where the driver kept his battered old tobacco tin full of change was something that my nether regions found sufficiently comfortable to be deemed a location for sitting as we gradually weaved our way through the morass of taxis, bazaar traders’ vans, motorcycle riders, motorcycle stunt riders, apparently fearless pedestrians and funeral processions. Mahtab, also struggling to find a conventional seat, sat mostly on me. She was a lovely, smiling, friendly woman but in truth I was surprised by the closeness of the contact in what was probably a breach of the rules but, such was the density of the smog outside, it was unlikely that anybody in a position of authority would see. I was equally surprised by the driver’s change tin as it contained coins with denominations as low as 50 rials. My rapid action mental arithmetic told me that this amounted to less than a tenth of a British penny and that Tehrani taxi passengers weren’t the most generous of tippers.

Despite our close confinement, Mahtab, being a true professional, continued with her tour guide speech at full volume ‘so that everyone in the back could hear.’ They always say that. She told us that there were thirteen million people living in Tehran and I was able to count all but a dozen of them travelling along the street in the same direction as us. She also said that in the six months of the Islamic year so far, there had been 2,600 deaths in Iran caused by road traffic accidents. This made me wonder how bad the situation might have been if Iranians had access to alcohol.

To make the journey more relaxing the driver took his CD of Iranian traditional music out of his car stereo and replaced it with a recording of Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I’d already heard these concerti many times before and was of the opinion that the local tunes that were new to us seemed to fit the occasion better. However, when the driver told us that in a previous job he had been a performing violinist in an orchestra I desisted from disagreeing with his choice and wondered if I should ask for his autograph. He gave me his business card which bore a photograph of him in action with fiddle and bow. I keep such things as souvenirs so I was disappointed later in the morning when I had to hand it over to Mahtab so that she could phone him to arrange a lift back to where the mother bus was parked. I asked her if I could have it back when she’d finished with it but she told me no, because she might need it again in the future. But I suspected that really she was as star struck as I was.

Our visit to the Golestan Palace made the tiresome journey and the consequential damage to our lungs more than worthwhile. At the breakfast time meeting this place had been modestly offered to us as a ‘national museum’ but it turned out to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an absolute jewel in the Iranian crown. Also known as Rose Garden Palace (you can probably guess why) it was built in the sixteenth century during the Safavid dynasty when Tehran was a walled city. It was extended and beautified in the nineteenth century when it became the royal residence and seat of power of the ruling Qajar family. As well as the main palace building, the site included other palatial structures used as museums for ancient and modern Persian arts and beautiful gardens with covered shady areas and fountains. The complex was too large for us to see it all so we spent most of our visit in the area called Shams-Al Emarat containing rooms with stunningly beautiful mirrored and tiled walls and ceilings that housed an impressive display of historical photographs, furniture and pottery from all corners of the world, including Derby. Yes Derby, but strangely not Abu Dhabi.

Iranian people were immensely proud of this place so we had to put elasticated polythene covers over our shoes to protect the carpets and marble floors. These blue slippers with pointy toes looked rather fetching on me, I thought, giving me a hint of that old Ali Baba style. An armed security guard in a khaki military uniform appeared quite menacing and authoritative from the ankles up but a complete dandy from below his sock line. I would never claim to be much use as a fashion critic but even I could tell that his polythene slippers and Kalashnikov AK47 rifle clashed a little.

The return trip in the Minibus of Death to where our coach was parked wasn’t as bad as the outward journey because, still exhausted from our flight from London, most of us fell asleep. Re-boarding Javad’s vehicle, we found him sitting in his seat, his knuckles white from clutching the steering wheel as he endured some sort of road rage related mental breakdown. However, for managing to survive the morning we were rewarded with a stop at a rather stylish coffee shop where we enjoyed wonderful Turkish coffee and a selection of Persian cakes. Slapping each other’s faces to eliminate any risk of dozing off, this was the perfect opportunity for group members to chat and get to know each other. First impressions had been made under cover of the previous night’s darkness and had been rather scant, but second impressions suggested a nice bunch of people to be exploring Persia with.

Mahtab told us to enjoy the coffee as it would probably be the last that we would see on the trip. In Iran they don’t drink coffee. To comply with the obligations of Islam there is no alcohol but their reason for not drinking coffee is that they simply don’t like it. They could drink coffee until it came out of their ears if they wanted to but they choose not to. This was the part of their culture that I found the most difficult to get used to.

Towards the end of our much needed refreshment break I marvelled at the richness of the coffee, the delightful taste and texture of the confectionery, the opulent surroundings, the remarkable beauty of the waitresses (I’m by no means a pervy lech but oh, you should have seen them) and the cleanliness and comfort of the apparently quite rare European style toilets. This was all very nice and I felt quite at home there. But we were less than twenty-four hours into the trip and already I had become nervous of the handheld bidet shower contraptions installed by the sides of sit down sanitary earthenware receptacles. A good idea in principle, I thought, but I had to ask myself what use had they been put to before my arrival, whose bottoms had they squirted with warm water and how much disinfectant had they been in contact with, even though I probably already knew the answers. It didn’t require close inspection to see that they looked a bit like microphones; the small shiny metal sort that you might associate with singing stars like Tom Jones or Tony Bennett. Perhaps water closet karaoke was a form of entertainment in this country where the law didn’t tolerate the performing of music in public places.

Suitably refreshed, we checked our progress against our must-see museums chart and set off in the coach driven by the suitably refreshed and becalmed Javad. Number two on the itinerary was the National Museum of Iran; another very impressive building opened in 1916 to house artefacts from the pre-Islamic period. Because of its relative modernity it looked like it had been designed as a joint venture between the architects of Golestan Palace and Barking Town Hall. What made it particularly interesting was that it was the headquarters of the Government’s Department of Antiquities who continued to sponsor major archaeological excavations, so new exhibits had been arriving on a regular basis since the day of its founding. The head of a man that had been preserved in a salt marsh for three thousand years was the star attraction. Dear old Connie commented that she had seen him before and the rest of us made impolite jokes and sniggered. Connie smiled a little.

Museum number three was the Glassware and Ceramics Museum which was very beautiful and very small, and from the 1920s to the 1950s it had been the home of the prime minister of Iran. Ironically, amongst all that glassware, my eyes began to glaze over, probably as a consequence of a combination of jetlag, caffeine deficiency and lungs that had intermittently been filled with carbon monoxide. 

A glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice from a street vendor and short conversations with passers-by wishing to hone their English language skills brought me back to life in time to board our coach for a spin round Tehran’s leafy suburban districts en route to the domestic airport.

The final stretch of our journey took in the impressive Azadi Tower, built in the early 1970s at the request of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (oh, what a Pahlavi), the last Shah of Iran, as part of the celebrations to mark 2,500 years of the Persian Empire. For once I was grateful for the traffic jams as passing by it so slowly enabled us to enjoy the spectacular sight of the scarlet rays of the setting sun on the beautiful white marble cladding of the enormous structure.

We had seen countless mosques during the course of the day but hadn’t visited any at all. I worried that the mention of them in the trip’s description on the X Travels website had merely been a marketing carrot to get us to part with our hard earned rials. Mahtab told me to be patient.

Then sadly, the time came for us to alight from the tour bus and say goodbye to Javad our driver who had been through hell with us and probably would suffer the same again the following day with another group and couldn’t wait to get home for his tea. It was suggested that we might give him a gratuity in acknowledgement of the friendliness and courtesy he had shown during his series of neurotic attacks. I didn’t have the right change in my pocket to give him a tenth of a British penny so I gave him significantly more… at least double.

Tehran’s second airport (the Mehrabad International Airport) was a huge disappointment to me. Seasoned travellers I knew had incorrectly predicted a place with lavish stalls laden with all manner of Persian street food, passengers haggling with airline representatives over how many goats or chickens would be required in exchange for flight tickets and dashing young chaps wearing goggles and leather flying jackets shouting ‘chocks away’ in Farsi from open cockpit windows. 

But it was as modern and efficient as any other airport I had passed through. I felt quite guilty that a mild and very uncharacteristic attack of xenophobia had caused me to have fears about the internal flight that we were about to embark upon. I blamed racial stereotyping in the Western media and the Wiltshire pubs for temporarily corrupting my normally broad mind into a much narrower one. Before leaving home I knew that those in Britain who had tried to brainwash me with anti-Islamic thoughts of a backward nation had wasted their time as Iran turned out to be as modern and technologically advanced as many countries I had visited in Europe. To rectify my embarrassing situation I looked up at a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini crafted in ceramic tiles high on a wall in the departure lounge and said, ‘Sorry mate!’ And do you know what? I was pretty sure that he winked at me. Wisely, in my opinion, I decided not to mention his regime’s appalling human rights record until I was in a place where neither he nor his followers were in a position to punish me for being a winker. During my stay I could only accept Iran for what it was. The reputation of a country’s government could destroy the reputation of a country’s people but at that early stage of my trip the people I had met had all been delightfully welcoming.

We travelled not with those magnificent men in their flying machines but with Mahan Air in an A320 Airbus. The seventy-five-minute flight flew by thanks to the friendly and efficient cabin crew, as many bottles of free alcohol-free beer as you could ever want (which in my case was one) and an in-flight meal that was tasty and healthy and included all sorts of nutty spicy things and fresh salad.

To help us unwind at the end of a very tiring day we were taken through our second baggage collection hall, airport to hotel transfer journey and hotel check-in rigmarole in less than twenty-four hours. But lying on my bed a little later, although exhausted, I couldn’t sleep. I was in the historic City of Shiraz, the home of the famous Shiraz grape, but unfortunately there wasn’t a drop of Shiraz wine to be seen. I drank a bottle of beer from the well-stocked minibar in our hotel room. It was alcohol-free peach beer… my favourite!


ABC 091


Photograph: A cool and shady place the gardens at Golestan Palace. 


Link to Part 4: 

Only Here for the Poets



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