Breakfast in the hotel, which was full of business people. Many Japanese were there, and the women paid the scantiest possible attention to the Hijab laws, wearing blouses that barely covered their bottoms. (Hijab means "head cover and modest dress for women" among Muslims, which most Islamic legal systems define as covering everything except the face and hands in public.) Throughout our travels, I wear a cotton headscarf, either folded into a triangle and tied babuskha-style under my chin, or wrapped around the back of my head. Long Indian cotton tunic with jeans or cotton pants completes my Hijab. This is acceptable but outlandish; along with my northern European coloring, my outfit ensures we are spotted as Westerners wherever we go. George has it easy; Iranian men wear Western-style clothing, except that they don’t wear sleeveless shirts or shorts.
Though our breakfast coffee is instant Nescafe, it is much better than none at all. We enjoy eggs, a nice crepe-ish dish, cheese, yogurt, breads, juice, and so forth.
Our guide for the day is Mr. Cyrus Etemadi. He is the founder and managing directory of Caravan Sahra tours and a very delightful character. It is our good fortune that due to staffing shortages, he accompanies us himself, which he rarely does. He seemingly knows everyone in the Persian travel business. His children have married Japanese, English & Canadians, and live abroad.
A man of endless good humor and energy, he first takes us to Golestan Palace. On entering the site, our eyes are caught by the Takht-e-Marmar, a spectacular, intricately painted and mirrored terrace containing the Marble Throne, supported by carved marble human figures. The complex consists of a variety of museums filled with paintings, photographs, ceramics, and ethnological displays. Many of the displays reflect the extraordinary expansion of western influence in Iran at the time of the Qajars (the dynasty in the 18th-19th century). Many Iranian artists were sent abroad to study; the architecture is a mixture of traditional Persian and 19th century European motifs; the paintings are almost entirely westernized.
We briefly visit the bazaar. It is closed for the Friday 'weekend', but we can still get a sense of its size and atmosphere.
Our next stop is the Glassware and Ceramic Museum. It has an interesting history; it was built roughly 90 years ago as the home of Prime Minister Ahmad Qavam, was briefly the Egyptian embassy, and was turned into a museum by a group of Iranian, Austrian and French architects in 1980. It is a truly beautiful building with graceful art nouveau elements, blending traditional Iranian style and the European architecture of the late 19th century . The staircase is intricately carved wood, overhung with a glittering crystal chandelier. Amazingly intact glass from the first and second millenium B.C. is on display, along with lovely bottles, pipes, and other items of glass created through the centuries, as well as handsome ceramics. almost entirely westernized.
The deposed Shah had 14 palaces total throughout Iran. In Tehran, he lived in the ’Sadabad Palace complex. It was first inhabited by Qajar monarchs and the royal family in the 19th century. After an expansion of the compounds, Reza Shah lived there in the 1920s; his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi moved there in the 1970s.
After the Iranian Revolution, the complex became a museum. The complex is in the cool and lovely mountains north of Tehran. There is the Green Palace, White and Black Palaces, and other grand structures. Very opulent decorations, including lovely giant carpets, fill the rooms, and outside are fountains, pools, statues, and many picnickers. The palaces reflect the almost completely western orientation of the Pahlevi dynasty; the architecture and decorations are strongly reminiscent of Versailles.
Then, on to the Darakeh mountain hillside. Here, Mr. Etemadi, who is in his late 60s, proved to be part mountain goat. He sails up the steep trails along the river. George, our driver, and I stagger along in his wake, taking a few moments to appreciate the stark beauty of the hillside and the river. In full spate, the river rushes along in falls and pools, and half-buried trees peak out of the water.
Since it was Friday, many young Tehranis are enjoying their day off, picnicking and hiking along the trails, dining and playing guitar in the restaurants along the stream. It is a joyful and lively scene, not at all the perception of conservative Iran. Some giggling young girls show us a young kitten they are raising, and some boys use the kitten as an excuse to chat up the girls.
A late lunch at a charming riverside restaurant includes 'dizi'--an Iranian delicacy which is rather complicated to eat. First, you take some beans and meat from the bowl, and pour in all the liquid into a cup. You pound them all together with flatbread to make soup. After eating that, you then squash the remaining meat and beans with a pestle and eat them with bread, onions, and pickles.
Our driver is very pleasant at all times, even in the face of Tehran's favorite daredevil sport, otherwise known as driving. Although it takes a bit of practice to weave across the street through traffic (as traffic lights are not taken too seriously), it is much easier than crossing a busy Roman road. Iranian drivers lack the macho combativeness of Roman drivers and will come to a stop if one boldly steps in their path and holds up a hand.
We make a brief stop to pick us all up some delicious ice cream. Although the driver spoke only limited English, he surprises us by proudly reciting “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!”