Silk Road (4):We took a bus ride to Iran

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.”