Good Energy

The guys at Good Energy have been really supportive and excited about the expedition, so much so that they have made a contribution which allows me to keep the blog regularly updated during the expedition, so they and everyone else can follow the journey. Good Energy supplies 100% renewable electricity sourced from wind, water, sun and sustainable biomass. CO2 from coal-fired electricity generation is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Switch your electricity supply to Good Energy using this link and not only will you be supporting the pioneering community of independent green generators, but for every sign up they get they’ll make another donation to help get the bus around the world. It helps you cut your personal CO2 emissions, helps them grow a great business, and helps me get round the world.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Arrested Development

Throughout 15 years of travelling to and around Africa I’ve always been plagued by the recurring question, why hasn’t Africa developed since independence. By contrast India and the former South East Asian colonies now have strong economies, and a burgeoning middle class, beavering away to produce the wealth and prosperity in line with the globalised theology which is “wealth generation”.

I have seen Mauritania transform over the years from a backwards, closed provincial-minded country to one that understands the value of being part of the international network for trade and aid. But it hasn’t gone far enough to drag the majority of its population out of poverty. There still remains a rich elite and an impoverished populous.

African cultural hierarchy is structured around the patriarch. “The Big Man”, as Redland O’Hanlan describes it in his excellent book Congo Journey. Everyone has a Big Man they can turn to in times of need, for money or favours, and in exchange they support their Big Man too. There’s incentive to work too hard because becoming the Big Man means you then have to support your followers who usurp you of as much as you can. It will also but you at odds with your Big Man who will feel threatened by your rise. Much better then to sit back and hope your Big Man does well and will look after you with what power he can grasp.

So follows a culture of corruption, nepotism and kleptocracy. It’s a vicious cycle that works on the corporate level too. As a mining company you want to invest in Congo, but the only way to do it is to bribe your government minister. He can’t issue a mining permit without taking a bribe because, apart from his greed, he also has a pyramid of dependants beneath him that need to be fed.

In Angola we saw a glimpse of how that cycle might be broken. Angola has a small but important middle class. Educated abroad in Portugal and Brazil during the war, they’ve now returned with skills and middle class aspirations and work ethic s, as employees of the Mobile Phone, mining and oil companies, and as independent entrepreneurs. They have no need of a Big Man, and no desperate dependents who look to them for handouts and favours, corrupting their efforts.

In Amritsar I meet Tajinder a textile engineer who takes time off work to evangelise to foreigners about the Sikh faith. He guides me gently around the Golden Temple explaining in monosyllabic rote the history and beliefs of the Sikh faith, fighters against injustice. Most of the detail is lost by my inability to stay focused on the dry presentation, but after months of hearing “Ain’ shallah” used continuously, reinforcing the idea that regardless of our actions, we are helpless in the face of a divinely chosen destiny, it was a stark change to hear Tajinder tell me; “Everywhere in the world Sikhs go they are a success, because they don’t believe in destiny, they believe in hard work, and self betterment.” Good, wholesome middle class values.

Thursday, 24 December 2009


After we complete the border formalities to exit Iran we can’t find the way out. I joke to Maartin that this is just a border theme park, Borderland where the rides are in offices with ledgers and stamps. Of course the queue for the most popular rides are the longest. Perversely if there was a Borderland, I think I would go. A week later, as I am leaving Pakistan I discover Borderland really exists.

After the visual austerity of Iran, Pakistan is a treat; barren mountains melt into the lush Punjab plains. Women and men wear colours. After 12 weeks in Muslim countries, I’m keen for some alternative thinking. I’m very familiar with the variety of Islams in North Africa and during even long trips there I’ve never found it oppressive or frustrating (apart from those endless prayer tapes played to wow and flutter destruction). But after the false totalitarianism of Iran my Muslim love tank is close to empty, so psychologically Pakistan has just been a hurdle to get through before I can unwind.

That feeling is cemented in Shikapur by Javed, the son of a wealthy clan leader. He approaches me while I am trying to photograph a cricket match, and I am won over by his well spoken accent, and his government number plate. He invites me back to meet his father, a bed ridden fat man who summons servants by clicking on his battery powered doorbell. By the time we part company at the end of the evening I’ve had enough of Javed, Pakistan and Islam. Apart from waving me over a speed bumps which for the second time in Pakistan destroy the exhaust system, and telling me the bus is safely parked in his street where the stereo’s USB stick is deftly swiped through a sliver of open roof hatch within 10 minute, it’s his pious self-righteous crap about how land owners should govern, and how it’s right to have indentured servants that make him so odious. The naive rich kid with no concept of how lucky his privileged birth was, has a government job spending UN funds to encourage farmers to send their kids to school. I imagine he got the job because of his family connection. In Pakistan you are either a farmer or a policeman, but if you are well connected, the government pay you to pretend to do a job. That’s what the Baloch separatists are fighting against. Not the nepotism itself, but nepotism that excludes them.

It’s Javed’s medieval Koranic interpretation that women are impure because they bleed, right before asking me for a list of porn website recommendations that makes me want to swing at him. Luckily I am too stoned on the Whiskey we’ve been drinking to try fighting. Instead I give him a few gay sites to spoil his evening me-time.

From the border I’ve been escorted through Balochistan, which feels lawless and dangerous, and the protection offered by the geriatric police officers I am entrusted to, doesn’t reassure. I have to help one of them up and down the steps of the bus each time we stop. He may well predate the Raj.

On the road I pass a convoy of local 44,000 litre tankers coming the other way, taking NATO diesel to Afghanistan. Two miles further on, I see the first of two burnt out tanker carcasses. My granddad body guard explains that Taliban fighters come from Afghanistan and shoot out the wheels making them crash and explode. In both trucks the drivers and drivers’ mates died in the in inferno. One of the drivers I speak to tells me they don’t get any danger money, they just have lots of work. Shell’s tankers delivering to Pakistani towns are brightly liveried, so they won’t be mistaken for the NATO supply trucks. Conversely the foreign fighters also stand out in the rural communities, so one attack team had already been caught. If diesel be the fuel of life, let’s burn it.

The route to Sukkur is a 400km detour because the direct road is dangerous. By this I assume they mean more dangerous than Constable Methuselah can deal with. Once out of Balochistan and into the Punjab it’s clear that neither Baloch separatists nor Taliban jihadists cause much concern. None the less the Punjab police insist on giving me a blue light escort for 1000 miles across the whole country to Lahore. While insisting there is no danger, they explain they are there for my protection. Near Multan, the site of a recent surprise bombing, the cops think the escort is as much of a joke as I do. They point to bearded friends in the town giggling “Taliban, Taliban!”, and everyone fall about laughing.

The biggest danger is crashing into their erratic braking Toyota pickups. They are like my own personalised traffic jam. It’s hard to claim eco credentials when you are preceded at all times by a police 4x4.

The escort is not optional, but following them means I am exempt from motorway tolls and I can camp at their police stations, getting an insight into Pakistani law enforcement inaction. [No, that’s not a typo]. But mainly I hide in the bus and recover from a bout of food poisoning that is about as bad as they come. I know in London people pay good money to have a hose stuck up their arse till the water comes gushing out. For less than a euro in Sukkur you can recreate the same effect with a lovely meat stew. I eat only fruit, bananas mainly, while I am recovering and squirt pooh juice into the compost toilet. When the wind backs against the toilet vent, the bus smells of like I have a newborn baby onboard, presumably is the smell of fast digested bananas.

The roads have been the worse yet, but I am surprised how well everything has stood up. The bus is a combination of Mercedes manufactured base vehicle, Reeves Burges fast dissolving metal coachwork (largely replaced before leaving), and finally my Biotruck transformation of the living space and the veg oil conversion. The vibrations haven’t affected any of the Merc stuff. The Reeve Burges stuff looks to be holding up well too, although it would be hard to see the cracks until the sides of the bus suddenly fall off completely. The big letdown has been my stuff. Hose clips not done up tightly enough, or too tightly, a bowl pump that sucks itself shut at altitude, and a mystery lack of power (injector hose leaking or blocked fuel filter?). The old fridge has also found yet another way in which not to work, the fourth since I left the UK.

I’m still in love with the road freight here. For miles I travel along with Benazir Bhutto smiling back at me from the mural of the truck in front. I’m captivated by her faded face and her motherly bosom, and in no rush to overtake. I’m surprised at how slow the trucks are. I haven’t seen a lorry going over 50kmh probably due to the weight of the rainforest used to build the wooden backs. Some even have wooden doors that extend around the old Bedford cabs and look like the rear end of a 15th century Spanish galleon. Often they drive in the fast lane because the left lane is so potholed, so if you want to get by you have to undertake on the broken tarmac.

I forget my hazard lights on for a few miles and no other motorist points out my mistake, then as dusk settles I put on my headlights and every one flashes their lights at me to warn me my lights are on.

In my mind the road leads inexorably to India and finally I’m camped at the border, having missed the early closing time. Another frustrating night to spend in Pakistan. But thankfully I’ve discovered Borderland. There is a big entrance gate, a motel, you can take pictures and the daily show starts at 4pm in the auditorium every day. It could be Vegas or Disneyworld. People travel 30km just to visit, not cross. The fun looks funnier on the Indian side, a much bigger crowd and less Allah. The ceremonial guards puff their chest and high kick at each other, chant for as long as their breath lasts, and blast patriotic songs out of massive sound systems to their respective crowds. The Indians do it all a little better. On the Pakistani side we get a couple of podgy blokes twirling flags, but from the volume of their cheers it sounds like the Indians are getting much more.

On the Iran Turkey border they’d each erected massive posters of their political leaders facing each other on opposite hills. This is the sort of tribal jingoism I’ve never been able to take seriously the reason I couldn’t give a monkey’s about football teams. But I’m curious how this ceremony first started after Pakistan and India’s violent separation in 1947 and how it persists in light of an ongoing nuclear arms race and the recent Mumbai attacks. The ceremony seems like a mutual provocation rather than a way to vent tension. The performers take it very seriously, as do their crowds. The only one giggling at the whole contest is me, despite sitting next to the customs officer who has to stamp my carnet tomorrow. It’s so funny that national pride can rest on who can kick the highest or chant longest. If only COP15 could have been worked out this way.

Afterwards I retrace my steps through Pakistan in miniature and stop a couple as they are about to step across into what would be Afghanistan. “Taliban, Taliban!”. They don’t take my advice and beeline for their car which would be parked somewhere in Uzbekistan. I don’t know what happened to them after that, but I think they made it.

Moments or Momentum

For a day the police oblige me to travel together with 4 bikers. Two are an English couple who have been on the road for 6 or 7 years. I’m really keen to spend time chatting with them and find out about the corporate talks they’ve given and some of the places they’ve been to and above all understand the psychology of a couple that have been on the road so long. Unfortunately the bikers are travelling at a different pace and frustrated at having been lumbered with the lumbering bus.

I’m asked to rush on without stopping by the irritating young German Nico. It’s his first overland trip, and he’s read all about how to do them on the internet. He couldn’t believe his luck when he stumbled across his heroes, the veteran Brits, in Iran and they invited him to travel together. I think he’s missing the point of his journey somewhat, I certainly am.

My first overland trip was by motorbike too. It was a Yamaha XT600E. The landrover of the motorbike world at the time. It’s all BMW RGS1150’s now. Utter shit. Heavy and cumbersome, and they look like spaceships. Mine was a bit of a rat bike even then, but it looked like the DT125s that people were familiar with so they didn’t think I was on some Paris Dakar wet dream. To me overland biking is less about the biking and more about the overlanding, but understandably that’s not everyone’s take on it. For some the world is a playground for their lovely bikes.

My biggest regret from that first trip is not stopping enough. On a bike it’s easier to suddenly pull over when you see something that sparks your interest, than it is in a 6 tonne, 7 meter bus. But with any overlanding vehicle there is a mental momentum, and it’s hard to break that momentum in order to stop and experience a moment.

At the start of the day I’d set myself a destination and the whole day was spent working, fighting, overcoming adversity, to get to that point. The journey became a self made challenge, which prevented me from seeing or remembering much of what was on the way, other than the encumbrances and nuisances. Setting a daily destination made the momentum even harder to break, and the day’s success or failure was measured only by how quickly I reached the destination.

I don’t speak to Nico much and when I do I’m resisting the temptation to tell him to fuck himself. I get the impression he thinks I am eco activist and a petrol hater. He tries to taunt me, eulogising about the joys of motorbiking at 160kmh. Much as I dislike him, his arrogance and haste reminds me of my mindset 15 years ago on that first trip, so perhaps there is hope for him.

The bikes look great sweeping around corners on the horizon, silhouetted in the sun’s reflection off the tarmac. But mostly I’m envious of their ability to stop, get off the bikes, look around and talk to people. Experience moments. I don’t see them do much of that, and I’m surprised that even the English couple are pretty focused on the biking rather than their surroundings. They can’t have spent six years maintaining the momentum?

In the end I don’t get a chance to speak to them about their long term journey, other than snatched conversations at police checkpoints. By the end of the day I’m so far behind I stop, and assume they’ll continue rapidly across Pakistan to the border but despite my rest day and slow pace I’m surprised that when I get to borderland a few days later they haven’t been through yet. So maybe I’ve misjudged their momentum. Hopefully our paths will cross again and I’ll get a chance to chat with them without the mutual frustrations of being locked in convoy together.

Sunday, 20 December 2009


My first trip to Africa involved taking a convoy through Western Sahara from Dahkla to the border with Mauritania. Over subsequent years I repeated the journey and became very familiar with the ins and outs of the convoy.

Years before there had been a violent conflict between the Saharaoui and the Moroccan army and by the time I first took the convoy, it was already a remnant of a security scheme which had outlived its relevance. There was no longer any danger of the Saharaoui abducting tourists to help their plight.

From Bam to the border of Pakistan, Iranian police run a similar convoy. Bam has the same edgy feel of frontier country that Dahkla used to have, and the same desert landscape and clear winter sunlight. It’s the Wild East.

Akbar who runs the guest house recommended by the Droning Planet tells us there is nothing to worry about and the military escort is a well organised formality. He prefers to talk that to listen, and speaks in certainties and offers guarantees. In Iran nothing is certain or guaranteed and I’m mistrustful of his advice. The day before a friend in Yazd who works as a guide has told me if he doesn’t say the government is great when he is dealing with tourists he faces prison. I get the sense Akbar’s reassurances come from the same place.

Sure enough the military escort is as dishevelled and unnecessary as the Moroccan convoy. At least we don’t have to wait for 50 other cars. Our private escort turns up to personally protect us, unarmed and fearful of disobeying his superiors confused instructions. I’m travelling in convoy with Maartin and Marika a Dutch couple with their 2 year old son, Casan, and a 20 year old Hymer campervan. It’s so funny to see this classic Winnebago for sexagenarians being used for a hardcore hippy overland journey to India.

In Dahkla they would tell you the convoy would leave at 9am, but only the German bikers would fall for it. The French car sellers would pitch up at the departure point around 1pm and still have to wait an hour or so before the Mauritanian smugglers showed up. Then with up to 80 cars, the twice weekly sharabang of dilapidated MOT failures from Europe on their way to becoming West Africa’s public transport system would roll out of town for the 400km drive to the border fort where we’d all camp, and have to balance fear of the reputed landmines with prudishness of being discovered taking a pooh when deciding how far to roam with the bog roll.

Swiss overlanders in their pristine Landcruisers and khaki pants would show off largely useless co-ordinates generated by new gadgets called GPS's to unimpressed French dole bludgers sipping pinard in their Peugoet 504, while fat Germans in 4x4 Shoguns would trade details of where to get laid in the Gambia. When they wanted, the Moroccan sentry guards would catch an unsuspecting dreadhead smoking reefer and confiscate their stash to use on the five days of the week when the fort was empty but for the flies and an unending southerly wind.

Then one year, the convoy was no longer. Camping Mousafir still survives as the overlander’s Mecca on Africa Highway One, but now that every other overlander isn’t funnelled into meeting there on Mondays and Thursdays it doesn’t have the same energy, and many bypass the 80km moonscape detour to Dahkla completely.

This journey has a different feel now. Mindful of security, I’m suspicious of the smiling moped that cruises alongside me."Hurry up!" "Wait!" "No stopping!" "Danger!" "Bin Laden!" "Al Qaeda!". Thanks to our escorts, we’ve only made it to Zahedan by the end of the day, 90km short of the Pakistan border. Frustrated and tired we are led around the town by the kindest incompetence to find a hotel that doesn’t match the Dopey Planets' description. We camp on the street, too weary to be worried about kidnapping. The next morning Maartin discovers a used heroin syringe in the gutter under the Hymer, and we evade our Iranian Dad’s Army escort to catch up some time. The police disorganisation is a big reassurance in convincing me there is no risk from insurgents or Baloch separatist but their presence has isolated us from talking to anyone. The conspiracy theory that this is the real motive for the escort starts to fester.

Just like in Western Sahara, the Balochs want to run their own affairs, feeling ignored by a distant central government who extracts mineral wealth from the area but leaves it under developed. Zahedan looks rough, and feels like a lawless Pakistani outpost. In reality it’s a rundown and probably a little less safe than most Iranian cities. Just like in Western Sahara, the Balochs struggle for independence doesn’t stand a chance against the domineering government and will only exacerbate their isolation. I'm curious to know how religion fits into the equation in this power struggle but speaking to anyone is impossible when you're followed by a kalash wielding policeman in green fatigues. All I'm allowed is the prescribed overlanders perspective; edginess and frustrations of a military escort. One day this will convoy will be scrapped too.

In Pakistan we camp in the Customs pound. The Head of Customs, Unis, is fascinated and very complimentary about the bus. He transfers his office into it so we can chat and he can see photos from the trip while his minions bring him papers to sign. He tells each one about the bus in Urdu, and they offer the appropriate nods and grunts of appreciation. No one mentions fuel duty.

He offers me some cans of Chinese beers given to him by the managers of a local mining concession, and has his cooks make us dinner. “You can judge a lot about a country from the way the border is.” observes Maartin in his heavy Dutch accent. Curry, beer and friendly company.

I take pictures of the trucks in the pound as the sun dips, and the porters pull and wrestle me to take their portrait next to the decorated juggernauts. The workmanship on the trucks is more inspiring than any mosque or church I’ve ever seen. Temples to the road. Monuments of highway pride. With 500 horsepower, I bet they really fly too. The drivers are mild mannered and gentle, though I’ve been told they are unforgiving and unyielding behind the wheel. The ear-splitting horns make me skit. I’m dreading hearing them unleashed at me while I’m driving, and I want one for the Biotruck to volley back. I need one. I must have one.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Opium and Out

It’s a mix of mime, broken English and Farsi. At first I understand that his son will die in 3 months because he’s lost something that was in his pockets. I’m wrestling with my wing, kiting in strong wind, so the sad story fails to win my full concentration, but a few hours later I’ve pieced together A’s story. His father died 3 years ago leaving him wealthy (deep pockets) but mournful.

If you’ve got money to spend in Iran, you buy a Nissan Maxima. A drives his like it’s stolen swiping past Pekans and Zamyads with only millimetres to spare. We listen to pirated techno MP3s so loud the distorted bass punctures my eardrums.

Between him and his brothers they seem to own most of northern Yazd. In his father’s enormous empty house the housekeeper seems happy to have visitors. He prepares a sand tray with some burning coals, some chai nabat (sugary tea), a large dish or pastries and the opium pipe. He melts a blob of the brown resin onto the side of the ceramic bowl of the pipe and warms it with the coals. Then A shows me how to smoke it. First blow through the tiny pin hole, firing up the charcoal held above the melting opium with ornate tongs, until it resin melts and bubbles, then suck in strong gulping puffs until the opium has vanished.

My first draws are too sheepish and the tiny effect is outweighed by my nervous racing heart. But after a few tries I get it and with just 2 or 3 good hits inside me I can tell I’ve had enough. I’m a little bit dizzy but completely at peace, becalmed except for the sugar craving which the tea and cakes at arm’s length satiate perfectly.

The rest of the day is a stoned haze for me, but A is buzzing and accelerates his naturally vibrant pace. We have to drive all over town. He has to meet clients, employees, and some engineers, and busily shouts instructions down his ever ringing mobile. I spend the day staring at these people in a blur, only able to focus my gaze slightly beyond them because answering their questions takes all my concentration; “My name is Andy”. “I live in England, yeah England.” “I came to Iran alone”.

Now the traffic seems charmingly entertaining from A’s passenger seat rather than the usual heart-stopping death dance. Rather than picturing my legs mangled in the seemingly inevitable collisions at every junction, I dispassionately wonder if their muscles will choose to work when it’s time to get out of the car. After several hours I begin to accept that this stoned sensation never wear off. Ah well. Nothing seems that worrying. Eventually we stop at a friend’s house and A confides in them we’ve done a stick of opium. They let me sleep for a couple of hours, and I wake 8 hours after first having drawn on the pipe with a sense that I am almost back to normal. We eat a kilo of oranges and bananas before heading home to face his wife.

A also has a healthy appetite for Afghan hash, and anything else illicit, which in Iran makes him a connoisseur of many things. Over the next couple of days I learn the Farsi for “Fucking son of a bitch Mullah” purely by osmosis from hearing him mutter it so many times. Thank god I ask someone what it means before I’m about to repeat it in public. It’s impossible to gauge how severe a swear word is in a foreign language until you use it unwisely. Their literal translations make them seem banal.

When we part, with vague plans to meet again in India, Iran or London, A tells me he hopes next time I come to Iran there won’t be any more Ahunt Cos Kesh running the place. I hope so too, and I’m confident there will be a change of some sort. Too many young people passionately hate this religious regime for it to last another generation.

At the end of the day, a car drives over my foot in Kerman while I’m stood by the road and I’m half way through screaming my head off in English at the driver (“It’s not like I’m hard to see standing here two metres tall, wearing a white shirt. D’you know how a fucking steering wheel works...”) when I notice she’s lone a woman. As I calm down I realise the crowd of turned heads are unsure if they should be sympathising for the upset caused to the foreign visitor or telling the rude man that shouting at the shrinking angel behind the wheel is not acceptable in Iran. No harm done. No apologies offered. She drifts away as soon as the traffic allows, and I do the same as soon as I’ve found a way to round off my tirade. I’d always been curious to know how heavy a car feels on your foot. Not as bad as you’d think.

It’s been a month to the day since I arrived in Iran, and suddenly I’m impatient to leave. The idea of adding 400km and a few days to visit and fly in Shiraz doesn’t appeal. On the telly a series of Mullah’s are delivering emotive speeches. I don’t know what they are saying but the echoing PA system doesn’t do their presentation any favours. The camera pans back to reveal a tiny crowd framed to make it fill the screen. I ask what it’s about and the hotelier who spoke perfect English 20 minutes ago pretends not to understand my question.

It’s time for a new country and hopefully better and more varied food. Kebab and rice, with banana milkshakes for desert, may seem like paradise, but after a month its Ground Hog food. I look forward to coming back to Iran, unless this blog ever gets read by the visa department, but for now I need a break from this good friend.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Salam Hoshkele

The reason I’ve always loved overland journeys is that I can see how the cultures evolve between my home and the final destination. At the end of a big trip I find myself in a totally alien environment but I understand the connection between it and my own. Ideas, food, social mores, courting rituals, physiognomy, clothing...

In the south of Iran people already look a little more Pakistanis, and I’ve been eating somosas and curry. I can begin to see how the transition will look.

It’s also a fact of overlanding journeys that people will always tell you that the next place is very dangerous. Usually it isn’t and when you get to it people tell you that where you’ve just come from is very dangerous. The key to a safe trip is knowing when to ignore uninformed warnings and when to heed experienced voices. In practice you can only really do this with hindsight. I met some bikers who came through Pakistan on their way to Europe who told me a little about the route and reassured me that it didn’t feel unsafe.

Apparently there are police checkpoints every 30-40km, you are given an escort, and when it gets dark you stop at the nearest checkpoint. The journey to Quetta is 600km and can be done in a day (on a motorbike maybe, but not in my bus). I’ve also met a Dutch couple travelling in a campervan with their young baby that I’d like to convoy with and hopefully our timetable will coincide

Yazd is a desert town with an adobe medina. It’s even more religious than Esfehan, in that religious laws are more strictly enforced. It’s cute but not stunning, with a few lovely desert paragliding sites. I bounce the bus off road to one of the take off areas, remote with an endless view of the desert. It’s a low ridge that supports soaring. I fly a little, practice kitting in smooth 20km/h winds and as the wind veers round to the side, the 15 or so other pilots pack their wings, crank up the car stereos and invite me to dance to Iranian rap, play on their quad bikes, drink homemade whiskey and smoke Afghan hash as the sun sets.

I camp the night at the spot judging the danger warnings to be a product of ignorance. The next morning 40 police officers arrive as I am having breakfast. They have come to practice paragliding too but without the booze, weed or music. They give me some water and more wood for my fire and also tell me it’s dangerous here. They make it clear they don’t want me to stay a second night.

In town I meet a couple or Tehrani lawyers here for a weekend city break. They are quite surprised at how backwards Yazd is compared to Tehran, in terms of architecture and the way religious laws are enforced.

Perhaps the strictness is the reason I’m getting less lingering looks from women. The Eshveh subtle but unmistakable extended eye contact and discrete Mona Lisa smiles I was being shot all the time in the north have dried up. Instead I am getting a different type of attention. As we pass the city prison a “tour guide” showing me the way to the paragliding sites tells me he’s been in there once. “For pumping” He hammers his chest with his fist.

“I thought it was only the women who got in trouble for pumping.”

“Not with woman, with man. I not gay, but maybe ACDC. Iran gay different from Europe gay. In Iran many men from 16 to marriage are temporary gay. If can’t get woman, then man is OK.”

Dinner Jacket has decreed there are no gays in Iran. Presumably he’s been around and asked everyone? So I’m more surprised by this guys openness than by his admission. It’s part of a fumbled come-on which thankfully goes no further. Iranian men are very tactile with each other and I felt very comfortable with the demonstrative warmth, but after this encounter in which the guide also told me about initiation rapes, sadly the cliché of the frustrated Arab’s conquest over the naive European man is feeding my homophobic paranoia, and I’m feeling less at ease with the everyday physical contact.

A pilot I’m flying with gets a call that his mother has been arrested. She’s a prominent lawyer campaigning for women’s rights, such as the outlawing of Honour Killings, so a father who kills his unmarried daughter because she is gets pregnant would face some criminal punishment. Or the banning of lashes for unmarried women caught having sex. They use electrical cable and horse whips.

The arrest happened on the first day of a long weekend so the family have to wait till the court opens in 3 days to find out why she’s been arrested and where she’s being held. The pilot expects she will be held for a month or so and that the intention is purely to intimidate her because of her work.

In Tehran the planned student demo has turned violent and there is no mention of there even being a demonstration in the Iranian news and I learn about it by text message from Europe. I fail to get to a satellite dish to follow events on BBC Persia so that’s all I know.

I wish I’d gone back to the capital to take some pictures, but the reaction of genuine fear from my hosts in Tehran when I mooted the idea was far more effective than telling me it would be dangerous. I have no photos of one of the most significant moments in global current affairs, but equally I am not being horse whipped in an Iranian prison.

The cold starts are getting harder even when the weather is not that cold, and I’ve finally decided to have the injectors serviced. They could have done with it before I left the UK and sure enough all 4 are working like water pistols spraying a stream of fuel rather than like atomisers injecting a combustible cloud. If the fuel doesn’t come out as a spray it doesn’t ignite properly. This makes the engine hard to start when cold and it churns out un-burnt hydrocarbons in the form of plumes of white smoke. New injector needles which are on their way from Tehran should also make the engine more powerful and more fuel efficient, and at last the journey will stop being dictated by the need for warmth to start the engine. Perhaps I can extend my visa again and stay another month in Iran. With a wood burning stove in the bus I could even head up into the mountains towards Persepolis and Shiraz before backtracking towards Pakistan.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Party in the Park

I ask a young guy if he's come to the square to hear what Dinner Jacket has to say. "No, my principal said I will get credit for my Arabic course if I come, and I haven't studied for the exam". Today, in this square everyone stops short at criticising the president.

Certainly the 10 year old children can't be counted as politically aware supporters, despite the flags, posters and banners they are carrying. But none the less the square is pretty full with over 10,000 people, and the support seems genuine beyond the hysteria that any big event whips up.

At first I'm not allowed close to the stage area as the thorough searching reveals I have a massive camera, but by the time the president has turned up 4 hours late the enthusiasm for searching has evaporated and I waft through the barrier and as close to the stage as the packed throng allows me. By this time my paranoia about taking pics has eased and I snap away, but once I have the best shot I'm going to get I still feel the urge to make an exit.

As I turn to leave, a Mullah in the crowd makes a leap to grab my hand. This is how it starts, surrounded by a massive crowd I've no escape and it will get ugly quickly. A sharp jerk and maybe I can break away from his grip and build enough momentum to barge my way back through to where the crowd thins and then run. If I hesitate each second could cost me dear.

"Welcome to Esfahan," the Mullah smiles "Can I translate for you?"

I get a simultaneous translation of the last part of the speech which has already lasted a
good 40 minutes. I'm in time to hear that western governments should keep out of Iran peaceful nuclear programme and something about Bush not wanting to accept some theological premise as a precursor to political negotiations.

It’s strange for me to hear religious ideas so unapologetically at the forefront of a political speech, but that is precisely the point of the Revolution.

The ebb and flow of the oratory is excellent and give easy queues for the cheering crowd to join in. "God is great, God is great, the Supreme Leader is good too!" I struggle to resist the urge myself. The loudest response comes after I hear the words "Inglistan" and "Ameriqui" in the words.

As we walk out after the speech the Mullah asks me where I'm from. "Inglistan? Oh very good." he says sincerely without a trace of irony. He gives me his number and invites me to call if I have any problems while I'm in Esfahan. He's one of many that have done this, and my mobile is burgeoning with so many names I don't remember who they all belong to but no doubt a call to anyone would bring instant help.

The Nuclear programme provides a lot of support for Dinner Jacket, and if the West's stance wasn't so entrenched, or at least fairer with respect to Israel’s arsenal, then he'd be less able to use it as a rallying cry.

Esfahan is a religious city, reflected in its monuments and history, so naturally more inclined towards Dinner Jacket's hardliner religious political stance. But the night before the rally, I find a place to park up out by Pol Khaju, a beautiful bridge illuminated at night, and full of young guys and couples for whom Islam and the way in which it's applied here are only a nuisance.

The arches of the bridge provide an excellent acoustic and boys meet to drum, dance, smoke water pipes and play cards. They are Esfahan’s hoodies. Every 10 or 15 minutes when the crowd has grown too big around the musicians it all stops and disperses to the whisper of "Aroza" (the police) and like a Chicago speakeasy you'd never know there'd been a frenetic concert seconds before as the cops stroll past twirling their batons. Welcome to Esfahan’s nightclub.

The boys revel in talking about sex, asking me how English girls are, joking about
shagging each others' sisters and mums, and showing me Iranian porn on their mobiles. I learn a plethora of Farsi insults. Magit tell me that if you meet an Iranian girl once you can get her number and then SMS her for a while. "The next time meet her..." he mimes a sharp scissor action with a beady grin, his fingers coming tightly together like two bodies intimately embraced "SEX!”

Amongst the musicians and singers, an old guy in his 60’s dances, sings and plays a flute-like tune from his sinuses. The sounds is beautiful, his movements graceful and his voice enchanting. The boisterous lads, who must be a third his age, reverently listen and clap the beat. By midnight it's too cold and the last revelers shuffle off the bridge into the darkness of the shore.

Playing music and dancing in public is forbidden so it's no wonder that the Dinner Jacket's open air rock concert rally can stir up the frenetic response it does. Dinner Jacket: A vote for parties and music.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009


I’m with Hamid when he fills up his Nissan 4x4 this morning. It’s not an Iranian made car so he isn’t entitled to the government discount card and he should be paying $0.30/litre instead of $0.10. However a friend with a Saba Pride has lent him their card, which is capped at 180 litres a day, so Hamid can brim the tank.

A full tank of fuel costs him £4. In the UK it would cost over £100.

Sammy laughs, it seems like everyone at the filling station is laughing. “This is the result of the sanctions.” he grins, “While you are spending millions helping the environment, we are left with so much oil we are busy destroying it as quickly as we can.”

Sammy knows about trade embargos, He runs an import business via an office in Dubai, importing products from the US and elsewhere; Another reminder that in Iran, for every rule, there is a way around it.

But it’s true that the country has more fuel than it knows what to do with, yet the Iranian made cars they poor it into are 15 years behind the times. The Peugeot 405 is at the nicer end of the showroom choices available, discontinued in the UK in 1996.

The isolationism of Iran’s regime has created a lot of unique surreal snapshots in this country. The road freight is mainly pre-1970, with a lot of American Macks and Internationals still hauling. The gas guzzlers which were died everywhere else after the first fuel crisis are only being driven off the road now that spares are becoming so hard to find. No one sees the irony that the Iranian distribution infrastructure is engineered in Detroit.

Isolationism has also helped foster an innocence of society. In the park at the top of town, families play volleyball together, courting couples benignly knock badminton shuttlecocks back and forth, and wholesome hobbies are heartily indulged in by all.

So what have the Ayatollahs ever done for Iran? Apart from creating powerful family cohesion, moral fibre so strong it could lift the world, night time streets devoid of muggers and evening entertainment free of pissed up binge drinkers.

Now I dare say there might well be slightly less authoritarian ways to achieve these values in society, but regardless of how it got here, Iran really has a unique culture where neighbourliness is next to godliness. When this isolation ends, some of the changes will no doubt be for the worst, like Communist Russia opening up to the free market, there will be moral gains and losses.

But for now there certainly is room for some softening of the moral hardline. The Aziadi Tower was built by the Shah, but in a classic Big Brother move has become a monument to the Revolution. It’s also a secret bunker of some sort, connected to a military installation across the road. It’s built during that brief period when they discovered you could make really funny angles with concrete, and before the novelty of zany structures wore off. If you wanted a setting for the lair of a Bond villain circa 1970, this place has it all, including 12 inch thick concrete doors and impenetrable towers.

Our guide gives us the full doublespeak history of the Revolution in a voice that is grating and far too chipper. At the end I go to shake her hand and she pulls back laughing. “Hahaha No, not allowed in Iran!” It’s happened to me before, many times and in many other countries, and never bothered me, but this time, maybe because I’d just endured an unsophisticated 40minute diatribe on how great the Revolutions is, her gesture really irks me. Heaven forbid that the touch of my hand should send you into uncontrollable orgasmic spasms, or that I might be overcome by the feel of your skin and start dry humping the angular concrete walls.

I realise my perspective on Tehran has been biased by the company I’ve kept, and the company I’ve been able to speak English with. Outside Tehran the demographic and attitudes are different. The educated, non-religious, wealthy middle class that I’ve befriended are politically aware insofar as it suites them to be, but not politically active enough to risk their personal safety or their financial status quo. Why should they be? After all, the political momentum is already in the direction of change at a slow and manageable pace. The opposition party is called Esla Talab, which roughly translates to “Corrections Required”, so not exactly promising radical change.

But the moral changes that could flow in 10-15 years from decisions made now will impact the middle-class’s way of life more than any other, and perhaps they will look back on the happy days when you knew your neighbour and could walk the streets at night without having to step over nightclub vomit. The conservatism of the reform movement will regulate the moral change, with slow steps. It’s another reason why no one wants another Revolution in Iran.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Iranian State Sponsored Bus

The fundamental idea behind Biofuels is that, unlike fossil fuels, the carbon they release when they are used is carbon that was already in the atmosphere. Nothing new is being added. Fossil fuels on the other hand require digging carbon atoms out of the ground in the form of crude oil and burning them releasing carbon into the atmosphere.

All well and good in theory but there 3 major problems that biofuels have to overcome to really work on an environmental level.

Firstly growing massive amounts of oil producing crops to meet the planets fuel needs is practically impossible, and unsustainable agricultural practices in places like Malaysia and the Amazon mean that rainforests are being felled to grow palm and soya for oil. Obviously this is completely counterproductive from a CO2 point of view and environmentally worthless, but it is cheap, and does tick the boxes governments have set out for “green” fuel producers. This crappy legislation is responsible for biofuels with a higher carbon footprint than diesel, which by the way, I can’t help referring to as “the good stuff” much to my own annoyance.

Secondly growing biofuels means there is less space left to grow food crops. Biofuel crops account for a tiny portion of the land that could be used to grow food, however food prices are dependent on the balance between how much food is produced and how much food is consumed. If there is a tiny bit more food available, then food is cheap, but if there is a tiny bit less, then food becomes dramatically more expensive. Agrofuels have been credited with sending food production below this tipping point and sending crop prices sky high.

Then there is a third problem which is that producing biofuels takes energy, and requires a small but not negligible quantity of chemicals which are mainly produced as by products of the petrochemical industry.

The first two problems can be solved in a number of ways. The key thing is proper legislation that rewards sustainably grown fuels with a traceable feedstock. Oil producers say this is too complicated because of the way fuel is blended before being sold. Crap. You can buy sustainable electricity that is “blended” in the National Grid so why not fuel from a big blending tank. The Renewable Fuels Agency in the UK is working on improving the UK legislation.

You can also use waste oils, of which there aren’t a huge amount, certainly when compared with the fuel need, but the right legislation (like that in the UK) has encouraged a very efficient network of recycling of waste oil by individuals and companies. Certainly there is no excuse for waste oil going to waste. And new ideas on sources of waste are being developed and pushed as commercial projects in the quest to meet demand. Uptown Oils one of my sponsors are working with sewer grease which has to be scraped out of the drains to free up pipes. In China they are already using the same technology to recover grease from restaurants on a massive scale.

There are so called second generation crops, which are showing promising signs of providing solutions. Jatropha is a desert flower whose seed produces oil and it grows in arid conditions where food crops can’t be grown. MFC in Mali are doing research work to see how yields can be improved with crop rotation, resting the land and cross breeding varieties.

There is also a lot of work going on with vertical Algae growing. Algae produce huge amounts of oil, per hectare of land (or moreover water) compared with traditional oil crops. It can be fed with sewerage, or it can even be grown at sea. The difficult bit is extracting the oil from the Algae, but again new techniques are being pioneered as we speak.

The third problem which doesn’t get talked about much, rests on the fact that planet Earth has a fossil fuelled infrastructure. Ethanol is an important ingredient in making biodiesel. There are bioethanols available, but not widely, and the transport footprint becomes a factor for producers that want to use it, let alone the cost.

In London Uptown Oils wanted to power their processors with generators running on the biodiesel they produce from restaurant waste oil, but they would need special permits as it’s classed as “waste incineration”. Aside from the mad bureaucracy, sustainable energy can be used to produce biofuels, if it’s cheap and available.

Here in Tehran, I have drawn a blank on finding waste oil. We found a broker that sold waste oil from chips factories to soup makers, for 80cents/litre. 1000 litres would cost $800, cheaper than fuel in the UK, but a lot more than my shoe string budget could afford, and a lot more expensive than filling the tank with Iranian Good Stuff (which would cost about ten quid!). Regardless it was the wrong sort of oil, too lardy and dirty. The next best option was to use fresh oil, and an Iranian environmental NGO persuaded a local cooking oil producer to provide 900litres of fresh but unprocessed oil. It has been extracted from soya beans, but not filtered, bleached or neutralised, so isn’t fit for cooking. The best thing about it is that I can now say that the expedition is (sort of) Iranian State Sponsored because the NGO that lobbied on my behalf is part funded by the government. I shan’t mention it to US Immigration.

I’m disappointed it’s not waste, but after a week of chasing my tail, I have to make a compromise. At least it’s not diesel, and this is after all a vegetable oil producing nation. I now have enough fuel to get to India where I hope to find some Jatropha.

After Dinner Jacket

It’s been raining so the traffic is bad and the people from the state run news organisations are late. They blame Ahmadi Najad for the traffic, but only after making sure the microphone is off. I ask them about how they function as journalists here. They have to get approval before they can go out and cover any story, and then when it’s done they have to have it approved again by a collection of government agencies. It’s a minefield, and a miracle anything gets published. A week later my interviews still haven’t gone out, on hold while it goes through the approval process.

The only way to function in this environment is to self censor. Avoid controversy, toe the line. It’s not that different in the UK. Read Flat Earth News by Nick Davies (I’ve finished reading it now so I will finally stop going on about it).

The easy question that always comes up is “How do I like Iran”, which seems to come from a genuine curiosity about how Iran is perceived by foreigners. But it’s always followed by the killer go-directly-to-jail, do-not-pass-Go question; “What do you think about the Iranian elections?” There is no right answer here, “You either go to jail in Iran, or you go to jail in England” jokes Sammy who is translating the question. But it’s only half a joke.

In that moment I come up with a great answer, diplomatic and thoughtful. Split second genius. So good I don’t need to take the time to mentally double check it before it I release it from my mouth: “In the UK no one voted for Gordon Brown, we had no election, yet he is our Prime Minister. In Italy Silvio Berlusconi controls the media and that allowed him to control what people thought was true, to manipulate his re-election. In the US Bush stole the presidency for 8 years. Democracy is difficult.”

What!?! Andy, You Fucking Idiot! You’ve either just said “Yeah you’ve got a corrupt election stealing president in Iran too” or a milder interpretation might be “Election stealing is fine, everyone does it, leave the man alone” to a population that are ready to lynch him. As the penny drops, I look at the reporter and ask “I’m going to prison aren’t I?”

But fortunately they throw me a lifeline. “No, before they put you in prison they will arrest me, so I will make sure neither of us gets into trouble.” Thank god for a system which forces journalists to self-censor.

Relatively Skimpy

When I was a student in the early 90s I worked in a piston factory in Bridgewater. Probably the bleakest moment in my life. One day a new secretary came to work at the factory. She had a blond perm, knee length skirts and an Escort XR3i. She set the foundry alight. Bridgewater had never seen such a stunner. And for the first week the forklift driver would bring us regular updates of what she was doing each time he’d pass her window. “She’s on the phone”, or “She’s typing something”.

I’d come down from London where perms and knees on show were old news, but being surrounded by the hysteria and starved of anything more stimulating, I too soon became infatuated. My puppy love never went further because it was soon made clear to me she was obviously spoken for. “Nice car. Must be her fella’s.” the forklift driver mused one lunch time.

Today I’m in the front seat of a taxi at a red light in Tehran, and crossing the road is a peroxide blond with 3 inch stilettos at the end of her shape hiding trousers, and although she’s wearing a headscarf, her hair isn’t tied up beneath it, and the long blond locks sway across her back as she sidles past, dragging my gaze with her. I catch the taxi driver is also mesmerised. He looks past me to the taxi driver in the adjacent cab and they exchange a comment about the girl. I don’t understand what they say but from the body language and the smiles I’d guess it wasn’t “She wants a good stoning”, but more likely “I wouldn’t mind a portion of that for dessert”

Either way, after just a few days my sensibilities are changing too. Where I might previously have admired the soft curve of a breast, the slenderness of a leg, or the pertness of a bottom, I am now just as drawn to the erotic swish of long feather-like eye lashes, fluttering around shimmering wide brown Persian eyes. Girls here have amazingly long eyelashes. Spectacularly long. In an interview with a journalist I can’t resist asking her if hers are real. They are!

The headscarf is worn in so many different ways that it’s hard to see it as a tool to subjugate women, any more than any other garment of clothing does. The 16 year old daughter of a friend tells me she hates being forced to wear the headscarf, but even if she didn’t feel it was socially compulsory she would still wear it.

For a while now, the fashion police (there is no such thing by the way) have been very relaxed, maybe sensing the mood is against them in the wake of the election protests. However there is no rule book telling women what is and isn’t acceptable, and there aren’t patrols on the street checking if hair is visible or not, although some policemen bring their personal beliefs to work with them and might take it upon themselves to castigate errant women for their own moral good. But principally it’s a self enforced consensus of dress, the limits of which are being pushed and repelled by those at either end of the bell curve.

I worked in a club in the West End of London, and on a Friday and Saturday night the dress consensus for women is just as rigorously self-enforced, and pushed by a few bold individuals. It’s undeniable that the right clothes are empowering but each society dictates what is “right”.

The headscarf started out as symbol of solidarity with the Revolution after the Shah forbade it, but in conversations with women about it, I get the sense it’s now more of a red herring. I moot the idea that like bra-burning feminist of the 70’s, Iranian women might remove their scarves as part of protests against the government, but the responses tell me that’s some way off. Either Iranians aren’t ready for it yet, or the dogma of the scarf is now more ingrained in the culture, than associated with the Revolution, so removing it wouldn’t make sense as a symbol of protest against the president or the supreme leader.

No doubt globalisation and cultural exchange will eventually remove Iran’s scarf even if the protestors don’t. Another unique national trait wiped from the earth as we move towards utopian homogeneity. Perhaps it will be consigned to themed Iranian tourist restaurants of the future.

I’ve never been particular perceptive of social rules; even when I was in Bridgewater, the forklift driver asked the secretary out on a date after the first week and she said yes. Crafty bastard. After a week here I’m still struggling to get to grips with which mores are religious, social or political, but I get the sense that this confusion and cross over is part of Iranian national identity.

Children of the Revolution

I’m so angry at how stupid I’ve been. Iran? dangerous? misogynist? fundamentalist? xenophobic? Of course it isn’t, none of these things, and how stupid am I for having thought, even for a moment, for a second, that any country could be suicidal for a British passport holder, or spell instant rape for a single woman.

On our first day a breakdown in communication means we get an impromptu tour of the university campus, the very same campus where 3 days early massive demonstrations started. There’s a hint of political descent from our host, Sammy, but I hide my excitement at being in the centre of today’s history and the paranoia about the security apparatus that might be listening directs me to quickly change the subject.

Less than 48 hours later we have a better measure of the place. We’ve lost our appetite for paranoia about secret police, and in terms of fundamentalism, well this barely passes as an Islamic country. In practice, Tehran is less religious than Istanbul.

Sammy is 28, born 3 years after the Revolution which led to a jump in population inspired by a call for soldiers from the Supreme Leader. Sammy is slap in the middle of that spike. At primary school his parents had to fight to get him a place, again at secondary school, and at university, and now he has graduated there aren’t enough jobs to go round for the Iranian baby-boomers.

And their resentment is aimed squarely at the government, and not just for the lack of jobs, affordable housing. Mostly they are angry because they are educated enough to see that they have just been cheated out of an election where they rejected the hardline party’s politics which injects religious interference into their lives. Cheated, as they see it, not just by the president clinging corruptly onto power, but subsequently also by the Supreme Leader.

The Supreme Leader is the father figure of the revolution, the benign head of the religious ideology people turned to in the early 70s. His constitutional power is superimposed over an electoral system and parliament which is otherwise comparable to that of the US.

After this election everyone expected the Supreme Leader to say that even though it had been fair, because the people were unhappy it would be re-run. He didn’t, and the focus of discontent shifted from Ahamdi Najad on to him.

The demonstration criticising the supreme leader was a first ever, and is a short step to a re-revolution. Everyone agrees that the protests will continue and escalate until the president is replaced, but no one thinks the police or the army will ever quell the protests let alone fire on the demonstrators, and maybe that’s true, but it’s precisely what the students of Tiananmen Square thought too.

Sammy says he doesn’t want a revolution. No one does because the last revolution was such a letdown. But he does want an end to the religious ideology dictating government policy. That sounds like it’s going to need revolution to me.

The 16 year old daughter of another host is disgusted that I am trying to arrange a photo call with President Ahmadi Najad. “Mr Ahmadi Najad,” she corrects me, “He’s not my president.”

Later Hamid takes me aside. “It’s important to the young people that foreigners don’t give credibility to this election”, and my attempt to get is seen as such. I reluctantly give up on the idea.

There’s no need for another revolution. The Supreme Leader is old and not long for this world but the protests will continue until nature takes its course or events intercede.

In The Independent, that Frankie has brought from the UK, there is a short article about the NCRI, a group of exiled Iranians clearly with an axe to grind. They sound like an Astroturf Organisation – purporting to have grass roots but actually totally manufactured to push an agenda. They claim (from the insightful vantage point of Brussels - wtf?), that the Revolutionary Guard has launched a new department to track down individuals involved in the protests. Sammy laughs when I read this to him. “They aren’t that organised.” None of the protestors are scared of “the security apparatus.”

Later I hear of students arrested and held for several weeks undergoing mild torture, after the first round of protests, I see a prison in town where I’m told people disappear, but most worryingly about the Basij, a pro-government militia that aren’t as restrained as the “people-loving” police or army, who might direct violent retaliation at protestors.

But descent with the government is so widespread and so close to the surface, there’s maybe some safety in numbers. A neighbour sparks up a conversation with me while I am working on the bus in the street. Within minutes he is vocally telling me what a prick Ahmadi Najad is, and how he was at the protest and isn’t scared of the inept police.

I explain to my hosts how my media push an agenda that the Middle East is populated by irrational, hate filled, religious zealots intent on murdering western infidels, in order to justify us relieving them from their oil revenue. There’s a long silence after my tirade. Perhaps they are in shock, perhaps disillusionment, or perhaps they’re freaked out by this ranting Brit.

The Independent piece is another story in the western media, which as I’ve discovered effectively manipulate my fears, persuading me that Iran is mad, bad and dangerous. Orwellian thought control. I really thought I was smart enough to see through it. Thankfully the undeniable truth is clear to me now: A safe, and overwhelmingly welcoming city.