Tehran is probably not on the top of too many tourist’s to-do list. Which is a shame really because it has quite a lot to keep tourists happy. It is bursting at the seams with museums. In fact, one of the reasons the Ferdowsi was recommended to me was because it was in southern Tehran – the old part of the city where many of the museums are located.
Also within a short walk, just past the manic Imam Khomeini Square, was the Golestan Palace complex. Golestan Palace was home to the profligate Qajar dynasty for over 200 years but some of the buildings in the complex (there are about 20 palaces and buildings) are over 400 years old. Like all palaces around the world, the Golestan Palace is a monument to the greed and excess of its royal inhabitants.
But back to the museums. The list of museums seems endless. It includes the National Museum of Iran, the Museum of the Islamic Era, the Malik National Museum and Library and the National Jewelry Museum. Then there is the Carpet Museum of Iran, the Glass and Ceramics Museum, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and even a Post Office Museum. And there are many more museums scattered throughout the rest of Tehran.
As well as these traditional museums there are museums that show the darker side of Tehran’s history. The Iran Ebrat Museum is a truly gruesome reminder of the role that SAVAK, the last Shah’s hated secret police, played in modern Iranian politics by torturing political prisoners. And of course there is the infamous “US Den of Espionage” – the basement of the former US embassy where the CIA planned and executed the 1953 coup that overthrew Mossadegh. But it is usually only open by special request.
After spending the best part of my first day doing the rounds of some of the museums I headed back to the Ferdowsi. With daytime temperatures refusing to drop below 37-38C I was happy to return to my little piece of air-conditioned Iran.
That evening, during dinner, I studied my fellow guests. I was the only western tourist amongst the hundred or so diners. The food at the Ferdowsi was always delicious and generous and everyone at the Ferdowsi was very courteous and friendly.
But I felt there was something missing.
During my wanderings westward, I had met many east-bound travellers who had already crossed Iran. Their unanimous opinion was that Iran was the friendliest and most hospitable country they had visited. Invariably, the conversation would end with “you’ll love it” and “you won’t need to pay for hotels, everyone will invite you home”.
I had been in Iran now for nearly two weeks now and, so far, I hadn’t encountered the tremendous hospitality that Iran is apparently so famous for. I put this down to the combination of the never-ending 35-40C heat and the fact that everybody was in a perpetual bad mood because they had been observing the dawn-to-dusk fast for Ramadan for almost four weeks. I reasoned that all the travellers I had spoken to about Iran had passed through Iran at least 2-3 months ago when it was much cooler and everybody could eat and drink what they liked, when they liked.
Don’t get me wrong. The local Iranian people were unfailingly friendly and polite, but I had not experienced the same hospitality that I had in places like Pakistan and Turkmenistan. Maybe my expectations had been unrealistically inflated by all those “you’ll love its” from my fellow travellers.
Not surprisingly, my reasoning was almost completely wrong. And I found out why through a chance conversation with one of the Ferdowsi’s doormen.
Next morning as I headed out for another day of museums there was a different doorman. The young doorman, Firuz, asked if the BMW parked on the footpath was mine. I confirmed it was and we started chatting as his English was quite good. After the usual quizzing (where are you from, where are you going, where have you been) Firuz asked me why I was travelling alone. Didn’t I have any friends or family travelling with me? I tried to explain my lack of motorcycling companion/s as best I could in this brief doorstop exchange. Firuz then said something that made me stop and listen to him properly.
Firuz said that most Iranians don’t understand why anyone (usually westerners) would choose to travel alone. He added that Iranians were “a bit worried” by such solo travellers. When I queried him about “worried”, Firuz replied he meant both “concerned” as well as “unsure”. All of a sudden I began to understand the Iranian people’s. All of the travellers I had spoken to in the past had been travelling either with their partner or in a group. I was one of the few people who was travelling solo. Firuz added that Iranian families were much more comfortable inviting couples or small groups of foreign travellers into their home than with individuals (who were obviously unpredictable and untrustworthy!).
Happy with my new insight into Iranian family life I set out for another day of playing tourist in this most unlikely tourist city.