05 June 2011

4-30 May 2011: Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan

Trip details
  • Tour: Dragoman's Turkik & Persian Splendors overland trip
  • Dates: 6-30 May 2011
  • Route through Turkey: Istanbul, Goreme, Dogeybeyzit
  • Route through Iran: Kandovan, Zanjan, Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz, Caravanserai, Yazd, Khor, Damghan, Shirvan
  • Route through Turkmenistan: straight to Ashgabat
  • Passengers: 11 of us, aged from 23 to 68 years old.  From Canada, Scotland, UK, Ireland, and Australia
  • Drivers: Luca (Italian), Noel (English)
  • Truck: "Archie"

  • Visiting the ruins of Ani, Turkey
  • Having a hammam (wash and scrub down) in Dogubeyzik, Turkey
  • Experiencing a Friday (Iranian equivalent of our Sunday) and the mass of Iranian tourists in Kandovan, Iran
  • Showing locals how to toast marshmallows over a fire at our campsite in a waterpark in Zanjan, Iran
  • Going to the Armenian Club in Tehran where Muslims are forbidden to enter and woman are NOT allowed to wear headscarves
  • Going to the Jewellery Museum in Tehran where there are billions of dollars worth of jewels on view in a bank vault
  • Visiting the old US Embassy in Tehran and seeing the murals now painted on the Embassy walls (e.g. Statue of Liberty with a skull)
  • Getting a welcome at the Qom shrine with a 45min "speech" by the mosque high priest/Mullah on how the West is corrupt and Iran is friendly and misunderstood
  • Seeing Imam Square in Esfahan for the first time - amazing and very beautiful
  • The spectacle of the "shaking minarets" in Esfahan
  • Carved rock tombs outside of Shiraz that held the bones of various Kings (Naqshe-e Rostan)
  • Evening spent on the salt flats at Khor
  • Chatting to local girls in Damghan
  • Being invited to an Iranian wedding at Shirvan
  • Seeing the very OTT monuments in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan


Turkey was just as beautiful and exotic as the previous two times I have been here.  Istanbul is a great city that combines culture, business and history in such a way that you are never bored.  I was staying in the old part of the city were you have the Blue Mosque, Ayaya Sofia, Topkapi Museum and the old bazaars.  This is where the trip began and I met the others I was going to be travelling with.

The group consisted of various ages, genders and nationalities but the mix was brilliant and the group melded together from the first night. In fact we basically all stuck together from that point onwards and we all got on so well.

After Istanbul we headed out toward Goreme on a 12hr travelling day but the roads were excellent and we got there on time.  We actually ended up spending that night with two other overlanding trucks that were also at Goreme.

During our time here some went air balloon riding for €120 which was beautiful and everyone came back so excited.  We all ended up doing a day trip around Goreme - though the high point was the underground city that went down 7 levels (60 metres in depth).  They carved this place out so they could hide from enemies and the had their own ventilation shaft and well, and the temp was kept constant all year round. Amazing if not slightly claustrophobic!

After Goreme we headed to our first campsite just out of Siva.  What a site!  Cold, but the view was over a lake and the sunrise the next morning was very soul-lifting! Campsite 2 the next night was near to Kars, again cold, but we had a fire and beers on the go which warmed us up.  We then ended up in a town called Dogubeyzit.  But before that we did a 100km side trip that wasn't in the trip notes...

.....but the ruins of Ani rate up very highly on the scale of stunning places to see.  It is right on the border with Armenia and has only been open to visitors for the last 5 years or so due to it being a "sensitive" military area.  Ani is a ruined and uninhabited medieval Armenian city which is situated beside the border with Armenia. Called the "City of 1001 Churches", it stood on various trade routes and its many religious buildings, palaces, and fortifications were amongst the most technically and artistically advanced structures in the world. At its height, Ani had a population of 100,000–200,000 people and was the rival of Constantinople, Baghdad and Cairo.

We got to Dogubeyzit late that night so cooked dinner and went to bed. The next morning we could see Mt Ararat in the distance which was great to see. We visited a Palace before heading into the main town where we stayed another night.  Jo and myself headed off to a local hammam for a wash and scrub down by a local woman who couldn't speak English.  In fact, no one at the hammam could speak English which made it a unique experience! We came out very clean.


The next morning we headed for the Iranian border!  It was easy getting through though the Brits had to be fingerprinted and have their knuckles printed ??? No idea why.  Us girls also had to put on our headscarves, long shirts and trousers....which we had to wear for the next 16 days. 

We drove to a town called Kandovan but hadn't realised how busy it would be on a Friday (the Iranian's equivalent of our Sunday). We wondered around the town which was shaped by volcanic eruptions and is like Cappadocia. The locals still live in the carved out homes even though the winter can can get down to -30 degrees.  We ended up camping in the car park as there was no where else to go.  But after sundown we weren't disturbed by anyone other than herders and their goats.

The next morning we packed up and drove to Zanjan via Tabriz  where we camped in the local waterpark!! There were a lot of locals about, particularly the young adults, who stood around and watched us and were asking us questions about where we came from.  After dinner the only locals left were the young men and they had a little party going with music from their cars.  They were dancing about acting like young men do, but only danced with the guys and not us girls.  The funniest moment was when a local guy tasted a toasted marshmallow for the first time..."Oh my god" was his response!

We drove towards Tehran the next day. When we got there the boys headed to a football match between Tehran and Esfahan...us girls weren't allowed to go (in fact, no women are allowed at football matches in Iran) and so some of us went to the Armenian Club.  No Muslims are allowed and all headscarves have to be removed. It was a funny little place that reminded me of the mens' only clubs in the UK.

The next day we walked all over Tehran...14 hours on our feet!  We visited:
  • National Museum of Iran (there was a preserved man from the salt flats in Iran)
  • Golestan Palace (several buildings, lots of marble, mirrors, mosaics and architecture students who followed us around)
  • Park-e Shahir which was beautiful with lots of shaded areas, exercise equipment and fountains
  • Jewellery Museum - in a bank vault, lots of security, lots of pearls, diamonds, rubies, silver, gold and even a 34kg globe with 51,000 stones
  • US Embassy - murals around this ex-Embassy, now Iranian Secret Police, that depict the US in some very derogatory ways!
  • the underground Metro system - cheap, air conned, modern
  • Tehran Bazaar - far too busy for our liking
We spent two days in Tehran before making our way to Esfahan via a side trip to Qom, the 2nd most holiest city in Iran.  Us girls had to put on a chadour (basically a bed sheet) and then before any of us were allowed anywhere near the shrine (the sister of an Imam is buried here) we were "invited" to the Office of International Affairs. 45mins later, after a chat from our esteemed hosts about how friendly and misunderstood Iran is and how corrupt the West is, we were allowed to see the shrine...but not up close as Westerners aren't allowed to go anywhere near it.  2min photoshoot of the shrine and we were gone (it was also 38 degrees so we were pretty hot by now).

Onwards to Esfahan where there are plenty of mosques, churches, cathedrals, shops and bridges to see!  Here are just a few things we got up to:
  • Si-o-Seh Bridge: very pretty but no water in the river as they dam it!
  • Imam Square: it is the 2nd largest square after Tianaman Sq in China and it is stunning!  The square has the Jameh Mosque down one stretch, a Palace opposite it on the other side, another mosque around the next corner and lots of shopping all around the grass and fountain in the middle. At night it is really beautiful when the lights come on and the families sit on the grass to eat and drink tea
  • Vank Cathedral is an Armenian Church and depicts so horrible photos of the genocide that happened against the Armenians
  • The "shaking minarets" was an interesting side-trip....it was talked up in the Lonely Planet as a must-see...don't bother.  We missed the last showing so they put on the demonstration for us especially. A little man climbed up the minaret and started shaking it about....
  • Shopping was great...there is gaz, a local specialty which is nougat and pistachio nuts (yummy), and then camelbone painting and boxes
Esfahan is a great place to sit and enjoy the atmosphere and to chill out.  A lot of Iranians visit here for weekend trips etc to shop...they seem to have lots of money to burn. 

We are now in the desert and the sun and heat was stifling...especially at 1pm on the day we rocked up to Persepolis! Darius I built Persepolis around 500BC, and it was added to by further kings over 150 years.  It was then set on fire and destroyed by Alexander the Great in 330BC because Darius had burnt Athens to the ground when he was alive! Very childish if you ask me.  It was abandoned and eventually uncovered in the 1930s.

As it was so hot and there was very little shade we stayed only a few hours to see the bas-reliefs (truly amazing), the pillars and various other statues.  I still think Ephesus in Turkey is my favourite ruin though.

We left Persepolis and drove towards Shiraz, our southern most point in Iran.  On the way we got stopped again by the traffic police....they are everywhere checking speeds as in 2006, 28,000 people died on Iranian roads and 200k were injured.  There are no such things as road rules here, and crossing the roads is very hazardous to your health!

Shiraz was once a wine-growing area, but not anymore as Iran is a 'dry country' and bans all alcohol.  It was also once the capital of the Islamic world during the medieval times.  Now there is a lot of dust, hot temps and more mosques, citadels and churches to see. But I do have to say, the bazaar here is the best one I have come across...non-touristy and pleasant to walk about in.

Just outside of Shiraz we stopped and had a look at the rock tombs (Naqsh-e Rostan) of various kings (e.g. Darius I, II, Xerxex I).  They are carved up high and out of the cliff where their bodies were left to be picked clean by vultures.  The bas-reliefs under each tomb reflects their lives and it is a fantastic place to go and visit.  It is still perfectly intact.

We then drove towards the Zeinodin caravanserai site in the middle of nowhere (well, it is actually just off the main highway in the middle of nowhere!).  It is a 400year old site and was used as accommodation for traders in the old days.  This has now been renovated and we stayed in it for a night.  It was very clean, modern and you had 2 mattresses per curtained off room.  Quite an interesting change to the normal hotels/motels/tents were had been staying in.  We spent the night being entertained by the staff and then spent the late evening gazing at the stars.

After a comfortable night at the serai we drove off towards Yazd which was just as hot at about 37-38 degrees!  But this place has an extensive Zoroastrian history to it and the first place we saw was the two Towers of Silence. Dead bodies are placed in these towers so vultures can pick them clean.  Zoroastrians don't like to contaminate the earth so wait for the flesh to be eaten before burying them.  Unfortunately in the 1960s, the Iranian Govt decided they didn't like this practice anymore, banned them from doing this, and now they have to bury their dead in concrete-lined graves. 

We visited a few more mosques in town, the Zoroastrian Eternal Flame which was been burning for 700years, and the cistern water museum which shows how these desert towns/cities can still function though water is hundreds of miles away. 

After Yazd we headed towards Khor where we had fantastic accommodation and a night out on the salt flats.  We had dinner cooked for us, we had the shisha pipes out, and we enjoyed the cooler weather, all while watching the sunset.  Beautiful.

It wasn't long before we were in another town called Damghan.  Myself a few others spent a while chatting to 3 young local women (23yrs old) and got a bit more of an insight into the Iranian young. As long as they have a job they don't necessarily need to marry (but job sare hard to come by), they can have "boyfriends", they can have a Uni education, they can stay out late if they want...very much like any western woman.  They just have to be mindful of what they say about the government (especially in front of the Iranian guide we have had with us from day 1)!

Our final pitstop was a town called Shirvan - where we got invited to an Iranian wedding!  The bride was initially covered over from head to foot and then the females/males separated into their own reception party!  No one spoke any English and it was a surreal experience watching the females dance to Iranian pop in their mini skirts and evening dresses. As it was only females (other than the groom??!!!) they could take off their scarves and chadours. 

I loved Iran...there is a certain naivety to the Iranians (particularly about the rest of the world)  that is endearing and I hope they never lose it.  The young are also pushing the boundaries and I can see Iran changing a lot in the next 5 years (as long as they don't politically annoy any neighbours!). 

It was certainly a shock heading into Turkmenistan which is ex-USSR with half the population Russian and half Turkmen. 


The border crossing was long and it took 2hrs before Iran was willing to stamp us out...with another 2hrs before Turkmenistan would stamp us in!  Neither side were in much of a hurry to do anything with us foreigners.

We finally got to Ashgabat (capital city) where we were met by sour-faced, unsmiling and unfriendly locals.  They didn't speak much English at all and we were nearly always ignored when trying to buy anything. Ashgabat itself is like a fairy tale/Las Vegas gone terribly wrong.  It was mostly flattened in 1947 after an earthquake killed 2/3s of its population.  It then got rebuilt using oil and gas money and is headed by a President who has created a lot of very large and OTT statues in his honour.  It is also more expensive than Iran and nowhere as friendly. 

This is where I had to say goodbye to my fellow travel buddies who were going on to Xian and/or Beijing on a much longer overland trip.

I really do recommend Iran to everyone...I felt safer there than I do in London and the people are just so friendly and hospitable.  Let's just hope they keep their heads down and don't antagonise a certain few countries (inshallah)!