The capital city of Iran had stunned, shocked and disgusted me at the same time. On my first trip to Iran, Tehran had been my port of entry and I had found the airport as well as immigration staff of Imam Khomeini International Airport to be one of the most helpful in the world. The city, however had been a totally different experience, and it had pushed my limits of tolerance to the extreme. Incidentally, Iran had also been my first destination as a solo traveler and Tehran had severely tried my patience leaving me emotionally jangled. Owing to my “first time in Iran” traveler status, I had undergone the draining experience of being scammed and swindled, and there had been a brief encounter with the Iranian moral police too. So, overall, for a newbie traveler, Tehran had been extremely overwhelming and the gorgeous city has left me with serious bitter aftertaste.

But, on the other hand, it had also empowered me a lot. Tehran had made me realize that I have a strong scamster detection intuition and when shoved against the wall, I have the ability to protect myself by bringing push to a shove. Having hailed from a protected family environment, my inherent independent life skills had never been allowed to flourish and I had returned home from Iran, feeling very empowered. I guess, every traveler has a similar story to share and it is this feeling of finding power in ourselves, that makes solo traveling so addictive. Of course, the destination matters too and Tehran had been an extremely beautiful and culturally rich city.  Full of exquisite Persian treasures crammed museums, beautiful gardens, monuments, palaces and mind blowing street art, Tehran had been very impressive. However, the city needs a seasoned, much aware traveler to enjoy it to the fullest and it had been my bad, that I had not been able to indulge in Tehran’s beauty completely.

My first human contact outside the Tehran International airport had left me short of 200 USD in 2 days and at that time, it had been a princely sum to be spent in Iran for that duration. The gorgeous Middle Eastern country, which is now touted as one of 2015’s hottest new destinations, had been and still is, one of the cheapest countries to travel and its lovely capital city is always buzzing with life (and controversies). However, on my last visit, previous unpleasant travel memories had made me give Tehran a cold shoulder and I had definitely missed out a lot. All these contemplative thoughts and more had come tumbling back to me as I had rushed to the airport for my return flight and I had wistfully bade one of my favourite countries in the world a long goodbye.

Tehran city is catered by two airports, namely Imam Khomeini International Airport for international flights and Mehrabad airport for domestic connections. The Mehrabad airport is located closer to the city and is a little, hodgepodge of a place, while the sterile looking international terminal is situated quite far. Both, however are nearly 15 kilometers away from the city center and airport taxis charge exorbitant fares. However, skillful bargaining makes the commuting much easier and in Iran (just like in India) best prices are achieved by sharp, yet exquisitely polite haggling. Bargaining, however had never been one of my most powerful qualities and it had been no wonder that, an overwhelmed me, had been scammed immediately upon landing. Exhausted, nervous and extremely disoriented, I had fallen for a welcoming smile of one of the airport taxi drivers and had not only ended up paying a senselessly expensive fare, but also stayed at a really bad hotel, which had been recommended by him.

It had been called the Paradise Green hotel and the property had been neither green nor remotely resembled a paradise. Rundown and poorly maintained, it had had a healthy population of bugs and creepy crawlies and I had spent more time in the bathroom there than on my itchy, biting bed. The bathroom had also been the largest room in the studio apartment and the tiny closet bedroom had included a washbasin, bench like hard bed and space for a pair of shoes. My bag had to be pushed inside the bathroom and severe acrobatic postures had been required to get possibilities of sleep on the narrow bed. The room had overlooked a busy noisy street and day times had always turned it into a living hell. My visit too, had been badly timed during the month of May and Tehran had been reeling under blistering heat.

My excitement at being able to visit my dream destination had been so high that even the burning afternoon sun had not stopped me from exploring Tehran. The excitement, however, had been short lived as a very unaware me had severely misunderstood Iran’s dress code for women travelers and I had worn clothes which had been severely frowned upon by the city’s moral police. Women travelers to Iran are required to follow the country’s strict dress code and only long sleeved shirts, long pants and headscarves are permitted. Body hugging, transparent and cut out clothes are strictly not allowed and on my first day, dizzying excitement had made me overlook the details. Thus I had rushed headlong into exploring Tehran, feeling absolutely gorgeous in my favourite snug blue jeans, white shirt and scarf. Little had I known, that I had been flirting with serious cultural offence and it had been my foreigner status that had saved from a borderline heinous punishment.

The beginning of my city walk had been deceptively nice and Tehran had intoxicated me with its exotic charms. The city had been very pretty in most parts and lovely boulevards, flower decked streets and bustling markets had left me completely bedazzled. One of the three largest cities in Middle East (along with Cairo and Istanbul), Tehran had been Iran’s political, industrial and financial nerve center and the city had pulsated with life. Dating back to nearly 7,000 years, Tehran had evolved from a small village called Rey and it had been all about strange mixes and multiple overlays. Fragments of its multi cultural liberating past had pockmarked the city in form of synagogues, fire temples and churches and several dynasties had called it home. Tehran’s weather too had been highly extreme (just like the city) and while summers had been unbearably hot, winters had often blanketed the city with heavy snow. Pollution had been a major Tehran problem and every winter, the city remains entombed in a deadly toxic gas box.

Due to its proximity to the Alborz Mountains in the north, several ski excellent resorts had been located near the city and the dry central desert in the south had created perfect getaways from Tehran’s cold winters. The much planned city had many modern structures like the Milad Tower, Azadi Tower making up its unique skyline and vivacious street art had decorated many of the city’s prominent buildings. Surprisingly, Tehran had been one of world’s street art hotspots and although, graffiti had been technically illegal in Iran, works of many established artists like Mehdi Ghadyanloo had been carefully curated by the government. All these and more had been a far cry from the image portrayed by the Western media and I had explored with an open mouthed astonishment. My rude shock to reality had come near the gorgeous Golestan Palace and they had been in form of hungry eyes.

Filled with lovely wall murals and flower pot filled niches, the area around Golestan Palace had been very atmospheric and I had taken some time to notice the angry male eyes that had followed me around. The stares had been rock hard and had ranged from curiosity, lewdness, lasciviousness and explosive anger and never before had I felt more naked or hated in my life. My familiar (read confusing Asian) Indian sub continent looks had made matters worse and it had lead to the confusion of being identified as an Iranian. The situation had however, not taken an ugly turn until a furious policeman had taken me into custody and he, along with his colleagues had screamed, shaken their fists and ranted nonstop in angry Farsi for what had seemed like forever. The angry monologues had taken place inside a cold, sterile looking police building and it had taken them some time, before they had realized my foreign woman traveler status. Finally, I had been let go after getting my blue jeans being named as the culprit and I remember walking out of the building with weak rubbery knees.

The experience had been extremely harrowing and even today, I shudder to think of my fate, had I been an Iranian woman. But it had been a valuable lesson learnt, albeit in a hard way and despite my ranting, I must admit that Tehran truly is a gorgeous city. The lovely Golestan Palace had been my favorite place in Tehran and its quiet gardens had calmed my shaken nerves after the moral police encounter. Built during the Safavid dynasty, Golestan had come into prominence with the powerful Qajar rulers and the stunning complex of palaces is a world heritage site. Beautifully landscaped gardens, tinkling fountains and exquisite museums complete its expansive grounds and the Golestan Palace is a masterpiece of Persian art. Many artistic influences can be found inside the complex and Golestan bears rich testimony of synthesized European and Persian styles.

The quaint Saadabad Palace had been another of my Tehran favourites and located at the foot of the Alborz mountains, it had been the summer palace of Qajar rulers. Situated in fashionable Shemiran area of Tehran, the Saadabad Palace had been built by the Pahlavi dynasty and although smaller in comparison to Golestan, it had been equally beautiful. Filled with stunning museums, palaces and parks, Saadabad had been a treasure trove of Persia’s glorious past. Used until 1970’s by Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, it had been converted into a museum after the Iranian revolution and complete with pretty chandeliers, fantastic world art collection, European furniture and fairy tale parks with Cindrellasque horse carriage, it had been a wonderland.

Being an art lover I had visited the Glass and Ceramics museum along with the Treasury of National Jewels. While the ceramic museum had been forgettable, the treasury had been absolutely bedazzling. Iran, unlike India, had possessed most of her treasures and those had been proudly displayed at the Treasury. Heavily guarded, its underbelly had contained treasures worth many kings’ ransom and the dazzling precious stone studded 200 years old throne, gem entrusted globe and world’s largest pink diamond had been the highlights. My first Iranian evening had concluded at the pretty Darband in Tehran and it had been there, that I had quietly contemplated over my life’s first major cultural shock.

Hot from being all covered in burning summer heat, itchy from keeping my head covered constantly and my confidence badly shaken by the moral police, I had lounged at one of Darband’s stylish sidewalk cafes and taken in its sights and sounds. Darband had been very mood uplifting and its festive air had given me a lot of solace . Located a bit far from the central business district of Tehran, it had supposedly been the home of the city’s rich and powerful. The area had attracted the hip and the stylish and it had been a traffic nightmare. With its rows of interesting restaurants and shops, the moneyed of Tehran had mingled there and Darband had been full of extremely beautiful people. It had been very fashionable and atmospheric at the same time and delightful ladies in Prada and Gucci had viciously bargained with street vendors selling kebabs, preserves, honey and flowers. Darbaand had also been a shopper’s paradise and mouthwatering aromas had lusciously mingled with the evening air and quietened the cries of the man selling puppies. Needless to say, it had been a photographer’s delight and I had stayed there until dim stars had popped out on a hazy, bright Tehran night sky.

I had ignored Tehran’s charm on my last visit and had compensated for my previous bad hotel experience by staying at the super comfortable Persian Azadi hotel. Drowning in quintessential Persian opulence, it had cozy, modern and I even had a marble bathtub in my bathroom, which had worked delightfully fine. It had also been the last day of my long cross northern Iran road trip and I had pampered by battered body in the comforts of my luxurious room. Suddenly, Tehran had not seemed so bad and it had been pretty soothing to read a book under the hotel’s chinar trees. Although, it had been the best possible healer for my Tehran wounds, I must confess that I had felt a bit guilty and restless at having given the exciting city amiss.

RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE

Some photos used here have been taken from internet.

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The beautiful Golestan Palace

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With its intricate beauty

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Quiet parks and

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And dazzling treasures

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Had been a soothing balm

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To my serious culture shock

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And I had taken a break there

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Undoubtedly a gorgeous capital

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Full of palaces, parks and museums

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To recover from its

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Dizzying rush

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Controversial modernism

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And stereotyped image

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Surreal

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Conservative

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And quirky

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Tehran had been one

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Experience of a lifetime