Christmas barely merited a thought for me. Though there was a tiny Christian community kicking around somewhere and I had seen trees in shop windows and the odd bookstore selling Xmas cards, it was just another ordinary hectic day in Tehran, spent dodging the traffic and tackling chores before taking the overnight train to Gorgan. I needed to send a fair wad of surplus stuff home but the main post office had moved to an unknown location and I struggled to find anywhere to compress my photo CDs to DVD. That is until I found a net cafe which did a good job of not advertising itself until you were right up against the window of a stationary shop. It took the best part of 2 hours to download 16 CDs onto 2 DVDs and when I showed the boys in the shop my train ticket and impending departure time, I think the consensus all round was nae chance pal. I had a flight to catch in Mashad in 3 days time though, having just booked it hours before, and I was going to be seriously snookered if I didnt make it. I ran from the shop and didnt stop for the 2Ks or more back to the hotel. I was an old hand now at running between fast moving traffic and I just had to grab my bag and hail a thankfully instantaneously materialising cab with a jovial and suitably "accomplished" driver. How he found those gaps in the rush hour traffic I dont know. I arrived 2 minutes late knowing that I would still probably have to pay a bullshit visit to the police to get my Johnny Foreigners authorisation to travel. Somewhat fortunately however, Iranian railways are as shite as the rest of the transport network and the train was still there, I just got beckoned through by the ticket lady, I couldnt believe my luck. It was pot luck also what kind of ticket I had been arbitrarily given, I could see that it was 1st class but though there were sleeper compartments to be had, my carriage only had seats. It appeared to be former Scandinavian stock. The seats looked like they were covered in some grannies old cast off gold curtains, but I was just glad to be there. In the end I could have dawdled as the train finally departed a full 50 minutes late.
My main achievement of the day however was a visit to the National Jewels Museum, housed in a bank vault and with good reason. Here I saw the incredible wealth which had been appropriated by the Persian royal dynasty over the centuries, with more gold and precious stones than you can imagine. Countless hundreds of pieces were encrusted with sapphires, rubies and diamonds in turn. It was nothing to see stones the size of dissected golf balls, a golden globe perhaps a yard across reputedly holding over 50,000 stones had dozens of turquoise gems like that. The largest was a whopping 350 carats. It was turquoise for the sea and rubies for the land, apart from a few select nations studded in diamonds, notably the UK, France, Thailand strangely, and of course Iran. 2 crowns also held special consideration. The first was heavily laden with equally sized pearls and weighed all of 4 kilos, the second one more classically shaped and holding one of the largest diamonds in the world. The real jewel in the crown though, and world famous for all that, was the fantastic Peacock Throne. Legend has it that it was seized from India as war booty but the locals were keen to deny that. What can I say, just a very big chair completely covered in ornately worked gold plate and studded with multi-coloured stones as thick as harling! Lying across the Shah's feet was a leopard the size of a house cat, its spots represented as dozens of emeralds.
Back on the train, I had just been remarking to myself how civilised it all was when Allah must have heard me and stirred the mix. At a stop a short way out from the city, a hoard of what I can only describe as country people boarded, the passageways becoming instantly blocked with giant sacks of god knows what, people falling and climbing over each other, there was laughter and argument, others shouted so that the whole train could hear. Thankfully there were no farm animals to complete the scene. The city dwellers I was sat with were apologetic but after the initial shock it was fascinating to see how unrestrained they were, they clearly lived for the moment and were nothing if not genuine. The city boys couldnt bare the shame though and had the conductor sort me out with my rightful place, a sleeper.