December 27, 2009 GMT
Iran - Tehran & Semnan

The day I left Tabriz I spent the night in a sleepy beach community called Gisum.

I woke up early in the morning to take some snaps of the Caspian:

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Fishing still appears to be of consequence to the local economy, as a few small vessels were taking to sea at 6 in the morning:

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I then skirted the Caspian until Chaloos, where I left the sea and took my life in my hands as I tried not to be hit by the maniac drivers over a couple hundred mountainous kilometers till Tehran.

Tehran was crazy, I got there after dark and I reckon a good 10% of the drivers didn't bother turning their lights on... the traffic was appalling, no rules were being followed and in general I was afraid for my life every single minute on the road. I didn't know where I was going so I called the friend of a friend of a friend who happened to be there and eager to come and meet me - the problem was that his English was quite basic, my Farsi non-existent and I couldn't explain to him where I was (as I didn't know, really). So I stopped at a police station and asked for help - immediately the best English speaker was summoned (a young conscript who turned out to be studying computer programming) and he explained to the distant friend in Farsi where we were... so I waited for more than an hour till he got there, during which the entire police station came out to meet me, offer me food/drink, I used their bathroom, they were all extremely friendly blokes etc.

A notable exception was one fellow who turned up rather late in this whole show, approached me very slowly looking at me intently with a crooked eye and introduced himself with the charming opening line of "I suspect you". I think he tried to make me scared or something, but I was already surrounded by 10 of his buddies who were dying to take pictures of the bike and to know everything about me and were laughing their heads off, so the suspicious dude got carried away and by the time he left he wished me good health and every success and even passed a couple of very big compliments my way. Quite charming transformation.

Tehran at night:

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Driving around Tehran is a quite colourful experience - the LED/lights industry must be thriving in Iran, not too sure about the stylists/professionals who are supposed to have any sense of visual taste and training on decoration...

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Needless to say throwing all colours of the rainbow at drivers is NOT enough - they also set them up so that they blink and change colours all the time. Extremely distracting. I mean, Tehran is an ugly city as it is, this colour thing really finished it off.

Traffic is manic, rules are there to be ignored, and everyone seems to be pushing physical space boundaries to the limit... the prevailing rule is: if it's physically possible, it will be done:

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Please someone shoot the decorators of the airport (after you're done with the road people). Again, coloured fluorescent lights that change from one horrible colour to another... geez!

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Another sample of Tehran traffic at night - not too bad, since these blokes at least have working brake lights! But do consider that this shot has been taken while ALL cars move... not a lot of respect for peoples' personal space on the road eyh?

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Trying to figure out where the bloody leak of my practically brand new Exped DownMat 7 DLX is... if there's one thing that pushes my button is when ridiculously priced kit (I paid GBP 100+ for this inflatable mattress) simply break after a little while. This mat lasted less than a month of use and then gave up the ghost - apparently it's slowly leaking from everywhere. Fab.

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The whole "copyright" deal in Iran is slightly ridiculous. People know that the government will not bother enforcing the rights of multinational corporations, and hence rip off anything they can mercilessly... here is a fine example: a full MacDonald's menu used in a fast food restaurant that, err... is not a MacD.

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The problem in Iran is that this way of thinking applies to software as well. Hence, everyone uses non-original versions of software (Microsoft, Adobe, Symantec, McAfee, ESET, AutoDesk etc), which invariably does not work properly and leaves people at the mercy of all sorts of nasty viruses (virii for the pedantic?). The result is that each and every PC I used was infected with multiple worms/backdoors/trojans of all sorts, which resulted in a less than smooth computing experience.

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That crappy situation, coupled with the filtering/blocking by the government of any and all Internet activity, results in a less than dandy computing experience in Iran... Internet cafes have network outages and usually dial-up grade connection speeds, which are just maddening. This is why I'm writing this from Islamabad and not Tehran. It was simply a nightmare even to get to my email there...

The proxy they're using: (JetApp)

iran jetapp

This is what you get when visiting something that's blacklisted (youtube, flickr, facebook, twitter etc):

iran internet filter

Since it's a given that the government is relaying every single bit of data, it's trivial (just a bit computationally expensive) to filter for keywords. So I have been urging everyone in Iran to ONLY USE ENCRYPTED CONNECTIONS, especially for stuff like email. Here's how to do it in gmail (this is not mine, but I don't remember where I got it from - hope the original author is not offended I'm re-publishing his good work)

gmail-https

Anyway. After frolicking (not) in an after-wedding party in which men and women had to be separated (by law), which resulted in the women having a ball and the men silently playing with their food, we took some snaps...

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...and hit the madness of the road once again.

A quick'n'dirty solution had to be found for the mattress problem, so until the whole warranty thing could kick in, I had to buy another inflatable mattress... $35 from Tehran, significantly bulkier, no down, but hey, it's simple and it works.

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To cut a very long story slightly shorter, I spent 5 days in Tehran with a family that was bereaved by a recent death and wasn't in the best of shapes - I was trying to cheer them up in my usual goofy way and it seemed to be working on the mother, but the son was not having it. Soon enough I felt I was becoming a nuisance and even though I hadn't seen anything of Tehran (but had managed to get a nice 20-day visa extension - yay!) I left for Esfahan.

Now, there is the regular way of getting to Esfahan (highway, takes a few hours), but there is another, infinitely more interesting way, that skirts the Kavir desert SE of Tehran and then cuts right through it, from Semnan to Naein and then to Esfahan. It would take a couple of days, but I wanted to see my first ever desert - the concept itself is extremely fascinating, even though all Iranians I talked to found the desert the least appealing place to be on the planet.

On the 20th of November I left Tehran (Friday, Islamic rest day, hence less frantic traffic on the street, hence increased chances of survival for me) and headed east, towards Mashhad. My plan was to leave the highway at Semnan and take a road that my map showed to be secondary/unsurfaced to Mo'alleman and from there south through the desert via Jandaq , Anarak and Nain to Esfahan. it would take a couple of days, but I was certain I would find somewhere to stay in one of the villages en route.

After taking the fork SE off Semnan that notionally headed towards Mo'alleman and the desert and riding for about 30km it turned out that the road was closed - I got to a dead end filled with "Military area - do not enter" signs. Crap, let's try another fork in the road. That one took me to a salt mine after less than 5k. The army conscripts that were there were extremely friendly, invited me over for tea and laughed their head off while taking Rambo-type pictures with the bike.

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After that pleasant intermission...

(this section is copied/pasted from an email I sent to friends right after the incident, feeling I had a chance to let the world know what was happening before I disappeared for good)

... I sighed in disappointment at having to turn back and take a 200km detour to reach my destination and started riding back to Semnan and the highway.

A few minutes later I was clumsily flagged down by an unmarked (civilian) car - a tiny Kia that could barely cope with carrying the 3 people that were in it. The driver stopped right in the middle of the road and even though I was already in the process of stopping, I almost bumped into them. He was clearly not amused and demanded to see my passport. I asked what the problem was, was told he is "military police" (even though he was in plain clothes) and that I was in a military area. I explained to him that he was mistaken as I had not trespassed the area marked by the signs. He regardless took my passport, entered the car, beckoned me to follow him and drove off, ignoring my demand to have my passport back.

So I followed the car for 30km back to Semnan and back to a police station / military barracks of some sort. On entering the town I noticed that I had a tail - an army enduro (off-road) bike with a soldier carrying an automatic weapon on it! I gestured to him "what's up dude?" and he gestured back "Just following orders mate". It was quite ludicrous, as his bike couldn't have been more than a 200cc,
15bhp relic of the 80's and I rode a 650cc, 66bhp bike. I could shake him (and the car) at any time, so having him tail me was quite comic...

We got to the army post/barracks/station where my passport was photocopied and I was asked some bureaucratic questions (name, registration number, date of birth etc), I was offered tea and cheese-filled bread by the soldiers doing their service (who were as usual very polite and friendly and wanted to know everything about the trip and the bike etc). After spending about an hour in there, having one of my panniers very unprofessionally searched by someone who seemed to be in charge there (who was bewildered at the bicycle pump I carry to inflate the tyres), I started asking what gives and have they checked my passport already and may I be excused, it's lovely talking to you but you know, we also have places to go...? The answer was that I had to wait there.

Then the elite team arrived - 3 dudes in plain clothes that filled the doughnut-munching police-officer description perfectly. They didn't salute me, smile or talk to me. They spent about half an hour talking with the idiot who had picked me up in the first place, who then proceeded to wave goodbye, smile at me and leave. One of his buddies that were in the car shook my hand, said "I'm sorry" and left.

At that point I started to worry.

After some more commotion, filling in papers etc, the 3 elite dudes waved me to their car (again civilian unmarked vehicle). On my way there I was told to start my bike. Thinking this would be one of those airport type turn-on-your-laptop-to-ensure-it's-not-a-bomb checks, I complied. To my utter surprise one of them jumped on, kicked it down from the stand and rode off, on MY motorcycle. Extremely pissed off I had no chance but to enter their car and hope that the idiot riding my bike would just follow us. I was telling myself this is another way to
ensure I wouldn't head off (leaving my passport with them - obviously!) but no... to my detriment the idiot riding my bike took a fork in the road and disappeared, obviously taking her for a spin, since, well, I was his bitch, right? What could I do?

A few minutes of reckless driving later we got to another police station, this one completely concealed behind a high brick wall, again completely unmarked from the outside. They honked the horn and the gate opened. My bike was nowhere to be seen, obviously the bastard riding it was still enjoying raping the engine, and could do nothing but silently hope the safeguard mechanism that stops the engine
working at too high (damaging) revs worked well.

I was led to a room with very bright fluorescent lighting, six chairs around a low table and an iron desk. There was a barred high "window" that looked to a completely dark room. I thought "they can't even afford a see-through mirror - amateurs!" and tried to amuse myself with that thought. After a few minutes I heard my bike's engine and the idiot riding it came to me and handed over the ignition key, trying hard not to smile too smugly.

I waited. They left me alone in that room for a good hour. They had taken my mobile phone and camera before entering the building and now there was nothing to do but wait.

After some time a soldier showed up. Friendly, talkative, but with no English knowledge, he made various obscene gestures to the expense of the police (hoping that I would eagerly agree? I wondered) and then noticed my very nice enduro gloves and started asking me how much they cost. I gave him a price, after which he asked how much he could buy them off me from. I was rather disturbed at this, as thoughts of "well you're not going anywhere anyway, you might as well have some cash" sprung to mind. Regardless, I fetched the phrasebook and uttered the phrase "all necessary" to indicate that my personal equipment was not for sale. After this he started asking me what I would give to him as a gift, you know, as a Greek to an Iranian, as a reminder of our
acquaintance... I repeated "all necessary" and tried to appear sad that I had nothing to give him, while I was getting even more uncomfortable with all this bargaining over my stuff.

Finally, something happened. A woman showed up that turned out to be the interpreter that they would use to question me. I offered my hand, she said "sorry I can't" and took a seat. Then the two doughnut-munching cops showed up, followed by a third one who looked like a geek (he had his collar shirt buttoned all the way up, but with no tie) and shortly after an older cop showed up. Everyone but me stood up on his entry, so I gathered he was their senior officer. He
greeted everyone in the room but me and took a seat.

So there we were, all 6 of us, cozily sat down for a little chat. It was already dark outside and I had already spent 3 hours under police custody, and I still wasn't quite clear about what was going on.

The interpreter used very typical fake politeness ("could you please tell me" etc) and asked me for all the stuff they knew all over again - my name, the bike's type, registration number, my passport details, where I entered the country from, when, etc... It soon got so obviously ridiculous that I stopped her and said something like "look, everything you're asking me, you already have in your hands - what is the true purpose of this?", to which she replied "oh no no there is no problem, the officers just want to make sure you are not a spy". Now, I realise it's not the best of ideas to laugh in the face of 5 people who are holding your passport, mobile phone, camera, vehicle and all other earthly belongings and have already demonstrated that you're their bitch as far as "civil rights" and all that malarkey is
concerned, but being accused of being a spy was a tad too much. I laughed heartily, thought "yeah, that's the way to do this spying business: wear reflective clothing, hop on a bike exotic for the standards of the country to ensure you attract the full attention of every single person within seeing distance and go off on your own in broad daylight to take pictures of your opponent's military
installations! That's IT!", then laughed some more with the ridiculosity (I know, I know...) of this thought, and then decided NOT to share this thought with them - I somehow thought the entertainment value of it would fall on deaf ears.

To cut a long story short, for about an hour in there, they made me write stuff in English (handwriting sample?), asked me to name who had hosted me in Tehran, had a look through my pictures in the camera and my memory stick backup (but were polite enough to accept NOT looking at anything that was in folders marked as being out of their country) and then agreed to let me go.

The ending was very interesting... I was asked to sign a piece of paper the interpreter had been scribbling on, IN FARSI. I explained it's preposterous to ask me to sign something I cannot read, to which she replied "no problem, it's just what you have told us". After arguing some more, getting nowhere and realising this piece of paper cannot possibly have any legal standing in any court of law, I signed it. What was I to do? I had to get out of there at some point.

Then I requested a copy of the paper I signed, which was denied with a lot of amusement (laughter etc), and in a very Orwellian way the interpreter said "don't worry, we'll all take pictures together", which made me feel slightly better, as if this whole thing was a misunderstanding that had been resolved, but not so... they took me back to the room, set me up against the wall alone, and took very close (biometric-grade?) pictures of my face (and then full-body and the bike as well). Of course I protested, of course they ignored me and did what they wanted with me anyway.

After that they escorted me (this time I was riding my bike) to the dreadful Ghods Hotel in Semnan (as it was 8 at night at that point and I wasn't going to do any more traveling that day), checked me in and said goodbye.

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The next morning after checking out of the hotel and changing some dollars to rials at a local bank (finding which involved elaborate diagrams of the town by an extremely friendly and helpful bank manager - too bad he couldn't draw, let alone give proper directions...)

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...I was stopped by an unmarked car AGAIN on my way out of Semnan... Two plainclothes dudes with snide smiles again. Asked for my passport again. Passport not given back AGAIN. "Follow us" and they get into the car AGAIN and force me to follow and I'm thinking "this cannot be happening - are they ready for round two and they were following me and just waited till I reach the city border to pick me up again?" I had the feeling they were playing mind games with me...

It would appear it was none of that. After going to the unmarked hidden building once more, the idiots from last night were still there (in slippers, obviously working hard at keeping their country spy-free), took one look at me and said something like "what is HE doing here? We already checked him last night you idiots!" to their
colleagues who had picked me up, gave me back my passport, made the idiot who had taken my passport apologise and shake my hand, and with that, I was free to go.

I protested, raised my voice, knowing that they would pretend they don't understand, repeatedly asked "WHY?" and "WHAT"S THE PROBLEM?", got no reply but amused faces, thought I better make my leave while the gate is still open, dressed up and left.

And that was my encounter with the paranoid police state that modern Iran is.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at December 27, 2009 12:41 PM GMT
 



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