UAE: Esfahan, Iran to Dubai, UAE, 10 June 2009

When I first planned the trip to Iran, I had planned for us to go back to Tehran, so that we will be in Tehran the day we are supposed to fly back to the UAE. But after asking a couple of people – and also because we like Esfahan and Dibai House so much – it is entirely possible to take a bus from Esfahan to the outskirts of Tehran, hop on a cab, and get to the airport for a mid-day flight. They have express buses that leave pretty regularly. We travelled with Hamsafar Travelling Company. Just ask around and you’ll find that out. It was brilliant, as we did not need to return to Tehran and get back out to the airport, which was about 40 mins from Tehran anyways.

Another day in the UAE, yet another mall. We checked back into the Holiday Inn Express Jumeirah, and then hopped onto a cab for Mall of the Emirates, as we heard so much about it. Also, we just needed grub. It was pretty uneventful. There were a couple of things about this mall that amazed me. First, the cars parked outside the mall probably costs at least 10 million bucks. Well, only the fancy ones like the lambos and ferraris dared park in front of the mall. Everyone else went to the garage. Second, they had like a pretty big ski park INSIDE the mall. Amazing.

A short note about UAE. There are dry emirates, and there are non-dry emirates. ‘Dry’ emirates are those that don’t have alcohol, don’t serve alcohol, etc. ‘Non-dry’ emirates are those that have alcohol. Dubai is not a dry emirate. Just a note for those who need their booze.

We had a substantial dinner at Chili’s (I know, I know), walked around a little, and went back to sleep off our food coma. Greece, be prepared for us tomorrow!

Fancy Cars Outside Mall of Emirates

Ski Park in Mall of Emirates

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Iran – Esfahan/Isfahan, 09 June 2009

We ventured to the sights away from Imam Square today, so we went to the Chehel Sotoun (Palace of Forty Columns)  and the Hasht Behesht (Palace of Eight Paradises). Both were a short walk away from the square. I think we headed to the Hasht Behesht first prior to lunch. It wasn’t very big, but the walk through the gardens to get to it was really nice, and in front of the palace, there was a pretty long pool with sunflowers lining the pool. To cut a long story short, it was real pretty.

We headed back to the Square for lunch at a restaurant, and once again we were helped by a very friendly Iranian girl who was visiting Esfahan for a holiday. She helped us get our food with a big smile on her face. People here are just incredibly nice!

After lunch, we walked back out to the Chehel Sotoun. We spent a little more time over here, as they had quite a lot of artefacts on display. Apart from it having impressive high ceilings, they also had a lot of wall paintings, which I was thought was really interesting. They had quite a lot of female nudes in there. Also, I think the nature of the artefacts, e.g. the pottery and some of their navigational equipment really give an idea of how connected Persia/Iran was connected to the rest of the pre-modern world, and how it was basically the conduit of ideas and goods.

After Chehel Sotoun, we wanted to go see something a little interesting and different, so we got written directions from the guy we bought our woven textiles from, got into a cab, and went to the Zoroastrian Fire Temple. Well … How do I describe this part? We aren’t exactly good at following the painted arrows, so, we somehow ended up taking the most direct and harrowing path up the very sandy structure. It was really freaky, because we had little grip, but we also didn’t want to turn back down. Anyways, by the time we got up there, we were completely freaked out, and hugging on to the ground, which was kinda steep. Finally, to end this bizarre visit, we saw a guy with a suitcase and cloth shoes (think Mr Bean) who just daintily made his way down. He saw our distress, and basically offered to guide us down, but he took the steepest pathway possible. It was awful kind of him, and we followed, but we were freaked out the whole way. I think I just slid down on my bum the whole journey.

We went back to Dibai House, and after a short break, B and I went on a food hunting mission. We basically just went to a food place before the square that serves burgers (they’re super thin), bought a couple, some fries, some soda, then we headed back. The most remarkable thing that happened was, this was the day before the Iranian national elections. The country is divided between supporters of the conservative Ahmadinejad, and the reformist, Mousavi. The atmosphere was electric. Many cars basically painted their political loyalty on their cars. As Mousavi’s supporters are predominantly the young intellectuals, students were on the roads. They were throwing flyings into our taxi, asking us to vote for Mousavi, and stopping traffic along the way to try and pull votes for him. I am truly amazed by the level of political involvement.

Garden Leading to Hasht Behesht, Esfahan

Garden Leading to Hasht Behesht

Hasht Behesht, Esfahan

Looking out from Hasht Behesht

Chehel Sotoun, Esfahan

Chehel Sotoun

Atashgah Zoroastrian Fire Temple, Esfahan

Zoroastrian Fire Temple

Mousavi Supporter on the Road, Esfahan

Iranian out for the upcoming elections

Iran – Esfahan/Isfahan, 08 June 2009

After getting out of the train station, we got a taxi easily enough, which brought us to Dibai House. After getting to the area, finding the house was a bit of an adventure. Dibai House is an old house converted into a guest house, so it’s located in one of the alleyways in old Esfahan. We wound through quite a few narrow, tunnel-y alleyways and knocked on a few wrong doors, before we got to the right place.

The search was definitely worthwhile. Our triple room costs us around 50 SGD each, and it’s decorated in a traditional Iranian fashion, mixed in with some Spanish flavour, because the owner, Sophie is an Iranian who lived in Spain for a bit. Our rooms weren’t ready, so we were ushered into the living room for some tea. The decoration was gorgeous – it’s one of those places that you want to hang out in. Our triple room was spacious and super airy and bright, because there were at least four doors which we could open. The price also includes an excellent breakfast in the basement of the house, which was also very cheery. They also have other interesting rooms like the Water House, which we didn’t explore. If you want to stay in a classy mansion dating from the 1600s and not break the bank, do stay here. It’s comfortable, an oasis from your day’s adventures, and about 15 mins walk from the main attractions. Sophie is also really helpful when it comes to travel advice, things to eat/see in Esfahan, and also the booking of bus/train tickets.

After a short break, based on a hand-drawn map of our guesthouse host, we made our way to Imam Square, where quite a lot of the main attractions are clustered around. As a tourist city, Esfahan is the perfect compact tourist city – a lot of the attractions are within short walking distance, so you can visit a lot of sights without going around too much. We went to the Imam Mosque, Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque, Ali Qapu Palace and Grand Bazaar before lunch. The mosques were very impressive and mosaic-ed, but apart from that, I don’t quite know what to say about them. My favourite was the Ali Qapu Palace, because the rooms were so ornately carved. Also, it was decorated with very interesting paints. In short, it was one of the most remarkable things that I’ve ever seen. We then walked the Grand Bazaar, and ended up at a restaurant. I can’t remember what it’s called now, but it’s in the same area, and I remember an excellent garlic eggplant dish. Lunch was memorable, not just for the excellent food. It truly told us how friendly Iranians are. As we were trying to decide what we wanted for lunch, we must have looked super lost. An Iranian American lady who was visiting with her family came up to us, and offered to help us. So she basically translated the entire menu for us, told us what each dish had, and told our server our orders. She even came by to check with us mid-meal, to make sure we were ok. We were really, really impressed by the kindness we received on this trip. Traveling around really brings to mind the quote from A Streetcar Named Desire, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

The Grand Bazaar was also quite fun. Because Iran being Persia, they are famous for,  you guessed it – Persian rugs. We just took a look-see, and there were many shops advertising “flying carpets”. I thought that was quite funny. After more walking, we decided to indulge in some ice cream, get some souvenirs like postcards and stamps. It was all-in-all, an excellent little trip so far!

Come late afternoon, early evening, we decided that we wanted to see some of the amazing bridges of Esfahan. Giving our wonderful Farsi, we bought a postcard of a bridge, and asked one of the taxi drivers to drive us to the picture. That worked out! I think we went to the Si-o-Seh Pol Bridge (bridge of the 33 arches) and the Khaju Bridge, which were architecturally amazing. These ornate testaments to mankind’s artistic and engineering creativity no longer serve a function, though. These pretty bridges used to serve as a means of crossing the river, but now that they dammed the river, and it’s just riverbed, people just cross the river bed. Some of the more enterprising Iranians actually set up tea shops and restaurants on the riverbed. It’s a nice hang out spot for young people, though.

After a short walk, we crossed the street, went into one of those Iranian-type fastfood places serving pizza, got some pizzas to take back to Dibai House, ending our first day in the beautiful town of Esfahan. I highly recommend Esfahan!

Imam Square, Esfahan

Imam Square

Imam Mosque, Esfahan

Imam Mosque

Bazaar, Esfahan

Goods for Sale in Grand Bazaar

Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque, Esfahan

Sheik Lotf Allah Mosque

View from Ali Qapu Palace, Esfahan

View from Ali Qapu Palace

Khaju Bridge, Esfahan

Khaju Bridge

Eggplant Dish, Esfahan

Excellent lunch of eggplant – we had some kebabs too, but I forgot to take pictures. Too hungry!

Local Diner Serving American Food, Esfahan

Iranian fastfood – this was pizza and burgers. I think we had pizzas here.

Iran – Tehran, 07 June 2009

Our first full day in Tehran, and also our last day in Tehran. With the help of the guesthouse owner, we booked a whole sleeper cabin (it just costs us 15 USD each) to Esfahan, but that did not leave till the evening. Southern Tehran was kinda rough on us the last couple of days, so we were less than enthusiastic about venturing out. So, we had an excellent, leisurely breakfast in Hotel Firouzeh. I’m not a fan of Iranian bread and cream cheese!

We had some time to take in the sights, so we went to the Parade Ground, which was eerily empty. But what I found interesting was the door arches, which were ornately carved, and one of the most elaborate things I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s kinda nice being a tourist in town, where there aren’t that many. The downside was, we kinda became tourist attractions ourselves. (yes, three Asian girls look pretty prominent)

Next, we headed to the Museum of History. Erm, I honestly don’t remember much about it, but since I was interested in ceramics, I did end up taking a lot of pictures of that. Given that Persian sailors were one of the first on the Silk Road on the sea, and had intimate connections with Southeast Asia, I was interested in that. I didn’t think that the ceramics looked particularly Southeast Asian, but I thought it was interesting how humans across the world basically chose to design similar things independently, and make them on their pottery. Ho hum.

Then, it was lunch at yet another kebab place. I wish I took more pictures of the food, which was a selling point for me in Iran. Not sure why I didn’t do that more. Maybe my hunger got in my way (as usual). Anyway, one the note of food, because of the embargoes against Iran by the US, or is it because Iran doesn’t want anything to do with Western culture? Anyway, they don’t really have stuff like McDonald’s and KFC over there, not that I am advocating that they should have it. But interestingly, despite the fact that they don’t have KFC, it didn’t stop locals from setting up fast foods that look like KFC. It generally amazes me how societies that are not allowed to partake in global (?) culture basically find some way to feel connected with the rest of the world.

We tried looking for some churches near the Tehran Bazaar area, but since I was the navigator, that plan kinda derailed, since I couldn’t find it. Yeah, not a great map reader. Not a great one at all.

Anyways, having read about the difference between northern and southern Tehran (northern Tehran is richer and more gentrified), our bourgeois selves decided we might go there and hang out for a different experience. I remember Gandhi Plaza from Persepolis as one of the cool hang out places for the well-to-do, so we got a cab to bring us there.

A side note here: Iranians are like impossibly helpful and polite people. We spoke no Farsi/Persian, and to get around, we basically found whoever spoke English, and asked the person to like write down the instructions on a slip of paper, which we’ll hand over to the cab driver. Everyone we approached was incredibly obliging. (and of course, we were useless)

Northern Tehran definitely had like a different feel to it. We got stared at a lot less, and were able to go about our business without attracting too much attention. After some window shopping, we just wound up at a nice little cafe, and spent our afternoon just chilling out there. It definitely had a more relaxed atmosphere, albeit more pricey. I was quite amused by offerings of non-alcoholic beer on the menu. 🙂

The Parade Ground, Tehran

Ornate Door Arch in Parade Ground

Faculty of Arts, Tehran

College of Arts, Tehran

National Museum of Tehran

Pottery in National Museum of Tehran

KFC Clone in Tehran

Fastfood in Tehran

Iran – Tehran, 06 June 2009

So, we arrived in Tehran after a slightly harrowing flight on Air Arabia. Well, it was just kinda choppy. Immigration was somewhat hilarious. I don’t think they see Singaporeans much. My research says that Singaporeans do not need a visa, but when we  got up to the counter, the guy told us to fill in some forms for a visa-on-arrival. Not a big deal. So anyways, we filled it up, and gave it to the guy. Then, he brought out this big book, and started flipping through it (I kid you not!), and I think he finally found the section on Singaporeans or something, and then suddenly said, “well, you don’t need a visa!”

So, we proceeded to a counter and try and get into Iran. Same problem – guy asks for our visa. We decided to stand in the same line, and we ran back to the counter to get the guy to explain the situation to him. After that, we were all set.

We had planned to stay at Firouzeh Hotel. B had e-mailed them, but they didn’t reply. So we tried our luck. Our first experience with Tehran driving was nothing short of crazy. The guy was going at like 120 km/h, while on the phone, while trying to read the slip of paper with the hotel address. And when he pulled up at the traffic light, I looked to the right, and basically saw the Iranian version of Jean Girard from Talladega Nights – The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (Unrated Widescreen Edition)
– he was like sipping a coffee while waiting for the light to change, and continued driving with coffee in one hand. It’s really remarkable how they can navigate some of the tight roads and corners at full speed!

Seeing Tehran for the first time was memorable. I guess I didn’t know what to expect. After reading all the news reports and mania associated with Tehran, I guess I just wasn’t expecting it to look that much like any other city in the world – skyscrapers, incredible concentration of human beings, and traffic. It’s remarkable how we imagine crazy things about places, fuelled by the media, and then it looks so normal. I think that’s why I travel – just to remind myself about the world that we live in, and how it’s not that different for people, even as it is different. I think it does help dispel misconceptions we have of other people, and helps us remember that they are people, too.

We arrived at Firouzeh Hotel, which was located in south Tehran, and real cheap at 12 SGD per night. If you are looking for comfort and nice bathrooms and all, skip this place. It’s situated in an area with lots of car workshops, so be prepared to get stared at. But having said all that, do stay for the guy who runs the place – he’s awesome. He’s super helpful, and will arrange pretty much anything for you. Staying there definitely made all our travel arrangements so much easier – he helped us book our train tickets to Esfahan.

Anyway, after setting down our bags, we went hunting for some nom nom, which was some sort of pizza place further down the street. It’s pretty interesting watching traffic from there. The buses were segregated into male and female. We also took the segregated metro train to the Central Bazaar, as we wanted to take a look at it. We wound up going into one of the small shopping malls, just to check out what’s on sale in Tehran.

Well, that was about all we did that day. The sun was setting, so we just ended up packing some excellent kebabs with rice from across the street, and had the delicious food in our room.

Tehran's Jean Girard

Jean Girard of Tehran 

Transport and Traffic in Tehran

Traffic in Tehran

Tehran Bazaar

Tehran Bazaar

Tehran Metro: Women Only

Metro: Women Only

When the Detour is the Highlight: UAE, Iran, Greece, 04 – 24 June 2009

So, Emirates Airlines was having a super sale, whereby tickets to Europe were going for as low as 800 SGD. This was gonna be my last chance for a long holiday before I am done with my MA programme, and hit the real world. So, what the heck. E and I agreed on Greece. But I had some other crazy plan involved – a detour to Iran! I always wanted to go there after reading The Complete Persepolis. Since I found a cheap flight on Air Arabia from Sharjah, and managed to rope in some partners-in-crime (oh, my powers of persuasion), I was all set. Here goes!

04 June: Dubai, UAE

05 June: Sharjah, UAE

06-07 June: Tehran, Iran

08-10 June: Esfahan, Iran

11 June: Dubai, UAE

12 June: Athens, Greece

13 June: Athens, Greece

14 June: Hydra, Greece

15 June: Tinos, Greece

16 June: Mykonos, Santorini, Greece

17 June: Santorini, Greece

18 June: Santorini, Grecce

19 June: Crete, Greece

20 June: Crete, Greece

21 June: Crete, Greece

22 June: Kalambaka/Meteora, Greece

23 June: Kalambaka/Meteora, Greece

24 June: Athens, Greece