Iran: Arriving in Tehran

October 2003


I arrived in Tehran after a long days travelling from Dorset. I had an indirect flight from London to Istanbul, where I had a five-hour wait for a connecting flight to Tehran. Five hours at any airport is a long time and it was with relief that the departures board finally indicated that my flight was ready for boarding. The flight only took two hours and thirty-five minutes and landed at Mehrabad International Airport at 01.30 on Sunday morning. When planning this trip I found that most international flights arrived in Tehran in the middle of the night. It wasn't ideal, but then again I guessed that taxi drivers and hoteliers in the city would be used to tourists arriving at strange hours of the night, and my arrival was probably not exceptional.

I stepped down the steps of the aircraft into the pleasantly warm night air and set foot at last, after all these months of planning, on the Islamic Republics soil. A short trip in an airport bus deposited us outside the arrivals hall, where all the locals ran to the immigration desk to beat the queues. I walked casually preparing myself mentally for the onslaught of Iranian bureaucracy at the immigration control and customs. As it turned out a breathed through the formalities, not having to answer a single question at immigration. Obviously the battle had taken place the previous month at the embassy in London to obtain the visa. While waiting for my luggage to appear on the carousel I changed US$100 at the branch of the Melli Bank. I left with a very large wad of 10,000 rial notes and was glad I didn't change any more as I very soon ran out of places to hide it. The exchange rate was 8,335 rials to the dollar.

Despite it being 02.00 in the morning the airport was packed with people. I made my way to the taxi kiosk to buy a ticket for downtown. The kiosk is a brilliant idea, as you no longer had to deal and negotiate with individual drivers. 30,000 rials paid for the trip. Unfortunately when the drivers heard that I wanted to go to the Hotel Mashad on Amir Kabir Street, they all refused to take me. It turned out that the drivers would get a commission from most hotels for dropping off guests from the airport. Of course the drivers knew that they wouldn't get any commission from taking me to a cheap place like the Hotel Mashad. Eventually a driver decided to take me and I climbed into a white Paykan, the national car of Iran and headed into the city.

The Paykan is to cars what the Klashnikof is to guns. The cars are unstoppable and even if they do breakdown, anyone can fix them on the side of the road. The car is an exact replica of the old British car, the Hillman Hunter, which went out of production in Britain decades ago. Only a few years ago up to 90% of cars on Iranian roads were Paykans, although today I believe that production of this classic Middle Eastern car has ceased. Imports are beginning to replace it; the Kia Pride seems to be a popular choice amongst Iranian motorists. The paint shop department at the Paykan factory must have had the same philosophy as Henry Ford; you can have any colour Paykan you want as long as it's white. This gave the chaotic streets of Tehran an unusual uniformity, as identical Paykans, in various states of disrepair battled for the finite road space available.

Arriving in the middle of the night saved me the trauma of Tehran traffic. For a few hours at least, that would have to wait until daylight that morning. I picked up a few clues as the taxi shot through one red traffic light after another. The driver commented that the police are sleeping, so people drive however they like. The journey didn't take long as the roads were clear and the traffic moved freely and quickly. Along the way the driver tried endlessly to get me to change my mind about which hotel to stay at. Every other sentence he would tell me that the Hotel Mashad is shit. 'It is shit, shit, shit! Why you want to stay there? Look here is a nice four star hotel, only US$50 a night!' The journey continued like that the whole way stopping in front of smart hotels, where he would proceed again to tell me how great this hotel was and how shit the Hotel Mashad was. Finally we arrived outside the Hotel Mashad on Amir Kabir Street.

'Look, the place is shit. You don't want to stay here, I can take you to a nice hotel for only US$50 a night', the driver explained, almost pleading with me in a last ditch effort to get me to change my mind. 'Yes, but this hotel is only US$3 a night, that is why I stay here. My friends recommend it to me, they say it is very good', I reply, still smiling despite the lateness of the hour.

With a resigned look the driver gave up and opened the boot and I retrieved my backpack. Just then the window on the first floor opened and the manager looked out, saw me and rushed down to unlock the door. I took a double room and by 02.45 collapsed on a rather rock-hard bed and tried to sleep. As I would soon find out travelling around the country from hotel to hotel, the majority of beds were as hard as concrete and the pillows were more the density of sandbags than goose down. I thought that after such a long and tiring day I would have been asleep in a moment, but it seemed to take hours, my head spinning with ideas and thoughts about Iran before I finally fell asleep.

During the night I dreamed of this thunderous noise but soon woke to realise that it wasn't a dream but the five lanes of traffic on the street below me. I crawled up the bed at around 07.30 and peered through the threadbare curtains at the chaotic street below. When I arrived last night there wasn't another car on the street, now the traffic could hardly move as a huge swathe of vehicles fought its way along Amir Kabir Street. I did my best to try and catch a few more hours' sleep but I couldn't win against the noise from the street. By 09.30 I gave up and my first day in Tehran began.

My first priority was to move to a quieter room at the back of the hotel away from the street; the noise from the traffic was deafening. Once this was done I went to visit the offices of the Mountaineering Federation to find out some information about guides and trekking on Mt Damavand in the Alborz Mountains, north of Tehran. I hadn't managed to find much information on trekking this mountain before I left home and thought that the federation offices would be the best place to start asking questions. The helpful manager from the hotel also accompanied me that morning to their offices next to the Shahid Shirudi Sports Centre on a side street off Mofatteh Street.

We walked out of the hotel and were hit by this wall of noise, it was quite shocking the level of noise as five lanes of traffic thundered past, every truck, bus, car and motorbike fighting for every inch of road space. To talk to anyone on the street you had to almost shout to make yourself heard. Before we could go anywhere, we first had the challenge of crossing the road to reach a taxi parked on the opposite side. In any normal city this task would not pose too many problems, but this was Tehran and crossing a road is a life or death situation. Crossing the road is definitely not for the faint-hearted or those with a nervous disposition. The only way to do it is to have faith in Allah and step into the road and weave through the passing traffic as it swerves around you, while keeping an eye out for any vehicles coming up the wrong side of the road (taxis reversing is a common hazard). Hesitation is lethal and you have to keep inching your way through the traffic with a definite sense of purpose. This is so that the drivers know that you are going to walk in front of their car and that no matter how much they hoot at you they are going to have to go around you. Once you make it to the pavement on the other side, check for motorbikes, and then you're safe until the next crossing.

I can honestly say that I have never seen such bad traffic and driving as that in Tehran. I can only compare it to the chaos of Damascus, the total disregard of road rules of Beirut and the volume of traffic of Cairo, all thrown together in a city of ten million plus people. The worst offenders were the motorbikes; they seemed to be exempt from any laws. They rode on the wrong side of the road; up one-way streets the wrong way (even at night with no headlights!) and even rode along pavements when there wasn't enough room on the road. Every vehicle fought for every inch of road space, even if it meant travelling on the wrong side of the road against the oncoming traffic. Right of way was determined by whoever got their bumper in front first. Traffic lights were only obeyed if a policeman stood at the intersection; otherwise it was a free for all. Every street was a cacophony of car horns and whistles, all competing to be heard above the constant drone of motorbike and car engines. Amongst all this traffic you also had traders wheeling handcarts with impossible loads along the streets and pedestrians trying to cross from one side of the road to the other. Standing at a major intersection in Tehran is definitely a spectator sport; I would recommend the intersection of Sa'di Street and Jomhuri-ye Eslami Avenue.

Into this chaos I set off in a taxi, a Paykan of course, to the Federation offices and saw in daylight for the first time the metropolis of Tehran. My first impressions of the city were very negative; it is a grim, polluted, unappealing place. There is a complete lack of any proper planning, the uninspiring architecture of concrete apartment and office blocks sprawling across the city just add to the ugliness of this chronically overcrowded city. Despite this, though, it did hold my fascination; I think mainly because the city still did function in it's own enigmatic way, despite so much going against it. The citizens of Tehran make up what the city lacks in cultural heritage, except for the excellent museums. They are the most friendly, helpful and hospitable people I have ever met in a capital city.

After battling through the traffic my taxi finally arrived outside the Federation offices, after reversing down the one-way street to get there. The hotel manager pointed out the offices for me and I walked in to be met by Homyuan, the secretary of the Federation. The small offices were covered in posters of mountains, Damavand and Everest seemed to dominate the walls, together with portraits of some climbers; there was also a scale model of Damavand sitting on another small table in the corner. Homyuan, a smart, clean-shaven man probably in his late thirties spoke excellent English. We sat down at a large, highly polished wooden table and after a short discussion I agreed to take a guide from the Federation. The four-day expedition to Mt Damavand would cost US$50 a day; I would pay expenses for food, transport and accommodation directly to the guide. We planned to leave for the mountain on Tuesday at 08.00, today was Sunday, which gave me a day in the city where I decided I would visit Mt Tochal for a warm up climb and to help acclimatise to the altitude I would encounter on Mt Damavand.

Just as I was about to leave two guys from Singapore walked into the office, Joe and Alex. They had undertaken the mammoth task of cycling from London to New Zealand, I think they had got fed up of cycling around in circles in Singapore and wanted to go for a real bike ride. I was suitably impressed with their undertaking, which had so far taken almost six months to reach this point from London. Joe, the more outgoing of the cycling duo, was old friends with Homyuan and had called in on their way through Tehran to say hello. Their friendship goes back to the Iranian Everest expedition in 1998 where Joe managed to land the job in charge of satellite communications at base camp, where he camped for three months with the rest of the Iranian team. Homuyan took the three of us out to lunch at a local restaurant just down the street after which, I walked back to the hotel to help orientate myself in the city.

Later that evening Joe and Alex arrived at the hotel and checked in. It turned out that they were experiencing problems obtaining visas from the Pakistani embassy. The problem was that the Pakistanis wanted a letter of recommendation from the Singaporean embassy to support their visa application; there is no Singaporean embassy in Tehran, the nearest being in Dubai. It looked like the cycling duo was going to have a few enforced rest days in the city trying to resolve this problem.

Early on Monday morning I walked the short distance to Emam Khomeini Square and one of the cities local bus stations, the start of my day trip to Mt Tochal. Today would be my baptism of fire in learning the ways of Tehran's public transport system. I needed to find bus number 145, which runs to Tajrish Square in the north of city. Of course there wasn't a number 145 bus anywhere to be seen (I can read Arabic numerals, an invaluable skill in situations like this). So I opted for plan B and stood around looking lost until a young, smartly dressed man who could speak broken English asked me where I wanted to go and then shepherded me onto the bus parked in front of me. Forty or so minutes later the bus terminated at Tajrish Square, well to be exact a few hundred metres from the square. A kind taxi driver, a rare thing in Iran where the hospitality and friendliness of the population doesn't stretch as far as taxi drivers, gave me a free lift to the share-taxi terminal I needed at Tajrish Square. A short while later I was at last at the edge of Tehran, the Alborz Mountains rising above me, the chaos of the city below me. I found the north of Tehran to be far more pleasant than the south, where I had based myself in the city. The north appeared greener, many of the streets were lined with eucalyptus trees and the whole area just seemed cleaner and less cluttered, although the traffic was just as bad.

I walked along the long, winding road, past the teashops and snack bars to the base station of the tele-cabin, a good warm up before I commenced my climb up the mountain. I had heard that the tele-cabin doesn't operate on Mondays, my sources were correct, so I decided instead to just climb to the top tele-cabin station, rather than trying to reach the summit of Mt Tochal at 3,962m. After the intense heat of the summer the mountains were barren, just dust and rocks and the dried remains of a few plants that had tried to grow in the inhospitable summer climate. There is an unmade road, which winds its way tortuously up the side of the mountain, roughly following the route of the tele-cabin, connecting the mid-stations. I found the road easily enough and after only fifty or so metres found a well-trodden footpath following the ridge of the mountain to the first mid-station. I left the fairly gentle gradient of the road and began climbing up the steep, rocky path. I was shocked at how soon I found myself out of breath, my heart rate doing overtime and my head going dizzy. I stopped to rest, sweat dripping from my forehead as the sun relentlessly beat down; I worried about my ability to tackle Mt Damavand in a couple of days time. After a while I continued, slowly plodding up the side of the mountain my body soon becoming accustomed to this climate and altitude.

It took an hour of steady climbing up the well-defined path to reach the first mid-station, which was eerily quiet as the giant machinery of the tele-cabin lay motionless. Sitting at a table alongside the mid-station were three elderly gentlemen, kitted out in hiking gear, admiring the view of Tehran, which stretched away into the distance below us. I stopped for a quick chat while I snacked on some biscuits and bananas; all three were retired engineers in their seventies, living in Tehran. They looked pleased to see me climbing up the mountain and were interested to hear where I was from and what I thought of their country. As we sat there I was overwhelmed by the peace and tranquillity of the mountain; below us we could still hear the distant roar of the traffic. It felt great to be out of the polluted, noisy city and back in the fresh mountain air. After a pleasant conversation for about fifteen minutes I said good-bye and on parting to continue my climb up the mountain, they gave me some sweets.

I continued following the road for a short distance before finding the path again heading up a ridge. An hour or so later the gradient of the path levelled out as the path looped around a large valley to finally reach the top station. I found instead that this was another mid-station (contrary to what my guidebook had told me) and the pylons of the tele-cabin continued marching up the side of the desolate mountain. I stood at the mid-station, the towering mountains surrounding me and Tehran hidden from view by a large ridge of rock. Tehran now seemed like a distant memory far away at the foot of the mountain. During the winter this mountain is a popular ski resort for those residents of Tehran who can afford to ski. Chairlifts stretched up the mountain, today lying idle as they waited for the first snows of winter. I appeared to be the only hiker today, this far up the mountain; the only other people around were workers carrying out maintenance on the cables of the next section of the tele-cabin.

Soon the owner, who offered me a cup of tea, invited me into the mountain restaurant next to the tele-cabin station. The restaurant was closed, the cavernous interior dark and empty; I could have been in any alpine restaurant in the mountains of Europe, it had that ski resort atmosphere. The workers were having a late lunch and I joined three Afghans with my cup of tea. Their meal didn't look that appetising, a plate of boiled rice with a couple of fried eggs. One of the Afghans could speak some basic English and soon started asking questions, which he translated to his friends as they quickly ate their rice and eggs while staring intently at me. The conversation never got further than the usual, where are you from, why are you here, what work do you do etc.

The afternoon was getting late, it had just gone three, so I offered to pay for my tea, which the owner duly accepted, charging me an extortionate amount that probably paid for the Afghans dinner as well. I began the descent to the city and after an hour and forty minutes found myself back in the chaos of Tehran looking for a share taxi to take me back to Tajrish Square. I travelled south across the city during rush-hour, the traffic hardly moved and the 8km journey took me almost two hours, it would have been quicker to walk. I finally arrived back at the hotel exhausted but confident now for my attempt on the summit of Mt Damavand.

That evening I joined Joe and Alex, the two Singaporean cyclists, for a bite to eat. We didn't find anything more exciting locally than a hamburger shop near Emam Khomeini Square. Afterwards we walked to Park-e Shahr, an oasis of calm in this frenetic city, and discovered the Sofre Khane Sonnati Sangalag, a traditional teahouse. The concrete, rectangular building looked ugly from the outside, but inside was attractively decorated. The walls were lined with bed-couches, each covered with a carpet and large cushions. Down the middle were tables and chairs and in the centre a small fountain where a small shoal of goldfish eked out an existence in a mere couple of inches of water. We ordered a pot of tea and stretched out on the couches, a perfect way to end a hard day walking in the mountains.

Continue reading this journey: Expedition to Mt Damavand