Tehran - Day 1
I flew into Tehran, via London, and landed just after 4am local time. The direct flight from London was great and I was lucky enough to be beside a sound Iranian girl who shared some insight into the country and some tips for Tehran too. Iranians are renowned for being bang on, and it wasn't long before that was apparent on the plane as they chatted with every foreign tourist to give them some tips for their stay. As we landed in Tehran, every woman on the plane immediately donned their scarf, in line with local customs. Very surreal.
After spending 30 minutes in the wrong queue I managed to find the visa on arrival office and bumped in Big Sam there too. The visa system was a bit of craic and the man running the show was loving it. After paying €75, the visa was quickly processed and I was told I needed to buy Iranian insurance. I went over to the lad a couple of times explaining my insurance didn't cover Iran. He just smiled and said: "You'll be grand" and waived me away. First time I've never been robbed by an insurer!
We grabbed a taxi and made our way to the hostel in the city centre. The traffic was pretty mental but we arrived around 9am and went straight for a nap as we were wrecked after some brekkie. 2 hours later we were up and out seeing Tehran with another Ozzie lad, Scott, from the hostel. We had our first and most definitely not last kebab in downtown Tehran, changed some money and had a wander around the city. First up was a stop off at Golestan Palace, pretty impressive and home of 7 previous Shas, Not an O'Shea in sight though. We then moved onto the main bazaar for a wander which was manic and then onto the metro during rush hour back to the hostel to book flights and have some tea. As there is not a huge nightlife per say in Iran, we found a local pool hall run by some super friendly locals and had a few shots of tea. En route back to the hostel we stopped off at another kebab restaurant for an amazing dinner. Kebabs in Iran are not like the crap you get served on Camden Street at 4am, but proper meat with fresh bread and vegetables. Some locals joined us for the end of our meal and a quick photo. We were pretty wrecked so decided to call it a night after a quick tea night cap!
My body was in a bit of shock the next morning to wake up in a new country without a massive hangover. We had some breakfast, sorted out onward travel and went out to see the rest of the city. The three of us first stopped off at the British Embassy in Tehran which is famous because the Iranian government named the street outside after Bobby Sands to piss of the UK government. Cheeky!
We then decided to walk a fair distance to the former US embassy which is now infamous after the movie Argo. We met a local student en route who decided to accompany us all the way. He was super friendly and pretty gas. He couldn't get over the fact that we didn't have girlfriends in our late twenties. "Why not?"..."Eh..it's just easier". After saying I looked younger, I joked with him saying "Nivea soft does wonders". He wasn't too impressed..."Me? I've no time for make up!". Lost in translation I'll put it down to.
The embassy was pretty cool and slightly eerie with a lot of anti US art work on the outside. We tried to enter and were promptly kicked out. Whoops. One thing that we noticed quickly in Tehran was the amount of women (and now men) that have nose jobs. We must have seen 20 or so people that morning walking around with white plasters on their nose and black eyes. We asked a few locals what the craic was and they told us its super popular as it can be relatively cheap and is a sign of affluence.
For lunch local falafel was on the cards and was pretty delish. Full to the brim we jumped on the metro again and made our way across the city to the Azadi Tower which was built as a homage to the 1979 revolution and something I've wanted to see for years. It was a bit of a maze to get to but once we got some pics we got a taxi back across town to another bazaar which was crazy busy. Scott was showing a bit of calf (Aussie fashion!) which is a no-no in Iran and we promptly had to leave after getting a few dirty looks. We made our way back to the hostel on metro pretty wrecked and went for some take away kebab (even better than before) and local ice cream. We kept up our Iranian ritual of a few games of pool before heading over to a Shisha bar around the corner. We were with a German girl at the time who was kindly told "No Madame" when we all tried to enter. She wanted to head back to the hostel so once we walked her back, we made our way back to the Shisha bar and spent a great few hours with the locals who shared their food and had the chats.
As time was of the essence we knew the next few days were going to be manic as we were aiming to get to as many towns as possible in order to arrive in Shiraz in the south in 4 days time. So we were up at 8am, scoffed some breakfast and went across the city to the bus station making a few friends on the way. We arrived 5 minutes late for the bus so were assuming we were fecked. Wrong. Iranian bus drivers are not like those in Dublin. We showed some random driver our tickets and he said "follow me" and sprinted up some stairs and into the bus terminal. 5 minutes later having run a couple of km we were sitting on the bus en route to Kashan. Irish bus drivers should take note!
We rolled into Kashan just after 11am and got a taxi to the hostel which had a beautiful courtyard and was one of the most unique hostels I've ever stayed in. Luckily for us the infamous Agha Bozorg mosque was just across the road so we stopped off there first. A local gave us a quick tour and we then headed to the Old Town to visit some of the historical houses and have some local Iranian dishes...delish yet again. Next up were some ancient bath houses before we got into a disco taxi with a guy called Mohammad who drove us 15km outside the city to a very famous mosque (name escapes me). As we arrived we noticed something was different and realised we had gate crashed a funeral as we saw the open casket pass up and hundreds of mourners all dressed in black throng into the open square. We tried to be as respectful as possible and luckily nothing was said. Once they left we got a few pics and jumped into a shared taxi with a student and a Muslim preacher. Definitely the most random taxi ride of my life. We bid our farewell to the preacher and got back to the hostel to sort out our travel for the next day.
For the evening we visited the local bazaar which had a bit more space than Tehran and had some chicken sandwiches for dinner...not the best but it hit the spot. We met a group of local ladies in the restaurant who were mad for a few pics. We got a couple ourselves but I made the mistake of tapping her on the arm when asking for one. Not advisable! We then jumped into a taxi and went across town to another pool hall (becoming silly now) and played for a few hours before heading back to the hostel for some tea and relaxed in the beautiful courtyard.
We were up at 7am and after a quick check out we got a taxi across town to the bus station and were en route to Esfahan. Two locals girls from Esfahan gave us some tips of things to do and seeing the city also which was pretty nice. Esfahan is known for being the most popular tourist spot in Iran. An hour after we arrived it was easy to see why.
The taxi man dropped us off at the hostel and once we dropped our bags we headed out into the city. First stop was another Jamee mosque, which was pretty impressive. We were very peckish so decided to have some local food (think it was lamb) in the bazaar along with some local drink called Doogh...not the best. We then made our way across town to the main square, called Naqsh-e Jahan, and walked around the numerous shops picking up some gifts. Just outside the main mosque we decided to have a few kicks and were joined by a local kid who was pretty decent! Al Daei the 2nd!
We were invited into a carpet shop for some tea with locals who were trying their best to make the sale, but with no luck. After 15 minutes or so we continued to stroll around the plaza which is one of the most impressive I've ever seen. After some pics, we went for some more walking around the city centre and had some ice cream of course. Throughout the day all the locals were saying "Hello" everywhere we went! We needed to rest our little legs so chilled in the hostel for a couple of hours before finding a lovely kebab shop for dinner. Esfahan has a very famous bridge (Kahju) which lights up at night time, so that was a must after dinner. We crossed the bridge as the electricity went out on one side of the city sending it all into darkness. Once the lights came back on we did what we do best and found a pool hall across town! It was owned by a local family and they were amazed to see Westerners there. We chatted, took photos and before leaving gave them a small Irish pendant which they were delighted with! We couldn't find a taxi after so decided to walk home which was a bit of a trek. En route we walked by a religious festival that was just kicking off. It was the beginning of a 4 day long celebration of a martyr. The mosques were giving out free tea to all passers by and invited us over for a cuppa and a chin wag. So friendly.
We eventually found our way home having wandered for about 45 minutes and immediately crashed. We knew we'd be up early again for another bus!
Like normal we were up early at 7.30 am, had a quick shower, checked out and headed to the bus station. We managed to arrive just on time to catch the bus to Yazd, a famous desert town further south. We both caught up on some sleep on the bus as we drove through endless desert countryside and rocked into Yazd just after 1pm. After a quick haggle with the taxi man we made our way to the famous Silk Road hostel, which was full but it's sister hostel Orient Express had some space...not to mention the most amazing Iranian woman (Fatima) on reception!
We dropped our bags off and went back to Silk Road for some curry before checking out the city. Yazd isn't the biggest city in Iran but is unique in that all the building are the same sandy brown, but also a number of large mosques that standout in the skyline. First up was another Jamee Moque (impressive), followed by the main square, Amir Chakhmagh, and the Fire Temple. The Fire Temple is pretty impressive as it holds a flame that has been burning for 1500 years straight. Imagine the gas bill!
We continued to walk around the city for another hour or so visiting some bazaars but were pretty tired having walked a lot in 30 degree heat wearing long pants! The sunset from the hostel rooftop was one of the best I've ever seen and added to when prayers began to be echoed out across the city. Unfortunately Yazd doesn't have a pool hall so we decided to take it handy and headed out for some kebab dinner before checking out a local sport, Pahlevāni and zoorkhāneh, in an underground mosque almost. It is pretty hard to explain but it is a sort of ancient gym in Iran whereby guys lift weights and dance. Pretty impressive! There were a load of tourists in the gym, but we must have been the only 2 under 60. One lad was even passed out asleep in the corner!
En route back to the hostel we grabbed some ice cream and spent the evening in the awesome courtyard having the chats with the owners and Fatima (I'd convert). As we got into bed we met a French guy who was also sharing the room with us. In what can only be described as one of the most bizarre hostel moments of my life he said, in a French accent: "Oh 2 semi naked men in my room...what did I do to deserve this?". After swapping incredulous looks with Sam, the lad continued, "Shall I get my little dress out?". Needless to say, not one wink was had that night!
We were up at 9am the next morning for breakfast and to check out. We knew there was a bus at 10.30am to Shiraz, but arrived a couple of minutes late. As we arrived a bus driver told us we could make it, made us buy the ticket and then told us it was for the 12.30 bus....hustler! It actually worked out well in the end as it meant we had 2 hours to kill in Yazd so we made our way across to the Tower of Silence which is a burial pit at the top of a hill in which they used to hold funerals in the past. We climbed it and had unreal views of the desert city. Sweating profusely we made our way back to the bus station and were on the way to Shiraz!
We rocked into Shiraz pretty late at around 7pm having seen some amazing views on the way. We checked into our hostel, got a pretty nice room and asked for the best kebab shop in town. Up there with the best of my life! They even organised a taxi to the nearest pool hall after. After a few games we decided to have an early night and walked back, bumping into the huge religious festival that was just kicking off. It was like the Iranian version of St Patrick's Day! We headed back to the hostel, had some kicks with the owner's son and then went to the room. I needed my leaba!
We were up early at 8am to change rooms and have some delish breakfast. Once in the bedroom, we headed outside and jumped in a taxi to bring us to the infamous Persepolis, which was an ancient kingdom burnt to the ground by Alexander the Great 1500 years ago. The taxi man was bang on and knew Robbie Keane and had a decent knowledge of Irish geography too! Persepolis itself was incredible to see and one of those untouched tourist sites you can get right up and close to! Some of the buildings were incredible given how old they were and the fact Alexander was a bollox trying to burn it all! After a couple of hours wandering through in the roasting heat we hooped back in the cab and made our way back to Shiraz in the late afternoon. We went to the first kebab place we could find. After 20 minutes or so, a homeless guy wandered in and the owners sat him down and served him a slap up meal. Sound out!
We were pretty wrecked after such an exhausting day so just decided to chill in the courtyard for a few hours reading, watch the owners have a pray and downed a few cups of cha! After a quick shower we went out for some shopping in the bazaar and then out for another majestic kebab. Full to the brim our mate Ali sorted a taxi for us to the pool hall for another couple of hours of playing. All pooled out we walked back to the hostel and spent some time watching the religious festival, now in its second day. The Iranians know how to honour a lad!
On our last full day in Iran we were up early enough as there were still a good few things we wanted to check our in Shiraz. After checking out we headed out to the main mosque in the city just around the corner. On the way we met a huge group on students who treated us like celebs and wanted to know everything possible about where we were from. Their teachers them joined the melee and were super sound and even gave us a religious gift for the martyr lad. Top lads!
The mosque itself was unreal, although security was pretty tight for the first time of the trip. The didn't like the look of Sam. We managed to sneak into the main part of the mosque for about 30 seconds before being kicked politely out. Afterwards we went for a stroll around the Old Town and visited the Vakil Bazaar where we finally purchased things! Next door was the impressive Vakil mosque and the city's amazing fort was just around the corner. We decided we had one more mosque left in us after 7 days of non stop mosques so made our way across town to the Nasir Mosque which had an amazingly beautiful courtyard. We had a flight to Tehran later that evening so headed back to the hostel to pick up our stuff, with a quick stop off for one last kebab. One of the cheapest but potentially best of the trip! Once we grabbed our bags, we hopped in a taxi and made our way to the airport. The airport itself was great craic and must be the first time I've ever got a handshake and fist pump from the security guards. "Robbie Keane!"
We were a tad nervous about the flight as the planes were pretty old but it was as smooth as a baby's arse and we landed in Tehran at 8pm. We taxied it across town to the same hostel (Seven's Hostel) from our first few days an dropped our bags off. After some food and chilling in the courtyard, my bed was calling me as I had to be up at 4am for my flight back home. A few hours later I was at the airport (with pretty impressive queues) and en route back to the Emerald Isle!
Iran was without doubt the friendliest country I've ever visited. The locals are so hospitable and eager to learn more about your home country. They also want to ensure you have the best experience possible during your stay in Iran as a lot of what is reported in Western media is bull. The country still doesn't have a huge tourism industry which makes it the best time to go visit some of the most amazing mosques and historical sites on the planet. The kebabs aren't too bad either!