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


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