Central Asia Travel Diary

Once again, the main focus of today was travelling from one point to another, although it was no less enjoyable for that.  After a great buffet breakfast at the Rovshan, where Andy and I made short work of lots of melon and watermelon, we returned the "Central Asia" guidebook that we had borrowed in Almaty, and left the hotel  at 9:15 am.  The short drive to the airport in Tashkent took just a few minutes and we were soon filling in our detailed customs forms, in duplicate, like every entry and exit into every Central Asian country for the past few weeks – but this was for the last time!

The rest of the airport processes went smoothly, and as we walked along the concourse, a wonderful surprise overwhelmed me with excitement as I saw our plane – Iran Air had substituted a vintage Boeing 727-200 (registration EP-IRP, manufactured in 1974) instead of the Fokker 100 originally scheduled.  The plane was boarding immediately for its 10:30 am departure, so sadly there was no time to sit and admire it through the window.  It would have been good to know before arriving at the airport that the departure time had been shifted one hour earlier!

Andy and I were seated towards the back of the plane (rows 22 and 23), and there were enough spare seats for us both to have windows – not that there was much to see through the old opaque perspex on a flight over desert during a dust storm.  However, the flight was smooth, and we landed early after having taken off late – the duration of the flight was about three hours.

We had to arrange visas upon entry, so we presented ourselves at the appropriate desk.  I had not expected that we would need passport-sized photos, but fortunately (VERY fortunately as there was nowhere to obtain any) I still had the left-over photos taken in Ashgabat where new regulations required that photos be kept on record for police registration.  After finding the photos in my hand luggage, it was just a matter of paying $US50 for each of us and then waiting for about an hour for the visa to be issued.

Fortunately, our driver waited patiently for us to emerge from immigration, and he proved to be a gem – helpful, hospitable, knowledgeable, fluent in English, and able to negotiate Tehran's nightmare traffic with apparent ease.  The new Imam Khomeini airport that we used is over 30 kilometres from downtown Tehran, and on our drive into Tehran we immediately noticed Iran's significantly higher level of economic development compared with the countries we had been visiting over the previous few weeks.

During the drive, we negotiated sightseeing in Esfahan for the next day.  Esfahan is 400 kilometres south of Tehran and is described as "Iran's masterpiece, the jewel of ancient Persia and one of the finest cities in the Islamic world" (Lonely Planet Guide to Iran, page 210),  Tehran would certainly not fit that description.  It is a comparatively young city and therefore has few sights or scenic spots – in fact, with a population of 14 million, chronic air pollution, urban sprawl and seemingly insane drivers, it didn't have huge intrinsic appeal.  In that sense, it didn't really matter that our sightseeing was limited to just a few hours.

Our first stop was at the northern (higher) end of Tehran, where the city merges with the foothills of the Alborz Mountains.  Here we visited the summer home of the former Shah, set in beautiful green shady grounds.  First we visited the Green palace, named for its green stone exterior walls, and used by the Shah to receive guests.  It was an elaborate building, being decorated in European style with the walls and ceilings of several rooms decorated with mirror tiles.  Our second stop was the White Palace, used by the Shah as his summer residence.  European, and not always tasteful in design, it provided a very interesting insight into the excesses of the former Shah's lifestyle.

Our main other stop was Tehran Bazaar, a huge, covered market complex in the heart of Tehran.  In order to get there, our driver parked at his own home, kindly offered us some cold water and fruit, and then travelled together with us on the Metro (underground railway) several stops to the centre of the city.  The Metro seemed quite clean and efficient, with Chinese-made air-conditioned trains departing every four minutes or so.  The front two carriages of every train were reserved for women, with the other carriages being mixed, but containing very few women; just a few who were being accompanied by their husbands.

The bazaar itself was fascinating for its people and its activity, and not for its architecture.  It was certainly not as colourful as the bazaar we had visited in Ashgabat, but at least it provided an insight into the more traditional side of life in Tehran.  After walking through the bazaar, we took a long walk back to the Metro, past the Golestan palace (which was closed for renovations) and through a military barracks with a very ornate gate.

We took the return trip on the metro and then drove to our hotel, the Hotel Mashad.  It was situated directly opposite the former US Embassy, now known as the Den of US Espionage.  The huge poster on the front fence with militant artwork and the words "Down With Israel" (in English as well as Farsi) certainly attracted our attention as we drove up to the hotel.

The hotel had a stately charm and, like many of the hotels we have enjoyed on the trip, had huge rooms.  As twilight gathered over Tehran, Andy and I adjourned to the hotel's café on the top (6th) floor to enjoy a dinner of chicken breast with cheese plus potatoes with flat bread, water and Coke.  Tehran is not a brightly lit city at night, but the evening skyline looked beautiful with its mountain backdrop as our day drew to a close.

Despite attempts to get an early night as preparation for our early 4 am wake-up the next morning, unfortunately we didn't get to bed until after 10 pm; diaries do take quite a while to write!

Monday 24 July 2006

Tashkent to Tehran

The Green Palace, Tehran
Tehran Central Bazaar
Evening rush hour, Tehran
Provacative sign at the Den of US Espionage