Tehran: Iran’s beautifully ugly capital
The traffic is nightmarish; a 10 kilometre trip across the city centre could easily take one hour. Pollution is disgraceful; about 4500 people apparently die every year as a direct result of Tehran‘s toxic atmosphere. And Tehran is huge; geographically the city is about half the size of Sydney but it packs in about three times as many people. This means that the city has no real heart; a square of about 10 by 15 kilometres is only slightly more built-up than the rest, thus creating a so-called ‘centre’.
And speaking of built-up, remember that Tehran‘s 12 million citizens do not live in suburbs; instead the city is wall-to-wall apartment blocks. The Tehran Metro has been open for about twelve years, bringing us back to the first point, the traffic. The mixture of congestion and poor-planning raises makes the idea of an earthquake in the capital a truly terrifying possibility (and yes – it is a possibility. In keeping with its history of poor planning, Tehran is built on a fault-line).
Despite this, I love Tehran. Underneath the toxic carbon soup is a city with style. It’s an exciting place where you can sit in silence with a cappuccino whilst looking over the Alborz Mountains, towering above the leafy northern suburbs. You can finish up a day in the bazaar while listening to the bazaaris (merchants) haggling. You can do your banking downtown in the morning then ski in the afternoon. Tehran is a city of gourmet food and simple kebab shops. The friendliest of people walk past the infamous ex-US Embassy without batting an eyelid. It’s got chadors and it’s got designer threads. Heavy traffic and heavier make-up. It’s got style.
Tehran is also the place to walk in the footsteps of modern history. Visit the ex-US Embassy, once besieged by revolutionaries, now a museum to that chapter of history. Tour the Shah’s palace which has hardly been touched he fled in 1979 (and which, by the way, has such awful taste in design you’d think maybe he fled for other reasons). Stand at the Azadi monument, the scene of street battles against the Shah’s forces, the place where Ayatollah Khomeini was greeted back to the city by millions of excited Iranians. Today, all of this is a memory, and the Azadi monument is simply a place to go on your lunch break.
In the way of cuisine, Tehran takes the cake (no pun intended), not only for Iran, but also for the Middle East. Modern Thai restaurants sit next to traditional Iranian tea-houses. Chinese done Iranian style. Steak fillets flown in from Europe, garnished with sauces and served in top-end restaurants in the foothills of the Alborz. More and more I get the feeling that Tehran would be emerging as an international city if it were allowed to. And no, I haven’t let the mountain air get to me; with the odds stacked heavily against it, every day Tehran is becoming a more exciting place to be.