My first sighting in Tehran was one of sheer astonishment. A row of red double-decker London buses parked outside the railway station was not what I expected to see. We were so filthy and tired that all we wanted to do was find a room and collapse. We found one directly across the road from the station and dropped with exhaustion. Cockroaches? Bed bugs? We were too damn tired to even care.
The next day I took the opportunity to do some washing which turned out to be a big mistake. When I went outside to go to the shops wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt I was grabbed by a man in uniform (police? military?) and yelled at. More or less pushing me back into the hotel we were staying in. Apparently it was the month of Ramadan and by bearing my arms I was being sinful. I knew not to show too much skin and dress modestly, but I thought I had covered up sufficiently by wearing loose jeans and not showing any cleavage.
[Remember at this time Iran was still ruled by the Shah and not the Islamists. He was trying to modernise the country by a series of economic, social and political reforms with the proclaimed intention of transforming Iran into a global power and nationalising certain industries and granting women suffrage.]
Unfortunately there has been resistance to his regime of modernisation and the people are constantly demonstrating against him. It looks as if he too will follow his father and go into exile; the question is when? (Actually happened in 1979) I think that those who have been educated to Western standards will more than likely leave too, emigrating to Europe or the USA if they can obtain visas. I get the distinct impression that women will lose any rights they have at present, and the way some of the Muslim men stare at me is very frightening. I make sure I keep close to Jon when we finally venture out.
I am surprised to see how western the young women of the city dress. Beneath the Chadors that they used to cover themselves they openly wear mini-skirts and tight tops and full make-up. The older women however are completely covered with only their eyes showing.
We wandered around the market place and along the two main streets in Tehran agog at the wonderful jewellery stores, the aquamarine and turquoise stones, the Persian carpets (not less than 500 knots per inch are worth buying) and the brass-ware. The city is a bizarre mixture of modern office blocks and apartments alongside rabbit warren bazaars and markets, along with wonderful scents of spices and the jewel-like colours of saffron and chilli and cardamom.
Jon at this point was becoming very irritating. He was determined not to get his hair cut in order to enter Afghanistan and I was equally determined not to use the Pakistan route. Because of this we struggled to secure tickets on any of the buses heading for the border and we were in danger of separating at this point. Eventually I managed to convince him that his hair would soon grow so he accepted a trim to above the collar before we went to the Afghanistan embassy for our visas and with them safely stamped into our passports we went on to enquire about transport to Afghanistan.
In one of the many travel agents we were privately asked whether we would do a deal with the manager, who was desperate to obtain foreign currency. The deal was for us to exchange an amount of local currency (rials) into US dollars for him and in return he would get us seats on the bus leaving tomorrow for Mashhad at no cost. Jon was very keen to do this, but I have to confess to being absolutely terrified of being asked to see the US currency by the border officials as the amount was stamped into our passports and of course we didn’t have it. Not on a par with drug smuggling, which I would never attempt to do, but non-the-less risky and if we had been caught we would probably be facing a prison sentence, especially as foreigners.
In the end I was glad to leave Tehran. The city had an undercurrent of turmoil and fear and the cockroaches in the filthy squat toilets were the biggest I had yet to see.
At 3 p.m we boarded the bus to Mashad, expecting to arrive at 12:30 the following afternoon. Another tiresome journey ahead.