Day 91: The Long Road to Tehran

After a day and a half of traveling from Van, I made it!!!  I can hardly believe I’m here in Tehran, the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran!  Woohoo!  It was quite a journey here though…  I left Van early yesterday morning on a bus that would take me over the mountains of south-east Turkey and through a "minor" border crossing at Sero (near the border with Iraq).  Distances are deceiving on the map because it’s quite mountainous and the roads aren’t that flash, and it was about six hours later we rolled into the border station.

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A few photos en route from Van in south-eastern Turkey to the border with Iran.  This is the heart of Kurdistan and quite close to the northern edge of Iraq – doesn’t look worth fighting over really…

I would have loved to have snapped a few photos at the border point but it’s always a bit of a sensitive issue – "security" apparently – but it was a dry and dusty spot in the middle of nowehere with a big military presence on the Turkish side, a couple of buildings that had seen better days, and a queue of vehicles waiting at both sides of the gates.  I was the only westerner on the bus and completely stumped the Turkish authorities – I don’t think they’d ever cleared an Aussie before!  The Iranian side was fortunately without incident (I held my breath as my name on the visa was spelled incorrectly) and it wasn’t long before we were all watching the customs officials take the bus and our bags apart looking for contraband.

After another couple of hours we arrived in Orumiyeh, an unimpressive small city known nationally for its fruits and vegetables.  In that time on the bus I began to fully understand the breadth and depth of Iranian hospitality.  I’d been befriended by a local guy Hassan who was just returning from a vacation with his family in Turkey.  Although I really didn’t want to burden him with the hassle, he insisted time and time again that I have all my issues taken care of – namely changing dollars into rials (at the local rate) and arranging transport to Tehran – and proceeded to drive me around town to work everything out.  Nice!

I originally planned to fly to Tehran (this place is dirt cheap – you can fly across the country for $30!) but I would have had to have waited until the next morning just to get on a waitlist, so I instead opted for the 12 hour night bus.  It wasn’t the most comfortable night’s sleep and I arrived this morning pretty groggy.  On top of that I’ve really struggled to find good quality food as I’ve moved further east, and I’m out-of-sorts with a bit of "Delhi belly".

So first impressions of Tehran and Iran in general:

  • Tehran in a word: a dump!  It’s a massive, sprawling, polluted city with 14 million inhabitants (1/5 of the country!).  Town planning seems to be non-existent and it’s a real bitch to get around.  The streets are filled with Paykans (the lead petrol-powered national vehicle manufactured for the last 40 years without a design change) and little put-put-put motorcycles, and the combined effect is lots of noise and tons of air pollution.  I know that Iran has much better places to offer and I’ll be getting out of here asap.
  • Iran is the only Shiite state and is surrounded by Sunni neighbours, and I’ve already noticed some of the differences between the two faiths.  For example in Turkey the Sunni mosques have long slender minarets on their mosques, the ones here are short and stumpy, sorta "chunky".  One reason I’d prefer to be a Shiite (don’t worry Mum…) is that they only have to prey three times a day as opposed to the Sunni five – that 4:45am wake-up-call call to prayer would really get to me!  I know the differences, which stem from a sort of Great Schism that occurred after the death of the Prophet Mohammed, go a lot deeper than that, and I’m looking forward to hopefully learning more about them.
  • I saw a few women driving cars here today – I definitely didn’t see that in macho male-dominated Turkey!  I also learnt that women fill most (80%!) of the places at university, which was another pleasant surprise.  You see many more women in the black head-to-toe chadors than in Turkey, but a lot of women seem to want to challenge the boundaries of Sharia law by instead wearing a head scarf that shows a lot of hair, a long jacket and jeans.  Oh and it was quite an eye-opener walking through a shopping arcade and just seeing guys clothes being sold!  I guess there’s just no need for much wormen’s fashion…
  • I think I’m already coming to understand that Iran’s greatest asset are its people.  All day I’ve been meeting complete strangers who are extremely friendly, keen to help or practice their English, and who want to learn more about me and why I’m in Iran.  They’re a lot more educated and informed and open-minded than the Western media would have you believe, for example many of the middle class have been educated at universities throughout Europe and the US.  I think this is going to be a great trip (once I get out of Tehran)!

I went to see one of the highlights of the city this afternoon – the National Jewels Museum.  Its an incredible collection of the 17th to 20th century jewels from the Safavid monarchy that was given the arse when the Islamic Revolution came along in 1979 (think: Ayatollah Khomenei).  They say it rivals the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London but I have to say that it beats them hands down!  The sheer amount of exquisite jewellery and the number of loose gems (many in the 200+ carat category) was truly astounding.  The highlight for me was a 34kg globe of the world made out of gold and a staggering 51,366 precious jewels (diamonds used for Iran, rubies for the continents and emeralds for the oceans)!  Oh and Adri if you’ve ever wondered where all those Colombian emeralds went then look no further – they’re all here!  Literally piles of them, along with diamonds from South Africa and rubies from Burma.  I’ve never described something as "priceless" before and mean it, but I think I can now…!

The other "must see" for me on the agenda for tomorrow is the former US embassy, now titled the "US Den of Espionage".  It was here that the CIA planned and executed their first ever coup back in 1953 (aaah the memories…).  It was also the location of the infamous hostage crisis 25 years later, when students (fearing more CIA dabbling in domestic politics) stormed the embassy and held 53 diplomats hostage for 444 days.  You’re not allowed inside the building but the walls outside are covered with the "Down with the USA" and "Great Satan" murals you’d expect.  It should be entertaining…

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