Tehran through Pakistani eyes - I

Ahmed Jan travels to the Iranian capital - finding love, warmth and resilience in the face of adversity

Tehran through Pakistani eyes - I
At the Arrivals immigration counter at Sharjah Airport, the immigration officer asked me for the purpose of my visit. It seemed quite ordinary until I was asked the origin of my flight – to which I replied “Tehran”. I noticed his facial expression instantly become stern and harsh. He repeatedly asked me my purpose in travelling to Iran and every time I responded with “tourism” or “sightseeing”. He was unhappy with my response. I was referred to an office on the far end of the hall, where I was made to wait, standing, for another forty minutes.

Lost in my thoughts, I flashed back to the warmth that I had experienced in Tehran only a few days earlier. On Christmas Day last year, for a week’s tour I had landed at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport from London. Whilst waiting early in the morning for my host to pick me up, I was sitting near a family who were waiting for their flight. Not knowing anyone, the young mother sitting opposite, covered from head to toe, smilingly offered me food which she had opened for herself and her family. Before the family left, her young daughter wished me in English, “Have a nice stay in Iran!” I wasn’t expecting a lady from what is otherwise considered a strictly conservative society to interact with a stranger. It was a warm welcome by an ordinary person and I was deeply touched.

Civilization and global integration have deep roots on the Iranian plateau

While organising my trip to Iran in London, I was cautioned by a friend that my visit to the country might restrict my other travel plans – in particular to the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. It was valid reasoning – but from my perspective, I had to make a choice between the lands of 200 or 2,000 years of living history. And I followed my instincts.


In planning a visit to Tehran, one must bear in mind that the city is Iran’s capital but it is also one of thecountry’s provinces. Tehran city, amongst several other cities or sheristan, makes up the Tehran province. It is advisable that whilst arranging accommodation, one should not confuse the city with the vast province and stay as close to the capital city as possible. Unaware of geography and distances, initially I stayed on the outskirts, west of Tehran city in Shahriar, Tehran province. It is well connected with road links and especially cheap rail communication which is about half an hour’s journey. Train links between Shahriar and Tehran would end service at 8 in the evening. Later, I moved to the city centre – which was convenient and allowed me to explore more as a tourist.

By air, Tehran city is served by two airports, one of which is Mehrabad International Airport – which is in the city itself and provides access to domestic routes. The other is Imam Khomeini International Airport, which is 30 km south of the city and serves all international flights. Though on a modest budget, from London I chose Pegasus Airlines for arrival and Air Arabia for my outbound flight to Sharjah and then Karachi. I also noticed other globally well connected airlines like Emirates, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines operating to Tehran.

A group of friendly shopkeepers posing for a photo in the Grand Bazaar

The airport is quite new and is still in its expansion phase but it provides all the basic amenities. One of the main facilities is the bank and money changer. In case the reader wonders why this is worthy of note, it must be remembered that Iran has been under severe sanctions for years and all financial transactions are limited. As an individual one cannot send or receive money abroad: this includes foreign money drawls from ATMs. As a tourist, money has to be brought in one’s pockets. After recent US travel restrictions, the Euro is the most preferred currency and can be easily exchanged anywhere. At the airport, on the ground floor, I went to a bank to convert my Euros into the Iranian Riyal. A caring staff member advised that to avoid bank charges, I should instead get it changed at the money changers at the upper-level. I found a long queue but it was moving at a considerably fast pace. Rates were displayed on an electronic board. To my amazement the exchange rate for 1 Euro was 50,000 Riyals. I only exchanged 20 Euros, thinking that I would exchange the rest of my money in the market downtown at more favourable rates. However, I discovered later that the exchange rate at the airport was somewhat more or less similar to the rates in the city.I was also told that a prepaid debit card designed for tourists was also available – but I stuck to my old fashioned ways of carrying cash!

Friendliness and a helpful attitude is acommon Iranian characteristic. At the airport, I was approached by taxi drivers offering me their services. I politely declined saying that I was waiting for a friend. Seeing no hope of getting business, every taxi driver who I met offered their phones to help me make contact with my host – a favour which I happily accepted.

Conservative official policy does not always reflect the everyday reality of life for modern Iranians

I was cautioned by a friend that my visit to the country might restrict my other travel plans - in particular to the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. It was valid reasoning - but from my perspective, I had to make a choice between the lands of 200 or 2,000 years of living history. And
I followed my instincts

No foreign cellular phone connection is supported in Iran. Instead, Iranian mobile SIM connections are available at the airport, which are cheap and easy to purchase. During the time that it takes for the SIM card to be activated – which is an hour or so – the airport offers free Wi-Fi, but only for an hour’s time, which can be useful to make important communications. Though WhatsApp and Facebook are officially blocked in Iran, somehow the former is widely used – along with the Telegram messaging service app. With excellent internet speed, Google Maps proved very handy for city navigation.

Taxis are fairly expensive compared to other public transport systems and one has to haggle before agreeing on the fare. Taxis are also shared between other passengers. However, Tehran also has its own Snapp cab service – similar to Uber and Careem – which is convenient, cheap and does not require you to share rides. For the traveller, it is best to download all necessary phone apps beforehand.

US foreign policy once again has Iran in its sights - with the possibility of continued, crippling restrictions on ordinary people

E-banking and plastic money has crept into the lowest-tier traders of Iranian society, allowing local circulation through a governed electronic system

The Metro is the most convenient and cheap mode of public transport in Tehran. Being a Londoner myself and a daily commuter on the Tube, I can safely say that Tehran’s Metro is a marvel of the underground intra-city commuting system. Apart from cleanliness, its heated seats for the winterand mobile coverage seem a luxury. The first and last carriages are reserved for women but women can be seen sharing other carriages, especially while travelling with their male companions. I found out the arrangement when in a hurry and the doors were about to shut: I hopped on a carriage only to realise later that the carriage was for women. Only at the next stop I moved to the second carriage. The Metro is a network of eight different routes called lines or Khath in Persian, covering the entire depth and width of the city. For convenience these lines are also colour-coded. The train connects Imam Khomeini International Airport to the city and adjoining areas. The first train leaves the airport station at 5 in the morning, followed by an hourly service. During the night, service is suspended. The airport service commences on Line 8; after a few stops it connects to Shahed station on Line 1. After a convenient changeover to Line 1 – which is red coded and the most busy line, connecting Tehran’s South to the North – it runs through the city centre.While traveling, one has a choice to change for reconnections at any direction without paying extra till the destination. The Metro with its phone app remained my preferred choice throughout my stay and I also travelled back to the airport on the same train.

Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT for short, is another service similar to Pakistan’s Metro Bus. Though not comparable to the underground train in speed, ease and efficiency,it gave me an overview of the busy street life. I used it as a tour-bus for sightseeing! There are in total ten routes and I took BRT-7 from Tajrish, an affluent area in the north of Tehran, all the way to the south of the city. It is said to be the longest bus ride on Khyban-e-Valiasr formally named after Iran’s last Shah.

Passengers waiting to board a crowded Metro train in Tehran

Tajrish is situated in the foothills of the mountains in the north of the capital. Apart from its old bazaar and a prominent shrine, it is a modern hangout comprising malls and cinemas. Unlike other parts of the city where only certain makes of local cars are seen, in Tajrish I spotted expensive variant models on beautiful tree-lined roads that have streams from the hills flowing by the side. While taking a stroll, I saw young buskers on the sidewalk performing with their guitars. Their pleasant music added flavour to the already evocative atmosphere of the town.

Ferdowsi Street in central Tehran is hub for moneychangers or Saraf. The street is next to the famous Ferdowsi square, well connected to Metro line 4 and BRT 1. The stations are conveniently named after the same place. Considering the exchange rate which changes invariably, I found it better to visit several shops to judge the going rate. It was afternoon and the shops in a row were filled with men sitting together, chatting over cups of drinks. The rates were almost similar to what I had experienced a day earlier at the airport. The Iranian Riyal has lost its value considerably and seeing the number of zeros on the currency notes, inflation seems very high. For the ease of local circulation, apart from the Riyal, the government has introduced the Toman, which is a valid legal tender with one zero taken out from Riyal meaning 10,000 Riyals equal 1,000 Toman. In exchange for foreign currency the moneychanger will hand over Riyals, but while shopping all money-talk will be in Tomans - such as rate lists and price tags.

To the traveller, it can be quaint to see two different currencies in one country. A visitor like me was bound to get confused while converting and calculating the number of zeros in Riyal and Tomans, especially since I was carrying cash, but in Tehran I seldom saw locals exchanging paper currency. It was quite noticeable to see shopping transactions being made electronically. This also included roadside businesses like street hawkers who would accept money through a point of sale (POS) system via handheld card readers. This gave me a fair idea of how e-banking and plastic money has crept into the lowest-tier traders of Iranian society, allowing local circulation through a governed electronic system of the state. Out of the several benefits of POS, tax revenue collection appears feasible even from the lowest band of earners.

With aproud history and culture of over 2,000 years, one might even understand a degree of arrogance but although the Iranians are proud of their rich background, I find they are humble and modest in nature. As a nation, Iranians are good-looking and cheerful, with these blessed qualities making them even more welcoming and hospitable. Whenever I introduced myself as Pakistani, I received great love. Though I was alone and had no one to chat to, there would always be someone to help and talk to me whether it was a bus-stop, train station, bazaar or street. Once outside a shrine, across the street in traditional dress was an aged dervish with a grey beard, walking towards me perhaps asking for alms. Not understanding his request, I replied in broken Persian that I don’t speak Persian, and that I am Pakistani.

He paused, placed his right hand on the side of my face and gently patted it. With a cheerful smile he said something again and left.

In those few seconds I could feel the kindness and love in his gesture.