17.05.2007 - 18.05.2007 27 °C
Gather round, I bring stories from the East...
Golden Heart of the Disneyland Dictatorship
17.05.2007 - 18.05.2007 38 °C
With its sweeping boulevards lined with marble monoliths, eerily empty parks studded with golden effigies of its great leader, and a taste for architecture from the 'Star Wars meets Soviet Gigantism' school - Ashgabat is truly a worthy capital for the surreal Tintin dictatorship of Turkmenistan. Entering this otherworld at sunset, we caught dramatic glimpses of the two 'Olympic' stadiums, the spacecraft-like Monument to Neutrality and vast open spaces punctuated by empty apartment blocks (of marble) and other oddball monuments including the largest fountain in the world (also marble...) Our hotel was located in a giant development (Berzengi) striving for Las Vegas glamour - 30 huge hotels each with varying themes built alongside a 10-lane highway and boasting its own Turkmenland attraction park, Water World and an 'Ice Palace' - and it is likely that there were more hotels than guests staying in the area. A handy escape from this bizarre Brave New World was the ubiquitous British Pub...but unfortunately the place was British in name only...
The following day we met some local Turkmen (Turkwomen more precisely) who showed us around the other attractions in town. The Monument to Neutrality features a larger-than-life statue of Saparmurat Niyazov Turkmenbashi (the late dictator, Father of All Turkmen and the creator of this wierd world) which rotated throughout the day so that the sun always reflected squarely from his golden self. We visited what might be one of the most impressive libraries in the world, except that it featured only two books. One is Turkmenbashi's 'world-renowned' Ruhnama. The other is the Ruhnama - Volume Two. Needless to say, a large marble monument commerates this great work and will stand as a reminder in case every one of the millions of copies are lost. The tallest monument around is locally known as 'Eight-Legs' but the expat community knows it better as 'The Plunger' - indeed the ressemblance is uncanny. As an aside, Ashgabat is probably the cleanest city in the world, due to the absence of any serious industry and to the hordes of women sweeping the streets in traditional clothes.
We were reminded that people did live in this town when invited into to eat with some locals. We bought the ingredients for our meal in the Russian Bazaar which was we found to be a much more lively part of town and ate some delicious Turkmen Plov - sticky rice with carrots and lamb. Plov is the national dish of every Central Asian country and each town or region is very proud of its own variety. Yet, having tasted Turkmen, Karakalpak, Khorezm and Bukhara Plovs I am beginning to think the differences are very subtle indeed...
Another Ashgabat curiosity is the 'Walk of Health' - a 8km or 37km trail leading into the mountains overlooking the city - which Turkmenbashi forced all his ministers and civil servants to run up once a year. He would fly up in his helicopter to the summit to greet the panting bureaucrats and congratulate them...Anyway, the views from this point were splendid but revealed Ashgabat's small scale (it has aroud 500,000 inhabitants) and the marked contrast between the rolling green foothills of the Kopet Dag range and the endless dunes of the Karakum desert.
It was into these dunes that we would continue our travels...
Into the Dasht-e-Kavir
11.05.2007 - 12.05.2007 45 °C
Having heard several reports of a great homestay in the tiny oasis village of Garmeh, we decided to stop there on the way to Mashhad. The Tehrani artist Maziar (whom we didn't meet since his wife was having a baby in the city) returned to his 400-year old family home in a small village deep in the salt deserts of central Iran to escape the pollution and commotion of Tehran and to set up a charming travellers' lodge. Only 250 people or so call Garmeh home but from walking around the oasis I would have put the number closer to 20 - a very, very quiet place. The house was built in the traditional desert style, with mud bricks, low ceilings and many vents to let the air circulate. The atmosphere was extremely liberal here (by Iranian standards) - no headscarves for the women and we didn't have to get fully dressed just to have a shower in the morning! The food was delicious here, although it was still too early for local produce (although noon temperatures averaged around 35C in the shade); and everyone slept on the floor.
Having explored the village (which involved avoiding the local rabid dog, and almost losing my shoe in the road which had melted into a very sticky paste) we hopped into what might have been the most clapped-out Paykan in Iran and headed to the salt flats. Here, the desolation was absolute - not a plant or animal for miles around, as you can see in the pictures. Somehow, there was water underneath the compacted salt, and we're not too sure from where it came. Keeping Anton and I company were a group of three French tourists (one of whom had come along the Silk Road from China...) and a couple of dead camels. After an uneventful sunset we headed back to Garmeh for some delicious fruity rice, salad and yoghurt but not after being stopped by the police - presumably because they were curious as to how a piece of scrap metal could move so fast.
The following day we explored a mountain village (made more atmospheric by some Iranians making animal noises in the distance) and after lunch and a siesta we left for the sand dunes and had a go at riding some camels. I would suggest that if anyone ever considers riding a camel they should think again. And again. The camels were uncomfortable, very smelly and had a bad temper...it's no wonder that in the days of the Silk Road traders would always walk alongside their camels.
Having returned to the hotel we met an Australian journalist who had authored most of the Lonely Planet travel guide we have been using in Iran. Apart from learning about the whole guide-writing process and other aspects of Iranian culture, we were asked to write a short report of our upcoming border crossing into Turkmenistan. Perhaps a tentative step into a future career?
Towers of Silence and Alexander's Prison
09.05.2007 - 10.05.2007 35 °C
To round off our stay in Yazd, we visited the ominously-named Towers of Silence in the desert suburbs of the city itself. These two wide stone towers were built on two opposing hills between which there were ruins of a small Zoroastrian settlement. Having been advised that this place was about as silent as a motocross dirt-track could get we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves completely alone. Ever since the dawn of Zoroastrianism (or rather Mazdaism - c. 1500 BC) and up until the 1960s, the dead were placed in the towers for the vultures to pick their bones clean. Supposedly burying pollutes the earth and cremation the atmosphere and so this curious method was chosen. A priest would stand by the body until the eyes were picked out - if the right eye was first eaten by the vultures omens were good, if the left was picked first eternal torment would await the soul...
Alexander's Prison, despite the mysterious name, is in fact a simple well in a simple well which might or might not have been used by Alexander the Great as a dungeon for his enemies. Anyway, the name keeps bringing the tourists...Souvenir-wise I bought some Iranian music as well as a mourning flag dedicated to one of the Emams - the mourning of long-dead religious figures is big business here in Iran. In the evening we treated ourselves to some delicious Fesenjun, a dish consisting of meatballs in a pomegranate and walnut sauce - and a welcome change from the usual Iranian 'pizza'.
The morning after we boarded the bus to Khur, deep in the Dasht-e-Kavir salt desert...
City of Poetry, Nightingales and Wine
02.05.2007 - 05.05.2007 30 °C
Immediate impressions of Shiraz were of an extremely laid-back provincial city with a pleasant climate (about 30C and very dry). The city was home to many of the greatest Persian poets and consequently attracts thousands to the tombs of both Hafez and Sa'adi. It is difficult to underestimate the importance that poetry plays in Iranian life - a saying goes that every Iranian household should contain first the Qoran and second Hafez's Divan (and many would even place Hafez over the Qoran!) Hafez's tomb was in a calm garden, of which there are many in Shiraz. To illustrate how deeply poetry is ingrained into every Iranian, we met two young conscript soldiers at the tomb who had chosen to spend their day off here, and as we talked with them in the park they compared Hafez to Goethe (unfortunately their English was not great and our Farsi is worse so we didn't really understand what the point was)! It was also in this park that a girl who had been staring at us for half an hour gathered the courage to ask us for our autograph - do we look famous? Having bought a collection of Hafez's work it turned out that Goethe had been heavily influenced by Hafez himself, having written poems addressed to him and even called him his 'twin'.
The Shiraz bazaar is the nicest I have yet seen in Iran, mainly due to its almost comatose approach to buying and selling. The lunch break is about four hours long (11am-15pm) and even during business hours time seems slower inside the bazaar. Unfortunately most of the souvenirs on sale are made in China...it seems that all the handmade prize pieces were in Esfahan (and well out of our budget). Besides the bazaar we managed to walk into a holy shrine (in theory closed to all non-Muslims) which was a splendid sight. Inside what looks like an ordinary mosque, the walls, vaults and arches are covered in thousands of tiny pieces of glass arranged in patterns, reflecting green and red from hidden neon lights. Everything was arranged so as to awe a believer in the presence of God and whichever Imam the shrine is dedicated to. A nearby medressah (Qoranic school) also offered some great views from its roof.
Persepolis - capital of the Achaemenid Empire - was our main reason to visit Shiraz, and so we decided not to take a tour but to get there via public transport for a hundredth of the cost. The site itself was somewhat disappointing in both size and condition and was busy with (mostly Iranian) tourists. It was almost possible, however, to imagine its previous grandeur before Alexander the Great burned the city to the ground... Nearby there were some huge tombs of the various Achaemenid emperors (Darius, Xerxes etc.) cut into the cliff face and surrounded by Zoroastrian symbols which largely made up for the underwhelming Persepolis.
Back in Shiraz, we bumped into exactly the same tourists we had seen in Teheran and Esfahan (there are few tourists in Iran!) including a Polish tour guide with long, blond dreadlocks who stood out just a little bit from the crowd...That evening while walking past the hotel, we witnessed the darker side of Iran: a vicious fight involving people beating each other with sticks turned bloody when a couple of huge knives appeared and someone was stabbed in the face - we didn't stick around to see what happened next. We did, however, notice a mullah (Islamic cleric) and some soldiers walk past as if nothing had happened.
It was also in Shiraz that we met a man called Reza who at first seemed interesting (and normal). He had a Bachelor's degree in English and had family in many places in the world. But when he showed us his pills - "for my nervous problem" - and told us that he was invincible because of the mini-Qoran around his neck (it's true because his mother had told him) we started to back out of the conversation. Nevertheless he followed us to the hotel and after giving us his phone number begged us to call him back later in the week so that we could talk again. Even though we had said goodbye, he followed us into the reception and repeated "Do not forget!" with his eyes wide open and finger pointing - he must have repeated it ten times.
We never called back, but are now safely in Yazd and out of his reach...We hope.
This was in Turkey, near Dogubayazit
19.04.2007 - 19.04.2007
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.
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...
Into Phrygia and the land of the Mevlevi
04.04.2007 - 06.04.2007 15 °C
On a Wednesday morning showing promising signs of Spring, we set off from İstanbul, crossed the Sea of Marmara to Yalova and hopped on a Dolmuş (minibus) to İznik. The journey was made considerably smoother with the help of some Turks wanting to practise their English and showing us the way as part of the bargain.
İznik is an ancient town founded around 1000BC, famous in the West for holding the Council of Nicaea (325AD) which unified early Christian doctrine around the idea that Jesus was entirely divine, as well as entirely human. Indeed, the town still bears a strong Roman influence in its streetplan, fortified walls and other ruins. Venturing beyond the walls we immediately found ourselves in endless groves of Cypress and Olive trees interspersed with some curious shrines and tombs; the view from the hills above İznik afforded us with great views of the sunset and some welcome rural relief after the congested İstanbul. Unfortunately, the town is a shadow of its former self and many of the buildings have been recycled over the centuries. The hostel was great, with an eccentric host (See you later, toilet paper!), although the bathroom was again one big shower with a toilet - something of a Turkish custom.
The ten-hour, 500 km bus ride to Konya (via Bursa) was made more bearable by a man offering tea (çay), coffee, water and food; all included in the €20 price. The plains in central Turkey consist mostly of deserted steppe dotted with large snow-capped mountains and since the sun set mid way through the journey, I had time to learn some Turkish.
Konya, the breadbasket of Turkey, is a booming industrial town and the ancient capital of the Selçuk Empire. However, Rumi Mevlava and the Islamic cult of Mevlevi Sufism is what really brought us here. Rumi (early 13th Century) is highly regarded in the Middle East, as well as in the West, as perhaps the most important mystic writing in the Islamic tradition. The beatiful Mevlava shrine shed much light on the on the Sufi brand of Islam which provides a very different perspective on the Koran and which strongly influenced the Ottoman dynasty. By chance we wandered into an old carpet shop (only because it had Silk Road in the sign) where we perused some carpets while sipping çay. The shopowner, Mehmet, then spends the next hour providing us with extremely interesting insights into the Mevlevi, local culture, religion and politics as well as entertaining us with stories of some very unfortunate tourists. Mehmet also advises us to meet the mysterious Veli in Masshad, Iran who will be able to help us; he draws a simple picture of Veli so that we can recognize him in Masshad, but he will find us first anyway so... Mehmet also knows everyone in Turkey so if we get into trouble we need only call him!
After an excursion to the Bazaar and a few museums we made our way to the local Turkish bath (Hamam). This involved lying on hot marble, having the dead skin scraped off the body followed by a massage and time in the Sauna. This helped us digest some delicious Pide and Kebap afterwards. Next message from Kapadokya!