Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Iran's Best Kept Secret

Q and I made a 4-day trip to Iran last weekend because, well, we wanted a short getaway to somewhere cooler and close by, and Iran fits the criteria! I know what y'all think the moment you hear "Iran"... As it turned out, more than the crazy nuclear stuff and a history longer than that of China, the extremely friendly and curious Iranian people were the country's best kept secret. In fact, here is a statement that I would never thought I could make prior to the trip: among all the countries I have been to, the Iranians were hands down the most welcoming to visitors - by a far stretch! Read on for our stories...

typical way of selling spices at bazar (local market)

Story #1: Q and I arrived at Tehran Railway Station, only to find out that the train tickets we wanted for that night were "sold out". So there we were, tired and desperate, stuck at a big and crowded waiting hall, clueless with the signs and announcements. Then the fellow Iranian travellers were only too eager to help us even though they were waiting for the same last-minute train tickets: they pushed us to the front of the waiting line, passed us waiting ticket stub all the way from front, and signaled to us when we had no clue what the announcements were all about. If not for the special treatment, we wouldn't have been able to sleep on an overnight train later that day. I know it's hard to imagine, but they were really desperate for their own tickets, and yet they still managed to be sweet to "the guests to their country".

All signs look the same at Tehran train station.

Story #2: Q has a running habit of trying barber shops in different countries he travels to, and Iran was no exception. When we had trouble finding one, two university girls were only too happy to ask around for us and took us to a barbershop around street corner. After realizing it's closed for prayer break, they ventured out to find us another one that's up two flights of stairs in a residential lowrise! The girls ran around for us for quite a good while, all just to satisfy a tourist's rather silly request! You see, to them, there's no silly requests when they are from visitors.

Story #3: After waking up from our overnight train ride, we were immediately greeted by a family of Iranians staying in the same compartment. When we exchanged our farewells just before getting off the train, the mom said to us,"Welcome to Iran!" and proceeded to give us a souvenir gift! Can you imagine that, really!

Other than the stories, here are a few other discoveries that you wouldn't normally see on TV:
- The traffic in Iran is, haha, to some degrees worse than that of Abu Dhabi, or Manila or Beijing! Our dear friend Sara would've had a hundred heart attacks over it! :) Even I was very shaky about crossing. Go on, all you die-hard drivers just have to go there to experience the thrills!

- Iranians were hooked to this South Korean drama series. Everywhere we went, the TVs were tuned into it: at airport visa office, train station, grocery store... :)

- Their opinions of the Americans are interesting! When I asked one of the two girls who helped us find the barbershop what she thought of the Americans, she gave me an answer I would have never guessed, "I don't know. I have never been to the United States... ... I heard they were nice." WOW, how beautiful! A souvenir vendor we chatted with told us they've had a lot less tourists in recent time (go figure!), and when I asked him if he's seen any Americans lately, he laughed,"Nooo! No Americans... But maybe in two years. I hope."

- Abu Dhabi is trying to become the art and culture capital of the middle east - Isfahan already is.

- Public mass transportation remains one of the best ways to experience the local life: form the morning rush hour metro jam in Tehran, to defying all lack of information to find that late night bus ride to the outskirt train station, to taking three free bus rides with the drivers refusing to take our money. It's so scary, unpredictable and awesome! ;) Here is a photo of Q trying to get on a packed metro train after failing with previous three - the keyword is "trying". Well done, sweetie! ;)
- We took a short break from normal sightseeing and watched the Olympics opening ceremony at a hotel restaurant. The live TV broadcast was mostly okay but would be cut back to boardcast studio whenever any female figure is featured on screen, like a dancer wearing skirt or an athlete showing hair. That's a bit taste of local media censorship.

- Right, I did have to wear a head scarf, but most of the time it didn't bother me - I only forgot occasionally when I walked insid
e hotel lobby or restaurant but immediately had to pull it back on. :)

Okay, so if there's one message I would like to conclude this post on Iran, it's gotta be "Politics People!" From yours truly... :) (:


manfromtoronto said...

stories well done. Iranians are very friendly. both Wendy and I have personal experience too.

Anonymous said...

Wow you really make me want to go to Iran... well... may need you holding my hand to cross the road, otherwise I will only see one side of the city:)
Well, freaking out about traffic in Spain already, so I can imagine it there. Still, you opened a new pandora box of attractiveness.

You look great! Love the barber photo.

By accident came accross this book yesterday, may be fate, you may be interested - Reading "Lolita" in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot Shu for sharing your travel experience with me.
As an Iranian, I am feeling great you have enjoyed your very short stay in Isfahan.
Iran is a hidden treasure with good hearted people, unique culture and long history. It is very sad that the country is covered by the Abayas of Mullas!


Unknown said...

Hi Shu,

What a great story! It has given me a new idea for a wonderful travel destination in the future!

Thanks, Jiska.