Thursday, February 28, 2008

Rash action

One of our first tasks in Yazd is to find a pharmacy - Gayle has come out in a rash which started in Tehran. It is Friday and everything is closed except for the 24-hour pharmacy. The chemist refers us to the hospital next door where we find a doctor who speaks some English and who writes out a prescription for a hydrocortisone injection for an allergic reaction. Gayle suggests it's an allergy to the hijab, a joke he doesn't appreciate. He thinks it might be food. We think back to all the kebabs we have eaten in Tehran...........a kebab allergy? This could be very difficult. We get the drugs and return for the jab. Gayle has to come back the next day for a follow-up. The whole process is quite quick and costs only 3 quid. Mind you, this might be value for money as the jabs don't work and after four days Gayle's rash is getting itchier and spreading.

So after some internet research we go to another chemist, in search of anti-histamines. The chemist recommends a dermatologist. His waiting room is half-full when we arrive at 4pm and are greeted by an insolent receptionist who won't look us in the eye. In fact, he never looks at anyone in the eye, just tuts and tilts his head back or forth. He tells us six o'clock. At first we think this is the appointment time, but it actually turns out to be time the doctor arrives. We sweat it out in a stuffy and crowded waiting room full of people who all stare at us. Fortunately the doctor arrives about 6.15 and we don't have to wait much longer. He speaks a little English - enough to tell Gayle that she is suffering from a reaction to an insect bite - most probably bed bugs. We think back to the flea-pits we stayed in in Tehran................... Gayle asks lots of questions to see how certain the doctor is. He points to his certificate on the wall from the American Faculty of Dermatologists - Gayle is unimpressed. So he pulls out a pictorial encyclopaedia of skin diseases and flicks through it. The large full-colour photographs make me blanche and think about all the other patients in the waiting room outside. Finally he finds a photo of someone's neck - it's exactly like Gayle's - the photo is captioned "bed bugs".

He sends Gayle off with a prescription for anti-histamines and within a day her skin is getting better............

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Mud City

After 5 minutes walking around we know we like Yazd, but more importantly, that we like Iran. After a couple of nil-nil draws in Tabriz and Tehran, we've scored a hat-trick and we're going to Wemberleeee, ta ra, ta ra. It is Friday and the city is asleep, the streets are deserted. James, the English chap we met in Syria, is here and giving us the "orientation" tour: "So this is Khomeini Street, and that's Freedom Square" (Every single Iranian town has a Khomeini St. and a Freedom Square.) He's staying in the most-recommended hotel for backpackers in the whole of Iran - The Silk Road Hotel. Everyone we know who has been here has stayed there, so of course, when we arrived on the night train from Tehran, we made a bee-line for it. It is full. Fortunately the owner has another equally good hotel just around the corner. Both hotels are traditional houses built around a courtyard and with a roof terrace giving views over the old city.
James & Gayle in the Jameh mosque

Yazd sits on the edge of the desert, between two ranges of hills and from these hills run a series of underground tunnels (qanats) that used to bring cool fresh water to the residents. Throughout the old city are covered stairwells that descend to cool rooms where water could be drawn. It is warm as we walk around and we are glad we've come south. We are told that the city is like an oven in the summer. The old part of the city is a maze of mudbrick buildings and alleyways, mercifully free of traffic, with courtyard houses with high walls and old wooden doors, mosques with blue-tiled domes, a covered bazaar, and peaking out above everything are the windtowers. These towers are designed to catch the breeze, and through a clever design, draw the air downwards to cool the building below. It helps explain how the city has existed in such harsh terrain for so many years -a man-made oasis. We are in Silk Road territory here - Marco Polo passed through on his travels and the bazaar still sells silk cloth.

One day we share a taxi with James and Pierre, another traveller, to visit Kharanaq. It's an old mud-brick village that has been all but abandoned for a new village of concrete breeze-block houses. The old adobe houses are ruined, but you can still wander down the covered alleys and climb up onto the roofs for a view of the countryside. An old caravanserai has been brilliantly restored but stands sadly empty and locked up except when tourists arrive. It would make an excellent hotel - as it was when it was a staging post on the route to Yazd.

Because of the heat, Yazd takes a siesta in the afternoons. The main streets are deserted and the shops close up. But in the evening it all comes back to life and the pavements and roads are busy with people. We are greeted and welcomed by so many passersby that I end up with an idiotic grin on my face. Women smile at Gayle and young men call out "Hello, how are you?" in our ears. The city feels more conservative than Tehran - principly because nearly all the women are wearing black chadors, even little girls of 5 and 6. In comparison the young men are like peacocks - although so many look like extras from seventies cop shows (more Sweeney than Starsky) - lots of long coiffured hair and central partings. One man, in high waisted brown flares and tight black t-shirt, looked like he'd just stepped out of the Wigan Casino. Keep The Faith. The faith here is of course Shia Islam and as we are staying right next door to the marvellous Friday (main) Mosque, which has a sound system to shame any Northern Soul all-nighter, we have found the early morning call to prayer a little lively to say the least. But this has become a normal state of affairs for us now.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

What a difference a day makes

The sun is shining. We move from our expensive flea-pit hotel to a cheaper one, although we have to wait a while for the return of our passports - the hotel has to register us with the police. With 14 million inhabitants, many of them driving Paykans*, Tehran is not going to be a green and pleasant place. It's not too bad though, once you've mastered the Dance of Death, a pre-requisite to crossing any road here. After a breakfast of curried felafel sandwiches, we visit the British embassy to buy a letter recommending us for travel in Uzbekistan. This costs us a bargain 34 quid and we have a nice chat with Sandra who has lived here for 33 years. The embassy is in huge walled grounds and was the subject of some controversy when it was publicised that Britain actually "owns" the land it sits on - a gift from Shah Reza, whose coup the British supported. Tehran is an eye-opener - a fairly ugly modern city that sprawls nothwards to the foot of snowy mountains. We see only one mosque - under construction, and don't actually hear the call to prayer while we are visiting.

On the streets people say hello all the time. Here the pre-dominant hijab style is off the back of the head, with plenty of hair on show. We ride the modern metro (with optional women-only carriage)and take a bus (with compulsory gender segregation, women at the back of course) to the Uzbek embassy. We pass buildings with murals and quotes from Khomeini in Farsi and English - good old-fashioned agit-prop - some of it lost in translation, possibly. Photos of Khomeini and Khameini, the current Supreme Leader, who looks more cheerful, are dotted everywhere. An old man on the bus asks me what I think of Iran. I say I think it feels a little poorer than Turkey, where we have come from, and he replies: "Iran is a rich country, one of the richest, but so many of the people are poor.", and he waves derisively at the large modern appartment blocks on the outskirts and says " they have the money". I'm not sure who they are.

We are served at the window of the Uzbek embassy by a tall man with a pencil moustache. His name is Shavkat / Shashlyk / Shaft - we don't quite catch it and immediately conjure up a mnemonic nickname that fails to help us remember. He jokes with us and is very nice but we have to stand outside in the cold to complete our visa forms and my hands are numb. The visa process for travelling through Central Asia to China and then into Pakistan is complicated. We have had to research the best location to apply for each visa on our route, the order in which we must apply, and the cost. We need the Uzbek visa before we can get a Turkmenistan transit visa. At the Turkmen embassy, which is a half-hour forced march away, they tell us that the application process may take 10 days. Great!

The streets are all signposted in English as well as Farsi, which helps a lot for getting around. But we continue to struggle to find anywhere to eat - so many of the restaurants are below street level, down dingy stairwells. We seem to be eating a lot of kebabs.............
*The Paykan is a national icon - an Iranian car modelled on the Hillman Hunter (even I'm too young to remember the Hillman Hunter) - succintly described as a "shitbox of a car" by our guidebook, which consumes 20 litres of petrol every 100 miles. Petrol here is rationed, but costs about 6 pence a litre.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The end of the road

We take a minibus to the Iranian border with a lot of men and a lot of luggage. At one point a man takes his seat on the driver's lap, but after expressions of concern for road safety (the road is, after all, covered in sheet ice) the passenger relocates into the warm fuggy morass of the main compartment. It is thankfully a short ride and a quick border crossing. We are welcomed by an Iranian Tourist Board official who takes our details and gives us onward public transport info. She forgets to mention the rugby scrum for the shared taxi down to the first village. We cross this hurdle simply by waiting for everyone else to go first and finally hook up with two Kurdish students going to Baku. These boys want us to share a $40 ride to Tabriz but we decline, and opt for the uncomfortable slow bus that costs $3. At first I am told I can't sit next to Gayle. ("But she's my wife!", I lie, indignant.) The back seat is rock hard, and the students climb into the driver's bed above it and snooze. At departure, the driver relents and gives his assent to my sitting next to Gayle. The bus is a Mercedes. This is not good. The advice is to take a Volvo. Oh well..........

The landscape is mountainous and snowy, but it does feel warmer than eastern Turkey. We pass small brown villages - the only colour in a white land - and eventually arrive in the large low-rise city of Tabriz. The pavements are caked in ice and compacted snow and the roads are choked. It's rush hour. We find a comfortable hotel where the heating is so hot that we start to melt, and after a compulsory kebab, we retire to watch Manchester United tonk Arsenal in the Cup. Well, Gayle doesn't.

In the morning we call on Nasser, the friendly local Tourist Information man. "English? Then you'll have a cup of tea. I don't pay for it - the government does!" He points out the Yoghurt and Honey Shop to us and answers every single question we can think of. We change money at the bank and emerge millionnaires. I am full of cold and faced with a dilemma. It is a cultural taboo to blow your nose in a restaurant here. Should I just let the snot dribble down my face? While pondering this we sample some of the cheap cuisine - dizi, which is a mutton broth with chick peas and potatoes and a blob of fat (mmm) and ash, which is a heavy soup, either of yoghurt and barley, or green vegetables, or in my case, noodles and pond weed. We also wander the old covered bazaar, looking for a cup of tea. The bazaar has 35 km of streets in a maze divided by caravanserais and open courtyards. We walk about 15km before we finally find a tea shop - just up an unmarked staircase - run by a dour man with a woollen watchcap perched on the top of his head. There's no point trying to speak Farsi here as everyone is Azeri and speaks Turkish, so at least we know the numbers. Later we come across several modern shopping arcades dotted around the main streets and realise that these are modelled on the ancient covered bazaar. Except these have neon lights and better window displays and are warm - all of which may explain why they are busier.

By the time we leave Tabriz the thaw is on, and the pavements that were thick with ice when we arrived have now turned to muddy slush. We take a bus (Volvo!) for the 9 hours to Tehran. At a lunch stop we are helped by Arash, a young student, who buys us soup. We chat away until we reach Tehran while he explains his IT projects and work at university. He's a smart guy and been offered a job in California, but he can't leave Iran before completing 2 year's national service, and he can't enter America until he has lived 6 years outside of Iran. He's not a fan of the Iranian government. After a long flowing conversation talking about many different things he tells me that it is the first time he has ever spoken to a native English speaker. It's amazing. It is late when we arrive in the capital and after a ride on the modern metro we wearily settle to stay in an overpriced hotel peopled by Armenian market-traders who are hauling large sacks of goods in and out of their rooms and in and out of the hotel. We are tired and fed-up. Tehran means 'the end of the road' according to our guidebook.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Lounge lizards

It's cold. The sky is grey - it looks like snow and there's no bus. However, there are other punters hanging around, so we are not alone. Erzurum is beyond description. Well, no, actually it looks kind of scaggy right now - reminds me of Halifax - but the snow definitely is an improvement. Our bus, or should I say charabanc, arrives but the driver's in no hurry and we depart 45 minutes late. The road is terrible - when it's not covered in ice it's covered in large potholes - and we plod through the mist towards Dogubeyazit. Gayle points things out to me through the window but all I can see is white. I think she's hallucinating.

We arrive in the small town of Agri mid-afternoon where most people get off. The remaining six of us are then "sold on" to a minibus driver. I feel like a sheep off to the abbatoir. We wait awhile for the minibus to fill up. It's snowing. Now there's a problem because there are too many people trying to get aboard. Another minibus arrives and half the passengers jump ship. Fares have to be refunded, seats swapped, baggage unloaded. Then all of a sudden we're off, ploughing steadily down the middle of the main road. We arrive in Dogu in the dark but we have been here before in September and know where our hotel is. It is colder than Erzurum. Happy Valentines.........

The Hotel Tahran is not a classy place, but it's home for a couple of nights, and the central heating is on and the plumbing, though odd, still functions. The upstairs lounge with great views of Mount Ararat is out of action because it's too cold, so all the guests congregate in the foyer lounge. It is cluttered with matching black vinyl suites covered in red velour cushions and smoked-glass tables. The large TV, which has no off switch, forms a centrepiece on a chipboard shelving unit. There's an 80's theme going on here. One perk is free internet, provided you can get the hotel urchin off the games. A cuff to the ear usually does the trick. From here I can survey the men lounging around. Some of them are fixtures with their favourite seats. There's the old fella in black cap and matching moustache. The young English teacher from Hatay who is living here because the friends with whom he shared a house last year have left. There's the Man Who Looks Like Death who sits playing poker on his mobile phone and lighting long cigarettes that he only half smokes - leaving the remaining six inches to burn away, forming a permanent blue haze around him. He looks from behind as if he might spontaneously combust. From the front he's just plain scary, especially when he coughs. His face should be the government health warning on every packet of cigarettes. There's also the man with Trophy ears who looks like he might work here, but as he actually does nothing it's hard to tell. There are no women in the foyer, apart from Gayle. We have seen some coming and going but they look quite respectable so we know it's not one of those hotels. It is toasty warm.

The streets of Dogu are covered in packed snow and black ice. We shuffle around in our down jackets like overweight penguins. Change some money for Iranian rials - a wodge of dirty torn notes that bulge obscenely in our pockets. We waddle past the army barracks and out of town for photos of the surrounding snowy mountains - they look much more dramatic than in September. Tomorrow we cross the border into Iran. I buy a beer to celebrate. Even after a year it is still exciting to be crossing another border.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Once more, with feeling

It's been over a year since we left Blighty and the time has taken its toll. Our boots are starting to fall apart, and Gayle is in need of new trousers. Before we left Cairo she kitted herself out for travel in Iran - long baggy shirt and headscarf. We spent a long time canvassing hijab styles in Cairo too. There is a mind-boggling variety. I am glad it's not for me - I couldn't handle the pins. As it is, Gayle is considering the Benazir Bhutto style. The headscarf debate continues to rage here in Turkey. Our friends Pam and Joe, who we're staying with again, think it's a political smokescreen for other signicant constitutional changes. Currently there is a headscarf ban at school, university and in public office. This stems from Ataturk's original desire to keep the state secular - a desire that is still supported by the military and many Turks. So it has symbolic significance even though there are actually more pressing problems to deal with.

Our own pressing problems have been resolved successfully. First we collected our Iranian visas without hitch. Then Gayle, and eventually me, both bought new walking boots. It feels like a huge expense, but our boots wouldn't have lasted much longer. We also have withdrawn a large amount of cash in Euros and dollars for use in Iran and Central Asia, since we cannot use ATMs in Iran. Carrying wads of dosh is slightly nerve-wracking. We also have picked up a guidebook to China and thanks Isabell for posting the Central Asia one to Pam and Joe. Istanbul seems quiet at this time of year compared to our last visit in November - there are even less fishermen on the Galata Bridge. It's a strange but rather pleasant feeling wandering the streets of a familiar city, not worrying about getting lost. It's almost relaxing.

It has been wonderful to catch up with Joe and Pam, who are teaching English here. We have been spoiled with the comforts of their home - home-cooking, washing machine, red wine, a comfortable bed with a proper pillow - and enjoy their company and insights on life here. Gayle and I are short on small talk these days - I think we ran out in Bulgaria - and it's always stimulating to meet up with other travellers and share enthusiasms. We arrived in Istanbul on Super Tuesday and got caught up in their excitement about the Democrat nominations. They had found out that the Democrats Abroad were organising a primary election in a smart hotel in downtown Istanbul on Saturday night, so we joined them. After a few nibbles and beers we ended up in conversation with some of the organisers, one of whom was married to a wealthy 'Ottoman' businessman. They invited us all to join them in the bar downstairs where they treated us to a meal. It was a funny (weird) evening. I'm sure there would be a bigger turn out at all elections if they came with free beer and nibbles. Yes, They Can!

Sadly we have to keep moving, so say goodbye to Pam & Joe and take a night train to Ankara. We want to visit the archaelogical museum, which is full of good stuff, and pop in to Ataturk's mausoleum. This sits on a grassy hill overlooking the city. The Turkish parliament is voting to change the law on headscarves today and I'm sure I can hear the old fella turning as we walk past his tomb. The city is nicer than I'd expected with lots of low-rise housing in the centre and a lot of trees, but it sprawls out over the hills endlessly. After only one night we are back on the train, this time a sleeper to Erzurum. It is the most luxurious journey we have ever taken. We have a smart cabin for two which we find ourselves almost sharing with Mohammed, who is travelling with his wife and two children next door. He is very friendly and offers us pop and bread and stays to flick through our books and look at our camera. However, he speaks no English and we speak no Turkish, so conversation is limited to the usual What is your name, Where are you going variety. Mo asks us if we are married and we lie and say yes. He seems very pleased to hear this answer, as if it is the right answer, so we don't feel bad about lying. Thankfully Mohammed remembers his other obligations and finally leaves us. We then spend a very comfortable night chugging across Anatolia and awake to a winter wonderland of snow. The brightness is incredible. The whole east of Turkey is blanketed and frozen, despite the sunshine. Erzurum almost looks pretty. Well, perhaps not. We return to the hotel we stayed in before, dump our bags and skate out the door to ,er, to...........not much happening around here.........A good time to internet then.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

A bit nippy in Alex

Apparently it's Egypt's worse winter since 1964 - cold and some rain, everyone is wearing hats and scarves in the evenings. We thought we were unlucky until we checked the weather in Iran which is one country we have been avoiding over winter. The daytime temperature in Tabriz was -21C, yes minus 21C. Egypt seems balmy in comparison. There is a fresh sea breeze blowing through Alexandria while we are here - and we seek shelter in comfy trendy cafes with no smoking areas -oases in this smokers' desert. The great city founded by Alexander the Great has little to show for its historical roots, except for a modern library that recalls the once famous ancient one. The Pharos lighthouse has been washed into the sea, and the modern city offers nothing better to the tourist than a break from all the touts. Fantastic, we love it, sort of.

We head for a real oasis, Siwa, out in the Western Desert, close to the Libyan border. I tweak my back before we get on the bus for a 9 hour journey. The road heads along the dull coast and then cuts southwards through desert. At first there are rain showers and strong winds, and then sandstorms as we cross the desert. Clouds in the sky turn red with dust. The bus driver tunes the radio to Koran FM and we are serenaded with verses from the Holy Book. Gayle hates it but in this landscape I find it creates an atmosphere of wilderness and spirituality that we would otherwise fail to find while schlepping 450km in a dirty beat up old tin can on wheels. After the third hour of wailing I revise my opinion. I hate it too. When we arrive in Siwa I can hardly walk and have to spend a day in bed recovering, occasionally moaning like a muezzin. Gayle hires a bike and explores. The oasis is set in a huge depression with several springs, two lakes and a carpet of green palm groves. Here and there are clutches of buildings, some the traditional mudbrick falling into ruin and beside them newer concrete and brick houses that look incomplete. The whole place is very relaxed and moves at a slow steady pace. So we are slightly surprised to find all the hotels booked up - it is school holidays and many nationals are coming for their jollies and we have to switch rooms. The main square is full of donkey-and-carts and men and boys scooting about on motorcycles. Occasionally we see two or three women clad in grey shawls and with black veils - anonymous beings carted around or shuffling past on sandy tracks. The tourist office asks that local customs are observed - 'no public alcohol or displays of affection', although we see lots of the local men holding hands, greeting each other with kisses and hugging. Traditional double standards, I guess.

You'd think finding sand when you're at an oasis would be easy. When I am recovered, we hire bikes and head out to the Great Sand Sea - dunes that touch the edge of the settlement. After 3km my saddle comes off. So we return and I swap bikes. Then, after 5 km Gayle has a puncture. We push our bikes to a spot and then stride off towards the dunes. We are halted by an irrigation channel. We have to trudge through the sand for an hour until we finally make the dunes - just in time for sunset. They are picture perfect. It is so quiet and desolate, but stunning too, knowing they continue for miles. The days pass quickly in Siwa despite the lack of action. This is probably our favourite place in Egypt, probably due to the lack of hassle. On the Shark Scale the touts here are like dogfish.
We return to crazy Cairo on a nightbus. I needn't have worried about my back injury, as the kind man behind me supports it throughout the journey my pressing his knees into my seat. I am terribly disappointed to see that the video player has been removed from the bus. No more Egyptian comedy capers full of people shouting at each other. Back in the capital we are reminded of the pollution here - not just air but noise too - a 90db regularly reached at 7.30am, according to the local paper. We return to our favourite sandwich shop - pay at the till and then take the receipt to the queue at the counter. Sorry, did I say queue? As an Englishman I find myself going backwards in these sort of scrums - I just lack the skills and experience to wheedle myself to the front. The food is worth the fight, and the place is always packed.