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I cursed the sky to open
I begged the clouds for rain
I prayed all night for water
For this burning in my veins
It was like my soul’s on fire
And I had to watch the flames
All my dreams went up in ashes
And my future blew away

Now the oil’s gone
And the money’s gone
All the jobs are gone
Still we’re hangin’ on

Down in dry county

~Bon Jovi

 

Something is happening in Iran and you know it by the way the currency moves…

I had done a lot of research for this Silk Road trip, started in early January to think of an itinerary. But not everything could be planned in advance. When it comes to Iran, nothing could be booked in advance.

As it turned out, this was quite fortuitous. First and foremost, the exchange rate moved in our favour: a month before we entered Iran the Rial lost ⅔ of its value. This was on top of the already quite good value of accommodation, transport etc. which existed there before.

The official money in Iran is Rial, but because of the enormous number of zeros (I constantly carried tens of millions of Rial in my pocket; a dinner for four would cost around 2 million), the locals have a made-up unit called Toman, which simply has one fewer zero. It was very, very confusing at first to get around that because it was not obvious whether the quotes were in Rials or Toman – not for the locals, of course, who were used to the prices of specific items and goods.

It was not easy to know where to exchange though as there is the unofficial exchange rate and the official one, which is about half that. And while we were there, the Rial depreciated by another 30%! And it’s not like a foreigner can just look up the exchange rate online for guidance (no Bloomberg app!). The first time I needed to exchange (at the Armenia-Iran border) I relied on a kind fellow bus passenger to educate me on the intricacies of the Iranian street exchange rate market, and more importantly, to give me the approximately “correct” level from an app on his phone.

In Tehran, we simply stumbled on one of the main exchange points: Ferdowsi Square. It reminded me a bit of “The Magurata” in Sofia, Bulgaria in the late days of communism/early days of capitalism. In terms of the way the crowd worked, though, it might have operated a bit closer to any open-cry exchanges in US in the good old days! This kind of market was though quite unsophisticated: a few blocks away from the square, there opened the possibility of a clear arb.

Second, self-organized trips are cheaper than going through a travel agent anywhere in the world but in Iran they are incredibly so. This is because in Iran it’s extremely difficult to self-organize a tour from abroad. Because of decades-long sanctions, the Iranian payment system is not linked to the rest of the world’s directly: one cannot use foreign-issued credit or debit cards in the country. Therefore, there are agencies outside of Iran which facilitate the booking of all tourist-related activities (for small items, like tickets for buses and tourist attractions, the premium, though, could be more than 100%, especially after the devaluation). The option is either to use them or to carry lots of cash and do it on the go once in the country.

Not knowing the exact date/time etc. we would be in the country, forced us to organise internal traveling ourselves, once on the spot. Incidentally, this saved us a lot of money. The downside of doing this was, though, that the hassle and uncertainty, which normally accompany such activity, were amplified by our inability to speak, understand and read a totally different language and writing. After a couple of days in the country, we realized we should at least learn the written numbers in Farsi (by the way, Farsi is just ‘Persian’ in Arabic – apparently the Arabs had difficulty pronouncing the ‘P’ sound). This was partially spurred by the fear of being too easily cheated!

People trying to take advantage of us being foreigners in Iran were, however, fewer than what we normally experienced in the other countries so far on our trip. Everyone is of course aware how much more foreigners can afford now compared to not only a month ago but also in general. However, I did not see any bitterness on their side. They just accept it as a way of life. As one businessman observed, “We are a country of sanctions and we have learned how to cope with them; there is nothing new with these new ones; but, yes, it is disappointing because we thought we were finally getting along.”

But let me backtrack a bit here: to get to Tehran, in the spirit of this trip, we took a bus ride from Yerevan! That was a long journey – more than 24 hours – with crossing the border in the middle of the night. However, the bus was rather comfortable (it even had a carpet in the middle lane) and, as with all long-range buses on this trip, one gets complimentary food and drinks.

The distance to the border is only around 400 km but it takes at least 10 hours to get to, as the road passes through some very tricky mountainous terrain along where, in the crevices on the sharper turns, we saw the remnants of a few cars. (If you have ever been to the ski resort Les Deux Alpes, imagine the 20 km stretch at the end, to the top, but multiply that by 20, constantly going up and down – that’s Yerevan to the Iranian border). On the positive side, the landscape is absolutely stunning!

I knew that there were daily buses from Yerevan to Tehran but I had no idea where exactly they left from and how much they cost. As it turned out, because they are operated by different companies, they all leave from different places and their cost varies. No easy way to find out this information either online or even through the hotel. Best is to go to a travel agency (of which there are many in Yerevan). There are obviously alternative ways to travel but they are much more expensive (the locals could take us only to the border for the price of our whole trip to Tehran, for example).

Our first impression of the Iranian people, from meeting some Iranians on our bus, coincided with what we had read and what other people told us: they were very friendly and curious to meet and help foreigners. That impression indeed stayed till the end of our journey in Iran. In fact, when we asked people if they are equally friendly to themselves as well, not just to foreigners, they told us that they are friendly to everyone who needs help, but foreigners, obviously, seem to need more help in Iran.

We spent the time on the bus talking with our newly-made friends about everything: from what to see in Iran, to education, history, cultures and even politics. In fact, the one thing Iranians really love is talking politics. They openly discuss current affairs (as one Iranian later pointed out to us, “I can assure you there are more Iranians who like America than Americans who like Iran”).

We intentionally avoided bringing in religion in any of our conversation not to stir sensitivities, however, it was clear that most of the people we met, while religious, did not necessarily agree with the extreme religious requirements in place. For example, throughout our stay, we were super careful not to break any laws or customs having heard how strict the authorities are: we made sure that our 15-year old daughter, who looks more like 10, had the hijab on all the time. But locals kept telling us not to worry, that young girls do not even need to wear a veil. In fact, while having a dinner in one of those open courtyards of their traditional houses in Isfahan, we noticed that even some of the local women had their hijab off, resting on their shoulders (a sight quite common especially in norther Tehran).

A similar attitude of resignation rather than active promotion of was adopted towards the issue of separation between the sexes. While, men and women cannot ride in the same subway carriage, cannot go together to the swimming pool, cannot hold hands or show any kind of affection in public, etc., on several occasions we saw locals disregarding such rules whenever they could get away with it (i.e. kissing and hugging in the street).

As tourists, the daily reality of a society which enforces the separation of sexes barely touched us anyway. We only got a small taste of it when it came to wanting to use the swimming pool as a family (which we couldn’t) or attending a mosque during a religious ceremony. Once, I waited patiently outside the Shah Mosque on Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan for a long time with my son and a crowd of other men while Georgia and my daughter were visiting inside during prayer time. A few of them struck a conversation with me, probably seeing my worried face and my glazing eyes for a view of my wife and daughter, hopefully, exiting the mosque. They were really surprised that I was worried and assured me the mosque was “the safest place one could possibly find”.

We stopped a few times along the road before we reached Iran – once because the cooling system of the bus stopped working, another time for lunch. We had prepared our own snacks but I had left about $3 worth of ADM and went to buy some ‘ayryan’ (yogurt mixed with water and some spices – it is the best thirst quencher). I struck a conversation with the owner, an Iranian, who was very curious to see an ‘European-looking’ family in this part of the world – only locals and probably a few really adventurous backpackers otherwise take the bus to Iran – tourists take the plane!

I bought some plain rice just so that the AMD does not go to ‘waste’. When he realized this was our last Armenian money he brought us some meat to go with the rice, water and tea! That was even though I kept telling him that I do not have any more AMD to pay for it: he was genuinely very generous! This was going to be one of our many encounters with the amazing Iranian hospitality.

We passed through several small towns before we reached the border. Inevitably, they looked very 1960-70s Soviet style but they were impressive because I had never seen old Soviet block of apartments perched on the rocks in the mountain.

Finally, we reached the border. Its crossing was surreal: we walked through into no-man’s land for almost 1 km. In total darkness. Otherwise, both Armenian and Iranian passport controls were swift and courteous. Once in Iran, however, we had to further wait for the bus to pass customs control – and that took hours!

Past the border we fell asleep only to be woken up a few hours later and ordered to get off the bus! I feared something bad happening but it was only a rest stop – I think the bus driver must get a commission from the ‘restaurant’ for every person who buys something otherwise I do not get it why we had to leave the bus (the kids were very unhappy). Eventually, most people just bought some tea, only the bus drivers entered the restaurant.

I woke up with the first rays of sunlight eager to lay my eyes for the first time on this place I heard and read so much about! Iran is mostly a desert sprayed with some rocky mountains and an oasis here and there. The road system is, however, much better than either Georgia or Armenia: all the main highways even have toll booths! There are plenty of police speed checks, and in general, plenty of police presence. As a result, driving is very civilized, one could say, as good as any European highway (excluding the Mediterranean ones, of course!).

Arriving in Tehran in the early morning or, possibly, at any time of the day is a totally different matter. There are simply no traffic rules. At all! I have never seen anything like this anywhere. Perhaps Mumbai comes close but still not comparable. For cars constantly drive against traffic whenever, on the several-lanes avenues, there is a gap of oncoming traffic (or not!). Motorcycles commonly take to the pavements whenever traffic is slow or the road is one way and they need to go in the opposite direction (what is amazing is that they beep at the pedestrians to move away as if it is the pedestrians who have invaded their territory, not the other way around).

And traffic lights – what are those for? The weird thing is that there is police literally on every major crossing!

On our first day, we attempted to walk for half an hour to reach the Grand Bazaar from our hotel. This was the one and only time we did this given the state of the traffic, the inexorable heat and the awful pollution (on the positive side, this is when we stumbled across Ferdowsi Square and the local foreign exchange market). In the evening, the coolness of the air (Tehran is very close to the highest peak in the Middle East) and the lack of traffic make walking more manageable. We went then looking for a restaurant and as we stopped to ask one man for help, a small crowd gathered, all trying to help or just being curious. Foreign tourists do not randomly walk the streets of Tehran. In fact, we saw very, very few tourists in Tehran and that was in Golestan Palace.

That evening we met an Iranian who spoke fluent Italian who invited us to his brother’s apartment for dinner! The brother also spoke fluent Italian (and a few other languages). As we were not in the mood for spaghetti and in search of local flavours, they took us to this wonderful cafe where we had an amazing evening. This was yet another example of the famous Iranian hospitality.

Tehran was too much for me. Apart from the noise and havoc in the street, the Grand Bazaar was also a disappointment of sort. It is imposing and busy but not that different from the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul: in fact, anything not an artefact or authentic is made in Turkey or China. For a real experience of a different sort of Grand Bazaar, I recommend visiting Isfahan’s. Golestan Palace, though, is definitely worth a visit: our first encounter of traditional Iranian architecture and beautifully coloured tiles everywhere!

We were indeed told that to visit the real beauty of the country, one must really go in the mountains just north of the city for nature or head south towards the Persian Gulf for history, culture and nature combined! This is then what we did by heading to Kashan, about 3 hours bus ride from the South Terminal in Tehran. Kashan is this quiet and quirky little town full of traditional houses. A traditional house is one with an internal wide-open courtyard, a fountain in the middle, and with lots of little passages that lead to different size rooms. These houses are really stunning.

We made a point to stay in one despite our self-imposed backpackers’ budget. But Kashan is much cheaper than Tehran and, especially, our next stop, Isfahan, so it actually fitted us perfectly. I really liked Kashan. Among other things I especially enjoyed playing backgammon with the locals (though I lost). I do not understand why of all places recommended for tourists to must see in Iran, Kashan is the least favourite. Perhaps because it is a little village compared to all the others but is really charming. Plus, there is a lot to see in the surroundings.

It is for this reason that we decided to take a private car the following day, instead of the bus, to Isfahan. On the way, we visited the highest village in Iran, Abyaneh (2,222m above sea level). It is more than 2,500 years old and its houses, which are made of red mud and straw, have mostly survived the centuries. Abyaneh reminded me of many villages perched along the hills in the Italian countryside: it is that different from anything else in Iran. Even the locals wear very different clothes than anywhere else we visited.

While planning Iran, we did not factor in that our stay will coincide with the end of their most important religious holiday: you must have seen the men wearing black and green and beating themselves with branches on TV or online. For two days, everything closes in the country. That reality fully caught up with us while in Isfahan. That was unfortunate for us but it also gave us a chance to learn more about this tradition by visiting these ceremonies: the locals were very eager to explain things to us and they took lots of pictures! On the upside, during those two days there are stands all across the city which give away free food, tea, sweets and fruits (most restaurants are closed as well).

It was business as usual the morning we had scheduled to leave Isfahan, thus we managed to visit quickly the stunning central square, which is surrounded by two imposing mosques, a palace and the Grand Bazaar. A peculiar thing about Isfahan is the Armenian quarters, and particularly Venk Cathedral: one of the most exquisitely decorated churches I have ever seen. The surrounding area is also full of cute cafes where one could finally have a proper coffee (Iranians do not really drink coffee, and if they do, it is nescafé).

Once in Shiraz we visited many mosques, treated ourselves to some proper (European-style) restaurant food – after eating mostly ‘street food’ until then, this was a welcome diversion, though the bill looked astronomical (2 million, 800 thousand Rial), and organised our visit to Persepolis and Necropolis. Persepolis was great, but it is Necropolis that is magnificently different than any other ancient ruins I have ever seen, consisting of carved tombs in the middle of the mountain. In fact, Persepolis reminded me of the Baalbek Roman ruins in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.

I will actually remember Persepolis for almost choking on water. We had left Shiraz at 8:30 (rather than the suggested 8:00) in the morning. By 11am it was so hot and I was so thirsty, that eager to refresh, I gulped the water in a hurry and it went the wrong way…which is ironic, because one thing that will stay with me from Iran is how dry the country is. All the cities we stayed in had totally dry river beds. And there are so many fountains and water passages everywhere and they are all dry. I can only imagine how more beautiful Iran’s already well-preserved gardens and courtyards would look otherwise.

The changing of the climate globally is partially to blame: it is difficult to imagine that it would snow in the winter in Iran even 10 years ago (and the snow would actually keep) in the middle of the desert. The locals did not remember when it was that it properly rained last time. But this is also Iran’s own doing: the building of an intricate underground water system, eventually completely dried the on-the-ground natural water. This is not something necessarily recent. In fact, almost all cities we visited, but especially the ones in the south, had ancient underground water canals. They run deep and are still open – one could easily go down to the bottom.

In light of this water problem, I was surprised to find out that water is safe to drink almost everywhere we went – and there are public drinking fountains all over the cities we visited. Same holds for public toilets – they are free and they are everywhere (some of them are indeed “ancient”). In fact, the cities are kept in almost pristine condition: there is very little garbage on the street, plenty of bins and sanitary workers attending to the streets even late into the evening.

Another unexpected aspect of Iran for me was how digitalized commerce is. Credit/debit card payments are common everywhere, in the bazaars, on the street, and even in the most run-down taxis. In the major cities, there is a bank literally on every corner. I don’t know if they have the equivalent of Amazon but, they do have the equivalent of Uber called ‘Snap’. One could also easily book bus tickets online. Of course, we could not enter this digital world, but people were happy to book things online for us.

Our last stop before completing our Iran journey back to Tehran was Yazd, the centre of Zoroastrianism and the largest wind catcher in the world. On the way there, we saw a 4000 years old living organism, a cedar tree. In Yazd, I started to get restless about the exchange rate and its massive drop. Having worked in Emerging Markets for so many years, I feared this was not a good omen. My unease was also further exacerbated by the fact that since we had left Tehran it was a constant struggle to find a ‘proper’ place to exchange money (unless one was happy to pay the unrealistic rate at the hotels). The Grand Bazaars were the obvious places but even there, there was not one designated spot. In the Grand Bazaar in Tehran, for example, there is an area where all exchange matters are handled, similar to Ferdowsi Square. In Kashan we had to ask a few shops and finally we were led to a secluded place on the second floor of an otherwise mostly empty building. In Isfahan and Shiraz, it was randomly in the street, mostly around taxi stands. Funnily enough, it was in Yazd that there were several official exchange shops on designated streets, however by then the exchange rate had moved so much that locals were getting so concerned that we would be asked even by everyday workers to exchange.

When it comes to currencies, it is obvious Iranian people prefer EUR to USD now, probably as they see Europe as a viable emigration possibility. But whenever I struck conversation with business people about economic matters, it is interesting that they did not see any other alternative to the US Dollar. They think Europe has no choice but to eventually succumb to US pressure on sanctions: “one thing is for the government not to support these sanctions, but a private company would never take the risk and avoid them for fear of US business repercussions”.

They do not see Russia or China as alternatives either. In fact, they seem to look even more suspiciously at them as well: “Russia is simply a brute force and Russian tourists have a massive attitude of superiority”, while “China is a smart opportunist looking only after itself and Chinese tourists are simply clueless – you talk to them for 5 minutes while they just stare at you and eventually you realize they did not understand anything you said”. Moreover, “what are we going to do with all these RUB and CNY, we can’t buy anything we want from them, so we end up exchanging them back into USD and EUR to have access to global markets”.

This is a stark reminder to China which wants to make the CNY a global currency: they either have to offer something (goods and services) the rest of the world wants to buy with their currency in exchange or to offer safe store of capital, the way the US has done all these years. It seems China has played its goods for exports card already: global consumer markets are swamped with cheap Chinese goods. Which means they have to move up the value chain (which they are trying to, especially in technology) or free up the capital account and develop massively their financial services market. I will come to this after my visit to China.

Indeed, for a country under sanctions for so many years, there is a massive oversupply of goods in Iran (for now). The bazaars are full of consumer goods and there is plenty of food: fruits, vegetables, meat, bread, rice, teas…and rich sweet shops. The best thing was buying freshly baked bread straight from the oven – it is an amazing feeling which brought back memories from my childhood years in Bulgaria when we used to do the same.

And, again, the people are so generous – you can try anything in the shops and they are absolutely not offended if you decide not to buy. We walked one late evening back to the hotel in Yazd and passed by an oven with freshly baked bread. A man had just purchased half a dozen flat breads. Trying to balance them on his motorcycle, he saw us looking curiously inside wondering whether to go in and buy some bread. He just took one of his breads and insisted on giving it to us as a gift.

After Yazd we were once more back in Tehran, the only place where we could catch an international bus. This time we purposely stayed in the north to be able to see another aspect of the city. Indeed, if there is any social separation in Iran, it is most obvious in Tehran, which is clearly divided between the northern rich, residential and full of nature – a stroll in verdant, mountainous Durband is a must – and the southern poor part of the city. In fact, one could say that northern Tehran stands out among everything we saw inside the country.

I don’t know if this new round of sanctions would have a different effect on Iran’s economy than any of the previous ones. While there is still an abundance of some consumer goods, prices of water, rent and some other essentials and services have gone up. In fact, it is inevitable that the price of any good which has an imported component would be rising and with the Rial continuing to lose its value things could become really difficult.