GL019: Fumes, Jams and Shahs

August 11th, 2016 (continued) — Moving On

There is not much time to worry about the latest bad news from the Chinese embassy. We need and want to leave this hotel and we should sleep before we make any quick decisions. We also need to talk to our Chinese tour operator to see what they can do for us.

So we search on-line for other accommodations and pack our bags once more. Hotel number one is not a lucky choice. Either they don’t want us there or all of their rooms are really taken. Bye! Traffic is better than last night so we don’t have too much stress finding option number two. Or maybe we’re just getting used to the driving style over here.

Hotel number two is much better. Still not cheap but located in the north the city. We probably could have found something cheaper near the center but we’re staying clear of the area in which robberies were reported recently by travelers.

The hotel employees are much friendlier than we’re used to. For the first time there is no passport hassle. They have a garage where the bikes are safe. When unloading our luggage, half of the employees from the laundry service come to have a look and even help us carry our stuff. This friendly reception is really what we needed after the depressing news of this morning.

They have a good choice of foods; some Italian! This is a welcome change from the kebab we’ve been having too often. They have excellent coffee too!

August 12th, 2016

Hide the Foreigners

Today is another Sunday-on-Friday. We call a phone number that we were given at the fuel station. Iman and his wife Hamide are happy to pick us up after lunch and spend the afternoon with us. Great! They take us to Sa’dabad Palace, the old summer residence of the Shah and his family.

We’re getting along very well from the start. We’re trying to guess our way to the palace with the help of his slightly malfunctioning navigation system and the maps on my phone. We’re told that Iranians do all kinds of things unrelated to driving while attempting to drive. This explains a few things about what we’ve experienced so far.

They’d like to know what we think of Iran and especially what we think of Iranian drivers. When thinking about it, I arrive at the conclusion that they can’t be so bad. Their driving style is adventurous indeed, but we’ve seen no serious accidents so far. This is nearly impossible if nobody would be paying attention behind the wheel.

The tickets to the palace, which is a museum now, are generously paid by Iman. He only tells us to stay away from the ticket sales booth. We suspect that the reason is that foreigners pay much more for admittance so he doesn’t want them to see us. We’re more surprised that they’ve actually kept this palace intact after the 1979 revolution.

The museum contains an impressive amount of luxurious furniture and tableware. We also visit a section dedicated to so-called miniature painting by the painter Mahmoud Farshchian. The detail in his art work is amazing and we’re glad to have the opportunity to see it here.

We finish our visit to the museum with coffee and ice cream while having interesting conversations. We are the first foreigners they’ve had for a visit, so a heavy responsibility rests on our shoulders.

People in High Places

After the palace, we’re taken to the Milad Tower. It’s quite crowded over here. We’re parking outside of the premises and take a special taxi to the tower. It’s an impressive structure. There are security checks before we can get in.

I am not allowed to bring my pocket knife into the tower. They also want me to hand over my camera lens so no photos can be taken of ‘sensitive’ government buildings and bridges from the visitor platform. I’m not parting with my camera lens and I’m not telling them why. With a bit of negotiation from Iman’s part I can take the entire camera up there as long as I promise to keep it in my bag and not to make any photos. At 300m (1000ft) above the ground we do get to understand the size of this city. It’s vast in all directions with traffic flowing (and jamming) everywhere. The view of the mountains just before sunset is really worth the visit too.

We’re back in the hotel at 9pm. We agree to meet Iman again tomorrow in the center of Tehran. We’re saying goodbye with three big kisses on the cheeks. That’s for me only again, so the score in the kisses-from-muslim-men-competition that Petra and I have is now 9-1 in my favor. I have the feeling that I’m going to win this…

This was a really nice day. It has easily been the best day in Iran so far, and such a difference with yesterday! We’ve been generously invited to everything today, shown really nice things and made new friends. Thank you so much, Iman and Hamide!

August 13th, 2016

Mind the Gap

We want to take the metro to the center of town to meet with Iman at 9:30am. We don’t know how the ticket system works here, so we ask a lady at the ticket office at Shahid Haghani station. She doesn’t understand English and needs the help of her colleague. His work place is two counters away from hers, where he is sleeping with his face on his keyboard! He has probably watched TV until 4am when weightlifter Kianoush Rostami won an Olympic gold medal for Iran. He will pay for this with the imprint of a keyboard on his face for the rest of the day and a pool of drool between the letters ل and گ.

On the train, we first fear that we’ve accidentally entered a ‘men only’ wagon because it is crowded with only men. Later we learn that there are indeed ‘women only’ wagons at the beginning and the end of each train and that all other wagons are for men and women. The trains look quite good and are even equipped with air conditioning. We need to pay attention to get out at ایستگاه مترو پانزده خرداد. Thankfully, the displays on the trains also give the names of the stops in Latin characters. Without these we’d probably be lost or making a new friend who points us the right way.

We’re supposed to meet in a small park but we don’t know where it is. With a phone message from Iman in Farsi we let passersby point us to it. Today is Saturday — the first day of the Iranian work week. We suspect that Iman has taken a day off or at least postponed his work at his insurance company. It’s wonderful that he takes time to show his city to strangers. On his birthday, mind you!


We’re visiting the impressive Golestan Palace. Iman used to work as a tourist guide in the cities of Kashan and Esfahan, and also has a lot of knowledge about Tehran, this palace and the Iranian dynasties.

The perimeter of the palace’s yard is beautifully adorned with colorful tiles. Inside the palace, the walls of many halls are completely filled with mirrors and other shiny elements, often combined with detailed plaster works. It’s nice but sometimes also a bit too much bling for our liking. We like the large light blue hall with plaster ornaments better. As an electrical engineer I am charmed by the fact that some mirror ornaments have been replaced with slightly crooked power outlets.

We see more rooms with tableware, weapons and photographs. We’re told that, in 1834, the Shah himself was one of the first Iranian photographers, a few years after the photo camera had been invented.

©1395 Grandma

We leave Golestan Palace to see Tehran’s Grand Bazar. It is very lively and colorful but not as authentic as we’d expected. There are some large bowls of local spices, but there is also cheap stuff from China for sale. While looking at all this, we need to be careful not to be run over by overloaded transport trolleys.

What we find interesting is the brand labels of popular clothing that can be bought by the roll. This way you can sell the no-name jeans your grandmother made as genuinely faked Diesel jeans. Iman explains that Iran has no copyright laws. I interpret this as “every article from a well-known brand that you find here is counterfeit”. It is a lot cheaper to fake these locally than to import the real stuff from abroad. If the latter is possible at all.

Knotting Till You’re Dizi

When looking for a restaurant we are not successful at first because not all places serve to women. Really. For lunch, we’re joined by Iman’s colleague Hamid so they can discuss and sign some insurance policies while waiting for our order. We’re going to eat Dizi, a traditional soup with lamb and chickpeas, served in a crock. You’re supposed to mash it yourself and it’s very tasty. Petra also enjoys an alcohol free ‘Bitburger Tropical Beer’. I think that all Germans would agree that this is actually foamy lemonade.

Hamid leaves us after lunch and we continue to our next attraction: the carpet bazar, which is a lot quieter than the first bazar. People don’t buy a Persian rug every day. We get to see a few very beautiful specimens made of silk. Some of them are extremely detailed with more than 80 knots per cm2 (500 per sq in). We’re told that, in this quality, it takes one person a year to make a carpet of 8 m2 (86 sq ft). That’s a knot every 3.2 seconds if you work 16 straight hours per day and take no vacations.

After a quick visit to the Bazar Mosque we take a taxi to the National Museum of Iran. They have a large and interesting collection. Some of the objects on display are more than 8000 years old. As long as 6000 years ago, larger cities started to appear in the area that is now called Iran. The statues from Persepolis are impressive too. Thankfully they were saved from That Greek Guy who partly destroyed the city.

We’ve seen many interesting things here and they made much more sense with Iman’s explanations. There’s so much history in this country but we feel we’ve only started scratching the surface.

The Scariest Thing

When looking for stickers of the Iranian flag in ‘automobile alley’ (not far from the ‘sewing machines’ avenue) we need to cross a very busy street. There are almost no pedestrian crossings and if they exist, they make no difference in driver behavior whatsoever. Drivers don’t stop and there are no gaps in the stream of traffic. So you could wait for a safe time to cross but your visa will expire sooner.

One technique to cross the road in Iran (and undoubtedly in many other countries with adventurous traffic) is as follows. Before crossing, also pay attention to the direction the traffic is going to. There might be a scooter doing a wheely in the wrong direction. Don’t ask us how we know. Then tell your spouse that you love him/her, and just start walking slowly into the stream of traffic. Slowly because this gives drivers the opportunity to miss you. Keep walking because if you hesitate, their collision path calculations are all messed up and there’s no time to redo them, mostly because they are on the phone and fiddling with the radio. Your highest chance to succeed is if you team up with locals and use them as a safety buffer. Good luck. Really.

A Walk in the Park

We thank Iman for his interesting and extensive tour through the center. We’ve had another great day thanks to him. We say goodbye and return by metro to Shahid Haghani station. We have a peek over the fence of the Holy Defense Museum that proudly presents big rockets and tanks outside. Then we walk back through Taleghani Park where we witness how Iranian women go jogging. We cross the Tabiat pedestrian bridge to another park, offering nice views of northern Tehran.

August 14th, 2016

L-Types and X-Rays

We’ve been in touch with our Chinese tour operator. They tried to call the embassy for us but didn’t manage to get anyone on the phone. They find it very strange that the validity of our visa would only be 30 days. Normal L-type tourist visa “all have a validity of 3 months or more”. They suspect it is a communication problem and that the terms ‘validity’ and ‘duration’ may have been mixed up. We agree that the question “What is the validity?” is not as good as the question “If we got our visa today, until when would we be allowed to enter China?”. We’re going to the embassy to clear this up.

Taxi. Metal detector. X-rays. Phone deposit. The same chaos in front of the counters. We keep standing at an appropriate distance behind the next people in line. At some point the security guard comes in and yells that this is not a coffee shop and everyone should be quiet. He also points us to a counter so we get our turn quickly.

Uncle 我说三十 behind the counter says we have 30 days to enter and 30 days to stay in China. A longer validity would only be possible if we were Iranian or had an Iranian residence permit. Our begging includes the word “exception” but the answer remains negative. We never expected getting Chinese visa to be such a headache.

One thing is very certain: we are not going to rush to China. Rushing was yesterday. In a bad mood, but more constructive than after our last defeat, we go to the embassy of Turkmenistan. If we’d get Turkmen visa, we could at least ride all the way to Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan. If the Chinese visa remain a problem, we could look at the possibility of air transport from there.

Shady Hatch

The employees at the Turkmen embassy don’t let us in. The reason is that visa applications are handled through a small hatch in the outside wall of the embassy. A few smoking men with stacks of passports are waiting here. Although we filled out application forms in Ankara, we’re given two new ones to fill out. Would they be so thorough to check for inconsistencies with the first form? Not likely. Five minutes before the embassy closes officially, we’re done with our forms but the hatch remains shut.

We wait among the other applicants but choose our position wisely on the steps below the hatch. When it finally opens after 30 minutes, we leap up like a Jack-in-the-box, much to the amusement of the embassy employee. Using the element of surprise, Petra is doing a great job pushing the rather rude stackers aside. The shade behind the open hatch takes our invitation, application forms, passports and photos and mumbles “wait here”.

After another long wait, the hatch opens again. We each pay US$ 55 (€ 50) in crispy bills and receive our brand spanking new Turkmen visa on the spot. Finally some progress.

Takhti… Takhti… Takhti… Takhti

You wouldn’t believe how many local taxi drivers (anywhere) know as much about the city as we do with our off-line maps. The driver that is supposed to take us back to the hotel is an extreme example of this. Before getting into his taxi we discuss the destination and the price. He then starts debating with his fellow drivers in the taxi stand. Agreement is reached and we drive off.

As always, I follow our progress on the off-line maps on my phone in case the taxi has a meter and a driver is trying to rip us off by taking a detour. When he’s closer to our hotel, I lose the GPS signal in the urban canyon. He’s really racing through the narrow alleys like a madman now, having a near-accident every 10 seconds. It all looks vaguely familiar here but I can’t help him without a GPS position. We seem to be going in circles. Meanwhile the driver keeps repeating the only street he knows here like a mantra. At some point we’ve had enough and tell him to stop. We’ll walk from here. At first he refuses to get paid because he didn’t do his job. In some sort of inverse negotiation we settle on paying half of the agreed fee. Probably enough to buy a street map of Tehran.

August 15th, 2016

Hiding the Scissors

Petra wants to go to the hairdresser’s today. The ladies at the hotel reception give us an address (in Farsi) and an approximate location. It is astounding how much time simple things cost here (for us). The hairdresser is in a shopping center, but there are three shopping centers in this street. Our taxi driver has no clue, of course. The only thing we can do is show people the address on a note and ask where it is. Now we know how it feels to be illiterate.

A hairdresser for women is hard to find here anyway. There are no salons at ground level with large windows where you see women having their hair done. This would not be compatible with the headscarfs law. The hairdresser that we’re looking for is hidden between many offices and behind an unmarked door on the fourth floor of the third shopping center. There are no clues that this is a hairdresser other than the vague sounds of hairdryers coming from a window above the door.

This is a forbidden area for me, so Petra knocks and goes in. Two hours of radio silence later she comes out with a nice haircut and a good story.

Ghormeh Sabzi

Iman, Hamide and their 4-year-old daughter are picking us up tonight to visit a rather new recreational area in the west of Tehran. There is a big artificial lake. Many families are near the water’s edge having an elaborate picnic dinner. They’re sitting on large Persian rugs and have brought all the equipment for cooking too. Now we understand what’s in the big packages they transport on the roofs of their cars.

We’re going to a small restaurant to eat Ghormeh Sabzi (lamb stew) and Ghalieh Magi (fish stew with tamarind). We’re also having Ash e Reshteh (bean and noodle soup) and Ash e Dogh (no dogs, just yogurt). It’s delicious. To top it off, they treat us to ‘probably the best soft ice cream in Iran’. We believe this because there is a long queue in front of the shop and it’s really good ice cream indeed.

It’s close to midnight already, but we have one more attraction to visit: the Azadi Tower. It’s an impressive structure that looks futuristic from certain angles and in today’s red light. They change the colors every once in a while.

We say goodbye to Iman, Hamide and Setia. I score another 3 points in the kisses-from-muslim-men-competition. Petra is never going to make up my 11 point lead!

Thank you, Iman and Hamide, for the great time we’ve had with you in Tehran! Your enormous hospitality toward us has made a wonderful and lasting impression on us during our first visit to Iran.

August 16th, 2016 — The Chinese Visa Puzzle

It’s difficult to decide what to do with the Chinese visa situation. Our tour operator says that applying for visa in Uzbekistan involves much more paperwork and that the chances to get the visa there are slim. Besides, if we want to cross China from September 26th to 30th, we’d need to rush to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, to apply there. Applying in Kyrgyzstan is only possible if you’re a resident. Besides, it would be much too late anyway.

The tour operator is creative and thinks about us flying to Ankara to apply. They have examples of travelers receiving visa with a normal 3-month validity there. The problem is that we should neither fly from Iran nor Uzbekistan because of our single-entry visa for these countries. For Turkmenistan we have 5-day transit visa so that’s not a solution either.

To complicate all this, the payment deadline for the second half of the fee is on September 12th. This is all very tight and does not leave room for unexpected delays. Most importantly we’re not going to rush anymore. To buy more time, we decide to postpone our China transit by two weeks to October 10th-14th.

The tour operator suggests that we simply try to apply for Chinese visa in Tehran. There is no official 30-day validity for Chinese visa and they can’t imagine that we’ll get less. We agree to apply, but also that if the validity is only 30 days that we get most of the already paid fees back. We will then forget about our china transit altogether. That is a good deal, but still a gamble of US$ 260 (€ 230). We get their e-mail with this offer rather late, so we need to hurry to the embassy. OK, we’ll rush once more.

Taxi. Metal detector. X-rays. Phone deposit. Chaos. Uncle 我说三十 recognizes us already. He looks through our applications and says that all is OK but that we need “a note from the Dutch embassy”. This is probably to formally introduce us and declare that we’re citizens of immaculate behavior, or something like that. Ha! One more unexpected hoop to jump through! “…and besides, you’ll really get only 30 days validity regardless of your request for 3 months”, he continues.

This is not going to work. We could waste more time and money, but we’re obviously not going to get the Chinese visa that we want here. We’re so sick of this embassy. We withdraw our applications for good. What annoys us most is that these just happen to be the rules here. Later we find out, through an overland bicycle forum, that they changed the validity rules in this embassy only two weeks ago.

We’ve wasted too much time dancing to the embassy’s tunes. Esfahan is calling to come and have a look.