Landing in Tehran for the first time is strange, at least it was for me from where I sat in the plane. The announcement came over the tannoy that we were about to land but when I looked out the window, all I could see was desert and a mountain range.
As hard as I looked I couldn’t see a city let alone a runway to land on but sure enough within minutes we were on the tarmac and a sea of ladies were covering up their hair with headscarves.
Obtaining an iranian visa
I didn’t believe it was possible to get a visa on arrival but for most nationalities its a relatively easy process. This is not the case for British, American, Colombian, Canadian, Bangladesh, Iraqi and Jordanian passport holders who must arrive with the visa.
Firstly you don’t need to bother buying the insurance at the airport, I did but mainly because I got in the wrong queue. I’m still not sure of its purpose but it cost me US$18 and I never needed to prove I owned it. Clearly a successful and worthwhile purchase.
The actual visa process is pretty simple actually. First I joined the visa queue and was given a document with the hand-written amount to pay which turned out to be US$120 for a New Zealand passport holder (seems excessive considering I can travel repeatedly to America freely for US$14). I paid my visa fee in the bank queue, had it signed, jumped back in the visa queue and handed in my passport. Then I sat back, put my headphones in, tried for free Wi-Fi (failed) and waited for my passport to be handed back. The whole process took me approximately 1hour which isn’t too bad considering. I’d been told I needed to have an application number but I didn’t bother, they issued one on the spot which I understand is common. Keep in mind different nationalities pay varying amounts and you’ll need US$ or EUR in cash.
Getting To Your Hotel
The drive from the airport takes 1 hour and there’s an endless sea of taxis outside to take you to your hotel in the city centre. The fact it takes an hour is probably why I saw nothing from the air. The ‘official’ taxi sign says it costs 700,000 rials to anywhere in Tehran which is approximately about €20. I tried bartering but they all just pointed to the sign and judging by other taxi fares I took this seems right.
Drivers in Tehran are crazy – they have a non-invasive death wish allows them to drive like lunatics so long as no cars get scratched. I never feel unsafe in countries when all the motorists are crazy because they are used to that driving, it’s only strangers who aren’t and it takes a little getting used to. I was once in a bus in Egypt where the drivers changed at top speed along the motorway, that should give you an idea.
Where to stay in Tehran?
I’m in the unique position that most places were fully booked due to Narouz Festival (Iranian New Year) so honestly, I took what I could get. I stayed at Iranshahr Hotel which was a lucky find in a great area of the city, close to metro links (yellow and red), had a restaurant and cost US$91 for a single room (although this dropped to US$55 after Narooz). Breakfast is included and staff are super friendly. They were doing some work with concrete drills which I found out at 7 a.m but I would stay here again.
Using the money is confusing at first because they round zeros off the notes. Whenever I got coins they were worthless. Iranian people took great delight in laughing at me with a pocket full of them. Basically for me it worked like this:
– When I bought something, asked how much it was and told 2,000 rials, it wasn’t. It was 20,000 rials which to me seems like a lot of money for a 3 small packets of tissues, but it wasn’t. It was about .57cents.
– When I bought something and was told it cost 20, it didn’t. It cost 200,000 rials which seems like a lot of money for a short taxi ride, it wasn’t. It translates to approximately US$5.70.
– If I got coins I left them in the street, and 1,000 rial notes are as good as toilet paper
Essentially they have another currency called Toman which is one less zero, and in some cases with a round number they just leave off all the zeros but one. The expression was literally a lucky dip when I opened my wallet for the first few days, and then it all made sense. Basically it’s 34,500 rials to the US$1 and 40,000 rials to GBP1 so if it didn’t sound excessively expensive then I had it wrong. Keep in mind the currency fluctuates wildly.
Top tip: There is a money change downstairs at the airport by the luggage belt but don’t change money here. Head upstairs (even though it means leaving arrivals) and you’ll find the rate is much better but only exchange enough for the taxi and a meal as the rate is much better in the city. Change money in any of the banks or money shops but not on the street as I was told there was a lot of counterfeit bills.
Narouz Festival – Happy New Year
So what is there to do in Tehran? I could probably copy out the Lonely Planet for you but what I found travelling to Tehran over Narouz was that a lot was closed or the queues were long as people had travelled from other cities to see family. To be honest, I get more from walking around new cities and getting a feel for the place than I do the inside of museums.
What to do in Tehran
The Tehran Bazaar was closed and only a handful or market traders had opened. The Golestan Palace was closed for the majority of the day and when it opened the queue was too big to waste my time so I explored the streets and rode the metro to discover new pockets of the city.
Early in my day an older gentleman said hello and seizing the opportunity with an English speaker, asked him where to change money, how to pay for certain things and a host of other questions. He stayed with me most of the day giving me a free guided walking tour and explaining the living history of Iran, finishing in a tea and shisha cafe where he wrote things for me in Persian which I wanted. Smoking shisha is something I miss ever since I stopped smoking cigarettes and it really wouldn’t take me long after blazing away on a shisha pipe before I would start again. I simply sat and savoured the sweet aroma of apple tobacco being burnt and then cooled through water.
When I was riding the metro, young people would ask me if I needed help and leave the train long before their station to show kindness. A lady at the train station before I travelled to Yazd asked me if I needed translation and sat with me for an hour whilst I ploughed her with questions. Another family made sure I found my train and seat without issue, whilst a different family fed me sandwiches, cakes, fruit and pumpkin seeds for 6 hours. All I could think was would this happen in the West and would I personally do this to a foreign family I saw in my city? Acts of pure kindness like this are a pretty awesome welcome to a new country, especially one which people make wildly judgemental comments about.
On the metro, keep in mind there are women only carriages which only women can sit in (obviously), but it is fine for women to join any other carriage as well and you will frequently see couples in mixed sex metros.
Worth checking out in your free time in Tehran are the following, most of which I did not see form the inside but after speaking with locals and tourists, these came highly recommended:
– Golestan Palace – should be on every travellers list
– Darband – apparently this is quite touristic but well worth seeing and offers spectacular views over Tehran. If you’re looking for a tour try Urban Adventures
– Tehran Bazaar (obviously) because who doesn’t love a bargain!
– Azadi Tower is nice at sunset and right beside the metro station
– National Museum of Culture because sometimes a smattering of culture is good for the soul. Plus it came highly recommended by the Ministry of Affairs whom I just happened to bump into on my travels.
One thing I absolutely loved about Tehran, is I could be in the city surrounded my buildings, look up the street and see mountains covered in snow. It’s these wonderful differences I like to remind me I am in another country.
Before boarding the train to Yazd I took the metro out to Azadi Tower which is a sight to see. I honestly don’t think I could describe the structure if I tried but it feels very Central Asia and similar to what I saw in Uzbekistan. I sat there and watched as the sun lowered from its vantage point high in the sky and watched as locals and young love picnicked nearby.
Tehran may not have been high on my hit-list initially but it won me over through human kindness and sweat tea. People of Iran I salute you!
Happy travelling folks!
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