Friday, September 27, 2013

S2L77: Tehran

From 1977 03 29 Iran

The symbol of Tehran is the Azadi Tower (Freedom Tower). Originally built by the Shah of Iran to honor the 2,500 years of Persian history, but mostly to honor his own place in that history, and called the King's Memorial Tower, the tower was renamed after the 1979 revolution.

Tehran itself, like Delhi, is appreciated differently depending on your approach. Fly in from Europe, and Tehran is likely to strike you as exotic and foreign. But arrive after traveling overland from Afghanistan and Tehran is the height of familiarity and modernity. At least that's what it felt like in 1977.

After the jump, my impressions of Tehran.

The traffic in Tehran was worse than any other city I'd yet visited. Sure, traffic in Indian cities was congested, but much of it was foot traffic, or bicycles, or animal carts (or just the animals, as cows were sometimes seen wandering freely in the streets). In other words, traffic often moved at the slow speed of a tourist walking. In Tehran, it was all cars, trucks, and the worst, motorcycles, all trying to move faster than was safe. When street traffic became congested, motorcycle drivers thought nothing of hopping the curb and racing down the sidewalk, weaving among pedestrians, until the street was clear.

Traffic may have been a pain, but getting around town had one big advantage over most cities. Apparently, it was the custom in Tehran for many owners of cars to pay for them by using them as unofficial taxis. If a car owner was headed somewhere, he would take a paying passenger with him. All we had to do was signal our desire for a ride and almost immediately a car would pull over to the curb. It was kind of like paid hitchhiking. Assuming the language barrier wasn't too great, it was a great way to get to that pizza restaurant the guy at the hotel told you about. Yes, pizza. Did I say Tehran was a welcome way spot for the familiar?

I know what I said about the border agents scaring tourists out of any thought they might have of smuggling drugs across the border. That's all true. But a visit to a drug store in Tehran left me stunned by how many drugs that I had grown up believing were prescription-only were freely available over the counter in Tehran. These were drugs like anti-malarial tablets, not the mind-altering kind, but still, the contrast stuck in my mind. And, yes, traveling overland across Asia, you stock up on drugs like anti-malarial tablets when you get a chance.

But what really stuck in my mind were the royal jewels. Any empire with a 2,500 year history is bound to have collected a few jewels along the way. Crowns and thrones and tiaras and swords and mounds and mounds of loose stones. All are on display in the Museum of the Crown Jewels of Persia in Tehran. Have you been lucky enough to visit the Tower of London and view the British crown jewels there? Eye-popping. Yet, see the Persian crown jewels first and you can't help comparing and concluding that the Queen of England comes across as a poor cousin to the Persian emperors of times past.

Pizza, drugs and jewels. It's odd what sticks in one's memory.

One of a continuing series.
Start: Around the World in 800 Days
Previous: Persepolis, 515 BCE
Next: Mount Ararat, Turkey

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