Going into the Mountains in Iran

The Iranian capital Tehran was much bigger than I had thought. Chaotic traffic, honking mopeds, cars driving straight at you on the wrong side of the road, danger to life when crossing one of the large avenues with eight lanes. Estimates for the population in the metropolitan area of Tehran range from 11 to 15 million. Smog, noise, smell and the heat in summer deprive you of your will to live.

But then you raise your head, look across the skyscrapers all the way to the horizon, and life feels good again. You see the mountains which begin just to the north of the city and next to which even this gigantic metropolis looks like a village for dwarfs. Nature triumphs over man and concrete.


“Mountains in Iran? There is only desert and maybe a few old rocks scattered around.” Thus goes the thinking of many people, for whom the Middle East is one giant black hole from Morocco to Persia, which they are too afraid to explore. Like almost all countries of a similar size, Iran offers everything from sea to desert, cities, forests and mountains. Proper, high mountains even. The Alborz mountain range reaches an altitude of 5,600 m (18,400 ft).

Mount Tochal, the nearest mountain, rises almost 4,000 m (13,000 ft) above the city. You can see it from almost any point in Tehran, which provides both great inspiration as well as a handy reference point when you are lost.

Because I am more of a mountain guy than a city guy, I was overjoyed when several people invited me to a hike into the mountains on my first stay in Tehran in December 2008. With a few new acquaintances I met on a Saturday morning, but before we embarked on our adventure, we stopped by a halim restaurant. Actually, restaurant is too fancy of a word. Situated at a busy crossroad, the doors were wide open despite the cold wind, metal tables and chairs criss-crossed the small shop. Most of the guests were middle-aged men, of the type taxi driver, fruit stall owner or football fan. There was no menu, you simply called out “yek, do, se”, one, two or three for the number of bowls of halim that you wanted to order. You get the best food at places that don’t need menus because they offer only one kind of dish, I learned that day.

haleemThe halim reminded me of semolina porridge, but it was hotter and more viscous. There were bowls with sugar and cinnamon and I made generous use of the latter. It was the perfect breakfast before going into the mountains: filling, warm, pleasant and tasty. I would have liked to stay longer, but the place was very busy and more hungry guests were already scrambling for the tables. – Later, I learned that halim is made of meat, onions and wheat or barley; a recipe which I still cannot reconcile with the sweet taste of my recollection.

Time to get going! Tehran is growing constantly, also towards the north where it is already hugging the mountain slopes, so you walk through the streets until you suddenly find yourself on the path towards Mount Tochal after leaving the last house (and a paintball field) behind. But if you came to seek solitude, you would have done better to go to the mosque. Thousands of hikers are out and about, among them hundreds of young people. I am impressed because the European and North American contemporaries of these fit young Iranians are still in bed at this time of the day, and they will spend the rest of the day in front of a computer instead of hiking in the mountains.

I keep straying from the path, climbing above rocks and between waterfalls, while my well-behaved Iranian friends stick to the path.

They are getting slower, they need more and more breaks, they breathe heavily (we are already above 2,000 m). It takes me a while until I catch on to two more lessons in the eye-opening and mind-expanding educational program that my journey in Iran shall turn into:

  • As soon as I expressed my interest in going to the mountains, that was a done deal. I am the guest, after all. Whether my hosts really felt like it was irrelevant. If I had preferred deep-sea diving or an opera, they would have been excited about that as well. Iranian politeness is the exact opposite of German directness, which shall lead to many misunderstandings to come.
  • The teenagers and young adults aren’t actually that much into mountaineering as it had seemed to me at first. For most Iranians, the big advantage of the mountains is that there are fewer police officers to be seen. Here, the girls can push back the mandatory headscarf even more than they already do in town. Here, boys and girls can hold hands before getting married.

I had of course wanted to go all the way to the summit of Mount Tochal, but I can see that I can’t pull this off with my friends. And honestly, I may not have the appropriate clothes for climbing a 4,000-meter mountain in winter either. Spending hundreds of Euros in sports shops is not my kind of thing, I rather copy the style of the Mallory Everest expedition in 1924. But those guys died in the ice.

Mt Tochal Andreas MoserAt 2,400 meters we call it quits for today. Here is the second of seven teleferic stations (and a stall selling hamburgers and hot dogs), and we trundle back down to town in a wiggly cable car. But my eyes will wander back to these majestic mountains many times over the coming days.

By the way, if you are ever in the area and you appreciate mountains: Pakistan is right next door and has some of the highest mountains of the world; another underrated mountaineering paradise.

(Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Artikels.)

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Twitter share price below IPO price

Less than two years ago, when Twitter went public, I was the lone voice warning you against buying their shares.

Then the share price initially went up like a rocket and I didn’t get a show on CNBC. Now however, the share price of Twitter has dropped below the IPO price, vindicating my warnings.


Obviously, my advice had been intended as long-term advice.

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Easily Confused (9) Army Recruitment



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Hopeful Ducks


Unfortunately, we had no food for them. Actually, we were beginning to get hungry ourselves, so the ducks should be happy that we didn’t take one of them with us.

Photographed in the Central Park in Cluj-Napoca, Romania by my brother.

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“In the Sea there are Crocodiles” by Fabio Geda

Every week now, thousands of refugees make it to Europe. Thousands die trying. In debates on immigration, refugees are referred to by the numbers in which they arrive, in economic or in legal terms.

It’s time to read the account of one of these refugees themselves. Even better when he is an observant boy who fled Afghanistan (alone) when he was 10 years old and who recounts the story of the odyssey that took him to Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece and finally to Italy 6 years after.

Enaiatollah Akbari and Fabio GedaEnaiatollah Akbari was lucky to survive this harrowing journey, during which he came across many who wouldn’t. We as readers are lucky that, once in Italy, he met Fabio Geda who transformed the boy’s story into “In the Sea there are Crocodiles”.

He does not want to leave Afghanistan for economic reasons. He is a Hazara and as such is persecuted and threatened by the Pashtun and the Taliban in Afghanistan. One day the “longbeards”, as the boy calls them, come to his school and shoot the teacher in front of all the children. That’s the end of that school. At home, he and his brother are hiding in a hole in the ground whenever a stranger approaches the house. In fact, Enaiatollah doesn’t want to leave Afghanistan at all. It is his mother’s idea when he becomes too big to hide in the hole. She takes him to Quetta in Pakistan and leaves him there alone, hoping that he will be safe and that he will survive. She has to return to his younger brother in Afghanistan.

All of this was at a time when nobody cared about Afghanistan. It was before 2001, before 19 Saudi men hijacked 4 planes and killed 2,977 people, putting Afghanistan on the world’s map. Enaiatollah remembers 11 September 2001. He was already in Iran at that time, where he had crossed illegally from Pakistan in search of a better life. He was working on a construction site and thought that something was wrong with the little black-and-white TV because each of the channels showed the same “film” of planes hitting skyscrapers.

His journey was not straightforward. He was picked up by the police in Iran three times, and deported to Afghanistan three times. Three times, he decided and managed to return to Iran. Overall he spent three years there, almost exclusively among other Afghan men and boys who work on construction sites or stone quarries. He was in Isfahan for several months, but never saw anything of the city, although he had heard that it is beautiful (which is true, I can say, having been there myself), because he and the other refugees slept and lived on the construction site for fear of running into the arms of the police.

After being kicked out of Iran for the third time, Enaiatollah decides to move further west. In winter, he walks across the mountains to Turkey with a group led by traffickers. They walk for 26 days. At one point, he takes the shoes of a frozen body they encounter in the mountains. In the end, “twelve, of the group of twenty-seven, had died during the walk […] and I hadn’t even noticed.”

In the Sea there are CrocodilesTurkey is not the final destination, but Enaiatollah didn’t save enough money for the passage to Greece. He is a very clever boy though and tells the four passengers of the small rowing dinghy that they need him because he can speak English. They ask him to prove it. He utters the words “house”, “port” and “ship” and is accepted by his impressed peers. At 15 or 16 (he doesn’t know his exact age), he is the oldest boy on the boat. The youngest is 12. Five children/teenagers who have never been to the sea and try to drink salt water (they think it’s poisoned to stop illegals from crossing the sea). Of course most of them don’t know how to swim. They don’t know how to row either. First they all row on the same side of the boat, making it turn in a circle and hit a rock.

The boat ride from Turkey to Greece is an example for the tone of the whole book. Funny observations, explanations and thoughts (the boys are afraid of sneezing because they are sure it can be picked up by the radar of the Coast Guard; they are wondering if they are rowing uphill because the current keeps driving them back) go hand in hand with dramatic moments (one of the boys falls out of the boat and perishes). There is either heart-break or something heart-warming on almost every page. The story is told from Enaiatollah’s perspective and he speaks directly to the reader, at times asking questions or even giving advice. His witty, youthful tone reminded me of another great teenage character: Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher in the Rye”.

The adventurous journey continues, across many obstacles, through Greece – where Enaiatollah is lucky to be during the preparation for the 2004 Olympics, when undocumented labor was in demand – and finally to Italy, where he finds his new home, a friendly foster family and – again with impressive wit – manages to convince the asylum hearing board to grant him asylum.

But regardless of the immigration/asylum/refugee status, someone who went through such a journey really deserves to live in Europe or wherever they managed to swim, crawl or climb to. Much more so than all the people like me who just happen to live here by accident.

– – –

What the author says about this review:

Fabio Geda review

Posted in Afghanistan, Books, Death, Europe, Human Rights, Immigration Law, Iran, Italy, Life, Terrorism, Travel | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

A few Alms for the Church

You know these donation boxes at airports, where you are supposed to drop the change that you couldn’t spend during your vacation? Often they are made of glass, for you to see how generous other travelers have been. So you pull the last Transnistrian rubles or Yugoslav dinars from your pockets and donate them for children, against cancer, for or against dogs, maybe even for refugees. Worthwhile causes, all in all.

At the airport in Cluj-Napoca in Romania however, the collection does not serve to mitigate hunger, poverty or disease, but to support a church.

SpendenboxThat is a rather surprising act of begging because the Romanian state already finances the building and maintenance of the Orthodox churches in the country, as well as the salaries and pensions of priests and a lot of other frippery. Each year, hundreds of new churches are being built. Even the smallest of villages are bombarded with cathedrals the size of St Peter’s. For that, they often lack a school or a clinic.

But, as it says on the donation box, “God will bless your journey”. Sick children or starving refugees cannot compete with such a lofty promise. Just opposite from the airport, there is actually the Pata Rat slum, where every euro or dollar would help.

pata ratNot only was I too stingy to donate for the church, I was also too clever. Because for God to bless the journey, it would be enough if one of the other passengers left a few Romanian lei. After all, God can’t make part of the plane crash and keep the other part flying.

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Easily Confused (55) Bill Cosby

Rap star:

ice cube

Rape star:


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