I'm sharing a wonderfully informative email by Alan Casey, an Irishman I met in Korea. He is married to an Iranian.
As for things to do and places to see in Tehran, I would recommend the following: - Golestan Palace in the middle of Tehan. This was the palace of the ruling Qajar dynasty which ruled Iran around the end of the 19th century immediately before the Pahlavis came to power. - the Pahlavi (ie. the Shahs) palaces in the north of Tehran, namely Nievarand and Sadabad. Interestingly for me anyway, the mullahs have retained these monuments to decadence and opulence as tourist sites for the public. You can see rooms where the Shah hosted foreign heads of state such as Nixon, the Queen, et al. Enjoy a non-alcoholic beer in the grounds of Nievarand! - the main Bazaar in the middle of Tehran, close to Golestan Palace. Has to be seen to be believed. - the mosque right beside the bazaar. Not as spectacular as the mosques of Isfahan, but worth seeing nonetheless. - the house where Khomeini lived. Was interesting for me anyway - a very modest little house in the north of Tehran. - Bobby Sands street near the British Embassy, if you know your Irish history.. - the compound where the US embassy used to be - not much to see here, but maybe if you recall the hostage crisis, then you might want to see it. - outdoor restaurants in the north of Tehran in the foothills of the mountains. Great place to sit and seat and watch the world go by. Places I haven't been to in Tehran but which might be worth seeing are: - the mausoleum of Khomeini to the south of Tehran on the way to the new airport, called, surprise, surprise, Imaam Khomeini international airport! - jewelly museum, we meant to go and see it once, but we hadn't time. - Azadi tower built by the Shah. It's one of the more recognizable landmarks in Tehran. As for general info, remember that you can't wear shorts in Tehran. Sandals are fine though. Booze while illegal, can be obtained relatively easily if you in the company of Iranians. The Armenians normally supply the booze. Basically it's like ringing for a take-away when you order booze. Try and sample the local vodka, arak. You can get anything you want - the government are probably secretly siphoning off their cut from the importation of booze - it's all a bit of a sham really.
After breakfasting on the usual carrot jam and boiled egg with bread that tasted like a rug, we took a taxi to main Iman Khomeni square.
The square is an outstanding piece of Iranian architecture. With an amazing tiled Mosque on one end, a square bizarre around the edge and a couple of "historical houses" dotted above the bazaar.
I found the arts and crafts particularly good. Also the northern mural had a depiction of a battle we've been informed between the Persians and our friends the Portuguese.
Yesterday was not the best day of my life. My Iranian visa appointment (to pay and have finger prints taken, it's already been approved) was supposed to be last week, but was cancelled. There was another opportunity to go last Sunday at 9am, but I decided that during the week would probably be quieter and less hangover-y. I doubt they're that keen on hangovers in the Iranian Consulate. So I went yesterday at midday. Three other ralliers were there, and a representative from the Adventurists. We waited patiently. And waited, and waited and waited. It was hot, at least as hot as Iran. The Adventurist always seemed to be next in line, but never quite got to the front of the queue. After a couple of hours one of our number got seen, and was dealt with in about ten minutes and left. The rest of us waited some more. A child screamed on and off. At about 3:00 two woman arrived, loudly saying they had appointments for 3 o'clock. At about 3:30 a very arsey English guy arrived, waving his number in the air and asking if everyone else had a number too. At about 4:00 our rep finally got to the front of the queue. A short discussion ensued, and we were told that we wouldn't be seen. It turned out that we didn't actually have an appointment, but had been promised one, unofficially, from the Sunday 9am session. I made my way back to work, arriving five hours after I had left.
Half an hour after sitting back down at my desk, back wet with sweat, I received an email from the Adventurists with the subject line "Visas". But no, it was not in regards to the Iranian visa, this was an email letting me know that the Russian Embassy had returned my passport, sans visa, because there were not enough blank pages in it. The email went on to say that I would have to get a new passport in order to get my Russian and Iranian visas. Now the rally starts in three weeks, can you guess what passport renewal turnaround is? Yes, three weeks. A fast-tracked passport costs £130, almost double the normal price. I don't know why the visa service that the Adventurists offer, The Visa Machine, doesn't check how many spare pages you have as the first thing they do. I know I had at least one spare page available per visa we were applying for, I didn't know how many I would need in total. The Visa Machine website states
You MUST have 1 blank page free per visa (2 for some). A blank page must be completely free of all stamps.
The Adventurist I was emailing now told me:
The requirement of every embassy is to have 2 spare pages at the time of application.
I suggested they amend their website.
So, assuming everything goes ok from now on, I will have two passports, half of my visas in one, and half in the other. I can see this going down really well with customs officials.
UPDATE: We have since been informed that the finger print machine is broken and we will be able to get a visa without going back to the Consulate. Result.
We've been getting lots of (well, two) scary emails from the Adventurists regarding all the official, bureaucratic stuff that we need to get done before the start of the Rally, exactly 29 days away now, especially the Carnet de Passage. The Carnet is basically a passport for the car, which we need in order to get through Iran, and to be able to leave the Micra in Mongolia. I sent the form off a couple of days ago along with a colour copy of the details pages of my passport and the V5. Yesterday I realised that I had not ticketed one of the boxes, and after all the dire warnings from the Adventurists and the RAC (for example, if the colour of the upholstery changes, or the make of the radio, you have to get a new Carnet) and the cost of the damn thing I rang the RAC in a panic expecting some boring official to tell me in a nasal voice that I would have to do the whole thing again. But no, to my surprise a very nice, helpful and relaxed guy answered and told me they'd received my application that morning and not to worry, everything was fine.
In other news the Iranian embassy cancelled my first visa appointment. We have used the Adventurists' visa service (the "Visa Machine") to get our visas, which seems to be going well, despite initial hiccups with the website (it kept forgetting our dates) and confusion over what we actually had to do (I assumed, wrongly, that they would even fill in the forms for us, it didn't seem that clear what we had to do once we'd finished the website bit). My rearranged appointment is now on Wednesday, which will apparently be quicker than the more popular Sunday at 9am slot, which I didn't fancy much anyway. I think the reason we need to be there is to get our finger prints taken, something the Adventurists really couldn't have done for us.
Since I last wrote much has happened, but not much seems to have changed. I got a new passport, at great expense. My old passport, containing four of my seven required visas has had a very large corner cut off the data page, meaning there's no way I'll be able to fool border guards into thinking that it's valid. I've been told I don't need to return to the Iranian Embassy, Masha'Allah, as their finger print machine is broken. I've been told various things about the validity of the four visas in my old passport, ranging from the Kyrgyzstan Embassy telling me that I needed to get a completely new visa, through the Adventurists telling me that the Kyrgyzstan border guards are very relaxed to a very chilled Uzbek Embassy worker telling me that everything would be fine. I've had to pay for my Russian and Mongolian visas to be expedited. The amount of money this is costing is getting ridiculous. Apparently there is much nervousness over at the Facebook group as no one seems to have their Russian, Iranian or Mongolian visas, according to the website.
Parcel upon parcel has been arriving at my parents' house, mostly technology that Kai has ordered, I am wondering whether we will be able to fit it all in the car. I got a distinctly old fashioned Kelly Kettle for my birthday from Mum, which at least we don't need another cigarette lighter adapter for.
I came back to my parent's this weekend hoping to do a last shop for tools and spares, but unfortunately Pete at Steyning Motor Spares hasn't had his delivery yet and doesn't know what he will/won't have. And Hove Motor Spares still doesn't have an extra spare for us. Being a teacher my mum is on holiday from Tuesday, so I might be calling on her time somewhat as I am working right up until we leave.
Indeed Internet is an issue in Iran. My phone also stopped working. I think I did manage to make an outgoing call in Tabriz, but in Tehran it does not work... most of the time. Countless sites are filtered... one could use a VPN. Though I can't be bothered to set one up on Archlinux, and the internet in Iran is incredibly slow to begin with. [My Kindle still works, and seems to get past the filter somehow - Jamie]
So since we can't post Flickr images easily or upload Youtube sites, I hope you'll find words enough!
I just had the name "Bagh Golestan" to find a hotel in Tabriz. No map. So navigating there, finding a hotel and parking was nothing short of a major accomplishment. [More excellent driving ;)] Iranian driving is quite different to Turkey and this is tbh the first time I haven't had Google Maps at my disposal, so I had to talk to locals for directions(!)
The majority of Iranian people are friendly which is great. Other aspects like the tourist sites, accommodation, internet sucking, food, crazy traffic and stuff have made it a bit disappointing at least in my eyes. We did go see the UNESCO market in Tabriz, and then we headed on the long drive to Tehran. Fortunately the road started off really well and it was quiet I assume because it was a toll road. It was a pleasure to drive. [No, it was really boring]
So petrol become a little issue, as it's all Iran state controlled as you may or not know. Petrol stations were surprisingly hard to find and the attendants tended to overcharge us until we requested it at 700 (7,000.00 IRR=0.410966 GBP) per litre (locals get it at 400). [That may be a misunderstanding on our part, there are 17,000 Iranian Reals to the pound, but the locals often use Tomans (sp?) which is 1/10 of a Real, and the number symbols are different. Put all this together and they might have been telling us it was 7000 Reals a litre and we thought they were asking for 1000 Tomans. This seems especially likely as the petrol pumps are pre-set.] We are not sure what Octane the "benzine" is, but we fear it's not great quality judging by the sound of our motor. Nonetheless it's cheap to get around Iran.
In Tehran we navigated miraculously to a contact of ours pretty much in the middle of town. I used a pre-cache of Google maps Tehran, however the pre-cache is a bit unusable since you can't search it off-line. Sigh... bad Google. Interestingly Tehran is cut off into neighbourhoods so you have to stick to these congested expressways and get off at the right place in order to get into the neighbourhood. IIRC Baghdad has been described like this, and I guess it's the same here. I assume it makes it very easy for a neighbourhood to control things as they see fit.
I'm a bit nervous about revealing the identity of our friend of a friend's wife, since she does seem to bend every rule in the Islamic handbook. [Including driving western men around town that she's not even temporarily* married to.]
Anyway she's been very hospitable to Jamie and I and we are learning a LOT about Iran very quickly. [She's been averagely patient with Kai] I'll write that all up in another post, another day.
* Apparently Islamic and Iranian law allows a couple to temporarily marry, the man of course can take more than one full/temporary wife.
So our kind host and guide has been giving us an introduction to Middle class Iranian life, as well as doing some sight seeing.
We drove up on the eastern hills of Tehran to a ski resort to take in some hills and food. Then we visited some palaces and the bazaar back in Tehran.
In the evening we went to an upmarket cafe in northern Tehran and by that stage I was starting to surmise the Iranian lifestyle, as not being all that different from our own.
After reading Persepolis back in Bulgaria I was bracing myself for all sorts of government intervention. Though the rebellious Iranian people seem to know how how to avoid any trouble in their daily lives.
For example the next day we were travelling with our female guide south to Esfahan and we were caught speeding at 135km/h, 15 above the speed limit of 120. After some friendly social interaction with the police, they let us go. The traffic police in a blue car did ask our relationship which she answered "friends", though it all seemed friendly. She later commented they shouldn't have asked questions like that, since they are not the religious police who drive green cars.
Later that day we visited some good historical houses in Kashan and then we drove for an hour into the desert. At first as I was reluctant to go to a desert, because I was worried we might get stuck in the sand, run out of petrol and just die out there in the 40+ degree heat. I mean come on... we all can imagine what a desert is like, can't we?
However the landscape slowly became quite fascinating, we came across a biblical scene of goats and even a camel. Eventually we approached some dunes which we spent a good hour climbing and watching the sunset. All in all, a highlight of our trip so far.
By the time we left the desert, it was quite late and we even thought of staying the night in Kashan. Instead we pushed on down to Esfahan. We travelled a little quicker than usual, since we had the tip from a contact in Esfahan, that the police do not trap at night.
We arrived at about midnight and were greeted by a couple of friends (an Armenian and a lesbian!) in a coffee bar of our guide.
The lesbian drove us to a fast food place with incredibly garish headache inducing neon lighting. The owner was throwing us strange looks and eventually plucked up the courage to talk to us. He said he was a fan of T.S. Elliot. Which was a bit strange, considering he was effectively running the equivalent of McDonalds. I wanted a milkshake and he personally made me a banana milkshake with saffron and it was the best milkshake I've ever had.
After this we crashed. We'd had quite an intense day.
As that Queen song goes, it started off so well. We had made it out of Turkey without paying anyone to carry our documents from our car 10 meters to the check point, it was calm and relaxed and we hadn't seen any beards or even guns. We'd had to be a bit patient while they checked our passports, and then took our finger prints. Kai's for the second time as he'd already given them at the Consulate in the UK, I'd thought I'd gotten away with it after their machine broke, at the border we were back to old fashioned, reliable ink and paper. We then gave them the carnet, our car's passport, and waited some more.
We chatted with the officials, they seemed very interested in us, we showed them our Persian guide book on my Kindle (I'd previously removed Salmon Rushdie and made sure not to show them that it could still access Twitter and Facebook), they loved my tattoos, if laughing and pointing can be described as "loved".
One guard in particular became quite interested in our car, pointing at stuff and asking what it was. The first thing that sparked his interest was Kai's Gerber multitool. He pointed at it and said "Gift?" I explained that it wasn't mine. He then went to the back of the car and asked what the long red and blue bags were. I explained that they were chairs (£5 from ASDA), and he got one out, and sat on it, asking if it was made in England. He called Kai over and repeated the multitool-gift trick.
Kai searched for anything else that he might be happy with, trying to fob him off with some "expensive" Cafe Direct tea, the guard asked if it was made in England. Eventually Kai gave him one of his Geekout "KitKai" T-shirts, and he was very happy, asking again if it was made in England. A little while later our documents were ready, and we were asked for 20 Euros. This made me quite cross. I thought we probably could have driven off, but Kai didn't want to piss them off so I offered them 10, which was accepted. We were directed to customs, which we missed and were turned back from the exit gates. We went to a small green cabin, where we were given another slip of paper. We went to a manic building with one small kiosk window and absolutely no form of queuing system and worried that our documents had been lost somewhere. We went back to the green cabin and were asked how much we'd paid at the border. I was honest and we were asked for another 10 Euros. We handed over 10 Turkish Lira, about 5 Euros and were finally allowed to leave.
We arrived after sunset in Yazd and begun the search for a hotel/hostel after stopping at a juice shop next to the main mosque.
The three of us wandered around after a drink with the over-friendly juice bar owner. I noticed a blonde youth lying on the lawn before the mosque and I approached him and three other shrouded persons. Turned out to be four Germans returning from volunteering in India to my surprise.
We chatted like excited travellers do, since I have not seen a European in Iran since arriving. I casually commented that travelling through Pakistan into Iran via Quetta must be dangerous and indeed it was for these Germans!
Evidently a mad religious gun man killed a host of people at a bus stop near the border, forcing them to catch a plane instead. Crazy.
Anyway we commented on how friendly Iranians were and how badly our press at home dealt with the situation.
The Germans had been staying a few days and they recommended a cheap hostel, so that was good. The Germans left for Turkey and I spent some time looking at the Mosque.
A group of friendly Iraqis approached me to join them with a Hookah. I chatted with them in broken English and I was trying to say that wasn't Iran/Iraq on bad terms? They dismissed my comment as that was Saddam Hussien. I asked them why they were in Yazd, and they said because it's not as hot as Iraq.
I'm not sure if they were joking, because Yazd is bonkers hot. The topic for the young guys turned to football and after trying to big up the Spurs, I made my excuses and left.
I then chatted to the Hostel owner in German and then English, and he told me an interesting story about Yazd. This was prempted with my story that I was on the Mongol rally. He asked if I noticed the small corridors/streets of Yazd with the high walls. Yes, I said. He then said Genghis Khan sacked Yazd, though after some losses. Genghis layed siege to the city after losing many men to the traps that were these corridors that exist today. And he lost men because if you are not in the city of Yazd, you fall prey to its inhospitable conditions. Genghis won eventually and destroyed the mosque completely to show his anger. Must try confirm these stories.