We take a minibus to the Iranian border with a lot of men and a lot of luggage. At one point a man takes his seat on the driver's lap, but after expressions of concern for road safety (the road is, after all, covered in sheet ice) the passenger relocates into the warm fuggy morass of the main compartment. It is thankfully a short ride and a quick border crossing. We are welcomed by an Iranian Tourist Board official who takes our details and gives us onward public transport info. She forgets to mention the rugby scrum for the shared taxi down to the first village. We cross this hurdle simply by waiting for everyone else to go first and finally hook up with two Kurdish students going to Baku. These boys want us to share a $40 ride to Tabriz but we decline, and opt for the uncomfortable slow bus that costs $3. At first I am told I can't sit next to Gayle. ("But she's my wife!", I lie, indignant.) The back seat is rock hard, and the students climb into the driver's bed above it and snooze. At departure, the driver relents and gives his assent to my sitting next to Gayle. The bus is a Mercedes. This is not good. The advice is to take a Volvo. Oh well..........
The landscape is mountainous and snowy, but it does feel warmer than eastern Turkey. We pass small brown villages - the only colour in a white land - and eventually arrive in the large low-rise city of Tabriz. The pavements are caked in ice and compacted snow and the roads are choked. It's rush hour. We find a comfortable hotel where the heating is so hot that we start to melt, and after a compulsory kebab, we retire to watch Manchester United tonk Arsenal in the Cup. Well, Gayle doesn't.
In the morning we call on Nasser, the friendly local Tourist Information man. "English? Then you'll have a cup of tea. I don't pay for it - the government does!" He points out the Yoghurt and Honey Shop to us and answers every single question we can think of. We change money at the bank and emerge millionnaires. I am full of cold and faced with a dilemma. It is a cultural taboo to blow your nose in a restaurant here. Should I just let the snot dribble down my face? While pondering this we sample some of the cheap cuisine - dizi, which is a mutton broth with chick peas and potatoes and a blob of fat (mmm) and ash, which is a heavy soup, either of yoghurt and barley, or green vegetables, or in my case, noodles and pond weed. We also wander the old covered bazaar, looking for a cup of tea. The bazaar has 35 km of streets in a maze divided by caravanserais and open courtyards. We walk about 15km before we finally find a tea shop - just up an unmarked staircase - run by a dour man with a woollen watchcap perched on the top of his head. There's no point trying to speak Farsi here as everyone is Azeri and speaks Turkish, so at least we know the numbers. Later we come across several modern shopping arcades dotted around the main streets and realise that these are modelled on the ancient covered bazaar. Except these have neon lights and better window displays and are warm - all of which may explain why they are busier.
By the time we leave Tabriz the thaw is on, and the pavements that were thick with ice when we arrived have now turned to muddy slush. We take a bus (Volvo!) for the 9 hours to Tehran. At a lunch stop we are helped by Arash, a young student, who buys us soup. We chat away until we reach Tehran while he explains his IT projects and work at university. He's a smart guy and been offered a job in California, but he can't leave Iran before completing 2 year's national service, and he can't enter America until he has lived 6 years outside of Iran. He's not a fan of the Iranian government. After a long flowing conversation talking about many different things he tells me that it is the first time he has ever spoken to a native English speaker. It's amazing. It is late when we arrive in the capital and after a ride on the modern metro we wearily settle to stay in an overpriced hotel peopled by Armenian market-traders who are hauling large sacks of goods in and out of their rooms and in and out of the hotel. We are tired and fed-up. Tehran means 'the end of the road' according to our guidebook.