Saturday, February 23, 2008

What a difference a day makes

The sun is shining. We move from our expensive flea-pit hotel to a cheaper one, although we have to wait a while for the return of our passports - the hotel has to register us with the police. With 14 million inhabitants, many of them driving Paykans*, Tehran is not going to be a green and pleasant place. It's not too bad though, once you've mastered the Dance of Death, a pre-requisite to crossing any road here. After a breakfast of curried felafel sandwiches, we visit the British embassy to buy a letter recommending us for travel in Uzbekistan. This costs us a bargain 34 quid and we have a nice chat with Sandra who has lived here for 33 years. The embassy is in huge walled grounds and was the subject of some controversy when it was publicised that Britain actually "owns" the land it sits on - a gift from Shah Reza, whose coup the British supported. Tehran is an eye-opener - a fairly ugly modern city that sprawls nothwards to the foot of snowy mountains. We see only one mosque - under construction, and don't actually hear the call to prayer while we are visiting.

On the streets people say hello all the time. Here the pre-dominant hijab style is off the back of the head, with plenty of hair on show. We ride the modern metro (with optional women-only carriage)and take a bus (with compulsory gender segregation, women at the back of course) to the Uzbek embassy. We pass buildings with murals and quotes from Khomeini in Farsi and English - good old-fashioned agit-prop - some of it lost in translation, possibly. Photos of Khomeini and Khameini, the current Supreme Leader, who looks more cheerful, are dotted everywhere. An old man on the bus asks me what I think of Iran. I say I think it feels a little poorer than Turkey, where we have come from, and he replies: "Iran is a rich country, one of the richest, but so many of the people are poor.", and he waves derisively at the large modern appartment blocks on the outskirts and says " they have the money". I'm not sure who they are.

We are served at the window of the Uzbek embassy by a tall man with a pencil moustache. His name is Shavkat / Shashlyk / Shaft - we don't quite catch it and immediately conjure up a mnemonic nickname that fails to help us remember. He jokes with us and is very nice but we have to stand outside in the cold to complete our visa forms and my hands are numb. The visa process for travelling through Central Asia to China and then into Pakistan is complicated. We have had to research the best location to apply for each visa on our route, the order in which we must apply, and the cost. We need the Uzbek visa before we can get a Turkmenistan transit visa. At the Turkmen embassy, which is a half-hour forced march away, they tell us that the application process may take 10 days. Great!

The streets are all signposted in English as well as Farsi, which helps a lot for getting around. But we continue to struggle to find anywhere to eat - so many of the restaurants are below street level, down dingy stairwells. We seem to be eating a lot of kebabs.............
*The Paykan is a national icon - an Iranian car modelled on the Hillman Hunter (even I'm too young to remember the Hillman Hunter) - succintly described as a "shitbox of a car" by our guidebook, which consumes 20 litres of petrol every 100 miles. Petrol here is rationed, but costs about 6 pence a litre.

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