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.

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