It was 3:30am local time as Pegasus flight PC512 from Istanbul began its descent into IKA airport in Tehran. Looking out the window I was astonished at the enormity of Tehran, the streets below were lit as far as the eye could see. The plane touched down smoothly, this was it, I was now officially on Iranian soil. As the plane taxied to the gate all of the women on board began to put on their hijab in order to conceal their hair. My three friends and I hoped to obtain a visa on arrival as we were eligible (I’m Irish, they’re Polish). We disembarked from the plane and began walking through the airport, all of the signs are now written in the Persian language known as Farsi. In order to get a visa on arrival you need to have travel insurance in advance but you can also purchase some at the Airport. I had heard that they don’t accept many forms of insurance so I decided I would purchase the insurance at the airport along with Juliet and Caroline. Nick had already purchased insurance from Poland (that covered Iran), however when he showed this to the man at the kiosk for verification, it wasn’t accepted and Nick also had to buy the insurance at the airport — it was €14 and could be purchased in either Euro’s or US Dollars. Next we had to fill out the visa application forms and pay for the Visa which allows you to stay for 30 days in Iran. The visa cost depends on your country of origin but it was €75 for me and my Polish friends. Once we had paid for the visa and handed in our passports, paper work and proof of insurance, it was time to play the waiting game. The area began to get a bit manic with an abundant of tourists arriving from other flights. With only three or four people working between the insurance kiosk, the visa kiosk and the bank kiosk (where you pay for the visa), we knew we could be waiting for a while. There seemed to be a lot of confusion amongst the newcomers as to what to do and where to go in order to get the visa. To be fair it isn’t marked very well and you have to go to three different windows in a particular order, there’s almost an element of trial and error involved. As time went by the visa officials kept calling different names and then that person would be asked a few questions before they would sit down and wait again. We got called several times and they wanted to verify the address which we would be staying at by calling our host (we used couch surfing). I began to get a little worried as couch surfing is technically not allowed in Iran and we didn’t know what our host Ahmad would say if they called him. I kept myself occupied by doodling in Juliet’s notebook. After waiting a total of two hours Caroline and I got our visa’s. I was relieved to say the least. Another fifteen minutes went by and Juliet and Nick received theirs too. It was about 6:25am now and we passed through immigration and into arrivals. Caroline had arranged a driver to pick us up and bring us into Tehran (It’s about 60km). We had his picture so we searched for him while turning down the plentiful offers from other taxi drivers. The moment the sliding doors opened and I stepped outside my face was slapped with a cloud of heat, it was similar to the feeling you get when you open the fan oven after it had been cooking a pizza for 15 minutes. The first thing I noticed were three Iranian guards clutching their AK-47’s — no messing here. We walked around outside looking for the taxi driver but there was no sign of him. Caroline thought she saw the driver and showed the picture to some man who then said awkwardly that it wasn’t him as other taxi drivers looked on hysterically. Not being able to connect to Wifi, an Iranian man offered to help and rang the driver’s mobile for us, however there was no answer.
The Insurance Kiosk
Hand in forms and collect Visa here
Pay for the Visa here
We were approached by another taxi driver, he must have been the 20th taxi driver to approach us. We struck up conversation with him and he said he would bring us into the city for $30, after a few minutes of back and forth haggling he accepted $20 (which is expensive), however we had no Iranian money so had to change money in order to pay. The exchange rate isn’t as good in the airport as it is in Tehran's City centre so the bare minimum was exchanged by Juliet and off we went. The taxi driver’s english wasn’t the best but he was extremely friendly and delighted to have some tourists with him. It was a 10 minute walk to the car park where his car was located, when we finally get to his car it was a tiny coupe with no seat belts in the back (something I later learned was the norm in the taxis here). We crammed in and off we went to Tehran, as I pulled down the window when the car left the airport the first thing that hit my lungs was the thick polluted air emerging from the city. It overwhelmed me so much that I was coughing initially as my body adjusted accordingly. The driving in Iran is insane to say the least, there were 3 lanes on the motorway but no-one was sticking to their lane, it's a complete free for all with cars being centimeters away from each other. We got a taste of the Iranian hospitality when the driver pulled into a shop on the side of the motorway and bought each of us a bottle of water and also wanted to buy us tea and snacks (we politely declined). The drive to Tehran is about 1 hour depending on the time of day and the traffic. Once we reached the city the traffic became chaotic. I didn't think this kind of driving existed anywhere in the world, it was as if the apocalypse was coming and everybody was trying to escape as fast as they could. I held onto the roof handle extremely nervously as the driver weaved in and out between cars, motorbikes, buses and trucks, driving straight out into the middle of junctions without any regard for oncoming traffic, all while casually using his phone at the same time. All I could do was laugh and look around in awe, it's an experience in itself and the more I think about it, these Iranian drivers are actually incredibly skillful, I know I wouldn't last 5 minutes on their roads, however they do indeed have one of the highest rates of road related deaths in the world and now I can see why!
Our taxi driver didn't seem to have a smart phone and despite getting us to the area where we were staying he couldn't find the street. He kept driving us around the same area pulling down his window and shouting at random people, most of them would just shrug while others would point in some direction. This process repeated itself over and over for about an hour until I pulled out my iPhone and managed to direct him to the place myself! We were staying with two Iranian guys named Ahmad and Behzad. We had told Ahmad that we would be there at 7am however it must have been closer to 11am now and we feared that he may have gone to work. However to our delight when we rang the bell, a man answered 'hello' in English! Ahmad was there to greet us, and welcomed us into his apartment which was nice. He told us he needed to go to work as he was late (very late) and he gave us a set of keys to his place and a few basic tips for the area we were in (Tehranvilla). We asked him where we could exchange money and he said it was far away but he offered to lend us 1 million rials (100,000 Toman) which at the time was about 27 Euro, remember, this was a man we had just met for the first time! He walked us to the grocery shop which was on the way to his workplace and helped us to buy things as the prices were written in the farsi numerals which we didn't understand (yet). Then he departed for work and we went back to his place and had some food.
Farsi Numerals, learn them if you're going!
Despite wanting to sleep we had to meet a filmmaker called Emad as he traveled from Isfahan to meet us (Isfahan is 6 hours by bus from Tehran). We met him in Tehranvilla park and had a chat, we were in Tehran to make a documentary and he would be helping. After we got business out of the way he offered to bring us to a coffee shop which was 20 minutes away by taxi. I didn't want to go as I was literally a zombie but we obliged. The cafe was called 'Lamiz cafe' and to be honest once inside if you disregard the hijabs worn by the women it could actually be compared to a coffee shop on 5th avenue in New York City. It was very modern and trendy, I really liked it. After we had an iced coffee each, Emad was kind enough to help us exchange money before bringing us back to where we were staying via a taxi. Then we had a nap.
After a bad nap, we ventured out for a walk in the area we were staying in. Looking at google maps we headed for one of the parks that was nearby, it was about 7pm and it was very interesting to see all of the local people enjoying the park at this hour. There were people of all ages there enjoying conversation, there were families with their children in the playground and there were people playing ping pong. I guess the evening is the best time to venture out as it is the coolest time of day. As we walked around I could feel the eyes on us, everybody was staring. But everyone was friendly and the locals were asking us where we were from etc. They came up to us, shook our hands and welcomed us to Iran. It's was a lovely experience. We returned to Ahmad's house and he was there with his girlfriend, they made us Iranian tea and we drank it with them, it was really really nice. One thing that surprised me is that a significant portion of the Iranian people are very westernised. Traditionally, having a girlfriend in Iran wouldn't be normal and is technically illegal, however everyone seems to be in a relationship. After tea and conversation, Ahmad's girlfriend departed and then Ahmad offered to buy us a kebab for dinner. He returned after fifteen minutes with a humongous amount of bread and meat and then we ate on his Persian carpet in the traditional manner - it was delicious. All in all my first day in Iran was an eye opener, I was extremely nervous when the plane first landed and after one day in Tehran, I could already look back and wonder what was I worried about! I knew I had a great 3 weeks ahead of me in a great country!