17 July 2015

Adventure Calls

I've spent the last few weeks travelling overland from Qatar to Armenia in my Land Rover Defender, "El Guapo," (from where I flew here to the USA); the next few blog posts are about my adventures and experiences on that trip. I am posting these all at once as most of this period I was in Iran, where access to blogger is blocked by authorities. The dates of the original drafts are as noted at the end of the blog entry, although all were posted more or less simultaneously.


17 July 2015

Ann Arbor

16 July 2015

Later, Mullah-Fuckas!

I of course mean the title of this entry in the most friendly, 'hip-hop' sense, so hope that none of the many kind and wonderful people I met in Iran (or anyone else) take any offence from it. If anyone does, well, get over it...bitches!

After our unsuccessful visit to the police station on Monday, Mehdi and I returned to the Hotel Sahand in Tabriz, had some lunch and discussed and digested the news about the nuclear deal, which had just been announced in Vienna. Iranians appeared to be thrilled, but I think the economic circumstances caused by the sanctions have created a lot of jobs, and many of those will disappear as domestic production is replaced by imports as the rial strengthens and trade barriers fall.

Monday evening I needed to rebook my flight to the USA, but every time I called Austrian Airlines, I just listened to recordings until my phone ran out of money. I did this three times, at 10 bucks a pop, before I decided I just needed to load up the account and stay on the line until I could get through. I changed my last of my 100 Euro notes for riyals and spent half of them on about 30 recharge vouchers. It took over an hour to tap in the 16 digits required for each one, and when I finished, I had over 400 thousand riyals on the account and my battery was almost dead. Recharged for 15 minutes and dialled Austrian again. Of course, they picked up almost right away, and inevitably, they charged me 900+ dollars to make the date change to Thursday. Finally went to bed after 11:00.

Next morning, of course the first stop was police headquarters, and this time we had the opportunity to pay homage to the Keeper of the Traffic Offences, who pronounced us violation-free, and issued a written Fatwa confirming that he was cool with us leaving Iran. We were out of there, less one set of temporary Iranian number plates and with our papers in order 10 minutes later.

Then the drive back to the border. I had the stamped carnet and the farewell wishes of the customs director 10 minutes later, but still had to get the OK from about six more guys before I could actually leave. First, customs, who entered all the details about myself and my vehicle in the computer. Then immigration – first to talk to one guy who asked all kinds of questions ("what is the capital of Michigan?"), scanned many pages of my passport, and entered a bunch of stuff in his computer. Then a second guy – more questions, more typing stuff in the computer before finally giving me an exit stamp. Back to customs. Vehicle paperwork issued. Heartfelt good-bye to Mehdi, then the barrier was lifted, and then I was free to go...to the next checkpoint, that is. Another paperwork check. More info entered into a ledger. Finally, the barrier was lifted and I drove onto the bridge over the Aras River (separating Iran from Armenia) and joined queue of vehicles waiting to enter Armenia about 10 meters over the border at about 13:30.

Yay! I'm out of Iran! – on the bridge over the Aras River, which forms the Iran-Armenia border. The Iranian part of the railing is painted red, white and green (the Iranian national colours); the Armenian portion is a utilitarian grey. The stripe on the roadway is the border

Snacked on some fruit and cheese while I waited and then had an initial check before being permitted to continue to immigration. This took a while, in part because the guy keep looking suspiciously at the extra pages that had been put in my passport, under the watchful eye of the portrait of Russian President Putin on the wall behind him. Then a "vehicle check" by another suspicious character before I was allowed to continue to the customs and immigration hall. Unfortunately, in conducting this check the inspector discovered that El Guapo's right rear wheel hub was missing its rubber cover and was leaking oil. They kept asking for my "card machine," meaning vehicle registration, and were reluctant to accept the form printed on an ordinary sheet of A4 paper that was the only ownership document Qatar had issued. They eventually accepted it and directed me to the bank to pay the fees and get my documents copied. The fee was 52 dollars, payable in dollars, euros, or Armenian drams. Unfortunately, I had only about 32 dollars and €5 remaining after the day before. Canadian dollars, Swiss francs, and sterling were all rejected. There was a cash machine, but it was out of service, so I had to pay extortionist rates to get a taxi into town to find a bank. On the way back, I stopped at the insurance shack just outside the customs facility to buy the mandatory vehicle cover. Returned to bank, paid my fees, made copies of everything, and returned to the customs broker.

It took well over an hour to finish everything, in part because in crossing from Iran to Armenia I left the part of the world where officials didn't know the country I was going to (Czech Republic), and entered the zone in which nobody knew where my vehicle was from (Qatar). The agent left her desk three times to consult with her superiors, only to return to her computer and stare at the same two short documents she had in front of her, my passport and my vehicle export certificate. Between them, there probably wasn't more than a dozen pieces of information there – my name, surname, passport number, date of birth, place of birth, chassis number, registration number, etc. But for unexplained reasons dozens of other customers arrived, got their paperwork processed and left while she continued to struggle with my documents. Finally I was given leave to return to my vehicle. Once there, the same suspicious customs officer I encountered earlier again searched the vehicle, then directed me (and it appeared, me alone) to an adjacent building to have the vehicle scanned by a giant x-ray machine. Then back inside the customs hall for more discussions between the customs official and the customs broker over my vehicle paperwork before everything was finally signed and stamped. A final check at the exit and El Guapo and I were legally inside Armenia.

Even with gaining a half hour from the time zone difference in crossing the border, it was still after 17:00 when I was finally under way to Yerevan, over 400 km of narrow, twisty mountain roads away with limited traffic and limited facilities in a vehicle with a faulty wheel hub. I passed a couple of mechanics in the nearby town of Meghri, and considered having one take a look, but fixing the problem I was sure would require replacing the wheel hub seals and the chances of finding those locally were close to zero. There was no noise and no abnormal heat in the hub, so I decided to risk it rather than almost certainly miss the opportunity to say goodbye to my father.

The road and the landscape I passed through over the next hour was as beautiful and dramatic as it was challenging to drive. The road rose to well over 3000 metres at several points, before bringing me to the town of Kadzharan at around 18:40, where I found an Orange Armenia boutique just before closing, where I was able to buy a local SIM card and some airtime before hitting the road again.

Some views of the dramatic and dangerous road linking Meghri with Yerevan

I had arranged to park the vehicle at a charity facility owned by a friend of an Armenian friend of mine in Yerevan, but hadn't received any response to the texts I had sent earlier in the day from Iran. I tried calling the two contact numbers I had, but one was switched off and the other had no response. I left a voicemail with my Armenian number and continued on my way.

I crossed over four more mountains over the next two hours, the desert of Iran gradually changing to dense green forest before arriving at Goris on the "main" highway. Just after the intersection was a mechanics workshop. I stopped and tried the numbers in Yerevan again without success, sent two more texts, had a look at the wheel hub again and considered asking the mechanic to have a look. More leaking oil was clearly visible, but still temperatures were normal. I decided to press on.

A screenshot from Google Maps showing a representative section of the road from Meghri to Yerevan

Now the road was straighter and flatter, but it was also now dark. For the first time in hours, I got El Guapo into 4th gear, even 5th a couple of times, as I careened through the darkness on the poorly paved road. I passed numerous heavy vehicles and then began descending towards Yerevan as the twists and switchbacks turns returned. Several treacherous turns combined 180 degree hairpins with washed-out roadways. Losing control and plunging into a chasm would not have been difficult, but finally around 23:00 I reached the main road and started the final 50 km dash into Yerevan, setting off at least three speed cameras along the way, and nearly continuously praying that my left rear axle wouldn't seize up.

I never managed to contact anyone from the charity, but I had the address and decided to go there to see if I could rouse the caretaker. I arrived in Yerevan around midnight and found a busy petrol station frequented by taxi drivers, and the help of some friendly young Armenians, managed to find one that would be willing to escort me to the address I had for the charity. I waited in the vehicle for a few minutes while he filled his tank, and while doing so, some drops of viscous liquid dripped onto my windscreen. I assumed it was from a tree or something and didn't think anything of it at the time. I followed the driver through Yerevan traffic. We stopped to ask directions of some more friendly young Armenians, who knew exactly the charity I was looking for and how to get there. I continued following the driver through the city; at one stop light, more liquid dripped onto windscreen, and I suddenly realised it must be diesel leaking from one of the jerry cans on my roof rack. I got out to have a look, but when the light turned green, the taxi sped away. I jumped back in and raced after him, but at a fork a couple hundred meters later, I lost sight of him and mistakenly followed the wrong taxi. As soon as I realised this, I pulled over and waited and thankfully he soon reappeared.
We found the charity without further difficulty, but it was so dark and quiet it almost appeared abandoned. I tried the bell, and we both tried pounding on the gate and shouting, all to no avail. Plan B was to park at the airport, So I asked the driver to lead me there. Fortunately, it wasn't far away, so I paid and thanked him just outside the entrance to the airport car park.

Naturally, this trip could not end without one final bit of drama. Like most, the car park entrance featured a notice indicating the headroom (2,4 metres) on a hanging board designed to impact any part of a vehicle above this height. Because it hung from chains, it was intended to do so without causing damage. The driving lamps at the front of the roof rack cleared easily, but the jerry cans looked very close. I inched forward. A driver stopped and waved me forward, indicating I was clear. I got out and stood on the bumper. It looked like I had about 4 cm to spare. I inched forward some more. The jerry cans cleared the height indicator. However, about a metre further into the garage was a second headroom indicator, like the first covered in red and white stripes. Unlike the first, however, this one did not swing freely from chains suspended from the ceiling, but instead was a solid steel I-beam. And it was about 10 cm lower than the first. As best I could tell, this was an ingenious system designed by the Armenians to foil any invading Turks, who would be lulled into a false sense of security by the first barrier and then have their vehicles disabled by the second.

I stopped short of the steel beam, climbed onto the roof and unlocked the jerry cans. I found the one that was leaking, poured what was left into the fuel tank and abandoned it by the entrance. The jerry cans were at the rear of the roof rack, but the leak had dripped diesel into one of the channels on the roof rack, through which it had flowed forward to drip onto the windscreen. I laid the remaining cans flat, drove in and parked, then replaced them on the roof. Cleaned out the fridge and the trash, gathered the things I was taking with me, and then backed El Guapo up against the concrete wall, making it nearly impossible to break in to the back.

Headed into the terminal – reeking of sweat and diesel – and checked in at 2:30, almost exactly two hours before my flight. I remembered almost everything, but at the checkpoint realised I still had my rescue tool, which includes a knife blade and seat-belt cutter, on my belt. I was surprised and pleased to learn that they could hold the item for me for up to six months, so I handed it over and filled out a form that would allow me to reclaim it on my return.

Briefly spoke to my brother to tell him I had made my flight and to expect me in Detroit. Bad news about my Dad -- both mind and body faltering. Twice he has fallen and hurt himself. I will likely be there before he passes, but he may not be someone I recognise, and he may not recognise me.

In the lounge, had my first beer for 3 weeks. Boarded my flight and arrived in Vienna later that morning. Stopped into Hugo Boss and bought a shirt for Dad's funeral, which I had neglected to pack, then boarded a connecting flight to Frankfort, and then a third flight to Detroit. Still wearing the same clothes I put on Wednesday morning in Tabriz. I'll be seeing my Dad soon.


16 July 2015

Lufthansa flight 442, en route from FRA to DTW

14 July 2015

Faith Doubted

I set two alarms for 5:00 this morning. Rose, showered, dressed, packed and loaded the vehicle by 6:00. After a stop for fuel we were on the road to Jolfa. Along the way, we passed a rare, almost perfectly preserved caravanserai amidst the dramatic mountain scenery. I’ve seen other preserved or restored caravanserai (just what is the plural form of that word?) in places like Nicosia and Aleppo, but this one appeared much as it would have to a 17th century traveller, with no modern car parks, signage, souvenir shops or other evidence of later centuries.

After Jolfa, we passed the crossed the railway tracks that once led to Moscow – before the line was interrupted by Armenia and Azerbaijan’s war over Nagoro-Karabakh in the 1990s — via the ”Iron Bridge” over the Aras River, which separates Iranian Jolfa from Azerbaijani Djulfa. From that point, the road followed the river for more than 50 twisting kilometres, with increasingly dramatic mountains on both sides. At some point, the opposite bank became Armenia rather than Azerbaijan, and we arrived at Norduz and the Meghri-Norduz border crossing soon afterwards.

Looking across the Aras River from Iran at the Azerbaijani village of Kotam

As usual, we were misdirected a few times before we found the office we needed to handle El Guapo’s exit paperwork. At around 10:30, we got some bad news — we could not exit until the police had removed El Guapo’s temporary Iranian number plates, and that had to be done at police headquarters back in Tabriz.

We wasted the better part of another hour trying to find a way around this requirement, but eventually headed back to Tabriz at 10:45, hoping to make it to the police station before it closed at 14:00. Mehdi spent much of the ride telling me how hopeless it was we would manage to do this today — why do I keep attracting this Marvin-the-manic-depressive-robot type personality into my life? We had a little difficulty in finding the place, but eventually pulled at the front gate at 13:58, and were reluctantly admitted. The usual running around various offices ensued before we were directed to another gate, being aggressively protected by a young officer who was allowing people to exit, but no one to enter. Mehdi spoke with them in Farsi, then told me it was ”not possible” today. He hadn’t even tried to sound even vaguely desperate, so I pushed him aside, addressed the officer and said, ”please, sir, please, please please. We have just driven 2 ½ hours from Norduz to come here. we had trouble finding it. Have you ever driven that road? It’s a terrible road, very dangerous. I drove very fast on this road so I could get here before two. Please. Please, please, let us in. Please.”

”OK,” he replied, and stepped aside to allow us to pass. If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.

The familiar routine ensued. First find the right office. Then speak to the junior guy tells you it can’t be done. Ask to speak to his superior, a Colonel. Talk to the Colonel. Have him call the junior guy in. Let them discuss it for a bit, then have the junior guy find the right form and have the Colonel sign it and stamp it. ”Bring the vehicle to the gate so we can remove the number plates,” he said. Things were looking good.

I drove El Guapo around to the gate, where a cluster of three functionaries waited. There were no tools in the facility. I brought several kilos of tools, but no drill. ”You should have brought a drill,” observed Mehdi. Thank you, Captain Hindsight. Using a big hammer and big screwdriver, I managed to bash out the rivets holding the number plates in place with minimal damage to El Guapo. In the meantime, Mehdi and the others had disappeared. They soon returned with bad news: there was one more step required — they need to confirm that I had no outstanding traffic violations, and they guy who did this had just left for the day. Come back tomorrow at at 8:00. No way around it.

Bashing my way out of Iran (photo: Mehdi Fatemi)

We returned to the always charming, fully-amenetied Hotel Sahand. Mehdi cancelled his flight back to Shiraz. I had to pay for the cancelled flights, another night hotel for both of us, and another day of Mehdi’s guide fees. Total cost - 482 USD. I was broke but manage to find some unused Omani Riyal left over from my trip there in March with MJ, which the agency agreed to accept as payment.

In the meantime, rejoicing in Iran and the scent of political opportunity amongst Republicans in Washington as a deal to end sanctions over Iran’s nuclear programme was announced in Vienna. I should have asked John Kerry to toss in exit clearance for myself as part of the deal.


14 July 2015


13 July 2015

Lucky 13th

I made the increasingly familiar trip to the foreigners police station again this morning, this time praying continuously to the collection of angels, saints, prophets, buddhas, bottisatvas, revered ancestors, etc. that have gotten me this far. The first good sign was that my passport didn’t appear to be in the ”waiting to be processed” pile any more. However, after a few minutes it appeared that it wasn’t in any of the other piles either — possibly at the foreign ministry. However, they found it eventually — perhaps it was in the ”people who keep coming back here and bugging us to do our jobs” pile. They asked us to wait — a good sign, and sure enough I was summoned to the window 10 minutes later where they delivered my passport complete with a 1 week visa extension.

We drove back to the hotel, where I hastily packed and loaded everything into El Guapo. The leisure battery had been completely discharged while it waited in Shiraz, but plugging in the battery charger overnight restored everything to working order. We departed the Hotel Khayyam at 10:00 sharp, and entered the mobile lunatic asylum that is Tehran traffic. Without GPS, we made a few minor navigation errors but before 11:00 we were out of the city and on the highway to Tabriz.

Over the next few hours, the traffic steadily grew thinner, and the landscape less urban and more dramatic. At several points, the road approached 2000 metres above sea level, but never quite reached that high. Eventually, we entered the city of Tabriz and spent a good hour circling around trying to locate our hotel, a tiny storefront entrance that I eventually spotted. Then spent another hour trying to figure out how to approach by vehicle, as the main entrance was located on a bus lane. Eventually we found the narrow alley — scarcely 40cm wider than El Guapo — that led to the hotel car park.

Navigating the narrow alley that leads to the Hotel Sahand car park

On a short pedestrian street nearby, I found more restaurant options than I did in all of Tehran, but had to wait until dusk to eat. Tomorrow, I hope to finally leave Iran.


13 July 2015


12 July 2015

Lazy Shiites

Today was supposed to be the big day, the Get-Out-of-Tehran Day. We got an early start and headed over to the foreigners police office with my passport receipt, expecting to collect my passport with its extended visa. After a little difficulty in locating the office we went inside, upstairs to the ”Visa Extension” window, where there was no queue, but unfortunately also nobody working. However, through the glass I could see that my passport was on the very top of the pile!

When someone did finally arrive to assist us, however, we soon learned that that was the ”passports waiting to be processed” pile my passport was at the top of, and not the ”passports ready to be picked up” pile. The guy explained that because I was American, my passport had to go to the Foreign Ministry to have the extension approved. OK, fair enough, but what exactly had they been doing with my passport in the six days since I dropped it off? It was just sitting there with my completed application form exactly as I had left it with them, apparently entirely untouched these past few days, except perhaps for an occasional dusting.

Mehdi went to plead my case with the Colonel in charge of the facility, but all he could do was to direct his staff to expedite having the passport sent to the Foreign Ministry. Back at the ”Visa Extensions” window, they promised to do so and told us to call at 14:00.

Back to the hotel. We talked to the front desk. The guy there knew someone at the Ministry. He spoke with him. He promised to expedite processing of my passport as soon as it arrived, but he could nothing until the police sent it over.

In the meantime, we did a get some good news — El Guapo arrived at the Khayyam Hotel in running order. I thanked the two young guys who drove him here, cleaned it up and re-organised a bit, and confirmed that nothing had gone missing. Connected the mains power in order to charge up the leisure battery and run the fridge.

I decided I couldn’t wait any longer to sample some of my caviar, so I went in search of supermarket in order to buy some bread and sour cream to eat it with. I went wandering the streets of Tehran in search of supermarket with no success. Asking for a ”supermarket” inevitably got me directed to some hole-in-the-wall shop selling basics. I decided to try Google, which reliably turned up a half-dozen ”supermarkets” in the area, although none was less than a few kilometres away. I took the metro two stops to the closest one and found it was just a little bigger than the tiny convenience stores I had already passed up, and I couldn’t find any sour cream. There was another a few blocks away, but it wasn’t much better. I decided to settle for some yoghurt with shallots, and something called ”breakfast cream.”. Stocked up on some other snacks in the continued belief I would be taking a long drive in the near future. On the way, I found a bakery cranking out fresh Iranian bread and bought a few sheets. Then took a taxi back to the hotel.

Mehdi was waiting and we called the police office around 13:40 (they had said to call at 14:00); however, no one answered and after a few tries we concluded they had left for the day.

Had some lunch and a nap; it’s a pity I have no chilled vodka to accompany it, but I think its time to dig into that caviar!


12 July 2015


11 July 2015

Shiny Happy People

Wednesday was an important Shia holiday, the Feast of the Martyrdom of Ali, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, whose murder triggered the schism that split Islam into Sunni and Shia branches. As a result, all the tourist destinations were closed, and so I took an obligatory break from my frenetic sight-seeing schedule and spent much of the day just hanging out at my hotel.

I did take a couple of long walks around Tehran, and checked out the Tehran Metro. There are four lines lines in the metro system: Line 1, Line 2, Line 4, and Line 5. No doubt Israel has something to do with the missing Line 3. It was unremarkable in many ways; vaguely reminiscent of Montréal, and like Cairo, features ”women only” carriages, although it is doubtful Iranian men have the same difficulty keeping their hands to themselves the way Egyptian men do. One unique feature I particularly liked was the train status board. Different Metro systems have different ways of keeping you informed about the next train — in Stockholm and London, there are information screens that tell you how long to the next few trains and their destination. In Warsaw, where trains run at fixed intervals, a counter starts when a train leaves the station, so when it reaches 4 minutes during peak hours, you know another should be arriving momentarily. Here in Tehran, there are graphic signs showing where the trains are — red dots indicating they are in a station, and yellow arrows showing when they are travelling between stations.

Where's my train?

There are many things I have come to like about Iran; I have to admit that the food is not one of them, although you might not guess that from seeing how my waistline has expanded since I have arrived. One reason is that there are not a lot of dining options in Tehran or anywhere else; this may in part be because of Iranians' preference for entertaining at home, where they can escape the social strictures imposed by mullahs and literally let their hair down.

That evening, I decided to get a break from the endless rice and kabab and seek out one of Tehran’s few fine dining venues, the nearby Baharestan Grand Restaurant. I arrived shortly before dusk (none of the restaurants of course would be serving until the end of the fast) to find the place brightly lit, the tables set, and plates of salad, bread, dates and nuts covered with plastic wrap already set out and waiting for the end of the fast. Dozens of people milled around, but nobody seemed to be charge, or even to speak English. Finally one charming young woman offered to assist in English, but she informed me that the restaurant was fully booked for the evening. But then she asked how many persons, and I explained that I was alone. ”Just you?” she asked, ”OK, no problem,” and she led me to a place at a round table.

I waited for a bit as they brought more food to each of the tables, including a steaming tureen of soup that looked and smelled fantastic. When the fast finally ended, I was joined by the young woman who helped me earlier (who introduced herself as Mehrnoush), and a fit-looking gentleman who turned out to be her brother. After speaking with them a few minutes I slowly realised that the brother — an apparently well to-do anæsthesiologist — had actually booked the entire restaurant for the evening for a private event with his very large extended family, and I just either charmed or buffaloed my way into this gathering, depending on your perspective on such things.

First priority for Mehrnoush, her mother and sister was determining my marital status and economic potential. They accomplished by asking a series of subtle, yet probing, questions such as ”are you single?” and ”do you earn a lot of money?”. Her Mom was visibly disappointed when I told her I was engaged, and she was not entirely convinced of this until I produced a photo of MJ, whom she nonetheless pronounced to be ”very beautiful.”

Second order of business was giving all the young cousins of the clan the opportunity to practice their English with me, which many of them did. Some were shy and hesitant, but in particular one charismatic 11 year-old spoke with much poise and confidence, and learning that I was from America, declared that ”I think your country is sensational!” Apparently, this was one of his favourite adjectives, as he also used it to describe the Chelsea Football Club, BMW automobiles, the iPhone, the Iranian Volleyball team and the sport of volleyball in general, and the dessert we were eating. I didn’t ask his views on the Greek economy.

Next came all the men of the clan, who each in turn stopped by my table to show off babies, ask my opinions on Football and Volleyball, complain about the sanctions and politicians, and tell me in which state they had relatives in the USA (it was always California).

Finally, the ladies — the charming, black-clad Iranian ladies — who arrived in a gaggle led by Mehrnoush’s mom and ancient Auntie, and who asked far more pointed and intelligent questions than the men did — what did I think of the nuclear negotiations? Did I like Obama? (they didn’t) Did I like Khomeni? (they liked him even less). How old was I? (I referred the question to my attorneys).

Undoubtedly that evening will be one of my best memories of Iran — they were all so charming, so welcoming, so friendly. It took me a full half-hour to take my leave, shaking hands with the men, bowing to the ladies, high-fiving the kids. Mehrnoush gave me her number and told me to call if I needed any help. I got back to the hotel to find Mehdi and one of the hotel staff having a cup of tea in the front garden and joined them for a bit before calling it a night.

Next day, it was back to sight-seeing with a visit to the Golestan Palace, a Qajar-dynasty complex of buildings arranged around a landscaped courtyard. Near the entrance was the marble throne where the Shahs of Iran have been crowned for the past 300 years or so (the Qajars moved the capital to the then-village of Tehran from Isfahan in the early 18th century). Even before this visit I was starting to get opulence burn-out — and this sent me over the edge: yes, very nice, the interior of this palace is marble. Ooh, this one is covered in silver and mirrors. Ah, here’s a gilt one, and this one is all intricately inlaid woods. Somewhat more interesting were the displays of gifts that the Shahs had received from foreign dignitaries and potentates over the centuries, including two Farsi typewriters from the USA, and a badge of the Royal Order of Kamehameha I from one of the Kings of Hawaii’i.

The Qajars liked things sparkly

After the palace, we headed to the nearby Grand Bazaar, which is reminiscent of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Like most bazaars, it was organised into different sections with all shops of one type clustered together — carpets, kitchenware, housewares, electronics, office supplies, gold, spices, etc. A scrum of shouting, gesticulating men outside one of the entrances turned out to the city’s foreign currency market. We also made a short visit to the nearby Imam Khomeni mosque before calling it a day.

Friday was another day of enforced relaxation, as all government-run facilities, including museums, were closed to encourage everyone to attend anti-Israeli demonstrations for "Quds Day". We didn’t know this, however, when we set out this morning for Tajrish, in northern Tehran at the last stop on Metro line 1 in order to visit the Sa’d Abad complex, where two more palaces and various museums, etc. are located. Tajrish itself had a pleasant, village-like atmosphere, with lots of green-grocers selling impossibly fresh, beautiful looking fruit, a small but lovely bazaar, a wonderful bakery, and temperatures a few degrees cooler than central Tehran. Above it looms Mt. Tochal, a 3933 metre peak that hosts one of Iran’s most popular ski areas.

After travelling 15 stops by metro, we took a shared taxi to the entrance gate of the complex to find it closed, so we retraced our steps and ended up back at the hotel in time for lunch. Afterwards, I took a short nap, and then decided to visit the infamous ”Den of American Espionage,” formerly known as the Embassy of the United States of America to the Imperial State of Iran. I had been warned to be discreet and low-key, especially when taking photographs, but I arrived to find the place deserted and the anti-American graffiti faded and peeling. Immediately next to the ”Down With USA” graffito was a small convenience store selling ice-cold Pepsi and Coca-Cola, amongst other refreshments. I guess radical Islamists need that ”pause that refreshes” now and then, just like everyone else. I walked the entire length of perimeter fence and encountered no one except a couple of ladies strolling along. At the main entrance, the Great Seal of the United States had been obviously defaced but was mostly still legible.

A somewhat disappointing attempt at defacement – a bit of spattered blood and black spray paint would have been much more effective

I couldn’t avoid feeling cheated somehow — I came looking for wild-eyed radicals spewing hate-filled, anti-American invective and instead just found a quiet Tehran neighbourhood. Maybe I should try South Carolina ?

And when is the last time anyone did any maintenance on this graffito?

In the meantime, I learned from the TNT web site that Iranian customs cleared my new starter motor, and it presumably would soon be on its way to Shiraz. I talked to my brother and learned my Dad had pulled back from brink and had a couple of relatively good days, with his blood pressure back up from critical levels, although he still could go at any time. My ticket back to the USA from Yerevan is booked. Nothing much more I can do at this point but continue praying.


11 July 2015


Faith Tested

Given what I’ve been through in the past couple weeks, I am naturally hesitant to declare that I finally have all my problems sorted, but things are indeed looking positive as I write this on Saturday evening in my Tehran hotel.

TNT delivered the new starter motor to the tour agency in Shiraz this morning, and they’ve given it to the driver to bring to me along with El Guapo tomorrow morning.

My Dad’s health appears to have rebounded slightly; MJ says he hanging on for me, and I am sure that is the case. So I am increasingly confident I will arrive in time to say good-bye to him, but also concerned about the suffering he is enduring as a result.

I’ve just received word through Mehdi that the driver is setting out with El Guapo from Shiraz and is expected here early tomorrow morning.

And I expect my extended visa to be ready for collection tomorrow.

So, whilst it’s difficult to utter the words ”if all goes according to plan” at this point without experiencing a deep sense of irony, my realistic expectation is that I will be on the road before noon tomorrow and in Tabriz tomorrow evening. I hope to arrive at the Armenian border before noon the next day, and although the last four borders I've crossed were successively more difficult to clear, I hoping that I have finally broken that particular curse and will have a routine and problem-free exit from Iran and entry into Armenia.

Today was therefore hopefully my last day of sightseeing in Teheran, and we spent it in a more successful attempt to visit S’ad Abad. Most enjoyable about the visit were grounds themselves, which were beautifully landscaped, heavily shaded and watered by numerous streams, which made the area noticeably cooler and more comfortable.

Reza Pahlavi Shah's "White Palace"

The main sites were two Palaces, one imaginatively called the Green Palace, and the other the White Palace. The Green Palace was constructed by Reza Shah, and the White Palace by his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. To me, both palaces were most notable for their relative simplicity and lack of ostentation, especially in contrast to the Qajar-era equivalents. The Green Palace is probably less than 800 square meters in size, and the White Palace perhaps twice that, big enough for a tract mansion, but modest as a principal residence for a monarch officially referred to as the ”King of Kings”. In front of the White Palace were the two bronze legs, cut off at the knee, all that remained of a statue of the last Pahlavi pulled down during the revolution.

All that is left of the statue of the last Shah

There were many other museums on site, including the Museum of Fine Arts, but more than we could take in in one day. We had a look at the imperial collection of fine automobiles, again rather modest in both size (about 10 vehicles, including a snowmobile) and ostentation — mostly Mercedes and Rolls Royces, but nothing too showy. More interesting was the miniature painting museum, which included many artistic interpretations of the poems of Hafez, Omar Khayyám and other Persian poets. Several of these depicted drinking, sexual behaviour and other un-Islamic themes, and almost certainly would never be publicly displayed in Qatar or many other Arabic countries, an indicator that despite the reputation of its government, Islam here is still moderate, at least in comparison with the Wahabi-influenced Gulf states.

On the way back we had another wander through the bazaar at Tajrish, where I admired the freshness and breadth of selection on display at the fruit and produce vendors. One thing I had been looking for Iran — so far, unsuccessfully — was some Iranian caviar. In the bazaar we were approached by a random stranger who offered me a tin of something labelled ”Bluga” for 80 USD. I was hesitant, and Mehdi also was not entirely confident about the guy, so he told him to come to our hotel at 18:00 this evening. Mehdi figured if he actually showed, it was an indicator that he was probably legit.

The bazaar at Tajrish

After making the long slog back to Teheran, eating a late lunch and having a short nap, it was 18:30, the guy hadn’t showed, and the front desk clerk suggested another location to buy some. After walking for better part of an hour to a location near the German Embassy, we were told the shop we were after had moved to a new spot, just 5 minutes walk from our hotel. However, there was another shop nearby, so we decided to check it out. No Beluga, no Sevruga, only ”pressed”, the lowest grade of Iranian caviar was available for 1.7 million riyal, around 50 USD. However, it appeared of reliable provenance, with a production date on the label and a lead seal proving that the wire bail keeping the lid in place had not been tampered with. I decided to buy the tin and also check out the place we were originally looking for near our hotel.

We found it about 20 minutes later, and the shopkeeper produced an unsealed tin of what he said was Beluga. I’m not entirely expert in these things, but I do know that Beluga consists of large, distinct grey eggs, and visually it passed muster, so I forked over another 2.2 million riyal for 200 grams. Not quite cocaine prices, but getting close. On our way back to the hotel we met up with our friend from the Tajrish bazaar, who told us he had arrived at the hotel two minutes after we left (he was supposed to come between 17:00 and 18:00). I told him he was too late, indicating the shopping bags I was carrying. He apologised for being late, and offered me his tin of ”Bluga” for 750 000 Riyal, half of his original price. I declined.

I kept both my tins of caviar on ice and put them in the fridge in my room. El Guapo, of course, is equipped with on-board refrigeration, so getting it to Yerevan should not be difficult. Carrying to the USA with two changes of planes and 19 hours of travel will a little more challenging; hopefully I can charm a flight attendant into keeping it in the fridge for me, and also hopefully I will not forget to collect it at the end of each flight. Beluga has been almost impossible to lay hands on these days, and when you can — e.g., at Dean and Delucca in Doha — it was outrageously expensive, typically 300 USD for the smallest container. So if I manage this, I and my very closest friends will be enjoying some in Ann Arbor in the near future.

It’s evening now, just waiting for my dinner to be delivered before getting some sleep in preparation for what I hope is a successful departure from Teheran tomorrow, with vehicle, replacement starter motor, and passport with visa extension.


11 July 2015