It’s early in the morning, ten past four to be precise, when I land in Tehran. Getting out of Istanbul was a doddle, but my immense randomness hit me again in the face. I had planned to load up on cash at the airport, some dollars and some euros, as I had seen that there were cash machine that were dispensing both on the way in.
Stupidly, having already checked in on line, I head for security and go through without a hitch. The hitch less state lasts only temporarily as I discovered there are no ATM past security. In the end I manage to look sorry enough to get escorted back out, probably in violation of several Turkish and international aviation regulations, to go and get a bit of money from one of those famous cash machines I knew the existence of.
This search for money is inspired by the fact that, thanks to my cronic un preparedness, I don’t know if I can get money out of an ATM in Iran, moreover I needed money, I do not know how much, to pay for the visa on arrival.
As it turns out you can neither pay for stuff with credit cards or easily get money out with a credit card in Iran, something that, I’m sure, even the most quality less guide would have told me on page 1.
Anyway, armed with $100 and €150 I land in Iran. I have money but that is only the first half of my worries. Iran is under close scrutiny from the international community and also under a severe sanction regime. This means that the Iranian authorities are less than impressed with people coming from abroad. USA citizens cannot move about the country unless accompanied, Israelis or anybody that has an Israeli stamp on the passport cannot come in at all, British and Canadians need to apply for tourist visas well in advance and most other countries can get a visa on arrival, but still have to fork out a bunch of cash for it.
It is for this reason that I do my best Jason Bourne impression and change identity from Alex the Scottish to Alex the Italian mid air over IRAQ. It all goes well and, nearly €100 euro lighter, I get my visa and proudly entere the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is five of clock by now and I have a taxi booked for six o’clock in the morning. While I am waiting at the rendezvous point I get accosted by Maria, a girl from Madrid taking a break from her international relations studies in Istanbul and going a couple of weeks around Iran. We talk for an hour or so while we wait the ride that I offer her to join. We tackle a wide variety of subjects including long distance relationships which, we agree, are much easier in this millennium, her girlfriend is a journalist back in Madrid, than they were in the other one, when I was finishing my degree in Italy and Tarn was in Scotland.
As well as the lively conversation I also enjoy the fact I get to exercise my Spanish a bit, I’ll need it badly next fall as I make my way down through central and southern America. We exchange details in the cab and I leave her to get taken to her hostel after the driver leaves me at mine. These chance encounters are one of the thing I enjoy the most about this gypsy life of mine. It’s eight o’clock in the morning by the time I get to the hostel and, much as I would love to sound totally macho and say I was ready to conquer the town, the only thing I am ready for is sleeping.
I wake up at midday. Tehran must be among the most polluted and chaotic cities in the world, cars are everywhere, they have no respect for any trafic laws and the space between cars is filled by motorbikes or scooters. However, on every person’s bucket list there should be: “crossing a major road in Tehran” and “taking public transport in Tehran”, they are truly a life changing (could be life ending) experiences. So, on day one I go to Azadi Square, experiencing both walking around and taking the metro in Tehran.
In the evening I join up with a bunch of other travellers and go to a smoke house to try the Ghalyan, the traditional liquid filtered tobacco pipe they use in the middle east.
What I also do is to get more flesh onto an idea I had developed in Greece, why not go skiing in Iran? In order to do that I have to overcome a new set of obstacles, well, just one really, I needed more money. After some research I discovere the existence of a Mr Hussaini who could magic Iranian money out of westerner plastic. To be found at the Iranian Money Exchange in Ferdowai Square, Mr Hussaini turns out to be an extremely nice young man that got his degree at John Moore University in Liverpool.
As well as giving me $150 and 3,000,000 Rial (Iranian money comes with a lot of zeros but three mils are just about $75) we have a great chat about Iran, sanctions, politics and veils. Nothing beats the learning you get by talking to the people on the ground. This first hand contact is the real red pill to get us out of the matrix built around us by our rather unfree media.
So I have money now, enough for a taxi and back from the slopes ($90), for the ski pass ($30), for the full skiing gear ($30) and for some food on the slopes. I’m going to Dizin. Reeza, not the faintest on weather this is the right spelling of his name, is my ride up the mountain, I get a slight discount as he is not so much a registered taxi driver as the guy who is going to manage the hostel up there for the next three months. We have nearly three hours to get to know each other, three hours of full blown education on Iran. The hostel is nice, not dissimilar from the one down in Tehran, the village is really skanky, not a shade of resemblance with the chocolate box villages you find on the Alps or on the Rockies.
We get to Dizin early in the afternoon and just after three we are joined by Jack, Mike and Kacie, three Australian who had just finished a day of ski. Jack, from Perth, had snowboarded before, but Mike and Kacie, from Brisbane, not only had not skied/snowboarded before, they had not even seen the snow before coming to Dizin.
We have a nice evening, chatting away and eating an Australian style pasta the folks back home would have had a few things to remark on and, befire I know skiing day is upon me. All kitted out I get to the slopes with Mike and Kacie, Jack having decided to get back to Tehran. Kacie also decides not to ski and just stay in the chalet reading while Mike and I are out enjoying the day. It is slightly snowing and for a little time we fear we might not get to ski at all, but then we get our passes and get on the slopes. The snow is perfect, a four inches powder coating on a firm base of snow means that, almost effortlessly, we descend as if off piste. In the afternoon some little mounds of snow accumulate, but they were light in nature and therefore pose no threat to either limbs or the opportunity of having fun.
A great day. By the end of it my quads are running a bit on fumes, but it is only to be expected when you ski once every two years. We get back to the hostel just a tad after three and I am on my way back to Tehran by four thirty.
The taxi driver this time is only speaking farsi and therefore there is little chatting on the way down. Back to the hostel I spend the evening chatting away with other travellers, mostly European or Australian, and after a well deserved rest I’m ready to take off again, now, on my way to the United Arab Emirates.