This blog is simply the ‘diary’ notes of an Australian guy just arrived for a 3-year term in Tehran, as a trailing spouse for a European diplomat.
I am not sure if this will be an every day thing, or even an every week thing, but when I have something to share, I will use this forum. My hope is to be able to provide some fun, some learning, and some ‘on the ground’ insights into an expat life in Tehran. There will be a little about life, culture, food, language, music, musings, and whatever else springs to mind.
If anything prompts questions, feel free to fire them at me.
After one week in Tehran, images of the place, smells, feelings, sights, are starting to gel. The environment for a new arrival is somewhat hostile, in that it is complicated to get around, complicated to dress appropriately (especially given the heat – 35 degrees celsius today), and of course there is much new to understand. Beware of your feelings if you are newly landed, and give them time to ‘set’ so to speak. You will feel crowded, a little boxed in, and quite isolated at first. That seems normal given the constraints.
So, just a few observations follow:
Overall, the first thing you will notice in Tehran is its layout. A truly enormous city, it takes an hour or two (depending on traffic jams) to get from one side to the other. The airport for all those flying in (and there aren’t too many other ways to get here) is in the far southern outskirts of the city, about 30km south in fact. The city is a tale of two cities: the flat, desert-built, downtown, and the uptown, north Tehran. Downtown is staid and crowded and said to be more conservative. Uptown is more liberal, more colourful, and certainly much fresher. Northern Tehran is built onto the sides of the Alborz Mountains, pictured above, reaching a peak just beside the city of some 2500 metres. The mountain range has higher peaks, deeper into the range. This range runs along northern Tehran and separates Tehran from the Caspian. The Caspian side, so I am told, is greener and more lush. The southern side, which includes Tehran, is more desert-like in both looks, air quality, and climate.
The air in the north is cleaner, there is no doubting that. Traffic is just awful all over (see below for an introduction), but the pollution accumulates less in the north, and gets dusted off a bit with the winds that come down off the Alborz. The Alborz hosts the ski slopes of Tehran, and further into the range you get ski resorts with hotels and all. Have not done that yet, but it will come this winter. Northern Tehran sits some 500-600 metres above downtown and climbs rapidly. The hills can provide quite a rugged walk in this area. For every few hundred metres you walk, you are easily climbing 50-100 metres further above sea-level. Downtown is already pitched at about 1100m above sea level, from memory. You can feel the air is a bit thinner in the far northern suburbs, as your breathing becomes more laboured quickly, and not only from the steep walking.
Everything anyone might tell you of Tehran traffic is true, unless of course they are telling you it is great fun. 🙂 Day one, hitting a pedestrian crossing and being as aware as one might, resulted in a near miss between a Lexus RX350 and me carrying my two-year old daughter. The culprit car, coming uphill, driven by a rich Iranian, came on the wrong side of the road, around a line of stopped cars at the lights, and sped through the pedestrian crossing within less than a metre of hitting us and, undoubtedly, would have killed us both save for one step back just in time. Note for the uninitiated: pedestrian crossings are marked, but useless. I have not yet seen a single Tehran driver respect a pedestrian crossing. Cross roads with extreme caution, preferably once there are no cars at all in sight. As in Beijing traffic, when pedestrian one should never run. Walk slowly and deliberately, so that your walking speed can be predicted by anyone coming. Always be prepared to step backward or forward as cars come within inches, usually slowly, but not always. Some people just can’t control themselves behind the wheel of a car and are unable to imagine the damage they can do to a pedestrian with their damn machine.
Each day you get more and more wary of the traffic; always looking both ways even in single-lane, one-way streets. The number of cars coming the wrong way in one-way streets is very hard to adjust to. But already, just one week in, it is such a commonplace thing that what started as a “Oh My God, look at this idiot” has become a resigned swerve to accommodate.
Not unlike the traffic in either Damascus or Beijing if you have driven in either, it simply takes some time to adjust to the ‘flow’. It has its own rhythm. It does not move especially fast, rather a kind of exercise in liquid dynamics as cars squeeze in and out of each others’ zones. Moving from lane to lane (lanes are not the lines on the ground – which are to be ignored for the most part – but rather the lines formed by cars as they wish) is as simple as slowly edging your bumper across to where you want to be.
With a car population of, so I am told, over 6 million, Tehran traffic will be one of the leading hardships of life in Tehran, and likely feature once or twice more in my blog. Hopefully, it will not be about me having become a hood ornament fora rich Iranian speedster late for his manicure.
Grocery shopping is somewhat challenging, although not as difficult as some places. Sanctions, and their unintended spillover to consumer goods that might not be directly under sanction, mean that the vast majority of products are either Iranian-made, or smuggled, or pirated; you take a big chance when buying things that would be dangerous if made improperly. Think shampoo, nappies….
Dairy products are the big surprise: they are very, very good. Great yoghurts, and good fresh milk. Awful UHT milk, as UHT milk is anywhere. Except cheese. Only soft, white cheeses (feta-style, cream cheese). No hard, matured, cheddar-like cheeses available.
Nuts are amazing. Pistachios, almonds, walnuts, cashews etc are all really good. They vary in quality from shop to shop but the average quality is high indeed. Dried figs and dried apricots are superb. Turkish ones are also available, but should be missed in favour of the Iranian. Tavazo Nuts in northern Tehran are nothing short of superb. A fabulous shop, and they have the well-deserved reputation for being the best nuts in Iran. Worth a drive, or a stop, if you are in the Kamraniyeh/Niyavaran area.
This bazaar is called the ‘Friday Market’. It has moved numerous times it seems, but now occupies 3-4 floors of a multi-level carpark, on the eastern end of Joumbouri Avenue, in downtown, not far from the electrical quarter. Open from 9am, it is packed shoulder-to-shoulder by 10am. Get there early. My advice is start at the top. It was likely a dusty trip for you to get to the market. start at the little cafe at the top with a fresh rockmelon juice. The top floor has some very nice locally designed and produced things: scarves, mantoux (the ‘coverall’ women wear), jewellery, photography, handbags, and much more. As you descend things get a bit junkier, and the first floor has some real junk. But worth looking because you can find some gems. Superbly reconditioned old shortwave radios, for example, and radiograms. Great looking pieces and carefully restored.
Well, that might be enough for the first posting. When you wake up, be sure to come back for updates.