31 July 2015

Reflections on Iran

A lot of people have of course been offering their views on the Iran nuclear deal, both before and after it was finalised. In the USA in particular, most of these opinions are un- or mis-informed, and are largely the manifestation of a deep-seated bias against Iran, which in turn arises from Iran's successful resistence against British and American imperialism. Americans, in particular, are deeply resentful of any country (e.g., Cuba, Venezuela and Vietnam) that successfully challenges their perceived entitlement to their self-appointed role as global hegemon.

With respect to the nuclear agreement, I personally support any and all efforts to limit or eliminate nuclear weapons, and so to the extent that this deal supports that broader objective I am supportive of it. But of course addressing the specific concerns arising from the Iranian nuclear programme whilst ignoring the far bigger threats posed by Israel and most of all, the USA, is obviously akin to a doctor being concerned with a foot blister on a cancer patient. Countries like the USA and Israel, who continue to harass, intimidate and imprison opponents of their respective nuclear programmes have no moral authority to judge Iran on its programme. I am particularly offended by the fact that whilst the American effort to limit Iran's capabilities is based on Iran's international committments as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the USA declines to publicly express concern for the fact that Israel is one of only four countries globally (the others being North Korea, India and Pakistan) that has refused to accede to this accord. Moreover, the Obama Administration has based its concerns in part on the "fact" that as Iran is sitting on immense fossil-fuel reserves, it has no "legitimate" need for nuclear power. Yet in the 1970s, when Iran was under the brutal but loyal rule of Reza Pahlavi Shah, the Nixon and Ford administrations actively supported General Electric and Westinghouse in their efforts to export American nuclear technology to Iran.

But the recent history and the nuclear deal aside, I am more baffled by the British and American choice of allies in the struggle for regional political and economic dominance between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. While the U.S. Congress continues to promote the generally unsupported view that Iran is an "exporter of terror," it is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that for decades has promoted its own violent and intolerant version of "Islam," "Wahabism." Saudi-funded "madrassas" promote intolerance and extremism in places once known for their moderate versions of Islam, such as Morocco, Bosnia, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. ISIS, Boko Haram, and Al-Qaeda are all end-products of a decades-long, deliberate effort by the Saudis to radicalise Islam globally, with the explicit objective of making hatred and violence a core belief of this "faith." In Saudi Arabia, all faiths but Islam are banned; churches, synagogues, temples and other non-Islamic places of worship are illegal, and priests and others have been tortured by Saudi authorities for the "crime" of practicing their faith.

In Iran, in contrast, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and others worship freely, although Iran's history of persecution of the Bah'ai is shameful. Jews fled North Africa, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other Arab countries with ancient Jewish communities decades ago, and the Christians have been following in recent years. Iran, however, remains home to a thriving and secure Jewish community, a fact even the New York Times has acknowledged.

Like most Arab countries, Saudi Arabia is largely incapable of managing or producing anything without foreign assistance. No automobiles, white goods, or consumer electronics of any consequence are produced in the Arab world. Exports such a fossil fuels, petrochemicals and aluminum are produced by plants managed by Europeans and staffed by Asians. Other than the radical Wahabist rantings noted above, there are no cultural exports equivalent to American movies, Mexican soap operas, European cuisine, or Japanese graphic novels that originate from the Arab world. Iran, in contrast, produces both its own brand of automobiles, the Paykan, and also assembles other brands, such as Peugot, under licence from the manufacturer. It has many other thriving industries, and it is a prolific source of both intellectual property and physical goods, in plants and instutions managed and staffed by Iranians.

Saudi Arabia is a strict totalitarian state, run by what amounts to an organised crime family, the House of Saud. Iran is governed by one of the most vibrant and well-functioning democracies in the world.

I am not of course arguing that Saudi Arabia has no redeeming qualities, or that Iran has no flaws. But it is baffling to compare these two competing political entities and understand why the USA, and the British before them, have consistently chosen to support the corrupt and dangerous Saudis over the responsible and capable Iranians.


31 July 2015


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 11:45, 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

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 the 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


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


07 July 2015

Busload of Faith to Get By

After driving north from Isfahan, and passing near both Iran’s hardened nuclear fuel enrichment facility at Natanz and the ”holy city” of Qom along the way, we arrived in Tehran yesterday.

Our hotel, it was soon obvious, was in a district where all the auto parts and supplies are sold; in my walk around Tehran yesterday and today I learned the entire city is like this, with all the auto parts shops in one district (which in turn is sub-divided into a tyres section, a batteries section, an exhaust system section, etc.), all the musical instruments in another, pet shops in another, electronics in another, etc. Seeing the hundreds of shops — each of which was better stocked than anything we had in Doha — I couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t some place that could rebuild my starter motor.

Yesterday I was also finally able to try to follow up on the starter motor shipment from Nene Overland. First problem was that the TNT website had no phone number for the Iran office, and only an 0800 number for the UK, which couldn’t be dialled from Iran. I went to their ”Sweden” page and was able to find a regular fixed line number in Sweden. I rang them and they informed me that the shipment was being held in the UK with ”unshippable” status, but they had no details of why. But they gave me the UK phone number. I called the UK office and they also confirmed the ”unshippable” status, but still could not tell me precisely what was wrong and referred me to the Iran office. I rang the Iran office to find that they were closed for the day and would not re-open until 8:00 this morning.

As if all of this wasn’t stressful enough, my visa was set to expire on 9 July (three days from now), and my father, in the USA, who has been ill for some time, was expected to pass away imminently. I had already anticipated this by organising a place to park El Guapo in Yerevan, Armenia, while I flew home to be with my family. But a lot had to happen between here and Yerevan.

I started developing multiple contingency scenarios:

  1. Option A was to get the new motor shipped to Iran and delivered to the mechanic in Shiraz, get a driver to drive El Guapo to me in Tehran, and then drive north to Tabriz, to the Armenian border and onwards to Yerevan. But the status of the new motor was unclear.
  2. Option B was to fly out of Tehran, be with my family, then apply for a new visa, buy a new starter motor in the USA, fly back to Shiraz, have the vehicle repaired, and then continue the drive to Europe. However, there was no guarantee I would get a new visa or any way of knowing how long it would take — sometimes, months are required.
  3. Option C was to fly to Yerevan, hire a flatbed there, have the Iranians put El Guapo on a flatbed to the border, where I would meet them with the Armenian flatbed and then have it taken to Yerevan for repair before continuing my journey. Time consuming.
  4. Option D was to explore the idea of getting the starter motor rebuilt in Tehran.

Options A and D would almost certainly take more time than was remaining on my visa, and I was told that extending for Americans was close to impossible. Both of these options also had a higher risk of me not being able to see my Dad before he passed away.

I started my day today with chasing up Option A by ringing TNT Iran. They didn’t know anything I didn’t, which is that my shipment was showing up as ”Not Found” in the system. They advised me to ring the UK office, which wouldn’t open for several hours. In the meantime, I decided to try extending my visa. We went first to one office, then were re-directed to another. We talked to one guy, then another guy, then a third guy. Mehdi, my guide, explained my situation. They agreed to extend. Then came the inevitable standing in various queues — getting the form, completing the form. Passport copies. Visa copies. Proof of payment of the fees at Bank Melli, down the road was necessary. Fortunately, directly outside the visa office an enterprising Iranian was selling payments receipts at a markup from face value with no waiting — he made a living standing in the queue at Bank Melli, making a few dozen payments and getting the payment receipts and then selling them to foreigners like me with more money than time. Finally the completed application was accepted and I was told to return on Sunday to collect my passport with a 15 day extension. A good outcome, but less than ideal — I really wanted to get going, and only needed one, maybe two more days, but getting the extension would take 5.

Finally was able to speak to someone at TNT and read them the riot act — why they didn’t inform me PROMPTLY that there was problem was beyond me, and Nene had in fact called them before shipping to verify that sending to Iran was possible, and nobody thought to mention that there were any special requirements at the time. And WHY the wild goose chase of referring me to the Iran office?

In any event, spoke to someone who explained that there are ”special procedures” for Iran, but he wouldn’t explain them by phone. He took my email address and promised the send the necessary information. When his email arrived, I found all that was needed was for the shipper, Nene, to complete a short form attesting, amongst other small points, that the shipment did not contain ”any goods of US origin.” I forwarded the form on Nene, and rang them. They sorted it within minutes, completing the form, scanning it, and sending it on to TNT. TNT confirmed receipt and promised to dispatch the parcel right away.

So far, not a bad start to the day. Back at the hotel, one of the managers there directed us to a shop that might have a suitable starter motor, naturally located nearby as we were in the ”auto parts” district. They were not, in fact, able to help, but they directed us to a nearby workshop that they thought could rebuild the starter. We found it easily, and spoke with the owner. No problem, he said, he could fix it. Mehdi rang the agency in Shiraz, which dispatched a driver to the mechanic in Shiraz to collect the starter and take it to the airport. He got it on the next flight to Tehran.

In the meantime, we had time for a little sightseeing. First stop was the Treasury of National Jewels in the basement of the National Bank, whose vaults contain the Crown Jewels of Iran. I’ve seen both the Imperial Russian Crown Jewels in the Kremlin, and the British Crown Jewels in the Tower of London, and I don’t think the two combined came anyway near the splendour of this collection. In fact, it once contained the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which was stolen by the British and now sits atop Queen Elizabeth’s sceptre. At one point, Iran threatened to sue the British for its return, but then India said that if Iran did so, they would sue Iran, as it was stolen from India by Nadir Shah in 1739. Then Sri Lanka stepped in and reminded India that it had been stolen from Sri Lanka by the Khilijis in the 14th century.

Even without this stone the collection is mind-blowing. At the entrance is the Peacock Throne, rumoured to contain parts of the Mughal Peacock Throne, which was also plundered from Delhi by Nadir Shah. Several huge crowns, dozens of diamond, emerald and spinel tiaras. Golden, bejewelled harnesses, saddles, stirrups, firearms and swords, including one a metre long with a scabbard encrusted its entire length with thousands of diamonds. And an incredible globe, a meter in diameter, with the continents set in rubies, the seas in emeralds and Iran in diamonds.

Next stop was the archaeological museum, which had an amazing collection of pre-Islamic Iranian works — pottery, bronzes, terra cotta, stone — decorative works, vessels, tools, weapons, jewellery, etc.

On leaving we were informed my starter motor should be at the airport, so jumped in a taxi and joined the insane, high-speed throng that is traffic in Tehran and headed to the cargo terminal. It arrived in short order and we dashed back into Tehran and delivered it to the workshop. I left as the owner pounded away at it gleefully, assuring me, ”don’t worry, I can fix.” We headed back to the hotel for dinner and before we finished eating he rang to say it was ready.

Mehdi and driver, starter motor in hand

A new lease on life for my starter motor

The driver took the now-working starter motor and headed south. He won’t make Shiraz tonight, but will stop in Isfahan, and get to Shiraz tomorrow. Tomorrow, by the way, is the Shia feast of the Martyrdom of Ali, one of the most important holidays in Iran. Museums all closed, so a day of enforced but much-needed rest.

Overall, a successful day, but one that nonetheless ended on a down note. I rang my brother and updated him on my situation — I could now give firm confirmation that I could expect to leave Tehran on Sunday, spend Sunday night in Tabriz, and reach the Armenian border by mid-day on Monday, and hopefully Yerevan that evening. Fly out Tuesday, Wednesday at the absolute latest and arrive in Detroit the same day. However, although my brother said my father’s condition was somewhat improved from yesterday, he didn’t think he would last that long. I managed to have a reasonable FaceTime conversation with my Dad and tell him I loved him and was on my way. The rest is beyond my control.


7 July 2015


06 July 2015

More Waiting

Friday afternoon I got a email from Nene Overland confirming they had shipped me the new starter motor and including the tracking number. However, checking the TNT web site, I just got a ”not found” error message, which wasn’t very comforting. Nothing to be done until I could call the guys at Nene on Monday, however.

We started the day’s sightseeing with a visit to the Armenian Vank Cathedral in Isfahan’s dwindling Armenian quarter, which features incredible, brightly coloured frescoes covering every square centimetre of its interior. All the major Old and New Testament scenes were there — the Flood, the Tower of Babel, Jonah and the Whale, Daniel and the Lions, the Massacre of the Innocents, Jesus booting the moneychangers out of the Temple, etc. Also present was a series of frescoes depicting the 12 horrible tortures endured by St. Gregory the Illuminator, at the hands of the Armenian King Tiradates, which including flogging, breaking on the wheel, having some foul liquid forced into his ass, and having molten metal poured over his head, amongst others, none of which managed to diminish the luminous lustre of his halo or cause him to lose his faith. Evidently, however, Tiradates never tried forcing him to attempt to import a vehicle into Iran; I have little doubt the trauma would have cracked him and caused him to renounce his faith in God.

Frescoes at Vank Cathedral

Afterwards, we stocked up on goodies at the nearby Armenian bakery before returning to the carpet shop for some more tea and haggling. As promised, they brought some more carpets, but still I didn’t like any of them as much as the one I had my eye on the day before. Finally we got down to business and after a bit of back and forth, pleadings of poverty on my part, protests that I was essentially robbing him on his part, we settled on a price of 1550 US dollars. More tea, a few last efforts to sell me a second carpet, money changed hands and the deal was sealed.

Before leaving the bazaar we also visited the miniature shop, where I browsed hundreds of tiny hunting and battle scenes, portraits of dervishes, bird, animal and floral scenes, etc. before selecting a small camel bone box with a bird motif for MJ.

Afterwards, we wandered over to the nearby ”Forty-Columned Palace,” or Chehel Sotoun, a Safavid era palace which in fact has only 20 columns, but with the traditional reflecting pool in front, the reflection doubles the number to 40 in Iranian accounting (and to think I just bought a carpet from these people).

Seven of the 20 columns on the 40 columned palace

Our final stop was to return to the Jameh Mosque, which I had visited alone my first evening in Isfahan. Back to the hotel for dinner, and then a visit to two of Isfahan’s famous bridges in the evening. Next stop, Tehran.


6 July 2015


04 July 2015

The Show Must Go On

My Iranian visa expires on 10 July, and I am due to meet my brother in Michigan on the 11th, so hanging around Shiraz waiting for El Guapo to get a starter transplant is not an option. So, everything has been organised:

  1. The starter is being shipped to the tour agency, who deliver to the mechanic
  2. The mechanic will restore El Guapo to working order
  3. A driver will take him to me in Tehran next week

In the meantime, I am continuing my tour as planned with a driver. Yesterday, we drove north to the legendary city of Isfahan. Checked into our hotel in the old city; I went for a walk alone at dusk and ended up at the Jameh Mosque, the oldest in Isfahan (originally a Zoroastrian temple) just as Maghreb prayer was starting.

Today was ”see the sights” day, so naturally we started with the famous Naqsh-e Jahan Square , and visited the Ali Qapu Palace, the Shah mosque, and the incredible royal mosque. After a break for lunch, it was time for another time-honoured Iranian tradition, haggling over a carpet.

Given the sanctions, the fact that it was Ramadan (or Ramazan, as they call it in Iran), and July, there were not a lot of tourists in Isfahan, so I was reasonably confident about getting a good deal. My guide led me to the ”Flying Carpet” gallery, we sat down, had some tea, and started to chat. Carpets were pulled from stacks and laid out on the floor. I had some fairly specific requirements in mind — I needed something for under the dining table — so I needed something rather large.

After some time, we had a ”very nice” and a ”possibly” pile in front of us. Problem was that I wasn’t finding exactly what I wanted. Too many dark colours. There were two with bright greens, yellows and blues, but not quite large enough. We ordered in some lunch. Couriers were dispatched to other rug shops to find something that met my specifications. More carpets arrived. Many were nice, but none were as nice as what I had already rejected. I decided to call it a day, and to return the next day when they had the opportunity to bring more carpets and I had the chance to think things over.


4 July 2015


Solihull, We Have a Problem

After seeing the Pink Mosque, my guide Mehdi and I returned to El Guapo. He started up normally, I put it in reverse and started to back out of my parking space. Suddenly, the air con stopped working, which immediately caused me concern, as in past experience this has always been the first sign of a serious electrical fault.

Interior of the Pink Mosque

More signs of trouble soon appeared. The alternator light came on. The tire pressure monitoring system screen went dark. Nonetheless, the vehicle was still running, so somewhat against my better judgement, we continued to our next stop, the former hammam, or bath house. I didn’t learn so until we toured this facility that Reza Pahlavi Shah ordered all the hammams in Iran closed some 85 years ago, as he considered them a sign of backwardness. This one was preserved as a museum.

I pulled into a car park and thoughtlessly turned off the ignition. I tried to start again. As I expected, nothing. Fortunately, Shiraz is Mehdi’s home town, and he knew plenty of people. A mechanic was contacted. He would meet us in an hour’s time, after we finished the bath house tour.

When we returned to the vehicle, he was waiting. Although I explained it was a waste of time, we tried jump starting the vehicle. Nothing. I dug out my multi-meter and checked both batteries. 12,6 volts from each. Not the problem. The mechanic suggested we swap out the battery and drive to a garage. Again I explained it was a waste of time, but again I was ignored. A friend of Mehdi’s would bring a fully charged battery. In the meantime, we had some lunch and then went to see the nearby castle.

Mehdi’s friend was waiting when we returned. Again I showed him that the batteries were charged. ”Try it anyway” they said. Doing so is not so easy with El Guapo, as he is outfitted with a dual battery system. First, remove the driver’s seat and open the battery compartment. Remove the terminals from both positive battery posts. Remove the terminals from the negative battery posts. Remove the two bolts that secure the batteries into place. Carefully slide out the bracket without shorting out either of the batteries. Remove the leisure battery. Slide the starter battery forward and remove it. Drop the new battery (actually, it was an ancient, filthy, acid-leaking mess, but it was fully charged) into place. Connect the terminals. Demonstrate that the vehicle still will not start. Take momentary satisfaction from the ”I told you so” moment. Then painstakingly reverse the procedure. Now you have wasted a full hour in the hot Shiraz sun, but now Mehdi is persuaded he needs to call a tow truck.

Poor El Guapo :(

The tow truck arrived shortly and we followed it through Shiraz traffic to a garage on the outskirts of town. The mechanic there quickly confirmed what I had been saying all along — burnt out starter motor, a motor which in fact I had just had installed less than a month earlier when the previous one failed in a similar manner. Clearly some underlying problem was causing El Guapo’s starter motor’s to burn out, but I had no idea what. A vehicle electrician was summoned from another garage. They couldn’t figure out how to remove the starter motor, which is buried deep in the engine bay and not easily accessible. They insisted it would need to come out through the top, which would necessitate dismantling the diesel injection system. I knew this not to be the case, and told them to remove it from below. They couldn’t manage it, and it was getting late. I had the entire workshop manual for the vehicle on my laptop, but it was back at the hotel. We agree to return early the next morning to deal with it.

The driver and Mehdi collected me from the hotel, with laptop in hand, early the next morning. We headed back to the garage. We decided to have the vehicle towed again, this time to the electrician’s garage. Mehdi found a flat-bed, and soon we were unloading the vehicle at the other garage. No sooner did we finish, however, than Mehdi finished a phone call and told us he had found a better mechanic. El Guapo went back on the flat-bed and we all headed to the third garage.

More Indignities

We left El Guapo with the mechanic and headed to the Necropolis and Persepolis to do some sightseeing. The Necropolis tombs, which included Xerxes and Darius, were carved into living rock in the style of Petra. Nearby was a curious, cube-shaped stone temple of apparently unknown purpose and origin. This one was in almost perfect condition, and we saw another similar but half-ruined one the next day at Pasargad. Both were reminiscent of the Ka'aba in Mecca, and I can’t think of any similar structure — a simple stone cube -- anywhere else in the world. My fiancé would no doubt attribute all three to aliens, a theory supported by ancient, pre-Islamic legends that say that the Ka’aba is ”not of this world” and that it was build by ”angels” who came from the sky (some legends say it was the Archangel Gabriel, specifically). I cannot contribute meaningfully to this discussion other than to say it certainly had a very alien feeling about it.

I'm not saying it was aliens, but...

Next was a sight I had been wanting to see for a very long time — Persepolis. But first we had an update from the mechanic. The starter motor was burned out, and nothing could be done to repair it. I would have to find a way to put my hands on a replacement. I had the driver pull over in the shade, and I rang my friends in the parts department at Nene Overland in the U.K. No, they did have a starter on hand. Yes, they could get one next day. Shipping to Iran? Not sure — would have to check with TNT. An email came through a few minutes later — no problem with shipping to Iran. I rang Nene again and gave them my credit card info, and I was promised it would be on its way to me the next day.

The stone carvings on the palaces at Persepolis were in amazing condition — indeed looking very recently carved; this is because for centuries they were buried in the sand until being rediscovered by and excavated under the guidance of the famous German professor and archaelogist Ernest Herzfeld in the 1930s. This had also saved the ruins from intentional destruction by the Arabs in the 8th century, who did demolish what parts of the ruins they knew about. Mehdi was quick to remind me the Arabs would not hesitate to have another go at destroying this site if given half a chance, just as they had done recently at Nineveh in Iraq.

Even before seeing the cubic temple that morning I had been put on the alert for signs of ancient aliens by my fiancé, who had informed me that Persia was a focus of alien activity in ancient times. I am generally skeptical of such theories, but was taken aback when I found a carving that appeared to show helmeted astronauts in one of the palaces (the Mirror Palace).

Ancient astronauts? Or just guys with really bad fashion sense?

After our tour we headed back to the mechanic’s workshop, where we were able to observe the remains of the motor brushes for ourselves. For reasons unknown, the mechanic said he was not able to remove the starter motor without first removing the front left mudguard, which in turn could not be removed without de-installing the water pump for the shower system. Not sure why — as I said, this was my third starter motor and it had not been a problem to remove it before. He assured me he could get everything back together again, but I am skeptical. In any event, nothing to be done now except to wait for the new motor to arrive. Or for aliens to intervene somehow.


4 July 2015


03 July 2015

That’s No Mirage, I’m in Shiraz!

Abadan was swelteringly hot when we left, as it was the whole time we were there. In fact, besides being the site of the refinery that was essentially the start of British Petroleum, and also the focus of some of the bloodiest battles of both WWI and the Iran-Iraq war, Abadan’s main claim to fame is having the highest known temperature on the planet, a heat burst that hit 87° C in June 1967.

The road started flat, straight and smooth across a featureless, shimmering plain, and continued that way for several hours. An escarpment arose in the distance, and eventually we started to climb into some hills. The road twisted through a series of rugged red canyons and steadily gained elevation. Twice I was stopped by police — once for speeding, and once for overtaking on a curve; both times managed to be declared innocent on grounds of insanity. On entering Shiraz province, the hills became proper mountains, and soon we were crawling along a series of switchbacks behind a long queue of heavy lorries. El Guapo managed to pass them one by one, leaving my guide looking a bit pale at times. Finally the road levelled out and soon we were on the outskirts of Shiraz.

We dodged vehicles, motorcycles and pedestrians for a few kilometres before arriving at edge of the old city, where my hotel was located. I turned down a narrow alleyway, and drove into the old city itself. The streets grew narrower as we got closer, at one point requiring us to fold in both wing mirrors to squeeze through a particularly narrow passageway, but we made it to the hotel and safely parked El Guapo in the car park.

Got up early the next morning to have a stroll around the old city before joining my guide about 9:30 to go to his agency to settle my bill. Due to sanctions, there was no way for me to pay for my trip in advance, and the agency had made all of the arrangements based only on my my email commitment to do so on arrival. Honouring that commitment, I counted out a big stack of hundred Euro notes for the agent.

At last, we were ready to do some sightseeing. Our first stop was the Pink Mosque, a beautiful 19th century tiled edifice with incredible stained glass windows. Finally my trip was going smoothly…or was it?


3 July 2015


02 July 2015

Kafka, Schmafka — Welcome to Iran!

Last day of bureaucracy! (I hope). Got an early start, and my guide and I headed to the traffic police to get temporary Iranian number plates. After waiting our turn, we were told they had no more plates, and we would have to go to the police in Khorramshahr to get them. But first, we would need a letter signed by the Abadan Chief of Traffic Police, and he was not in the office. And the vehicle would need to be inspected. We headed to the inspection facility, and hoped that the Police chief would arrive by the time we returned.

Inspection was relatively efficient. We handed over our documents and drove inside. The inspector asked me turn on my headlamps. I did so. He asked me to put the vehicle in reverse so he could verify that the back-up lights were working. I did so. ”Thank you, you have passed inspection.” Another signed, stamped form was added to my bulging document wallet.

We returned to the traffic police. Still no chief, but we struck up a conversation with two mysterious guys driving late model vehicles — a Toyota Land Cruiser and a BMW Z4 — with Kuwaiti plates. I’m not really sure what happened next, as most of the discussion was between them and my guide in Farsi, but a few minutes later, we had the letter from the Police chief and we were driving into Khorramshahr to pick up the number plates. I waited outside with one of the guys while my guide disappeared into the building with the other. Half an hour later my guide emerged carrying a stack of number plates. We drove back to the Traffic Police, waited our turn, filled out more forms, handed over more copies of my passport, signed and fingerprinted a bunch of documents, and finally was issued a registration card. Went outside with the new plates and waited for a guy with a drill and a rivet gun to attach them. While we were waiting, another ”customer” emerged from the building, clutching his new number plates to his chest. He kissed them and shouted ”Allahu Akbar”. I looked at him sympathetically. ”God bless Iran!” he said, ”because nobody else will!"

My new plates were fixed on top of my Qatar export plates, as I would need them when I left Iran. We were done. We drove back into Abadan, had lunch, and set off towards Shiraz. Allahu Akbar.


2 July 2015


Iran at Last

I was directed to pull over a few meters inside of Iranian territory. The same border guards who had been so surly the day before were all welcoming smiles. First order of business was to search the vehicle, which is a task they apparently enjoy immensely. Since they were speaking in Farsi, I didn’t understand most of it, but just about every one of my bags elicted a wise-crack from one of them, which would cause the others to pause and laugh hysterically before retorting with an even funnier joke of their own. When they opened my box of camping supplies and saw the canisters of Camping Gaz on top, they shouted ”bomb!!” in unison and feigned ducking for cover. When they were done, all shook my hand warmly and bid me welcome to Iran.

A customs official accompanied me to the customs shed, where El Guapo would have to remain until clearance procedures had been completed. After parking, I returned to the border post and started the immigration process. All the while, a friendly English-speaking guy in street clothes made casual conversation with me, but it was obvious he was with the intelligence services, inquiring about my family, my job, my life, and my politics.

Back at the border post, after waiting an hour for the right official to show up, I was formally interviewed, and again asked detailed questions about my life, my family, my beliefs, etc., this time with no attempt to disguise it as friendly conversation. In the end, the agent apologised for having to do so, explaining that procedures required it. In particular, he asked if had any knowledge of Iranian history or politics. ”Yes,” I replied.

”What is it you know?”

”I know a lot — is this a test?”

”What specifically do you know?”

”A lot. Would you like to start with ancient, Mediaeval, or modern Persian history? The Sassanids, the Timurids, the Safavids, the Qajar or the Pahlavi?”

That was it. My passport was stamped, but then I was told I would need to be fingerprinted. I assumed this was the standard border fingerprinting process, using a scanner, but instead I was put in a car and driven to police headquarters in Abadan. I was led upstairs to a small room adjacent to small dark cell, with a small and sad looking man gazing out through the bars. Directly in front of the cell was a table with an ink plate and roller. One by one, the police officer rolled my ten fingers in ink, and then again onto a fingerprint form. I thanked him, washed my hands, and then we went to our hotel in Abadan. It was now 14:00 (during the summer, you lose and hour and a half crossing from Iraq to Iran), and everything was closing, so customs procedures would have to wait until the following day.

Next morning we returned to the border post and first got a letter from the Customs chief at the border that would allow us to take the vehicle. We needed to get formal permission for import from Customs headquarters in Khorramshahr, where the General Director was expecting us. We drove to his office at Khorramshahr port, but found he had gone to a meeting back at the Salamchech border crossing, where we had just left. We waited an hour, and finally dispatched a driver to take our form back to Salamchech to have it signed. Finally, by 12:00 we had the signed letter. On our way in, we had engaged a clearance agent, and we found him in the first of three different facilities he would have to go to complete the import process and handed our documentation over to him while we went to buy insurance.

The insurance agency was in a tiny storefront on a nearby side street, and was staffed by a single agent. She prepared everything, took my premium, gave me a receipt and proof of coverage and we were on our way. We caught up with the clearance agent in another building. I mostly sat in chair for two hours while he went from one window to another, every so often waving me over to say ”pay this guy 100 dollars,” or ”sign this,” or ”give this guy a copy of your passport.”

Then we drove to another building near the entrance to the customs facility. The carnet was examined. Another copy of my passport was handed over. El Guapo was visually inspected. Another payment was made, and more forms were stamped. Finally, a gate pass was issued. I drove out and the clearance agent announced, ”congratulations, you have cleared Iranian customs.” I paid him his fee of 4 million Irani riyal, took my paperwork and drove off, arriving at our hotel in Abadan in time to watch Poland beat Iran in the FIVB World League volleyball tournament in Tehran.

Not quite done though, although again, it was now late in the afternoon, so the final procedures would have to wait until the next day.


2 July 2015


01 July 2015

If at First You Don’t Succeed...You’re Probably at Some Crappy Middle Eastern Border Crossing

The next few days passed in a blur of hopes raised and dashed, frustration and success. A brief chronology:


I parked El Guapo at the entrance to the Iraqi side of the Shalamcheh border crossing post. Didn’t have any proper camping equipment, but at least I had a cot to get me off the ground and safe from the ”cobras” the soldiers warned me about, which I set up alongside the vehicle. The first of many acts of kindness and generosity I was to receive from the personnel at this post in the coming 48 hours was having the police commander park his Ford F-150 on the other side of my cot, and put a barrier in front of me, so I was sheltered by vehicles on both sides, protected a bit from wind and shaded from the sodium vapour lights glaring at the entrance. Thankfully I still had a sandwich and some other food I brought with me from Doha, but despite the long day, I slept only fitfully, and was wide awake by 6:00.

Waiting for Major Saddam


Spent two long hours watching the empty and entirely uninteresting landscape around me slowly brighten. Finally the post commander, introduced to me as Major Lawa Saddam, arrived in his convoy, and his men at the entry post explained my situation. He welcomed me and promised what help he could provide.

First, of course, there was more waiting around to attend to. I followed the soldiers to their barracks, where they made me a surprisingly delicious breakfast, made all the more impressive by the fact that they were fasting and couldn’t join me. We waited around until 10:00, when the Major summoned us to his office. His translator was waiting, and I was asked to ”leave my firearms” at the entrance. We quickly sorted out the papers needed for exiting the vehicle, and these were handed over to the appropriate functionary. Next, I needed an exit stamp, and the Major assigned one of his men to escort me to the ”Hall of Going Away” for this purpose. However, the ”Going Away” team directed me to the arrivals hall, which directed me back to some more senior functionary on the Going Away side. Papers were signed and stamped, and taken back over to the Arrivals side. I was photographed and fingerprinted, and finally, given an Iraqi exit stamp. I returned to the vehicle and drove up to the crossing. The Iraqis removed the barrier so I could cross. I started into Iran. Four guys came out waving their hands madly and shouting in Farsi. I rolled down my window. The Iraqis tried to help. I rang my Iranian guide, who was waiting on the other side, for assistance. After a half-hour stalemate with El Guapo straddling the international border, it was established that I needed to go back to the Iranian Consulate in Basra and get my vehicle papers translated into Farsi. The Iranians insisted it would take ”only 15 minutes." I turned El Guapo around and headed back to Iraq.

Everyone's favourite part of visiting in Iraq – the "Going Away" facility

I was not thrilled at the prospect of leaving the border post, and I had no idea where in that chaotic city the Iranian consulate was. I tried to get one of the Major’s men to give me directions, but the Major instead directed one of them to escort me. First, however, I needed to get my exit stamp cancelled It was 10:20 by the time we left, and 11:00 by the time we reached the Consulate. We were admitted immediately, but then learned the Consul was in a meeting and would not be free for an hour. However, I was invited to meet with some other very friendly but irrelevant functionary; I think he was the Literary Attaché or something like that. Nice work if you can get it.

After waiting an hour, I was informed that no such document (e.g. vehicle information in Farsi) was required, and the that the Consul himself had spoken with the chief of border post and he had confirmed this. He advised me to leave the vehicle on the Iraqi side, cross on foot to Iran, sort our the paperwork, and then return to retrieve the vehicle.

I returned to the border post, this time being waved straight through to the Major’s office. I parked the vehicle, and got a new exit stamp. I again approached the Iranian side. I told them what had transpired at the Consulate. They refused to budge. I called my guide again and told him what was happening. He said he would come straight away. I waited on a bench about two meters inside Iranian territory for him to arrive. We argued with the border guards. Finally, they agreed to go let us talk to Iranian customs, so we were escorted through immigration and driven across the complex to the Customs Office where we were able to meet with the director. He referred us to Customs HQ in Abadan, about 7 km away. He examined my documents, assured me that all was in order and that there should be no problem; however, the office was closed for the day.

I crossed back over to Iraq. Major Saddam had left for the day but his men were under instruction to take care of me, so I was put up in the Major’s own office complex, which not only featured the Major’s huge office and majlis, but also a staff room with a giant map of Iraq where I could plan the decisive counter-strike against ISIS. The staff kept bringing me food and tea as I caught up on the news on the Major’s flat-screen TV, and finally I went to sleep, praying to Jesus, Mohammad, all the Angels and Saints, all the Buddhas and Bottisattvas, the spirits of my ancestors, and especially St. Christopher for success the following day.

One of the many luxuries in the commander's headquarters at the Shalamcheh border facility – a choice of soap colour


At 8:00 sharp I crossed over to Iran again, again met my guide and was escorted to the passport control office. My guide took all the paperwork, leaving me to watch TV in the Passport control office and catch up on the news of the nuclear negotiations in Geneva and Bree Newsome’s successful removal of the Confederate flag from a flagpole on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds. Two and half nail-biting hours later he returned with good news and bad news. First, apparently Americans are not actually permitted under Iranian regulations to travel to Iran in their own vehicles, and I was urged to consider leaving the vehicle in Iraq, visiting Iran, and then returning to my vehicle (what is it these people don’t understand about me taking the vehicle to Europe?). If I did so, I could enter Iran immediately. The good news — they would be willing to make the first ever exception (yay!), but I would have to begin the import process the following day (boo!). In the meantime, however, I could bring the vehicle over and park it at Customs.

I dashed back to Iraq. Went to say good-bye to Major Saddam and thanked him profusely again, and offered him my final tips on how to crush ISIS. Got Saturday’s exit stamp cancelled, and got a third Iraqi exit stamp for Sunday. Retrieved El Guapo and once again, drove up to the border post. The Iraqis removed the barrier on their side. The Iranians opened the gate on their side. I drove through the crossing and into Iranian territory.

Good-bye Iraq, Hello Iran



1 July 2015