The exquisite Esfahan was our next stop and proved to be an absolute jewel of a city and incredibly welcoming place too. The awe-inspiring Sheikh Lotfollah and Imam Mosques dominate the second largest square in the world after Mao Zedong’s grand Tiananmen Square. The mosques themselves are the most visited architectural wonders of ancient Persia, if not the world – to be ranked in comparison with the architecture of Coliseum or the Parthenon and the splendour of the Cistine Chapel. We enjoyed tea and waterpipes with the locals on riverside cafes and witnessed a Zurkanah event – a sort of structured keep-fit class complete with a live drummer/singer and poetry recital. Odd. After two days we arrived in Shiraz with a slight hangover from the wonderful Esfahan, disappointed that we had to leave and wishing we could have stayed longer, whilst at the same time vowing to return to a country that was ineffably kind to us.
Shiraz offered a different kind of Iran but unfortunately this supposedly poetic, flowery, romantic city was slightly lost on us due to a poor hotel and waking in the morning to a flat battery. A local gay-man chatting-up Richard provided some distraction, the geexer just generally naming particularly rude parts of the male personage and asking whether Richard had a good one of it or them. This doesn’t require much imagination and the dialogue was cut short by Richard heading for the hills. Transcripts of the conversation are available on request. Seriously.
We soon went on our way and headed for the ancient city of Persopolis on Thursday morning. Built by Darius I two and a half thousand years ago and added to by his son Xerxes, it is not hard to imagine the original grandeur of the city that lay at the heart of the Persian Empire. As with many cities in the east it was razed to the ground by Alexander the Great and his unstoppable Macedonian army but the desert has kept much of the intricate detail in the remaining stonework clearly visible.
We afforded ourselves brief stops in Yazd and then Kerman before finally making our way to the drug smuggling town of Zahedan on Sunday. Our guide book had heavy warnings about the wisdom of parking a car in this town due to its proximity to the notorious Baluchistan province of Pakistan but there is no other way to the border so needs must. We had little Iranian rials left and could not afford a hotel, so decided to park outside a small restaurant and hatch a plan that involved not being killed by the locals. Luckily for us three local men happened to spot the Land Rover and noticing that it had a British registration plate were eager to meet the owners. One of them – Amin – had spent 6 years in London in his youth and spoke excellent English. We made friends very quickly and they kindly offered us secure parking in the school playground. We needed to fill up on petrol for the border crossing in the morning and rather than inconvenience us with having to drive to the petrol station – these generous people went themselves and filled cans to bring back for us. Then they insisted on paying for it aswell. Amazing.
They had an ambitious plan to install some Solar Panels for water heating on the school so Dwyer advised them as much as he could and we ended up staying up until 2am discussing various topics.
Thus ended our last full day in Iran. We left feeling humbled by the culture of hospitality of this place and slightly ashamed that our ignorance of this country and its people was a source of worry to us before. Of all the countries we have visited before now – this one leapt straight to the top of the must return list.
Richard and Dwyer
The joy of visas. We spent Monday to Thursday in the unexciting town of Erzurum waiting for our Iranian visa to come through. Adding to the joy was the fact that (to quote the great Scotsman Billy Connolly) my arse was in tatters behind me. It seems 2 weeks of solid kebab eating finally caught up with us. After a brief sojourn into the Georgian Mountains in the north east of Turkey and another day or so wait, we headed with some excitement for the Iranian border. We stayed at the truck stop town of Dogubayazit for the night but slept terribly as the warden of the area blew his whistle every ten minutes at God knows what. Waking early on Friday morning, we dumped our remaining booze into a bin just before getting to the border – the assurance of a prison sentence proving an ample deterrent to smuggling alcohol into Iran.
Any trepidation at the hazardous border crossing was soon put to rest – our carnet was dealt with very quickly and we were across the border in an hour and a half. We changed the last of our Turkish currency at the tiny town of Bazargan, and this also gifted the locals the opportunity to ogle at our strange machine and try and sell us things. One tired and sweaty man in particular tried to sell me the shirt he was wearing!
It was in Bazargan that we were thwarted in our first attempt to stock up on cheap fuel ($10 a fill up) as the station had no petrol. In the second we were successful but the attendant demanded a t-shirt as part of ‘Irish kindness’ for filling our Land Rover with petrol – despite of course paying him for the fill up in the first place. A very strange place this Iran. Our first road-sign was in Farsi, but the second, in English, read “Tabriz 250km, Tehran 850km”. A very big place this Iran!
Ten minutes after parking our Landy in Tabriz, an ex-soldier named Erfan delighted in showing us the sights. Speaking only a little English, the quick tour of Tabriz included a shut 35km Bazaar and the massive Jameh Mosque that we were not allowed to enter. While having a quick drink at the closed Blue Mosque, it dawned on us that Fridays weren’t the best days for sightseeing! Over a cold can of coke we were then invited to Erfan’s wedding in 2 years time and to meet his brethren in the park for a game of football. This turned into an impromptu sing-along using upturned plastic tubs as drums and the young boys singing popular Iranian tunes. Far from being the axis of evil – this park full of families enjoying picnics, with young people playing football instead of drinking and young women smiling coyly from behind their headscarfs seemed like the garden of innocence.
On our way out of Tabriz we got lost in the back streets of Tabriz for 2 hrs and then hit a low balcony with the top of the Landy! Fortunately bricks and mortar are softer than cast-iron Land Rover. Understandably the owners, a laid back middle-aged father and a screaming mother and daughter, were not too pleased but quickly grasped that we couldn’t understand a Farsi word they said and soon waved us on. Result!
We ended up camping in a lay-by on the periphery of Tabriz only to be woken at half six by the local noisy special branch (not sure if this is a reference to their intellect!) pounding at our front doors and demanding to be let in. They wrongly suspected we had been taking narcotics and not looking our best in the morning did little to help our cause! After a thorough search of the vehicle they arrested about £2 in Romanian lei’s and carted them off to the nearest sweathouse. They advised that it was unsafe to camp in Iran because of the ever-expanding drug trade, but at that point we were more worried about the police than any other criminals! That was our first 24hrs!
Despite the initial trepidation, we found ourselves in the company of an extremely hospitable people. Brief visits to the Caspian coast city of Rasht and the ultra conservative Qom were inter-spliced with trips to Masuleh and Qazvin, both only warming us delightfully this wonderful country.
The rock-hugging village of Masuleh introduced us to the dear Abbas, a local jolly electrical engineer that after hearing we had nowhere to stay kindly offered to open up his workshop car park for us. He also entrusted us with the keys to his office so that we could get water and make use of the toilet facilities. We were bowled over by his kindness and he requested absolutely nothing in return.
However, the real unadulterated hospitality of the Islamic Republic was shown in it’s full light in the city of Qazvin. On our way to visit the excitingly named Castles of the Assassins near the city, we got stupendously lost and had to ask for directions at an oasis of an eatery. Seeing our plight, a truck driver named Aziz phoned his English speaking son-in-law to communicate where the correct road lay and more importantly where in town we could get a minor fix for the missing hub-cap. As it was getting dark, he kindly offered to take us to the mechanic himself but unfortunately they were closing up as we arrived. There was only one thing for it: the family’s English teacher was summoned and we were to be guests at his luxurious house for the evening. Aziz’s four daughters delighted in plying us with questions about the west and our opinion of Iran. After a lovely shower, masses of fresh of fruit and a good helping of fried chicken, we slept soundly for the first time in days.
In addition, after a hearty Iranian breakfast of bread, cheese, honey and yoghurt, we were driven to the mechanic’s and the problem fixed in one hour, with Aziz actually picking up the bill as well. An amazing man indeed to which we owe a huge debt of gratitude.
It was quickly becoming clear to us that anything we thought we knew about Iran was complete fallacy. Most people are no more religious than people in the west and in fact are a lot more liberal in their views than many people I know. People are keen to express the fact that they do not want to be enemies with anyone and are very careful to distinguish between the government and normal people when discussing politics. Their generosity and hospitality to strangers is an integral part of their culture and is almost overwhelming to experience. To many of us a stranger is someone to be suspicious of. To Iranians a stranger is a friend they haven’t met yet.
Richard and Dwyer
Heading east from Isparta we drove through the Gulluk Dagi national park, stopping by Lake Egirdir for a much needed wash. It’s amazing how your opinion on acceptable levels of cleanliness changes after several weeks travelling. What was previously a horrendous stench is passed off as a mild case of BO.
From the lake we proceeded to Catal Hoyuk – the site of the oldest known human community. Archaeological digs have revealed mud dwellings dating back to 6800 BC. Next on the itinerary was the bizarre moonscapes of Cappadocia. This region in central Turkey contains the famous rock-hewn dwellings in the area surrounding Goreme and the amazing underground cities of the Hittites. The Hittites were a tribe that controlled the area 4000 years ago. In times of peace they farmed above ground but when invaders threatened they moved to troglodyte dwellings underground where they could live for up to six months. We explored the 5 levels of the underground city of Kaymakli, descending 50m below the earth.
Afterwards we proceeded to the fairytale village of Goreme. Differential erosion has caused the volcanic rock to be formed into what are known as fairy chimneys. They look remarkably like smurf houses but we avoided telling the locals this. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. On Wednesday we climbed the torturous mountain road to the summit of Nemrut Dagi. Large stone statues of the gods were built here in 60 BC but earthquakes have toppled them. Despite the guide book gushing about how amazing they were, the real attraction of the sight though is the fantastic views of the surrounding national park. It even made having to use the low ratio gearbox on the Landy worthwhile. The way down was a bit hairy though when the brake fluid heated up so much that the brakes began to become spongy. Several stops had to be made to allow them to cool.
The next day we continued east to the city of Diyarbakir. This city was at the centre of the Kurdish separatist troubles of the late nineties and a heavy Turkish military presence is still maintained throughout the area. We met our first Kurd at the petrol station and he kindly gave us tea and grapes and helped us with our pathetic attempts to pronounce Turkish words.
On Friday we drove from Diyarbakir through the amusingly named town of Batman to the picturesque village of Hasankeyf. After enjoying a meal beside the Tigris river we helped out some locals who had a drained car battery. They kindly expressed their thanks by giving us some ice-cold water which would have been manna from heaven in the 41 degree heat. Unfortunately, we couldn’t drink it as it was local water and we didn’t want to risk causing even more upset to our stomachs which had been grumbling unpleasantly for the last 2 days.
From Hasankeyf we headed north to the town of Baykan. This is a Kurdish town and we passed several army checkpoints on the way. After parking up at a truckers stop we got to talking with a local teacher who brought us to a café and introduced us to his friends. Over tea and grapes we discussed politics, religion, football and family through the use of exuberant gesticulation and the odd common word. We also had an introduction to traditional Kurdish music which is noticeably different from the Turkish variety.
In the morning we drove another torturous uphill track to the other Nemrut Dagi (there seems to be no explanation as to why there are two). This one is a huge inactive volcano with 5 separate lakes in the crater. Enjoying the first cool breeze since we left England, we spent the majority of the day 3000m above sea level.
On Sunday we drove north to the city of Ezerum where we had our first Turkish bath (haman). Richard had the enjoyable experience of having his pecs rubbed by an old man who had a suggestive twinkle in his eye. Looks like all that gym time wasn’t in vain afterall!
On Monday we will pick up our Iranian visas (if all goes according to plan). After six weeks of bureaucratic wrangle it seems they’ve finally decided to grant us entry to the country. Turkey has been a pleasure and we look forward to experiencing the Iranian culture – which from what we’ve read is even more hospitable than Turkey.
Having crossed the border into Bulgaria on Sunday night we drove a few hours on Monday morning to arrive in the town of Veliko Tarnovo – A beautiful, historic town with an impressive citadel and central monument. It was in the church of the citadel that we were introduced to some fantastic Bulgarian art which impressed us greatly. It is unfortunate that we didn’t get a chance to see other examples in Bulgaria. From Veliko Tarnovo we headed out to the Shipka pass. At the top of the mountain we climbed the 921 steps to the monument of freedom which was created to thank the Russians for their help in freeing Bulgaria from Turkish rule. Of course, the Russians invaded Bulagaria after the second world war but the monument was built by then so what can you do? The view from the top was magnificent and to make things even better a massive storm broke over us resulting in torrential rain. An opportunity should not be missed so I broke out the soap much to the amusement of passing drivers. Unfortunately, we only had a day in Bulgaria so we didn’t get the chance to explore the capital Sofia. Instead we drove straight down to Svilengrad and crossed the border into Turkey at noon. The crossing was fairly straight forward and we reached Istanbul by 6pm. Istanbul is mind-boggingly big. For 20 miles before it there are suburbs which lead into the vast, bustling city. We drove straight into the Sultanahmet area (the old town), getting our first real taste of Turkish driving on the way. The law of Turkish driving is simple – you accelerate and beep continually – to do anything else is the mark of a simpleton who must be beeped at and accelerated past. Indicators are for degenerates. We spent from Tuesday to Thursday evening in Istanbul and saw all the main tourist attractions – which to be honest are disappointing. The Topkapi palace in particular deserves scorn for being possibly the least interesting palace in the world. The bone-crushing heat and the pervading presence of irritating touts armed with every known scam in the book soon persuaded us to head further south.
On Friday we drove through the fields of Gallipoli (the scene of a great slaughter during WW1 and remembered by the Australians on Anzac day). We then visited the ruins of Troy before stopping at the town of Bergama. Here we experienced first-hand the famous Turkish hospitality. Attempting to find an internet café, Richard asked in a medical supplies shop beside the hospital where we could find one. Dr Ahmet (who spoke fluent German) and his wife kindly allowed us to use their connection over a cup of coffee. As we got talking it turned out that Ahmet was a bit of a musician and specialised in playing traditional Turkish Bolzak music on the saz (a 3-coursed mandolin type instrument). We all headed down to a bar where Ahmet, the bar owner and Dwyer all played the night away over many beers. We crashed in at 3am feeling much happier about Turkey than we had from Istanbul. The next day we visited the stunning ruins of Ephesus (1800 years old). The ruins are amazingly well preserved given their age and the reconstructed library façade gives a superb illustration of how opulent the city must have looked in its heyday and how advanced the technology was. The amusingly communal latrines (30 seated side by side) had permanent running water. On Sunday we awoke to find we had a missing hubcap – odd but we had driven some rough roads. After fixing this problem with a cunningly cut yoghurt carton and some tape we headed to the famous Turkish postcard site of Pamukkale. The travertine pools were formed when warm mineral water cascaded over the cliff edge and deposited its calcium. The site is beautiful but fairly small and an hour or two was enough to cover it.
Afterwards, we stayed in the city of Isparta where we encountered more hospitality from the locals in the form of a café owner driving us to another one as he was closing. Istanbul didn’t give us a great introduction to the country but the people we met on our subsequent travels really gave us the true picture of Turkey as a land of great hospitality, with warm and friendly people who take a real pride in making a stranger welcome.