A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Nomadics

To Mashhad (مشهد)

The Pilgrim's Desert Road

sunny 35 °C

After frolicking with camels in the oasis of Garmeh, at about midnight we jumped on a bus packed full of old Chadored women going to Mashhad, Shi'a Islam's holiest site.

The bus was very hot and sweaty (which is expected), and full of angry women who had shouting matches with the conductors about where we should sit. You see, unrelated men and women aren't allowed to sit together. But we weren't placed together anyway, so I have no idea what it was on about (It might have been because we were placed at the back of the bus, which is usually only for women). Anyway, after some seat juggling after the bus had left, we we're on our way along a small and dark desert road (which was actually good, all the roads in Iran are good quality, even ones in random places. Much better than Turkish roads).

After 12 or so hours on a cramped bus, we arrived in Mashhad and were picked up by the usual taxi hawks, who this time drove us around expensive hotels hoping that we'll stay in them so he can get his commission. He didn't understand that we wanted something cheap, but after wasting some time, we got a fairly good deal on a dirty room.

There's not much for us too see in Mashhad, since the Shrine to Imam Reza (the biggest religious building in the world, and also the biggest business conglomerate in Iran: they own lots other factories and businesses) is mostly closed off to non-muslims. The main shrine itself was built by Timur's daughter-in-law, and is prelly large, and still being expanded on now.

The Shi'a Imam Reza was betrayed and killed by the Sunni Caliph Ma'mun in 7-hundreds AD, and since he is a (Shi'a) Islamic Superman (direct decendant of Mohammed), he became a super-martyr, so 12 million people a year visit the shrine. But I have yet to see any tourists that aren't Iranian or Arab.

Anyway, we tried to sneak in. We had already been turned away before by the muslim-checkers at a shrine in Shiraz, so we decided to be more discreet. No cameras (they weren't allowed anyway), no bags (not them either, there was a bomb here a few years ago), and dour faces (a devout Shi'a is never happy. Their main religious holiday is called Ashura, commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, and they whip themselves with chains to draw blood).

The muslim-checkers must have been too busy praying though, because no one looked at us twice. The shrine was a very surreal experience, to say the least. The buildings were very nice, the usual giant intricately tiled archways, and inside were mirrored tiles, brightly illuminated with white and the occasional green neon light.

It was the people there that really shocked me. They were kissing and running their hands over every bit of the shrine, pushing to get to a large silver cage in the middle of the room. Many were crying and some shouting in grief (We were, of course, in the men's section, but I could hear some women wailing as well). It was more serious and sombre than dramatic, but very surreal. I mean, it was just a guy who died 1300 years ago. Sure he was martyred, but I really cannot empathise at all with anything they are feeling.

The people were arranged in concentric circles: outside you had people praying on the carpets, a bit closer you had people chanting the Qu'ran, and at the closest level to the tomb you had those reaching for the tomb, wanting to kiss and cry over the the cage containing a fallen martyr.

After witnessing the grief, we walked around the complex for a while, trying to avoid the muslim-checkers (I have no idea what would have been done to us if we were found. They take their religion very seriously). But to be honest, the pilgrims were pretty multicultural. Lots of Arabs (probably Iraqis, lots of Azari Turks (they have distinctive funny hats), and a few Turkmen (who look slightly similar to me, so thats probably why no-one asked me). All the women were in black chadors. Most people were either too busy praying or trying to reach the shrine to look at us anyway.

I have never seen such religious devotion or a show of religious feeling such as this before. It was very disturbing and I felt quite out of place, I didn't really see what they saw in the shrine.

Very wierd. There's not much else to do in Mashhad, and we're heading off to Turkmenistan in two days, back to the godless lands. Finally.

Posted by Nomadics 12:49 Archived in Iran Tagged backpacking

The Desert

Photo time!

This is where we stayed in Garmeh, it was prety cool:

The salt plains were lethal. The camel could have been there for years, just the salt preserved it:

The long road ahead:

Thats it for now. Enjoy.

Posted by Nomadics 04:57 Archived in Iran Tagged photography

Yazd (يزد)

The Burning Heart of Zoroastrianism

We made our escape to Yazd by a long and boring bus ride through the desert (one of them, and our first of many), to the aincient town of Yazd. The signs say it has "the oldest old city" that people still live in, and it is the heartland of Iranian Zoroastrianism, with about 7000 worshippers of Ahuramazda (Coolest name for a god).

We're now staying in the heart of the old city, in a converted traditional family home. There's a nice courtyard and everything. But of course, we're in the basement-dormitory. This place is really expensive. In Iran, most tourist things are expensive.

Wandering around the old city is really nice, and the mud-brick buildings are punctuated by Bagdirs, which are basically large squat towers filled with shelves and holes. It's an old Iranian thing, which acts as basic air conditioning by creating a breeze inside, which is necessary, because this place gets pretty hot. Wandering around you can always orientate the labyrinthine streets by the minarets of the Mosques dotted around the place. As usual the mosques are big, blue and have nice tiles.

One of the big tourist draws of Yazd is the still functioning fire-temple, complete with an eternal flame which has been burning since long before Islam even started (470 AD apparently). Its a small building, and packed full of tourists, and it didn't really seem very genuine. The bookshop sold some of the most boring books ever. I bought "an introduction to Zarathusta" published in 1980 by some Indian guy (they don't sell well). Almost fell asleep reading it.

Having seen the sites of the city, we decided to go out of town to visit a deserted desert village. Unfortunatley, it's so deserted no one ever goes there, so there were no buses, and a taxi would have cost a fortune, se we decided to go to Chak Chak, a Zoroastrian pilgrimmage site. After a minibus and a taxi ride through huge, barren, unromantic desert (it's flat and grey) we reached some small mountains, and nestled in them were some modern looking buildings.

The compound of Chak Chak is a large set of empty buildings and open spaces, which are needed to house the pilgrims that come during the pilgrimage season (apparently they have one). We eventually reached the inner sanctum, and were at first turned away by the old caretaker because there was a genuine Zoroastrain service going on. After some waiting, we want through the bronze doors bearing the likeness of Zoroaster, into a small room with a marble floor. I say room, but it was more like a cliff-face surrounded by a semicircular wall. In the middle there was a burning brazier (but the fire had gone out...) and out of the cliff was dripping holy water.

According to legend when the Arabs invaded, some Zoroastrians hid here, and had no water. The local princess threw her staff against the cliff, and water started to drip out (Chak Chak means "drip drip"). This water is holy, and the pilgrims collect it in empty coke bottles and buckets...

It seemed that there were only about 6 people in the service (I didn't know what they actually did though, we weren't allowed to look). Of the 6 people, 4 were Indians (we helped them with their retro-camera). I have no idea how they communicated though. Oh yeah, we also had to wear funny white hats, that made me look like a chinese takeaway chef.

From all the people we have met, it seems that most learn English from bad American films. A student studying English here at Yazd says that they went through Dumb and Dumber in class, and a restaurant owner learnt by copying Chris Tucker. He could quote most of Rush Hour, unfortunatley, it was incomprehensible. He's not really black enough.

Thats it so far. Soon we'll be heading into the desert, the first of 4 on the trip. (Dasht-e Kavir, Karakum, Kyzyl Kum and the Taklamakan). It's going to be hot.

Posted by Nomadics 11:36 Archived in Iran Tagged backpacking

Esfahan (اصفهان)

The "Jewel" of Iran

We spent a few days seeing the sights of Esfahan, which were pretty numerous. There was, of course, the Imam square (the locals say its the second biggest square in the world, but its acutally the seventh biggest) and the two amazingly beautiful mosques it contains, the Jameh and Imam mosques. The moonlit picture Alex put up was the front of the Imam Mosque.

They were pretty amazing, the Imam mosque in particular, which was a complex of intricately tiled buildings around a central counrtyard. The main prayer hall, under it's double-decker onion dome, which was built for perfect acoustics so the prayer leader could be heard by everyone in the mosque. Some carpet salesman showed us around showing the stone that was told the faithful whether it was midday, and the mosque's well. (A high-school litrature teacher showed us around another (very similar) mosque).

We also strolled down to the river, which had some apparently old bridges that were glued together with egg white, accoding to a rag salesman (after chatting about mobile phones). The bridges looked brand new though, and we didn't manage to see the bridge that was some say is over 3000 year old.

Just accross the river we tried to find Jolfa, the Armenian quarter of Esfahan. All we found was one random Armenian inscription, a really good and expensive coffee cafe (decent coffee is very, very rare), and some "churches" that looke like mosques with a cheap cross stuck on the dome.

On the last day, we saw some Shah's palace (very small), and some "shaking minarets" (didn't shake very much, although for a small fee, the shaker man let us try to shake them too), and an aincient Zoroastrian fire temple (mostly rubble, but still pretty cool).

Other than the sights, we managed to amuse ourselver by walking around the bazaar, chilling in teahouses, drinking juice as well as trying to avoid the creepy cleaner of our hotel.

After all that, we got on a bus to Shiraz, which was long and unremarkable. Apart from that we saw one of the dirtiest toilets in the world at a service station. Nice.

Posted by Nomadics 20:37 Archived in Iran Tagged backpacking

Comic Interlude

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.

Posted by Nomadics 09:00 Archived in Iran Tagged tips_and_tricks

Into the Belly of the Beast

From Tehran to Central Iran

overcast 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.

Posted by Nomadics 22:35 Archived in Iran Tagged backpacking

To Tehran (تهران)

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).

Posted by Nomadics 07:40 Archived in Iran Tagged backpacking

From Turkey, to Iran

Out of the fryıng pan, ınto the fıre.

overcast 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.

Posted by Nomadics 19:26 Archived in Turkey Tagged backpacking

Photo Tıme!

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.

Posted by Nomadics 12:51 Archived in Turkey Tagged photography

Sorry for so few updates

We've been busy (and ınternet ıs gettıng rarer).

snow -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.

Posted by Nomadics 21:04 Archived in Turkey Tagged backpacking

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