Ashgabat to Istanbul via Iran with Dragoman - 2016 (part 2)

Ashgabat to Istanbul via Iran - 2016 (part 1)

15th October 2016 - Qom

A long drive today from Esharan to Tehran broken up by a stop for lunch in Qom. The scenery between the cities in Iran has been pretty uniform, barren and just broken up by rocky out-crops. There are a few abandoned brick buildings and the odd town. The roads we are travelling on are great, quiet dual carriageways all the way. When we got to Qom we as usual just drove to the centre and parked up on the street blocking a lane. Omid has a quick word with the police and all is good. Imagine doing that in London.

From Lonely Planet: Qom is Iran’s second-holiest city after Mashhad, Qom (Ghom) is home to both the magnificent Hazrat-e Masumeh shrine and the hardline clerics who have ruled the country since 1979. One of Iran’s fastest-growing cities (the population has doubled since the revolution), its skyline is being transformed by ugly new apartment blocks and there are more large infrastructure projects underway here than anywhere else in the country.

Despite these changes, Qom remains one of Iran’s most religious and conservative cities. Shiite scholars and students come from across the world to study in its madrasehs (schools) and browse in its famous religious bookshops, plenty of pilgrims visit the shrine and locals are conspicuously pious – travellers should be discreet and dress conservatively, particularly around the Hazrat-e Masumeh.

The Hazrat-e Masumeh is shown above and is the burial place of Iman Reza's sister Fatameh. As with the other mosques we've seen there's a big square with impressive tiled buildings on all sides. The mosque is impressive but I'm getting a bit mosqued out, there are only so many variations you can see.

I thought I'd check out the current fashion trends in Qom and once again black seems to be in season. In this holy city women are even more covered up than elsewhere. Add in the fact that Qom has been the hottest city we've visited so far clocking up 42 degrees and this must be an uncomfortable place to live as a women. I wandered around for a while and then headed off in search of food. Down a side alley off of a side alley I found a kebab shop full of locals and despite pictures of many dishes everyone had the beef kebab so I pointed and that's what I got and very good it was too.

On the way back to the main square I found a juice shop and they had a fridge full of glasses half full of ice cream. I saw mangos in the window and thought ice mango! Ice carrot was good, ice mango was decadent bliss.

We reached Tehran around 4:30pm and finally reached the hotel around 6:30. A quick freshen up and instead of waiting for the group to head out Dennis and I headed out on our own and found you've guessed it a kebab shop. After no kebabs for two weeks I've now had kebab three times in two days. To tell the truth if we have kebab again tomorrow I won't be disappointed; they are good.

16th October 2016 - Tehran

Today didn't really go to plan. Out of laziness I decided to follow the group around a sight seeing tour of Tehran rather than doing my own thing and due to a lot of faffing around we never got as far as doing the things I anted to do even though we'd planned too. Anyway I did get to see the World Heritage Site of Goleston Palace. This was the home of the Shahs until they were thrown out in 1980. The buildings were impressive and in a mix of Islamic and European styles.

Inside there were mirrors and mirror tiles everywhere and lots of bling. The rooms were full of gifts the Shah's had received from foreign leaders. All very nice but not a lot of things I'd want on display in my houdse.

Next up the Historical Museum but not a lot to report here. Lots of stuff dug out of the ground a long long time ago. Iran is an old country, very old, maaybe 7,500 years old so they have lots of old stuff. After leaving there we had lunch in a cafe full of uni students, this really was a different world. All were looking very stylish and pushing the bounds of Islamic dress. Most of the womean had dyed hair and their scarves well back their heads. Most were smoking (something we've seen little of on this trip and everyone was laughing and joking in groups and in couples just like students anywhere (except possibly the stylish bit).

The sign above was on the opposite side of the road to the German Embassy. The Iranian really know how to make friends and influence people.

On a similar theme we passed the block of flats above. The pictures below were on the walls of the old US Embassy.



All gets a bit tiresome after a while; I wonder how many average Iranians really believe this stuff.

17th October 2016 - Zanjan

Goodbye Tehran, time for us to head north and west. In a couple of days we'll be crossing the border and saying goodbye to Iran.

Before leaving Tehran we first stopped off at the Freedom Monument. It was built by the last Shah's wife about 60 years ago and now is the symbol most associated with Tehran. It's big and quite impressive, but it is stuck in the middle of a roundabout and surrounded by barriers and workers.

In Tehran we lost most of our group. Of the sixteen through from Ashgabat we are now down to a hardcore of three. So we are now just six on the truck. From left to right Sinclair from New Zealand, Omid our Iranian guide, Lindsay one of our crew/drivers, Kathy from Canada and Sinead our second crew/driver.

On the way to Zanjan we stopped off at Soltaniyeh Dome the third biggest ancient brick dome in the world. It was built in the early 1300s by Sultan Mohammad with the intention of it housing the remains of Iman Ali which are in Baghdad, but the Iraqis decided to keep them so it became the mausoleum for the sultan's wife.

Soltaniyeh was the Sultan's capital and surrounded by buildings but it fell into ruins many years ago. It is only in the last 20 years that the building has begun to be restored. The outside and the dome are now fully restored but the inside was full of scaffolding as work continues. The brickwork of the building was the best we've seen, each individual brick and a carving on it. This must've been a hell of a building in its day.

We spent the evening wandering around Zanjan's big bazaar. Zanjan apparently is famous for its knives and there certainly were a lot on sale. Otherwise lots of gold and silver and otherwise stuff for locals, clothes, shoes, hardware, fruit and veg.

We wandered for a while, tried some dried food, I bought one of the chain flail things we saw so much of during Ashura and finished the evening off with another delicious chicken kebab. On the way back to hotel we stopped off at a coffee shop. As so many times on this trip the owners wanted a photo of us with them. Once we get away from the main tourist sights we are minor celebratories.

18th October 2016 - Tabriz

Up for breakfast which as usual consists of bread, butter, soft cheese, egg, tomato, cucumber and jam (not necessarily in that order or all together. On good mornings we have a toaster to give the local flatish bread a lift and if we're really lucky we get carrot jam. I must hunt it out when I get back it is surprisingly good, not ice carrot good, but definitely pretty good.

Today after two weeks in Iran we passed our first river bed with an actual river in it. Since leaving Tehran and heading north it has been getting much cooler especially at night and the scenery relatively greener; it is now beginning to feel like autumn which it definitely didn't further south and east. We get to our hotel in Tabriz by lunchtime and what a hotel it is, by far the best so far. We're up on the 11th floor and this is the view from our balcony. As with most cities we have been to so far Tabriz is backed by mountains; I guess cities are built by mountains as they give access to more water.

I thought I'd share a picture of 'Iranian Champagne'. Non-alcoholic grape and peach drinks.

Tabriz is the capital of East Azerbaijan province, in the Azerbaijan region of Iran and feels more European than other cities we've visited. Omid told us they all speak Turkish here and Persian with a heavy accent he struggles to understand. Tabriz has museums and mosques and the like but we decided to just have a walk around get lunch and head for the bazaar. Below is the Tabriz Municipality Palace. Nice building but I took the photo ore for the great cloud patterns.

The Bazaar of Tabriz is one of the oldest bazaars of the Middle East and the largest covered bazaar in the world. Big and more of the same. I think as well as being mosqued out I'm well and truly bazaared out too.

I love taking close up shots of produce. Below is saffron, berries and rose petals from the bazaar.


When I got back to the hotel I headed down to the spa area for a sauna and a soak. I need to get two weeks of travel out of my muscles and off of my skin. It seems to be the place to be for the local movers and shakers but it is single sex of course. Pity big hairy backed men really don't make for great viewing.

19th October 2016 - Doğubayazıt

Time to say good-bye to Iran and I'm leaving with such great memories. I'd like to say I was surprised by how great Iran is but for some reason I did have high 'myth busting' views on Iran before I arrived. People have invariably been friendly, open and hospitable. Talked to so many people and I've never had my photo taken so often. If the west is going to support any country in the Middle East then Iran should be top of the list not their fanatical neighbours.

Anyway enough of that. The photo below must be the one that was taken the most on the trip. The surprise wherever we went that we had two female drivers never waned. I just hope the guys were going home to their wives and saying "I told you could go out and get a job and here's a photo to prove it!".

The border crossing went very smoothly; I don't think they get many western toursits crossing this land border and definitely none in a bright orange truck driven by girls.

We got stamped out of Iran and into Turkey and the first thing we see is a duty free shop and ALCOHOL! After a couple of weeks on non-alcoholic malt beverages the mere sight of alcohol can do funny things to people. Kathy and I did go halves on a bottle of Baileys to share between the group tonight.

Next up the ladies started stripping. Amazing what the sight of long flowing hair can do to a man after a fortnight where we've seen none.

We're staying the night in Doğubayazıt (I won't be trying say that after we hit the Baileys) and we headed up to the Ishak Passa Palace which is famous for its architecture and amazing views. The architecture was so-so and through the fog there was no view at all. Supposed out over yonder is Mount Ararat but we couldn't see as far as the car-park.

We have entered Kurdistan and not an area loved by the Turkish government, the roads are potholed and in the rain the roads are muddy and there's loads of standing water. The people look much poorer than in Iran and we saw order first begging on the whole trip. Sometimes when you cross a border it takes time to notice the differences but here they are obvious.

Iranian food is pretty good but the flavours are quite subtle and anyone who knows me knows I don't do subtle so tonight's meal was heaven. Into a Turkish restaurant (I know all restaurants here are Turkish but you know what I mean) and ordered an İskender kebap. Before it arrived we had fresh bread and spicy tomato dips. Spice at last. Iran was great, the people, the buildings, the scenery, but it has nothing to top this.

Then scandalously it was back to the hotel where we had women with hair uncovered showing off their curves and drinking alcohol in a man's room!

20th October 2016 - Üzümlü

A big advantage of a small group is that it is easier to get a unanimous decision on an itinery change so instead of doing the 1000km to Göreme in three days with two nights camping we are going to do it in two days with a night in a hotel on route. So taday we headed out for a day's drive west. By lunchtime we had reached Erzurum which looked a nice town with many old buildings and a busy town centre.

We found a cafe for lunch which had a lot of different dishes to choose from at the counter. I went for a chicken roulade thing with rice, other went for vegetarian plates with vine leaves, aubergene things and other unknown tasty things. I don't thnk they get many tourists passing by and we were treated with curiousity and generousity.

From there we headed on across some lovely scenery through green(ish) valleys and gorges suurounded by large hills. At timmes it looked like Tuscany with tall thin trees and wide open spaces. Quite beautiful really.

This evening we are staying in a nice hotel in Üzümlü. The guy on reception has been so good and trying to make our stay as pleasant as he can. Soon after we went to our rooms he brought around a large bunch of grapes to each room. He walked us to a local restaurant and when we got back he brought us all tea. The ladies in the restaurant were lovely. They spoke no English but took us to the kitchen to point out what we wanted. I had a chicken stew thing which tasted great especially adding some extra chili and green herbs. Later they had got a friend to come over who spoke some English. We took some photos before leaving and one of them them indicated Sinclair should be in the photo. I said "She wants you Sinclair" the English speaking friend told her what I said; cue them all creasing up laughing. Humour really is universal.

21st October 2016 - To Göreme

Our secoond driving day to get us across to Göreme a day early. Lovely scenery all the way and a lunch stop in Sivas.

Sivas seems a nice place; all the shops and food places you could want and a few you don't (Burger King and McDoalds). The main square was beautiful with old and relatively new buildings. Sivas had a real nice feel to it, pity we couldn't stay longer.

I bought a petzel from this guy and asked if I could take his photo. I'm probably the first tourist to ever ask for his photo but he sure knew how to strike a pose.

Overlanding is hard; I thought I'd show you a few pictures to show just how hard.


Beer! It is ironic that you can't get Mullahed in Iran, but in Cappadocia ...

It turns out Göreme is not a party town; the last proper bar shut down a few years ago. So we just had a drink and a nice meal (large mix grill for me) and were back in the hostel by 9pm. At least I will be fit and well to do some sights tomorrow.

22nd October 2016 - Göreme

Today I did the 'Red Tour' of the surrounding area. We started off above Love Valley.

Next up the Goreme Open Air Museum. Driving up I could see the crowds and there was a long queue at the ticket office. Thankfully we skipped that by being on a tour. Inside it wasn't too busy but still for the first time on this trip it all felt a bit too busy. The 'museum' itself was OK; lots of fairy chimneys and rooms cut in to the rocks. The main attraction are the early Christian churches with their painted frescos on the rock walls.

The rest of the morning involved stopping in different valleys and looking at the stunning scenery. The chimneys are created from volcanic rock. Over millions of years layers of roock were laid down. Now the wind erosion is wearing away the softer layers and leaving the amazing formations.

We were told tourism in the area is down 80% with all the troubles going on in the area (Syria is 350km south of here). On our minibus we had a real mix; Chinese, Thai, Kazak, Columbian and some Turks.

Our last to stops were tourist trap sales stops dressed up as demonstrations. First up pottery. It is claimed that pottery began in Cappadocia 4000 or so years ago and is one of the major crafts in the area. We stopped off at Chez Galip. We were shown how to make a pot and then walked through the show room. First the pottery made by regular workers then those by the master craftsmen and then by Galip Körükçü himself. Some of the work was amazing and despite being pretty disinterested on the way in I ended up making a quite substantial purchase.

Next up carpets; easier for me to avoid buying here as I have nowhere to put one. All the carpets were handmade taking from two months to a year to make one. The carpets had prices to match $1000, $2000, $10000, ...

23rd October 2016 - Göreme

Up very, very early for the thing to do in Cappadocia, a balloon ride. I've never been up in a balloon before; I nearly did in Australia twenty years ago, but I was due to be in the second group and due to the wind the balloon couldn't land to switch the passengers.

So a little after 6am we were standing by the balloon as they were inflated. The balloons are big and the baskets hold up to eighteen people. Soon the balloon was ready to go, we jumped in and we were off. We were one of the first balloons into the air and we were soon looking down on the other balloons as they were taking off.

I'm not a selfie taker but I think in this situation I'm quite justified in doing so.

First up we rose to 1000m which gave a great view of the whole area. 1000m is quite a way up with just a wicker fence between you and going splat; good job I don't suffer from vertigo. From 1000m we dropped back down to fairly close to the ground to get a great view of the valleys and chimneys.

By now the were 40, 50, probably more other balloons in the air, it was quite a sight.

By now the sun was starting to come up and we were slowly drifting down the valley. The weather conditions were perfect, clear skies and very little wind even at altitude. This meant they could bring the balloon down real low, a little too low at one point when we gave a tree a bit of a clatter. After about an hour it was time to land and these guys are good. They brought us down onto a dirt track using the bank on the side of the road to stop the sideways drift. They then backed the trailer up to the balloon and landed the basket right onto the trailer.

During the day I headed out on the Green Tour, this covers the are south of Goreme. First up a viewpoint looking down on Goreme and the surrounding area. More rock, more chimneys, very scenic but it just can't complete with the balloon ride .

Next up the Derinkuyu Underground City. These cities were first carved by the Hittites 2,500 years ago and were expanded by the Christians in the first couple of centuries AD. But when Constantine made Christianity the official religion they were abandoned and only rediscovered in the 1960s. The city is on 13 floors and is 60m deep. It is thought this one of maybe 36 cities itself could house up to 5,000 people. The rooms were of the reasonable size but the connecting corridors were quite low, maybe 4 feet high so there was a lot of crouching going on.

Selime Cathedral next which is as you would expect in this area cut into the rock. It dates back to the 8th century and is quite impressive. Some 10th century frescos still survive but they are quite damaged and faded. We climbed up and had an explore; it must've been some place in its day.

After lunch we had an hour's stroll in the Ihlara Valley. It was a nice walk alongside the stream with high cliffs either side. The running water, the trees, the birds it could've been a lovely valley in England.

On the way back to Goreme we made one more viewpoint stop; it really is amazing how the buildings that have been built and those carved it the rock sit so well together.

24th October 2016 - Avanos

Today was the first free day of the trip. When I travel I'm usually quite busy travelling and/or doing activities every day. But because we made our dash across Eastern Turkey we have a day with nothing planned. So after a lie-in I decided to head over to Avanos which looked nice when we passed through it on the red tour.

The statue above shows the three main industries in the area; pottery, carpets and wine and there are plenty of each on sale. The town is quite pretty and a nice place to spend a few hours.

In the evening we met two guys also staying in the hostel one from Malaysia heading towards Iran and the other from Chile who like us has come from Iran. It's always good to meet up with other backpackers to hear their stories and what they've seen and done. We headed out for more great food. I love Turkish food, probably second only to Thai. In many ways it is similar to what we had in Iran but the bread is better (not as thin and dry) and they use more spice. The sppice is either added to their stews or on the side as and accompaniment to the kebabs. Where in Iran you just get bread and meat, in Turkey you get mint or garlic mayonnaise and a tomato chili salsa along with some salad and pickles. The sides really lift the kebab to another level.

25th October 2016 - To Istanbul

Up at 4:30 and wheels rolling at 5pm as we head off for Istanbul; 10 hours and around 750km later we cross the Bosphorus and we're back in Europe.

We're staying in a hostel close to the main sights so I headed out to stretch the legs and reacquaint myself with Istanbul. The Blue Mosque is where I remember it as is the Hagia Sophia (below). But the place is very quiet Not many tourists around. When I get back to my room I see that there has been a bomb in a tourist part of Antalya in Southern Turkey. Everyone worried about me going to Iran but the next couple of days have far more chance of being troublesome.

26th October 2016 - Istanbul

My one day in Istanbul so lots to fit in. First up The Blue Mosque.

It's a big blue mosque, bigger than most but otherwise fairly un-remarkable. One thing did make me chuckle. On the wall was a sign giving some Islamic Information which included this: We respect different opinions. Our two principles from the Qaran, the holy book of Islam are "There are no compulsions in religion" and "Over every possessor of knowledge is a Knower".

"There are no compulsions in religion!" Yet women had to cover their heads and everyone had to take off their shoes and that's tame compared to other stuff they enforce.

Next up the Hagia Sophia. This was first built in 360AD (current building from 532AD) and was a Christian cathedral until the Ottoman's sacked Istanbul in 1453. The building is a mix of Christian and Islamic architecture and art and it is huge. The building is no longer a mosque and is purely a museum and although impressive in scale with the scaffolding covering one wall it takes a little imagination to see its original grandeur.

My favorite sight in Istanbul is The Bisilica Cistern; a huge 6th century underground reservoir. 70m by 140m, a 9800m2 dome, 336 marble columns and surrounded by a 4m thick brick wall.

The Cistern is stunning. It is dimly lit, has soothing piped music and fish swimming in the water below the walkways which run through the Cistern. This sort of engineering and I find the Cistern far more impressive than any religious building full of gold and frescos.

Time for a bit of last minute shopping before heading home so we headed up to the Grand Bazaar. As with everywhere else in Istanbul it is quiet. All things I've come to expect from a bazaar over the last month were on sale but prices were inflated. After a wander through I headed out the back and down towards the water. This took me through streets full of people and many the same things being sold. It was great wandering through these back streets, it felt like I'd found the real Istanbul.

My wander through the back streets ended up down by the water. Ferries coming and going and locals fishing off the bridge; a nice spot to spend half a hour before one last walk through the bazaars.

27th October 2016 - Istanbul to London

So we come to the end. This afternoon I fly back to London and tomorrow I'll be back in the office. I definitely won't be leaving it too long before my next extended trip; two week trips just aren't long enough for me.

The pictures above and below are taken from the roof terrace of our hostel and I think are a good way to sign-off.