A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: murphyre

Pakistan (Lahore, Wagah)

a border birthday

Our final day in Lahore was spent taking in the sights of the city. It would prove to be an afternoon exemplifying the good-nature of the Pakistani people. Money was running low, so although I could afford to travel by tuk-tuk (motorbike taxi) to the sights, I couldn't afford to enter them. I was quite happy to sit on the entrance ramp to Lahore Fort. The Persian influence was visible from the outer walls to this perfect example of Mughal architecture. Of course, my presence resulted in a rush of people to have their photo taken with me. So much so, that I ended up getting a cramp in my face from smiling! It cheered me up after a pigeon pooed on me. But they say it's good luck, and that it was. An important member of staff came out to see what all the commotion was about outside. He turned out to be the burator of the Fort. He invited me into the Fort for free, and gave me a personal tour.

We entered up the 'Elephant's Way', which the Mughal emperors took to their residential quarters on the back of elephants; while the hareem sprinkled them from the windows above with flowers and scented perfumes. Thanks to Maqbool, we got a VIP tour of the 42 acre grounds and temples within the citadel walls. He called for his official photographer to accompany us, and document the our visit for a national magazine he was editor of. It involved us posing in front the main attractions,and added to further cramping of my jaw. The luminescent Pearl Mosque, with it's Persian domes, and intricate carvings of foliage and vinery help to render it's pearl exterior a delicate appearance from both afar and in its detailing. Badshahi Mosque, an impressive and vast red sandstone structure with three white Persian domes topping it was the last section we saw with Maqbool. The entire complex was multi-functional. The administrative section, which still retains echoes of this with its mini museums now housed in its buildings. The royal residential quarters, despite having a public balcony for display during public gatherings retains it's sense of being inward looking, despite being surrounded by the most beautiful grounds which make full advantage of cooling air movement. This Venturi effect is welcoming throughout the Fort. The Badshahi Mosque is the second largest mosque in Pakistan, it can accommodate 55, 00 people, and was our final stop in the Fort. It is a large red sandstone structure shown to be the culmination of mosque architecture. The prayer courtyard, with its centrally placed water pond, is the approach to the prayer hall. The prayer hall is topped by three white Persian domes (merlons). The prayer building itself is divided into seven arched sections. Stucco tracery and marble inlay give a sharp, decorative contrast of white against red. Naturally, there is also a minaret in each of the 4 corners, to complete the overall architectural harmony. As is customary to entering a mosque, ones shoes are left ouside. The only problem I found with the red sandstone was that is was painfully hot to walk on in bare feet. To try to overcome this, mats of wet astro turf lead up to the prayer hall. It may not be in keeping with the design, but at least it's practical. There are also several relics of Muhammad and his relations housed here, along with a copy of the Koran woven and embroidered entirely from gold and silver thread. It is because of the rich historical importance that Lahore developed as Pakistan's cultural, educational, and religious 'heart' of the country. So I was expecting the Lahore museum to be impressive. It did contain many fine textiles and sculptures, but everything was housed poorly and rotting away before your eyes. The displays were badly stored and gave brief explanations with sweeping categorisation (such as displaying most Chalcolithic female figurines as 'mother-goddesses').

That night, those of us who weren't unwell, we enjoyed our Ozbus meal where Princess Diana had dined in Lahore. I was in my element as there was not only Chinese food, and free ice-cream, but also a candy-floss machine. The dwarf who operated it only added to my joy by making mine extra big! It was excellent as it allowed us to sample many different dishes from other parts of Pakistan, which we couldn't visit due to the troubles there. Traditional Pakistani music accompanied each delicious mouthful.

The town of Wagah has been cut in two by the Pakistan and Indian borders since partition in 1947. It is the only road crossing between the two countires, and has the famous, aforementioned, Wagah stadia which display the resultant tensions between these neighbours. It was also the unusual setting for one Ozbuser's birthday celebrations. Unfortunately, due to the usual customs regulations, no photos could be taken of the birthday party at the bordering-crossing office. There was no noticeable difference at the immediate crossing into India. Although I did notice that the Indian stadium was not as fancy as it had appeared from the Pakistani side - its paint was also flaking. The levels of bureaucracy were about the same; with everyone having their bags x-rayed and inspected on either side of the border. The clothing of the people was much brighter than Pakistani dress. As we drove towards Amritsar another striking distance is how people rolled the water-buffallo dung into balls rather than flattened them into discs like in Pakistan. They also piled them up into mounds and put a skim of dung over the mound to protect them. In Pakistan the dung discs had been stacked into pyramid shapes. Now I realise this may seem like a perverse fascination of mine, but it is interesting to see how the way of storing a common fuel and the shape of it changes in differrent areas.

Posted by murphyre 15:10 Comments (1)

Pakistan (Multan, Lahore, Wagha border)

Ozbus football frenzy

Travelling through Pakistan makes me realise how far removed I am from certain aspects of everyday living for most of the planet: food preparation and hygiene. As always these issues depend upon perspective. Perhaps in Ireland we are too fussy about how our food is prepared and conversely this has led to most Europeans having a low tolerance to bacteria in food. The food in Pakistan is very good, however, it's the sheer number of flies and seeing steel dishes rinsed under water pumps that concerns me. I have not a high tolerance for spices or bacteria. So quite often, I skip lunches. This becomes required action in India; mostly for the sake of my health. Yet at the same time, seeing food prepared in such basic settings is refreshing from the slick,sanitised surroundings of most fastfood places in Europe. Another common trend on Ozbus, are what we get (if lucky) for breakfast. Eggs are fast becoming a treat; with scrambled egg or omelette being the ultimate.

We are greeted in Multan, at the Sheeza Hotel, by all the staff with fresh fruit juice and rose garlands for us. It is very much welcome after the dead heat of the day. A football match has been arranged between us and a local league football team in Multan. It's safe to say that our team weren't at their full strength. With one player even throwing up on the sideline halfway through the first half. Once again, we are an attraction for some of the locals that evening. The guards, unfortunately, keep them at bay. Even the press show up to take photos. So between the locals and the press, I have been photographed from every angle imaginable. There were prizes. A mammoth plastic gold trophy, and special gold (plastic) dishes for a few of our players. Two of the team made a big impression in the match because they were women. Aparantly, they were the first women to ever play on that pitch, and mixed matches are not a common sight, if at all, in Pakistan. Our team were also given special mention the following day in several newspapers. Some of the press had labelled the team as a visiting German football team. Considering nobody had proper football boots, some played in flip-flops, and many had been ill, believe we did quite well. We lost 4-2. A little box with food was given to each Ozbus person present, I decided to give mine to a little local boy who one of the guards had tried to chase away. A few weeks later, we discovered that the football team had sent a bill to Ozbus for the food and trophies. It did explain why we received them despite having lost.

There was another wedding underway in this hotel. Despite an invitation I decided to pass. My cheerleading at the football had left me drained, and I needed it for St. Patrick's Day.

Most of St. Patrick's day, Ireland's patron Saint, was spent on the bus. It was a long drive day, not too long thankfully, but long for Paddy's day. Lahore is cloaked in pollution. It's the first sign that you are approaching it. In the areas surrounding Lahore there are many brick factories continuously pumping black smoke into the air. They are kept going all night and day as it would be too expensive to relight the fires to the proper temperature everyday. In acknowledgement of it being St. Patrick's day, the Elites Hotel has special green cream soda with apple chunks floating in it. It is a lovely gesture for them to have made.

The majority of us travel to the Wagha border, the border between India and Pakistan. I had previously seen footage, courtesy of Michael Palin, of the ceremonial pageantry which takes place here every evening when both countries lower their flags. Basically, it's a elaborate display of oneupmanship. India and Pakistan are major rivals in all fields ever since they gained independence from British rule. It has the atmosphere of a derby match between rival football teams. In fact, both sides have specially constructed stadia for the spectators/participants. Because everybody is expected to participate. The semi-circular Pakistani stadium has a monumental archway at it's centre topped by a pediment from which some of the border guards begin their special procession. Tourists are usually placed either side of the road which leads from the stadium up to the border gate itself. We arrive and wait to the sound of both countries playing local pop music very loudly at each other. After the loudness and the up-tempo beats it's hard not to feel revved up for what I saw as the evening's entertainment. To heighten the mood of the spectators further three male cheerleaders take to the 'stage'. They all carry large Pakistani flags which they acrobatically swivel in all manner of shapes. One of the men is quite an elderly looking gentleman, with a long flowing white beard and under 5 feet tall. He is the loudest of the three men. They lead the crowd in chants of "Give Pakistan" (pronounced "gee-vay Pakistani". All the while India, during the breaks in-between our side's chanting, are doing similar things. Intermittantly, the Pakistani guards had been going to the gate singularly as if sizing up their opposition. T

he evening's climax begins with the entry of the Pakistani guards en-masse. The Pakistan Rangers wear black uniforms with, what looks like, a mohawk fan on their helmet and a flap of material hanging from the back of it. They also are the tallest Pakistani men I have ever seen. All of these emphasis the nuances of every move they make. Their shoes are of the hobnail kind, which they use to great effect by performing high kicks that would put any Can-can dancer to shame, and resulting in a very loud stamp to the ground. The Indian guards, the B.S.F., in my opinion, do not look as intimidating. They are dressed in khaki uniforms with gold butons. Their helmet has a horizontal mohawk running across it in bright red. The Indian stadium does look larger and has more fixtures that glisten in the setting sunlight. The standoff between the countries reaches its climax with the race´´ to lower the flags. It is all highly impressive, and even I feel patriotic for Pakistan. The tensions between Pakistan and India are thus vented every evening with a touch of the theatrical; "highly choreographed contempt"

Pakistan has been a definite eye-opener. Despite the troubles and how they are portrayed by the foreign media, I would recommend a visit to Pakistan. It has been the highlight of mmy trip so far. The people are the most genuinely friendly. They are a proud nation and are not out to ´ripoff the tourist´, as can happen in many countires. The history of this country has helped me to further unerstand tensions in the middle East and how they have developed (or been created) due to interference from the USA and Russia/U.S.S.R. at various times. Thankfully, any negativity I may have felt toward Islam, due to what I experienced in Iran, has been balanced out by my visit to Pakistan.

Posted by murphyre 03:32 Archived in Pakistan Comments (1)

Pakistan (Balochistan Pass, Sukkur, Sibi)

Pakistan blossoms

Our drive from Quetta to Sukkur/Sukkar would be taking us through the Balochistan Pass. It was amazing driving through what felt like a geography lesson come to life. I got to see, and fully appreciate, the impact of water (from a trickle to a full flowing river) on the landscape. The first few sightings of greenery looked radioactive in comparison to the varying tones of sand and beige, which our eyes had become used to. At the beginning of the pass, the road is flanked by sheer-faced rock. Heavily weathered from the extremes of temperature; indicated by the 'crazy paving' pattern of cracks. The striations and metamorphosis of the rock over time is mapped through the varying direction of the sediment.

At several points we see men leading their caravans of camel and donkeys. It feels as if we are gaining an insight into times past. Before vehicular transport, camels were the main form of transport in these areas. As they were so important to the people who owned them, they were decorated richly with rugs and reflective materials in a display of pride. This custom is how many Pakistani people came to decorate their commercial vehicles. The perserverance of the Pakistani people is evident even in their attitude to what would be condemned in Europe - a concrete bridge, broken, and on the verge of collapse, thanks to a flood. It is still in use, as we witness from the number of motorbikes and pedestrians crossing it. They look on bemused at us as we rush to take photos. Lunch gives us our first tasting of Pakistan's roadside 'fastfood', curried lentils and naan bread. For someone who does not like spicy food, it is not as spicy as I had feared. We collect them in their steel dishes, and lay back (or sat) on what can only be described as a bed frames with woven strapping cris-crossed to support our weight. We not only attract the attention of the entire fly population, but also that of the locals. Again their are many photos of us hungrily eating up a delicious and cheap meal. The majority of the men, for it is only men that we see, are wearing long tunics over loose trousers, with leather sandels. This is what most men in Pakistan wear.

There are several stretches of the journey where there is no road; only a lumpy, hole-ridden track. It makes for a rough, but fascinating drive. It does leave one wishing that the seats were padded better. Child labour is another aspect of life along we see. There are, literally, hundreds of children passing in and out of the open mine shafts we pass by. It makes me think twice about my physical discomfort on the bus. Even the heavy machinery is as heavily decorated as the Pakistani trucks. The next reststop is in Sabi, the hottest inhabited place in the world. It reaches, on average, 56/57 degrees celcius in the summer. It is regarded as Pakistan's "cradle of civilisation", as there are archaeological remains surrounding this district dating from circa 12,000 BC.

Once in Sukkur we are taken on a walking tour of the bridges. The roads to our route are narrow and incredibly uneven, making us ground the bus a couple of times. There are many carpenters and boat builders at work along these streets. Boats, about 20 feet long, are being built before our eyes with basic tools and lighting. We reach the bridges just in time for the sunset. For 'security' reasons, we are warned by the bridge guards that we can only take photos of the sun, and not of the bridge itself. The locals are very excited to see us. There are many horns honked, and much waving, smiling, and handshakes are exchanged. A large group of children run alongside the bus the whole way back to the hotel. The entire street is also lined with people as word has spread fast of our arrival.

A wedding is in progress in our hotel that night. In Pakistan arranged marriages are the norm. Marriage is seen as a joining of two families rather than for love. Love is seen as the by-product of a successfuly arranged marriage; as it is up to the parents to find suitable matches. The betrothed do not see each other, usually, until the ceremony itself. Even though I though Irish weddings were long celebrations, in the Muslim marriages in Pakistan there are four parties; two hosted, and paid for by each family. It is at the third party that the wedding ceremony takes place. There are male and female areas. It female area of the ceremony to which I was invited that night. The bride was guided in by her attendees with what looked like an extremely ornate red and gold 'rug' over her head. She will remain covered, and will not see her groom until he is beside her. To say I felt underdressed is a major understatement. The family were obviously very wealthy to hold such a large wedding. All of the female relatives had intricate henna designs on their hands. They were all modestly, yet beautifuly presented, in clothes of rich and vibrant colours. Gold glistened on every limb. Myself, and the other three girls who were invited, were a novelty at the wedding. Even though we were invited to stay for the meal we left before the actual ceremony itself, as we felt we were taking away attention from the bride, on what we saw as her much-anticipated event. They gave us wedding favours (dates, almonds, and sweets) as we gave them our best wishes. The huge vats in which the food for the party was being cooked were visible from the balconies that night, thanks in part to the powercuts making the fires underneath them visible in the night air. These powercuts are regular throughout the country when the low waterlevels cause a drain on the hydroelectric stations. However, the times of the impending cuts are broadcast to the population and printed daily in the papers, allowing them to be prepared. The eventfulness of the night was capped with me finding my bed was ridden with bedbugs. I was thankful for having brought my thermarest!

Posted by murphyre 03:10 Archived in Pakistan Comments (0)

Pakistan (Taftan, Quetta)

where every tourist is a superstar

The Iran-Pakistan border gives us our first sighting of Tesco and Asda trucks in a very unfamiliar backdrop - the Taftan checkpoint. At this point we are 30km from Afganistan and Iraq. The prospect of removing our headscarves and burkas pushes aside any urge to get an Afgan or Iraqi stamp in my passport. Apart from a family from Turkmenistan, and delivery trucks, we are the only tourists waiting to be processed. Removing what I have come to fondly call 'my Iranian shackles', I am surprised that although it feels cliched but great to have the wind in my hair again, I do feel odd. At various points throughout the rest of the day it feels as if I still have the headscarf on! We will still see women wearing headscarves and burkas on our journey through Pakistan; but at least it is through choice rather than a State imposition. At the border, the Pakistani money-changers advise us all to be careful and wish us a safe passage through Pakistan. They are genuinely happy to hear that we want to visit their country despite its current situation.

The first, other, immediate difference between Iran and Pakistan are the highly ornate trucks. The different background colours on the trucks represent the region from which the truck is from. On top of this base colour is every kind of colour imaginable. The decoration varies from figurative art, schematic motifs, to the predominant geometric designs. The decoration is not limited to the main body of the truck but also to the frame itself. There is lots of 'crome' work and body kit. Although these 'boy-racers' prefer intricate add-ons to their vehicles, and pieces of dangling chains from the bumpers and window frames. Even the cargo area of the trucks appears to be an area of pride for the drivers; if you are lucky enough to see an unladen vehicle! As a result of these incredible adornments, the windows are very small compared to those on more Western trucks. To overcome what must be huge blindspots, "Blow Horn" is written on the back of every truck, and tuk-tuk. This makes driving a noisy affair. The addition of novelty horns to the mix makes it far more interesting too.

The journey from the border to Quetta will be our longest drive day. We have been warned that it will vbe around the 24 hour mark. We instantly warm to our guide and his assistant when they buy us fresh samosas (veg & spice in batter). The road to Quetta passes almost entirely through desert. The potholes are immense, and appear regularly. Even whole sections of the road are gone in some cases. What could have been a nightmare drive turned out to be one of the most enjoyable drive days. A table quiz is used to pass a large chunk of time. And even watching how the desert changes proved to be interesting. We stopped for food alongside the 'road' in the middle of the desert to watch the sunset. A meal was rustled up of pitta bread, spreads, tuna, and juices. It was also our first collective toilet break completely in the open! The security changes were quick, and often drove far ahead of us out of sight. The non-existent roadsigns left us travelling briefly into a quarry. We arrived in Quetta at 4am. There was a curry awaiting those who wished to wake up their taste-buds and stomachs.

Due to the cartoons of the Prophet being republished by the Danes, we were not allowed to leave the accommodation whatsoever. My first impression once I awake, is that there is far more wildlife in Pakistan than in Iran. It sounds as if I am sleeping in an aviary! For many who saw or read the "Kiterunner", there is great excitement to see the hundreds of kites overhead from the hotel roof. Every rooftop has children flying their kites, and some even 'battling' theirs. It is a spectacular sight as the first full day in Pakistan draws to a close. We are informed that we will be leaving the hotel for a meal. Along with our Kalashnikov armed security we walk for 45mins through Quetta. It is overwhelming to the senses after the peace/boredom of the hotel courtyard. People clamour around us. We bring the place to a standstill. People are so happy to see us and keep on taking our photos. The guns do not bother the locals, only the large bamboo sticks that the guards occasionally lash out with. Tonight gives us all a taste of fame. The restaurant is closed for us, and we receive a delicious array of Pakistani dishes. We are all driven at high speeds back to the hotel (in armed vehicles and tuk-tuks).

Posted by murphyre 03:00 Archived in Pakistan Comments (0)

Iran part3(Kashan, Qom, Isfahan, Yazd, Kerman, Bam, Zahedan)


Being a mourning weekend most of the tourist attractions are closed whilst we are in Tehran. To give us a further insight into the differences between the Shi'a and Sunni burial and mourning practices, we are taken to a cemetery.

Following on from this experience of mourning in Iran, we go to Qom. Qom is one of the holiest cities in Shi'a Islam. It also is a centre for religious studies, and has many theological universities located there. Qom is the mausoleum to Ayatollah Khomeini, the former Supreme Leader of Iran from 1979 until his death (1989). Having overseen the revolution of 1979, and being both a religious and political leader for his country, Khomeini is perhaps the most significant figure in Iran. His picture is displayed in every public space, along with the current Supreme leader Ali Khamenei. His image is omnipresent in public and private spaces. For a man who is said to have led a simple life, his mausoleum is vast and still under-construction. It stands at 91 metres; one metre for every year he lived. From a distance, the entire complex looks like a giant box faced with marble. It is imposing and aptly parallels the impact Khomeini made on life in Iran. Women are kept separate from the men within the vast hall containing Khomeini and his son's remains. Women also get a bad view of their tombs from the side. The emotional state of the women is astounding and intense, as they actively mourn his passing as if it were still a recent event.

In the area of Kashan we stop to visit the archaeological site of Sialk dating from c. 8000 BC. It was a mud-brick settlement with a Necropolis on a height with an interchangeable defensive structures. It is well-preserved, but there is little explanation of its true significance.

Many are cautious of Esfahan after hearing it described as "the most beautiful city in Iran...after Tabriz". However, it does turn out to be far more beautiful than I had expected. It is modern yet retains the character of its past. The bridges crossing the waterway are main focus of socialising in Isfahan/Esfahan. The people are far friendlier and there does not appear to be any hostility towards us as we wander along the banks of the river. Not even the fact that a group of young girls dressed in the all-enveloping black burka spitting at me the following day, can take away from the overall hospitality and enjoyability of this city.The main squares and bazaars are quieter than usual as it is a holy day. An evening spent playing bumper pedaloes on the river lifts the mood even further. From speaking to a few locals, I get the impression that Khomeini's changes to the Iranian lifestyle are not as appreciated among the younger generations. The advent of the internet is making them all the more aware of other choices. They told me of how they feel that Iran took a step backwards by accepting the subjugation of women. This is not a matter which is possible to discuss openly for the majority of Iranians, as their nationality and religion are so intertwined.

The 'Towers of Silence' may sound ominous, but there were the main feature of burial in the Zoroastrian culture. Yazd was, and remains, a centre of Zoroastrian culture. We pay a visit to 'Old Yazd' to learn more about these structures and their function. The 'Towers' consist of three concentric circles of increasing height. The bodies of the dead were left exposed on these platforms to the elements, and vultures, to allow their degradation. The remains of the men were placed on the outer platform, on the next platform those of the women, and on the highest the remains of the children were placed. Once the bones were completely exposed they were gathered and placed in a 'well' of lime at the highest point of the 'tower' where there are left to degrade further until the 'powder' is washed through a filtering system and washed far from the area. The other fascinating feature of this site is the underground water system, which has wind towers to keep the water fresh. Once in Yazd our insights into traditional structures continues in our luxury accommodation at the Mehr Traditional Hotel. The rooms are opulently decorated with stained-glass windows, allowing light in from the courtyards around which the rooms are based. It is not surprising to hear that the hotel has an honorary UNESCO award.

The following morning we are taken to a Zoroastrian Fire Temple. It contained fire which has remained lit for over 1500 years. It's location has changed throughout history as the fire temples were often destroyed by Islamics. The outside of the temple has imagery that parallels iconography from the Cult of Horus. For me it was a highlight, and made a welcome change from the geometric decoration of the mosques we have visited.

Along the road to Kerman we also see 'Pigeon Towers'. They may look like castellated forts with a small windows at the top, but they are safe places for pigeons to roost. The dropping are then collected from the 4000+ birds, and used as fertilizer. In Kerman, we wander through the Bazaar, only to find that the people are far more 'hands on' in how they approach you. It is also the first Iranian city in which I am openly offered drugs. The advice is to stay indoors tonight.

Off to Bam we set the next day. The 'hanging gardens of Babylon' are said to have been based upon a Persian garden. We pay a visit to Eram Garden (aka Prince's Garden) to see an example of a Persian Garden. Persian gardens are walled; to keep sand and devils out!We must use our imaginations as the stepped garden is not fully in bloom when we visit it.

As we were now travelling along the main opium route we will have armed escort from now on throughout the remainder of our stay in Iran. The danger increases towards the border. Whereas Kerman is famed for pistachio nuts, saffron, and copper, Bam is famed for dates, oranges, earthquakes, and smugglers!

In 2003 a 6.4 earthquake struck the city of Bam. Our guide is able to give us a first hand account of the trail of destruction this left; as he was a key figure in the relief effort. Over 50,000 people perished. Entire streets are still under construction. Many shops are set up in the steel shipping containers which were used as temporary accommodation following the disaster. Ozbus 3's accommodation is not the 4 star hotel in which previous tours stayed, but the 'motel' down the road. It is only a disappointment as many of us had read the previous groups' blog descriptions of the Bam accommodation.

A German man and a Danish woman join our entourage the following day. They are extremely interesting people who have been travelling for over 18 months through Europe and Africa. They hope to get as close to Australia as possible in their own modified transport. Their addition to the group makes us far safer as we are now a larger convoy. We reach Zahedan, 80 km from the border, in the early afternoon. It has a population of over 450,000. The majority are Sunni and refugees. It is not a safe city. We are not allowed to leave the hotel at all that day or night. We enjoy our final Zam Zam cola, and Nani bars and rest our heads for the upcoming Pakistan border.

I do not regret my journey through Iran. I may not agree with many aspects of their culture, especially those particular to women, but I respected it at all times. Although much of this respect was bolstered through fear. Iran was a truly compelling country to travel through. The larger cities convey a sense of imminent change. I feel I have gained much insight into Iran and Islam as a result of my visit. I am also more appreciative of the choices I have in my own society. A visit to Shiraz would have been a bonus, but it would have entailed to much of a detour. The people, as in many places, are extremely friendly on a one-to-one basis.

Posted by murphyre 00:53 Archived in Iran Comments (0)

Iran (part2) Tabriz, Zanjan, Tehran

invisibly visible

Gentlemanly behaviour does not come naturally to Iranian men; at least not towards women. This is a trait I experience on more than one occasion throughout Iran. They bend over backwards to help men though!

Women must remain covered at all times, even if answering their hotel room door, or nipping to the room nextdoor. It puts one off leaving the room a lot of the time for small things. Perhaps this is one of the reasons behind it (?). Whenever we (females) leave the hotel we must be accompanied by men. This is for our own protection, as Iranian men (thanks to Baywatch) do not have much respect for Western women. To be honest apart from the staring, leering, and attempted rubbing up against some members of the group the men are no worse than the Turkish men. It is more their disrespectful attitude towards us that is irksome. Never before have I felt what it must be like to be extremely visibly and yet ignored at the same time.

Tabriz is the first place we visit in Iran. Rotting meat and food in the gutter does not provide me with a good first impression of Iranian cities. Sleep doesn't come easily as they decide to commence roadworks and cutting of trees' branches from midnight onwards. The first major plus point for Iran is their Iranian versions of snacks at home. The Nani bar (like a lighter Mars bar) is a firm favourite with the group.

What disgusts me most about Iran is the way in which they treat women. Invariably women's toilets are far dirtier than the men's. Our female driver is repeatedly ignored, pointed at, and laughed at because of the sight of her driving. Despite this seemingly sweeping attitude towards us, I make friends with an Iranian girl who is very helpful towards us in Soltanayah. She is very careful answering my questions about Iranian 'culture' since the revolution took place. The headscarf and burka she expressed a huge disliking off, but stressed the trouble she would be in if she didn't conform to the laws regarding women. She was clearly nervous to be discussing religious matters with a foreigner, but did so in hush tones. After she asked me why my burka was so long, I resolved to shoirten mine that night. A large percentage of the younger, female, generation dress in more form-fitting burkas than the older generation. But they do receive criticism for doing so. The segregation of men and women, and women and foreign men is hammered home when she cannot accept a handshake from one of the guys in our group by means of saying thank you for her help.

Many of the girls in the group are 'married off' to the men in the group - this is to cut down on the hassle we may receive from Iranian men. The chivalry is brought out in every male.

The petrol in Iran is extremely cheap. In Vienna 500 litres had cost over 500 Euro for the bus, in Zanjan the same amount cost less than 6 Euro!

Arriving in the capital Tehran, the influence of 'western' culture is striking. The women wear heavy makeup, tight clothes, have their scarves pulled back to show highlighted hair, and travel alone.It feels far safer and friendlier than Tabriz.

Posted by murphyre 08:00 Archived in Iran Comments (2)

Iran (part 1)

fake plastic trees

The difference in mood is palpable as soon as we cross the Turkey-Iran border. It is one of being oppressed, repressed, and depressed. Perhaps I will get used to it, but I really don't want to.

In the processing area of the Iranian border we are the immediate centre of attention. People appear to be intrigued, yet wary of us. Children are open with their fascination and quickly gather round anyone playing Nintendo or Playstation games. We will be accompanied by an Iranian tourguide throughout the trip in Iran. There are very mixed feelings about him by the end of Iran, but he was a font of knowledge.

Apart from the obvious differences, the striking thing about Iranian towns and cities is their love of fake plastic trees. On the streets there are many neon orange/yellow palm trees, cacti, and sunflowers. They look hyper in the day and illuminate at night. The whole of Iran looks as if it is on the brink of desertification. The countryside is a mix of varying shades of brown and yellow. The mountains look as if they've been carved from the Grand Canyon, as every layer of sediment is visible, and some shimer in their compression. The dried up river beds are futher evidence of the aridity.

Posted by murphyre 08:13 Archived in Iran Comments (0)

Turkey (Sivas, Ezerum & Doguabayazit)

doggy biscuit

Again we were travelling through a theatricl landscape - a fast running river carving its way through snow covered mountains of names unknown.

Unfortunately, Sivas is like a sty! Any snow has become dirty slush. I do not feel comfortable in the place, and stick out like a sore thumb compared to the increasing numbers of women covered in burkas. There are only 2 memorable things about Sivas for me. One: I bought my burka for Iran there. Two: all the internet cafes are filled with boys watching hardcore pornography with the volume on!

Ezerum is another Turkish city that is missable and unremarkable.

Doguabayazit (aka Doggy Biscuit) is our last place to stop in Turkey before Iran. The countryside is already beginning to look sandier and more arid. The town is 35km from the border.

At the border crossing, walking to the toilet I quickly realise that I am the only woman (on the Turkish side) who is not covered up (it is not required in Turkey). I feel highly conspicuous and uncomfortable. A few men even gesture for me to cover my head. Before crossing the border we are required to cover up with our headscarves, burkas, and trousers.

Posted by murphyre 07:57 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Turkey (Goreme Part 2)


snow -10 °C

Although the language may come across as flowery, it's the only way I can attempt to convey the unique setting of Goreme. It is no exaggeration to capare it to a lunar landscape covered in deep snow. The second day in Goreme required a ridiculously early start, but for a good reason - hot air ballooning. For a while it looked like we may not make it into the air as the take-off field was covered in 1 to 2 feet of powderey snow. The ballooning team used large fans to direct the hot air into the balloons, and even watching the balloon inflate put my camera through its paces. Once the balloons were assembled and inflated, we were all divided amongst 3 balloons. I was glad of the 4 layers of clothing I had put on; although another pair of socks wouldn't have gone amiss.

It didn't seem real. The smoothness of the whole time spent in the balloon only added to the sense of unreality. In Goreme everything looks like a film set, and this was the best cinematic view. We were able to get close to the wildlife and sights without disturbing anything too much. We travelled over Love Valley, with its phallic-shaped rock foramtions, also known as Fairy Chimneys. We also saw many of the abandoned rock-cut homes/caves outside of Goreme. It was fascinating to see how the pilot steered. He used internal ropes and different burners which ignited more or less than others to manipulate the direction and height of the balloon. The landng was soft thanks to the dept of the snow. We clambered out of the wicker baskets to lend a hand pulling down the balloon and then pushing the remaining air out of it by walking over it. Champagne and chocolate and fruit cakes were our reward thereafter.

Underground cities are another sight to see outside of Goreme. There are severl which have been excavated. In Goreme itself there is the Open Air Museum filled with chapels, again following the carved out of the rockfaces, dedicated to almost every saint I've ever heard of. The 'Dark Church' was the most impressive of the lot. Its wall-paintings were stunning. The blues were still all vivid; which is very unusual to see.

Time was spent luxuriating in the Hamami (Turkish Baths). The boys had to wait for over 4 hours as the girls took over the place. Our time was spent betwwen the suna and swimming pool. Then, in turn, we were each scrubbed very vigorously by a female attendent. It was bordering on sore, but when she poured water over me to wash awy the excess skin, it felt like silk running over my body. she then soaped up what looked like a pillow case, inflated it and squeezed out the air putting soap all over me. A soap massage was given, and then a rinse. afterwards I felt squeeky clean and refreshed.

Goreme is a wonderful place to have visited and the hospitality received ensures that I will return for a break there at some stage.

Posted by murphyre 07:07 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Turkey (Goreme)

a moonscape

At dawn we dined by the bus. Colın , Kim, and Rocket provided us with a veritable feast: cereal, mılk, fruıt, bread, ham, cheese, and more delıcıous treats. It was a wonderful way to start the day.

Reststops in Turkey have several things in common, usually, bus washıng, good food, and massage chaırs. This one had a menagerie of animals hidden at the bottom of its garden. Ostriches, huskies, rabbits, peacoks, and monkeys cruelly confined to small cages. İt was saddenıng.

At fırst the road to Goreme was the usual uneventful motorway through desolate fallow fıelds. This soon gave way to the most unusual rock formations. We made an unprecedented stop for a photo by the prettiest lake so far. The sandstone topography of Goreme was made even more theatrical by the presence of snow. This allowed us greater differentiation of the landscape. Ice and rainfall have clearly played a large part in shaping this 'moonscape'.

The town itself is rather small and probably only a village. People are extremely convivial. In the summer people live in caves. Our accommodation, the Flınstones, was a joke. Again probably nice in the summer, but colder than a feezer in the winter. The staff were thıck! Do not stay here ever! The heatıng was not turned on for our arrıval. The communal area was clearly fılled with carbon monoxıde from its ever broken heater-stove. There was a window in my room which was surrounded by holes and couldn't be shut. The radıator didn't work after being bled several times. My room was a luxury compared to what other people had to endure - frozen toılets, sınks, and dangerous steps. Everythıng was damp in the place. The driveway was a quagmire. We looked like refugees trudging in and out - and felt ıt too.

Some of us made the decision to move to the Elif Star Caves. It was the best decision. Warm in every sense. Jacky, the owner, was extremely helpful as was her lovely daughter Elıf. Small touches lıke slıppers, candles, fluffy towels, spotless rooms, electrıc blankets, and fantastıc breakfasts made this a place to visit again. It was also cheap compared to getting ill in the Flintstones. The Orient Restaurant provided us with a HUGE meal for a small amount of money. My evening was great compared to those enduring worse than stone age accommodation.

Posted by murphyre 10:07 Comments (0)

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