After almost a full day inside a bus, we arrived just in time for the rush hour in Tehran, the capital of Iran. Trying to navigate and cycle to our hostel would prove quite the challenge.
We first had to cross the 4 lane expressway somehow, in order to begin cycling the correct direction. We stood around waiting for a moment that would never arrive. Eventually a traffic police luckily stopped the traffic for us to cross to the other side. Traffic was very intense and we felt for the first time that it was rather dangerous being on these roads. We later tried going on smaller roads, which turned out to be one way streets. Walking the bicycles on the sidewalks wasn’t an option either as they were full of people and too narrow for our wide bikes. Eventually we just went back on the busy main road and tried getting an idea of how to become one with the traffic. The idea is to just go with the flow, never stop and don’t look back. If everybody around you drives like an idiot you too have to become one, otherwise you will disrupt the order in the chaos.
People are used to motorbikes zooming in-between the cars. Here it’s also completely normal for motorbikes to be driving in the wrong direction and even on the sidewalks – right outside the shop entrances. Often when cycling in Iran we were met by ‘what the fuck’ moments. One example was a driver who was completely oblivious to the fact that you’re supposed to drive onto the 200 meter long exit lane on the highway if you’re actually going to exit the highway. You’re not supposed to brake to a full stop where the road splits, reverse your car so it stands across the two main driving lanes, then drive back around the corner to exit the highway. At least this person didn’t cause an accident. We’re very happy to have mirrors on our handlebars!
Once we arrived to Tehran Heritage Hostel, which was located in the very city center, we quickly realised this is the hostel all the bike tourers stay at whilst they apply for visas. The courtyard had at least fifteen touring bikes – all in different guises and unique setups. Each day one or two more would arrive. What an exciting surprise! Not to forget mentioning the amount of regular backpackers who also stayed there. We’d spend time socialising with other westerners who also happened to have the same interest as us, namely bike touring, something we hadn’t done for quite some time.
There is plenty to see in Tehran if you have the energy and can withstand the heat in July. The city is like a furnace, and because of the pollution it becomes even hotter. We honestly didn’t do much, but we did travel with the metro to a few parts of the city. The metro is a very efficient way to get around in Tehran and it’s also very cheap and well designed! And of course it’s less likely to end up in a car accident here than in a blistering hot taxi on the roads.
The metro has a separate cart just for women, where no men are allowed. There is no door between the carts that separate them from the mixed gender carts (which usually is full of men, or families), but they have chosen metal bars instead of locked doors so it kind of looks like a prison for women (or the opposite if you’re in the women only cart). They even had waiting benches that were for women only.
Nevetherless, we aways rode the mixed carts. We had plenty of pleasant conversations with random Iranians on the metro so it was always fun to ride it. People would often offer us a seat or spark a conversation out of curiousity. One man even read some poetry in Farsi to us!
The northern (rich) part of the city houses most foreign embassies and a few fancy shopping malls which sell western brands (or perhaps copies of them). We had lunch two times there when we had visa errands, and the malls looked completely out of place. There is a definite contrast between this luxurious northern section and other parts of Tehran. It felt as if we were back in Europe in this fancy modern shopping mall where many people actually spoke English quite well. But they did have a food court! Complete with proper coffee, pastries and various western food amongst the typical Iranian food.
Thea also learned something new about Iranian culture in the mall bathrooms. Apparently, ladies who visit these malls bring specific slippers for their toilet bussiness. Bear in mind the toilets in Iran mostly consist of squatters and public toilets can sometimes be quite disgusting. But here they had a cleaning lady who cleaned the toilets sparkling clean after each use. Just as Thea was about to close the toilet stall door, the cleaning lady snuck in just to show this foreign lady that the toilet was clean for her to use. ‘‘Look, look. Clean!’’ she said with a big smile on her face and polished the bowl with her cloth another time, staring at Thea whilst smiling, before exiting. Talk about an odd situation!
We also stocked up on Rial as we had spent almost everything we had exchanged in Maku. Directly outside any major bank there would be at least five black market guys standing with money belts, ready to exchange whatever amount of dollar you have. This is completely normal – even the locals exchange money here. You could also go to an exchange office, which we did once, but it’s always the same black market rate that was three times higher than the official one. They even had an entire street dedicated to money exchangers and offices in Tehran. People would sit on the street on small chairs with briefcases next to them, full of mint bills in various currencies. It’s very important to count your money, as many tourists get ripped off. This goes for pretty much all cash deals in any country and not just here.
Due to the sheer amount of banknotes you get its easy to get lost counting. After Daniel counted a stack of a hundred rial notes at an office, he noticed the exchanger had “forgotten” that he had received two hundred dollar bills, not one. Luckily we got the remaining 20mm thick stack of notes without any arguing.
It’s pretty funny to see the locals count cash as they have developed a technique for counting fast over the years, using only their index fingers to rapidly flip through the bills. Since Iranian people are tired of naming the price of things in hundreds of thousands or even millions they have come up with a ‘‘simplified’’ way of doing this – Toman.
This means removing one zero. For example 1000 toman would be 10.000 rial, 10.000 toman would be 100.000 rial. 37.500 toman would be 375.000 rial, and so on. But what is even more confusing is that shops often completely remove all the zeroes when they tell/show you the price because its easier to say/type 45 than 45.000 (Toman) when they actually want 450.000 rial.
This, in combination with the official bank rate and the black market rate confused the hell out of us in the beginning. We’d always have to ask if the price was in Toman or Rial, and then calculate in our head into dollars, and from there into our own currency – krona. Everything in Iran is priced according to the black market rate.
When we had dinner together with Sonya and her family in Maku, they kept saying ‘‘this is expensive for us, but cheap for you’’ and the restaurant stated their prices in toman on the menu. So these priced equated to like 8-9$ according to the official exchange rate we had studied into our heads. We were like fuck, this is really expensive compared to Turkey where we spent 2$ for a meal. In the end it was one third of that price due to the black market rate. It didn’t help that the dollar to rial rate was at an odd number, like 38.000 rial/1$ which made calculating prices in our heads even harder.
Confused yet? We’re not even sure we’re correct on this even now.
There is a fun aspect to Tehran as a city. Stores which sell similar products are very often located on the same street or quarter. For example there could be the bicycle shop street, the outdoor shop street, the shoe shop street etc. We wondered how the stores are supposed to compete when they all lie next to each other, door to door. There could be times where they sold really odd and super specific things like door handles or lightbulbs – and you’d have an entire street with shops that sell only door handles. Quite weird huh? At least its easy to find your way if you want to window shop for door handles! You could definitively find most things you need in Tehran.
Sam, whom we met twice in Turkey, arrived to the hostel a day or two after us. We’d do a day trip with him to Tochal, which in the winter is a ski resort residing just north of the city. Sam tried to convince us to do a hike up to the peak at 3964 m (the base is at 1900m..), but we opted to try to take the cable lift instead. Unfortunately it was closed for maintenance so we didn’t get to experience the peak, but we did however get a complete view over the massive city that is Tehran and all of its suburbs sprawling outwards into the desert.
At the base there was a small kind of amusement park, which mostly was closed, but they had an alpine coaster ride that was open! It seemed really unsafe and was probably constructed in the 70’s. So Sam and Daniel decided to ride it! You could gain some serious speed on these tracks, but we didn’t trust the brakes enough to let them go completely. The lanes seemed rather old and had pretty sharp curves. It felt like the cart was going to come loose at every turn.
Other than this we didn’t do much in Tehran besides visa applications and socialising with others. Daniel and Sam visited the Golestan Palace one day. It’s a grand museum/palace and it’s sectioned up so that you have to pay entrance for each part you want to visit. Apparently this is common in Tehran, as we went by another museum which had a whopping 16 different museums within its premise. This would’ve been fine if it wasn’t for the fact that foreigners have to pay upwards of five times the price of locals. It comes in handy knowing the Arabic numerals. We tried to convince the ticket officer we should get a discount from being able to read the prices for Iranians, but he laughed and said no. In the end we chose to just see two exhibitions and the courtyard.
It’s easy to get mixed feelings when you visit superfluous places like this. Even more so when you see how average people struggle with their everyday life around the country. On a good note, there is at least nobody living here. The buildings and its contents are only remnants of history. It is after all part of the UNESCO world heritage list and worth a visit if you happen to be in Tehran. It is a cool place like no other and can probably eat up multiple days if you have a hunger for history.
Who knows, maybe you’ll also meet the funny security guard who loves to practise his English skills.