The No Ruz (New Year) holidays were the perfect opportunity to visit my extended family in Tabriz. Although my immediate uncles and cousins are from Tehran the family is originally from Azerbaijan (not to be confused with the country of the same name, which traditionalist Azeris claim has stolen their identity). I love going up there as I get swamped in various second and third cousins numerous times removed, all laughing, smiling, joking. I don't get much of what's going on as everyone is speaking Turkish (Azeri) and I understand very little of what's going on, although pertinent exchanges get translated into Farsi for me. Not that it matters much as my main preoccupation is trying not to burst from all the baghlava, dried fruit and nuts, kebabs, sweets, rice and dolme that is coming from all angles as I'm carted from one family get-together to another. Luckily I do know how to say yemiram (I can't eat) to counter the insistent cries of ye! ye! (eat! eat!) of Azeri matrons for whom hospitality is second nature.
Typical Iranian picnic: park car by side of the road, unload boot, grill kebabs right there.
No Ruz is also generally a great time to be out and about in Iran as the weather is at its most pleasant and flowers are beginning to bloom. Transport is rather more chaotic than usual, but it gives you the opportunity to see Iranians truly in their element. Their element being within 50m of their cars, the boot open, a plastic blanket spread on the ground, a thermos of tea by their sides and a set of skewers kababing over a small charcoal grill. This is especially true of Shomal (the North), which isn't technically the northernmost part of the country, but is the Caspian coast that is separated from the rest of the country by the imposing Alborz mountains. These create a particular climate that is different from the rest of the country: mild and wet. The clouds are ever-present, the rain is plentiful, the surroundings are green, the beaches are damp and grey; cows graze nonchalantly in fields of grass - Iranians, who are used to the dust and desert, just love it; and Tehranis flock to the overdeveloped, and not particularly pretty, coast in droves. Coming from Europe, where there there is greenery everywhere all year round, it may be hard to appreciate the attraction, but for the inhabitants of the dry plateau, humidity is a strangely exhilarating experience. And if they can add a little shopping into the mix then they're in heaven. Even the major tourist sites of the region, such as the bijou mountain village of Masuleh, don't keep the punters' attention for long, vying as they do with stands selling a multitude of different types of lavashak (sour fruit leather), a particular favourite amongst holidaying families.
The stepped mountain village of Masuleh may be very pretty and feature in all the tourist brochures...
...but it can't compete with lavashak.
As well as a few jaunts here and there and trying to get a handle on my growing photo collection, the past few weeks have not been idle. My main preoccupation has been the acquisition of visas for the next few countries. Visas are the perennial preoccupation (and greatest bane) of all longer-term travellers. The countries of Central Asia are notorious for being amongst the most problematic for this in the entire world and so it has required quite a bit of time and to-ing and fro-ing between various embassies to get anywhere. The first step was getting the Uzbek visa, which required the intercession of a tour agency and took 3 weeks. Armed with this document I could finally go to the Turkmen embassy and start the process for that visa, as the regime there is particularly paranoid and does not provide normal tourist visas, and will only issue transit visas (hence the need to have a visa for the next country before applying). I have also started the ball rolling with the Tajik embassy who are not really on the ball. Today was the third time I was there and only this time did they tell me that I needed a letter from my own embassy. Luckily the Czechs are far more reasonable than the Brits and they issue such letters for free. Particularly annoying for me is that you need to provide an exact date of entry into the country from which the period of your visa starts. You cannot enter the country before the date and your allowed time starts ticking from it, and not from the date of entry as is standard. This means that you have to plan quite far ahead and gives you less flexibility.