I noticed a gasoline-like, unpleasant odor in the taxi I used to get from Imam Khomeini Airport to the hotel I would stay at in Tehran. After I sniffed several times, my relative, who had welcomed me at the airport, said, with a smirk, that the bad quality gasoline used in cars in the city is the source of the bad odor. "You will get used to it," he said. "Also try to breathe through your mouth. Otherwise, you will feel acute dryness in your nose."
On the highway from the airport to my hotel at night, sketches of the faces of "martyrs" on building facades caught my eye. I was able to single out the "martyr" word from the inscriptions around the drawings since the word is commonly used in Turkish and Farsi. As a country that has been involved in numerous regional clashes with its army and paramilitary forces specifically after the Islamic revolution in 1979, an abundance of those faces is portrayed on the exterior of buildings in the streets of Tehran.
In the morning, we left the hotel to start visiting the touristic sights nearby. Tehran is a huge metropolis with nearly 15 million people. Having a GPS saves you from getting lost in the enormous capital. An Iranian SIM card with a sufficient internet package provides you great convenience during your trip in the country.
The Iranian capital is well-connected by six metro lines intersecting in different locations, which enables you to reach substantial parts of the city without needing to use a taxi. As a person who has engaged many times with Istanbul's notorious taxi drivers, I was wary to ride with Iranian taxi drivers during my visit. However, after experiencing it, I can say that overcharging tourists is not a rife practice in Iran, but knowing basic numbers in Farsi is vital.
The metro not only functions as a public transport but is also a place of trade. At almost every stop, a few peddlers got in different carriages and loudly marketed the goods they were selling. The goods ranged from simple clothing including caps, scarves and socks to various kinds of accessories and confectionaries. Since the city does not have many shopping malls, these peddlers create a considerable economy inside the metro carriages.
After visiting a few city parks and gardens, we tried to find the location of the Golestan Palace, one of the oldest historic monuments in Tehran, and of world heritage status, but we got completely lost on our way. Knowing English does not really help you in the city, but fortunately, my friend spoke some Farsi. When we asked the exact location to a guy with a motorcycle standing on the corner of a street, he offered to give us a ride to the palace. It was a typical Middle Eastern traffic experience: Three people squeezed on the vehicle riding through avenues where anarchy seems to make sense. Thank God, the motorcycle was able to reach our destination despite the fact that we felt as though we were on the brink of death several times.
Truly deserving of its fame, the lavish palace is a masterpiece with its grandiose interior and external design. "Apparently, they used all the glass they could find in the country for this palace," my friend muttered as we stepped through the glittering doorway. The palace, which was built by Tahmasp I of the Safavid Dynasty in the 16th century but was later renovated several times, is composed of gardens, royal buildings and museums that contain collections of Iranian crafts and European gifts from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Outside, a lot of tourists were strolling in the enormous yard to find an ideal angle to take a photo, just as we did. A group of flamboyant Iranian girls, who seemed to be aged between 18-to-19, were changing their shoes and wearing some accessories in the corner, supposedly to take photos in better style. About a minute later, one of these girls approached my friend, who was photographing me at the moment, and asked in English to see photos that he took. She demanded that he delete the photos that she was seen in the frame with her scarf off, and we agreed. I saw them a while later, posing like models on the stairs of the palace. The girls were definitely symbols of the fraction of Iranian society, who feel a strong discomfort about the government's enforcement of the dress code.
When you leave the Golestan Palace and walk south, you will encounter a square, which has numerous gates leading to a string of shops in a closed dome, resembling Istanbul`s renowned Grand Bazaar. However, all the shops were closed because it was the day of Mawlid Qandil, which marks the birth of Prophet Muhammad and is a national holiday in Iran, as we afterward noticed. It was the second Mawlid Qandil for me in a single week, because in Turkey the day was marked about a week earlier. Peddlers were shaking a bunch of dollars outside just in case a tourist, or an Iranian, may be in urgent need as exchange offices were closed.
Following a failed attempt to visit a museum because they were closed due to the holiday, we went to a restaurant to eat our first proper meal of the day. The manager expressed his regret after we told him that we had no reservation. He asked us to wait about 40 minutes to arrange a table. Since we very far away from our hotel and didn`t know any other place around to eat, we accepted and found a café to spend some time in. Just like the other cafes, we would further see in Iran, it offered many different kinds of herbal teas including rose, cinnamon, and ginger. Then we came back and had a meal in the restaurant accompanied by famous Turkish songs.
We asked the manager of the restaurant to call a taxi for us and he agreed in an expression of shyness as if he wanted to atone for the time we had waited. He used an application used by locals, which offers rides for almost half the fare.
The taxi driver expressed jubilation after he learned we came from Turkey. He was one of many Iranians who had visited Turkey but his story offers more than an ordinary visit. Having come to Istanbul a long time ago, Wahid excitedly explained how he took to the stage after several rehearsals in a cabaret owned by a Syrian man in Istanbul's Aksaray district, popular among many foreigners living in Istanbul. He sporadically interrupted the story, sang arabesque songs accompanied by a sound of a number of instruments made by his mouth. When we arrived at the hotel, Wahid refused to accept the fare, still, we forced him to do so. He insisted that we leave the hotel and stay at his home for the night. After having a sentimental hug during our farewells, he took our telephone numbers, saying he hopes to visit Turkey again before he dies.
The next day we left the hotel early, considering that we still had many places to see after the unfruitful first day. Our destination was the former U.S. Embassy building, which now functions as a museum. The "Down with USA" graffiti greets you at the front wall, and you can also see numerous anti-U.S. images such as a skeleton skull placed on the Statue of Liberty. "Tatil," said ticket seller, yet another common word in Turkish and Farsi, which means the museum is closed due to the holiday. Unlike the majority of countries, Iran has weekly downtime on Thursday and Friday.
The national museum of Iran was our next destination. Historical artifacts, pots, statues, stones and many other items that mainly belonged to the ancient era of Iranian history are presented in the museum. Once we stepped in, we encountered a tourist from the Far East, probably for the first time, who was carefully examining the artifacts, as expected. Iranians also show interest as much as tourists to their museums and artifacts.
One can see the traces of Seljuks, a well-known Turkish dynasty that ruled in Iran and Central Asia for nearly two centuries, in different locations of Iran through the works built during their time. Tughril Beg, one of the most famous sultans of the dynasty whose tomb was erected in the historical Ray district of Tehran, was our next stop. Inside the area where the tomb was stationed, an old man was ardently informing the group that consisted of several people, seemingly students, about the monument, a 20-meter tall building called the Tughrul Tower. He gestured at us to join the group, despite us not understanding his feverish narration. We headed toward the exit after we finished, but the old man approached and timidly tried to explain something. After we blankly exchanged glances without understanding each other for a while, a girl from the group came to help and said to us in Turkish that he was trying to explain the entrance fee. He took the money with one hand while opening the palm of the other hand, a sign of gratitude in Iranian culture.
Milad Tower is another iconic must-see place but unfortunately, it is located in another part of the city. We applied the same method: Going to the closest possible spot by using the metro and taking a taxi. The megastructure was opened in February 2009 with an official ceremony after the completion of its nearly 10-year-long construction. This is not just a tower but a multifunctional complex, which includes a park, a trade center, a hotel and a convention center. We climbed the tower in the elevators in groups after watching a presentation on its features. The presenter, a member of the country's Azeri minority, which composes about 20 percent of the population, added a Turkish explanation along with English and Farsi, especially for us as a gesture. When our turn came, we ascended up the elevator to the open observation deck of the world's sixth tallest tower standing at 435 meters from the base. It's a ravishing experience to see Tehran in a panorama view, surely if you don't have a fear of heights. I barely could approach the corner of the observation deck. You can literally see almost the entire city from there.
After we came down and had a quick meal in Freshway, the Iranian version of the well-known American fast-food chain Subway, we rode the city's Beyhaghi bus terminal to leave the city. I generally feel bittersweet while leaving a city I have visited, thinking that I won't see these places and people again. But it was different this time; I have a feeling that I will come back. Don't pay heed to people who say the Iranian capital is not a proper place to visit. It is a crowded, complicated capital with polluted air, and is probably not the best city you might visit, but with its fascinating palaces and gardens, different types of museums, and an unusual atmosphere, it is definitely worth seeing.