Saturday, 30 October 2010

Radio Silence

Apologies to anyone who has tried phoning or texting me over the last 2 weeks. Apparently my phone can't receive anything out here in Iran. Similarly no access to Facebook or Twitter. I can get email though (usual address) when I happen to get time to get to an internet cafe which is only the once so far. I'll blog my fascinating experiences in Iran once I get access to a proper PC. All going well though. The next post could be a biggie.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Days 48-57: Into Iran

Tehran, Iran

Have found a PC with something approaching broadband, although nowhere near fast enough to post piccies. Can't get access to a bunch of websites from here including facebook and twitter so no social networking for me. Mind you, there's not a lot of time for that anyway.
I got up to Dogubeyazit OK and then headed straight for Kars the next day on an airport transfer bus that was going to Kars airport. But critically NOT Kars itself so they dropped me at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere, populated solely by a couple of wild dogs, with the promise that there'd probably be a bus along some time heading towards town.

Fortunately they were right. Kars is a really interesting town. A bit of a melting pot as it's been Russian, Turkish, Armenian and a few other things in its time.

The main thing to see is Ani, the old Armenian capital. And I mean v old. It's abandoned and has been for hundreds of years. Just a few big old buildings standing. It's right on the border with Armenia so security is a bit tight. To the point that there are a few places on the site that you can't go to and quite a few people with guns. Admittedly mostly friendly people with guns but people with guns nevertheless. And with very bad gun etiquette, waving them around etc. Anyway, Ani was a spectacular site. I went up there with Giel, a Dutch guy I met at the hotel, and an Iranian fella called Amir. After about a week of only being able to exchange pleasantries with people and have very stilted conversations it was nice to have a few people to chat properly with. I'll post some pics of Ani when I can, but I'm sure you can google it to see. Later on I was chatting with a Turkish guy and he said something along the lines of "well, it used to be in Armenia but their country was too big for them so now it's in Turkey" which was an interesting perspective, particularly as their country probably wouldn't have been "too big" for them if their population had been boosted by the hundreds of thousands of Armenians who "disappeared" in the Syrian desert in the latter years of the Ottoman Empire. Little bit of politics there.

Also managed a couple of nights out in Kars. My last chance before Iran. The second of these involved a skinful of beer, an unsuccessful search for "somewhere a bit livelier" (this is a quite strict part of the country and hardly anywhere serves booze) and a drunken chat with a bunch of lads in the kebab house about football while on the way home. Just like home!

After a fairly uneventful trip back to Dogubeyazit (other than some really persistent begging from some kids in Igdir) I spent a day touring the sights there in the company of Ferhat, a local kid who befriended me and knew a friendly taxi driver who could drive us around. Visited a meteorite crater (which probably isn't), the resting place of Noah's Ark (if you believe that kind of thing), a traditional Kurdish village (in the rain) and the Ishak Pasa Palace (which was wonderful, perched on the side of a mountain).

Then over the border into Iran. Border crossing went fine. Everyone very courteous and friendly. Tried to change a lot of Euros at the border as it's supposedly the best rate in Iran, but they only had 10,000 lira notes (about 50p) so I could only really change 100 Euros or I'd have been weighed down with notes. Had planned to get a bus from the next town to Tabriz but I managed to strike a deal with a taxi driver to take me all the way through. In hindsight I maybe should have stuck with the bus plan as we had a blow out coming down a rather steep hill and had to borrow a spare tyre from a passing motorist to get us to a garage. Then we ran out of gas and we had to push the car to the gas station. The bus may have been easier. Tabriz was a bit of a nothing kind of place and I only stopped there because it was convenient. Then on to Qazvin. Again, a few travel hiccoughs as I travelled with a really cheap bus company. Didn't actually go into Qazvin, but dropped me on the motorway about 5km outside. No shared taxis anywhere to be seen but fortunately I got chatting to a retired airforce colonel who agreed to drop me and another guy a little further along the motorway where it'd be easier to get a taxi. A great guy.
Qazvin was great. The main reason for going was to visit the Alamut Valley and the excitingly named Castles of the Assassins. As a bit of a history lesson: Hasan-e Sabbah was leader of the Ismaili sect who built the castles...ah, read about it yourself online. I don't have that much time. There's not much of the castles left but the views of the valley were spectacular. A truly magical place. I'll post pictures when I can. All the more fun because my guide Ebi was an awesome guy. Really funny and a great driver who clearly enjoyed himself belting around the mountain roads. He was a great guy to chat with as he had an interesting perspective on Iran today. One of the highlights has been chatting with the people in the hotel (there's a small group of locals who seem to congregate in the lobby of most hotels).

From Qazvin on to Tehran. I wasn't sure I could be bothered to visit Tehran as it's big and dirty but it's actually been quite fun. I had to pass through on the way to Shiraz anyway so I thought I'd stay the night. Visited the bazaar (which is huge) and a few other places but really there's not that much to see. It's more about soaking up the atmosphere. Had a good wander through the streets last night. It's really v safe. The other fun thing is dodging the traffic. There's not real traffic light system, no pedestrian crossings and a lot of cars moving very fast and erratically on wide roads. As a pedestrian you have to cross that. A bit like playing dodgeball really. You just have to look confident and step out. It's kinda lucky no-one drinks here or there'd be a lot of squashed drunk people.

Everyone is very friendly and welcoming, as expected. There's the occasional "Down with USA" slogan painted on the walls (but then the US did topple their democratically elected president in the 50s and supported the Shah who wasn't exactly a whiter-than-white character) and the Colonel did say that his sister (who was in the car) had said that she heard my country was "evil" which I argued with a bit. But on a personal level people couldn't be friendlier. Culturally it's very odd. While it does seem quite conservative, other than the headscarfs and the occasional chador you could be almost anywhere. Women don't seem "oppressed". Admittedly you don't see women out alone socialising and they're not really approachable as a lone man (which sounds a bit creepy, but you know what I mean). It could be that my visit has so far focused on some of the more liberal places. Also I get the impression that the last 5-10 years has seen a relaxation in some of the social restrictions. For instance, I'd been led to believe that it was a real no-no for men to sit next to women on public transport. Other than related people obviously. On the trip from Qazvin to Tehran, for instance, they shuffled people around so that wouldn't happen. But then when I ended up needing the last seat on the bus and it was next to a young unaccompanied woman no-one seemed bothered at all. Also, no evidence of there being separate sections in restaurants as there was in Saudi, for instance. Everyone's in together.

Off to Shiraz this evening. 14 hour night bus. Bleurgh.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Days 40-47: Can we talk about Frank Lampard instead?

Van, Turkey

Blogging time again as I missed the 9am dolmuş from Van to Dogubeyazıt. Turns out the dolmuş stop I wanted isn't where the Lonely Planet, the guy in the bus office or the two people on the street who I asked said it was. Found it eventually at 9.10. The dolmuş left at 9. Grrr. Next one is 12. So I thought I'd take the opportunity to get online for a couple of hours as there was fortunately an internet cafe near the right stop. [If anyone's reading this looking for tips on getting from Van to Dogubeyazıt, the Dolmuş goes from a car park north of Beş Yol at 7.30, 9.00, 12.00 and 14.00.]

Got to Konya as planned and took a look around the old Mevlana monastery. Beautıful place. Well, the Mevlana Museum (which used to be the dervish HQ) is. I was going to post some pictures but it seems this crapheap of a PC is going to crash everytime I try to retrieve them from my camera. So you'll just have to use your imagination. Or google it, which seems to be a good alternative to imagination, memory or indeed thinking in general these days. Konya not the most fascinating of towns other than the museum so I skidaddled the next day and headed for the coast for a bit of R+R before making the big push east for Iran. Also shaved my beard off. Facial hair is clearly not my thing.

Antalya was pretty rubbish in all honesty. Just a big touristy hole. So I went on to Olympos to stay in one of the tree houses for 3 days at a place called Bayram's. Lovely place for kicking back, reading a book, having a few beers with the folks there and swimming in the sea (not in that order).
Didn't do much apart from visit the Chimaera flames (natural burning gas thing that's been going since time immemorial). There's some link with the Olympic torch but I couldn't quite get my head around what it was. The pic below probably doesn't do it justice. There were quite a few of these...

Then the mammoth 36 hour bus trip to Van. About 2000km I think. Mostly very dull and uncomfortable. I don't sleep well on buses. The monotony of the trip was broken a couple of times though. Firstly by a crazy guy stabbing one of the stewards on the bus. He was OK in the end but needed 4 stıtches. He was taken to hospital and we were all whisked off to the police station. Well, I say 'whisked'. That would imply it was quick, which it wasn't. They didn't take a statement from me as communication would have been an issue and I didn't really see what happened. Also chatted for ages with a Kurdish guy called Gezer and he was a bit of a geezer. Of course, given that he spoke no English and my Kurdish is passable at best, we communicated mostly through the medium of proper nouns, gesticulation and drawing pictures. I now have a wonderful collection of pictures of old weapons in my notebook. If I understood right he collects old weapons (swords etc). If I didn't then he was making some very specific threats to me. He also compared the Turkish govt to Hitler. Surprisingly the proper noun conversation didn't involve football in any way which it has done with most people in Kurdistan. They're big fans of Frank Lampard here for some reason. Monotony of the trip was also broken by the scenery as we got towards Van. All v mountain-y.

Van is a nice setting for a day. Mountains and lake. I scouted round the castle, which is down by lake Van and a spectacular setting. Plus I slept off the bus journey. Was also given some advice that getting the train to Iran was probably not the best idea. So I'm going to head for Dogubeyazıt as mentioned above, and cross at the road border. Mind you, given the quality of transport info I've been given in Van so far, I'm not sure I'm making the right decision.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Days 32-39: How to miss the whirling dervishes

Goreme, Turkey

This'll be a brief one and none of my pics, although I found some on the internet of where I went and I'll add some in at a later date when I have my camera with me and more time (it takes ages to upload big pics to blogger). Also my camera batteries ran out half way up Mt Nemrut and the replacements I bought in Moldova were duds. Gotta respect the recycling but I don't think they've got the idea. Also don't have much time to write, so some of you might recognise some chunks of text as I copied and pasted from emails I've sent over the last few days.

Spent a few days in Istanbul but having seen the sights recently there wasn't much I needed to do (except pick up an Orhan Pamuk book to take my Turkish literature count for the trip to two) so got out of there in a couple of days and headed for Cappadocia. Currently in Goreme, which is spectacularly beautiful. Most of the hotels are in caves, although mine's not, although the fact that it's called the Cave Valley might have lured me into the assumption. It's v nice though and even has a pool. All for 15 lira a night (about 6 quid). Spent a day here looking round the old rock-cut city, check it out on the internet, it's lush.

Also visited Derinkuyu underground city. Also had my first nargileh of the trip although for some reason we opted for Cappuccino flavour. Not my choice. Then off for 3 days to Nemrut Dagi. A mountain with statues at the top built by the extremely egotistical King Antiochus. After he died they then stuck an extra 75m of rocks on the top, just to make a tomb for him. It's only 50m now as an American "archaeologist" tried to find his tomb in the 50s using mostly dynamite. The picture below is what it's supposed to look like at sunrise. It didn't look like that when I was there.

It was a long day as we set off at 3.30am to get up to Nemrut for sunrise. Unfortunately it was pissing down so we ended up huddled in a cafe thing near the summit drinking tea while it lashed it down, which was actually quite atmospheric. It eased up after about an hour and if anything the views were even more spectacular because of the whispy clouds around the mountains. Then a bunch of us ended up in a fairly seedy bar in Sanliurfa until about 1am that night. It's a v religious town so all (or should I say "both") the bars are seedy. Good times though.

Got back to Goreme from Nemrut Dagi yesterday and hiked around for about 6 hours. Including Love Valley. Try to guess from the picture below why it's called that...

I then ended up walking along Rose Valley and took a wrong turn ending up in a different town when I thought I was getting back to Goreme. I found my way back eventually though. I really should start using maps. I also acquired a dog for a large part of the day who started following me in town and stuck with me for the first 2 hours or so. I named him Guido as I liked to think of him as my guide.

I've realised that I've planned this part of my trip quite badly as I should have done what I wanted to do in Cappadocia, then gone to Nemrut (which is much further east) and carried on from there. Oh well. I have a bit of time so the backtracking's not too bad and I've met some cool people doing it this way round. I was also really hoping to see the whirling dervishes in Konya which is west of here but it turns out that's probably on every Saturday (i.e. 6 days from now and I can't really wait around). So having left Istanbul a day early and foregone seeing them there, I'll now also miss the real deal (or as close to the real deal as there is) in Konya. Boo. Anyway, I'm still off to Konya tomorrow anyway. From there on to Erzerum and the north east (Mt Ararat etc) before making my way to Van, from whence I get the train to Iran on the 15th Oct (I think).