Our last week in Iran was spent in and around the capital, Tehran. Regarded by outsiders as a busy, crowded and a polluted city with one of the worst traffic in the world. Our first impression fully agrees with that description. Arriving by metro at Imam Khomeini square was a complete chaos. It seems like the traffic doesn’t give a shit about pedestrians; the cars will never stop for you when crossing, even on the rare crossing lanes. The locals seem to know how to deal with this by playing a game of “chicken”, they just cross over boldly without hesitating, forcing the cars to cave in.
Andri trying to cross the busy street. No traffic lights! Total chaos!
We later found out that Imam Khomeini Square, named after their first religious leader, had been known as Shah Square before the Islamic Revolution in 1979. This is not the only example, but many mosques, gardens, squares and streets that had previously been named after the Shah’s, or the kings of Iran, for hundreds of years were now named after their religious leader or ayatollah. Many Iranians still use the old names in protest, but all maps and signs have been changed, which people have to accept. I can’t see this happening in our own country, Iceland. Lets say that our prime minister would now call Austurvöllur, our main square in Reykjavik, after himself, “Sigmundur Davíð Square”. There would be war, I tell you!
We were blessed with our couchsurfing host, Sara, a bright young law student, living with her fiancé, Hamid, a gifted contemporary artist.
Lovely Sara and Hamid
They helped us with everything we needed and were keen on cooking for us different Iranian dishes every night. They represented the perfect example of “Iranian hospitality”. We really enjoyed getting an insight into the life of this young and promising couple. They are both very ambitious and busy in their daily life and dream of moving to Canada one day. It’s not easy for Iranians to move or even travel abroad due to sanctions and economical inflation. For Sara this was frustrating; “Can you imagine living under these sanctions? We can’t even book a hotel or a tour abroad because they don’t accept our credit cards!” she told us. To travel outside of Iran they need undergo a lot of paperwork and show that they have enough assets or properties to proof that they are not trying to escape for work in another country.
Another option is applying for scholarships for international student programs, which is exactly what Sara had done. So she was one of the few Iranian that we had met that had travelled to Europe. Most people have only travelled inside Iran, or at best to Turkey, Iraq or Armenia or other neighboring countries where they won’t get into visa trouble. These restrictions along with censored media might in fact explain how curios many Iranians were to hear about our travels. They seemed to travel through our own travel stories.
Checking out the famous Azadi Tower
There are a number of places worth seeing in this huge city; for example the UNESCO Golestan Palace and the chaotic Grand Bazaar. The most mesmerizing was visiting the former US embassy, that some might remember from the movie Argo, starring Ben Affleck as the CIA agent who managed to get a few American diplomats situated in Iran back to safety during the Islamic Revolution. “Down With USA” painted on a brick wall was the first thing that struck our eyes when we got out from the metro station close to the embassy.
In front of the former US Embassy
It was interesting to see the former USA embassy that now resembled an abandoned ghost house. The revolutionists kept the American diplomats hostage for over a year inside the embassy.
The walls of the embassy were covered with anti-American slogans from the time of the revolution. I guess the propaganda goes both ways.
While driving from south of Tehran to north of Tehran, you’ll see a big change, from the poorer, polluted south to the rich and more modern north. Some might have seen the instagram account “Rich kids of Tehran”, where young rich Iranians living in North Tehran post pictures from their daily glamorous lifestyle, showing off their new sport cars or their new boob job, breaking every rule of the Islamic regime.
As mentioned before the Iranian government requires women to wear headscarves and has strict dress codes. The Iranian women are however well aware of their appearance and would prefer to dress differently were they allowed. Many women try to cover their hair as little as possible and wear tons of makeup and tight jeans. The dress code puts an emphasis on facial features that has created an obsession with perfecting noses! Iran is undoubtedly the land of nose jobs. The women are proud of their nose surgeries and wear their big white nose band-aids in public with pride and distinction. These surgeries are very expensive so it shows that you are wealthy.
There are a number of sights and activities outside the city if you are willing to make a daytrip. We decided to head east to the city Hamadan, known for its nearby Ali-Sadr, the largest water cave in the world. The cave was quite recently discovered, however inside you’ll find pictures of hunting scenes and animals, dating 12.000 years back. Now the cave has been commercialized offering a 2.4 km boat tour inside the cave. We enjoyed visiting the cave but were a bit unhappy seeing a lot of unnecessary signs, for example “water depth 5 m”, “please stay silent”, “smoking prohibited” or “There is only one Allah” with the same signs being displayed repeatedly.
Ali-Sadr, the largest water cave in the world
The only way to enter is by boat
Another must do while in Tehran is a trip to the . After a one hour taxi ride, shared with two locals (5$ each), we reached Dizin, one of the highest ski resorts in the world. The resort has world class pistes, with a lot of off-piste fresh powder for the adventurous skiers, since the locals tend to stay on track. We spent two days in the mountain and managed to rent snowboards and warm clothes for a reasonable price. We were blessed with clear blue skies and a perfect view over Mt. Damavand, the tallest mountain in the Middle-East. The gondolas were pretty scary though, being built in the 60’s. They moved terribly slowly and some doors wouldn’t shut completely. The worst was seeing loose screws here and there.
At the top of the slopes with Mt. Damavand in the background
What a PERFECT day – Blue skies and powder
The day-pass for the slopes costs around 30$, which is a lot of money for many Iranians. Most of the skiers seemed to be quite wealthy wearing the newest ski gear and clothing. Just like in North Tehran you’d see many of the women wearing heavy make up with a “flawless” nose. When you don’t see the women covering their face and wearing ski hats instead of headscarfs, one can easily imagine being skiing in the Swiss Alps. However this image was quickly shattered when a heavily armed soldier asked Ása, politely, to put her hat back on, which had unknowingly fell off for a few seconds. Despite that we really enjoyed our time in Dizin and of course we were offered a free ride back to Tehran, being the only tourists in the mountain.
Happy Ása breaking the rules wearing no headscarf
Are you thinking about travelling to Iran? Read our Ultimate travel guide to Iran here!
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