Finding peace in chaos in Tehran – from Park-e Shahr to Park Abshar

Exactly two weeks after entering the Islamic Republic, we found ourselves in the heart of it – Tehran – a metropolis that alone hosts seven times more people than my whole country. Three Latvians (plus one French guy) felt even punier being here because of this fact and because they did not know where will they be staying this night. We hadn’t succeeded to find a CS/WS host but we had heard that you can go to almost any park of Tehran and just pitch your tent up there. So, we had arrived in Park-e Shahr (City Park) which was recommended to us as one of such parks by our last night’s host Hamed.

Turned out that Park-e Shahr is close to the opposite kind of parks where you could camp. It’s not even allowed to ride a bicycle there. We came to the realization that, probably most (or all?) of the parks in the capital would not be meant for camping. Of course, some sort of solution always comes for these kind of problems, especially in Iran. While we were just standing there, scratching our heads, the solution really came, it was a he and he even had a name – Rasoul. A guy suddenly appears and starts telling us about his grandfather’s house where no one lives and where we could stay, maybe. We were guessing that he is telling us that, because, as usual in Iran, his English was far from fluent. But, just following his motorcycle and seeing ourselves was our best option at the moment.

Dainis, Maxime and Rasoul - the unholy trinity of Tehran

Dainis, Maxime and Rasoul – the unholy trinity of Tehran

As a result, during this and the next four days, we were very well-fed or more like – overfed and were very warmly welcomed or as we said ‘adopted’ in an Iranian family. At the same time, we were in a bit more delicate situation. Our new Iranian Mum really loves travelers, and from all her heart loves to take care of them – while constantly bringing food to us, she repeated “relax, relax!” and “besham, besham!” (just be yourselves). But the other part of family is the “Angry Daddy” who does not like tourists, does not like to have anything to with them and who, it seems, does not like anything. All four days while being guests in this house, we (fortunately!) did not even see him. Rasoul just announced the arrival and departure times of him. “Danger, danger, angry daddy time! Be quiet!” or “Angry daddy is gone! Woohoo!” Still, every time someone came in the room, we jumped and hoped that it is not the dreaded Angry Daddy who has come after us finally. But he did not come. It looked like that the head of the family lives a separate life from the rest of family’s body. When he came, he just went into his man-cave in the base floor of the house and did not even bother to communicate with any other family members. The main thing at the times when he was home, was to be as quiet as possible and to not to go out in the yard – he also liked to hang around there. Later we found out that the daddy is supposedly quite rich and that he also has another – younger wife at the shores of Caspian.

How many of these can you play?

How many of these can you play?

Another reason to be quiet and discrete around here – we were told that Rasoul’s home is not far from the residence of one of the sons of the Supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei. So, when coming and going, we turned on our stealth mode and tried to hide from curious eyes while navigating through the little surrounding streets. The officials in Iran really do not like foreigners staying with locals. Both parties involved can get into trouble if police finds out. That was one of the reasons first two nights we moved to Rasoul’s cousin Sohrab to have our night’s rest. He’s a carpenter by profession but a musician in his heart. But, as he said, he cannot really express himself and to earn something by being a musician in the Islamic Republic. In the small but really cozy apartment, there are a lot of things and furniture made by himself. Also a bit more than 10 musical instruments, all of which he can also play. One of the most interesting that caught my eye – the Persian Santur – by the looks similar to our Latvian kokle but the main difference is that it is a hammered dulcimer.

The kilometer of ice-cream. Makes you think that ice-cream is not so tasty after all, when you are closing in to finishing it.

A kilometer (OK, OK, about 50cm…) of ice-cream. Makes you think that ice-cream is not so tasty after all, when you are closing in to finishing it.

Together with Rasoul and Sohrab we went on a night ride through Tehran, ate ‘kilometer ice-creams’ – I wouldn’t have thought that ice-cream that long was even possible let alone that it would be possible for myself to eat one. We went to Darband which was formerly a village but is now ‘eaten’ by the city and is a neighborhood in Tehran now. The hiking trails provide great views to Tehran and to Darband village itself. It looks especially beautiful at night-time – all the colorful lights look like a vein of gemstones in a rocky wall of some underground cave.

Shiny gems of Darband.

Shiny gems of Darband.

If Darband does not come to Tehran, Tehran comes to Darband.

If Darband does not come to Tehran, Tehran comes to Darband.

We were already acquainted with the Iranian hospitality but Rasoul, his friends and Mum took it to the next level. Often before the hospitality we faced came bundled with a sense of falseness and selfishness but not in this case – you could really feel the genuine warmth and heartiness flowing from them. But, soon Rasoul was off to Thailand for his holidays and our fate was unclear once again.

Our Iranian Mum - Zari. Angry Daddy is gone, so we are free to go out in the yard.

Our Iranian Mum – Zari. Angry Daddy is gone, so we are free to go out in the yard.

But as it seems in Tehran – you only have to ride to some park and everything will play out for you. We had reached an acquaintance of Hamed’s and arranged that we can stash our bicycles and all the stuff in the parking lot of his apartment house which is situated next to Park Abshar. He cannot host us in his flat but he told us that there should be no problems with setting the tent up in this park. Why shouldn’t it be true? He is living next to the park so he should know this kind of stuff. So, after waving goodbyes to Rasoul and the Mum, we set out on our second bicycle ride through Tehran. These days were exceptionally hot and Park Abshar is up North what means an uphill ride. Provided the scale of Tehran and its endless jungle of streets and dead ends, this ride turned out to be vary exhausting and a lot longer than expected – 19km and 3 hours.

The notorious traffic of Tehran turned out to be less of a fright than I had expected it to be. Maybe partly because by living three months in Tbilisi I had already gotten used to see and be into a chaos on the streets. Or it was the same as with the Georgian hospitality – we had heard so much about it but in the end it turned out to be a bit different experience for us. Of course there are many cars. Way too many cars. The road infrastructure is designed to hold 700 thousand cars but currently there are more than 3 million of them on the streets. Plus the motorbikes. Imagine a city, stuff it with all these millions of people, give them three million cars and you have a full house there. No additional space. But all these motorcycles doesn’t seem to care that there is no more space for them. They are driving on the sidewalks, avoiding the unsuspecting pedestrians, in the opposite direction of one-way streets, on the bus lanes and wherever they see the tiniest gap they can fit through. If it is possible to walk somewhere, it is most certainly possible also to ride a motorbike there. And, same as motorcycles doesn’t care where they ride, no one also cares about them. The situation where a motorbike wrooms past you on the sidewalk is so casual, it is a norm. “No rules” is the rule.

Some cars on the streets of Tehran.

Some cars on the streets of Tehran.

The other thing in traffic which caused some confusion for us at the beginning, was the traffic lights. We are used seeing the normal “red-yellow-green” lights on busy intersections. One street drives while the perpendicular one waits. They take turns and everything is under control. Tehran has some of those and they work fine but Tehran has also a lot of “red-blinking-light for one road and yellow-blinking-light for the intersecting road”. And it is not a temporary solution as it may seem at first. We didn’t manage to see any logic in the way cars interact with one another on these kinds of junctions. Seemed that those crossing are guided by Allah himself, especially the left-turns. So, we just let go all of our fears, closed our eyes and crossed, preferably, shielded by a car that also goes our way. Later we got an explanation on these traffic lights. The yellow blinking light means “drive carefully!” but the red blinking light means “drive very, very carefully!” Makes sense.

All in all, in this utter chaos and non-existence of rules, there is a sense of peace and control. There is no road rage, we did not see any car crashes (as opposed to some other countries we went through). You just need to embrace this jungle, forget about everything you’ve been taught in the driving school and you can ride in the traffic and even fell confident about yourself and safe.

Dainis is trying to blend in the surroundings of Park Abshar, trying to remain unseen by the Guard.

Dainis is trying to blend in the surroundings of Park Abshar, trying to remain unseen by the Guard.

Back to our journey to Park Abshar, what awaited us in the end was a surprise, although not really – yet again, the park didn’t look like camping grounds, that was announced also by the eccentric guard, patrolling the perimeter in his fancy uniform: “No chador!” We were in a park without a place to stay again but yet again all was well – having left our bicycles here, we spent two nights at a suburban city in the West of Tehran, then one night with a doctor in the East of Tehran. And meanwhile, we slowly got acquainted with the residents of houses surrounding Park Abshar. That is how we ended up in a family again – with Simin, her husband and daughter. We got a new place to stay – an underground compound – under all the apartments of the house, there is this huge room, completely empty, which is occasionally used for some meetings or workshops. And, food, of course. Free meals had become more a liability instead of a privilege.

A day-picnic together with the Lady Committee of Park Abshar.

A day-picnic together with the Lady Committee of Park Abshar.

A night-picnic together with Simin, her husband and daughter.

A night-picnic together with Simin, her husband and daughter.

Park Abshar or ‘Waterfall Park’ (no waterfalls though) is located in the Northern part of Tehran. Moving South to North, together with the increasing altitude as you move uphill, increases also the standard of living. All of the people we met here seemed pretty well-off and at the same time, very ordinary and sincere.

Simin – clothing designer who didn’t seem to do much these days. During our stay she was mostly seen organizing picnics with friends, family and us. It seemed that her main task is to make sure we get to try as much of the Persian cuisine as possible, and for everybody to have fresh drinks of course (she has this Coolers Central bag around her always). Her catchphrase, when communicating with us: “Don’t eat anything! I will prepare Persian breakfast/lunch/dinner for you!” Her Iranian accent and drawn intonation always made us smile: “Ivāāāārs! It is gooood for youu!”

Mr.Majid – husband of Simin, a banker. The quiet type, but that may be more connected with the fact that he doesn’t speak English. Every Monday he goes to hike some mountains together with his banker friends. Laura and I also went once.

Ivars and his banker friends go out hiking and find the most beautiful bush of Tehran.

Ivars and his banker friends go out hiking and find the most beautiful bush of Tehran.

Mehdi a.k.a. “The Civil-Engineer” organizes construction and sells the completed buildings for a living. “You invest a million dollars and you get back two.” He said that when he has saved about five mil (dollar not rial) he plans to move to live elsewhere, Canada maybe. He spoke really good English and conversations with him more often than not went deeply philosophical. He also treated us with an alcoholic Tuborg beer (not home- or Iran-made) once and was a skilled backgammon player.

The Civil-Engineer tutors Laura and Maxime in backgammon.

The Civil-Engineer tutors Laura and Maxime in backgammon.

Mr.Nader a.k.a. “The Manager” – one of the managers of the house Simin lives in. We got the impression that he does not like us because after staying at the house for the first night, we heard that the manager of the house disapproves this ordeal. Turned out that it was yet another manager and it was Mr.Nader who backed us up and let us crash there in the end. His face was usually decorated with an enigmatic smile and his character as we saw it, seemed to be apt for a Mafioso. When we later timidly inquired whether or not he is from the mob, he just laughed our question off and did not say a word.

“The Manager” is the one sitting in the middle. The Don sits while his henchmen take orders.

Nadi a.k.a. “The Guard” – very nice senior man who works as a guard for the house we were keeping our bikes in. He doesn’t speak a word in English but we were always able to communicate without words, without even gesturing. We always felt guilty for disturbing him whenever we wanted to access our stuff.

The Park brought us even more personality encounters but others played secondary roles. There was the guard of the park, with his splendid uniform, marching around and by any means trying to prevent us from pitching up our “chador”. There was an Iranian/Canadian double citizen who was often seen just sitting around and smoking weed; he had decided to live in Iran rather than Canada because by his opinion life is easier and more relaxed here. There was an elder Iranian who was usually jogging around in evenings, and when he saw us, he came to greet us and to tell some story from his past.

While the managers of the house were trying to find out whose influence is the greatest, we managed also to find a CS host for a bit more than one week. That was one of the waiting-periods for visas. We could have gone somewhere, to see something during that time but in the end, these days were just spent, sitting at home, setting records for most hours without leaving the house, trying to write some blog posts and observing our hosts – Sadegh, Hadi, Meysam and Milad. Time by time, we also gave in to the temptation of Persian cuisine and went to Abshar to have a picnic together with Simin.

A little dinner at Sadegh's place.

A little dinner at Sadegh’s place.

We spent a bit more than three weeks in Tehran altogether but most of the days were dedicated to the largely fruitless visa marathon. The summary of these pursuits will be published in one of the next blog posts. But, in-between one visa and another, apart from being in Tehran, we once managed also to get out of the capital and visit some more touristic places – which ones – you will find out in the upcoming blog post.

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