The Onion Road

Iranian Azerbaijan

The prudent and experienced traveller would know better than waking up any immigration officer quietly sleeping on two chairs at 6 am, and more so when your papers must be done in a certain way. One can expect many reactions, and only a little share of them being pleasant. But Iran is a land of surprises and the poor bloke reacts in a very unexpected way to my shy passport tapping on the window: he wakes up, looks surprised and extends his arm through the hole to shake my hands and welcome me to his country. This is an absolute first. He quickly stamps me in then accompanies me to the custom officer, himself asleep, who asks me to be patient and wait for an hour, and I discover later that he basically wanted me to wait in a warm and comfortable place for the commercial office to open. In the latter office the same arm-extended-through-the-hole-to-shake-my-hand process is repeated and my motorcycle is stamped in in record time. Not a glance to the content of 126 litres of aluminium cases where alcohol could be hidden, and my thoughts go to the last drop of Dahlwinnie that I poured in the garden an hour before to avoid problems, a couple of minutes before discovering that two kleenexes can act as coffee filters when one is really desperate.

Independent travellers on the road are forced to take almost any possible hitch into account when planning the way to reach a town with a hotel before dark: traffic, bad weather, potholes, police, poor roads, curious natives and last but not least getting lost. This is especially true in a country that uses an alphabet that looks like Pollock’s footnotes after another bottle of the good one, an alphabet that you started to study the night before and you are stuck at the letter b (conveniently enough ab means water, a word I barely use far from a sink). But one always meets the unexpected and this came in the shape of sheep, not efficiently grouped into single big herds but scattered in small suicidal groups hiding behind corners and seeming to have a penchant for the border line along the river Arras between Persia and Armenia and Azerbaijan. It takes a little bit of history to know why beautiful Seleucid bridges crossing the river end under a check tower presiding over an endless double line of very high barbed wire: this was once the extreme southern border of the mighty Soviet Union. Parts of the land over the river was once Azerbaijan and was later conquered by Armenians with the result that now the villages are a pile of sad walls that host bullets not merely used for target practice. So basically one drives with military devastation to the north and civil devastation to the south, because the Kurds follow a very rare aesthetic sect that tends to give importance to nothing we westerners value. If Persian urban architecture follows this pattern, we are in for a sad trip. Fortunately the Arras canyon is rarely straight and it’s tremendously exciting to ride on these curves.

The second unexpected problem was that the German map did not agree with both, the road signs and the natives’ opinion: the actual turn S was some 30 clicks farther east than expected and the first impression of the area to cross was far from Kentish, but rather Alpish. Indeed the grey strip, after half an hour of playing with green hills and villages of debatable charm, gave a muscular turn for the up and entered the realm of fog and snow, fortunately leaving glimpses of amazing views to compensate for the astonishing cold. This was not in the brochure. My first target of the day was an Azeri fortress said to be of huge sentimental value to these people, once mastering a great land, now forced to see their cities in three different nations, one of which occupied by hated Christians. I therefore expected some graphic help to detect the ruins along the way but was bitterly disappointed and I had to ask scores of villagers to reach a phenomenally sad road corner where a derelict sign invited the adventurous traveller to climb two hours along a snow covered path to reach a pile of rubble (the locals unwisely put a picture of the place, thus killing any desire to dismount the bike). I dutifully steered towards my first Iranian kebab, not too shabby.

Tabriz lies at the southern edge of a vast and wind-beaten plateau surrounded by snowy peaks one could fall in love with at first sight. Small villages were scattered around and there was a fair amount of coming and going of blue pick-up tracks loaded with two classes of things, one alive and the other rotting. Zanjan trucks come with the same variety of the old Ford-T models: you can buy it on any colour you want, provided it’s blue. And a deep blue at that. My love for sturdy and practical vehicles on two wheels were rewarded very often, because it was the only vehicle around.

In the days of Bouvier, the villages were still owned by wealthy landowners living in Tabriz. Then the Shah had a stroke of genius and invented a smart land reform: he decided that the owners had to declare a value for their land. It’s not part of pastoral culture to declare very high values for one’s land, because the word tax is probably coming next, so they declared a very low one. And the Shah paid them off at that value and gave the land to the farmers, financing the operation with oil revenues.

The government bought the land from the feudal land lords at what was considered to be a fair price and sold it to the peasants at 30% below the market value, with the loan being payable over 25 years at very low interest rates. This made it possible for 1.5 million peasant families, who had once been little more than slaves, to own the lands that they had been cultivating all their lives. Given that average size of a peasant family was 5, land reforms program brought freedom to approximately 9 million people, or 40% of Iran’s population.

Land reforms have had enormous historical, social and economical value everywhere in the World, with peasants finally finding new incentives to grow and market their own products. The shah’s plan was actually more practical – to weaken the landlords and get the badly needed support from the masses. Here in my humble opinion (and that of the Mullah, actually, who always lived well thanks to the landowner’s money) the reform did not deliver. The peasants are not good at distribution and even worst at marketing, so they ended up taking the goods to the immense Tabriz bazaar, thus making it a buyers market and filling the pockets of the usual lot. Indeed the peasants soon forgot the gift and partied lavishly when the Revolution arrived.

Wishful thinking is a faithful companion of the biker, and we tend to think that dark clouds are rarely full of rain. But this is rarely the case and soon the plateau was as drenched as yours faithfully, and it’s a certain fact that, if very wide and miserable cities are unnerving in the sun, they are sidereal sad in the rain. It was pure stroke of luck to take me to the door of a very warm hotel with a brilliant hotel manager eager to barter.

  Cafè au lait

The Tabriz Blue Mosque was my first touch with Iranian Islamic heritage, and if the whole thing was once covered with the spectacular tiles left around the entrance gate, what a splendid thing it must have been. Unfortunately earthquakes tend to have scarce respect for religious buildings, even if they tend to be politically correct about it, destroying democratically churches, mosques and Buddhist temples alike. Restored in 1951, it’s still an interesting sight, more so for the nominal entrance fee and for the fact that, being the man at the booth more interested in the football game on TV, I could go around with my boots on and take all the pics I wanted. So much for Islamic extremism.

Tabriz bazaar, positioned right on any possible variation of the Silk Road, is one of the best or Iran. Before the Soviet started that bad habit of sealing borders to prevent their fellows to escape, this was the richest city of the whole country, and beyond. But Stalin and the Suez Canal were deadly. Moribund in the 50s, it’s hardly a booming city now. But the bazaar itself is grand. More than 11 kilometres of vaulted alleys, 22 Caravanserais, and thousands of shops. The shoppers and travellers go to a bazaar to buy goods, so they rarely find a reason to get out of the crowded alleys or the vaulted halls. But the bazaar is actually managed and stocked through the outside courts, the caravanserais, where one can still imagine the camels roaming around like in the old days.

A bazaar is a combination of disturbingly packed and cafè-au-lait-brick-vaulted covered alleys, wider and less asphyxiating halls sometimes doubling up as mosques known as gates, and semi-deserted courts, often with a garden in the middle and surrounded by pleasant porticos, named kervansarais. Although much more beautiful and inviting, the lack of goods in the courts forces people to squeeze in the halls and alleys, and actually they probably prefer to do so. Close contiguity seem not to bother Persians and Azeris, who appear to possess a stronger gravity: I bet that if one should throw a bunch of bipeds on the ground, Persians would clump tightly and fast while Swedes would be evenly spaced around the available area. I tend to prefer the Scandinavian style and find annoying the local love for proximity.

The whole structure of the Tabriz bazaar is made of cafè au lait bricks – columns, vaults, arches, windows… the lot, and I cannot but wonder how wonderful it would be if deserted and emptied of the merchandise that is, for the most part, simply horrible.

Apart from what is sold in the shops, very few things changed along the centuries, and even if the distribution efficiency of the structure is clearly appalling, the chance for modern supermarkets to replace them is fortunately low, mainly because the merchants will never allow a modern supermarket to open close by. Still, progress is reckless and I submit a series of suggestions that might help levantines to keep this institution flourish. Even if the reckless efficiency of Safeways will be artificially kept away, the managers of bazaar should keep in mind that our overcrowded planet is unlikely to be able to support such amazing quantities of humans, all eager to be lightened of the burden of their precious savings…

First of all it’s good to keep in mind that a fake Prada has the same production and distribution costs of a fake Zara, so sellers of the latter article could well invest five dollars in a copy of Vogue and choose more wisely when buying. They also should know that the Nike logo runs rightwards and not the other way round, which is frankly disturbing.

The second advice is to decrease the number of operators from 1 to 0,1 every square metre. A dozen of shops one after the other all selling the same bottom-of-the-line, china made crappy toys, each with a seller, is simply foolish.

The last, and main, piece advice is to transform the wonderful buildings around the courts in hotels. This is what a caravanserai was supposed to be in the first place, right? They would be a smashing success: a bar under the portico, a pool in the leafy gardens, suites behind the vaulted windows on the first floors and the communal halls on the second floor.

Location and sausages

Civilization can be boiled down into three basic concepts: music, sausages and location. Salzburg springs to my mind as a blessed spot, while Yaoundè in my humble opinion is hardly the place where I’d grow my daughters with high hopes of making them two Nobel prizes. In a multidimensional graphic with these three variables, Persians have their own league sausage-wise, are far from brilliant in the realm of music (but certainly higher up than the Balkans) while they seem to show high marks in location. Quoting Unesco: Takht-e Soleyman is an outstanding ensemble of royal architecture, joining the principal architectural elements created by the Sasanians in a harmonious composition inspired by their natural context. Even after the Babak Castle fiasco, the place looked promising and a long detour was mapped. And it was worth it.

First of all, the place is on the road between Takab and Zandjan, that crosses the wildest parts of the Azerbaijani plateau. Faraway peaks, endless meadows, deep blue skies and rolling hills, dotted with pastoral villages – the lot. Then a volcanic spring in the middle of nowhere creating a round dark blue lake. No wonder Zoroastrians built here a temple dedicated to fire and water.

The citadel lies very close to the road and is protected by walls, and I expected to see coaches with Japanese tourists around. I was luckily mistaken, because the place was empty apart from the archaeologists, who not only did not even bother to collect the 30cents entrance fee, but invited me to tea and biscuits by the stove. The temple and the ruins, still to be completely excavated, are not particularly impressive, but what makes the place magnificent is the fact that one just wants to sit there and ponder mysticism. There are places where human culture is detached from nature, yes, but this is not one of them, and that’s the beauty of it. This place was built to make humans feel divine and I hardly felt more in touch with nature than in this epicentre of historic heritage.

Only, the loneliness bliss comes at a price: I was starving to death…

I did not expect such a deserted culinary scene close to a Unesco heritage site. True, even reading the words McDonald in the same page of Takht-e suleyman make my liver bleed, but once you discover the Chelow Kabab and the Khofta Tabrizi, the Persian version of sausages and hamburger, you want to keep discovering and I was still cuddling the idea that a kebab could be found in almost every corner.

I might be alone in this idea, but what a biped does with minced meat is not a marginal point in culture. And Persians are no lesser men… on the contrary, the foolish Muslim prohibition to eat pigs gave them an excuse to explore new ways to perfection the preparation of minced meat. Chelow kabab does this in two ways: the highly spiced minced meat is flattened, to ease broiling, and the ‘sausages’ are lined up with a skewer. Once broiled, and only char is accepted bless them, the skewer is placed into a folded piece of flat bread (every town has its own kind) with a shovelful of raw onions, broiled tomatoes and some rice, then the iron is extracted and voilà… As long as you do not have to kiss somebody, and this is highly unlikely to happen in Iran, satisfaction is guaranteed. Another tasty and very civilized use of minced meat is the kofta tabrizi, a marvel of her own: the meatball is the size of a tennis ball, if not bigger, and the spices are smothered by leaks and rice, but the true marvel is the prune in the exact middle. The fruit keeps the core moist and gradually gives a sweet taste while you dig in, so at every centimetre the taste changes a bit.

I enjoyed every metre of the highway between Takab and Zanjan, spectacular in every sense, with green pasture giving to high mountain terrain, then down to red and grey desert wastes, then up again to steep red hills and finally down to the main valley of North-western Iran, where Zanjan lies. It was women’s praying day and a river of black veiled women was streaming out of the mosque towards the bazaar. The atmosphere, far from being dictated by the dark veils, was joyous and chatty. And not much can a chador against make-up and high heels. Young women and girls were simply flashy – ok, maybe for lack of comparison – and a great number of them was in the make-up section of the bazaar plotting ways to appear even more flashy and perfumed. The shops here have bottles of essences and mix up their own brand on demand, the way old pharmacists did in the old days with medicines.

Vegan social diet

According to the guide, the charming village of Masuleh is one of the most beautiful in Iran and not to be missed. I always forget that Australians have a very peculiar idea of ‘charming village‘ and that even a small urban disaster is charming compared to a sun-bleached, dust-pestered and child-designed outpost in the outback. In a sense it’s true that if most houses have the same shape and colour the total effect is positive, as suburban England demonstrates, but the individual dwellings of Masuleh are architectural Siberia and one wonders why with all the available space in the country they chose a peculiarly dark, asfixiating and steep valley to place the ‘most charming village of the country‘. And I had all the advantages to get a wonderful experience. The road from the freezing plateau plunged into a himalayan set of gorges where temperature raised dramatically and I was nearly ready to sleep on the first bench, but soon reality set in. With strong northerly winds all the moisture of the Caspian sea, which is big, is blocked by the mountains towering over the impressive gorges, and chataracts down. The coastal plain was drenched and every mile in the cold rain made my Masuleh expectation wilder. I dreamt of small brick houses and warm fireplaces on top of winding roads in Japanese forests… Indeed the road was very nice and climbing from rice fields to thickly forested valleys was a pleasant change of views, and even the first sight of the village, where snow was falling, was of near-japanese perfection. The tiny parking lot was basically on the snow line, I could not go furher even if there were a road. But at closer inspection each single house, taken individually, was a dreadful sight and could hardly be defined welcoming. And the hotel, emptier than the Sahara, was in that particular moment the coldest place outside Antarctica. The clerk, hidden behind a wall in a stupendously kitsch lounge, had a stove under the desk and was evidently reticent in sharing its effect. I was a dripping block of snow and water and was shown a room that – aestethics wise – was acceptable in case of thermonuclear war, but was even colder than the lobby.

‘Heating?’

‘What?’

‘Brrrrrrr’

‘5’

‘You have another one of those stoves?’

‘No’

From what I understood the heating was timed to start at five and he monopolized the only source of heat of the region. The hotel was massive and before warming up I would have been dead, so I gave Masuleh a thankful miss and headed down to Rasht where I was ready to pay London rates for a stable with an ox and a hifer.

Only, in the perfect middle of nowhere, in pitch darkness and staggering cold, the bike just switched off.

What the hell am I doing here?

When things reach the bottom they invariably must improve after a cigarette.

Most of the passing cars evidently belonged to local peasants and I did not want to spend the night in a real stable if it could be avoided. But the first ‘normal’ car, albeit rather big, stopped by and the two young fellows, in rapid succession:

  • invited me in the leather back seat that was welcomingly warm;

  • called an english-speaking friend who told me not to worry and that she would have taken care of things;

  • arranged road assistance;

  • carried me to the nearest town where a young interpreter was waiting for me;

  • carried both back to the bike to assist in the rescuing operation;

  • carried both back to town explaining, not without a certain pride, that they managed websites for the illegal distribution of rock music, making them instant heroes for my young interpreter Ali-Reza.

This is how I found myself in the hands of a young Iranian university student who had the world open through myself and wanted me to discover his own version of it. He did not probably understood very well that I was frozen to the bone and every cloth I wore was drenched, and the first places we visited was the tea-house where I would have parked the bike.

Many of his friends were there, smoking narghilè, which is the main occupation of Iranians under 30. We were an instant success, of course, and questions started to pour, amid smirks and jokes they did between themselves. The place was cold but the tea very welcome. Iranians do not put sugar in their tea, but rather dip a small lump of white sugar in the tea then swallow it, and afterwards drink the liquid. I suppose they kind of mix the stuff in their mouth but this topic I was unwilling to investigate further. You really need to love sugar to do that, and I stuck to my habit. Only it was usually very hard to do so because teaspoons are unknown for the very simple reason that no one uses them… So each time I was offered a tea, and there were many, I blessed my very long lighter…

The first thing I discovered was that the locals are more interested in my impressions of Iran rather than to have news of the outside World, which they consider perfect by default. The second is that they are very interested in what you think of them. I mean, the real them, the individuals. True enough, in our culture this is something we never dare to ask. In Iran the young generation is more straightforward and uses a very direct question: ‘What do you think of me?’ This is, at times, distressing. Maybe it’s a way to underline their misery, to read in someone else’s eyes a vein of pity. Indeed the life of an Iranian teenager, especially outside Teheran, is siderally sad.

The decalogue of rules they have to respect is very high, and basically they live on a vegan social diet: everything funny is forbidden. Drinking, rock music, dancing, womanizing, the internet, books, movies, protesting and speaking badly of the government, indeed what makes up 90% of a western teenager time, are all illegal activities. What is left is very far from the commonly shared (even if decadent) idea of fun: converging under a tent to chat, play domino and smoke tobacco from water pipes with males only. Rich kids have much more scope and have access to the internet and a nice car, but the relations with the opposite sex are far from easy anyway. In my day and a half in the warm company of AliReza in Fuman we visited around 6 different tea houses to smoke tobacco, which they consider much healthier that my stinky cigarettes. Each tea house has a couple of very gentle blokes who basically spend their day smashing tobacco and balancing hot coals very close to their fingers. These guys know how to manage fire. They all seem to know each other, which is probably the case as they spend very long hours in tea houses. I would not venture to say that all the blokes here have a very gentle expression in their eyes and are kind and well behaved, no, but surely they tend to be a good bunch. When Alireza, my guardian angel, arranged to leave my bike for the night in the tea house, Hussein the house manager, and incredibly sweet and gentle man, was simply I was forcing upon him a tremendous responsibility, so I converged the idea that no one could possibly be interested in huge motorcycle, illegal in their country, and with electronic problems. Apparently it would have been out of the question to park the bike on the street, as thieves are said to abound, but my naïve impression was that of a very safe place.

Alireza’s family was amazingly welcoming, and the house was tasty warm, I could not ask for better fortunes. I ate with my host and his father, while I only caught a few glimpses of the mother, who looked like a Bacio Perugina and appeared to manage all the house with stuff hidden under her coloured chador. Alireza’s dad showed me the pictures of his days at the war with Iraq and faced everything with a benign smile and an imperturbable calm. He did not speak a word of English but sometimes it was easier to understand his expressions than the revolutionary garglings of Alireza. Young Iranians, crushed between numberless rules and western myths, are like a new floor of a building that has been moved by an earthquake a couple of metres to the left: enough to disconnect water, electricity, even elevators and close the stairs, and forcing their dreams through an illegal satellite receiver. Their parents, on the floor underneath, wisely try to remind them that not all what shines is precious, and that many good things are in the lower floors, which here means Islam. The following day, when sun was back, strolling on a Caspian beach a gentleman in his 60s approached me and, after the usual invitation to lunch (repeated 3 times), was wonderfully clear on this subject and gave English syllabes to Alireza’s das thoughts…

MR ‘I was wondering is you agree that the youngsters here look unglued to the older society’

G ‘I totally agree with you, they give the external world for paradise’

MR ‘The long beards do not care at all?’

G ‘The problem is not that they do not care, the problem is that they are utterly unable to communicate the good part of islam’

MR ‘Bad marketing, so to speak?’

G ‘You can say that, yes…. more a question of age than of values’

MR ‘We have the same problem with the pope – press is good but marketing not’

G ‘Are you sure you do not want to come for lunch? We live very close by…’

every young iranian seems to have an immensely powerful computer with all possible installed software. Their life turns around the machine: they communicate, sing, have a virtual social life and exchange revolutionary songs. Alireza was no exception and let me hear all his music and his friend’s, which was basically rap music. Unfortunately there are very few things I hate as bad as rap music, but one has to show gratitude for someone who has just saved your life.

Other material contained in his chips were amateur videos taken during the protests of two years before, when all protests against the results of the alections were crushed badly by the police. The rumors about what actually happened and how many students were brutally killed or imprisoned afterwards are wild and hard to check. No one will ever know both, who really won that elections and how many people lost their life or freedom. Every Iranian I met know someone who has a bad story to report, or lost a friend. People simply vanished. This is not a country where one should speak freely, and in case you make a university exam it would be wise to freeze your Facebook account until you have the results… This is, to say the least, odd…

Pit Stop

The pit lane of Fuman, Gilan province, Iran, is not far from the main square, and a motorcycle can be easily pushed there from the central tea-house where shelter from the rain can be had thanks to the kindness of the house manager, Masoud. The pit area consists of two separate lanes, one for cars and one for light trucks. The first is high enough to accommodate car lifts so the workers could operate under the cars, but the Fuman circuit does not allow their use. This first lane was presently very busy so I had to push the bike to the second lane, that was composed of a low roof covering three rectangular pits in the ground allowing mechanics to work below the truck. Garage pits were in use in most developped countries until declared illegal. In Fuman they were not in use either, but probably because almost full of water. Another big difference between most pit lanes and Fuman’s is that access to the public is undeterred, or even favoured. Due to the lack of difference in dressing style between mechanics and bystanders, it’s not actually clear who the pilot is supposed to refer to. The third, and possibly main, difference with other circuits is the language, being English not very popular in Fuman workshop circles. The fouth diference lies in the heating system of the pits: fuman uses metal bowls, around a feet in diameter, where hot coals are placed and driftwood burned. It’s certainly efficient only from a very short distance, being the pits completely open to the freezing cold. The last disparity is in the total lack of tools here, at least in pit 2, and the basic instruments were ferried to and fro pit 1 by either mechanics or friends of thereof.

The appearance of a very heavy motorcycle in FPL did not create an instant sensation, probably due to the difficult weather conditions, but soon enough the pit was almost full of locals, none of them speaking English. The only one possessing these capabilities was my guide and friend Alireza, but his proficiency in mechanics was by far inferior to my proficiency with sign language. Soon a battery was brought in to try to revive my engine. The battery was ok but the cables were not exactly those we use in europe, they were a more simple version – a simple copper wire, and a thin one at that. I therefore showed my European efficiency showing the needed spare part, which I had with me, and asked for the tools I did not have in my (meagre) box. Soon Hussein began to stand off the crowd, and I could quite bet he was actually working on the spot, while most of the others seemed to be his friends. Hussein was working on other two vehicles at the same time, both derelict, one of which had to be pushed to be started. The average age of the cars in the pit was probably around 25. A heavy truck in the lot was said to be dating back to the war. Which one is hard to say. All the vehicles, apart from the low battery, were in perfect working conditions. None, I noticed, belonged to the era of electronic ignitions and controls, so I wondered what level of knowledge they possessed

Several bystanders were trying to communicate with me in the pit, almost everyone asking what did I think of Ahmadinejad and of them. Unfortunately my very pressing issues were first to start my bike second to warm up my hands, so the only thing I remember of the ‘concersation’ was that if you make thumbs-up, it means, well, thumbs-up! But if you show both thumbs in the direction of someone you are actually saying fuck off. Unfortunalety thumbs-up is one of those signs that one uses frequently anywhere and are considered by us infidels as ‘universal’. So I probably was very rude with a lot of people in my stay in Iran.

In the meantime Hussein was effortlessly flying from a vehicle to the other, always touching the exact parts with a problem. During these motions he was capable to let me understand that in case the bike was repaired, he was to take it around first, that was fine for me…

After around 40 minutes the spare part was replaced and the engine started immediately, creating an anthusiast and more or less endless series of high fives. Hussein therefore took his prize and, under the driving rain, left for the congested street, leaving me in a slight state of worry. This state could not but increase when I saw him pushing the bike back. We had evidently made a mistake in putting the pieces back together, and it took another half an hour to have it going for good. At this point the whole populace of the pit was very happy

Qazvin

No other place on earth can better demonstrate that the vision from up high is far from reality. Look at this city in the crisp (read freezing) air from the mountains or from the beautifully designed ring road and you basically have the LP map at your feet. Drive in and after 5 minutes you feel you are in another city. A police car stopped by the doumbfounded Italian to ask what is he looking for.

‘This hotel!’

‘Follow me sir’

And he guides me for 20 minutes in traffic to the hotel. And maybe tomorrow he’ll be out shooting students.

Teheran

If a downhill ski-racer should be assigned with the design of a megalopolis, Teheran would be the result. In winter he would be able to train very often, even starting from home, provided he’d be very well off, for the mansions and luxury apartments are climbing higher and higher up the sides of the Elborz mountains, which take half of the sky if one looks N. From there it’s a 30 km ride downhill towards the less fortunate neighbourhoods down in the desert. In his training he would have to deal with two major difficulties. The first is the temperature difference: snow is very unlikely to be present at the arrival. Indeed one could leave north Teheran blessing his down jacket but it’s extremely unlikely he’ll have the same feeling down there. The second is the heavy traffic on the racecourse. The natives’ favourite sport seems to consist of testing the tiniest side roads, being the major arteries in constant need of a bypass. For some strange reason, unknown to me, the locals are not eager to show you the classic LP sights when they ‘show you around the city‘. There might indeed be palaces and mosques, but I haven’t seen any. On the contrary I have seen many side roads taking to where one can meet ‘life‘, meaning friends, a favourite spot or a café. The concept of ‘public life’ is very tricky in Teheran. The number of rules one is expected to follow exceedingly high but they all share the same target: the annihilation of fun. True, we decadent westerners pushed the concept of fun a tiny winy step too far – suicidal jumps from hotels rooms at the 8th floor in the hope of surviving the impact with shallow pools is an activity that jumps to my mind – but Teheran can easily boast to represent an extreme among world capitals. Mojitos are in bar menus, I discovered, but one ingredient – guess which – was missing and substituted with soda. Bars with music are considered a risky avant-garde. The effusions between unmarried couples are so delicate to be imperceptible. But the real task here is to find a girlfriend to begin with. And be advised that it’s not for lack or penury of candidates. On the contrary, Iranian girls are smashing, and it looks like they use the time their western counterparts spend watching CSI to appear even more smashing. Suppose a whole province of flowers should compete for the attention of a single lazy bee, each individual plant would be far less proficient in attracting its attention than an Iranian girl. The shape of eyes cannot be changed, but lashes and eyebrows are devoted such surgical attention that one wonders if they do it themselves, and if so, how. I can barely find my nose with my right hand, while these girls would simply humble Durer in the application of substances on a live surface. 

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