Saturday, 29 March 2014

dropping our guard

We are being led to the bus station by Amir and Samaneh in their car.  Amir lets the car slow so that Samaneh can snap us on our bikes with her phone.  He leans over and shouts out "Which country?  Which country?"  This is a scene familiar to anyone who cycle tours through Iran.  There's a bus about to leave when we turn up.  Amir sorts us out, bikes are thrown into the baggage compartment, quick farewells and we jump aboard.  There are spare seats separated by the aisle.  I sit next to a very quiet man.  Gayle sits next to a smiley young woman in a chador.  After about half an hour along the road, the woman moves Gayle's hand, takes it in hers, and lays out on her knees to snooze in such an affectionate way that Gayle can only laugh and carry on reading her book. 

In Esfahan we load up the bikes and cycle through the city centre to reach Ahmad's out in the suburbs.  It's early afternoon when we arrive.  We have the phone number for our Warm Showers host so I ask in a small shop if I could call him.  They very kindly agree and within minutes we are wheeling our bikes into Ahmad's entrance hall.  He quickly shows us where to put our bags in the bedroom and suggests we go and visit the city.  He apologises but says he has to go out and won't be back until 8 or 9 in the evening.  So, after a shower and a cup of tea we think about heading back into the city.  However, i still need a bit of trombone practice and my tooth is still giving me gyp.  So we opt for a siesta until about 6. 
An hour later Ahmad returns.  He seems a bit cold to us, and not very talkative.  We wonder if he's just hosted too many guests.  After an initial couple of questions about our journey he isn't interested.  He asks if we've had dinner.  Neither of us are particularly hungry, but Ahmad isn't offering in any case.  But we decide to go back to the corner shop for some fruit and yoghurt.  On the way back we go and sit in the nearby park and enjoy the cool evening air.  When we get back, Ahmad is sat outside his back door, looking at a couple of big house plants in pots that he's dragged outside.  He's chatty now and seems a bit happier.  He asks us about how we manage to travel for such a long time, tells us he's no longer a Muslim, tells us that he has hosted over a hundred Couch Surfers until he had a problem with the police and they told him to stop hosting.  He also had to delete his Couch Surfing account.  There are a few testimonials and thank you notes from some of these surfers stuck on his bedroom wall.  Oddly, these are addressed to Arman and Arad and some have had the greeting snipped off.

After a chatty evening we all retire early, professing tiredness.  Ahmad offers us his bed and he takes blankets into the lounge.  An hour later we are all still wide awake.  Ahmad is in the shower - we can hear it.  We are discussing what to do about the $200 missing from my money belt.  I had noticed that my money belt was out of place in my bar bag.  When I looked inside everything was back to front.  The $200 I had got out to change in Esfahan were still showing, but when I counted up the balance, tucked into a plastic sleeve, there were notes missing.  Ahmad had obviously been a bit naughty.  We had been unmistakably stupid - having left our cash in our barbags when we went out to the shops.  We decide to say nothing until the morning - unsure whether it might get nasty and unsure how to attempt to recover the cash.  Meanwhile some friends turn up....

It's obvious to us now, stung, that Ahmad/Arman/Arad is a repeat offender and why he no longer has a Couch Surfing account.  We had assumed it was something to do with over-sensitive authorities - not thieving.  In the morning we opt to pack up, load the  bikes, and ask for our money back.  Our only leverage is to threaten to go to the police.  This would be a bluff - we have no intention of giving the police a chance to ask us questions about Warm Showers and our previous hosts.  Surprisingly, the bluff works.  

Ahmad looks surprised when we load up our bikes - maybe he thought he would be undetected.  We tell him we need the money, and that if it is returned we will not go to the tourist police.  He looks disturbed.  I try to take a photo for old times' sake.  He cracks. He tells us that a friend came round while we were out.  He is now asleep in the lounge.  Ahmad goes inside and reappears with the cash - telling us it was in his friend's wallet.  He can barely look us in the eye.  We tell him we will have to give him a negative reference on the Warm Showers website. (Within a day of doing this, his profile is deleted, presumably by him.  We also report the incident to the website but we suspect he will re-register with another name - maybe Ali Reza this time.)

We ride off, relieved to have recovered the cash, relieved he didn't find Gayle's stash, relieved that there was no violence.  He really looked pathetic and pitiful when we said goodbye.  No doubt we weren't the first or the last suckers to drop our guard.  It's been a good lesson for us.

Ahmad / Arman / Arad

Friday, 28 March 2014

surfing in Iran

An hour after dental surgery that was so tough the dentist even needed a fag break halfway, we are back at Amir's house.  Soon afterwards he and Samaneh return from their No Ruz trip.  It's quite weird - this is our third night here and we're just meeting them.  They are inevitably a very relaxed and friendly couple and despite their long travels find time to chat and find out what our plans are.   Originally we were only going to stay two nights here - we have a programme to fit in with getting a visa extension - but after a short discussion we agree to scrap the original plan and Go With The Flow.  This generally seems to work when you're Couch Surfing in Iran.  

Amir doesn't hang around.  We tell him we want to cycle to Abyaneh and then onto Esfahan.  He checks with another Couch Surfing host in the city about the road.  The problem is a uranium-enrichment plant close to both new and old roads.  Cyclists have been stopped by police, questioned, sent back to take a bus.  Being British, we want to be cautious.  We also realise there is a possibility of compromising our hosts if we get into trouble - although we have already decided to stick to our "camping in the park" story.  Many Iranians do this on their holidays and we have already seen the ubiquitous cheap tents dotted around some of the shady parks in Kashan. So, despite our plans, we settle on busing it to Esfahan.  In the meantime we can use the time we save to spend with Amir and Samaneh and their family.

Early the next morning Amir is sorting us out with a ride up to Abyaneh and back.  It seems a bit decadent to take a taxi but Amir negotiates a good price for us.  Our destination is a traditional village tucked away in the folds of the mountains southwest of Kashan.  It is now a certified tourist destination and the villagers are preparing for the daily No Ruz onslaught of Iranians.  We arrive early and walking around the village is a real pleasure.  The old brick and adobe houses have been touched up, the ageing locals have on their finery - bright headscarves for the women and silky black loon pants for the men.  By lunchtime there's a heaving throng of tourists plying up and down the narrow lanes.

In the afternoon we are invited to Amir's parents for dinner with the family.  There's Amir's immediately family plus aunties, uncles and cousins.  Only Amir and Mohammed, his brother, speak English, and after a great deal of polite small talk we suddenly find a cousin asking them to translate his questions and our answers.  The family is fairly traditional but not especially religious.  So the women keep on their headscarves but there's a bit of banter about "the mullahs".  Ahh, but it's more complicated than that.  Many Iranians might not practise their religion simply because of the way their religious leaders are governing them. (Back in Tehran I sat down to watch Man City play Fulham on the TV at the hostel.  City won a penalty.  The picture suddenly switched to Koranic script, soft green lights and the call to prayer was sung.  An Iranian watching with me shook his head. "They didn't used to do this.  Now the mullahs insist.  They only turn people away from religion doing this.  Here we are, enjoying the game and then...." I nodded in consolation.  I had just assumed the mullahs were Fulham fans....)

Here in Central Iran we are in the traditional heart of Iran.  The people are predominantly Persian and fairly conservative.  Black chadors have proliferated now we have come south of Tehran - although they are common enough in the poorer parts of the capital.  So it's no surprise to find people asking us our religion - we expect it, although it still seems a bizarre conversation at times.  It's been said that if someone is too demonstrative about their religious beliefs (religious ring-tone on their phone, always worrying about prayer time) they are probably dishonest and not to be trusted. The mullahs are very rich men, after all.

Asked about Iran by some tourists at one of the sights in Kashan, Gayle expresses her opinion about the hejab - all women must cover their hair and wear loose clothing. What she actually says is that she doesn't like governments that tell you what you can drink or wear.  A man listening in interjects.  "Excuse me, but may I just say that your government tells you what you can do.  Such as drink and driving".  "Yes, but drink and driving is proven to be dangerous.  What can be dangerous about what you wear?"

The meal with Amir's family is taken on the floor sitting around a large cloth spread with plates of rice and dill, beans with lamb, pickles and salad greens. The food is splendid - we have not had one bad meal in Iran - and it's healthy too.  After the preamble of fruit and nuts beforehand, the actual meal is eaten quickly.  It's siesta time.  The city is quiet between 1 and 5.  During the summer temperatures can hit 50.  Come sunset the roads are busy again and the shops reopen, pavements fill with shoppers.  It tends to be even busier than morning time.

The next day Gayle heads off with more of Amir's family, and two Polish surfers who have come to stay too, into the desert.  I cannot face the six o'clock start - I am waking in the night with my sore tooth still and don't think I can stand the pace out in the desert.  The whole family have hired a bus for their trip. There's about 30 people in total.  On the way there's music and a Amir and his brother dance in the aisle.  On the dirt road into the desert the bus stops at an army checkpoint and a soldier climbs aboard to lecture everyone about behaving properly and observing the hejab rules.  Gayle crouches down in her seat in her pink buff.  The Polish women have black headscarves so blend in better.  Gayle comments that it seems the authorities are determined that the Iranians should not have any fun.  But the Iranians are just as determined to ensure that they do.  Out in the desert are huge dunes to climb.  The air is fresh on the tops but baking hot at the bottom.  It's only the end of March.

having fun in the park
 In the evening I go out to buy some instant noodles for a quick tea - I'm starving - and easy to chew.  When I get back Amir looks horrified.  He shows Samaneh the plastic packets, holding them out with his fingertips as if they were contagious, and after a quick discussion they tell me I should be eating healthier food to aid my recovery.  Samaneh starts preparing a chicken and vegetable broth.  I feel somewhat embarrassed - I'm not ill, but my tooth still hurts, and the antibiotics I'm taking have given me a huge amount of wind.  For the past two days my stomach has inflated like a balloon and I have had to retreat to the toilet for trombone practice on a regular basis.  Now we are invited to wait for a home-cooked soup (which is wonderful) while I, now faint with hunger, try not to burst out with the chorus from 'In The Mood'.   We watch a video of their wedding reception which is interesting for a while.  Amir wants to show how mixed the reception is - not segregated by sex - although the majority of the dancing is by men.  Around 600 were invited.  They explain that although they married two years ago, the reception was only seven months ago.  The two of them met when Samaneh was placed at Amir's workplace while she was studying.  They courted in secret, mothers were informed, a formal wedding proposal eventually made.  Pre-nuptial agreements are normal practice in Iran, to safeguard the wife should the husband seek a divorce.  A wife needs a husband's consent to divorce, but not the other way around.  It seems that general attitudes to relationships and marriage are gradually getting more relaxed - where Tehran leads, the rest of the cities follow.  But it's hard to tell.  As Amir himself says, Couch Surfers are a different kind of people.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

dance like a butterfly, sting like a bee........

  We take a bus to Kashan from Tehran in order to avoid the nasty roads and the big city suburbs that stretch endlessly southwards towards the deserts of central Iran. Amir is kindly hosting us through Couch Surfing, but as it turns out he's on a jolly with his wife, Samaneh, so they're not actually at home.  No problem, he says, just call him when we arrive and he'll ask his brother to meet us.  It's kindness like this that takes Couch Surfing to another level here in Iran.  We alight at a park in the city and after some lunch try and grab a phone form an unsuspecting local.  We know this is very cheeky but it has worked so far.  The last laugh is with the Kashan locals.  We are variously pointed to a shop selling SIM cards, to an internet cafe and to a pay phone - although I might have imagined the latter - I haven't actually seen one in Iran yet.  In the end we give up and return to the park where a family on holiday approach us to talk and take photos.  Here we're in luck - they are happy to help us.  Unfortunately, Amir's phone is off.  Eventually, after being invited for tea and more photos by another family group, another man kindly offers us assistance.  This time we make contact with Amir, who apologises for their absence.  Soon afterwards we are following his brother's car to their house, where we are invited to make ourselves at home.

the three brothers from Khomeinishar who help us phone

For a couple of days I've had toothache and the next morning the pain is unbearable.  We set off to find a dentist and are directed to a dental clinic where I am promptly examined, the tooth x-rayed, and then informed that I need a specialist.  Unfortunately, it being No Ruz, they are all on holiday.  I should try my luck in a bigger city like Yazd or Esfahan.  I'm given an anaesthetic injection to numb the pain.  Otherwise the only pain relief that works is a little cold water.  Numbed, we head off to sight-see a bit, but I am deeply troubled.  Kashan is a fairly quiet city - with tree-lined roads and some fabulous old houses and an old bazaar to visit.  To the west are the Zagros mountains and to the east, the desert.  It's hard to imagine ever being cold or wet here in the strong Spring sunshine.  
a derelict han in the bazaar

Later in the day the anaesthetic wears off and I'm howling in agony. We ask at a pharmacy for pain-killers but their best suggestion is an ampoule and a hypodermic needle.  Gayle balks at the thought of giving me an IM jab.  I don't blame her.  The pharmacist contacts a doctor who comes to the shop.  He's tall, young, chatty and a bit frivolous.  I am in severe pain and find myself talking about football.  The doctor is a Man Utd. fan of all things.  He takes us to a clinic where he pays another doctor to give me the jab.  As a parting gift, the doctor gives me some suppositories that will help me have "sweet dreams".  He refuses to accept any payment for the treatments or medicines.  Incredible.  I sincerely tell him I hope Utd. beat City tonight.  It's the best thanks I can offer.  But the pain refuses to subside.  Desperate, we phone Amir who quickly asks his brother to help us.  Mohammed takes us to another friend who then leads us to a dentist.   It's 8.30 in the evening and the dentist takes a quick look and an x-ray.  He sees I've had root canal work on the tooth but it has not been done effectively - "excuse me for saying this, but the work is shit". His English is pretty good.  He can fit me in the next night for the work.  I am prescribed more pain killers which do not work.  But finally having summoned up the courage I try one of the suppositories.  Never did I ever think that pushing something up my backside could bring me such relief.  I have sweet dreams. 

one of Kashan's merchants' houses restored to its splendour
 After over an hour in the dentist's chair, Mohammed Ali (real name), punches his fist in the air.  He has just checked an x-ray of my tooth after a hell of a lot of drilling and poking and grinding and scraping and liquid chloroform and antisceptic in my mouth.  He is satisfied with his work.  I feel like I've had a round in the ring with the Muhammad Ali. The work has cost a small Iranian fortune: 400 tomans.  That's 4 hundred thousand tomans, which is 4 million rials. The currency has so many noughts now that the locals abbreviate as much as possible - terribly confusing to us dumb tourists.  Having handed over the £80 the dentist tells me of the side-effects of the treatment:  "You will have pain for a week.  It should diminish after a couple of days".  Now, where did I put those suppositories?  Oh, yes, that's right.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

happy new year

the ideal (although note that this is a two-lane road)
the reality (n.b. motorcycles are on the pavement)
Majid cooks us wonderful vegetarian dinners and entertains us with more conspiracy theories, life philosophies, tales about living in Canada, and an analysis of the economic woes of Iran.  The economy is an interesting one - it was a mess back in 2008 and it still is now - made worse by continuing economic sanctions and a currency that has dropped two-thirds in value.  The government subsidises petrol, gas and bread prices.  I never had a good grasp on economics but in theory the currency devaluation should principally affect prices of imported goods, but inflation is high across the board.  Wages are not keeping up.  As a visitor prices are cheap, but for Iranians it's getting tougher.  Majid has a Canadian passport and his friends wonder why he still lives here.  He explains that he has a relatively easy life here, compared to Canada.  Here he has a job with flexibilty and low living costs.  In Canada he has Iranain friends who have bought into the Dream - have a good job and a big house etc. and are slaves to it.  One friend, a doctor, emigrated there with his family and is working on a hot dog stand while he tries to pass the local medical exams. Majid says he would return to Canada if he was married.  And therein lies another problem - how do men and women meet here?  Every Thursday Majid sets off early and climbs the mountains behind Tehran.  It's a good place to escape the city and best of all he meets other like-minded Tehranis.  "These mountaineers are special people."

No Ruz road safety campaign?
No Ruz is the traditional New Year in Iran, marking the end of winter, at the Spring Equinox.  It is the equivalent of the Chinese New Year holiday as the whole country sets off to visit family or go on holiday.  For five days the country completely shuts down, and for a fortnight there is no school.  As cyclists we are warned of the ensuing madness on the roads as city drivers take to the main highways and drive like they're in the usual dodgems.  Majid hosted our friends Friedel and Andrew back in 2008 and together they cycled a desert road in eastern Iran.  Majid recounts the horrible story of a fatal car accident they witnessed - one car on the empty road behind them shooting a curve and dropping off the road.


cell 102
But before we head out into the madness that is No Ruz, we move to one of the cheap hostels in the south of the city, the Mashhad Hostel, a place we stayed in 2008.  The same staff are there, the same tiny little rooms, grotty kitchen and clean-enough shared toilets.  We even get our old cell back - number 102.

Here we meet a clutch of very friendly Chinese and Taiwanese backpackers - a new phenomenon for us.  
cool Chinese backpackers

Around the corner is our favourite little cafe that still serves the same tasty egg and tomato dish.  ("What do you call it in Farsi?" "Omelette.")  
simply delicious

We collect the bikes and my new sunglasses and while away the first couple of holidays.  The city suddenly seems deserted.  Majid had told us the city is much pleasanter in No Ruz - less traffic and so the air is cleaner and you can always see the mountains.  Most of the shops are closed and the frenzied Christmas-like shopping activity has died down.  
as rare as hen's teeth - an empty road mid-morning downtown Tehran

We missed the bazaar the last time we were here and now it is closed.  Oh well. We have also missed our friend Cyrus who has gone to Turkey with his missus.  We are really keen to meet up with him again so we hope we can before we leave Iran. Before we leave we meet Raimon, a Catalan cyclist going our way.  He's arrived to start the big Central Asian Visa Trawl.  We should meet up again on the road insh'Allah.

final adjustments at Mr. Jabbari's bike shop

Thursday, 20 March 2014

where have all the paykans gone?

sub-tropical Tehran
So how has Tehran changed since we were last here six years ago?  Well, I dunno, we can see the mountains to the north of the city.  The shops look smarter.  The air is cleaner? Ahh, I know - there are almost no Paykans.  About a week ago in one of the English classes, I was asked my favourite car. I don't have a favourite car - but the kid was young and I couldn't disappoint him with "Renault 4".  So I said "Hillman Hunter".  Blank faces all round until I drew it on the board - the classic kid's drawing of a car looking like a box on wheels.  Immediately everyone shouted out "Paykan!" This old British car became Iran's national car - just like the old Fiat became the USSR's Lada.  Big, clunky and polluting - the car has almost disappeared from the streets thanks to a government deal to offer a new car in part exchange.  Touchingly, some Iranians have clung on to the old beasts.  The main advantage of the new car is that it is less bulky and so you can squeeze more cars onto the roads in all the city centre traffic jams.

the day's first cyclist
No-one comes to Tehran for tourism, unless you want to ski on those mountains we can now see.  It's a business city first and foremost and we have business to attend to, before the national Now Ruz holidays commence.  Thankfully Majid can help us with directions and advice and information.  He is a cyclist and a live-wire, talking so fast sometimes he cuts off his own sentences with the following one.  He's also very funny.  Having hosted many cyclists coming through Iran, he knows the places to get a bike fixed.  Gayle needs a new rim, and someone competent enough to rebuild the wheel properly and maybe check all our wheels.  We get directions and head across the city in the morning traffic.  It's kind of exciting.  Like paint-balling or British Bulldog or trying to sneak past the rival school kids on the streets of Longsight. On one long stretch we spot a cyclist. A female of the species.  Gayle catches her up and we stop to 'salaam' and take a photo.  Down at the bike shop there are only two choices: a brand-name rim that is a bit thin or a no-brand rim which is thicker.  Discussions with the bike shop owner are translated by Majid over the phone. We chew it over but I can't decide. Majid exclaims "John, you are not marrying this rim!" Of course.  We opt for the brand and cross our fingers.
and Leila - the second

Another urgent task for me is to replace sunglasses now that we are on the sunny side of the mountains and my old pair are still sitting in Baku.  Didn't like them anyway - Gayle is happy to remind me that I am the one that loses things. One nice thing about shopping in Asia is the tendency to clump shops selling the same thing in the same street.  So off we go to the optician's street.  Unfortunately my pidgin English (why do I resort to pidgin English?) and mime fails to communicate my needs in the first two shops.  I wave my prescription and point at sunglasses but instead of being invited to choose frames they off me a pair from the Special Draw Under The Counter.  It seems to be Hobson's Choice.  But in the third shop the shop assistant is quick on the uptake and understands the notion of customer service.  That's because she is a woman.  No wonder Iran looks like it could be managed better - not enough women with responsibility.

much-needed sustenance

Our other pressing task is to start our request for a transit visa across Turkmenistan.  This is one we've done here before and we know it can be a pain.  The Tehran metro is now longer, so the journey to the northern side of the city is easier.  We arrive just after the consulate opens for business, except no-one is open for business.  All transactions are done through a wodden hatch - you have to climb up two steps to look in. But the hatch remains closed until 10am.  By then there's a group of applicants and agents crowding around.  We are handed a simple form to fill in.  When we hand it back with our photocopies and photos the consul official is dismissive.  "Colour photocopies". "Moron" I reply. "What difference does it make if the copies are in colour or black and white??". No, I don't.  I nod meekly and ever so humble I retreat to the street with Gayle to look for a colour photocopier.  It takes a while with lots of help from locals that doesn't actually help us, before we return with the right paperwork.  It's almost midday.  The consulate shuts at 11.30am  Miraculously, when I knock on the hatch desperately the official opens it up.  He hands us a blank sheet of paper to write a letter saying why we want a visa, when and where.  I leave this work of creation to Gayle as I find it hard to put into words politey. Ultimately, we just want to get to the other side.  (For a tourist visa you would need to pay for a guide.)
After some inspired flourishes of the pen, the papers are accepted through the wooden hatch - we sould be able to collect in Mashhad en route later.  We celebrate with bread and a whole roast chicken.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

proxy wars, conspiracies and paranoia

It's thought that over a million Iranians now live in the USA, and I suspect there’s a few more would like to join them. I am thinking about this as we ride the bus to Tehran. I guess the reasons are obvious. I reflect how many of the people dislike their government, how religious fundamentalists seem to have a disproportionate influence over the country, how the government monitors and records its citizens’ use of the internet, how it wastes billions supporting wars and political games overseas, how the mismanagement of the economy has been endured by the people and yet, despite all this, how friendly and hospitable they are. Mmmm.....

One significant difference is that in America there is free speech. You could argue that this is abused by heavily-biased media, but it still contrasts sharply with Iran. Facebook, Flickr and Blogspot are banned as well as satellite TV. Mind you, nearly everyone in Iran can still access these. By using proxy servers you can get round the filtering of banned websites.(That's how I'm able to post this blog.) Newspapers here may get closed down if the authorities are not best pleased.  Bloggers and activists get locked up.  What all this censorship seems to create is a weird paranoia.Perhaps this explains some of the conspiracy theories that knock around. Or maybe Iranians understand the world better than I do. I am sometimes reminded of George Orwell's 1984.  Despite living in a digital age with global communications I can't help wondering if anyone is better informed either here in Iran (or anywhere else for that matter).  One reason there are not more tourists here is the image of Iran given by Western media and politicians and by the Iranian government themselves. The best coverage I can see is from The Guardian. But what must it be like to live in a country where even peaceful protesters can be imprisoned? Under the last Shah's rule people were frightened to trust others because he had a network of spies. Is it any better now?

Gayle is far less paranoid than I am. ("Don't get the camera out! There's a policeman.")I have opted to change the names of Iranians I write about here just to be on the safe side..........

Sunday, 16 March 2014

wheel within a wheel

We have a great stay with Zahra and her family.  There are many reasons for this.  Zahra engages us with great conversation.  Her dad quotes fables from Lafontaine. Her mum cooks fabulous food.  We are treated to some of the traditional dishes of Gilan province and although we feel obliged to eat heartily, it really isn't a struggle.  Once again we find ourselves with night owls - so we go to bed late and rise late.

The rim on Gayle's back wheel has got worse on the ride here so we decide to catch a bus directly to Tehran so that we can get it fixed before the No Ruz holidays.  Zahra's mum, Behnaz, asks a friend if he can help us find a bike shop in Rasht.  He comes to have a look to see what the problem is and then in the late afternoon returns to take us to a bike shop.  We get caught in the evening rush hour traffic and crawl painfully along.  The bike shop looks good enough, but the only suitable rim looks a bit narrow for our tyres.  So we pass.  Unfortunately our guide has taken on the responsibility to help us and insists on taking us to another bike shop.  This was is not real - it's only selling cheap chinese bikes and it doesn't look like they can service bikes at all.  I am embarrassed when our guide has a long conversation with the guys in the shop and then needs to phone Zahra to translate it all to us.  They have said we can't replace just one rim, we would need to replace the one on the other wheel too.  It's complete codswallop and a shameless attempt to extract more money from unsuspecting punters.  We explain to our kind guide that it really doesn't matter. We will go to Tehran tomorrow and sort it out there.  The episode reminds us how far Iranians will take hospitality.  We know they really want to help us and in some sense we may have disappointed them because we didn't get the bike fixed.

The next morning sees us rising a little earlier and quickly getting our own breakfast.  This is a transgression of Iranian hospitality for sure but we don't want to hang around.  We have to cycle across the city to the bus station and then find a bus to the capital.  So we say our farewells - sad to say goodbye - and set off into the morning traffic.  The ride is slow but we don't get lost and at the bus station we're greeted by a bus tout committed to the redistribution of wealth.  We get a comfy VIP bus and loading the bikes is easy. Before long we are heading over the mountains to Tehran.  The landscape is wonderful and we both wish we were cycling this stretch until we get close to Tehran and the highway turns ugly with trucks and cars all trying to squeeze past each other at speed.

Coming out of the bus station in the west of Tehran we have only now to cycle to the other side of the city centre to find our host, Majid.  The navigation is simple enough as the main roads are laid out in a grid pattern - but the traffic is something else.  After about 10 kilometres of weaving and wending our way we arrive safely.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

the old fox

BBC Persia is on the telly. The programme "Later with Jools Holland" comes on.  Jools is dubbed into Farsi.  The BBC started broadcasting this satellite channel at the start of 2009. It was originally funded directly by the UK government so it's no surprise that the Iranian government sees it as a propaganda tool.  So annoyed, they've tried to jam the signal.  The BBC claim editorial independence and the insurrectionist Jools is still being watched in Iran.  Satellite TV is illegal in Iran but prevalent.  Dishes are discreetly tucked away behind parapets on every roof.  In addition to BBC Persia, there's the Voice of America (which was broadcasting in Farsi back in 2008 when we last visited), and Manoto, a private channel from London. Manoto has a Spitting-Image style satire which regularly features the Foreign Minister using Facebook.  They also feature real footage of ageing mullahs drivelling utter nonsense.

I ask Zahra about the BBC and she tells us that when the election protests sprang up in 2009 she was in Turkey.  She felt let down by the BBC coverage because after a few days it stopped featuring on their news.  She feels that this was a deliberate policy of the British government.  In my view this is a sympton of international rolling news programmes like BBC World and CNN - flitting about from one crisis to another.  Overdosing on one story with picture-driven stories.  One problem about reporting on Iran is that the government here has banned all foreign reporters.  (Ironically, the BBC Persia service was recognised for its coverage of those protests - but I assume Zahra would not have seen this in Turkey.)

But what strikes me most is Zahra's notion that the BBC is just a tool of the British government.  Instinctively I disagree - but how to change her opinion? Or mine? She is not the only Iranian to tell us that the revolution in 1979 was orchestrated by the British government, to protect BP's oil business.  Why else was Khomeini, a little-known cleric in exile, broadcast on BBC World Service in the build-up to the revolution?  There's a sense of blame being attached to outside forces here, specifically the British, a sense of injustice.  It still confounds me.  Last time we were here, someone referred to Britain as The Old Fox.  Of course, when you look at the history of the country then the British have been meddling significantly.  Back in 1920, as the Bolsheviks finally wrestled control of Russia, and the Qajar Shah was increasingly unpopular in Persia, a Rasht local, Kuchik Khan, declared Gilan province the Persian Socialist Soviet Republic.  The British feared losing their oil concessions in Iran and supported an army general in defeating independence movements in the Azeri and Kurdish areas, and the Bolshevik-backed Gilani province.  This general was Reza Khan.  In 1925 he became Shah.  Iran was often caught in between British and Russian interests - and more recently between the US and Russia (these were famously described by Khomeni as The Great Satan and The Lesser Satan).  Then there was the forced replacement of Shah Reza with his son in 1941, to allow the British to supply Russia during the war, and the assassination of the Prime Minister in 1953.  So in light of all this, maybe the British were meddling again in 1979.

And don't forget, Khomeini was British. Yes, that's right.  He wasn't Iranian at all.  He was born in India, son of an illicit affair between his mum and a British army officer.  Don't believe all that stuff about him being born in Iran........

But ultimately, it was the Iranian people who voted in a referendum to end the shah's rule and create the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Zahra shows us photos of her mum and dad from the 70's.  Both educated, middle-class Persians in modern western-style clothes and hairstyles - they could be American.  But they too voted in support of Khomeini. It took less than a month to realise their mistake.  Zahra's dad later lost his teaching job because of his support for an opposition party. 

"in some cases"
Zahra is  onlyone of many Iranians who still mistrust the British government.  Who can blame them?

Friday, 14 March 2014

rainy Rasht

Our ride to Rasht takes us along the coast but out of sight of the sea.  There's drizzle when we say goodbye to Farzan and Roxana but by mid-morning the rain has set in for the day.  The leaden skies do nothing to improve the landscape unfortunately.  This part of Iran is very popular with locals because of the green. And it's green because it rains so much.  We pass more waterlogged rice fields with last year's stubble still showing.  The province of Gilan is known for it's tea - the national drink - cultivated here since an Iranian managed to smuggle a few hundred plants out of India.  (This is the same trick that the British pulled off in China, thus breaking the Chinese monopoly on the trade.)  The tea drunk here is quite delicate with a flowery scent, not as bitter as our black tea or as stewed as Turkish tea. We trundle through a few towns and when we can't find the right road to the south of Rasht a local leads us in his car to the turn-off.  Somewhere on the highway we are also flagged down by a couple of men who call out our names.  They are friends of Farzan and invite us to stay with them.  One of them tells us he has cycled around the world with his daughter, but his English is quite bad, so we're not entirely sure we have understood him properly.  However, we have a commitment to our couch-surfing host, Zahra, in Rasht, so we politely decline their offer.  It's a long ride and we are wet and filthy from the ride when we arrive at the end of the afternoon. 

picnic out of the rain
Rasht is a big city and Zahra is evidently a city girl.  She's not wearing any black and she doesn't hesitate to shake my hand.  (The advice for men is not to offer your hand and wait to see if the woman does.  More conservative women don't shake hands with men.  I will never forget the first time I went to Pakistan with my friend Imran and when we arrived in Karachi at his aunt's house I followed him in giving his three cousins [all female] the continental kiss-kiss on the cheek.  Imran was mortified but afterwards couldn't stop laughing about it.)  Immediately there's something about Zahra's confident self-assurance that speaks volumes to us.  She seems impressed that we've cycled so far in one day. This is in direct contrast from others who only drive and think we can cycle 60km per hour. We are introduced to her mum and dad and quickly served tea.  Today, as we cycled, we reflected how different Iran is when we stay with local families - it really makes a difference to our experience, compared with our trip last time in 2008.  Ultimately this is true in all countries - you get a much greater insight into the culture and the people.  It's what makes Couch Surfing and the like so special.  Now here we are in Rasht with our third host family and we are beginning to discover the complexities of Iranian society.

Misha, the Persian cat
Zahra tells us that she trained as a civil engineer at university in Tehran, and then worked there for five years before deciding to switch to psychology. She studied for her Masters in Turkey but to practice without supervision in Iran she needs her Phd.  Without a Bachelors in the subject it's hard to find a place at a university but Barcelona accepted her.  Great news, except that Spain has refused her a student visa.  This leaves her enormously frustrated.  There is a slim chance for her - but only if the dodgy consul at the Spanish embassy is replaced (he apparently favours applications from wealthy Iranians willing to invest in property deals managed by a friend....)  Remarkably she is not disheartened.  She is, we realise, a determined woman.
two determined women
The days continue to be grey and rainy and Zahra confounds us once more by declaring that she loves this weather.  To us it is a reminder of the endlessly dull days of Pennine weather we get at home.  After one week in Iran we have had sunshine only for a few hours - although we know when we cross the mountains it will be a different story.  We head off to the coast for a little look around.  The journey is in a shared taxi - a ubiquitous sight in Iran as almost every car could be one.  They are almost as cheap as buses but much faster and probably provide employment for 20% of the population.  I can only think this is the reason for their continued existence.  In the city the traffic is horrendous, but once we get on the highway the driver can relax a little and put his foot down.  Every driver here wants to be Ayrton Senna - but only because they don't realise how come he isn't racing these days.  (Farzan in Hashtpar drove like a madman and was quite cocky about it.  Of course, he might be a great driver, but what happens when some dozy incompetent pulls out in front of him as he races along??  His father had implored him "Don't drive like a driver, drive like a teacher.")  Down at the seaside it's fairly quiet and a bit nippy.  There are fisherman out in small wooden boats, and a couple of guys wade in with rods.  A few locals come down to the shore for a walk.  A couple plays badminton.  We sit down and take tea from a flask and talk and talk.  We return to Rasht just as dusk falls.  The driver on the way back hurtles along, weaving inside and outside the other traffic.  The skin on my face is pulled back by the g-force.  I practice my usual habit when driven by a lunatic of looking sideways out of the window instead of through the windscreen.  "Actually he's one of the better ones", Zahra assures us.  Later, in a traffic jam on a three-lane highway we count six rows of cars trying to squeeze along the same direction, whilst an over-ambitious and impatient fool tries to undertake everyone.

the Caspian

Thursday, 13 March 2014

not moving on

changing money at the border
Our first mistake in Iran is not kissing in public, nor giving the thumbs up to the jolly drivers who call out to us and beep their horns (the thumbs up being the local equivalent of the middle finger).  No, our first mistake is arranging different Warm Showers hosts on consecutive days.  Our first night in Iran we have arranged to stay with Babak and his family in Choobar.  He wrote to tell us to call him when we reach his town.  But we don't have a mobile phone.  No problem, just grab one off a passerby.  So when a man in a shop waves and calls out to us we pull up sharpish and head straight over to him.  Can he help us call a friend? You mean Babak Mir?, he asks.  Babak, it turns out, is a Pillar of the Community.  So the man happily phones for us and tells us to wait. We make small talk (Manchester United or Manchester City?) until another man approaches who speaks really good English, in a faintly camp manner.  He is the local English teacher and he loves the British Accent.  Dick Emery springs to mind.  Then Ali Reza turns up to take us to his home.  Ali Reza is Babak's eldest son and speaks even better English.  We move off, but not before I give the Local English Teacher an affectionate shove on his shoulder in an "Oh you are awful...but I like you" kind of way.
Babak is busy working on his land, where he grows kiwis, so Ali Reza gets us settled in.  We meet his mum, Soraya, who is on her way to a wedding party, and his little brothers Hamid Reza and Amir Reza.  These two are twins, he tells us, but this can't be true as Hamid is a big bubbly kid and Amir is a skinny shy boy. But Babak tells us the same thing later.  We have our first Iranian tea, served in good-sized cups with sugar lumps on hand to hold in your mouth and drink the tea through, Persian-style.  We then drink about four more cups while we chat to Ali Reza, who is very chatty.  What do the Iranian people think of Obama? Gayle asks. Well, he replies slowly, there are 75 million Iranians, so I don't really know. When Babak gets home and has washed we sit down and eat dizi, a typical Azeri dish.  The north west of Iran is predominantly Azeri-speaking.  Babak is a gentle man and very relaxed.  After a very pleasant evening he suggests we might like to stay another night.  Our problem is we have arranged another Warm Showers host further along the coast for tomorrow night.  So we say our farewells.  The next morning he leaves early to his teaching job and we depart a little later to Hashtpar.

stop for a minute and four blokes will come along.....

To meet up with Farzan in Hashtpar we also have to ask someone to telephone for us. But this is not difficult in a country where people are interested in tourists, where they approach to ask where we are from.  We stop to drink water at the side of the road and before we know it four blokes appear with smiles and questions.  Farzan arrives in his car and invites us to follow him home through busy traffic.  Soon we are on the main road again and he follows us from behind, protecting us from onrushing cars.  It's a bit like being in the Tour De France, except there are cars and trucks whizzing past, we're not in France and no performance-enhancing drugs have been taken.  Gayle wins the green jersey for her sprint finish.

Farzan and Roxana live in a lovely spot out in the countryside surrounded by rice fields.  Next door are Farzan's parents and the families of his two brothers.  They are a big family - Farzan has 11 siblings - and his sisters are often at their parents'.  We are treated to a great lunch and, after a nap, we head off to Farzan's English school.  He came to the school to learn English, became a teacher, bought a share in the business, then bought the whole school.  Somewhere along the way he has worked for a Chinese company, and done his Masters in Law at Cardiff University.  Learning English is a big thing in Iran and it's accepted that learning at normal school is not enough, so parents pay for private lessons.  It turns out that there are seventeen English schools in Hashtpar alone.  We are taken around to each classroom to meet the students, introduce ourselves and invite questions.  The first night it is girls.  The age range is from about 7 to adult, and the questions vary according to the age group and their level of English.  We go several evenings, so meet the boys on the alternative days.  The popular questions are unsurprisingly how old are you, are you married, are you muslim, what's your favourite iranian food?  Farzan evidently brings all his guests here - so the students know they will get to meet foreigners and practice their conversational skills.  

the beginners' adult group
During the day we relax at the house and Roxana prepares some great food for us.  It's difficult to persuade her to let us wash up - sometimes she gives in to Gayle's insistence, but never to mine.  Despite Farzan's 'worldliness', the family are fairly traditional. Roxana only removes her headscarf in the home when I'm not there. His dad asks us who was Britain's greatest leader, a question that leaves us stumped.  He suggests Winston Churchill.  I laugh.  I always think of Winston as a drunken old colonialist.  In fact, when he was Prime Minister in the early 50's he asked the Americans to help bring about a change in Iran's government, since they had just nationalised Anglo-Iranian Oil (BP as was). The CIA arranged a coup to oust the Iranian prime minister, Mossadegh. It's stuff like this that gives the British a bad name in Iranian history.)

Farzan takes us out to see the Caspian coast. We end up at a beach backed by a large forest. But the beach looks scruffy to our eyes - it's not that long since we were in Greece. He tells us that it's much cleaner now, and he is really pleased. A while ago he took photographs of the beach covered in trash and sent a report to one of the newspapers, angering the local governor. It seems he regularly contributes articles to newspapers - some campaigning, some satirical. The environmental issue is poorly addressed in Iran. When we cycle we just see loads of litter strewn across the landscape, dumped in rivers, along the roadside, through the forest. It's startling. This is the dirtiest country we have visited on this journey. Farzan also tells us that Iran's gas consumption is about half of the total in Europe.

Farzan and his father
We have a few restful and pleasant days here and have fun at the English school in the evening.  We find ourselves slipping into a different circadian rhythmn - one not dictated by the sun, but by the hours kept by our hosts.  Typically they don't go to bed before 1am.  Thankfully they are not early risers and the afternoon nap helps keeps us sane too.  We discover that the back wheel on Gayle's bike has a tell-tale bulge.  The rim is worn and needs replacing.  We finally set off to Rasht with the hope of finding a bike shop there to get it repaired.  Our hosts try to persuade us to stay longer, but we have finally committed ourselves to leaving. 

Saturday, 8 March 2014

welcome to the islamic republic of iran!

This is typical of Iranian officials, we reckon.  At the border we are directed to the passenger crossing, (when normally we are directed through with vehicles) and because the place is packed with Azeris who know the system, and we are dumb innocent tourists, an Iranian border official helpfully leads us through the crowd to one of the immigration officers in his booth.  Incidentally, for anyone who has watched Argo, as we have recently, no-one has a beard, no-one is armed, and no-one is looking angry, except when a few sly Azeris try to jump the queue.  We feel momentarily guilty for having been given permission to queue-jump, but this is quickly assuaged when the immigration officer waves us away to the seats at the back.  We can wheel our bikes through to customs but must wait back in the 'arrivals' hall.  Meanwhile our passports have been stamped and taken through to a backroom.  We wait over an hour.  We watch the same men shuffling package after package through to the customs area, under the noses of all the officials.  Nothing is being checked, but there's a shifty manner about it all.  After shunting half a truckload of goodness knows what, the acivity suddenly ceases.  A glimpse through to the customs area and we see a uniformed man with gold braid having a gander.  As soon as he retreats back into his office, the package-shunting activity resumes with gusto.  

Finally we are waved through and asked to follow an immigration officer, but not before our panniers are looked through (Gold Braid has just reappeared).  In a back room a man and woman with a black box are awaiting us.  The Fingerprint Team.  They are friendly and polite.  The box is opened up, forms are produced, black ink is rolled on a plate and the man invites me to step forward to have my wrist borken.  At least that's what I think he's trying to do, although he indicates that I need to relax while he fingerprints me in rather a smudgy cack-handed way.  Just for fun (he's seen me wincing, each time he rolls my fingers this way and that), he repeats the process.  Next, the woman steps up and invites Gayle over to the black box.  She clearly lacks practice in the technique and so, despite all the gender rules, the other guy and I help to get Gayle fingerprinted.  After a quick wash, and a nice cup of tea all round, we are then quizzed by a plain-clothes policeman who has been looking through our passports.

"You are from Ireland, yes?"
"No. We're English. From England. Britain. Great Britain. The United Kingdom."
Good grief. "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland."
"Yes, Ireland?"
"No. British."
The officer looks non-plussed.  He's filling out a form in farsi.  Looking at me, he asks "The city of your birth?"
"Poulton. Poulton-le-Fylde"
"Poulton?" He looks at the others to see if they've heard of it. Blank. Can't blame them really. He asks again: "City of birth?"
"Yes, city of birth" Now I'm talking pidgin too.  I show him the details page on my passport.  Poor bloke.

"Purpose of visit?"
So, at this point, after a waste of two hours hanging around, putting blurry paw prints on paper, and being asked needlessly dumb questions, you don't want to get flippant and start making jokes about espionage and fomenting revolution, do you? Or do you? (A few days later another cyclist tells us that at the Turkmenistan border they asked him "Are you a spy?"  Maybe I missed the James Bond movie "Tailwind to Tartary" where 007 cycles into Central Asia to foil those pesky secret nuclear arms dealers played by Eric Cantona in long beard and a shaven-headed Ray Winstone.

"Tourism" we chorus.
He smiles, hands over our passports and says "Welcome to the Islamic Republic of Iran."

Needless to say, so I'll say it needlessly, no photos were taken to illustrate this blog.

Friday, 7 March 2014

moving on

With fresh visas in our passports, a few extra pounds on our waistlines, and a good feeling about the future possibilities of teaching English abroad, we say goodbye to Pamela and Joe.  Our departure takes us back along the busy road to the bus station.  We decided to bus it to Lankaran, almost all the way to the border with Iran, so as to make the most of our time in Baku and to dodge what sounds like quite uninspiring landscape.  There are the usual shenanigans at the bus station as we negotiate our bikes onto a bus.  One is about to leave when we turn up and a small group of men surround us to watch as we struggle to squeeze the bikes into a baggage compartment that is just too small.  The bus driver finally waves us away and drives off, leaving us to the mercy of a tall Russian with a minivan and a rather luxurious moustache, which seems to curl up at the ends when he smiles.  Being Russian, he only smiles when we ask about his price.  The moustache curls alarmingly when he mentions the figure of 40 manat.  Thankfully, the next bus pulls in and the driver is dead straight with us.
good credit if you've done the haj?

We coast southwards through a desolate wasteland beyond Baku before coming to farmland around Lankaran.  The mountains we saw in the distance approach the coastline as we get nearer to Iran. After a quick stop off for food (and a last bottle of beer), we start riding towards the border town of Astara along a ropey old road busy with trucks coming form Iran.  Lots of beeps and shouts and waves along the way.  The countryside is greener here, and we catch sight of tea bushes.  However, much of the land is fenced off or separated from the road by deep wide ditches so by the end of the afternoon we are struggling to find anywhere to camp.  As if by magic, surrounded by water-logged farmland, we come to a factory and hotel.  Not sure why it's here, but we are happy.  It's small and cheap enough and the only sound at night are the strange cries of wild animals outside.

We know we haven't done a lot of cycling since we left Turkey - so anyone reading this and expecting to find a nitty-gritty account of mud and gore as we cross the Caucasus in winter may have been disappointed.  For us, the wild camping has been a highlight of our journey so far, but we're not hardy enough for successive nights of sub-zero temperatures, grey skies and barren scenery.  We would like to return to Georgia one day at another time of year, with boots and backpack, to explore the mountains and we also want to visit Armenia. Another day, another journey......

Thursday, 6 March 2014


the arrival

It's Monday evening and dark when we arrive in Baku.  Taxi drivers lurk around the bus and try to lure us away with offers of "London taxi".  In the gloom we can see a line of Hackney Carriages lined up nearby.  We load up the bikes and pedal towards the exit.  In the distance we can see the highway into town on a bridge curling up and away.  Taxi drivers helpfully point the way to go - into the fast-flowing traffic.  Fortunately the main rush-hour is over but we both get a big adrenaline jolt as we hit the main road and find ourselves on a big downhill into the city centre.  We are flying along and luckily the big roads give the chunky 4X4s and buses plenty of room to zoom past.  At a big roundabout we have to turn left and Gayle hesitates as an old car trundles into our path.  But it's only a Lada.  We cut it up.  In this town you have to know your Ladas from your Pajero. 

on the waterfront

the english language teachers

with Joe and Pamela
Pamela and Joe live in the centre in a nice old appartment with their shy and retiring cat, Kedi.  It's six years since we last saw them in Istanbul and they haven't changed.  They are extremely welcoming, relaxed and thoughtful.  We feel so at home with them.  Sometimes people ask us whether we ever feel the need to stay in a luxury hotel on our journey for some 5 star comfort, but being with Joe and Pamela trumps this by a mile.  They are teaching 6th form kids in their foundation year at the Diplomatic Academy which has been upgraded to a university.  This is their second year and it's a great chance for us to talk to them and hear about their experiences in TEFL.  They work full-time but we get together in the evenings and have time at the weekends.

the city

gas is cheap here...
Our days are relaxed here and it's lovely to have the comfort of a lounge and kitchen for cooking different meals.  The only problem is that we can't remember the meals we used to cook at home.  Baku is a busy city and the centre is a notch up on the rest of the towns we have seen in Azerbaijan.  Of course, the oil boom is responsible for this.  The old walled city is still in very good condition and showing signs of restoration.  It managed to survive the Mongol Hordes, unlike other Central Asian cities on the old Silk Road.  Surrounding it are wide avenues and streets lined with grand early 19th century mansions and buildings.  The first oil boom here brought entrepeneurs and businessmen from Europe.  One lasting impact on the downtown area was their desire to have trees and parks.  The land here is barren and infertile so earth and plants all had to be imported.  And water had to be piped in from the mountains to keep the trees and grass growing.  

The city has continued to grow and a second oil boom since independence has brought immense wealth to some.  The signs of this are in the designer shops and the showy new buildings going up all over the place.  There are the three towers that each represent a flame, the largest flagpole in the world down on the promenade. Oh, sorry, the second-largest.  Someone else has pipped it.  Aside form brand-new appartment blocks there's also been a bit of a nifty makeover for some of those ugly Soviet appartment blocks - a sandstone facade with columns, arched balconies, decorative rooflines. The city does look well on it.

the filth

There are wide one-way streets criss-crossing the city and we have been warned to watch out for bad driving.  Pamela and Joe were shown a video nasty of pedestrians being mown down by careless drivers in their big cars.  One day, as we walk down one of the main roads, we cross a small side street and walk into the welcoming arms of a polite policeman who speaks a little English.  After greeting us, he points out an underpass to us and tells us we should have used it.  The penalty for non-use is 20 Manat (about 20 Euros). Are you serious? we ask.  It is obvious the underpass is for crossing the five-lane road, not the silly little side street, but this joker has a uniform and the power.  Can he see our identity cards?  Miraculously, we are carrying our passports because we need to get some photocopies.  He looks through them.  We are conscious that we have not registered our stay in Azerbaijan, a new requirement for tourists who stay longer than 3 days.  The first we heard of this was here in Baku - we have already been here longer than that so we are already too late to register.  There is a potential fine of 400 Euros.  So the policeman's next question makes me feel nauseous: When did we arrive in Azerbaijan?  He nods at the answer and taps something into his mobile phone.  He's using a translator: he is letting us go with a warning.  Our guidebook seems to be right - not much sign of crime here. Obviously the police are far too good at their job.

the flames
the consular official

"You want to visit Uzbekistan? What for?" The consul's question throws us for a moment. "Tourism!" we remember.  He looks at us over his glasses. "Not football?" Gayle replies "I don't like football." "Hmm, no visa for you then."  Oh how we laugh.  You never know in a consulate what you're up against.  This man is a cheery chap who introduces us to his Uzbek-born Azeri secretary.  "She's very intelligent.........when she's asleep" There's a drumroll and cymbal off-stage.  We fill out the forms.  "Come back in seven to ten days"  This time he's not joking.

the twelth man

There's a statue beside the national football stadium in honour of a man who took part in England's 1966 World Cup victory against West Germany.  Without him, England might well have lost.  Not only is there a statue, but they've even named the stadium after him.  His name is Tofiq Behramov, but he is better known as The Russian Linesman. He was Azeri. There is an apocryphal story on Wikipedia which tells that Behramov, when asked why he gave the goal, simply replied "Stalingrad".


the students

Joe and Pamela invite us to give a short presentation to their classes.  The university campus is brand spanking new and the facilities are excellent.  The students we meet are in their foundation year and their university courses will all be in English.  Pamela and Joe teach only the speaking and listening aspect whilst local Azeri teachers teach the reading and writing.  As promised, the students are very well-behaved and respectful.  We get an opportunity to sit in on two of Joe's classes and it's fascinating.  I've been reading about how classrooms were arranged in Classical Greek times - in a horseshoe with the teacher at the back and a place at the front for students to present their arguments - and this is how it is here in Joe's class.  The majority of students are confident and eager to speak,and after we show some photos and give a brief introduction of what we are doing they quiz us.