When I was in Yerevan, I got chatting to a friendly German in the hostel. Living in Dubai for the past few years, he’d traveled extensively but when I told him I was going to Iran, he became more lively as the fond memories came flooding back and he told me, “Oh, you’re going to love it…the people are amazing…Because of the situation there they are hungry for life…and the women are stunning. Really beautiful…you’re gong to enjoy all the attention you get. I’m excited for you, man…I wish I was going back!”. I’d heard good things about Iran from other travelers but the enthusiasm this chap displayed reminded me why I was going to the effort of visiting a near-reclusive Islamic Republic. Out of all the places I intend to visit, Iran is the most intriguing. A vast, diverse country, surrounded on all sides by hostile client states of the US Empire, its economy is under serious strain from sanctions imposed by the US and its allies. The rhetoric used over the past few years against Iran in the corporate media of the West has an uncanny resemblance to the lies spouted against Iraq in the lead up to the invasion and destruction of that country (after years of Western imposed sanctions which crippled its economy). Of course, absent from the lies, is any historical context – for propaganda outlets like the BBC, Iranian history begins in 1979, at the time of the Islamic Revolution. But Iran had a burgeoning democratic government up until 1953 when it overthrown by CIA and MI6 in a coup designed to reinstate the hated Shah (king) and reverse Mosaddegh‘s progressive policies and nationalisation of the state’s oil industry. The autocratic Shah regime supported by the US and Britain paved the way towards social unrest and resistance by leftists and Islamists, leading to the revolution of 1979 and the eventual takeover of Islamic fundamentalist, Khomeini. Today, his image is seen everywhere, alongside that of his successor Ayatollah Khamenei and there’s no escaping his influence.
After crossing the border, I head straight to Tabriz, the largest city in the North-West. The first thing that strikes me as I travel along the motorway, is how modern the infrastructure seems in comparison to Armenia. In Tabriz, with the rain lashing down, I’m relieved to find the inside of buildings are more than marginally warmer than outside; if anything, they’re overheated. It’s obvious that fuel is dirt cheap here – the traffic as I enter the city is mahem, and taxis and public transport are a small fraction of what you’d pay in Europe.
Out of convenience I stay the night in a hotel before making contact with a couple of locals who host me and show me around the city. The people here are Azeri (a Turkic-speaking people), who make up around 40% of the population of Iran. They actually call the Azeri language, Turkish and call the Turkish spoken in Turkey, Istanbul Turkish. There are more Azeri living in Iranian Azerbaijan than the former soviet Republic of Azerbaijan and I’m told as we look at a map of Iran, that many here would like to see the ‘head cut off the cat’, with regards to the breaking away from the cat-shaped country. I wasn’t aware that when the Soviets invaded Iran in the Second World War, they soon established the short-lived Azerbaijan’s People’s Government which was retaken by the Shah soon after the war. Education and all official correspondence here is still solely in Farsi. After a short day trip to the snowy cave-town of Kandovar in the nearby mountains, I spend most of the time hanging out in the city and enjoying the fresh local food, which is apparently the best in the country (I can well believe it). For a lucky Western tourist like myself, the cost of living here is dirt cheap. Rials are less than half the value they were a year ago so I get twice as much money for my Euros here. For locals, the situation is becoming increasingly difficult though, as inflation drives prices up and wages become stagnant. Many young people, including my host, would love to leave the country but such economic circumstances make it near-impossible.
After an 8 hour night bus to Tehran, I take the metro to a contact’s apartment in a wealthy part of the city. I have the place for myself for most of the time and while I’m content to not be reminded that Christmas exists, on Christmas day itself, a wee bit of homesickness kicks in for the first time on this journey. I feel better after a long skype session with the family though and move to another host’s place where there are more people around to chill out with. Finding hosts in Iran is as easy as I expected and I spend a three days with a lovely young couple and their mates, who make me feel right at home.
The Tehrani metropolis is a traffic choked, over crowed capital like many others. It’s one of the worst cities in the world for air pollution; the traffic is constant and people drive faster and, how shall I say this, fucking crazier than anywhere else I’ve ever been. There’s no way I could drive here…the margins for error are tiny as cars change lanes at high speed with milometers between them. The only dangerous thing about Tehran, as far as I witness, is crossing the street. For a capital city, it’s incredibly friendly; travelling on the metro, many people stop and ask where I am from while smiling and saying “Ok, welcome to Iran!” before moving on. Getting around the city by public transport is very easy and, as there are maybe around 50 other tourists in the whole city (that’s a complete guess but the whole time I’m there I never see one other Western person on the street), it’s a refreshing place to visit despite the carbon monoxide.
Leaving to head south (towards warmer climes!), I feel like I’d like to return to explore more of the city and get to know more of its people. Tehran has a booming underground scene and culture; I’ve a lot more to write about this but it’ll have to wait till another time. For now, I can say it’s certainly a place I’d like to return to.