Tag Archive for 'Iran'

Manipulating numbers that don’t mean anything

Erick Schonfeld wrote a post today saying all the hoopla over Facebook’s privacy isn’t justified. I disagree for two reasons.

1) Awareness.
When Facebook announced their new changes, I tweeted why the hell no one was complaining. Chris Saad and I then wrote one of the first (if not the first) posts that criticised the Facebook move. CNN referenced our post and the entire industry has now gone over the top complaining.

Why didn’t anyone from the major blogs critique the announcement immediately? Why the time lag? For the simple fact there wasn’t awareness – people hadn’t thought about it deeply. And to validate my point, check this recent exchange with a friend in Iran when I asked him how the people of Iran felt about the changes. He had no idea, and when he found out – he got annoyed.

2) The monopoly effect
I love Facebook as a service. But I will also admit, nothing compares to it – I love it for the sole fact it’s the best at what it does. If there was genuine competition with the company, that offered a compelling alternative – I wouldn’t feel as compelled to use it. They win me over due to great technology and user experience, but I’m not loyal to them because of that.

I think Facebook has some security right now because no one is in their class. But they will be matched one day, and I think the reaction would be very different. Rather than tolerate it, people would move away. And whilst Facebook can lock my data and think they own me like I’m their slave, the reality is my data is useless with time – what they need is permanent access to me, and to have that, they need to ensure my relationships with them is permanently ahead of the curve.

Interview with an Iranian about the elections

Below is a podcast I recorded two days ago on Tuesday 23 June 2009 around 1200 UTC. For your benefit, I’ve attempted to transcribe the conversation as best as possible.

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[Time=00:00] Hi my name is Elias Bizannes and I have done a podcast with an Iranian, who has grown up and still lives in Iran, as a way of trying to create some clarity into the situation that we’re seeing currently in Iran. A bit of background ‚Äì in 2005 I went traveling around the world, and one of the countries I visited was Iran. I spent about ten days in this beautiful country – exploring it ‚Äì and I really got a unique insight into the place. Since I heard about the issues hearing about the issues in Iran, I reached out to some friends of mine, worried that they might have been hurt themselves. And I finally got a response ‚Äì and as I was hearing about the things that are happening, I thought it might be interesting to share that information to the rest of the world ‚Äì because there is a lot of speculation and I think people are misunderstanding a lot of the events that are happening. So hopefully this will give you a bit of insight. If you have any other questions,¬† or if you would like me to get some further clarity, feel free to contact me. You can visit my personal website eliasbizannes.com

[1:08] So let’s now tune into my friend, who’s identity can’t be revealed, sitting in Iran right now.

[1:17] Are there protests happening outside of Tehran? Is there widespread discontent with the population?
I‚Äôm not living in Tehran, I‚Äôm living in a centred city of Iran ‚ÄúKashan‚Äù. There are not big rallies here, and the protests here are not widespread. Y‚Äôknow people here are much rural people and living in villages. And y‚Äôknow¬† – people that are a low level of thinking, there not so much student, not so much talented and open-minded people here. Y‚Äôknow, they’re public people in here.¬† But inside of the university of Kashan – there are so – much rallies and protests against the government. And the first day after the election results, the boys and girls in here staged rallies and they canceled the exams ‚Äì even the exams that they are holding. And they took the papers from the students, and they canceled the whole exam. And it had a very tough reaction from the security of the university ‚Äì and I heard there were some security forces outside the university and they were determined to use tough action against the students if they stepped out of the university. And there were some protest continuing at the university for three days. People were wearing black clothes, in mourning of those youths killed in Tehran and Esfahan. And they find some candles‚Ķ

[3:35] Are people being killed in Esfahan as well? Because what we are hearing in the West, is that all the protests are happening in Tehran. Has there been a lot of…
Yeah yeah. I hear from a friend of mine in Esfahan that there were some rallies at Esfahan university and there were some bombings in there. And they – students I don’t know if students or some people else – they fired the amphitheatre of Esfahan university of technology. There were broken windows and this situation there was so much much worse than here.  And the university of Esfahan is completely off these days. But, in my university, the exams are holding, but in the University of Tehran and the University of Esfahan, the exams are completely off.

[4:40] Yeah right. The situation is that everyone thinks the election was rigged. What makes people think it is. Has there been evidence or people just think it? Why do people think it has been rigged?
Well, y’know the majority of people that I confirmed, they don‚Äôt actually think that actually Mr Mousavihas actually won the election. They think that Mr Ahmadinejad has won, but not with the huge margin that they say. Y‚Äôknow, they want to rig the election because Mr Khatami won 21 million votes and they wanted to break his record by Mr Hashemi. They wanted to show people that Mr Ahmadinejad is more popular than him.¬† Y‚Äôknow, students and people ‚Äì they were saying that the people around them ‚Äì they were not seeing the villages ‚Äì y‚Äôknow inside the cities. They were thinking it was just themselves that were voting.¬† I think that Mr Ahmadinejad has won, but not with this huge margin. Maybe the election might be, is going to be next level, and Mr Ahmadinejad I don‚Äôt think he won the 50% plus one votes. Alright?

[6:24] Yeah ok. So from what I understand also is that people don’t want to completely overthrow the government and have another revolution.  They just want a better government.  Is that true?
Yeah – yeah, not concurring that this situation is 1979. The notion that the people don’t want a huge change in the system. The majority of people they do believe in the mullahcracy in Iran and the governing mullahs, they do believe in them and they do believe in the Ayatollah and they do believe in the in the fundamentals of the Islamic Republic, which are the government of the clergy men – Islamic clergymen. They just want their votes back, and they expected Mr Mousavi to change the situation Mr Ahmadinejad made in foreign affairs and in internal affairs they feel a huge mess, and I can see so much disappointment in the face of the people here because of this situation Mr Ahmadinejad has made. And they just wanted a change in the situation, changing the way in treating the world and the way in treating the people inside the country. They were tired of not being honest, tired of the legitimacy of the government, and they were tired of a government which is not straight forward to people and lying to people.  So I think people want big change Рalright…

[8:22]…And what do people think of Musavi and his backer Rafsanjani.  What are the perceptions of the public to those people?
Mr Mousavi is not a hero.  Of course, then he was not a hero, but now he’s a hero.  No – he is a person which was so popular to Mr Khomeini and he was so close to him and one of the people who had a very huge role in the victory of the Islamic Republic. He’s someone inside the system, and he’s not come outside of the system to change it – he’s one of them. Actually, before these protests people said he was one of them – but when he showed so much courage and so much bravery in behaving and consulting in these situations in Tehran – he didn’t push back and he didn’t take down the protesters – and encouraged them to more and more protest.  They now think he is a very brave man; he’s not one of them – he’s come to change the situation.
About Mr Rafsanjani – I know, the people were not backing Mr Rafsanjani in his presidential period, which was for eight years.  And people hated him Рand in the previous election, they think that anyone but Mr Rafsanjani that was competing against Mr Ahmadinejad, he would have won the election. But because of Rafsanjani, Mr Ahmadinejad won, and whomever was in front of Ahmadinejad was losing – er, was winning the election but Mr Rafsanjani. But after that, people saw lots and lots of criticism from Mr Rafsanjani of Mr Ahmadinejad, they think he changed his behaviour, and when he supported Mr Mousavi – I’m not saying that people are now a fan or supporter of Mr Rafsanjani – but people think that he’s changed. But, they hate him anyway right now, but not as much as before. His family – people believe, there’s so much evidence about his families financial corruption in the country – people are always talking about his daughter, his boys Рand their corruption.

[12:10] So, what’s happening right now? What are you seeing around you? Are there people all over the streets, police that are restricting movements? Have they cut down the Internet? What are you seeing right now?
Around me, which are students of the university,  I can see so much disappointment in their faces about their future. Lots of my friends and lots of students here are determined to learn English, and send applications to foreign universities overseas, and apply to different universities to get out of this country. They say they cannot endure this situation anymore. Me neither can endure this situation here, and I am determined to leave this country. And some people that are stuck to the system, they remain here – people that are not satisfied with the situation will leave the country. The intellectual people are among those who are not satisfied with the situation, and if these people leave the country, there will not be any more intellectual engineers, there are not more talented people in here, and I think it’s going to be a huge mess.

[13:55] What would people want to see though, to prevent this sort of drain of people leaving the country. What is it that people want to see to fix up Iran?
Well first of all, they want their votes back. They do believe that the election was rigged. And they do want Mr Mousavi to take back their lives, their votes…first of all, they don’t want Mr Ahmadinejad anymore. As you can see in Facebook and other Internet communities that there are some causes,  people are saying that he should go Рjust go – it is not important who should be our president, but it should not be him, should not be him…

[15:03] So if Ahmadinejad is taken out of government, would people be a lot happier?
You mean to crackdown this government?

Yeah – do they just want different people elected? Is that the only change they want?
Um – I think the majority of people want Mr Mousavi to become president. They do hope for a bright future and for positive changes in the country with Mr Mousavi – I think they just want Mr Ahmadinejad to resign and to be taken out of Iran politics.

[16:06] Something I want to get clarified and that would be interesting  Рthings like Facebook, Twitter and all that – have they been blocked by the government?
Yeah yeah, these whole websites are filtered. We can’t Facebook – YouTube – even I cannot access my Yahoo Messenger and mailbox Yahoo.com – and the situation is very tough. Even some websites inside the country which had permission from the Islamic Republic like cloob.com which is a website inside the country – they just don’t want the information to spread around the world. And with the pictures, they don’t want the world to see the violence. And some extremist websites and TV like we the voice of America, which are so extremist about pulling down this government. They are scared of truth! What the BBC says, y’know the BBC with no personal focus, just saying the truth – they re sending so much noises on satellite. Given the BBC has gone down, its broadcast on Hotbird start broadcasting on Telstar and Eutelsat?

[18:05] How are people organizing the protests? Is it through SMS and telephone calls then, if all these important websites are blocked, to organise?
The SMS was also cut down for about a week and a half. The mobile phones are ok, but not in Tehran. In Tehran, the whole telecommunications system was cut down and people were just using card phones, home phones – and they were spreading the news just on the internet via Yahoo messenger, especially some blogs – and people are using anti-censors and proxies to access the website and get the information about the place and the dates of the protests…but the SMS service was not on for a week and a half.

[19:26] What’s going to happen now?  What’s going to happen in the next few weeks? Do you think it’s going to be predictable, or do you think everything is unpredictable at the moment?
I think the protests have calmed down, and its not going to happen anything. And the tyranny of of Ayatollah Khamenei and Mr Ahmadinejad, is growing up more and more – and nothing is going to happen. But I think in the next few years, there is going to be more and more protests. And this government and this system, has not firm fundamentals and firm foundation anymore. People do not believe in the Ayatollah anymore…
(phonecall dropped out exactly at this point and podcast discussion ended)
(music)

The Internet, Iran, and Ubiquity

P1040449What’s happening right now in Iran is absolutely remarkable. It validates the remarkable impact ubiquitous computing and ubiquitous connectivity to the Internet has and its potential to disrupt even the most tightly controlled police state in the world.

The rejection of the election by the public is creating public chaos, finally giving the people a reason to revolt against a regime they’ve detested for decades now. This situation has the potential to escalate to bigger things – or it likely will settle down – but regardless, it gives us a real insight into the future. That is, how these new technologies are transforming everything, and disgracing the mass media in the process.

What I saw in Iran
This blog of mine actually started as a travel blog, and one of the countries I wrote about was Iran. In my analysis of that beautiful country, I hypothesised a revolution was brewing based on societal discontent. What prevented this revolution from ever occurring, was a legitimate trigger – one that wasn’t shut down by the Islamic propaganda.
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A interesting thing I noted was that the official messaging of the country was anti-American and very over the top – no surprises there. But when you talked to people on a one-on-one level, you realised the Iranian’s actually respect the American’s – and it was the establishment they detested. It seemed the regime had a tight grip on society, using Islam as a way of controlling them in much the same way the Bush Administration use patriotism and the War on Terror, to do what it wanted and silence criticism. But by controlling the media (amongst other things), it essentially helped control society from revolting.

How ubiquity has changed that
In my previously linked article, I talk about the rising trend of a ubiquitous world – one where connectivity, computing, and data was omnipresent in our world. Separately, we are seeing a rising trend toward a “network” operating model for internet businesses, as demonstrated with Facebook’s CEO recently saying how he imagines Facebook’s future to not be a destination site.
denied
The implication is that people are now connected , can share information and communicate without restraint, but better yet, do so in a decentralised manner. The use of Twitter to share information to the world, isn’t reliant on visiting Twitter.com – it’s simply a text message away. It’s hard to censor something that’s not centralised. And it’s even harder to control and influence a population, where they no longer need the mass media for information, but can communicate directly with each other on a mass scale.

Take note
Social media is having a remarkable impact. Not only are we getting better quality reporting of events (with the mass media entirely failing us), but it’s enabling mass collaboration on a grand scale. One where even a government has the risk of being toppled. I’m still waiting to here from my Iranian friends to get their insight into the situation, but if it’s one lesson we should take note of, is that the Internet is transforming the world. Industries are not only being impacted, but society in the broadest sense. If a few picture-capable phones, a short-messaging communication service, and some patchy wireless Internet can rattle the most authoritarian state in the world, then all I can say is I’m gobsmacked at what else is on the horizon.

Blog posts on Liako.Biz for 2005

A series of posts that summarises content created on Liako.Biz

You can also read 2008 and 2007 summaries.

Like a good host should, I welcomed you to my new blog which was to document my travel experience. Writing in April 2005, I then proceeded to say how I landed in America (Ohio) and then Boston (with a cheeky review of Harvard ). I also managed to visit New York, before I made my way to Europe to Gallipoli for the 90th ANZAC Dawn services and one of my favourite cities Istanbul.

Similarly, May 2005 was a fairly lame month of blogging as I was still getting into the groove. I spent a month literally sleeping, and trying to create some sort of travel plans. I stayed with my cousins in Athens and managed a side-trip to Mykonos.

I finally got into the groove in June of being a blogger that engaged an audience. It started with my trip to Albania, which then progressed to Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia.

My Balkan bash had to end there as the sisters in London called, so off I went to see them and the new baby. However I then had to go back to Greece, and what better way to do it than over land. Unfortunately, it meant I had go through the Nagging wife countries but it’s okay because I partied all the way.

I partied a little too hard and developed pneumonia, which was a bummer for my trip, but by late September I had enough and headed to Athens (from Athens via Moscow) starting with Bulgaria, then onto the long road to Iran via Turkey until I finally got to…Iran. Iran was cool to see but hot at the same time, so I opted for some cold in Russia. Seeing as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were just down the road from Russia, I also visited those countries. Oh and heck, since I was there, I went to Poland, Prague and Budapest until time ran out and my nine months away ended with a finale.

Russia

My first experience with a Russian, was on the flight from Dubai to Moscow (connection from Tehran). She was my flight neighbour – a twenty-something singer-musician. She didn?Ǭ¥t say much, although she was taking a swig of her bottle of vodka every five minutes. I presumed she had a serious flight phobia.

Turns out there was no phobia. And that bottle of Vodka was three-quarters finished by the time the plane took off. Apparently, she drinks a bottle a day (I always thought it was an apple a day that kept the doctor away?). And what I thought was a quiet neighbour scared of flying, turned out to be a sarcastic alcoholic who started getting a little too friendly.
Half-way into the flight I decided to put her in her place and end the advances, which made the rest of the flight fairly awkward. But nevertheless, I had just had my first Russian experience: alcoholic, sexual, and incredibly sarcastic. Was this a premonition of the days to come?

A bear. Near the river in St Petersburg

Walking across, I saw this fuzzy bit of hair. I thought to myself “that’s a damn big dog”. I walk to the other side of the wall, and it turns out it was a bear.

I had an awesome time in Russia. I spent about ten days there, however to say Moscow and St Petersburg are Russia, is like saying London and Paris are Europe. Needless to say though, alcohol, sexuality, and every type of Russian stereotype you can think of, did feature prominently on my trip.

Russia and alcohol
The contrast between Iran and Russia with regards to alcohol is as startling as say, Osama being elected as the new Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. You can get a bottle of Vodka for practically the same price as a bottle of water. But it is not the cost of alcohol that left me shocked – it was the amount of alcohol Russians drink that shocked me.
An example was on my last day in Moscow, I was on the metro coming from the suburbs with my two buddies from the hostel. On the train, we started talking to some girls next to us – because they looked like they were not a day over 14, and drinking what looked like alcohol (one was also a dead-set ringer for Avril Lavinge). Turns out they were 18, but even so, the legal drinking age is a few years more. It was about 2pm on a Sunday afternoon, and these girls were drinking a 12 per cent alcoholic energy drink. They were also a bit pissed. And no one on the train found this unusual at all.
The streets are filled with people drinking in the middle of the day, like a woman causally having lunch with a beer. It’s not just excessive alcohol, but just a lot of alcohol! Kiosks in Moscow that dot the streets with food and beverages, are also stocked up with alcohol. Alcohol is literally everywhere. Even a seasoned Aussie drinker like me couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable at the drinking culture.

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St Petersburg is architectually awesome

Russia and sexuality and beauty
When someone would ask me what my ideal woman looked like, I never knew how to answer that question. In the 30 minute metro ride I had when I first arrived from Moscow airport to the hostel, I saw 28 versions of my ideal woman. Enough said!

I met this dip shit Australian at a nightclub, who been working in the security business for the last eight months. I felt like hitting him because it was such an imbecile, but he did say something that sums it up pretty well (when asked why he likes it so much here): “Because the women are beautiful and the men are ugly”. A little harsh, but so true. Women go out of way to display their femininity – which I suppose is something all European women do, but Russians definitely are a cut above the rest. In boiling hot Iran, all women have to cover themselves completely. In barely five degrees Russia, women are wearing skirts that you see on a beach party. And apparently they even do it in the middle of winter at minus twenty degrees weather.

As for sex: how many times do you go to a nightclub and there are professional strippers on the bar? This one club in St Petersburg, I would be dancing, and then there would be an announcement every hour or so. Everyone would gather around an elevated stage with a pole, and watch the five minute routine – men and women alike watching a strip tease dance that repeatedly left my tongue on the ground. When finished, the disco music would start again, and everyone would resume to dancing as if nothing had just happened.

Women in Russia - freezing, and yet they still wear short skirts

I asked a member of the female species why do they wear such short skirts, in such cold weather. Answer: “Because it looks good”.

Russia and stereotypes
Forget the stereotypes, this is what I experienced: Russians are educated, cultured, and will go out of their way to help a stranger. My shock of this last fact was exacerbated by how I was not expecting people in large cities like Moscow and St Petersburg to be friendly – which are the largest and fourth-largest cities in Europe respectively. A typical example, was when I caught the train to the city centre from the airport. Moscow’s metro is the best in the world – which also means it is bloody complicated, especially for someone still learning the Cyrillic alphabet. I got off the wrong metro station, and asked a man where the hell was I. In his limited English he told me to follow him and walked me to the next station where I was meant to be connecting at – a five minute walk completely out of his way. This is but one example where people went out of their way to help me.

They say that when in Rome, you do as the Romans do. And it?Ǭ¥s not just for experiencing the culture, but for safety reasons as well – you don’t want to stand out as a tourist. But stand out I did. My drunk neighbour on the flight had also made the comment that I looked different. Apparently “American”. Still trying to work that one out.
Fortunately, I didn’t have any problems even though I had foreigner written on my forehead and I did have a bit of fun with it. But the homogeneity of the population is amazing, and people that look different like the people from southern Russia, are constantly pulled up by police on the street for passport and bag checks.

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Can you see it, on my forehead? It says “I am a foreigner”

Actually, a slight tangent: in St Petersburg, a university professor from Cambridge university, tried to pick me up. To cut a long story short, I had coffee with him, whilst he attempted to impress me, and invite me back to his apartment for drinks and to see his jacuzzi. The reason I am mentioning this story, is not because of how disgusted I was that a lonely gay man twice my age tried to pick me up, but rather to vent my anger with him because this is my blog and I’ll cry if I want to.
During our discussion, he complained how the Russian academic staff at the university were all straight, which was a weird thing as everyone back in England in his architecture department is gay. And how it bothered him, how they treated him differently. I completely agreed with him, and how bad it is homophobia is so strong here – ever since I got over my schoolboy homophobia, I have always supported gay rights. But then he said two things that made me angry.
The first thing was how he likes St Petersburg because everyone here is white. He doesn’t like the coloured people he has to mix with in London.
The second thing, was how impressive the architecture is in the city. What makes it so impressive, is that the Tsars had millions of slaves dying to make this grand buildings – something a western European ruler would never be able to get away with. And that is what makes them even more special.
So here I am with one of Europe’s leading academics (apparently), sympathising with his inequality, and yet he goes on in the same breath to say how good it is to be in a city full of white people which was built by generations of rulers who had no regards for human life. I felt like getting up and yelling at this maggot to go shove a communist sickle up his arse.
However gay rights are something Russians are not exactly supportive. I had a few conversations with some girls on several issues, and it is interesting to see how traditional minded they are. Point being, how socially conservative the youth are ( just imagine what the adults are like!).

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This church in Moscow took 44 years to build, and was later knocked down by Stalin. They recently rebuilt it, using modern technology, in just four years. The interior is amazing.

Then again, the gay thing might have something to do with the fact that there are ten million more women than men in Russia! Settle down though boys – some statistics a friend of mine dug up show that the numbers don?Ǭ¥t actually skew until after age 33 – there are actually slightly more men than women before that. Yet the numbers do imply the affects of three of Russia’s biggest problems: AIDS, Booze, and Chechnya.

There were an estimated 860,000 people living with HIV at the end of 2003 in Russia, and this figure looks set to increase. It has the highest HIV epidemic in all of Europe, although numbers do appear to be falling. The affects of such a disease, especially with an aging population though – is bad.
Alcohol is a serious problem. When Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign was launched in 1985, within two years life expectancy for men increased 3.2 years for women and 1.4 for women. Those improvements have since been lost, but it does tell a sad story. Russia, with a population of 143.2 million, has 2.37 million registered alcoholics. The average quantity of pure alcohol per person is 8.7 litres. That’s like everyone in Russia drinking 53 ml of Vodka a day.

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Moscows metro: deep, man.

Chechnya is a topic sensitive to Russians. Especially given the terrorist attacks on ordinary Russians by Chechnya’s militants wanting independence. Vladimir Putin recently said he wishes all Chechnyans are flushed down the toilet “We?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢re going to chase terrorists everywhere. If we track them down in a loo, we will rub them out in the loo, too.” This is the head of the government saying this. The fact he can get away with it – and also the reason why he said it – shows how much the war has affected the Russian psyche.
However the wars no doubt have had an impact on population numbers, especially with men who are the ones sent to war. Between 150,000 and 160,000 people have died in the two wars in Chechnya, according to Taus Djabrailov, the head of Chechnya’s interim parliament. The toll includes federal troops, rebel fighters, and civilians who died or went missing during both the first conflict (1994 to 1996) and the second, which began in 1999 and continues today. (Source). And lets not forget Afghanistan, which was Russia’s ‘Vietnam’ in the 1980s.

Mr Putin is also busy putting together the third Russian empire. People don?Ǭ¥t know who it is that controls their country, but as my friend Vera said, one more step backwards and she is out of there. Russia is a country in transformation. A strong man is needed to reorganise a country of its size, seeing as its democratic institutions have grown organically from a sick Soviet Empire (or rather, they have been re-branded as democratic). But a dictator is a dictator. The English-press in Russia seem to buzz with theories on how Putin will hold onto power, as he is legally restricted to two presidential terms. Given the nature of power, it is fairly obvious he will not let go the reigns of the government. However his decision on how he does this, will have huge ramifications on a country struggling to recreate itself.

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The double-headed imperial eagle, and the communist star – symbols of two former Russian empires. Wonder what Vladimir is cooking up for his new empire

Economically, the country is not healthy, reliant on oil and arms sales. Apparently 80 per cent of the country’s wealth flows into Moscow – which really makes me wonder what life must be like in the rest of Russia. One set of figures about wages I heard were as such: the average monthly salary is 9000 rubles. A doctor is payed about 3000 by the State (however his secretary probably gets 5000, because she is privately employed). Nine-thousand rubles is about 415 Australian dollars, 315 US dollars, or 260 Euros.

Those numbers are low, but it doesn?Ǭ¥t shock me that much, because I have been to a lot of poor countries where the wages are very similar. But what shocked me was that these are figures for people in Moscow. And in Moscow, I found the prices to be comparable to Sydney and New York. In Australia, the average monthly salary is $4,300 – ten times more than what I was told as the average salary in Russia/Moscow.

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You throw money over your shoulder for luck, and the babushkas behind you desperately catch the money. There are more billionaires in Moscow than in any other city in the world, and as you can see, plenty of poverty as well

Russia has one of the worlds richest histories, although a very brutal one as well. A visit to European St Petersburg makes you stagger at the cultural richness of the country, and Moscow’s fast paced, hedonistic consumer lifestyle, makes your head spin to think this was once the communist nerve centre of the world (communism? where?!)

If Russia’s leading two cities have transformed that much in 15 years, I am looking forward to see what it will become in another 15.

Iran

Iran proved to be an interesting trip. I was invited one night to an Iranian house for tea; on a separate occasion I was invited for dinner with a family, and provided a bed to sleep in. One day I was there, a group of university girls approached me, took me for tea, and the next day took me shopping and sightseeing. They made sure I didn’t pay tourist prices for the things I bought, and they paid for pretty much everything that day. I kept thinking to myself the scenario – girls picked me up off the street, paid for everything, and insisted on carrying my bags. Where has Australia gone wrong?

However, my entry into Iran wasn’t as smooth as I had hoped. I had to put up with cab drivers and bus operators whose low level of intelligence was matched inversely by the high level of bacteria in their armpits. I discovered I was not able to get a flight out of the country to my next destination – a crucial assumption for my entire trip (although I did manage to get one later – double price however). And a little more problematic – having two of my $100 US bills being identified as counterfeit – a slight problem considering I had no access to any other means of money, as credit cards don’t work and international links to banks like mine in Australia, don’t exist.

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This money was meant to pay for my trip out of the country. And they say the mafia’s operations doesn’t affect the ordinary person.

My first few days in Iran were marked with me being in an absolutely negative mindset, and I was enjoying myself as much as one would when sharing a prison cell with a big fat sex-crazy cell mate called “bubba”. Fortunately, the moment I left Tehran, my trip changed. Negative experiences, turned into memorable ones. Though memorable does not necessarily mean fun at the time, as I experienced in Shiraz.

I flew into Shiraz from Tehran to save time (flights are cheap), and after finding a room, I started walking around the city. I didn’t go very far before I could sense someone behind me watching my movements. After a few minutes, an Iranian guy approaches me and starts a conversation: he was a little hard to understand (he sounded drunk) but I didn’t think much of it. He was extremely excited to meet me, to practice his English and to learn about Australia – a place he wants to migrate to. So I had myself a guide – Rezer starting showing me the sights as we talked, and after the bazaar, took me to a mosque which is one of the most important to the Shi’ite Muslims. We were inside, with me absolutely stunned by the beauty of the interior (the walls and roof were covered in crystals, and the strategic placing of the lighting gave the room an amazing glow). As I am looking, head up and stunned, Rezer pulls out his hand, and he says slowly: “These are my tablets. I have psychological problems”.

The dude with mental issues who would not leave me alone

The amusing thing about this picture, was that when he looked at the picture afterwards, he was scared of himself. I had to reassure him that his big eyes in the picture did not make him look freaky (when in fact, they were normally bigger, and he looked damned freaky when they were).

It is an interesting moment to be experiencing one of the most mesmerising shrines you have ever been to, and to find out your companion of the last hour is mentally unstable. As we left the mosque, I subtly asked why he needed the tablets. “It’s to calm me down.” I didn’t show any reaction, as if it is an every-day thing for me to find out I’ve got a wacko right next to me. He liked the way I reacted to the news, and declared how much he liked me now. Whoopee.

The tour continues, and en-route to the ‘final’ bit of sight seeing I had agreed to – where we would be overlooking the city – we walk by the local mental hospital. Speaking very softly, and in remarkable detail, he was able to tell me which sections of the hospital housed what type of ‘crazy’ person. “These are the people that are really, really crazy, and can’t live in society by themselves and need lots and lots of help”. A curtain is quickly drawn on the top left of the building. “See, that was a crazy person. In that section that is where the people who shit all over the floor stay and make a mess all over the place”. I was tempted to ask how he knew all this, but I didn’t want to provoke any negative reactions. I insisted we continue, so that I could end this tour as quick as possible. On the way to our final destination – he insists we call his sister so that I speak to her. She was nice, but quickly ended the call, as if this happens on a daily basis. The tour continues.

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The city of Shiraz at night, by the gateway of the city.

When we first met, he asked me about the differences between Australia and New Zealand. Half an hour later, he asked the same thing. After the fourth repeated question – where had I just come from – I noticed a pattern. He had completely forgotten what I had told him 10 minutes earlier.

We get to the top, had some tea, took some pictures, and I showed him my photos. He asked about the difference between Australia and New Zealand, and he asked to see my photos (again). He asked where had I just come from, and whether he could see my photos (for the third time). I told him I have already shown the photos to him. He insisted in taking me to my hotel. I said no thanks. We make it back to the spot where I met him in the centre of the city, and he said just quickly to show me the outside of the castle there. I agreed reluctantly, saw the very important picture he wanted to show me (the devil being defeated by someone) and then I said I really had to go now. He then began asking when I would leave, and if we could meet the next day. I said no. He asked if he could see me at the bus station to send me off. I said no, again. He asked at about what time will my bus leave. I said I didn’t know.

“Can I kiss you now?” he asked. “Excuse me!?” I exclaimed. He continued, “Can I kiss you and hug you?” I replied by saying I did not feel comfortable, because in my culture, men don’t show affection like that. He continued, “But I want to hug and kiss you because I really like you and I love Australia”. Time to leave I thought, and I started making my way, saying goodbye over my shoulder. He waved good-bye, and then he yelled “wait a second, I need to tell you something”. I stopped and listened. He then asked if he could see my pictures again. “You already saw them I cried out for the fifth time. “Can I please hug and kiss you?”, he asked again “No! Goodbye!” I shouted, and I started walking very fast. I could sense he was watching me, so when I made the corner, I bolted and got lost in the crowd.

The Iranian experience
Geographically, Iran is amazing. The locals are very proud of the fact that their country has four seasons. Apparently, at any time of the year, there is a place in Iran that is experiencing one of the four seasons. It quite literally is an all-round tourist destination, because it has amazing deserts, sensational mountains, beautiful forests and waterfalls, and so much more.

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The gutters in Iran fascinated me. This is in Tehran, where it was practically a waterfall.

Historically, Iran is as rich as they get, and it has the infrastructure for mass tourism (everything from cheap and plentiful accommodation to widespread use of English language (in signage and in understanding by the locals), and even tourist offices everywhere that matters. There is no country more suited for tourism, and despite having every reason to visit the country, there are practically no tourists. A lot of people there don’t quite understand how their civilisation – which stands with the greats of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome – has been forgotten by the world. The Persian Empire started as one of the three Aryan tribes to inhabit Iran before it ruled the Ancient world (Iran in Farsi, means “Aryan”). Whilst the Arabs dominated the country for 600 years, something which a lot of proud Iranians resent because it ‘bastardised’ their country, their history stretches into the middle ages and this century – until the Revolution, where the Shah was forced to abdicate. There is absolutely no reason, in my mind, why you should not visit the country – and every kind of reason to visit (with the exception of maybe nightclubbing) .

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The Government-led propaganda effort is very over-the-top. This is at the former US embassy, now known as the Den of Espoinage. It has a set of murals on the southern wall depicting Iran as an American colony, and then images showing a war led by Ayatollah Khomeini, who saves the country

The people in Iran are the friendliest I have ever met. Practically all the people I met in the country approached me on the street for a chat (I stood out like a banana would in a green salad), and those that helped me went completely out of their way. My perception about Islam – now that I have seen it in practice – had made me realise how beautiful the religion is, and how misguided Western civilisation is in its perceptions, especially in the post 9/11 world. I think of the mass media in how it contantly asks questions along the lines of ‘Can Islam and democracy work?’ – I now realise how ridiculous that theme is, and depressing because it just proves how ignorant we are. (Although, why it doesn’t work in Iran is because the clerics are unaccountable – an Islamic democracy is different from an Islamic theocracy – the difference being elections and media scrutinty, both non-existant in Iran for the clerics).
More importantly, visiting the country has made me realise how amazing it is. As an Iranian told me: “We are not Afghanistan!”, which seems to be a good way to summarise how the world sees this country. Yet telling the locals this view, shocks them, and with good reason, as the country although a little rough around the edges, is just like a European country with an oriental flavouring – and at a fraction of the cost. There is nothing wild and adventurous about travelling in Iran – to tell you the truth, it was a little too easy. There is one thing however that made my blood freeze: crossing any road – you’ve just got to close your eyes and hope for the best.

Nomad

A nomadic couple in Southern Iran, near Firuz Ab?ɬ¢d. Couples like this herd their sheep from one green pasture to the other. I am not sure what the correct transliteration is, but it sounds something like Ashel-yer.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is about as Islamic as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is a Democratic Peoples republic. Whilst the people are religious, the government in Iran, controlled by the clerics, is an authoritarian government thinly cloaked under the veil of Islam. The place is a police state – where military check-points between cities are frequent and security is tight. I went to visit a friend at a university, and was angrily denied entry. Although I later befriended the guards, the fear of my presence was amazing. (Although there apparently were some British students that broke into a university and created a fuss recently…it also didn’t help that I was in Kashan, which has a nuclear reactor neaby and the local authorities and population had been forbidden to admit it existed until it was found two years ago by international inspectors.) Being shown around the city of Tehran on my final night, with a guy who is an registered tourist operator – we were denied access to see the other side of the new Foreign Ministry building – a historic building (I thought it was fair enough, but he doesn’t understand why). Security is tight in the country, enforced by no fewer than three levels of enforcement.

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You don’t mess around in Iran.

As well as the police and the military, there are also the Revolutionary Guards, known as Sepah – a parallel secretive military outfit to the actual military, albeit with a different function. Sepah is the personal police unit of the authoritarian clerics ruling the country. They are the people that ensure there is no threat to the establishment. Apparently, you can do anything in Iran now, just as long as it does not threaten the establishment – that is why satellite TV is not a problem (as in it is technocally illegal, but not enforced), but journalism on the Internet in the form of blogs (like this) are heavily monitored. The abuse of power is disgusting: an example was with a friend, we saw about 40 men gathered around having a dispute. Apparently, these men wanted to build a Mosque in their local community. Right next to the proposed site, was Sepah’s local barracks – Sepah was not letting them. The barracks were huge as it was, and this patch of land was useless for military purposes. My friend told me that he believes Sepah was denying the request so that they could have a basketball court. Is this what an Islamic Republic is about? The themes of Orwell’s Animal Farm resonate strongly, the only difference is that the communist party is replaced by Islamic clerics.

Alcohol

Alcohol is not legal (although plenty of people do drink). Heroin is also very popular.

During the Iran-Iraq war – a war that has had a huge impact on the society – a friend tells me fifty percent of the budget was allocated to the military. Whilst the war has ended, I would not be surprised if the figure is higher than most countries during peace time in terms of military spending. It is interesting to see how the state can control the population, through the military, and this is how it was explained to me: A guy I met reckons 70% of the men pre-military service want change, as in another revolution. Another guy I met reckons the figure is 90% of the entire population, and a third person says 80%. Whatever the figure, I think you get the idea – people want another revolution. The thing is though, men can only get their passport after they have completed two years of military service. I was told though that whilst 70% want change, when they do their military service, that figure drops to 30%. Following military service, parents force their sons to get married. Actually, people want to get married because sex before marriage is a criminal act – and all the men I met claim how much it drives them crazy.

But when you have a family to support, revolutionary feelings die down. You just don’t care so much about the oppression, in so much as the welfare of your family. With apparently five million people working for the government (figure unverified), these people also don’t want to stir the pot, because finding a job is hard in the country, due to the weak economy. I short – everyone detests the government, personified by Sepah. But people can’t do anything about it. I find it ironic, that a half dozen separate people told me that they and everyone they know, believe and think the days when the Shah was in power were happier times. I met so many intelligent Iranian’s, both students and academics, who knew the visa regulations of all the countries in the West: Canada, Australia, USA and England. For those that can leave, they are voting with their feet -and figures run into millions of Iranians overseas.

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Iranians sure know how to build a shrine. Pictures will never do the mosques I saw any justice.

On two separate occasions, from two completely different groups of people, I was told that they believe Iran is a colony of England. The first time I heard this I was shocked – the second time stunned. A joke I heard, was how an Iranian made car, had it parts made in England, and was assembled in Iran, whilst the clerics have the parts made in Iran, whilst being assembled in England. Historically England has used the clerics in the country as a means of controlling the country, and that apparently is a fact, according to a friend who had done a lot of reading of history. A commonly held belief is that the US and English wanted the clerics to control the country (ie, supported the revolution), because with its natural wealth, it had the potential to be a world superpower – but by oppressing the population, the West controls the resources without an overly ambitious Shah challenging their power, which is what it was becoming to look like in the 1970s. Iranians feel betrayed by their government – what other explanation could there be why Iran is not living up to its full potential? I was told 60 per cent of the worlds oil supply has to pass through Iran in the south. (And looking into it, I think he was referring to the Strait of Hormuz, whereby 90% of the regions oil transits, which equates to 60% of the worlds seabourne oil, and an amazing 40% of the worlds total oil.). And it’s not just oil, it’s gas as well.

Esfahan

Esfahan is a relaxed city, and one of the most beautiful ones I have ever visited.

Iran accounts for ten percent of the worlds oil, as well as a large amount of natural gas – the energy of the future. However those are the figures of today; there are also the figures of tomorrow. The Caspian Basin, to the North of Iran, apparently holds 200 billion barrels of oil – second in size to Saudi Arabia – with the potential to increase global oil output by 25 per cent. And of the three proposed routes, Iran is the cheapest, and shortest. Iran is one of the most important countries for oil (and gas, they are second only to Russia) in the world – for actual oil, and its positioning for transport – both now and increasingly for the future. In the light of those facts, I think I understand what the Iranians mean.

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The Internet is censored. Search engine results of “hot sex porn”, “Salman Rushdie” and “How-do-I-get-out-of-this-bloody-country” were randomly blocked

The country receives five billion dollars of foreign investment a year – Iranian officials believe they need double that amount to have the country develop fully. But I wonder how much of that figure goes to the energy sector. Not only does the country need a hell of a lot more money, but it needs it to help invest in civilian industries, not just energy which benefits the regime. There are sanctions on the country, and it is the ordinary people that are hurt by them – not the ruling dictatorship.

People want a revolution. But will there ever be one? People, on the whole (as I am told by everyone), hope so. But it looks unlikely. Hope is in the actual democratic aspect of the government, whereby reformist representatives are battling an uphill fight. However with the recent election of the hard-line Mayor of Tehran as President, this will be a huge set back to the reforms by the previous President. More cynically, as I was told by one person, is that it won’t make any difference: whenever someone gets elected, they shave their beards (symbol of the establishment) and claim to change and improve things, when in reality they are just as bad as the previous people.

Blue Bridge

Iranians sure know how to use lighting to enhance their structures at night. Esfahan has a selection of bridges that look magnificent at night.

I really feel sorry for the Iranians. The world, due to the mass media, has got a completely wrong perception about the country – although a little rough around the edges, it is a safe and developed (but poor) country. The people are being oppressed by a power-hungry regime, that has interpreted the Koran to suit them (apparently, there is nothing in the Holy Book requiring women to cover their heads – all women have to wear headscarf’s, and not doing so is against Iranian law – although faces are allowed to be shown). The economy is crippled by the power games being played by their government, where the ordinary people pay for any hardship imposed by the international community, but the regime receive any benefits – especially in the wealth generated by the energy sector. (For example, if an Iranian finds oil on their property, the government owns it, giving nothing to the Iranian.)

Artist

One of many artists, who painstakingly hand-paint their creations, with small brush strokes

An interesting thing I noticed about the Iranian economy, is how it is growing. Whilst China, for example, is getting foreign investment to grow, Iran (like India) is growing internally – which in the long term, is a lot more powerful. The Iranians are developing industries, from automobiles to airplanes as well as tourism (arrivals by March 2006 will see 25% more tourists, according to officials). They are, for example, creating energy trading markets to compete with the US controlled exchanges in Europe – actions which give it global influence. The recent decision to value its oil in Euros, not only will change the dynamics of global oil but also global economics, by weakening the might of the US dollar. However, there still needs to be a lot of work to be done: the airline manufacturer complained in a newspaper report how Iranian airlines don’t want to use their planes, citing credibility and reputation with going with Airbus. However, when explaining why they should use the Iranian-made planes, the manager says that although the plane holds less passengers, and takes longer to fly – they state the benefit that “it takes seven minutes less time to load the plane” as a good reason to buy the plane. For some reason, I think there is another reason why the airlines don’t want the Iran-made planes (they suck). But I think it is still impressive, that there are even attempts to develop industries like this, which are dominated by the Americans, Europeans and Russians. If Iran grows its economy to the levels of the developed world, one thing we can be sure of is that it will be puling its own strings – and possibly of other countries as well.

Carpet

Carpet makers in Firuz. This carpet is three by six metres, and will sell to a carpet shop for 900 Euros. This is the final week of the three month project. How do they know when to put what coloured string to create the impressive design? It’s done by memory of an image, apparently.

How to overthrow the government
In Iran, it costs ten 800 Rial for a litre – that’s about ten US cents. In Australia, we pay at least 100 cents for one litre. Despite the fact that the cost-of-living is very low (a pricey meal for three in a classy hotel restaurant costs $15), even the Iranians admit that the price for petrol is dirt cheap. With petrol prices increasing, something needs to be done. I am really keen on buying a V8 sports car, which consumes a lot of petrol. And so in a bid to ensure I get cheaper petrol, I advocate we invade the country and open up the oil there, so that I can afford to run my car. I don’t really care who gets the honour – heck, I’ll even help the French have this one – but something needs to be done for my energy needs. And so, I present to you, my plan on making sure I get cheaper petrol.

It is simple, and it doesn’t require any invasions. Complicated diplomacy is unnecessary. And best of all, it’s guaranteed to work because it is based on history. The answer, my friends is tax.

The Persian wars started because of high taxation. The French revolution, started because of tax. American revolution? Tax. That’s right, it is all about tax, and there are plenty more examples. So for the next Iranian revolution, we need to make the clerics tax the bullshit out of the average Iranian – afterall, it was a rotten economy that ruined the Shah. The people will revolt, and I will get cheaper, western-controlled petrol.

So how do we do such a thing? Again, very simple. We need to make ordinary Iranians rich, and the government broke. Because when you are rich, you have wealth. And when you have wealth, you want to keep that wealth. Any attempts to tax it or take it away, is going to piss the Iranians off. Especially when it is going to fund something you don’t agree with.

Shiraz bazaar

Standard issue bazzar shot

How do you make the government broke? Through war. Iran is part of the unrecognised Kurdish region. If the Kurds in Iraq breakway to form a Kurdish country, and take a bit of Turkish Kurdishtan, they will also go for the rather large bit in Western Iran. Iran has a better-then-you-think military, so best not to get the overstretched Americans involved with this one. Europe will support the war, because a Kurdish country will weaken Turkey – making it less of a big, poor Muslim nation entering the EU. A smaller population will make the Turkish admission more bearable and less threatning. The Russians will also support the war privately because Iran is enegry competition. But also it will push up orders for Russia’s defence industry, as Russia and China supply Iranian military needs (funny how dictatorships around the world, no matter the ideology, can find friendship).

There is nothing like a good old border war to send the government broke, pressuring the governemnt to raise taxes to fund its activities. There is a 10% Sunni minority that are also a little pissed off – for example, they can’t hold government positions or even become university professors. A Kurdish war, and an internal war will do wonders. And what about those islands in the south that are disputed territory with the Gulf States? Back to history, empires always end when they can’t control their borders, and haven’t got the means to defend them (for lack of cash). Let’s get the boys in Bahrain and the UAE to stir the pot down south.

Now the harder bit, how do we make Iranians rich? Afterall, you can’t tax the poor.

Drop the sanctions – they are making the Iranians poor, and are not affecting the regime. Develop tourism, because it is a industry with huge potential, and will enrichen the people, not the regime. Tourism will also help what the US-government controlled Internet and world wide web will do: inject foreign influence. A B-Grade movie I saw on a bus, which was a prison version of fightclub, actually came from America. Although it was poorly dubbed in Farsi, there is one thing the propaganda office can’t control outside snipping sex scenes: the images themselves.

When an Iranian girl sees a western movie, with western women in their new fashions – or the women visiting the country – do you think it doesn’t have an impact? There already is a revolution in Iran – socially. Whilst the men don’t grow beards if they don’t support the regime, and sport short-sleeve shirts which were previously frowned on, women are being a lot more daring with their fashion. When the revolution first happened, all women were covered head-to-toe is this black garmet with only their faces showing – called the Chador. However not any more. Whilst that outfit is still popular, a good fifty percent of women are quietly non-conforming – and this isn’t restricted to any age either. I saw women wearing pink coats, that although fulfilled the modesty requirements, I can tell you now it was a very creative interpretation of the requirements. A modest fringle is allowed with the headscarf – however the definition of modest seems to mean half the head with most Iranian women! Sometimes the women were being so “extremist” I almost felt obliged to say something!

Social revolution

Times are changing. Whilst mosques and universities mandate women to cover up a bit (this girl is most likely on the way to uni, as her dressing is inconsistent), most when they can, shake off the bland black and satisfy the law with the absolute minimum. And it’s not just in fashion: vanity is also on the rise. The amount of women I saw who had just had a nose-job was ridiculous.

So there we go. For cheap oil and gas, the stage is set. People want a revolution – they just need some help. Whenever someone criticises the regime, they are pulled down for being “Anti-Islamic”. People need an excuse to revolt – high taxation is the answer. The current international policy of isolation suits the Mullahs, because it keeps the people poor and dependent. Let change it to suit the people – visit Iran as a tourist and encourage the revolution.

Hope

The long road to Iran via Turkey

Turkey. Was meant to be a transit destination, and this is now my 8th day! Three days in Istanbul, a day of travel to get to Trabzon where I spent two days, another day to get to Dogubayazit via Enzurum, and when I finish this post – a full day getting out of the country (even though l am right near the border – I was been roped into helping a local Kurd). The bus trips have been as fun as an adult circumcision, but despite being totally disengaged as a traveler, it still has been an interesting trip.

I arrived in Istanbul early Saturday morning, groaning that the ticket office I needed wouldn’t open until Monday. The hostel was literally a match box (how they fit the beds is beyond my comprehension) that had not been cleaned since, well, never. But despite this there was a hot but stupid Brazilian girl, and a German dude that I become friends with as we were entertained by the Brazilians stupidity, so that made it more bearable.

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Istanbul. Damn big.

The German guy had just spent a year working for an NGO in Bangladesh. Yes he is also asking "why" as well now – He’s turned into an avowed capitalist after seeing what he saw. It turns out both our fathers have had former lifetimes as ladies men, but I think his dad takes the cake. His Romanian father is a musician that travels the world bonking women. My friend is son number 12. No one knows but the father how many sons he truly has. "Are you really son number 12?" I would ask for the fifth time. "You very amused by zis, eh?". God yeah.

I picked the hostel because it is in the heart of modern Istanbul near Taksim square, which was a good idea because it is totally different from Sultanahmet, the tourist area. The street is a pedestrian area, filled with shops and consulates dating back from the Ottoman Empire when these grand buildings where once embassies. Apart from walking up-down Istiklal street like a million times, I also got a taste of Istanbul nightlife with the German. Worst hangover ever.

Fishing in the Golden Horn

Having seen what travels on Istanbul’s waters, I don’t suggest seafood in the city.

Istanbul is grubby, congested, and disorderly. But I love it. I don’t know what it is, but it just stands out as one of the most amazing cities I have ever visited, a class I put alongside New York and London. There was a Turkish law that said that if you could build your house in 24 hours, you could claim the land. This resulted in a mass migration from heartland Anatolia, and today no one really knows how many people live in the city. To say 10 million is an understatement. Try 15-20 million.

Trabzon is a cool city as well, founded by Greeks thousands of years ago – the name is derived from the Greek word for "table", because the city sits on the mountain…like on a table. It has always been a historically important city as it lay on the Silk Road, as well as its impressive positioning protecting it from invaders. Today the focus has shifted from East to North, as it trades with Russia and the caucus region. You only need a glimpse of the port to know it is an important one.

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Along the Black Sea coast of Turkey, a mountain range follows it. This picture is on the far west of Trabzon – no wonder it resisted so many invaders.

Both cities are distinctively European in appearance, and spirit. It was only once I got lost in the suburbs of Trabzon that I saw women covering themselves head to toe and even then it was rare – only a few really old ladies. In Istanbul and in the centre of Trabzon it is very rare to see women cover themselves. People look European as well. It was not uncommon to see blue eyes. Actually I was shocked to see how European Turkish people looked. Coastal Anatolia is as European as they get.

Sumela Monastry

Sumela Monastry, which stands at the foot of a steep cliff, about 45 kms outside of Trabzon. Despite undergoing many changes since its founding, they say it first began during the reign of Theodosius I (AD 375-395). It took an hour to walk up the cliff. Monks are crazy people.

Heading inland, things are a bit different. The head to toe covering of women is a tad bit more common, but again, it mostly seems like the older generation. The head scarf is a lot more common, but it looks more like a fashion statement than a statement of fervent religious belief. The people look a bit more Arab as well, but as I found out last night, the Arab-Turkish look is because of the Kurds. One Kurd I met reckons there are 30-35 million of them, in a country with a population of 70 million. No wonder the Kurdish issue is so sensitive in Turkey.

On the bus from Trabzon to Enzurum, I was confirmed you don’t screw around in Turkey. Going on mountains so high up that there were cloud formations next to us, the bus suddenly made a sound like the bonnet had just been scrapped badly. I never found out what exactly happened apart from seeing some scrapings on the side, but what amused me was what happened after the scraping. First of all, all the men were outside, talking and looking very knowledgeable about what to do. Then, a passenger smacked the bus driver, and they got into a brawl. Then, the traffic police came. And another police car. And then a military van with five guys with big guns, four of which guarded the road. Another police car drove past but he was told to move on because they had enough support. Then, a shitty car with what appeared to be a high-ranking military officer, turned up. He poked around, walked around like he was important, and then had his door opened by one of his soldiers. He gave me a look as he was leaving that resembled like a "respect my authority!". I just gave him the kiss my arse look.

And the bus one and a half hours later left. All that for a traffic report? It reminded me of when I was in Trabzon, walking in the suburbs whereby a good 10-15 police cars one after the other came out of their car lot, presumably to deal with some important crime like a bank robbery or fetching a cat from a tree. Point being: Turkey has a lot of military and paramilitary with nothing to do not far from you – don’t test them! The amount of military bases in Eastern Turkey further proves this.

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Turkey has such a diverse and stunning geography, which bears similarities to all the countries I have seen so far combined.

Last night, tired like all buggery, I arrived in Dogubayazit. Some guy called Gerkum led me to a cheap hotel, and I was then passed on to Martin the hotel attendant. Martin than took me to a restaurant, and the staff there entertained themselves as I burnt my mouth with Kurdish food. Apparently, it’s called Kurdish viagra. I haven’t got a female companion to test it but God am I paying for it today – I don’t think a virus has the chance to exist in my body right now because of how strong the curry was (it was like packed curry with some flavouring).

Uploading my photos and writing this entry, Martin found out I had some basic internet knowledge. Two long hours later, we created a site with pictures. Wasted my day meaning I will get to Iran later rather than earlier, but if he gets at least one new customer I suppose it was worth it. Kurdish people are the friendliest people I have ever come cross as well. Maybe a bit too friendly – the 19 year old owner of this Internet cafe likes to talk and it is taking forever to write this entry.

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A proud nation, even though the issues of secularism and the Kurds, seem to challenge and bring conflicting views of what it means to be "Turkish"

Back in Trabzon, I was chatting with the hotel dude whilst eating breakfast. I don’t know whether it is the international male language, or if guys I meet are repeatedly testing my sexuality – because people always bring up the subject of women with me. He was telling me how Russian women are very beautiful. I said Turkish women were very beautiful as well, but he replied "Yes pretty, but only for marriage, not fun". Trying to make the conversation a little more meaningful I asked if people were religious in Turkey. He said they were, but not like how they were in Iran. "In Iran…make changes….like Christianity…you will see when you go". He then left the room with me trying to understanding what he meant by that. I didn’t have the chance to find out, but whatever his negative view of Iran is, I hope I can prove it wrong.

PS. On the toilet issue debate, the Muslim way is so much cleaner. Having said that though, I have completely redefined the relationship I have with my left hand.