The 4 TELL Research Group – within the Instituto de Telecomunicações (IT – Aveiro) – is seeking to recruit a postdoctoral researcher to work on one of our research projects funded by the EU ICT Framework program. You will be … Continue reading
Posted on 01 March 2012 by Tea Server
The 4 TELL Research Group – within the Instituto de Telecomunicações (IT – Aveiro) – is seeking to recruit a postdoctoral researcher to work on one of our research projects funded by the EU ICT Framework program. You will be … Continue reading
Posted on 26 February 2012 by Tea Server
This is second of a series of posts on my recent Iran trip. For all posts in the series, view the Iran Chronicles tag.
Arrival in Tehran and Money Exchange
After the hassle-free exit from the Tehran IKA airport, I faced my first task to do: get the currency exchanged. The US imposed economic sanctions on Iran means no banking relationships with Iran – effectively none of the debit/credit cards work in Iran and one has to bring all the money required in cash. I struggled for half an hour to get some of my US dollars exchanged with Iranian currency at the airport but all of the half-a-dozen bank branches were on break for some reason. A local approached me, decrypting the confused look at my face and offered the on-spot exchange at a good rate – within minutes, I had enough local currency to pay for the cab and the hotel I had booked earlier in Tehran.
Ironical it may sound, but the most acceptable foreign currencies in Iran are US dollar, the Euro and the British Pounds. One can get them exchanged pretty easily even if there is no currency exchange office around; try any shop or even a local passing by you. Why should one just not get Iranian currency before traveling into Iran? Well, to finance a two week trip for two in Iran, one needs a sack full of Iranian currency, considering the exchange rate. At the time of my visit, 1 GBP was equal to 17, 000 IRR (Iranian Rials) – although the smallest denomination I saw was 500IRR, still none will be comfortable carrying a separate bag for cash. But, one can get a tourist ATM card (a prepaid ATM card) from most of Iranian banks, available even at airports or any bank branch.
Tehran Airport and the cabbies
Tehran IKA, now the capital’s primary airport, was opened in 2004 and almost all international flights have been transferred here from the old Mehrabad Airport in downtown Tehran, which still is the main domestic flight hub. IKA is situated about 30km south of Tehran on the highway to Qom. With no public transport system yet in place, the only way to get there is by private taxi, the rates for which are fixed by the state. Tehran Metro is planned expansion will connect the airport to the city through two lines, scheduled to be completed by the end of the year 2012.
The cab drivers at Tehran airport, like everywhere else in the world, were a bit arrogant and not too welcoming. Their monopoly on the transportation between airport and the city explains why. However, they do not try to rip you off – the fares quoted were reasonable and when I tried to negotiate with a young cabbie, he waved his hand in a Ja-Oay! gesture and walked away without saying a word. Luckily our midnight arrival allowed us to avoid the traffic clog and busy roads of Tehran and our middle aged cabbie took only 45mins to take us to the Southern part of the city. Our driver took a while to find our hotel while wandering through streets of this middle/lower-middle class neighborhood which was very quiet at this hour of night. Finally, he found LP recommended Khayyam Hotel (B&B actually) hidden in an alleyway off Amir Kabir Street which is dotted with motor workshops. The nearby Mellat street is home to home appliances market and the Saadi street for tool fittings, ceramics etc – all of these three merge at Imam Khomeini Square. For Lahori readers, Imam Khomeini Square was like Mozang, Amir Kabir Street being the Lytton Road, Mellat Street being Abid Market and Saadi Street being Ferozpur Road and Ichrra.
The middle-class Ichhra-like neighborhood of South Tehran
Khayyam Hotel is a bit dated (built 1976) simple B&B with basic rooms and overpriced for what it offers. The owner, Mr. Ali Jasbi who is occasionally available at the reception is welcoming, friendly and always ready to help. In addition to this, the other plus side was the location of the hotel – excellent suburban rail connections through Mellat Metro and Imam Khomeini Metro stations (both 10mins walk away), extensive bus connections through Imam Khomeini Square (10 min walk) and 24X7 availability of cabs (from Amir Kabir street) and shuttle taxis (from Imam Khomeini Square, 10 min walk).
It was 34C with the sun shining straight on our heads as we headed out on the first day in Tehran. We had a confusing start of the day wandering through Amir Kabir and Saadi Street where we found ourselves a bit lost and couldn’t find anything other than spare part shops and motor workshops. We didn’t expect being based in middle of a Montgomery Road in Tehran but this turned out to be quite a learning experience. I quickly deciphered trade links: the sings on the shops had bits of Urdu and Turkish; the goods delivery-agents had signs reading Quetta, Karachi, Istanbul, Baghdad and other cities of the region; and the cheap hotels in the area (primarily for traders on trade-trips) had Pakistan and Turkish flag visibly hoisted. To my surprise, as we walked past tool fitting shops, I heard a Bollywood item number being played out loud and then another guy saying “Pakistani?” quite loudly, in a questioning tone as we walked past his shop.
First Chelo Kebab
Within a couple of hours, the heat and surprises drained our energy and it was time for first meal in Iran. We struggled in this part of the city to find a decent/interesting place to eat and ended up having Chelo Kebab (boiled rice with minced meat Kebab) at one of these small road-side restaurants. Chelo Kebab can be called Iran’s national dish – this is essential for every Iranian kitchen irrespective of social class or financial status.
I struggled again when it was time to make the payment as it takes a bit of time to get used to the local Iranian currency – which you have to carry loads. Confusingly, Iranians talk of money in different system/units (Tomans) than what is printed on currency notes (Rials) – the reason being the IRR has gone so down in terms of its value that even a loaf of bread will cost several thousand rials (1 GBP = 17,000 IRR). The locals came up with an easy solution: another unit of currency i.e. Toman which is equal to 10 Rials. With filled tummies and blistering afternoon, it was by default time for a siesta and thus we headed back to the hotel passing through the endless maze of stores.
Later in the afternoon, I unpacked my customized list of places to visit in Tehran and headed straight to Golestan Palace [Eng site] which was once enclosed within the mud-thatched walls of Tehran’s Historic Arg (citadel). The green-tin tuck shops which dot Tehran’s landscape, regulated by state in terms of location and prices had an obvious presence in this area too. On the 20min walk, we had to pass through the same streets, the busy Imam Khomeini Square which serves as transport hub in this part of the city and then a boulevard which hosts the administrative offices like Department of Justice and Central Bank of Iran [Eng site]. Next to these is the 400 year old Golestan Palace. When Tehran became the capital during the 18th century in Qajr era, this palace became the court and official residence of the royal family. The palace was also used for royal receptions during Pahlavi era and the coronation of Pahlavi kings also carried out in this palace. This is for sure one of the most beautiful palaces in Iran and definitely one of the most well preserved and well managed historic buildings I have seen so far, at par with Hampton Court Palace in the UK.
Golestan Palace, operated by Cultural Heritage Organization of Iran (administrated and funded by Government of Iran) is home to fascinating architecture, beautiful wall paintings and tile work, amazing marble based designs, refreshing greenery spread around ponds and fountains and mind boggling glass work. Takht Marmar (Marle Throne) made from yellow marble from Iran’s Yazd province is one of the oldest structures in the palace. Coronations of Qajar kings (including Raza Shah Pahlavi in 1925), and formal court ceremonies were held on this terrace (iwan). Khalvat Karim Khan, hosting amusing and geometrically appealing tile patterns dates back to 1759 – this building was a part of the interior residence of Karim Khan Zand. The Negar Khaneh exhibits amazing collection of artifacts, paintings (showing evolution of painting in Iran), jewellery, furniture and valuable objects . Talar-e Berelian (Hall of Brilliance) was named so for it is adorned by the brilliant mirror work of Iranian artisans – the mirror work and chandeliers are absolutely mind boggling. Then there is reception hall called Talar Salam, Talar Zoroof and the Museum of gifts which shows collection of gifts received by Qajr and Pahlavi kings as well as works of ceramics and chinaware. Talar Adj (Dining Hall) and Talar Aineh (mirror hall) are the most famous of the palace halls. Shams-ol-Emareh (Edifice of the sun) is the most stunning structures of the Golestan Palace. The Monarch, Nasir od Din Shah wanted a structure from which he could have panoramic views of the city.
national Museum of Iran
Our next stop that day was The national Museum of Iran located on a walking distance in the same area. This museum is supposed to celebrate the rich heritage of Iran, home to Empires, known as Cradle of civilizations but unfortunately this hosts a modest collection of sculptures, ceramics and seals that date back to the 4th and 5th centuries BC. The museum displays artifacts from Paleolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic, early and late Bronze Age, and Iron Ages I-III, through the Median, Achaemenid, Seleucid, Parthian, and Sassanid periods in three halls. The artifacts from the post Islamic period are housed in separate building in the same complex.
The museum is well laid out, the building is quite impressive and is managed really well considering the entrance is dirt cheap but it doesn’t do justice to Iran. I was told parts of collection is displayed at local museums in different parts of the country and an even larger proportion is in the EU museums specially in the UK and France e.g. the famous Cyrus Cylinder is one of over a hundred Iranian artifacts displayed in British Museum in London. Not too impressed by the museum itself, we looked around and found this excellent little Souvenir Shop in the museum courtyard. The shop displayed an amazing collection of souvenirs, gifts, decoration items etc at amazingly low prices. If there was no baggage allowance limit on my flight, I might have ended up buying half of the shop but we had to cease our shopping desires after buying Achaemenid decorative items to give a flavor of Persian civilization to our living room. On top of that, the ticket officer on entrance of Museum of Islamic Art, which is housed in the same complex, was really friendly and asked the usual question which every Iranian will ask after encountering a foreigner – “where are you from?” He was quite excited to find out we’re from Pakistan but couldn’t let us in, despite the obvious I-wish-I-could-help-look on his face, because the museum was closed for renovation.
National Jewels Museum
The other museum which we visited was National Jewels Museum/Treasury – the biggest tourist draw-card in Tehran. This has to be the most stunning collection of jewels on the planet and I can bet you haven’t seen anything like this and will never see. This is absolutely astonishing and you can literally spend hours and hours trying to absorb the detail and beauty of this lovely huge collection. We had to struggle a bit to find the museum as this is located off the main Saadi Street behind a tall structure of Bank Melli. There is no visible sign on the road front but reading through the directions on my Lonely Planet guide, as I tried to enter a fenced area, a security guard ran towards me saying “Kojaa, Kojaa!” (Where?) to which I responded saying “Moza Jawahir”. He asked the usual question and felt a bit comfortable knowing we’re from Pakistan, then guided us to the museum entrance where we could buy tickets and wait for our turn to go inside. Only a limited number of people are allowed to be in the museum at a time until the earlier batch, or some of them come out. The museum itself is located in an underground security vault with rigorous security measures with several checkpoints – both electronic and manual. You are not allowed to take literally anything within the museum and deposit that at entrance. The beauty of this collection cannot be explained, it can only be enjoyed while being there. I’ll only add that this museum alone justifies a visit to Tehran. This was again very well managed and clean, better than some museums I have been to in the EU and entrance was cheap as chips. The art gallery in the Golestan Palace and The National Jewels Museum in combination display the incredible jewellery with which the Safavid and Qajar monarchs adorned themselves.
You can spend several weeks in Tehran, visiting museums only
The same area is home to a few other museums including Iran Ebrat Museum, Glassware, Post and Telecom Museum. We tried to visit a few other museums but could not manage to sync with the opening times. The city has a museum for everything you can imagine – jewels, post, telecom, natural history, science, history, Islamic period, ancient history, geography, archaeology, revolution, Quran; you name it. There is a museum every few miles, spread all over the city. You need weeks, only to see the museums. Since we only had three days allocated to Tehran, we sufficed with those we visited and decided to see what else the city has to offer…
Iranian encounter: Shared table with Zoroastrian Tehrani couple at Azerbaijani restaurant
The nearest restaurant recommendation on my LP guide was Ferdowsi International Grand Hotel which has a variety of restaurants, famous of which is their traditional restaurant/cafe especially popular among the young Tehranis. We were a bit late as they were closing the kitchen but the restaurant was still very crowded – apparently because of pipe smoking and chae which is served hours after the kitchen is closed. They let us order provided we are okay to share a table with another couple, who gladly allowed us to. When we were being hesitant, the young Iranian couple sitting on other side of the table break the ice and made us feel very comfortable. “You don’t have to be shy and reluctant. You’re in a very difficult city – it won’t work if you’re here”, the guy smiled and said while his partner seemed to agree. Within minutes, we were chatting on stuff ranging from politics and religion to food, culture and sports. Bahman is a self employed trader exporting mechanical parts to the middle East. He explained how difficult it is to manage businesses considering the economic sanctions and the absence of banking channels. He briefly talks about the state of minorities specially the Bahais and didn’t sound very comfortable with the Islamic Government in power, who in his view had done little for protection of human rights in Iran. The couple help us choose what to eat and made us share their starters which included delicious Azerbaijani and Kurdish snacks. The couple left giving us their contact number which we used extensively during our stay in Tehran get directions and advice. The second day in Tehran ended on a pleasant note and we were back in our hotel before mid night taking pictures along the way. We felt very safe even in later hours of the night wandering through the streets of Tehran…
Azadi Square: site of two of Iran’s most epochal protest movements
Even before planning the trip to Tehran, I visualized myself jumping in front of Azadi Square and somebody capturing that moment of joy. To make that happen, enjoy a view of Tehran from a considerable height, and to visit the hotspot of all political activity in Tehran, we decided to start the next day with a visit to Azadi Square. In Iran’s modern history, Azadi Square – site of two of Iran’s most epochal protest movements, is second only to Tehran University in terms of its symbolic political significance. It has been the centre of all political or religiously inspired movements and protests whether it be the Islamic Revolution of 1979 or the recent Green Movement.
The Azadi Tower, in centre of Maydan-e-Azadi marks the entrance to the city and was built in 1971 to celebrate 2500 years of Persian Empire. The architecture combines elements of Sasanid and Persian Islamic Architecture. This is one of the most fascinating works of modern Iranian architecture – very well placed in the middle of a huge square. Arrays of flowers of several varieties, starting the outer end of the square and merging at the tower create a beautiful enjoyable scene. Ofcourse there are fountains around the tower which add to the beauty. A lift leads you to the top of tower to the viewing platform from where one can enjoy amazing view of Tehran city. Apparently photography isn’t allowed at viewing platform but the attendant, after knowing that we’re from Pakistan reacted very warmly, shook hands, escorted us to the viewing platform and said “take photos, but slowly, I wait for you there”. I took my time, captured some lovely shots and then spent some time trying to absorb the spread of the city. Those colourful cabs which come in yellow, orange and green variety dot the landscape in all directions.
Underneath the tower, there are a couple of museums, galleries and a cinema. The outer walls are adorned by the wall painting of protesters from Revolution of 1979. One of the halls inside is dedicated to photographs of the Revolution while audio tapes play famous speeches of Khomeini and other leaders all the time. This creates quite an interesting atmosphere, considering where you are, and one can get a bit of feeling of what really happened back then. The other halls are dedicated to Jewellery, Iranian culture and history etc but the place of honour is occupied by a copy of Cyrus Cylinder.
And shopping like Tehranis…
If you really want to challenge yourself, go try crossing a road midday in Tehran. The traffic is crazy and can scare the hell out of you if you have no experience of traffic in this part of the world. My Lahore-traffic-skills came to rescue and soon we were headed off to Vali Asr Avenue in one of the shared taxis. The shared taxis in Tehran are as critical to city’s transportation needs as is the Metro. Cheap, quick and take you everywhere from everywhere; it’s a travel option of choice for many. Paying 18,000 IRR (nearly £1), both of us were in Vali Asr Avenue fairly quick. But why we were there…. ?
As I spent time in the city, I was noticing how the women were dressed. Some took fashionable liberties with coats tailored to button closely around waistlines and display that, yes, they had rear ends. Designer bag in hand, pointy-toed shoes peeking out beneath trousers, silk scarf tied under the chin or hanging at back of head, make-up carefully applied (with great attention paid to the eyes), they were amongst the most fashionable and trendy women I had ever seen. Contrary to the popular belief that one would find black chadors, there was plenty of color and shades on the streets in Tehran. After the first two days in Tehran, Madeeha knew I was already in love with the Manteaus which young women in Tehran wore. It’s like a regular shirt, sometimes long, sometimes T-shirt length normally sewn to fit with belt at waistline wore with jeans. So, my excuse for being here was just to see and get the feel of the place I had heard and read a lot about and Madeeha’s excuse, as one would expect, was shopping Manteaus (after feeling a bit insecure may be).
Not a lot of shops were open as we were a bit late but we were quite surprised to find what was on offer. It’s interesting to see how Tehranis have managed to be trendy and fashionable softly defying the dress-code rules of the regime. Atleast we were not able to spot a single burka or black chador on sale in Tehran. The shops offered an amazing variety in design and color for Manteaus. Young Tehrani girls have replaced black chadors with a T-shirt length manteau wore with jeans, a roosari (which is a loose scarf covering some part of head but allowing them to display their hairstyles) and trendy athlete shoes. That’s all you can find in this shopping region with some more surprising outfits like sleeveless shirts, swimming costumes, bikinis, very fancy skirts and even miniskirts. Surprisingly, this was all on display publicly on several shops.
The Zoroastrian couple we met earlier in restaurant had recommend Madeeha to visit Tajrish Square for shopping and I am so glad we acted upon their recommendation. This allowed us to have a quick look of North Tehran region which is dramatically different from South Tehran where we were based. Courtesy the Alborz Mountains, the region enjoys fairly mild weather; you get a cool breeze and can avoid Tehran’s pollution. Tajrish Square, the Liberty RoundAbout of Tehran is home to several shopping Plazas, modern hotels and restaurants. Male salespersons were ready with assistance, striking me as odd given the Iranian code of public distance and non-touching between the sexes that goes so far as to divide the seating in public buses into two areas – men in the front and women in the back. But here, men were helping women try on manteaus, tugging and touching here and there while pinning alteration markings.
MPs Residency and Tehran’s Parks
We were back later that evening in Southern Tehran and decided to wander around to just to see what else is out there….
Wandering through this lower-middle class part of the city, we found signs reading Government hostels for members of the Assembly. These were small cubicles on top of ground floor shops. The Shared taxis stopped near the shops for the MPs to transport them to other parts of the city. The same area is home to dozens of banks. One Tehrani commented, “Saadi Street area hosts more bank branches than any other part of the world, and I can bet on that”. I’ll probably agree seeing several dozen of them.
Traveling through the city, I noticed countless signs with directions to parks. According to estimates, there are more than 800 parks in the city – some huge large scale parks with lakes and boating facility, many mid sized parks and then hundreds of those small parks in localities for locals to enjoy the shade in sunny days. The city’s local Government has converted every small corner or open area into a park growing grass, planting a few trees and beautifying it with flowers and a fountain. I saw several of those walking through the streets of residential Tehran. Locals enjoy their chae or smoke pipes under the tress. This is critical and a breather for a city which is amongst the most polluted cities on Earth courtesy the vehicles from 70s.
Absorbing Tehran on last day
It was start of our last day in Tehran and we still had loads on our list still to visit.
Considering time was running out and we still had loads to experience in Tehran; we planned a hectic eventful last day for ourselves with intention to experience city’s religiosity, get a flavor of history and political struggle and finally absorb everything in city’s affluent neighborhood in North enjoying views of city’s skyline at night from the Darband mountains.
Bibi Sheherbano’s shrine atop a hill in outskirts of Tehran
Bibi Sheherbano’s shrine (daughter of Yazdgerd-III, the last king of Sasanid dynasty of Iran and Imam Hussain’s wife) is located atop a hill in the outskirts of Tehran. The cab driver Abbas told me it will take an hour and a half to get there; but with my little Persian, I failed to understand the reason he quoted. Soon I discovered this was quite a challenge he took. Tehran’s traffic is crazy, literally fanatical. Forget Lahore’s traffic which we blame all the time; this city of 16 million with countless motorcycles, buses and specially cabs of as many colors as you can think of could be the biggest traffic challenge for any driver. When you’re on a road, you are basically at your own to ensure you return home in one piece – nobody seems to care much really. Anyway…apparently it was Abbas’s first time to visit the shrine although he had been living in Tehran for years but he didn’t seem too excited, as most religious people from sub-continent would be for something like this. Asking people for directions on the way, we finally reached the end of a straight road which faced a huge hill – a road going upwards, a small sign pointing towards the shrine atop the hill and a 8X8 small cab office which apparently was not in use. Another 10 minutes driving uphill and we were there – a few buses, a couple of motorcycles and a few cars in the parking area; didn’t look like a very busy place. The shrine complex occupies a small area on the hilltop, not more than a few kanals. Men can access the shrine from a small door while most part of the complex is reserved for women – this looked more popular amongst the women as majority of the visitors were women or children. The environment inside the shrine was relaxed and calm, I couldn’t hear much wailing and crying as one would expect; kids continued playing in the courtyard when their mothers paid homage to Bibi.
Harm-e-Motahar (Harm-e-Khomeini) – Tehran’s favorite family picnic spot
Our next stop Harm-e-Khomeini, located South of Tehran in Behest-e-Zehra cemetery unpacked loads of surprises. Abbas dropped us off in the parking area and we parted ways. I opened up my LonelyPlanet guide and read “while the scale of the Holy Shrine of Imam Khomeini is quite enormous, for the time being it looks more like a shoddily built and empty aircraft hangar than one of Iran’s holiest sites”. I had a look around and nodded my head in agreement. The shrine structure has a golden dome in center and has four towers in four sides of the mausoleum which are 91m in height in memorandum of Imam Khomeini’s age. Seventy-two tulips adorn and surround the dome symbolizing the seventy-two persons who fought with Imam Hossein in Karbala and were martyred. The Haram has five entrances, again symbolic either to the Islamic theology (5 elements/pillars of religion) or the Shi’ite Panjtan ideology.
Men, women and children seemed enjoying the sunny day. I could smell Kebabs and Chae as we walked past hundreds of families scattered in the complex grounds, towards the complex entrance while the sun shine on our heads. You have to handover all your belongings at the office at entrance but surprisingly, you don’t have to wear a chador to enter the building or roam around anywhere in the complex. No guardians of Hijab to point towards your head instructing you to cover your head. The interior hall is enormous, measures nearly 400 feet, I was told and it is being expanded. Like the structure itself and the exterior, the interior is unfinished too. There are huge wall hanging covers showing how the tile work will look like when it’s done. The atmosphere is very relaxed – men playing cards everywhere, women gossiping in small groups, children playing here and there. Kids roll coins along the marble floors or go sliding around in their socks. Inside it can seem like more of a playground than a sacred site. Watching the rambunctious families at play is, in fact, the most interesting thing about this place. For middle class Iranians, who are frequent visitors of the shrine, Khomeini is more of a saint than a Ayotullah, a Supreme Leader or a holy figure. The complex includes a university, a seminary, several shops, a post office, a bank, restaurants, shopping complex, hotel to stay, 20,000-car parking lot and snack bars. With its 5000 acre spread, it is huge without seeming particularly grand or impressive.
No gender segregation in Harm and no enforcement of Hijab/chador. Thousands of families setting up camps, partying with qalyan/huqqa and food, kids playing everywhere, men playing cards inside the Harm and women gossip and laughing out loud – this was biggest surprise of the trip so far.
Surprised to find out the relaxed environment but not too impressed with the complex itself, we decided to move on and it was time to experience Tehran’s Metro, spread over 250KM in distance. The complex is connected through the Red Line (Line 1) on the Metro which runs North to South of the city while the Harm being on the Sothern end. Single Journey ticket is 1200IRR (£0.07 or 9Rs) which you can use to travel from anywhere to anywhere. Four lines are operational (while another two are under construction) which carry over 2.5-4 million passengers every day. One distinctive element of the trains is that the cars are interconnected, you can sit in the last car and see through all the way to the first car – it appears from inside as it is a single car. This makes it easier in rush hours allowing people more space and opportunity to move.
The tunnels are air-conditioned while natural lighting is provided in the tunnels through air ducts. Axial fans are used to lower the air temperature in the underground stations. The facilities at stations include toilets, snack bars, telephone/internet etc which was a bit surprising for me with the experience of London Underground, ten-fold in cost with little to offer. You do not lose your mobile signals anywhere underground and are able to make/receive calls and even connect to Metro WiFi. The trains on Tehran Metro, project supported by companies from China and Austria, run very frequently- every few minutes and this RTS was nominated for 2011 Sustainable Transport Award. Trains run both underground and over ground with an average distance of 1-2KM between stations. The single most interesting aspect about Tehran Metro was the interior of the Metro stations. They are a well thought out show case of Iranian cultural heritage, traditional and contemporary Persian art. From Cyrus to Khomeini, from Persepolis to Qom, from Achaemenid empire to Islamic Republic, everything is well represented. This was a strong contrast to the kind of bland Underground stations I am used to.
Tickets are valid for 1, 2 or 10 trips (including change of lines). There are ticket booths at every station. You can also buy a contact-less fare card (weekly, monthly, quarterly or yearly) which is the best option if you are going to use metro a lot, or simply want to have less hassle by paying for a card and use it on both metro and some city buses. Metro can whisk you quickly from one end of the city to the other without having to deal with the noise, pollution and chaos of Tehrani traffic and that’s exactly what we did as we headed North of the city to feel the change of atmosphere and avoid Tehran’s noise and pollution.
On way to Darband, I got involved in a lively discussion about politics with our taxi driver who was eager to talk but language barrier didn’t allow us go too far. He said he opposes the current regime, but he would pick up a gun to defend Iran if the United States ever attacked….
Tehran is probably the most polluted city on face of earth today – credit due to the economic sanctions because of which almost all taxis and an overwhelming majority of vehicles are from 70s, mostly old Paykans. They are very inefficient in fuel consumption and deadly for the environment. However, as you move from South to North of the city, the temperature and atmosphere changes dramatically and we experienced that as we traveled to Darband. Darband Mountain is a popular mountain in the north of Tehran where chadors are completely absent. It becomes very crowded with mountain climbers on Friday mornings. The area is full of traditional restaurants and a popular dating spot for Tehranis, you can spot couples walking everywhere holding hands or enjoying a cup of tea. As we waited for our dinner, several groups of young men and women walked past, or came in to reserve a table. Women are wearing makeup and manteaus and scarves in every color you could imagine, and the styles are much more trendy and tight fitting than one would imagine. The conversations were frank and the communication casual as between young friends anywhere. The couples and groups of friends seemed to be enjoying their day and were fairly relaxed. There didn’t seem to be a lot of pressure as they enjoyed their time together with lots of touching, laughters and casual hugging.
Bye Bye Tehran
That was the end of a very hectic day with every hour planned to do something and it was time to catch our late night train to Mashhad. Tehran’s Railway Station is well managed and clean, as every public building in Iran. I had booked only standard seats in 2nd Class on purpose to allow me the opportunity to travel with middle class Iranians and I was expecting some warm hospitality and opportunity to make some good friends. Apparently it was the end of School Holidays and thus a busy time to go to Mashhad. We had to struggle a bit to find the right carriage but the train was exactly on time, not a minute late. Considering the cost (only £5 for nearly a 1000KM journey) the service was excellent. The train was very clean, the seats comfortable with good leg space and the mineral water and snack box was a pleasant surprise.
Within minutes after the train headed towards Mashhad, one of the families sitting on our right showed signs of hospitality and the urge to start a conversation. We started with usual questions but within minutes, Manijeh and her young brother moved from their seats to the seats in front of us so we can converse easily. I couldn’t ask for more. This was my first chance of proper conversation with a Persian family. Manijeh knew good English and Muhammad could do good as well while their parents kept offering one thing after another very graciously. I thoroughly enjoyed their mint+cheeses wraps followed by Pistachios. They told us they visit Mashhad every few years and since Muhammad was starting university, they wanted to visit Imam Reza shrine before everyone gets too busy with work and life. We talked nonstop before all of us dozed off a few hours later…
Early next morning, there was breakfast for us ready on the table as we opened our eyes. Whenever we tried to resist, Manijeh’s parents on the other side would insist with their smiling warm gestures. I found them very welcoming, friendly and eager to learn from us and help us learn about Iran. This was some of the best time I spent in Iran and we are still in touch and hope to be so in the future. I will always regret I could not accept their offer of dinner at their place but hopefully I’ll see them again.
Other surprises and nuggets from Tehran?
Now that I had left Tehran, I recalled some of the surprises on train…
So, that was the end of eventful few days in Tehran. There is so much to Tehran that you can’t do justice to the city in days – it’s a matter of weeks. I still regret not being able to go skiing, visiting Alborz mountains, take Tochal cable car, visit Tehran University, the Grand Bazaar, the Parliament and the Melad Tower in the North which is amongst tallest buildings in world. Hopefully, next time I will be able to hang out with Bahman, Manijeh and Muhammad to experience Tehran from a local’s perspective.
Life in Tehran
A picture is worth a thousand words, they say, and the guys at Tehran Live blog have been proving it for years. This blog regularly posts photos from Tehran which has helped me understand and learn a lot about life in Tehran. I have extracted over 1800 photos from the blog which can be viewed on my Flickr album here.
Posted on 22 February 2012 by Tea Server
The latest robot system will be introduced in Pakistan that aims at locating and deactivating bombs. 10 robots with 10 equipped vehicles will be provided, whereas, 20 shortlisted Civil Defense employees will get training from the European Union and local experts so that the risky procedure of deactivating bombs can be controlled and employees of [...]
Latest Robot System to be Introduced in Pakistan to locate Bombs is a post from: PakMediaBlog All Rights Reserved.
Posted on 10 February 2012 by Tea Server
Brazil has been affected in recent weeks by suggestions of a slow down in Brazil’s usually hot economy. Inflation in China also has received some attention. The result was that some market studies have been done on the BRICS and emerging economies showing that countries like Mexico, South Africa and Vietnam are doing quite well and that China keeps on moving along to attract investment, even with signs of inflationary pressures. In a Bloomberg article on the top emerging markets, China was the only one of the BRICS to make the medal round, with Thailand and Chile taking the silver and bronze positions. Frontier markets, those who are not BRICS or possible future BRICS but had noticeable growth, also made their own listing with Vietnam at the top of the list. South Africa and Mexico made the top ten of emerging markets, South Africa already being seen as one of the BRICS and Mexico achieving record reserves despite slow growth in the US and local narcotics violence.
This year Mexico will elect a new President and Senate and the parties are slowly presenting their candidates for the upcoming six-year Presidential term. President Calderon has served his one and only legislated term in office of six years and it will remain to be seen whether his PAN party will be re-elected. With excellent economic numbers in a slow global economy, the PAN has a good chance of being re-elected. What might hurt the party is the open drug war in Mexico currently taking place that was a result of Mr. Calderon pressing for drug security in Mexico and the entrenched drug networks that have been established in Mexico over the last few decades. With former PAN President Vicente Fox pushing for a legalisation of the narcotics trade to reduce violence in Mexico, the PAN may have some soul searching to do before putting the Presidential campaign into full force.
A decent market measure for all economies can often been seen in the aviation industries response to different national economies. In Mexico, the now defunct Mexicana Airlines is showing some signs of re-emerging in Mexico after its financial collapse a few years ago. Emerging markets in general has seen some attention from the aviation industry in general as many companies seek customers in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, a result of region market growth in general through to 2016. While the aviation industry is not being displaced in North America and Europe, it does show that BRICS and other emerging and frontier markets will produce trade expansion while the US and eventually the EU drag themselves out of economic paralysis. A conference on competitiveness and innovation addressing the aviation industry by GE named “GE American Competitiveness: What Works” will deal with issues of expansion to emerging markets and strategies in the current US market slowdown next week in Washington DC. Anyone who wishes to see how one industry is handling expansion to emerging markets and growth in the time of economic slowdown should seek information from the conference presenters and organizers. With the possible re-birth of Mexicana and troubles in Asia with the A380, it is certain to be an interesting week of presentations. Information on the conference can be found here.
Posted on 09 February 2012 by Tea Server
Applications are invited for two fully funded PhD Student to undertake research in the area of Human Motion Analysis and Understanding. One position is supported by an EU project and falls in the general area of modeling and recognition of … Continue reading
Posted on 08 February 2012 by Tea Server
As Europe suffers a severe a cold snap, EU-Russian relations are experiencing a proverbial chill. The diplomatic cooling is the result of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s criticism of Putin’s democratic credentials. The sharpness of Ashton’s critique was for many a somewhat surprising, yet desirable development. Indeed, the tough stance on the state of Russian democracy has provided Ashton with rare kudos from commentators and MEPs. Could these new tones be a sign of a more confrontational EU stance on Russia’s human rights record?
Among Ashton’s critique points was the government decision not to register Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the opposition party Yabloko, for the March election, the intention of Putin and Medvedev to swap jobs (again!), and more generally a support of the Russian people’s desire to “rein in corruption and impunity, and to give more breathing space to democratic process.” Of course, Ashton also urged Russia to not veto the UN Security Council resolution on Syria.
Russian officials were quick to shoot back, accusing the EU of meddling in internal affairs, calling Ashton’s criticism “bewildering” and saying that it “overstepped the bounds of political correctness.” In the official Russian view, the EU and US are using the democracy movement as a pretext to leverage influence in Russia through utilization of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and pro-democracy organizations.
Needless to say, Russia and China disregarded all pressure and vetoed the Security Council’s Syria resolution. Russia and China have since been catching some well-deserved flak from the international community, not that that will have an immediate effect on the ground in Syria. But, in this context, it has had an effect on global opinion of Putin’s Russia and how to deal with it.
Arguably the EU is now finding a new more confrontational diplomatic footing, with more emphasis on supporting democratic developments in Russia. Some might say that it’s about time. But it seems fair to say that Putin’s current hardships were unforeseen by most, including the EU. Where Europe previously was preparing to deal long-term with a Russia like the one Putin took over in 2000, the game has now changed and the EU’s stance has changed with it.
For example, the December 2011 EU-Russia Summit was dominated by preexisting issues, such as visa-free travel and Russia joining the World Trade Organization. Although human rights and democracy issues were discussed at the summit, Ashton’s statements on these matters were deemed “weak” by Mikhail Kasyanov, leader of the opposition party Parnas. Human rights are now center stage, and Ashton statements have grown stronger.
In previous years, EU members states have by-and-large followed a policy of pursuing economic goals, while limiting their criticism of human rights abuses. The European Council on Foreign Relation’s European Foreign Policy Scorecard points to EU diplomacy being a result of an overriding wish for cooperation with Russia on a swath of issues, ranging from trade to global security and cooperation in the Russian/European neighborhood. Putin’s actions at home and abroad have damaged the assumptions that the policy of cooperation policy built on, i.e. that economic modernization and engagement would gradually bring about a more democratic Russia.
Naturally, there are limitations to the EU’s ability to influence Russia. Disagreements over ending frozen conflicts in Georgia and Kosovo are examples. And of course, cold snap and all, Russian natural gas has previously provided Putin with a stick with which to beat the Europeans. But limitations will always exist. The EU now has an opportunity to test these limitations.
Ashton’s critique of Putin’s Russia is a good thing. These days, how else is one to react but with support of those who come out in favor of democracy movements? And in this respect, Putin is certainly not looking stellar. Putin and Assad are all too easy to lump together as autocratic brothers-in-arms, each trying to retain their grip on power with the methods that happen to be at their disposal.
While not forgetting that Russian cooperation is necessary to solve the issues of the day, e.g. Russia’s role in negotiations with Iran, we must hope that the EU will maintain its pressure on Putin’s Russia. In an age where democratic reform is a rallying cry, Putin quiet possibly has made a big mistake throwing in his lot with the likes of Assad. This offers an opportunity that should not be left untried.
Posted on 08 February 2012 by Tea Server
S&P finally downgraded France’s credit rating several weeks ago along with some other EU Member States. Such decision by S&P could undeniably cost Sarkozy’s reelection in May 2012. Many see the downgrade of France’s credit rating as Sarkozy’s sole responsibility. But May 2012 is still very far away from a political standpoint. Since his election in 2007 Sarkozy has been a very polarizing political figure in France as proven by the large variety of nicknames given by the media such as President Bling-Bling, Sarko l’Américain, and so on. This blog will put into perspective Sarkozy’s first and maybe last mandate as French President by assessing his contribution to the construction/safeguard of the EU (in defense and security questions), advancing French foreign policy, and the buildup of the transatlantic relations.
Sarkozy, son of a Hungarian immigrant, rose to the highest political sphere quite quickly and unconventionally in French standard. He started his political life in the mid-1970s in the Municipal Council of Neuilly-sur-Seine, one of the richest suburbs of Paris, wherein a large segment of France’s political, economic, industrial and financial elites live. The fact that Mr. Sarkozy’s political life started surrounded by the French elite was considerable for his political career. The creation of an intellectual and support base traditionally takes place in the famous Grandes Ecoles, such as Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), as it has been the case for previous French presidents and ministers, and certainly is the case of François Hollande, the Socialist Candidate. Sarkozy was able to compensate this lack with its Neuilly connections. The latest scandal connecting Sarkozy with the L’Oreal heiress, Liliane de Bettencourt, is one example of his powerful network. A paper produced by the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute counts some interesting facts on the rise of Sarkozy and his understanding of politics.
Following his election in May 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy appeared to have changed radically the direction of France’s foreign policy, especially towards the US. Sarkozy’s decision to re-establish ‘cordial’ relations with the US, still under the presidency of Bush, was in direct rupture with his predecessor, Jacques Chirac. The latter opposed his American counterpart, President Bush, in 2003 on the hot topic of the invasion of Iraq. The 2003 transatlantic and European split was real and substantial. The European unity was only reinstituted with the approval of the 2003 European Security Strategy, which symbolizes the agreement between EU Member States of a common agenda and united security vision. As per Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense at the time, Europe was then divided between Old and New Europe; France being one of the old members considering its opposition to the Iraq war. The tensions between the US and France remained high until the election of Sarkozy. Some talked at the time of ‘Sarko l’Américain,’ as he expressed at many occasion during and after the presidential race his admiration for the American model. However, Justin Vaïsse of the Brookings, argued that in fact the Americanism of Sarkozy is much more embedded into Hollywood and Elvis Presley rather than the admiration for the American political system.
The transatlantic relations between France and the US can be divided into three periods. First, from 2007 to 2008, the last part of the Bush administration, which I often refer as the ‘good Bush period,’ was favorable for a rapprochement between the two sides of the pond. Second, after the election of Obama, the honeymoon was extremely short. Very early in his presidency, Obama reoriented the attention of the US foreign policy from Europe to Asia. Such strategic move by Obama has affected the relations with his European counterparts. And the third period was since the G8 summit in Pittsburgh, following the collapse of the financial system in 2008, with closer relations on dealing at the international level with the financial crisis and with Iran. However, in general, the rupture with Chirac was over-emphasized, as Sarkozy did not change that much the direction of the French foreign policy. Sarkozy’s decision to fully reintegrate France within the military structures of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was a moderate signal of his Atlanticism considering that France was always an active and core member of the alliance. The debate in France about such move was certainly excessive.
France was also a key actor during the summer 2008 crisis in Georgia. Following the invasion of Georgia by Russia, Sarkozy played an important role in monitoring Russia-West relations and in limiting a major split between the former Cold War enemies. Sarkozy did play a central role, but made some costly decisions and compromises for not only Georgia, but also the field of international law and human right. At that time France held the EU Presidency and was the voice of the EU, undermining Javier Solana’s role. Russian-French relations have historically been good since the late 19th century and remain quite stable. The latest part of this love story was the sale by France of a French Mistral class amphibious assault ship, creating criticism on both sides of the Atlantic.
One of the highest points of his presidency will remain the gamble on the Libyan campaign. Following a disastrous beginning of the year 2011 with total miscalculations and evaluations of the importance and reality of the Arab spring in Tunisia and then Egypt, Sarkozy decided to be proactive in the support of the rebels in Libya fighting Colonel Qaddafi. The miscalculation by the prestigious French diplomatic corps and intelligence services will remain as a stain and most likely become a cas d’école of diplomatic failure for future generations. Sarkozy did play a crucial role in getting the UN Security Council to agree on the UNSC Resolution 1973 allowing the implementation of a no-fly zone over Libya. Sarkozy was then able to bring the Americans on board and get NATO involved in the war in Libya. The use of NATO was critical for the success of the mission as French and British armies, navies and air forces have been considerably affected by budget cuts. For example, as of today Britain does not have an aircraft carrier, which seems quite contradictory to its historical strategic culture and heritage as a maritime power. The Libyan mission was a success and will become a template for future military interventions: short, precise, highly technologized, multilateral, and quite cheap. However, Sarkozy’s decision to use NATO was a major setback for the EU, which was completely bypassed by London and Paris, as well as discredited. The best example of the CSDP weakness is the fact that EUFOR Libya was created, but never deployed. Thus, HR Ashton remained quiet and irrelevant throughout the different steps of the Libyan campaign.
What next for 2012? Sarkozy does have a busy schedule until the first round of the presidential election. The year starts quite well for France and ultimately Sarkozy considering the fact that India decided to buy for $20bn of France fighter jet, Rafale, at the expense of the EADS’ Eurofighter Typhoon. Such contract is a true illustration of Sarkozy’s understanding and mastery of politics. The Financial Times published an outstanding article on the dogfight taking place backstage in order to sale the fighter jet. In addition to his reelection campaign, several topics need to be addressed, or at least discussed: first, Iran. What should France do about it? Is it the time to empower the EEAS led-by Lady Ashton and use the similar approach of 2003 EU3+1 implemented during Solana’s mandate? Or is it the time to discuss military operation within NATO? What is certain is that Sarkozy will not get a UNSC Resolution as China and Russia will definitely oppose it. Second, the mission in Afghanistan. France has been progressively removing its troops from Afghanistan, but has actively contributed to the European Gendarmerie Force (EFG) in charge of training the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army. With the announcement by the US to remove the troops by 2014, the Europeans will soon be following this trend. Will the EGF remain or should it come back home as well? Third, Syria. The violations of international law by the Syrian government are undeniable and some members of the Arab League monitoring team have even expressed their anger and opposition to the Assad regime. Avoiding and sidelining Syria could haunt Sarkozy in the future, the same way the Rwanda genocide has been haunting French political elites for over 15 years, but for different reasons. Sarkozy understands that the UNSC will not agree on a Resolution, but decision needs to be taken on the matter. Unfortunately until today China and Russia have favored sovereignty over humanity. Could it be done outside the laws with a NATO-led operation as it was done in 1999 in Kosovo? It would be ethically a right mission embodying the R2P concept, but wrong as it would violate international law. Fourth, Turkey. Franco-Turk relations have been at their lowest since the adoption by the French Assembly of the recent law criminalizing the denial of the Armenian genocide. Poor bilateral relations with Turkey will ultimately hurt and affect the overall EU and NATO relations. Turkey could block, as it has done in the past, Berlin Plus type NATO operations. Sarkozy must address the matter with Turkey and find new common ground. Fifth, the economic crisis has been painful for the Euro-Atlantic community. The Eurozone is still not safe and saved, as the financial and economic situations of Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal remain volatile. Sarkozy with his German counterpart, Ms Merkel, have a lot of work in readjusting and agreeing on the rules of the game and reforming the Eurozone. Sixth, the British headache. Since the gamble of Prime Minister Cameron back in November, the relations between Britain and France have not been of the most pleasant. The Franco-Anglo relations are central for the construction of the common EU defense polict as it was the case in the 1998 Saint-Malo Treaty creating the ESDP, and in the 2010 Defense Treaty. Both actors need one another in order to maintain their active foreign policies and keep the construction of the CSDP going. 2012 will be interesting to see how France and Britain readjust their relations either with the reelection of Sarkozy; or with the election of Mr. Hollande.
Even though, I have not been a supporter of Mr. Sarkozy’s domestic and social policies as well as fundamentally disagree with his leadership and governing style, I have to admit that he has been an interesting international leader. His approach to foreign policy is quite in the continuity of French Gaullist heritage. However, the case of the French operation in Ivory Coast, last April, has been completely under-studied and under-covered by global media. Some have argued that the Libyan mission was a simple cover-up for the real mission and French interests, Ivory Coast. I would also criticize his lack of commitment to the construction and strengthening of the EEAS. It is true that Ms. Ashton has not been the best representative as well as has been unable to establish a common EU vision, however she was appointed by the 27 Heads of State and Government. Sarkozy was part of the appointing committee, and privileged at that time the securing of the DG Internal Market to Michel Barnier rather than getting a French HR. Sarkozy’s priorities were set: French’s influence over the common market, even though the Directors are theoretically not supposed to represent their national government; l’Europe de la defense after.
Until then there is one thing that I can’t wait to see: who will be representing France at the NATO summit in May in Chicago?
Posted on 08 February 2012 by Tea Server
One thing that bothers me about how Pakistan conducts its foreign policy is how narrowly it is focused on a few states. The four horsemen of Pakistan’s foreign policy are: the U.S., China, Saudi Arabia, and India. These states take an overwhelming and disproportionate level of our government’s interest, time, money, effort. Almost everything we do is run through the prism of relations with one or more of these states.
Now, it’s trivially true that some partners and/or rivals will be more important than others, depending on history, geography, the distribution of power, and so on. This much is true for all countries.
What’s unique, or at least noteworthy, about the situation in Pakistan is the near-absence of other areas and regions of the world. Think about it: when’s the last time you heard about an important state visit to/from Brazil? Or Australia? Or South Korea?
I don’t know the first thing about investment and money, but I’ve always heard the phrase “diversifying your portfolio”. Well, Pakistan’s portfolio is not very diverse at all. It puts us at a disadvantage, in that we are more vulnerable to small changes in each of the four aforementioned states.
Furthermore, we leave a lot of potential gains on the table by ignoring different parts of the world. Consider textiles. Pakistan’s textile industry constitutes about sixty percent of its exports. It is a massive, massive part of our economy. So with good reason, we have approached the U.S. (unsuccessfully) and the EU (successfully, it seems) to loosen tariffs and trade barriers on textiles.
Now, with respect to our successful lobbying with the EU, this is great news. The reason this is great news is that there are a number of countries in the EU which, presumably, would very much like our textiles. The following is a list culled from the CIA World Factbook, with countries whose “main” imports include textiles. The EU countries are shaded orange.
Of course, there happens to be another region of the world that would, presumably, very much like our textiles. Here’s the list from above again, but this time with African countries shaded blue.
Now, it’s perfectly plausible that we have, in fact, engaged in a lot of lobbying efforts for more trade with Africa, and I just haven’t heard about it. But I’ve never really heard anyone else talk about it either. My guess is our economic, political and diplomatic relationships with African countries, particularly the non Arab ones, are essentially dormant.
I’m only using textiles (and Africa, for that matter) as an illustration of a broader point. Pakistan needs to do a better job of engaging with states out there on the basis of mutual interests. Maybe it’s not trade, but rather cultural exchange programs. Or student scholarships, or sports tours, or whatever. There’s a whole lot of foreign policy beyond drones, war, terrorism, and oil, and there’s a whole lot of countries out there not named the U.S., China, Saudi Arabia, and India. I hope the new power team from LUMS in charge of our foreign ministry grapples with this issue a little bit.
Posted on 07 February 2012 by Tea Server
A look back at the international headline-making events of 2011.
Posted on 05 February 2012 by Tea Server
The cold snap that has frozen most of Europe solid has created some tensions over Russia’s role as supplier of natural gas to its neighbors. On Friday, a Gazprom official claimed that Ukraine was taking more than its share from the pipeline that runs through its territory. For those who remember the unpleasantness between Moscow and Kiev in 2006 and 2009 over natgas prices, this came as an awkward reminder that when demand soars, it’s still every nation for itself.
CFO of Gazprom, Andrei Kruglov, admitted yesterday that the fault lay not with Ukraine but rather with his company’s export capacity. “Gazprom at the moment cannot supply the extra volumes our West European partners are asking for,” he told President Putin according to Reuters. Moreover, the cold in Russia has increased demand there. So, for a few days, Russia reduced the amount of gas it was putting into the pipeline in the first place.
The good news here is that many of Gazprom’s customers have increased with stockpiles, and so the 10% decrease many experienced did not cause any enduring hardship. With gas from the pipeline selling at record prices (more than US$400 per 1,000 cubic meters), alternatives are coming on line, which will help diversify supply, including liquefied natural gas. And Russia is not the only source of natgas. For example, Norway is maintaining its reputation as a reliable supplier to the UK. Because of the cold, UK demand was just shy of 378 million cubic metres (mcm) on Saturday, about 63.5 mcm higher that usual. Still, flows from Norway continued at 380 mcm.
Russia sees that it must improve its ability to service customers, Reuters has reported, “Gazprom increased its gas supplies to Europe to 150 billion cubic metres (bcm) from around 138.6 bcm in 2010. It is aiming to ramp up those volumes to around 164 bcm this year thanks partly to the underwater Nord Stream pipeline commissioned last November. Nord Stream’s initial capacity stands at 27.5 billion cubic metres a year, which may be doubled by the fourth quarter. Russia is also pushing for a South Stream pipeline to rival the EU-backed Nabucco and other supply lines. Moscow plans to ship over 60 bcm of gas to Europe via South Stream starting from 2015.”
However, you have to wonder if this is going to be sufficient given that some countries in Western Europe (e.g., Germany) have decided to end their nuclear power generation. While the ideal replacements are renewables, it’s so very easy to buy gas from Russia and elsewhere that the additional capacity envisioned may not be good enough.
Posted on 02 February 2012 by Tea Server
Carlos Slim is well known in Latin America and abroad as one of, if not the wealthiest CEO in the world. He was even mentioned on the Colbert Report this past week introducing him to the American public as someone who’s net worth trumps that of Mitt Romney as well as that of Donald Trump. This week an OECD report named Slim’s company, Telmex as overcharging Mexican consumers for telecommunications products from 2005 to 2009. Slim argued against the allegations and the numbers presented in the OECD report stating that his company was working within the competitive market that exists in Mexico and did not take any actions that would be deemed as anti-competitive. It is likely a detailed debate will occur over Slim and his companies that may lead to a test of Mexico’s competition laws as well as the reputation of Mexico’s state telecom giant Telmex. We will have to wait and see if Slim wins the day, or if he will be fined. One fine has already been set on Slim’s company, but a challenge in Mexico’s Supreme Court may eliminate this legal measure from being enforced.
Telecommunications giants have been in the position to create a great deal of wealth as new technologies create new boom markets for their products in a commercial environment dependent on new forms of telecommunications. With technology, come many new IP laws to enforce violations of privacy and competition in those new markets as companies jostle for position and form legacies like Nokia and Microsoft. In the EU, stringent laws enforcing consumer protection within the Common Market have set much of the global standard against overly ambitious telecoms giants. Going from competition laws setting records against companies like Microsoft to investigations into companies like France Telecom regarding a series of employee suicides since privatisation a few years ago, the EU has set the hard standard against companies that wish to violate competition laws and as well as all other market and labour standards. It is likely that Mexican competition laws will take much of their precedents from that of the EU and US to enforce any violations against Carlos Slim’s business interests, if evidence provides for enforcement to become necessary.
In reality Mexico is likely not the most expensive country for phone services, and there is a great deal of evidence showing that their NAFTA neighbour, Canada has the highest per-capita telecoms charges in the world. A lack of effective competition policies have created a market in Canada where people not only pay a great deal for services, but services are often out of date and ineffective due to a lack of competition in the Canadian mobile phone market. While many developing nations have modern up to date cellular services due to the reduced cost of setting up such systems in places that historically had poor phone access, Canada’s modern economy creates an expensive and outdated mobile phone market that has existed without proper scrutiny from the last few governments. There have been some moves to protect Canadian consumers over the last few years, but until a true measure to help Canadian consumers takes shape it would be a good idea for those like Carlos Slim and other telecoms to enter a Canadian market that sorely needs proper services in their sector for individuals and businesses. A study of the Canadian, European and Mexican telecoms markets would be a useful and interesting study to provide all consumers with a legitimate and fair market for telecoms usage.
Posted on 01 February 2012 by Tea Server
How can you not love California if you’re an environmentalist? I’ve lauded the Golden State a few times here for its forward-thinking, smart, and economically advantageous approach to power, transportation, planning, building and curtailing greenhouse gases. The federal government has so many times taken California’s lead, most recently in pumping up the Corporate Average Fuel Economy required for cars sold in the U.S. We were talking in one of my classes the other day too about how California has made energy efficiency a priority and controlled its electricity consumption since the mid-1970s far beyond what has happened in the rest of the country.
California has taken another giant leap for mankind with the adoption of its new Advanced Clean Cars program. The LA Times reports here that “By 2025, one in seven new autos sold in California, or roughly 1.4 million, must be ultra-clean, moving what is now a driving novelty into the mainstream.” What is ultra-clean? Electric vehicles, cars powered by fuel cells, and plug-in hybrid vehicles. Californians will be once again setting the pace.
Meanwhile, the state has also tried to move forward with a low carbon fuel standard (LCFS). The Washington Post explains here that “The new standards assign carbon intensity values to roughly 250 types of crude (higher carbon) along with other fuels — including ethanol, electricity and hydrogen, all lower carbon— that power cars and trucks.” The aim is to reduce the carbon content of the fuel over time. U.S. law, not incidentally, takes it a step further in barring all purchases by the federal government of any fuel that exceeds the greenhouse gas footprint of conventionally sourced oil. This is embodied in Section 526 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The Sierra Club is pursuing a case in court now to enforce this rule. The European Union is taking a similar approach with its Fuel Quality Directive which would, if fully implemented and enforced, bar Canadian tar sands oil from use.
California is being held up because of a court case in which a federal judge has barred the rule from coming into effect. However, the WaPo article notes that Mary Nichols, head of the California Air Resources Board, has said that amendments that the Board has made recently will satisfy the court’s concerns. See a video on the program at the LCFS web page and how it is integrated into the overall approach the good people of California are taking to maximize health and prosperity while minimizing the costs, environmental and economic, of business as usual.
Posted on 01 February 2012 by Tea Server
This is first part of a series of posts on Iran based on travel experiences in the country in 2011.
“I have an interest in the culture, people and language”, I respond.
“Hmmm but people would normally go to Dubai for that… anyway”, he conveys his lack of cultural knowledge.
Just like a lot of people confuse us Pakistanis as Arabs, the Iranians have to face the same misery.
The country is so diverse in terms of culture, lifestyle and landscape that planning the trip to Iran was itself an exciting experience – from LonelyPlanet to Iranian travel agents, books and travel documentaries; I explored everything to ensure my time in Iran is well spent and I return with a better understanding of the country and its people. With the variety it has got, its unfortunate Iran isn’t a hot tourist destination.
Getting a Visa
Despite the bad press, the travel agency business seems booming in Iran. There are hundreds of them in the capital and tens in other bigger cities. They can help planning the trip, arranging accommodation, travel, guides and more. Most importantly, you may need them to get a visa. Although nationals of some countries can get a visa-on-arrival but the recommended option is to get in touch with a travel agency, email relevant documents (passport copy, itinerary etc), make the visa handling payment (30-50 Euro) and wait for them to get you a Visa Ref Number which you take to your local Iranian Embassy and get a visa stamped on the passport on-spot. I received my Visa Ref number in a week and didn’t even had to go to the Iranian Embassy. You can post your Passport, Visa Ref Number and payment details to the Embassy and they return passport with the visa fairly quick. The visa fee depends on your nationality.
I would highly recommend Shiraz based Pars Tourist Agency and specifically Marjan Owji in their Visa Department. She can help you in literally everything on your trip to Iran and she does that not from a customer-friendly-business perspective, its Persian hospitality at its best. She took only three working days to get back to me and the Embassy took another three days. The visa process was fairly straightforward. Everyone, except citizens of Israel can get an Iranian visa. The citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovenia and Turkey can stay for up to 3 months without a visa. The maximum duration of tourist visa is 30 days while for the visa-on-arrival its 15 days. Once in Iran, extension is possible fairly easy.
Visa fee for every country is available here and here. We had to pay something around £20 on a Pakistani passport and £120 on a British passport. More information can be obtained by calling the local Iranian Embassy or browsing the MFA Iran website.
As a notable exception, the 90sq-km beach resort of Kish Island, south of Iran, easily accessible from Dubai, does not require advance visas for visits of up to 14 days, including Americans. This is Iran’s response to the Emirates and the state is promoting trade (by making it free-trade-zone) and tourism on the island. The island has facilities for scuba diving, jet-skiing, sailing, fishing, parasailing, reef walking, coral viewing, boating and water-skiing and offers gorgeous white sandy beaches for relaxing walks and plenty of huge malls if you fancy a retail therapy.
Most of the major carriers have flights to Iran but the favourite for travelling to Iran are Iran’s national carrier Iran Air, Azerbaijan airlines with stopover in Baku, Aeroflot (Russian airlines) with stopover in Moscow, Air France and other Middle East based carriers. Other low-cost international carriers include Pegasus airlines (Istanbul-Tehran), Air Asia (Far East-Tehran), Air Arabia and Jazeera Airways both connecting through the middle East.
Launched in the mid of 20th century, Iran Air started with domestic flights between Tehran and Mashhad. By 1970s, Iran Air was ranked amongst the safest airlines in the world (second only to Qantas; being accident free for decades). However, things changed suddenly after the revolution. Because of the US imposed sanctions, the airline could not buy new planes and even had to cancel deals setup earlier. The sanctions meant the airline had to rely on older planes, risking the security of the passengers and the staff onboard. At present, majority of the fleet is decades old with average age nearing 25 years. The Fajr Aviation and Composites Industry in Tehran is responsible for overhauling existing fleet and designing new airplanes. Recently, there have been conflicts over refuelling Iran Air planes as well when UK CAA and the Abu Dhabi Airports Company refused to refuel Iran Air planes. The EU has also recently banned Iran Air’s fleet of Boeing and Airbus because of safety concerns.
I choose to fly with Aeroflot – cheaper, good connections and short stopovers. The flight originated from London Heathrow, serving nicely done Salmon and landing three hours later in Tehran’s primary IKA airport (30KM from city). The two-hour stopover at Moscow Sheremetyevo International Airport was an interesting experience – this was by far the best airport I have seen so far. It’s so huge it could take hours walking from one terminal to the other with duty free shops spread everywhere and the airport giving a fine, shiny, glossy clean look and feel. Plenty of Iranians on the airport – some praying, some gossiping or buying stuff; looks like this the favorite route from EU to get back home for them. It took another three hours for the flight from Moscow to Tehran with an amazing Omelet served for breakfast as we approached Iran.
Note that if not staying in Tehran and planning to get to any city other than Tehran upon your arrival, you would have to change airports, from Imam Khomeini to Mehrabad, 40 km away, to get to your domestic flight.
Accommodation in Iran
You do not necessarily need travel agents to book accommodation for you, although that’s the easiest way. Popular travel/hotel-booking websites like booking.com, venere.com, laterooms.com do not support Iranian hotels; again because of the economic sanctions. However, there are lots of websites voluntarily setup by Iranians who like to see more people visiting their country and these provide lots of information on hotels, pictures, locations, costs etc. You can use these websites, in addition to travel agent websites to choose hotels and then book by directly calling/emailing the hotel, many of which have their own websites as well.
There is no presence of international-chain-hotels like Marriot or Holiday Inn in Iran – if you have read this far, you should know why. The hotels in Iran come in three varieties:
(i) Cheap bed-n-breakfasts with private or shared accommodation – These can be found in pretty much every city and are generally located in city centre with good transport links. Tehran is scattered with hundreds of them.
(ii) Traditional hotels – These are Iranian version of premium-posh hotels. They are generally converted Inns, older mansions/houses, travellers and traders resting spots – called Sofrekhane Sonati in Farsi. Ponds, trees and fountains in the central lawn, tinted glass windows and beautifully lit at night, these are your best bet to experience Iranian culture.
(iii) Mid-range to top-notch modern hotels – Larger urban capitals and tourist destinations like Kish Islands have a few modern hotels to compete with multi-star international hotels. Generally, they are not located in city centre and price range vary on a large scale, so one needs to be cautious to check prices from several sources.
Travelling between cities
Transportation between cities in Iran is comfortable, safe, timely, reliable, well managed and cheap as chips. Cities and towns are connected through buses, rail network and domestic flights while port-cities and towns both in North and South also enjoy ferry connections. Depending on the distance, time available to travel and cost considerations, one can make use of flights, trains, buses or even hire comparatively cheaper private taxis.
Buses: Iran enjoys a pretty extensive and competitive bus network from most of its major cities. Major cities have bus terminals a few miles outside the city, planned on the model of airports with separate terminals and connected to city through local transport links. Buses can take you from anywhere to anywhere in Iran – pretty much anytime of the day (or night), normally without long stop-overs and running on time. Police checkpoints on the highways ensure safety. Tickets can be booked either in advance by calling the bus station or on-spot if you reach sometime before expected time of bus departure.
The buses generally come in two classes: lux/Mercedes/2nd class and super/Volvo/1st class. First class buses are air-conditioned and you will be provided with a small snack during your trip, while second class services are more frequent. There is little financial incentive to opt for the second class tickets. Among the many bus operators, Royal Safar Iranian is the best, in terms of comfort and reliability, with a fleet of modern comfortable buses. They also run sleeper buses between major cities with reclining chairs, serving Iranian meals and sweets and movies on play – e.g. Shiraz to Isfahan all for $11; while regular buses cost $6. Apparently, you can book tickets online at http://www.royall.ir/ , if you can read their Farsi website or by calling the available phone numbers. Other bus operators are named Seir-o-Safar and Taavoni. Saipa Diesel, Iran’s leading manufacturer of trucks, trailer and mini-buses provides many of the buses you see on roads in Iran. The company also imported several hundred larger buses from China to serve on longer routes.
Trains: The train network is limited but comfortable, speedy and affordable. It has been expanding at 500KM every year for few years and major cities have been connected through contracts with Chinese companies. The under construction Chabahar-Zahedan-Mashhad railway line extending from northeast to southeast will enable Pakistan pilgrims to travel by train to Mashhad instead of the long bus journey from the border. Other international links include trains to Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Afghanistan and Central Asia. It is possible to travel from London to Tehran, by train!
The passenger rail system is called Raja Passenger Trains. The Sleeper berths in trains allow good night’s sleep specially on longer journeys like Tehran-Mashhad; will cost almost double the bus ticket but are worth it on longer journeys. The best of the trains are called 4 pax Ghazal or Plur train. The added benefit of travelling by train in Iran, like anywhere else, is that you get to see a lot of places on the way, sample food, see tourists and unlike many places, get a chance to meet, talk with and befriend locals. This is your best option to make a few good friends in Iran.
For Train timings, ticket prices and booking information, Google is your friend. If nothing helps, travel agencies can do it for you.
Domestic Flights: A leading oil producer can of course afford to have cheap domestic flights, sometimes dramatically cheap in comparison to international market. Planes are aging, and maintenance and safety procedures are sometimes well below western standards, but it still remains the safest way to get around Iran, given the huge death toll on the roads and longer distances between cities. The average price is in the range of $50 – $80.
Iran’s major domestic carriers Mahan Air, Iran Air, Kish Air and Aseman Air, all have websites and online booking system but you cannot make use of online ticket booking unless you have an Iranian bank account or a debit/credit card. The reason obviously is economic sanctions imposed on Iran means no international banking relationship with Iranian companies. The best way to book domestic flight tickets in Iran before landing in Iran is (i) find local office of above stated Iranian airlines in your city/country and they can do it for you or (ii) use an Iranian travel agent to book tickets for you, they will give you eticket and you pay them into their bank account normally setup somewhere in the EU.
Off Days in Iran
Thursday is generally half-day and Friday is the weekend break. Saturday and Sunday are normal working days. The biggest and most celebrated of all events in Iran is Nowrooz – the start of new year on Persian calendar which is marked with a week off. Other holidays are linked to the revolution and religious days (Muharram/Ramzan) as well as Eid festival.
Based on all the information I gathered from websites, Lonely Planet and talking to travel agents, I composed a comparative chart with compares price offers by four different travel agencies for hotel accomodation and travelling between cities (cab/train/flight). This helped me figure out which agency works best for me. The chart can be downloaded in image format here and more detailed Excel format here.
In the next posts, we’ll explore Iran from inside…. with pictures, videos and lots of interesting stories and interpersonal observations.
Some of the travel Agencies I spoke to….
Some of the websites I used for hotel search…
Posted on 01 February 2012 by Tea Server
Applications are invited for two fully funded PhD Student to undertake research in the area of Human Motion Analysis and Understanding. One position is supported by an EU project and falls in the general area of modeling and recognition of … Continue reading