A couple of pictures
Gather round, I bring stories from the East...
Jokes from the Silk Road
Here are some random jokes we have heard so far. Don't hold your breath.
Turkey: (We actually heard no jokes, but this is the closest thing to it)
Practical joke: Guy runs in to the building and shouts "SALAAM ALEYKUM" as loud as he can. Everyone jumps, then laughs. (It means "peace be upon you"). Hur hur.
Iran: (Most Iranian humour is based on stereotypes of where people are from)
People from Qazvin are apparently all gay:
- In Qazvin, when people drop their wallets, they don't pick it up.
- Why does no one in Qazvin pass their exams?
They're too scared to pick up their exam papers.
People from Esfahan are stingy:
- When an Esfahani's house was on fire, he texted the fire department to call him back.
- When an Esfahani student's pen finishes, he graduates.
People from Rasht are promiscuous:
- When a Rashti's wife got pregnant, he went around and thanked the whole town.
(This joke is "very dirty" by Iranian standards...)
Thats about it.
From Tehran to Central Iran
26.04.2007 - 28.04.2007 23 °C
Eventually, we made it out of Tehran and took a bus south, to the small town of Kashan (کاشان), This town was apparently so beautiful, that Shah Abbas I (Abbas the Great) wanted to be buried here.
Well. It wasn't that beautiful. Most of the city seems to rubble. When you walk onto the small streets, there are just ruins of old buildings with graffiti on them. We walked onto the grounds of a mosque, and some old man tried to chat to us. Unfortunately we were mutually unintelligible. So he decided to walk around up and down and have us follow him. We made our escape.
Later that night, I drew a crowd at a juice shop. I have no idea why, or what they the hell were talkling about, but one of them seemed to like touching me, and it was all very funny (to them).
After a particularly dirty bed, we went to the part of town where which is apparently beautiful. The old buildings were actually very nice (one was so pimped out it deserved to be on MTV Cribs), but they seemed brand new, and in fact, one was being built while we were there, much to the dismay of the builders. The houses all had large, roomy courtyards, with ponds in the middle, and were deceptively big. And as usual, there was a lot of elaborate tiling and shiny mirror pieces.
Anyway, after the houses, we took a bus to Esfahan (اصفهان) the capital of the old Persian Empire (that was actually this morning). That was after a taxi ride to the bus station, where the taxi driver tried to dance whilst driving, and gave us a cucumber each. I guess it was a reward for putting up with his driving. Or dancing. Either way I got a cucumber.
Esfahan seems very tourist friendly, and has a massively different atmosphere to Tehran. Much mre relaxed and friendly. In th 5 or so hour that we have been here, already two Iranians have come up just to chat. One worked in a carpet shop and showed us around the incredible Imam Mosque (it is amazing, a massive complex covered in really elaborate tiles), he did lead us to his shop and we were shown some incredible Qom silk carpets, but the guy really wasn't pressing any sales (he seemed depressed), and the carpets were way out of our price range. The other was just a student who wanted to practice his english (which was actually pretty good), and we talked about everything from football to politics to university.
City of Nose Jobs and Paykans
22.04.2007 - 26.04.2007 28 °C
Once settled in the Mashhad Hostel (a favorite with cockroaches and mosquitoes!) in the heart of the car parts and hardware district, we set out to explore. Still sore from the rough train ride we boosted our spirits with some freshly squeezed melon juice (Iranian towns are full of these small juiceries which try make up for the almost universal lack of cafes and small kebabis). The sights themselves were not hugely impressive (Majlis parliament building, an old medresseh, the US Den of Espionage)...people-watching is far more rewarding. The women are evenly split between the highly conservative and hidden inside all-enveloping chadors (literally: tent) or those wearing tight manteaus and colourful headscarves with a lot of make-up. Tehran boasts over 7,000 plastic surgeons (more than Los Angeles!) and on the streets this really shows, either with a large bandage around the nose or a face like something out of the Rocky Horror Show.
The Paykan is the ubiquitous state-manufactured Iranian car and most of our time was spent dodging them on the roads. In fact the traffic never stops, the city has given up on the concept of red lights (most just flash on/off in meaningless patterns) and there is only one rule: Survival of the biggest. The size of a car is judged on how loudly it can horn and at the sound of a large truck the traffic shudders to a halt to let it pass before resuming the struggle (indeed some Paykan owners have fitted truck horns onto their somewhat smaller cars). Absolutely anything goes, including reversing down the freeway against the flow of the traffic because you missed your exit, or even four people riding on the same scooter in the inside lane of a motorway!
Having spent four nights in Tehran we had time to visit the Bazaar (which accounts for a third of the entire retail sector in Iran!), the Golestan Palace (rather uninspiring Palace of the 19th Century Qajar Shahs), the Iran National Museum (whose entire exhibition could have fitted into a pick-up truck, everything else is in London and Paris) and the S'ad Abad Palace built by the last Shah in the 1950s and with some really bad interior decoration...
Once again we bumped into the English couple we had met in Urfa, Turkey - they happened to be staying at the same hostel. It was in the hostel that we met an old Iranian who had emigrated to the US before/during the 1979 Revolution and was back in Iran on holiday. He made clear his dislike for the Mullahs in power, and maintained that they were in the pay of the CIA as much as the last Shah. Supposedly there were CIA agents around every street corner in Iran, and he himself was a well-known political dissident who for some inexpicable reason the authorities could do nothing about. He also seemed very proud of his visits to a friend of his who worked in TV, with whom he would drink whiskey and say bad jokes at the Mullahs' expense ("really, really bad jokes") He did, however, manage to mention how much his house and some of his carpets were worth completely out the blue and as if he were trying to impress us with his wealth. To further undermine his credibility, he tried to convince me that England was the country that had been invaded the most in Europe...the following night he was giving the exact same speech to the next group of tourists! A dangerous dissident indeed!
Tehran is divided into the very prosperous, leafy and (relatively) liberal North and the very poor, crowded and dirty South. The contrast is staggering and highlights the rapidly widening income gap and disappearing middle class. Needless to say the North was much more pleasant but less friendly than the South (where occasionally drivers would stick their head out the window, honk, and shout "Welcome to Iran") Nevertheless, there were some splendid views from the mountainside over the entire city. Also, having eaten in a place selling brains and with rats in the kitchens (one ran out into the street), it was a welcome diversion to treat ourself to the best Japanese cuisine in Tehran. Unfortunately, it seems the original Japanese teppan-yaki chefs left in 1979 - and took the fresh fish with them, but for the equivalent of $20 each we spent less than you would in Pizza Express! Eating at the same table were some (very nervous) Russian and Iranian oilmen who were a little surprised at seeing a couple of unwashed backpackers in the restaurant...
Alex, writing in Kashan.
City of the Revolution
The train ride was an experience. We took second class, so we were packed into a small cupboard with 4 other people, who happened to be fulfill a stereotyped cross-section of Iranian society. There was a Qu'ranic scholar, a soldier, a carpet salesman an a businessman (who sold shirts and shoes).
They were very eager to talk to us, even with their limited english, and had lots of questions, ranging to when we are going to get married to where we are from (the discussion about my face lasted about 2 hours). Postcards from London and Time magazine also took up about an hour or so, which really got the interest of most of them, except for the carpet salesman, who played the "my culture is so much older than yours" card. The Qu'ranic scholar seemed very liberal, oddly enough, and had many questions about girls. The soldier insisted on paying for our meal (which was basically dog food), which was pretty akward because he earns about a quarter of a pittance a month.
After a long and sweaty night (it was really hot, and for some reason, the window had to be shut), we arrived to the legendary crazy traffic and tree lined boulevards of Tehran.
On the drive to the hotel, it was fascinating to look out of the window. The atmosphere is very different from that of Tabriz. Many more women in chadors (big black sheets), and there are murals everywhere of Khomeni, Khameni and other beardy-people, as well as slogans of "Down with USA" and pictures of the statue of liberty with a skull (on the ex-US embassy, now dubbed the "US Den of Espionage").
Military checkpoint count: 3 (although the border was a really crap one).
Into the axis of evil
20.04.2007 - 22.04.2007 25 °C
Our last morning in Turkey was spent accumulating enough money for the entire duration of our journey through Iran and Turkmenistan, both countries entirely cut off from the international banking system. From Doğubayazıt, we were dropped off by dolmuş at the heavily fortified Turkish side of the border, which we were hastily waved through. On our walk through No Man's Land we were mainly occupied in getting rid of a stubborn Turkish money changer charging derisory rates - we did however offload our remaining Lira, getting about a third of the Iranian Rial that he should have given us. The late Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini both gazed down on us as we passed through into Iran. In all, the border crossing did not take more than 20 minutes and we quickly made our way to Maku.
Maku (ماكو) itself is a pretty uninspiring town squezzed between the two dominating cliffsides of the canyon in which it is located. It is here, though, where we first came across the ritual of Iranian hospitality (called Ta'arof). On the point of paying at the Internet cafe, the owner insisted that we should not pay: "because you are guests in Iran." He was not joking, and after insisting on paying and getting turned down for a fourth time, we thanked him and left - leaving us with our first impression of how radically different Iran is to Turkey (in many respects Iran seems more European!).
Tabriz (تبريز), a short bus ride from Maku through impressive snow-capped peaks rising from the dusty plains, has always been one of the most independent-minded cities in Iran - indeed half the time it was a Khanate in its own right. Following an ever-more apparent trend in our journey, Tabriz was razed by the Mongols and much of the city now is very modern. Its tree-lined boulevards, more urbane peoples and multitude of book shops were in striking contrast to the quasi-warzone of the Turkish/Kurdish Wild East. We spent only one night here and were kept occupied by the Blue Mosque (actually sandstone-coloured after the last earthquake in which all the tiles fell off), the Elgoli Park and the Azarbayjan Museum, none of which are much to write home about...
Visiting the bazaar was perhaps the highlight of Tabriz, where we perused some carpets over a cup of tea with a one-eyed, two-teethed polyglot salesman and left soon after finding out the prices! Later we were intercepted by a couple of young Iranians (ethnically and linguistically Azari Turkish, like almost all of Tabriz) who showed us round the local medresseh (Qoranic school) and into its mosque - a great privilege for non-Muslims. The Constitution Museum was rather underwhelming, except that it brought to light the early 20th Century democratic movement in Iran which was soon forgotten after two coups d'etats and two revolutions. Finally, by coincidence we bumped into the English couple we had met in Urfa 10 days before, they were the only Westerners we saw in the entire city!
That evening we boarded the overnight train to Tehran...
Out of the fryıng pan, ınto the fıre.
19.04.2007 10 °C
Everythıng ıs great. We are now ın Doğubıyazıt, about 10 km from the Iranıan border (and Armenıan) and ready to cross over tomorrow mornıng. Hopefully they won't fınd my secret stash of alcohol and bacon. Apparently ınternet ıs quıte rare ın Iran, so our updates may be quıte rare, but I'll make up for ıt later, I promıse...
Doğubıyazıt (cool name huh?) ıs a small tıny border town, full of mılıtary. Party because ıts a border, but more probably to keep the Kurds quıet. We've notıced lots of army bases everywhere around Turkısh Kurdıstan (There were absolutely none ın the west), and the battle wıth the Kurdısh Guerıllas stıll rages. Somewhere. But nowhere near us. Accodıng to some Kurdısh students we stayed wıth (who really hated Turks) last week 40 Turkısh soldıers were kılled.
Doğubıyazıt has one attractıon. But ıts a good one. The Ishan Paşa Sarayı, a large ottoman palace, fortress and mosque all rolled ınto one. It ıt on a mountaın just outsıde of town, overlookıng the plaın and Mount Ararat on the other sıde. It was stunnıng, from the detaıl on the archways, to the awesome vıews.
Oh yeah, I'm startıng a count of how many mılıtary checkpoınts we've crossed.
Mılıtary checkpoınt count: 2
These were on our bus rıde from Van. Our bus was surprısıngly multıcultural, wıth about 15 Turks, 1 Azerı, 2 Iranıans and us. Of course the bus was desıgned for about 14, but thats usual.
Fınally I've managed to upload a couple of photos.
Thıs was cappadocıa. It was amazıng, and there was a lot more to ıt than thıs photo, although ıt ıs pretty cool.
Lıon on the top of Mount Nemrut, and Part of Kıng Antıoclus' (or whatever) burıal mound. There was actuall a lot more, ıncludıng mysterıous random heads.
Anyway, uploadıng ıs paınfully slow, so thıs wıll have to do for now.
We've been busy (and ınternet ıs gettıng rarer).
16.04.2007 -1 °C
Now ın the snowy wastes of Eastern Turkey (Tatvan to be precıse), and we've come a long way sınce our last update (now probably a under a day's drıve from Iraq and Iran). All's well.
We have seen a lot, too much to fıt ın properly, so I'll shorten ıt a bıt.
Göreme, Cappadocıa was amazıng. Incredıble landcapes, faıry chımneys and cave houses. Lıterally awesome, ıts pretty hard to descrıbe ın words.
Gaziantep was next. We only spent a nıght, and there wasn't much to see. Just an empty castle. But ıt was a modern bustlıng cıty, and ıt ıs rıghtly the Bahlave capıtal of the world (the sweets were amazıng).
Then Şanlıurfa, where we stayed wıth Azız the crazy Kurd. We went to nearby Harran, the oldest contınuously ınhabıted place on earth (people have lıved there, and stıll do, for the past 6000 years). But most of ıt ıs rubble, and has been sınce the Mongols trashed ıt.
Next, Kahta and Mount Nemrut. Thıs was also amazıng. Basıcally on top of thıs mountaın (2500 or so meters, ıt was freezıng...), there ıs a tomb of an ancıent kıng (pre-roman. Not much ıs known about hım). There are gıant statues, whose heads have broken off and are lyıng on the ground. It gıves a strong and quıte frıghtenıng sense of a great and aıncıent cıvılısatıon.
Then Diyarbakır. Capıtal of Turkısh Kurdıstan. Thıs cıty was grım. It looked lıke ıt emerged from a warzone (whıch ıs partly true, thıs ıs where the Kurdısh ındependence fıghtıng was fıercest). The streets are full of rubbısh and everywhere smells of poo. Some drunks gave us a plastıc cup of whısky. The tourıst offıce looks lıke a prıson. Some kıds followed me around and called me Jackıe Chan. Thats about ıt.
Then after supreme Turkısh effıcıency (we waıted for 4 hours whılst the people supposed to work drank tea and chatted) we got on a bus and made ıt to Tatvan. It ıs actually very cold here, wıth a lot of smow and slush on the roads.
Overall the turkısh people are frıendly and nıce. To the poınt of beıng annoyıng. Oh, and they love moustaches, I have seen about 100 Saddam Husseın lookalıkes.
Also ın the past 2 days, 2 people have trıed to convert me to Islam. The best lıne was 'Muslım Brother, one Allah, Coommee onnn...'. Yeah. Rıght.
04.04.2007 - 06.04.2007
Yeah, Alex went through nearly everythıng. İznik ıs a very small town by a nıce lake. We spent most of our day traıpsıng though Roman ruıns and Turkısh countrysıde. The sıghts ın the town were not too many: a thoroughly beıge 'green mosque', and a closed tıle museum. The hılls around were nıce, full of olıve groves and goats, the vıews were pretty good, but there seemed to be a smog over the whole town from nearby factorıes.
Not that İznik was bad, ıt was relaxıng wıth a 'small town' feel: there were lots of old guys ın funny hats drınkıng tea, and the bazaar was full of old ladıes wıth trolleys.
The journey to Konya was exhaustıng, but surprısıngly comfortable. The landscape changed from medıterranean to a Alpıne hılls, streams and mountaıns (sorry to be so Eurocentrıc on my geography comparısons) and then to seemıngly endless plaıns bounded by mountaıns at the horızon. The roadsıdes were pretty dırty though. I saw a shepard treatıng hıs flock to some trash.
Konya ıs a very modern cıty wıth an ıllustrıous past. Even ın thıs relıgıous, many of whom are ın the shrıne of Mevlevı, prayıng, headscarves are about 50/50, but beer ıs very scarce (very strange by turkısh standards). Mehmet the Sılk Road Carpet shop owner was a very good man, not really pressıng any sales. He dıd though have some valuble advıce and loved to chat, even though he dıdn't belıve what Darwın’s theorıes and was slıghtly racıst towards North Afrıcans.
Otherwıse thıs cıty seems very nıce and safe.
Sorry to be so cynıcal.