Iran – Departure, Part 1

Finally, after years of wanting to go to Iran, the time had come. The last time I had tried to go was 7 years ago, but I got called for jury service for the date I was supposed to leave. I also found out that the visa took too long to acquire in time before my flight.

Things have since changed. Irish citizens can now get an Iranian visa upon arrival in the airport for €60. For Russians it’s just as easy and will become easier as both governments are aiming for visa-free travel between the two.

Our planned itinerary was as follows: Tehran to Isfahan, Isfahan to Shiraz, Shiraz to Yazd, and Yazd to Tehran. Roughly 2000 kilometers in total.

Packing was a tight affair. Aside from my passport, I placed the camera and batteries as the most important articles, followed by underwear and socks. I double checked my passport and cash. They do not take Visa or Mastercard due to economic sanctions, so it’s cash only for tourists.

The big day came, I awoke all excited, danced merrily to KC and the Sunshine Band (Shake, Shake, Shake), and even decided to post boastfully on Facebook where I was going.

I met my travel companion, Denis, and we went to Domodedovo airport to the far south of Moscow. We had a leisurely lunch, I even had a last beer, and then we went to the passport control.


The first sign that all was not well was when dark, ominous wrinkles of confusion spread across the burly border guard’s forehead, like a storm growing larger and larger over the horizon.

‘Is everything alright?’ I asked, in a would-be friendly, yet anxious voice. Mr Burly shook his head curtly and continued staring at the multi-entry visa in my passport, which I’d proudly handed him.

‘Ey, Seryozh, come here a second!’ he called to his colleague.

A surly border guard (Mr Surly) came over.

‘What?’ he asked.

‘Look at this,’ said Mr Burly.

The ominous wrinkles of confusion then comprehension migrated to the vast plateau of Mr Surly’s forehead.

‘What’s the problem, gentlemen?’ I asked.

No answer. Denis watched anxiously from the other side of the barrier as they began to scan the pages of my passport, one after the other.

‘Do you realize that your visa doesn’t come into effect until February 25th?’ asked Mr Surly.

It was February 15th. Three weeks before, I’d handed over my single entry visa and had been issued a multi-entry. The date of issue said 25-01-2016, but the date of authorisation had been set at 25-02-2016 (It should have been 25-01-2016). This was a simple clerical error and very difficult to notice. However this error meant that I had been in Russia, technically without a visa, for three weeks. Mr Surly didn’t hesitate to point this out.

‘Do you realize you’ve been here without a visa for three weeks?’ he asked.

‘Fuuuuuuuck,’ was my first thought.

At this point, Denis intervened.

‘Guys, what’s the problem? You know, our flight is boarding now, we need to hurry.’

‘Well, your friend isn’t going to make it. Come with me,’ said Mr Surly.

Not fully understanding what was happening, I had visions of being stuck in Russia without a visa because of a bureaucratic hiccup. This had happened to my flatmate, who’d ended up stuck here for 7 months.

Fortunately for me, the problem was simple enough to rectify, but there was no way I would make the flight on time.

Denis had to run to the gate, so I tried to hand him the various things I thought one might need on a trip: batteries, chocolates for couch surfing hosts, anti-diarrhoea tablets…

‘Just give me the hand sanitizer,’ he said. We said a hasty goodbye and he ran for it. I sat outside an office weighing up my options as I waited for them to come back with my passport.

The last attempt to go to Iran was haunting me again. The gods, as Terry Pratchett has so often mentioned in his Discworld series, like to play dice with the lives of mortals. At that moment, I imagined a rolling of dice.

‘Damn, clerical error. I was rolling for deportation,’ said one god.

‘Triple six? That’s a long shot,’ said his opponent. *Clattering of dice*

‘Double sixes. That discounts your roll, but you get a re-roll in the next round.’

‘Bugger. Well, it’s not over. With a re-roll I might try and get him to do something silly, like lose his wallet.’

The consul returned with my passport.

‘I am very sorry that you missed your flight, but I honestly couldn’t do the visa any faster than 20 minutes.’

He was very genuine. Nothing could be done about it, and I was led back through security to the main part of the airport.

‘Good luck, and once again I’m sorry you missed your flight,’ said the consul.

‘Be sure to check your papers properly, next time,’ said Mr Surly, ‘you just never know with these things.’

‘I will,’ I said.

So, I was still in Moscow and Denis was flying to Tehran. I’d already taken leave from work, so there was no point in wasting it. I went straight to the Internet café in the airport and found *clattering of dice – ‘Yesssss!’* a return ticket for the following day to Tehran via Baku, Azerbaijan.


Russian Vodka – an infusion of fruit and madness

Sometimes – actually, quite often – I find myself lying in bed in the middle of the night wondering when I’ll go to sleep. It’s not insomnia. It’s this thing called ‘pottering about’. This is a very broad title, as ‘pottering about’ can include a multiple of things: from washing the dishes, reading, hanging up clothes, to cooking; or bottling up plum-infused black market medicinal alcohol that you’ve just tasted a spoon of but are afraid to drink any more for fear of losing your eyesight.

It’s at that point that that thought stays with you and you must google the effects of methanol on humans.

The result is a panicked rummaging through the food cabinet to find that little box of baking soda which apparently helps to counter the effects of methanol on the system. Anyway, I am not blind, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this. I am also now digressing.

You might ask ‘How did you get your hands on black market medicinal alcohol, JJ?’

In one of my previous posts some months ago, I recounted a conversation I had with a friend while walking the forest outside Moscow:

“‘So what are we going to do with the plums, put them in vodka?’

‘We can get pure alcohol for that. It’s way cheaper and better than vodka. Give them two months or so and they’ll make a really nice drink.’

‘How much is a bottle of pure alcohol?’

‘It starts at 800 Rubles for 5 litres.’

‘So why don’t homeless people drink it?’

‘I guess that’s still kind of pricey for them.’

‘Are you sure we won’t go blind from it?’

‘No, trust me, it’s not that kind of alcohol. This is cleaner than the vodka you get in the shops. Also, we add water to it, obviously.'” (

The plums we’d picked on our walk were not fit for eating. However, they were perfectly good for infusing pure alcohol diluted with water and we put them into the freezer until we had that very necessary ingredient.

One evening, a week or two after that conversation and following my friend’s directions, I found myself in a distant Moscow suburb on the east side of the city about 12 kilometres from the centre, close to the main ring road (MKAD). It being a district I’d never visited, I typed the address into google maps on my phone and duly followed it for about 15 minutes. The building in which the seller apparently lived was one of many identical high rises, so as I stood in the courtyard I dialled the number and waited. A woman answered.


‘Er, are you the person selling the alcohol?’

‘Yeah, which one do you want? I have…’ and she rapidly listed off a bunch of names I don’t remember.

‘I’m looking for the Luks 5 litre. It’s 1100 Rubles, right?’

‘Aha,’ she said. ‘Just one?’

‘Yes, just one.’

‘Where are you standing?’ she asked.

‘Near entry two to building 6,’ I said.

‘What are you wearing?’

‘A black coat with a hood,’ I said.

‘Everyone wears those,’ she replied. ‘What else are you wearing?’

‘I have a big empty shopping bag in my hand,’ I said, helpfully.

‘I asked you what else you’re wearing, not what you’re holding,’ she replied.

‘Jeans. Everyone wears those, too.’

‘Okay, someone will be down shortly,’ she said, and hung up.

So I waited, staring expectantly at the two entrances nearest to me.

After several minutes tall thin man in jeans, a hat and a leather jacket appeared from round the corner of the building, carrying a large plastic bag in his hand. He walked with slightly hunched shoulders.

‘Luks?’ he said.

‘Yep, that’s me,’ I replied.

‘Eleven hundred,’ he said.

I took the bag, he counted the money, and we both parted.

So now, two months later, that very same alcohol has been infused with wild plums but I probably won’t drink it. It’ll just sit on the shelf looking pretty with its dark purple colour.

I texted pictures of the bottles to my friends in our whatsapp group. One of the replies was as follows:

‘Bathed rats are grumpy rats. (he has three pet rats)

*picture of wet rats*

They even sulk when you try to dry them. But give them cold pasta… and they’ll be your friend in no time. No rats were harmed in the creation of this sideshow.

Also Jonjo, you are getting far too used to Russian culture. One of the key differences we have noticed is that you are not stopping to ask “is what I am doing retarded?” any more.’


infused vodka

You know you want to