Tehran for tourists

The entrance to the Malik National Museum and Library - an iwan worthy of the Registan.

The entrance to the Malik National Museum and Library – an iwan worthy of the Registan.

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.

Traditional Qajar era artwork.

Traditional Qajar era artwork.

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.

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Tehran – a city of revolutions

Despite my enforced early start yesterday it was still mid/late afternoon by the time I hit the outskirts of Tehran due to all my stuffing around looking for a money-changer and the too-numerous photo stops.

And this landed me smack bang in the middle of Friday afternoon peak hour traffic. Tehran is a BIG city – on a par with London and New York, except the driving is much worse. Much, much worse! Not as bad as Delhi, mind you. Nothing is as bad as the driving in Delhi. Driving/riding in Delhi is beyond description. It has to be seen/heard/smelt/felt to be believed. But at least you don’t have feral goats and cattle in Tehran, just feral M-series BMWs and CLK Mercs.

But I digress.

With a little bit of help from a friendly surveyor I found Ferdowsi St without too much trouble (it would have been a bit hard to miss – it runs due south from Ferdowsi Square. Duh!) But, despite my many attempts, I could not find the hotel in the chaos of the crazed traffic. Eventually I pulled up beside a policeman who seemed to be completely mortified that a western tourist had stopped to talk to him. After a bit of mime and mapping he pointed to a small side street about 100m away. The hotel was not on Ferdowsi Street at all. It fronted a small side street coming off Ferowsi.

The Ferdowsi International Grand Hotel

The so-called mid-range Ferdowsi Hotel was actually called the “Ferdowsi International Grand Hotel”. And it certainly lived up to its grandiose title. One look at the ornate, almost life-size prancing horse statues guarding the entrance and the doorman wearing a cap and jacket said it all.

At first, I was reluctant to even approach the main entrance but the “help” were very helpful and took me to a desk clerk who spoke quite good English. She told me single rooms were 1700 toman/night (which is 17000 rial). This was equivalent to about US$80/night. For what it was the price was a steal. A similar room in Sydney would have been $150-200/night at least. I hadn’t stayed in such a fancy hotel since the Awari Hotel in Lahore nearly 3 months ago. And after the flea-pit in Gorgan I was looking for an upgrade! They also changed money at an unbelievably  generous rate. I took it.

And so the “Ferdowsi International Grand Hotel” became my home for the next few days while I tried get a feel for Tehran.

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The road to Tehran

Yademan Tower in Gorgan: architectural monstrosity complete with revolving restaurant at the top.

Next morning I was up at sunrise. I had no choice. Unfortunately, my room faced east and the morning sun was streaming in through the curtainless window. It was already getting uncomfortably hot so I decided to get on the road as soon as possible before  I started dissolving in a puddle of sweat.

After extricating my bike from the courtyard up a few steep steps and through a narrow gate I headed out to do battle with the early morning trucks and buses.

On the way out of town I passed the new and controversial Yademan Tower in Basij Square. A combination of part spaceship and part 70’s kitsch, the Yademan Tower is Iran’s second tallest tower after the Borj-e Milad in Tehran. An eye-catching piece of architecture for all the wrong reasons.

My goal for the day was to reach Tehran. Originally I had planned to avoid Tehran completely. But, just like my plan to avoid Delhi, my new route took me directly to another megalopolis. The Iranian capital is home to about 10-15million people so I had to steel myself for more high-speed chaos.

But before I got to Tehran I had over 400km of riding ahead of me – 150km along the steamy Caspian coastal plain before heading  south, back over the Alborz mountain range to the relative comfort of the dry desert plains of Tehran/Qom plateau.

And the ride through the mountain pass turned out to be an unexpected joy.

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Gorgan and the Caspian Sea

Carrot jam? Yum – breakfast of champions!

After a somewhat peculiar interpretation of a western breakfast at the Negin Hotel I had a quick look around the city of Bognurd before I headed off. It seemed to be modern and soulless – just like the hotel.

With little of interest to keep me in Bognurd, I headed for Gorgan, 350km up the road. Gorgan is the eastern gateway to the Caspian Sea and to get to there I would have to climb up a low pass that separated the mainly desert province of Khorasan from the very different province of Mazandaran, the thin slice of northern Iran jammed between the Alborz Mountains and the Caspian.

Discussions that I had previously had with travellers who had travelled the Caspian Sea route across Iran often cited the humidity of the Caspian coast as the main reason for disliking it. After living in northern Australian for the last 35 years I discounted this as a plausible reason for disliking any particular region.

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Westward ho!

I had been in Mashhad for 4 days now and, in my travels so far, I had found that 3-4 days was about the right length of time to spend in one place if I wanted to have a decent break without feeling like I was getting bogged down again.

But I was starting to get itchy feet and the time had come to get back on the bike.

The question was – in which direction? For the first time in my trip I now had a choice of routes to take. Apart from the road east to Turkmenistan, there were three major roads leaving Mashhad open to me.

The first option was due west on the main highway via Sabzevar directly to Tehran. This route skirted across the top of the Dast-e Kavir desert and while it was the quickest route to the west it was also the most boring. I had considered this route originally but, with the exception of the ancient city of Nishapur (the birthplace of Omar Khayyam), it did not have much else going for it.

The second option was south-west across the deserts of central Iran, the Dasht-e Kavir and Dasht-e Lut, to Yazd and then on to Esfahan. This had been my original intention as Esfahan is one of the most important historical cities in Iran. However the thought of travelling almost 1000km to Yazd across the dry, flat desert plateau in the height of summer was not very appealling. It would take me at least 2-3 days and there was not much of interest in between. Desert crossings in 35-40° heat had lost all the appeal they had once held for me.

The third option was north-west to the Caspian Sea via Bognurd and Gorgan. For some reason I had never really considered this route. I had spoken to quite a few fellow travellers about the Caspian Sea route. It seemed to have polarised people’s opinion – they either loved it or hated it!

My mind was made up. I would scrap my plan to visit Esfahan and head to the relative cool of the Caspian Sea to see for myself.

It was a decision that I would come to regret.

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The holy city of Mashhad and the Haram-e Razavi

Local women in traditional black chador – they must be airconditioned!

The days were starting to slip away from me in Mashhad. I had been travelling in 35-40° heat almost everyday for 6 weeks now and I was finding it very difficult to muster the energy or the enthusiasm to go out sightseeing during the heat of the day. In any case, many places in Mashhad were shut from about 1pm until 4 or 5pm to escape the heat also.

The one place in Mashhad that I really wanted to see was the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza. The shrine was only a 20min walk from Vali’s. But the problem was we were still in the holy month of Ramadan and the usual daily crowds of thousands of people had become daily crowds of TENS of thousands. The only solution seemed to be to visit the shrine late at night.

And so it was that late one night Simon, the Farsi-speaking Ulsterman, and I walked up to the shrine and managed to join a crowd of Shia pilgrims and make it all the way in to the inner sanctum where the gold lattice cage covers the holy tomb of Imam Reza.

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A few days in Mashhad

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

How would I spend my first day in Iran?

The question sounded ridiculously common-place.

I wandered aimlessly around the streets of central Mashhad for a few hours just to get a feel for the city and its people. Despite the picture painted by the Western media, Iran didn’t appear to be full of terrorists or religious fanatics. The streets of Mashhad were populated by ordinary people going about their ordinary everyday lives.

My first day in Iran? It should have seemed a bit more exotic – but, disappointlingly,  it wasn’t. Apart from the giant posters and murals of Ayatollah Khomeini (and his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei) and the greater number of women wearing the chador I could have been in any big city  in Asia.

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Iran: a return to reality

It was another scorching hot day. I arrived at the Iranian border post at Sarakhs (not to be confused with Sarahs on the other side of the border) about 1pm and it was a great relief to finally leave the twilight zone of Turkmenistan and to be entering Iran.

But with all the bad press Iran receives in the Western media I wasn’t sure what sort of reception I would receive at the border post. I needn’t have worried. The Immigration officers were very professional and one was particularly interested in my travels through Central Asia. Also I had to dig out my carnet again which I hadn’t needed since I left Pakistan. Again I needn’t have worried. The Customs officer was a woman and she was the first person I had met that actually knew how to process the carnet without help. The entire border crossing was conducted in a very logical and efficient manner – completely different to the nightmare in Farap when I entered Turkmenistan. All up, it only took about an hour in total and, suddenly, I was in Iran.

The rocky ridges of the Koppe Dag range made a pleasant change.

Something else that was completely different was the terrain. Shortly after leaving Sarakhs  the countryside changed from low dunes to barren rocky ridges. I had not seen anything other than flat semi-desert plains since entering Uzbekistan from Tajikistan several weeks ago. It certainly made for a pleasant change of scenery.

My goal for the day was Mashhad – still almost 200km away. Depending on the road I reasoned I should make it before sunset.

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To Sarahs and the border

From Mary to the border post at Sarahs was about 270km if I stuck to the main bitumen road. There was a shortcut past the Hanhowuz Reservoir which was much shorter but I had been told the dirt road was in pretty bad condition. I had seen enough bad dirt roads in my travels and this one travelled through a particularly remote corner of Turkmenistan. With the prospect of another 40 degree day I reasoned  that the bitumen may be longer in distance but probably not that much longer in time. And I didn’t fancy the idea of turning up at the Iran border completely knackered from riding 2-3 hours across the desert.

More of the same – low sand dunes and saltbush scrub.

I said a fond farewell to friendly folk at the Yrsgal Hotel and set off to ride the 70km  to the little town of Hanhowuz where I would have to make my final decision about my route. The landscape along the way was a continuation of yesterday’s desert dunes.

On the outskirts of Hanhowuz I stopped beside a police car and asked them about the shortcut. They told me it was closed and not to go that way. No problem. I didn’t really  want to go that way anyway but I thought I should at least make a token effort and ask. Now I knew for certain I only had about 2-3 hours of riding to the border at Sarahs.

From one side of the country to the other – the first road sign in 400km of highway!

And I was glad I chose the easy option because  after about 70 km, at the turn-off just outside Tejen, I would have missed a rare sight – the first roadsign since the border crossing at Farap on the other side of the country! From the turn-off it was about 130km to dusty little border town of Sarahs. In less than 2hrs I would be at the Iran border and my travels  and travails in Turkmenistan would be over.

Exiting Turkmenistan proved to be much simpler than entering Turkmenistan. There was the usual administrivia but  I was amused when the immigration officer pointed to the exit date on my visa and then to today’s date on his desk calendar, recognising that I was leaving on the fourth day – a day early. He gave me a big smile and a thumbs-up!

That just about summed up my impression of the Turkmenistan officialdom. They just don’t want you in their country. Which is quite sad really because that is not the real Turkmenistan. The real Turkmenistan is the ordinary people of Turkmenistan who were some of the friendliest people I had met in my travels so far.

But today was not just about escaping the parallel universe where Turkmenistan is normal. Far more importantly it was about entering Iran. No other country in my travels had provoked such mixed responses from people as Iran. Everything from “paradise on earth” (hardly) to “full of terrorists” (unlikely). The truth, of course, is somewhere between the two extremes.

And I was about to find out for myself.

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Mary and the Hotel Yrsgal

I made a relatively early getaway from Sayat as I had to ride the 50km back to Turkmenabad and refuel. And I was determined to cover as much distance in the cool of the morning before the mercury headed for 40 degrees again. Back in Turkmenabad, for the third time in two days, I refilled the tank at a different petrol station this time, not wanting a repeat of yesterday’s calamity. I was greeted by a young girl dressed in a smart company uniform.

As she filled the tank she asked me, in very broken English, the usual questions: where I was from, where I had been and where I was going. In situations like this the map of the world on my pannier was worth its weight in gold. I could point to Australia, wherever I was at the time and my finishing point. However, I usually said London, not Dublin as most people had never heard of Dublin.

The young girl was able to hold a conversation and fill the tank at the same time without spilling a drop – both of which were well outside “the skill set” of yesterday’s dropkick. For the same reason, I suppose, why adolescent boys shouldn’t work on the checkout at Coles or Woolies!

After my pleasant little interlude with the pleasant young girl, I steeled myself for what lay ahead of me – 250km of nothing!

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