It occurs to me that in my haste to write my previous post I didn't really discuss Iran as a country outside how it impacted on my cycling trip. A terribly narcissistic failing for which I beg forgiveness.

I find myself writing this 8000 miles away, two months removed and three countries later so I'll dispense with all pretense of punctuality and instead luxuriate in recalling this beguiling, contradictory country which often inspires so many opinions based on such little understanding.

[This is my way of apologising for the following self-indulgent wall of text. I trust the discerning reader will scroll on past and instead derive some pleasure from the pictures unspoilt by my blathering.]

The principle reason for the delay in updating my blog is as ever my own laziness; but an important contributory factor was Iran's banning of the mouthful that is blackdogbicycling.blogspot.com. I'd love to blame the subversive brilliance of my prose style and its all too obvious ability to inspire the overthrow of governments but alas the reality is more prosaic. Google's Blogger service, along with most social media and western traditional media is banned. (So a month without the BBC website, Guardian, Facebook, reddit or Skype beckoned).

The justification for this draconian censorship in the Islamic Republic of Iran is of course to protect the people from nasty western influence. [As opposed to the British governments nascent internet filtering which laughably claims to be protecting against child pornography - so let's not get feeling too smug] Coincidentally... these measures only became so heavy handed after 2005 under Ahmadinejad and escalated by his concern at the use of the web by the 2009 Green movement.

Here, as in so many areas of Iranian life the seemingly totalitarian government bears little resemblance to the day-today reality of its people. Iran is second only to Israel in its percentage of internet users in the region. Utterly amazing given it has a  population of over 75million, spread over a vast geographical area much of it rural, remote and either arid desert or rugged mountains. Not to mention the economic imbalance between the oil rich countries of the gulf and embargoed Iran. Yet neither ultra-developed UAE nor tiny Bahrain can hold a candle to its northern neighbor across the gulf.

As you might expect this large online population doesn't give a fig for the sanitized governmentally approved web and instead, through a combination of proxy servers and niche browsers, enjoys staying one step ahead of the censors. I'm not just talking here about the  tech-savy youth; old, young, rich, poor, conservative and liberal all seem equally relaxed and unconcerned about such trifles. "I'll add you on facebook" was almost as common a refrain in my many pleasant encounters all over the country as "where are you from" and "what do you think of Iran"?

It seems the wonderfully named (and presumably Tron inspired) Supreme Council of Virtual Space has an impossible job on its hands trying to make the filtering anything more than a fop to the conservative religious elites and a frustration for tourists like myself who aren't yet privy to the latest work-arounds. Still, it would take me only two weeks to get a browser blue-toothed across to my phone allowing me to get around the filter at my leisure.

In the meantime I was pleased to discover that viber worked and so I could call home and thank the family for an 'aid package' which I found waiting for me on my arrival in Tehran. Filled with an assortment of notepads, thermal tee-shirts, rizlas and socks I celebrated an early Christmas in the ridiculously luxurious surroundings of the Esteghlal International Hotel in northern Tehran.

And the weather obliged with a wonderfully white faux-Christmas!

Behind my beautiful accommodation, so at odds my usual impromptu camping digs, lay the reckless generosity and hospitality of Daryoosh Hazehtash and family who despite my protestations insisted on showering me with undeserved kindness. 

This extended so far as having the eldest son come and meet me at the railway station at 0500. While I was bleary eyed, the result of an overnight trip sleeping only intermittently despite the fold out beds in the old school elegance of a sleeper compartment clattering across the northern plain, Behnam was all bushy tailed bonhomie as he whisked me from the platform.

Anyone who has encountered the chaos of Tehran's traffic will know that his greeting must have been earnt by a considerably earlier departure on his part for which I was embarrassingly grateful. Not least because dawn was yet to break, it was pissing down with rain and we were informed that my bicycle wouldn't be available for pickup from the freight carriage for another three hours. Not the ideal conditions to appreciate new and exciting world capital but Benhaim, unconcerned, whisked me away into the darkness with promises of food. With most places not opening until 0700 a combination of my sleep deprived state and Behnam's classic Iranian hospitality saw us begin an ill advised walk up the Darband hiking trail. 

It was still dark and our drive from southern Tehran (older and lower) to Northern Tehran (newer, more affluent and in the foothills of the Alborz mountains) had seen the rain replaced by sleet and then snow as we rose. (The altitude disparity between the lowest and highest point of the city is a whopping 900m) Having responded unthinkingly with "How about heading into the mountains to find a spot to see the sunrise over Tehran" to a polite inquiry into what I might like to do we stepped out into the early morning. Undeterred but unprepared we ascended together chatting as the snow feel on Benhaims unjumpered shoulders alongside keen early worm hikers with walking poles. Fifteen minutes up the twisting path sided by still closed cafes we came to our senses and beat a retreat in search of breakfast. 

Repast acquired and bicycle retrieved we headed over to the hotel where after a frightened whisper from me "Errrm Behnam I'm don't think I can afford this..." I was informed that I was a guest, should enjoy the facilities and was invited to a party that evening.

My view from the hotel taken in beautiful weather some days later.

Tehran is a huge sprawling city of between 8-13million depending on your definition.. It hasn't always been this way indeed right into the early medieval period Tehran was a barely registered village orbiting Ray to the East. Ray suffered in the 11th Century when the Arabs razed it and was all but obliterated when two centuries later in the semi-anarchy of the 1210's-20's the Tartars did the same. Many of Rays's much abused civilian population had fled to Tehran but it wasn't until 1554 that it began to gain some attention, and a wall, from the Safavids. Still it would wait until 1795 to became the capital under the Qajars and it wasn't until the 20th Century that the massive growth and urban sprawl set in. (This elatively late growth spurt is all the more remarkable when you consider that Iran has been home to some of history's largest conurbations Susa, Persepolis/Shiraz, Tabriz, Ecbatana, Gilian, Esohahan well before the Europeans cottoned on to the idea.) The 40 years from the 1921to the 1961 saw Tehran's population increase by a factor of 10 to 2 million and it's continued to draw people and concrete in ever since; until reaching its current earthquake tempting scale; one of the worlds 30 mega cities. 

Yet I wonder if you were to vox pop the streets of England to find out their picture of Tehran what would emerge? If pressed before setting off I might have ventured some vague notion of a dusty desert city aflow with clerics in robes handing down religious pronouncements. The reality was of course quite different. Tehran sits in a semi-circular bowl to the North created by the Abortz mountains which provide its dramatic white tipped backdrop and exacerbate the smog from 4 million mainy dilapidated cars. (They're estimated to emit the equivalent of 48millions modern cars.) Tehran is the economic and industrial heart of modern Iran and, while there are Mosques in abundance, the religious leadership and spiritual centers are found outside this liberal bastion in Qom or Mashad. 

That evening I was picked up by Behnam, his girlfriend Atoosa (A2) and younger brother Behrad. After a quick stop to pick up some famous Iranian sweets we headed for the birthday party for one of his cousins.

I wonder whether the sophistication of confectionery in a society might be in proportion to the difficulty in acquiring alcohol!

Due in part to the lack of options for young unmarried people of different sexes to mingle in public, apartment parties seem to be the go to option. On arrival I was introduced around the group and was at once made me feel at home with excellent English spoken, laid back hospitality and above all humour. Freed from the restrictive dress codes required in public; hijabs were discarded, hair was unleashed and smiles, dance moves and a thoroughly good time ensued. In between feeling a mite awkward shaking my rythemless hips I was struck by the sheer familiarity of the scene. This didn't feel even vaguely alien or exotic. I could have been in London chatting away about who is going out with who, frustrations with current jobs, planned holidays, recent footy results (here I learnt about the heated rivalry between Esteghlal and Persepolis) bands of the moment and hopes for the future.

The gang 

Not that it was all the same, The intricacies of Door-Door along Valinor Avenue where young guys drive up and down of an evening allowing girls to hop in for a chat and perhaps an exchange of numbers were raised an eyebrow. [Cold nights are better because the girls were keener to get in the car] It sounded like a Saturday night in Southend. boy racers showing off their souped up charges along the sea front; but I was assured that the Iranian equivalent was a rather more, if not totally, respectable affair.

Significant differences also emerged in respective University systems. Unlike back home in Blighty how well you do in your high school tests (more like a French Baccalaureate than an English A-level) determines the course you do as well as the institution.

To simplify:
4A's you would be expected to do Engineering.
3A's and a B - Medicine
etc. With the courses ranked all the way down in a type of academic pyramid.

This was a revelation to me. Engineering had the top status in Iranian culture with graduates addressed as 'Engineer Blogs' just as here you would be 'Dr Blogs'. Mothers would hope for their daughters to marry an engineer rather than a Doctor I thought to myself! But I was also surprised that your attainment in school determined your career to a significant degree. It was still a choice of course but someone who choose to study say computer science as opposed to Engineering having achieved high marks was seen as really rather eccentric. I didn't manage to determine whether the hierarchy of courses was constantly changing, centrally dictated or a cultural norm but nonetheless I found the pros and cons fascinating.

The evening was rounded off with some excellent entertainment from Dani Yal, occasionally duet-ed by his girlfriend Farnaz, who sang some great songs skewing his repertoire towards English for my benefit and generally ensuring an great finale to a fun night.

The next day was spent in a fruitless attempt to secure a Yemen visa at their embassy and so it was with a sense of release that I unleashed myself on the busy streets of Tehran. My first stop was the old American Embassy now gloriously called the 'US Den of Espionage.' 

The images on the outside have been much photographed and I added to the pixel weight but really they seem to represent a false garishness. The building is owned by a conservative group who use it promote an anti-western agenda. To exaggerate, it's a little like taking images of a BNP rally and assuming those views were therefore mainstream. 

That said an anti-western agenda would be rather more justifiable that the BNP's prattling. After all the UK and US did instigate a coup against the democratically elected regime in '53 and replaced it with a pro-western Shah. Why? To ensure that oil supplies and their profits continued to flow in the right direction. [Sounds familiar.] Had Winston Churchill been ousted in the same year and replaced by Pro-USSR Monarch who ruled unpopularly for the next twenty years then you can perhaps imagine the sentiments which might exist.

So it is perhaps surprising that rather than animosity instead I encountered nothing but warm welcomes, interest and help as I wandered the capital. The clogged streets full of blaring traffic required careful attention and when I stopped to regain my bearings I found that within minutes someone would stop and kindly inquire whether I needed any help. I wonder how long it might take in London to elicit a similar reaction? This would then be followed by a barrage of questions about where I had come from, where I was going to visit, what I thought of Iran.

With these helpful interjections I soon found myself outside Iran's Central Bank


While a heist would have represented a welcome boost to the coffers it was a visit to Iranian Jewellery museum that brought me here. The riches acquired by the Safavids and Qajars are laid out in ostentatious glory behind bank vault doors. The sheer quantity of emeralds, rubies, opals and sapphires was impressive but also lent the collection a slightly gaudy costume effect. But I'm sure to more discerning eyes, who can tell the difference between cut glass and precious stones, it would be splendid indeed and is so valuable that it acts as a reserve to the national currency.

Given that Iran is currently running inflation of 40% per annum one might at this juncture jest that the gems have perhaps lost their economic luster but given a combination of the current embargo and the decision to remove the fuel subsidy has been the real cause I'll just stop right there.

A particularly big diamond, the Kuh-e Nur (mountain of light) was noticeable by its absence. Stolen from the Persians by a Mughal ruler, Shah Asfar went so far as to invade India to get it back; after his initial polite requests for its return was rebuffed. He needn't have bothered. Some years later a crude island people would sail up and pocket the rock. It now resides in the Tower of London.

One exhibit did catch my attention and I spent a good long while glorying at this jewel studded globe.

Still I'm not sure I'd want it in my study

Made in 1869 from 51,366 gems it outlines the sea with Emeralds, land with rubies and interestingly reserves diamonds for Iran, France and Great Britain. .

I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering lower Tehran avoiding the Bazaar and nosing around Golestan Palace before retreating in the face of hustle and bustle to the peace and quiet of the Iranian National Museum.

Here I whetted my appetite for the glories of Persepolis and Pasagarde which lay some 900k south.

Enigmatic cuneiform proclamations of the glory of Xerxes, A huge relief of Darius, and a headless statue of Darius II. 

More ghoulishly the well preserved 3rd/4th Century remains of 'the Salt Man' stare back from his exhibition case.

Dragging myself away after  few hours browsing ridiculously old pieces of pottery I noticed a replica of the Cyrus Cylinder. This fascinating object is claimed by some to be the earliest recorded charter of universal human rights as it enshrines the right to freedom of religion etc. Written following the Persian conquest of Babylonia it is undoubtedly an immensely important historical piece.

Where is it? British Museum.

When thinking about Britain's pinching of historical treasures down the years Egypt and our nabbing of Sarcophagi, the Rosetta Stone or Nefertiti's Bust come immediately to mind. Perhaps even the Parthenon Marbles or our plethora of Chinese artifacts but maybe we should instead be thinking of Iran. Certainly it is only on visiting these places and realizing in context the importance of what we have squirreled away that you appreciate how lucky we are to have this accumulated world heritage on our door step. Especially give they are free! Suffice to say I'm inspired to do a lot more museum hopping when I return.

The next morning I went back out on the streets trying to get a feel for this city which still felt too big and busy to love. I looked in at the White and Green Palaces in the north and tramped back to my hotel with traffic swirling around me. Lane use is seemingly entirely at driver discretion meaning that three lane highways often have four or more lines of traffic with cars weaving in and out at a moments later with never an indicator light in sight. It was enough to bring me out in a cold sweat and make me glad I hadn't cycled in but as I grew more used to the organised chaos of the roads it became impossible not to appreciate the driving skill, if not with the rule abiding, of Tehranis.

Lunch finally gave me an opportunity to meet up with my benefactor Daryoosh who whisked me off for an excellent meal at one of Tehran's finest Kebab restaurants. Kebabs here has a very different meaning to the post-pub excursions of home. The meat has to be hung and cured for a certain amount of days in accordance with certain arcane and Hallal principles which is why they proliferate while most other Iranian cuisine remains a home cooked affair leaving non-kebab restaurants, especially outside of Tehran, dominated by fast-food. Daryoosh made for an excellent dinner companion as he explained the nuances of contemporary Iranian politics and economics before helping to fill in the gigantic gaps which my abysmal knowledge of Persian history mainly consists.

My third and final day was dedicated to yet more wandering and I finally found some slices of this metropolis which didn't have me feeling like I was constantly on the edge of vehicular Armageddon.

Strolling the pedestrianised streets behind the museum quarter was a quiet joy offering an enticing glimpse of what Tehran might have felt-like before its 20th Century explosion.

Lovely doorway with anomalous machine gun motif

All broad thoroughfares and delicate gardens and courtyards this was much more my taste than the manic urban life beyond.

Despite my grand hotel room I had been growing increasingly impatient of all this pedestrian poodling. I like a city but the more I cycle around the more I come to think, to quote the Strokes, that I belong in a field. Moreover the sheer volume of Tehran in every sense had me feeling a little stressed out. Only the hospitality of Daryoosh, Behnam and crew and the friendliness of the Tehrani's I met has succeeded in slowing my growing flightiness.

While the city may not have charmed me the people certainly had.

I enjoyed a 30minute walk with this friendly geezer as it turned out we are both 28 and share a birthday and had a good laugh about his 1950's vintage English text book.

Well educated, fashionable, funny, inquiring and politically engaged, if cynical, and by no means unthinkingly critical of the west.  The Tehranis I met were great. It's rare for a big city to remain a hospitable place. The sheer mass of humanity often makes this impossible; but perhaps the still relative rarity of tourists, especially from the west, has helped.

I had decided early on that I wasn't going to equivocate about where I came from but nonetheless I was initially a tiny bit hesitant about responding English when asked both in Tabriz and Tehran. Not once did it elicit a negative reaction but rather big smiles: "why I was visiting Iran", offers of help and assistance. Any suspicion that people might be worried about discussing politics on the street or elsewhere was soon disabused as I met with repeated vocal criticism of the regime especially the departing Ahmadinejad government.

If you hadn't already realised I am now rambling so I'll draw a line and finish by saying I enjoyed a last dinner with Behnam, A2, Behrad and co. before heading for the bus station the next morning to get out of Tehran and its environs before remounting and heading for Esfahan.


  1. I'm a big fan of your ramblings Tom - this one in particular. J x

  2. A very interesting read, you've quite a bit catching up to do, hopefully Oz will provide good bandwidth. Looking forward to the future blogs. Love C&I