51. So…. what’s it like?

I’ve spent a bit of time discussing the two questions I got asked most frequently (https://peregrinology.com/holidaying-in-iran-with-kids/ and https://peregrinology.com/50-can-you-even-get-a-visa-to-go-there/), but what was it actually like to visit Iran for us? 

As Brits, we needed a guide with us at all times – which isn’t to say we felt restricted in what we could do, because we didn’t at all – but we were lucky that we had a great guide, with whom we got on very well. If you’re from a country that requires a guide (UK, Canada, USA), your guide will really make or break your experience here, so we were really pleased that we had Mohsen! Without him, we wouldn’t have had even 10% of the experiences, let alone the fun, as well as the candid and interesting commentary that we did.

Mohsen and Hugo drive us down towards Naein while teaching us about the Iranian approach to Health & Safety!

Our first few days were in Tehran – in the Shah’s times (until 1979) this was the ‘Paris of the East’ – famous for its liberal attitudes, its cosmopolitan make up, respected education system…. and even more so for its parties. You still get a sense of this in some ways – it feels very relaxed, it feels lively but not hectic, there’s bustle but doesn’t feel stressful. And the parties still happen…

As we strolled around, we enjoyed the people-watching; families and groups of friends picnicking in parks, drinking tea on street corners, smoking shisha (flavoured tobacco), and enjoying a myriad of restaurants and street food choices. The only place it feels less relaxed is arguably in traffic; best described as semi-organised chaos, somehow everyone gets where they want, and we saw very little road rage (in fact, in our whole trip we only saw two instances of angry words being exchanged on the roads). Crossing the road is a real nerve-tester though, and apparently the key is not to make eye-contact – because then the driver will think you haven’t seen them and will feel morally bound to stop… The exact opposite of the UK principle! So with Mohsen leading, it was eyes down, and into the bedlam!

“We’re going to visit the Carpet Museum” Mohsen announced as we were walking around one morning.

Ok. Persian carpets. Sure, I thought. They’ll be interesting because they’re famous, but they’re still basically just carpets – or rather rugs….

However, a 90-minute trip round the Carpet Museum of Tehran changed my mind on this… We saw the tools they used to make them, saw the techniques – still the same today as hundreds of years ago (for the ‘real’ Persian carpets, at least) – learned about the different styles of carpets in each region and city, and learned about what makes carpets valuable, and it’s not just the obvious things like thread count (the higher the thread count and finer the thread, the more valuable the carpet). The carpets were so beautiful – I said – that I would hang them on the wall as I would a prized painting, but Mohsen looked aghast at the suggestion! ‘No! You must use them! They will become even more beautiful and valuable!’, and it makes total sense when you think about it; using the carpet causes wear on the fibres (especially silk), makes it shinier, therefore prettier, and therefore more valuable!

Depending on the region of origin, carpets depict scenes of everyday life, special events, religious scenes, or patterns:

We also saw how many people it takes to carry one of the larger ones – a team of 14 guys were moving some carpets from the museum storage to a new display – directed by their boss, who was clearly not a woman to be messed with; the carpets are immensely valuable, and much care is needed while moving them around. They were protected from the carrying strops with sheets, and slick co-ordinated movements used for lifting and walking, everyone in sync. It was impressive to see these guys lifting these carpets that can weigh – literally – tonnes.

We spent time lots of time wandering through the streets, we drank tea from roadside vendors (sometimes served, somewhat bizarrely, in Starbucks espresso cups!!), ate hot, sweet beetroot from street carts, and ambled through the Grand Bazaar. Then we got the chance to see somewhere that even Mohsen hadn’t visited before.

We were driving along when he pointed it out; it was a large imposing building on one of the main roads through the centre of Tehran. Then we noticed it was open as a museum. On a whim, we went to check it out.

The catchily named “Den of Espionage” is housed in the former US Embassy. The equally catchy ‘Garden of Anti-Arrogance’ is the area around the building (it barely qualifies as a garden), and houses some old communications equipment. It was too good a chance to miss, visiting this place. Inside, we saw the ‘glass room’ (for Top Secret conversations), the old computing equipment and cypher machines, it was fascinating! The building itself is beautiful. Just walking the grand hallways and seeing the rooms all, basically as they were left in 1979 was really interesting. Plenty of newspaper clippings from the time around (in Persian, but photos aplenty too) on the walls, as well as scraps of American documents partially-destroyed. This, along with the anti-American graffiti on the perimeter walls, was really the only political thing we saw while we were there – something I was glad of to be honest; it’s part of the history of Modern Iran, but it was not a motivating factor in our visit… For that, we need to talk about food and architecture!!

They deserve their own posts, but I will say that I don’t think I’ve ever taken so many photos, or put on so many pounds in the space of two weeks before in my life. Surely a testament to the quality of both…

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