I am now so inured to taxi drivers the fact that this one (the only one on this trip who has not at least tried to rip me off) needs to check in with every member of his extended family in order to verify the route from the airport comes as no surprise. And when it also becomes clear he has taken three passes round Tehran to find the hotel it seems not only reasonable but also actually a relief (the third time round had made Tehran seem impossibly huge). Impossibly huge it may not be but it is impossibly chaotic and congested and thanks to the Farsi script almost completely incomprehensible. It is lucky then that 99% of the population have committed themselves to ensuring we feel welcome and supported. In fact we have to develop defensive avoidance strategies, so difficult is it to set foot outside the hotel without being invited to coffee, lunch or even just a protracted chat.
Feeding cats in Tehran. This particular Harvard grad (’68) wanted to take me to lunch just because I asked him whether I could take his picture.
‘Yomadic’ promises us an off-the-beaten-track tour of Iran (one of their other enduringly popular alternative destinations is Chernobyl) and starts it off with a bang at the nest of spies AKA the former American Embassy now repurposed as a museum by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard in their latest iteration as hipsters. We make our way gingerly down an allée of this year’s winners of the ‘Anti-American poster of the year’ competition (for budding high school artists only) and into the embassy itself so our creepily chipper IRG guide can gleefully point out the sights – the Faraday cage to isolate encrypted signals the US helicoptered in when everyone was out of Tehran for the New Year holiday; the dreadful mustard shag pile carpet squares in the Enigma room; the fading photographs of hostages miserably pretending to enjoy Christmas dinner). Sadly he is conveniently is called away before we can muster any probing questions leaving us with our reflections. The two bona-fide Americans in our group of 10 remark cattily that unless the Russians are derelict in their espionage duty their embassy must surely look the same, while the Australian majority look a bit smug that their government has managed to keep its nose relatively clean at least in this respect. The lone English representative looks thankful that UK imperialism has been upstaged on this one occasion, while the outliers (one Irish milenial who is a real sport to come on vacation with essentially her parental demographic, and the as yet inscrutable Icelander, try to look sympathetic). To cheer us up Vahid (our own trusty guide) shows us that the ‘Death to Americans’ wall of shame down the road has been re-translated to suit our PC era. Thankfully, if somewhat surprisingly, the Tehranis loitering outside the museum and in front of the wall continue to profess undying admiration of Americans as well as unlimited invitations to coffee.
And this year’s winners are:
The nest of spies, always better with a diorama
Death to America now made PC. Actual American looking a bit anxious. Thanks to Dave for those pictures, I am too traumatized to take any.
The Goleestan Palace: Just another day on the Peacock Throne. Shah at this stage optional
Just another day in one of the many anterooms, no longer occupied.
Determined to upstage the plaster Shah
In fact why use one decorative theme when six do just as well?
The smallest teashop in the world, Tehran bazaar version: location, location, location.
Another take on take out at the famous Moslem Restaurant. Orders are passed down through the ceiling.
And now for something completely different: Fabulous modernist architecture at the Asari tower.
Impossible to take a bad photo
We visit a shrine for practice. Spot the tourists. Clue – the curtain fabric chador.
Then a quick hop up into the mountains out of the congestion for tea. Where it is snowing.
Not surprisingly Qom, where the revolution was conceived, is one of the most religious cities in Iran. No surprise also that despite us ladies assuming full slipcover chador, and notwithstanding the rumored fatwa to the contrary (apparently fatwa merely means decree, just like jihad merely means community endeavor) none of us is allowed to actually set foot in the revered shrine. Instead we are assigned our own mullah to show us round and answer the most probing of questions, a commendable goal seriously stymied by his meager English vocabulary. Not that there is a lack of mullahs. There they go, strutting to and fro, sporting that 1000 yard stare perfected by irrelevant bureaucrats everywhere. And the faithful from everywhere are certainly here, perkily advertising their origins with headscarves and flags – Indonesians, Lebanese, Azerbaijanis (not taking it too seriously) even a few bona fide Sunni Arabs trying rather unsuccessfully to blend in since they seem to be remarkably tall. Qom has invested a lot into getting the faithful here efficiently: from the 22nd century elevated monorail from who knows where right to the doorstep, to the piles of 21st century aircon tourist buses, this is serious religion taken seriously. We wander around taking it in and no-one pays any attention at all unless we catch their eye at which they offer words of welcome and demand a photo (except for the mullahs who appear not to be selfie addicts).
Just another day out at the shrine. Chador not optional
Only our millenial Deborah can rock the curtain chador successfully.
Hard to quiz the mullah when you’re dressed like a slipcovered sofa.
The faithful contributed 22kg of gold to make this possible.
We aren’t allowed in the good bits. This isn’t even the anteroom
The way in is unfortunately obscured by the ‘Happy Birthday Ayatollah sign’.
Trying unsuccesfully to blend in
And now for something completely different – just down the road.