Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Iran Primer

We’re in Damascus now, and Jabeen’s extremely glad to be rid of the baggy clothes and scarf. We’ll celebrate with a beer in a bit, but meanwhile, here’s a summary of topics that travellers to Iran might find useful. We stayed in Central Iran and in mid-range hotels, and conditions may differ in other parts of the country and in other classes of accommodation.

VISAS: Indians can get a 7 day visa on arrival in Iran. I know it is available for those flying into Tehran on Iran Air, but I'm not sure how it works with other carriers and other entry ports. Visa extensions are available in every city; Shiraz and Esfahan are supposed to have co-operative officers. Those applying for tourist visas in advance are required to take HIV, Hepatitis B and C, and tuberculosis tests. Pilgrims are exempted from these tests. Visa agents who arrange pilgrimages have a good equation with Iran consulate staff, and can get visas without the tests, but this can take upto a week. We paid 12,000 rupees for two tourist visas, and have no idea how much of it went for fees, how much to the agent, and how much was a commission for the visa officer. It would have been more expensive if we'd taken the tests.

AIR: It feels dry even on days when there’s rain. Take lots of moisturiser and a chapstick. Guidebooks talk of how polluted Tehran is, but the air quality we experienced was certainly no worse than that of the average Indian city. There’s often a smell of petrol or CNG in the air, but we are used to that.

WATER: The tap water is safe to drink, which is a huge change from India. I’m a votary of sticking with tap water when it is potable. It’s a terrible waste of plastic to drink bottled water everywhere. I recommend buying one bottle to start with, and then refilling it in your hotel before leaving for the sights. Every place you go, you’ll find water coolers offering the opportunity to tank up.
The central story in Shia history, told and retold every Muharram, is of the battle of Karbala. Near the tragic conclusion of their ordeal, Imam Husain and his group were denied water by the opposing general. Following this, the provision of drinking water is a kind of duty in Shia culture, and the Iranian state performs it very well.

BEVERAGES: It's a mystery why countries which were among the first to savour coffee have given it up for tea. Iran is one such. In recent years, it has substituted the long-brewed version of the beverage with tea bags. If you can't do without coffee, it is best to take along granules or pre-mixed coffee sachets and a small kettle; most hotels will provide plain hot water if you can't manage the kettle. Even where coffee is on offer, it's likely to be that sludge-like Turkish stuff or some weirdly flavoured brew. Alcohol is a complete no-no.

FOOD: It is neither cheap not extortionately expensive. A main course will set you back a couple of hundred rupees even at a roadside kababi. On the plus side, poultry and meat are generally of very good quality. Since there’s no liquor, you are expected to order salad and a cola to bulk up the bill. You won’t get seriously dirty looks if you order just a main, Iranians are too polite for that kind of thing, but expect to be asked at least three times about the accompaniments.
Apart from high end restaurants, no eateries will offer English menus with printed prices. We sometimes got the impression that the guy at the counter was trying to decide how much he should charge us for a dish. In the end, though, our meals usually ended up costing somewhere between 5 and 10 dollars for two.
Menus are restricted, you’ll find no 250 dish multicuisine restaurants in these parts. If 15 mains are printed, only five or six will normally be available. And they will be precisely the ones you had at previous meals.
Naans vary considerably in quality, though not in size (They are invariably huge). There is no way of knowing if you’re going to end up with flavourful, warm, fluffy bread or cold, stale, rubbery stuff. Among the interesting variations we came upon was a rectangle with very precisely separated char marks. Jabeen enquired about it and was told it was a ‘naan-e-machini’, never served at the best places. That machine-made naan was far from the worst we came across. Rice was another matter. It was uniformly excellent, perfectly cooked, the grains separate without being dry, almost as long as basmati grains but with a completely different, more subtle, flavour.
For Bombay readers who like eating at Britannia, I can confirm that a version of Berry Pulao is a standard item on Irani menus. The basic dish is the same, chicken buried under rice that's sprinkled with 'zeresht', or barberries, but the people at Brittania have added a fair amount of masala for Indian tastes.
Vegetarians will not have an easy time in Iran, though there’s good feta cheese at breakfast, and usually an aubergine-centred main course on offer. If you are vegetarian and also dislike brinjals, you’re pretty much done for.

TOILETS: Iranians have not taken to urinals, because of the Muslim fear of polluting splashback, so men have to pee in stalls. Guys need to be very careful in reading the signs, because there’s nothing in the facility itself that differentiates male and female loos. The toilets in public places are mostly squatties, and are fairly clean, certainly always in usable condition. Squirters are preferred to paper.

MONEY: Credit cards don’t work at all, and neither do ATM cards. Bring dollars, cash. There are plenty of moneychangers around, the good ones charge no commission, but might reject old notes. The love of crisp new dollar notes contrasts with a willingness to use faded, torn local currency. Some carpet sellers do accept credit cards, but that involves them paying commissions to agents in Dubai as a way of sidestepping the sanctions regime, and the 10 or 15% loss that involves will be passed on to you.

LANDSCAPE: The Iran we saw was composed of mountains and plains, plains between mountains, very flat patches of land ringed by hills. You never know what lies beyond the next row of hills. It could be farmland, or pasture or desert, changing startlingly from one to the other. Hills relieve the view of otherwise boring cities, the way the sea relieves the view of Bombay. Even in Tehran, an overgrown metropolis of little charm, one can always find visual escape in the snow-topped ridge looming in the north.
The landscape has conditioned Iranian culture in a number of ways: it is a landscape that is frequently harsh, though one that rewards effort. India, by contrast, offers a very easy way of growing enough to feed oneself, thanks to the monsoon and the high water table, and therefore, remained technologically backward, a nation dependent on the coming of rain each year. In Iran seeds will not flourish unless irrigated carefully. The story of Iranian agriculture is one of creating a massive network of qanats or channels, bringing water from the hills to farms. Having become experts in this, it was just a step further to create magnificent gardens with watercourses running through them. The Iranian garden is enclosed, shielded from the harsh wind; a private, meticulously cultivated paradise, not a sprawling estate open to the vagaries of nature. Iranian culture does not involve nature worship: nature offers many beauties, but they must be won through hard work, and can be taken away easily.
The worst period in Iran’s history was the invasion of the Mongols, a nomadic people who had no respect for agriculture or farmers. The system of qanats, built over millenia, was destroyed, and took centuries to rebuild.
Iran itself has its nomads; more than any country I have seen, it is a stage for the millennia-old tussle between farmers and pastoralists. Both groups, of course, have now been overshadowed by modern industry.

TRANSPORT: After the revolution, Iran was left with just one car maker, a situation analogous to India at the same point in history. Peugeot was to Iran what Suzuki was to India. The similarity, though, ends there. India now has over a dozen car makers competing for buyers; Iran has added just one: Hyundai. Half the cars you see on Iranian roads are Peugeots. That might explain something about France’s role in the ongoing debate about Iran’s nuclear programme.
Intercity transport is cheap and convenient, whether by road, rail or air. While air ticket prices are low, airports themselves can only be reached by expensive taxis. It is a 17 dollar ride to Tehran airport from the south of the city, more from the posh northern suburbs. That amount will fetch two luxury seats on an overnight bus from the capital to Esfahan.
The high fares charged by taxis within towns contrast with reasonably priced inter-city options. Few cabs run by meter: the final amount is decided after haggling, but is always on the high side. Shared taxis are a common way to get around places cheap, but we never figured out the routine. For those on a strict budget, it is imperative to use these shared vehicles. Intra-city public transport isn't great, aside from Tehran's expanding underground network.

I'll add to this list in the future and, of course, try and answer questions prospective tourists might have.


Anonymous said...

What about language? Is it difficult to get by? Do Hindi's vague Farsi connections help?

Anonymous said...

i am veggie and i hate baingan to boot ! but let it never be said it came in my way - MTR ready to eat hai na !
s anand

Girish Shahane said...

Language: Hindi doesn't help much with communication, but Iranians are familiar with Bollywood, and many can quote a few lines from a film. Salman Khan, for some reason, is the most popular among the current film stars, ahead of Shahrukh, who is ahead of Aamir.
Once or twice a couple of Farsi / Hindustani words we knew helped. Like when we were asked if Esfahan was better or Bombay, I said, "Esfahan - khoob; Bombay - Azaadi". The message got across OK.

DS said...

I am sure the berry pulao at Brittania is much oilier. The Persians cook their rice and pulaos much drier and the dried bits at the bottom of the vessel come out on top when its overturned onto a dish and these dried bits which would be anathema in any Indian pulao or biryani is actually much coveted by them.

Would be interested to know if you came across any Bahai's.

Mr. D said...

Thanks for answering a berry pulao query that i've had in my head for a while now.

This is a good useful post. Thanks.

Unknown said...

Very useful post, Girish. Thanks for sharing your experience in dept. I'm a vegetarian and will be going on a guided tour, so hopefully they will point out where I could get some veg for myself. I just want to know which month did you go in?

Girish Shahane said...

I went in May. The weather was a bit warm in Shiraz. Jabeen felt warmer than I did because she had to wear a scarf. Esfahan and Tehran were pleasant weather-wise.