Venturing into Iran: The Misunderstood Country

K K Tong – My friend and I planned this trip almost 1 year ago [March 2011] into this land where media and even my friends in Singapore deems to be dangerous. I read that this misunderstood country has riches in culture that awaits those who “dare” to venture into its shores. Well the flight to Tehran was rather torturous, partly due to the constantly being awake for food or for landing into Colombo, where our flight makes a short stopover; partly also due to the position that I was trying to get some sleep that is giving me back and neck aches. Luckily the short 9 hr flight was over pretty soon. We spent another 2 hours transiting Dubai Airport and another 2 hours flying into Tehran. This is when all the fun begins! According to my research, Singaporeans are given Visa-on-Arrival, so we headed towards the counter that marks “Visa” to get our visa done. When our turn approached, the staff at the counter asked where we are from. We gladly volunteered the information and told him we are here for tour.

Tehran Airport

He then gave us a blank look and quickly check what seemed to be a list behind the counter. He then gave us another puzzled look and directed us to head towards the immigration control as he said we do not need any visa, now this is very different from what people told me and my researches suggests. I approached the immigration control with some doubts about what I was told earlier on. At the customs, the immigration staff looked at my passport and then me and asked “Visa”? Not knowing what and how to answer, I said “No Visa”. He then nodded his head, punched something into his computer, gave me the stamp in my passport and then I realise I am in Iran! The whole process took less then 5 mins, one of the fastest immigration ever! After claiming our luggage, we met up with our liaison in Tehran. He held a paper with our names on it and was suppose to drive us around in Tehran. On our way to the hotel, the travel agent whom I had liaise with called us, to ensure that we already arrived in Tehran and was brought to our hotel. She had confirmed that someone else will be meeting us later after we checked in to show us around Tehran.

My first impression of Tehran when being driven from the airport to the hotel is there is so much land they have here. Iran is not as backward as I imagined. Along the way there are road signs written in both Farsi and English. It became apparent that we have arrived Tehran as the traffic suddenly built up.

Golestan Palace

I had read about the horrendous traffic condition in Tehran, I did not expect it to be this bad. People are not driving according to their lanes, they merely squeeze into whatever space their car can be squeezed into. The distance between cars are so close that I can open the door of the car next to ours by simply stretching out my arm. What fascinates me more is despite the chaotic traffic condition, I didn’t see any traffic accidents on the road. Driving in Tehran needs alot of guts and it involves both defensive and aggressive, and certainly one need to be very decisive when driving here.

We met up with our guide for Tehran after settling down in the Hotel. Our first stop was the Golestan Palace. I like visiting Palaces as it tells alot about the life back when it was used by the kings. In my mind, I have always thought Palaces are grand, as it usually symbolizes the power of the kings, especially when it is used to hold reception for foreign dignitaries. I was slightly disappointed when we arrived at the Palace, it is not as big as I would imagine it to be. Golestan Palace basically has 4 main buildings within the compound. As we entered the Palace grounds, the first building that was almost immediately noticeable is one where the marble throne was placed at. It is not difficult to spot the throne as it was placed in a very conspicuous platform that overlooked the gardens and the fountains in the palace grounds.

Golestan Palace

As we walked around this building that housed the marble throne, I spotted a marble coffin. Our guide explained that this coffin was used by one of the kings has it is heavily influenced by European culture as there are angels carved on the cover of the coffin. We were told that the coffin is now empty, and placed here to display to visitors the extend of European influence in those days. The next building we visited is the Leeve Halls, where 3 halls are housed. This looks like the reception room and the living quarters of the royalties. The foyer of this building is decorated with mirrors, makes the architecture  of this hall somewhat unique. We headed to the dinning hall, where again the European style is evident here on the pillars. This rather huge hall was where the royalties dine daily in those days.
The next hall we visited is the mirror hall, which essentially looked like a study room of some sort to me. This hall is rather small compared to the other 2, and was heavily decorated with mirrors. Makes me wonder if the king who built this palace likes mirrors or is merely using mirror to make the whole place look bigger. To the left as we exited the mirror hall is the Coronation Hall. Now this hall is the biggest of all 3 and has no trace of European influence in the styling. This hall, as we were told, was used not only for coronation events, it is also used to entertain foreign dignitaries as well. The next so called hall that we visited in this building is the Ivory hall. It looked more like a corridor with 2 chairs and 2 huge ivories displayed.
Golestan Palace grounds

The next building we visiting within the palace grounds is the Edifice of the sun. The distinctive feature of this building is the 2 tall towers and a slightly shorter clock tower. We were told that the original design of these towers do not come with the 2 pavilions that we see on top of these towers. It is later added as the king, after traveling to Europe, liked their structure so much that he ordered his men to add these pavilions to the tower. These towers were the tallest structure in Tehran once upon a time. Too bad we cannot enter this building, else I would love to climb onto these towers and see the view from up there. To the right of this building is another building with 4 wind towers. We entered this building and saw that the main hall was again decorated with mirrors. The unique part about this hall is the doors that slide-opened vertically, used during summer to keep the hall cool. I find this building somewhat boring and uneventful. We went to this building that was converted to some kind of art gallery next. I was getting abit restless by this time, not too sure if it is the art that is boring me or the jet lag is getting onto me. I did a quick browse through of this part, and quickly exited the building. It seems this is the last stop of the palace. As we were walking back to our vehicle, our guide asked if we wanna take a quick look at the Tehran Bazaar, the biggest bazaar in Tehran.

Tehran Bazaar

We did not object to it and indeed we took a quick walk through of the bazaar. It is rather crowded here as it is close to the Iranian new year and everyone is out shopping for new year. The bazaar was huge and was arranged in sections, some sections are selling textile, some spices and other selling clothing. One can find almost anything they need for household here. We were brought to this lower part of the bazaar selling Persian Carpets. There are tons of shops selling carpets and some of them are really nice. We were told briefly the different types of Persian rugs and how to recognize them. We spent about 30 mins in the bazaar before heading to our next stop.

After some turns here and there on the vehicle, we arrived at somewhat looked like a bank. Before long I realised we were at the Jewels Museum. My first impression of the Jewels Museum when I first read about it was it is rather boring, perhaps some place that showcases jewelery and nothing much. The security for the museum was very tight, all electronic equipment including mobile phones were not allowed inside the museum. What’s the big deal, I thought to myself, well just follow the protocols I guess. As we entered into the vault, we saw the famed Peacock throne, decorated with gems and gold, the throne was very impressive and certainly costed alot! As we went through the museum, I was taken aback by the number of precious gems, gold and jewelery that was up on display!

Tehran National Museum entrance

A handful of any of these is sufficient to feed my whole family very well! As if I am not impressed enough, the crown of all jewels here was the Sea of Light – the largest pink diamond in the world! At first it looked like an ordinary diamond, as one bend down and see the diamond at eye level, it is pink! I was jokingly telling our guide, the value of this diamond is enough to feed 10 generations in luxury! After going through the Jewel Museum, I realise it is very worth visiting! Never in my life I have seen so many precious stones, jewelery and of course the largest pink diamond in the world!

We headed for the National Museum after leaving the Jewel Museum. I was more excited about visiting this place as I had read that visiting this museum can give us a better idea of the history of Iran and how things come about. It was rated as one of the “must-go” in Tehran. As we had arrived the museum, we were informed that we have to deposit our camera . Usually it is allowed to be brought into the museum, but the Cyrus Cylinder was on display this period, therefore cameras are not allowed (I was thinking what’s the big deal?). As we entered the museum, our guide brought us to this gigantic 3d map of Iran and explained to us the different regions and the normads. As we were going through the artifacts on display in the museum I was getting rather bored! It is not as impressive as I imagined it to be and out of the displays, I can only remember this 500,000 year old tooth that belonged to a 14 year old boy and this huge rock carving they took from Persepolis to be displayed here. The rest of the exhibits are bowls, pans, weaponary. Not really my cup of tea. We headed to the 2nd floor where the Cyrus Cylinder was displayed. This artifact originate from Iran, and it is now on loan from the British Museum. What an irony, the country’s historical artifact actually had to be loan from some other countries.

Dinner!

This cylinder was fabled as the world’s first human’s right charter! As we exited the museum, I saw a replica of the Cyrus cylinder for sale, I immediately bought one. The packaging was rather unique, in a wooden crate box. Before heading back to the hotel to rest for the night, our guide brought us to this gate, which was used as a tourist symbol of Iran. Well this gate certainly looked old, and behind this gate was what used to be a runway for aircraft. We snapped some pictures and headed back for our vehicle.

As we were heading back to our hotel, we asked our guide if there is any good Persian restaurants around our hotel. We were pointed to this restaurant that is just round the corner and decided to give it a try after we leave our things in the hotel. We headed for the restaurant, seriously if the guide hadn’t pointed out we wouldn’t had known there is a restaurant here. The entrance does not seem to suggest what is brewing behind the doors. As we enter into the restaurant, it looked very empty. No customers were in sight. We thought they might have closed and asked the waiter, he told us they have just opened for business and ushered us to a table. We ordered some kebabs and tea and found out that they got our orders mixed up after we finished the food and was chatting with the waiter. The apologetic waiter immediately brought some tea for us as what seem to be a gesture of apology, certainly hope these do not come out from his salary. After dinner we headed back to the hotel to rest for the night, as we were rather tired from the night flight, plus we had to wake up as early as 3.45am the next day for our flight to Shiraz.

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