Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Tehran

I have to confess I was not looking forward to Tehran. I'd heard so many bad things about the city I was tempted to just bypass it completely. Big, dirty, busy, polluted, unfriendly, etc, etc and that really isn't my thing at all. Maybe it was a good thing I was dreading it so much because in the end it turned out to be a lot nicer than I expected. It wasn't my favourite place but I've been to much worse capital cities elsewhere.
I was lucky because I had a really nice host, who happened to have a Brazilian guest at the time and took us to meet a group of other locals to go on a fieldtrip to the Sadabad palace complex in the northern part of the city. Sadabad was the summer home of the Shahs and consists of a 100-hectare parkland with numerous palace buildings, now housing their own themed museums. The northern part of the city backs up onto mountains so the air is cleaner and cooler in the more affluent northern neighbourhoods. It was really pretty and with good company to talk to, it turned out to be a really nice day. The weather was good so the pollution wasn't as bad as I feared though when I first arrived and throughout my stay I could still tell that it was worse than elsewhere I'd been.
Tehran historically was a nothing town until about 200 years ago when it finally got a turn at being the capital. As such there isn't much to see in terms of ancient historical sites and the tourist attractions revolve around more modern palaces like Sadabad and the central Golestan palace where the Shahs lived until deposed during the revolution of 1979. The palaces were fancy inside (the Shahs seemed to have a thing for importing French furniture) but quite small compared to European palaces.


A city park.


Hanging out with a group of couchsurfers at Sadabad.


The Green Palace at the Sadabad palace complex park.


Golestan palace.


Golestan palace.


A hall inside Golestan palace.


My host was supposed to be working on his thesis and was hosting his parents (from Esfahan and who were about to fly to Vancouver of all places) and cousin in addition to me so he was pretty busy and I spent the remaining days wandering around alone though I was able to take one day off and rest, my first day off of the whole trip. During my wanders I visited the central bazaar. It's much like the others but too big and busy for me. The bazaaris (shopkeepers) still wield a lot of economic and political influence in the country and I had an interesting conversation with a Persian carpet salesman who tried to explain the differences in value and style of the carpets and the culture behind them. A new style that has emerged is making carpets of pictures to hang on the wall like paintings. Some of them look really cool, though most carpets are just patterns, either tribal from the villages, or city carpets with more modern patterns. Tabriz carpets are the most popular at the moment and run at about $200+/m2, depending on the density of the knots. Apparently they get more valuable with age and use and because they are so expensive, many traditional people in Iran still buy and keep them as a form of savings. Especially now that their currency is tanking, carpets are becoming even more valuable as an investment item in addition to hard currencies and gold. I guess it's not a bad idea, it's pretty hard to break in and steal a carpet...


Tehran's very busy central bazaar.


I also visited a couple museums, the best one being the jewels museum. It's in the central bank vault and really a disgusting display of wealth with some huge diamonds and gem-encrusted swords, crowns and other clothing and jewelry. There is also the famous monument, the Azadi (freedom) tower, set in the middle of a big roundabout. I'm still not sure what I think about it. It's the symbol of Tehran and you've surely seen it before. I can never tell if it looks huge or tiny when I see it in photos and on tv, and even when I was standing under it it was still somehow indecisive in what it wanted to be. It was built by the Shah's wife in 1971 and stands 50m high. Which isn't big enough to be really big, but too big to be small and cute. I didn't go up to the viewing platform because there was some sort of convention going on all over the grounds and it seemed like a big hassle.


Azadi tower.


And no visit to Tehran is complete without a visit to the old US embassy compound. It has been shut down since the hostage taking fiasco in 1979. You can't actually visit the compound but just walk around the outside and look at all the paintings on the fence with messages like “Down with America” or pictures of the Statue of Liberty with a skull face. It's kind of cool and a bit weird because although the politics of today still echo the same thoughts, I never got any anti-American sentiment targetting me and the people by and large seem quite welcoming to foreigners. Not that there are any American tourists in the country, they still can't get a visa without an organized tour and I didn't bring my US passport with me or admit to being American ever either (or I could get in big trouble as a “spy” I guess). I did meet 2 Americans in Yazd that were travelling on Georgian passports and it was very obvious that they were Americans but they didn't admit it to anyone else. I really don't think there'd be a problem from the locals anyway though, they really are nice.


The meaning of the murals around the old US embassy are pretty obvious.


Tehran was only a quick stop as I'm more interested in the more ancient history and structures than the big city so after a couple days I took off a couple hours west to Qazvin.
Ammon

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