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John Simpson ruminates on bad hotels and the origins of tea in Iran
I don't like this place. I'm not referring to Tehran itself, and certainly not to Iran: it's always a pleasure to come here whenever I can get a visa, which has been distinctly difficult over the decades. No, it's the hotel where I'm staying that I dislike. Before the revolution of 1979, it was the Hilton — I didn't much like it even then.
Ever since it's been called the Esteqlal, which means 'independence', though a translator of mine once mistakenly but charmingly thought it meant 'celibacy'. It's government-owned, the service is unfriendly and rather Soviet, and my room is falling to pieces. The sole advantage is that it has a rather good cigar shop. It was a mistake coming here, but I thought I'd give my favourite hotel, the Laleh, a break this time: too many foreign journalists stay there.
So here I am, sitting in the lobby and waiting for my producer, Oggy, and our cameraman, Nick. There are big anti-government demonstrations in town, and we're working crazy hours: never asleep before 3.30am in the morning, and up by 8am. For once, I'm down before they are.
In front of me is a thick slice of cake, 'English cake', the Iranians call it, and a cup of tea, my breakfast of choice here. Tea is the national drink of Iran. Well, let's face it, nothing stronger is available here. In the holy city of Qom, south of Tehran, I've sat on expensive carpets over the years, drinking cup after cup of tea with mullahs, hojatoleslams and at least two ayatollahs, trying ineffectually to impress them by holding a cube of sugar between my teeth as I drank, in traditional Persian fashion — a way of making a scarce commodity last longer.
Iran got its tea-drinking habit from the growing trade with China in the late 15th century. Anyone down the ages who had anything to do with the Chinese has always known about their love affair with tea, which is one reason why I've always believed the sceptics who doubt whether Marco Polo actually visited China himself, or just made up his adventures — he never mentions tea once.
In any teahouse in China, they are likely to tell you that tea was first discovered by the Emperor Shen Nung in 2737BC. They may also tell you that it happened when someone was bringing him a cup of hot water. Some leaves from a tea bush accidentally landed in it and Shen Neng drank the rather pleasant gold liquid. Frankly, if I were a servant of the Emperor and liable to get the death penalty in some particularly unpleasant form for irritating him, I think I might take the trouble to get another cup of hot water.
Shen Nung is said to have invented farming, and he was a botanist of genius — perhaps he discovered that tea could be used as a useful antidote to various poisons. But it wasn't for another 3,000 years, until the resplendent T'ang dynasty (618 AD to 907), that people began to drink tea for pleasure. That makes sense: the T'ang introduced so much that was new to China, from woodblock printing to some of the best poetry ever written, it's not surprising that what has become the world's favourite drink (apart from water) should have originated then as well.
It took a further thousand years for tea to arrive in Britain, in the puritanical days of the 1650s. But that was part of its great worldwide explosion: with the two most populous countries on earth, China and India, both strongly committed to tea, together with every country in the British empire, it was only natural that it would be popular. Only America, for political reasons, and continental Europe, which tended to follow the French example, preferred coffee. When I first went to America in the 60s, I met people who refused to drink tea, on the grounds that it was British and therefore unpatriotic.
All this is changing now. The supermarket near my flat in Paris has a much better selection of tea than the Tesco where I live in London, and a hotel in Missouri where I stayed recently offered some excellent Darjeeling and even Keemun. What I prefer, more than any other type of tea, is Ti Kuan Yin, or Iron Goddess tea. In spite of her faintly Thatcherite nickname, Kuan Yin was actually the goddess of compassion. It has a delightful aroma and is a type of oolong (or, more accurately, wu long).
One type of Kuan Yin tea, growing in inaccessible places in the Wuyi Mountains in Taiwan, was traditionally picked by well-trained monkeys and once, in Hong Kong, I was lucky enough to get hold of several canisters of the stuff. I still have some monkey-picked tea left, though apparently there is only one village left where monkeys are in fact still used, and most of the tea, like so much in our world, is picked by humans. Maybe the monkeys are better off, though.
Here in the Esteqlal Hotel, the tea is Lipton's. Iranian governments may habitually blame Britain for everything but even the hardest-line mullahs still drink British tea. And Iran's own best home-grown blend is known as Queen, or even more explicitly, Queen Elizabeth, tea. It's rather good.
But now, as I sit here in the Esteqlal lobby writing this, I've polished off the English cake and can't, inevitably, catch the waiter's eye to bring me another pot of Lipton's finest. Why aren't I surprised?
John Simpson is the BBC's world affairs editor and can be seen around the globe on BBC World News, available in 200 countries and territories worldwide, and on selected British Airways flights.