Between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu beaming six-foot-tall PowerPoint slides declaring “IRAN LIED” into people’s homes via television, and President Donald Trump’s new national Security Adviser penning a New York Times op-ed titled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran”, it is easy to think of Iran as nothing more than a country full of miscreants who can’t be trusted.
The reality is, of course, that a country of more than 80 million people, with a rich history and culture, could never be summarised by a few word-grabs from politicians ideologically ill-disposed to the country.
This might seem a blinding statement of the obvious, but the best way to try to understand a country is to travel there.
I first went to Iran in the late 1990s, and every time I return I learn something new about the place and its people. The travel can be various parts exhilarating and frustrating, but it’s always educational. My trip last month is a case in point.
My aim was to run the third Iranian (and second Tehran) marathon. But this is where the frustrating part kicked in. Having dutifully stuck to my training program in Sydney, racking up the kilometres necessary to prepare week after week, I received a surprising email from race organisers with only a few weeks to go.
In light of the Islamic tourism minister’s decision to make Tabriz the Islamic tourism capital for 2018, the email read, the Iran marathon scheduled for April would be transferred to Tabriz in northwest Iran, sometime in October. Hope you can join us!
Hopefully I can do my next Iran travel piece in November, having run Tabriz.
Still, I had a valid visa for April. So my attention shifted to different things I could do in and around Tehran using its very effective public and private transport systems. I always had a list of “things to do next time”, and this seemed the perfect chance to cross a few items off it. And so it proved.
Lebanon is perhaps the only other country that provides such a variety of indoor and outdoor activities so close to the capital.
Have a hankering for some fresh produce, but don’t want to go to the enormous markets near the airport? Tajrish Bazaar sits right next to Tehran’s northernmost metro stop.
Does hipster cafe culture float your boat? Seriously, in Tehran, how many double decaf soy lattes can one person drink?
Want to get some fresh mountain air? No problems – a cable car trip and hiking up Mt Tochal on the edge of town should do the trick.
I had always wanted to do an Iranian skiing holiday, but could never find the time. Even though I was there for the last week of the official ski season, the bottom runs were closed, and I am the world’s most inelegant and uncoordinated skier, there was still plenty of snow to be had (it even snowed while I was on the chairlift). The chairlift drops you off at 3600 metres, with very few people around and plenty of room to do lazy, basic figure S runs on some pretty soft slopes.
And all just 90 minutes drive from Tehran – it was fabulous.
Of course, I was very much living the north Tehran lifestyle (think Sydney’s eastern suburbs). But it’s not hard to find common ground when travelling.
Perhaps the one exchange that really showed just how similar people are everywhere happened at the Artist’s Forum behind the former US Embassy.
Having decided to purchase some contemporary Iranian art on this trip, I had selected two pieces I wanted (always the hardest challenge for a beer-swilling, sports-mad, middle-aged Aussie bloke) and saw they had a fixed price. However, there was no indication as to how to purchase the works.
There was a small photographic exhibition being held at the main building, but the art didn’t belong to the orgnasiers, and they couldn’t help. I went to the shop inside the building and the helpful assistant came out, but he didn’t know how to purchase the works I wanted either.
Fortunately, a young man who spoke good English was lurking in the hallway and offered to assist. He engaged staff and found out where to go, then ushered me to the gallery director’s office upstairs. The purchase was made.
I thanked the young man profusely for taking the time to shepherd me around the artistic bureaucracy. “No problem at all,” he insisted:
I’m only here because my girlfriend likes art, so anything I can do to look busy without having to appear interested is a good thing.