Dozens of bouquet-wielding families intact with grandparents, kids, uncles, aunts, and cousins line up the narrow exit with warmth and good tidings at the Tehran Imam Khomeini international airport. Seeing our group leader – a spirited tomboyish sturdy woman – is a welcome relief, given all the caution meted out to us – as a woman’s group travelling in Iran. An hour-long ride in balmy weather takes us into the city which is quiet early in the evening but for wide boulevards, wild roses leaping out from nowhere, and strings of festive flags along flat, yellowish chalk-coloured buildings.
As night falls, the city lights come on cheerfully and young people come out on to the streets to enjoy a meal out or just catch up. It’s a wee bit chilly, and we haven’t realised that at the foot of the Alborz mountains, the city scales up from 3000ft all the way to 8,000 feet…much higher than Mussourie, Shimla, or Nainital, familiar and popular “hill stations” back in India.
The metro station we board from the city centre is a whole different world – ceilings that are miles high, clearly demarcated coloured floor markers to board and alight. The platform is teeming with chattering masses, dutifully making their way to the first two and last two railcars if they are women, else collecting in the middle. Hustled by an endless array of salesmen and women (the lucky blokes travel through the women’s carriages) who stay just long enough to give their spiel for one station and sell everything from hairclips and underwear to tablecloths and kitchenware, it is an amusing sight. At 11,000 rials for a return ride (less than 30 cents or about INR20 – all of which we crack code on, a couple of days into the trip), the metro present across cities was safe, reassuring and very aesthetically designed, and friendlier than my maiden trips in New York or Paris even.
The next 9 days proved to be delightful…Iran is a well-kept secret never to be told or it might lose its charm. A kaleidoscope that teases the senses – of beautiful women, colourful sweet and sour food, gleaming cityscapes and town squares, gardens littered with flowers, imposing yet minutely multicoloured tiled mosques, and rivers and mountains so casually dotting the landscape. In sharp contrast were the staid very flat sand papered looking buildings – government, public and residential, as well as roads lined with boxy cars straight out of the 70s- Peugeots, Nissans and Renaults – all flat, no curves, exaggerated bonnets and trunks.
Words like “cultured” “tehzeeb”” jannat” came to mind ever so often each day as we encountered locals – cabbies, school girls, old ladies, shop keepers – no one crossed us without yelling “Hindoostan???” and when we nodded, they either broke into a jig or Bollywood song, or giggled, or practised their halting English with us, complimented us for being “women on our own trip’’ or called us beautiful, stopping for photographs and asking us to visit their homes for tea. Without doubt, Iranians have got to be the friendliest people in the world.
There was something very warm hospitable and kind in the air it seemed. The very daunting prospect of travelling with 10 unknown ladies over 10 days in completely unfamiliar terrain and what was touted as a conservative restrictive cultural environment, was laughable. And I now happily recommend the same as an experience to cherish. Of course, many factors played out to make it so. Shibani, our group leader’s careful recce of the country’s destinations and hotels and exhaustive list of cafes and travel tips and flexibility with maximising the itinerary for all of us. Mandana Nooran, our delishly beautiful and guide whose animated stories and information nuggets and shopping tips kept us enthralled through long bus rides and on hot afternoons when our legs were giving way. Her impeccable translation of Persian poetry and verse and flawless English descriptions made us all feel at ease in a mostly unfamiliar lingual territory. Ibrahim, our old-soul shy van driver, who chivalrously chaperoned us through day and night drives stopping only to pay tolls or refill our hot water for endless cups of black tea on our drives.
From Tehran to Isfahan and onto Shiraz, and finally Yazd, we covered over a 1000 miles, with pit stops at Kashan and Persepolis. The motley group of 10 professional women each bringing her own fare to the table literally as well, held us all so tightly that despite the flexibility of free evenings in our itinerary, we stuck as a group each night finding gourmet gems across the cities we visited, including a toned down pyjama party with our heads finally uncovered in a hotel room tucking into local Iranian dishes.
Food has got to be one of the highlights of our Iran trip, not so much for versatility across the regions as much as for its soulfulness and the elaborateness of each meal be it at a tiny roadside café or a fancy hotel. And we ladies graced each meal with the zeal of mountaineers and wrestlers, our headscarves providing all the cover we needed to get over any shyness. After 2-3 days of over-ordering to satiate our desire to try every olive marinade and yogurt flavour besides every meat we could discover under the pile of buttered rice, we slipped into such orchestrated communion. The kababs, fish and vegetables cooked in delightful rich spices and fruit pastes resulted in sweet and sour symphonies with occasional chillies to perk up the notes. Plate after plate of fesenjan (pomegranate walnut stew), bademjan ( eggplant and tomato stew), saffron buttered rice ( cooked as chelo or polo- with vegetables) and tahdig which is essentially lip smacking burnt rice, made for healthy wholesome eating on high carpeted platforms where we sat cross legged for many an hour sharing food and banter, resting our tired and happy selves.
The spectacular Khaju bridge notwithstanding, travelling to Iran is like time-travel into “the bridge across forever” to see “naqsh-e-jahan” or half the world. Make your way!