“So who had friends and family tell them not to come to Iran because it’s too dangerous?” our guide Mahdi asked. All 11 of us put up our hands.
Yet in my years of travel in foreign countries, I’ve never felt safer or more welcome.
Perhaps it was his time in the military during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, or his years as a tour guide, but Madhi planned our day in sprawling Tehran with military precision so we could see the highlights.
Before the doors opened at 9 am we stood outside Golestan Palace, a series of exquisitely-decorated buildings facing a park and garden irrigated by an underground stream. It was built by the luxury-loving Qajar rulers in the 1800s for coronations and other royal events. After the cold and rain of the previous day, the sunshine was welcome.
When the iron gate opened, we followed a path through the garden to the Marble Throne Verandah (1806), an open audience hall half-hidden by heavy curtains and dominated by a marble throne. It was last used to crown Reza Shah of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925.
“Adorned with paintings, marble carvings, tile-work, stucco, mirrors, enamel, woodcarvings and lattice windows, the throne embodies the finest of Iranian architecture.”
Then the art gallery, with its portraits of rulers wearing the jewels and crowns we’d see later in the National Jewels Museum.
We donned blue cotton booties to visit the glittering Hall of Mirrors, Talar-e Ayaheh (1877), re-opened to the public after 30 years. No photos allowed, but it was breathtaking with massive chandeliers. Gifts from foreign leaders filled a second room.
Near the entrance, a group of musicians played, watched by lovely women dressed in bright native dress, very different from the Iranian women we’d seen.
Back on the bus and on to the red brick National Museum, with its vaulted entrance, designed by a French architect in the early 1900s. Mahdi had us line up in front of an old relief map on the wall so he could explain Persian history beginning in 12,000 BC. Our heads spun.
“For millennia Iran was called Persia. Reza Shah hated the name and in 1934 changed it to Iran, derived from Aryan and meaning ‘of noble origin.’”
After wandering through the museum’s English-free exhibit halls, with their pottery shards, china and stone figures from Persepolis, a few of us slipped outside to sip Italian lattes on an outdoor terrace for $6 Cdn (150,000 rials) until the others appeared.
Since a few group members didn’t have local cash, Mahdi led us to a private money changer, which promises better rates and less hassle than the country’s many banks. Though travel and eating out are inexpensive here –you can apparently dine in the city’s best restaurant for $30 US – money is a huge concern for foreign visitors. Mainly because you can’t use credit cards (linked to the evil Americans) or take out cash from an ATM. Which left us all wandering around with some $1,000 US strapped to our bodies or locked in suitcases, trusting it would last for two weeks of meals and souvenirs, which it did. You can actually buy a carpet or a pricey camel-bone box with a credit card, routed through Dubai or Oman, but you’ll still get the best deal with cash.
The next challenge is how much to change. If you buy from money changers and don’t spend it all you may not be able to convert it back to dollars without official paperwork. Before leaving for the airport I paid for pistachios with my last rials plus US dollars, determined on an ever-present calculator. Apparently the government wouldn’t officially accept US dollars for awhile so things are improving.
By the time we reached the money changer it seemed the whole world had heard he had the best rate, as the tiny, non-descript storefront was packed. M. decided it would take 45 minutes to get to us, so we left and went to a near-empty shop a few doors down.
I assumed the rate here wasn’t quite as good (no rates posted anywhere), and it still took forever, though the chief money man counted bills with lightning speed. At one point he ran out of money and we stood, waiting, until a young guy walked in looking pregnant. He walked behind the glass window and unloaded a bag of cash “hidden” under his shirt. We walked out flush with 1 million rial notes ($42 Cdn) which proved almost impossible to use in small shops.
Figuring out how much things cost also proved frustrating. Because inflation has been high in Iran in recent years and the currency was devalued by half in 2013, there’s a move to re-introduce the old toman, which equals 10 rials. When you see a price of 10,000, it may be 10,000 tomans, or 100,000 rials. I know it sounds simple, but we often just opened our wallets and let the sellers choose the bills they needed.
After all that, choosing lunch was a breeze. In the front window of the bright cafeteria-style restaurant, a baker slapped thin stretched slabs of lavash bread against the interior walls of a tandoor-like oven, which looks like a cement mixer. Inside, we could choose roast chicken, kabobs or three soupy veg/meat stews for a few dollars. I choose a dark spinach and bean stew flavoured with dried lime and chunks of lamb, served with a separate plate piled with rice. On Mahdi’s advice I also asked for a piece of tardig, the prized crust left in the bottom of the rice pot, and a few spoonfuls of sour cranberry-like dried barberries.
All that glitters
As we drove through downtown Tehran, we noticed a long lineup outside the Central Bank and wondered what was happening. The bus stopped and we realized we’d reached our destination, the famous Jewel Museum.
Only a few people were allowed into through the narrow entrance at a time, but Mahdi swept us past the throng, as he did so many times, and in we went to face two security checks.
The darkened Treasury room seethed with people from around the world, many vacationing locals. The harried young banker/guide in a black suit had us stand in a semi-circle around each glass case as he shouted the names and owners of the precious pieces inside, dripping with emeralds, rubies, gold and pink diamonds. There were holders for tobacco, shisha, coffee. Can you guess what this is? Um, gold toenail clippers? No, a magnifying glass! There were jewel-encrusted hair ornaments, ceremonial swords, a silver necklace used as a man’s watch chain. The craftsmen who created a crown in Paris for the last Queen, Farah, then travelled to Tehran to affix its jewels. And here is the chair-like Naderi Throne, encrusted with 26,733 jewels, including four large emeralds, and the legendary Peacock Throne, about the width of a double bed with steps down the front.
Just before we left the chaotic museum, the our guide said it was the busiest time of the year and asked if we knew our visit would coincide with Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Um, yes. So why did you come? Because we heard Tehranis left the city on vacation, making it less crowded, less crazy and less polluted. He later told me he travelled the world on vacation and Canada was his next stop, after he learned French.
Before heading to the train station we stopped at a small fruit stand for provisions for the 6-hour evening trip to Yazd. Local oranges, apples and kiwis from the fertile Caspian Sea area in northern Iran, bananas from Ecuador, then bottled water and bags of nuts and potato chips from the convenience store next door. Onward!