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.

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