Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Day 217 - Arm wrestles, Monasteries, and Wineries. (Georgia)

Having managed the border crossing in less than an hour, we had a whole afternoon that we hadn’t expected to have. With no real plans as of yet we stopped for lunch in the border town where we ordered the traditional dish of “khinkali” – juicy meat dumplings. A group of men at another table took an interest in us, and one in particular who had evidently had more than his fair share of the empty vodka bottles at their table, began professing his love for us. “I... LOOOVE... YOU..., VEEEERY MUCH,” he called out towards us over and over again, and having already taken a liking to Georgia and Georgian people, we found this amusing and politely thanked him each time. Having finished their own plate of khinkali, the group followed this one guy that loved us the most as he joined us at our table. He had obviously taken a special liking to me, and most specifically my eyes, and amidst complementing me on my eyes and kissing my hands, he proceeded to indicate how offensive he found Ben’s long hair and blazer, how exciting he found Denner’s beard which we think he was saying was like Jesus’, and how confusing he found Tunkles’ moustache. Apparently long hair, facial hair and blazers aren’t fashionable in Georgia.

Still amused by this man and his antics, we played along when he and his friends challenged Ben, Tunkles and Denner to arm wrestles. These men were not small, and after watching him display his biceps and say “Me, stallion”, we weren’t expecting any wins from the Australian team. Sure enough, each of my comrades’ arms was duly slammed into the table amidst good natured laughter. When they began violently wrestling each other at our table though, knocking over the glasses of vodka they’d brought with them, and threatening to overturn the table, we quickly stepped back and decided the scene was losing appeal for us. Realising our reactions, all but the main offender apologised, welcomed us to Georgia, posed for some photos and farewelled us. Our good friend the stallion though decided to stick around, and tediously pointed at my eyes and Denner’s beard for the rest of our meal. It got a bit out of hand in the middle, and incredibly tiresome at the end, but it was certainly an exciting welcome to the Christian nation of Georgia.

As we had nothing to particularly head for, we followed signs to a very pretty monastery a few kilometres from the main road. As the first Christian country on this trip (unless you include Australia), and our first non-Muslim country since China (3 months ago), visiting a monastery does have a certain sense of new and exciting.

A little further down the road we spotted a sign to Nekresi Monastery, which jogged Ben’s memory of something he’d read. We followed the turn off and as it turns out we’d stumbled across one of the must-see monasteries in Georgia. Located 1.5 km up a very steep hillside, it is only accessible by foot or by paying for a bus ticket. At only 1 Lari per person we opted for the bus, but were informed that they only run with a minimum of 10 passengers. Unconvinced that 10 more visitors would arrive in that whole afternoon, Tunkles and Denner decided to brave the walk while Ben and I waited for them in the car.

After a little while though a couple more cars arrived, and we realised that there may well be 10 people for the bus ride now. Sure enough we were now 2 of 14 passengers, so we paid our way and boarded the bus, sorry for Tunkles and Denner, but glad that we’d also be able to see the monastery.

The advantage of walking up the hill is that you’d have the whole place to yourself, but unfortunately our bus load arrived just as our companions reached the top, sweaty and parched from the steep ascent. The views over the valley were truly spectacular from this vantage point, and the understated and raw beauty of the monastery was haunting.

Tunkles and Denner snuck on the bus for the return trip and we headed back to our car where we were greeted by a friendly Georgian man. “You have brought your car from Australia?” he greeted us. “Yes!” We’re so used to confusion and disbelief at the nature of our trip that when someone has actually looked at the car and figured out what we’re doing, it is a welcome relief. “You know Russian guy?” he asked us. “Um....” “Misha? From Baku?” Yes, we had met a Russian guy in Baku. Apparently Misha was staying with this man in a nearby town, and had just caught the bus up to the monastery that we had just come from. Misha had spotted our car and told his host that he knew this car and had met us in Baku. We decided to wait with this lovely man who gave us bountiful amounts of information about the area, and meet up with Misha when he returned from the monastery.

We greeted Misha like a long lost friend, despite the fact that we’d only spent one evening chatting intermittently at our hostel in Baku, and decided to take up the invitation of tandem driving with them – Misha, Guram, and an American/Peruvian couple living in Dubai who was also staying at this guy’s place – to a nearby wine factory. Our intention was to visit the wine factory, find something or somewhere for dinner, camp the night, and possibly/probably visit Sighnaghi the following day where we would more than likely stay at Guram’s guesthouse.

The wine factory was very interesting – much more industrialised than the ones we get shown around in Australia, or perhaps it was just that we got shown more than we’re used to being allowed to see. As well as the current production and packaging processes, we were also taken to a room where the traditional method of wine making was demonstrated by Guram, who was our free tour guide of the factory.

At the completion of the tour, we were sat down in the wine tasting room where we sampled a few of their varieties, my favourite of which was a semi-sweet red that is acclaimed as Stalin’s favourite wine. Enjoying the company of our flukily found companions, we decided just to ride out whatever plans Guram had for us and go to Sighnaghi so we could spend the evening with Misha, Lee and Claudia. Not only had we stumbled upon some great company, but we seemed to have chanced upon an excellent, no strings attached, truly hospitable guide.

Our next stop was a wine cellar that was unfortunately closed because we’d spent too long at our wine tasting, so on we went to another wine factory. This one wasn’t the modern, commercial production line we’d just experienced, but was a truly functioning traditional workshop. We were shown an attic full of antique furniture, vessels and ornaments, then the underground cellar full of their wine and chacha (a spirit made from grapes). In the main room where all the wine is produced, we were once again shown the process which involves several metre deep holes in the ground which are filled with the grapes and periodically stirred with a 2m long pronged stick. For different stages in the fermentation process the grapes are moved to a variety of these holes until the process is complete.

We huddled around a table set with bread, cheese, white wine, red wine and chacha for us to try. Our endless summer that began in November in Melbourne, continued as we started our trip through tropical South East Asia, followed us into summer in China, Central Asia and Iran, began drawing to a close in Azerbaijan, but is now officially over. In the mountains of Georgia it is far from warm, and the unheated brick building was the perfect setting for some hearty home-made wine and the continuation of conversation with our new friends.

We followed Guram and our fellow travellers back to his homestay in Sighnaghi where we were treated to a feast of home-made Georgian cuisine, and of course, their very own home-made wine and chacha.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Day 216 – Crossing a border in negative four minutes. (Border crossing Azerbaijan to Georgia)

Because of the nature of importing and exporting a foreign car, we’re used to border crossings taking basically a whole day and as such, try and arrive as early as we can. Because we wanted to stay a night in Shaki though, we still had a couple of hours of driving in the morning and after stuffing around sorting out our paperwork and using up our last Manat to buy the cheapest petrol we’ll see for the rest of the trip, we didn’t arrive until 12.30pm. Our hearts sank a little bit when we spotted the huge queue of cars waiting at a closed boom gate. Most of the drivers were out of their cars, chatting with each other and meandering about. It was obviously lunch time for the border guards, and we prepared ourselves for a long wait.

Ben and I decided to walk to the front of the queue and try to find out how long we might be waiting for, on the off-chance of course that we shouldn’t even be in that queue. I mimed to the army guards at the gate “time” (pointing at wrist), “go forward” (waving in the direction of travel), “driving” (two hands steering a car). I was greeted with a blank look and a shrug of the shoulders, and then something clicked. He asked “tourista?” “yes, tourista,” “machina?” “yes, machina”. He gestured for us to wait a moment while he made a quick phone call, and indicated for us to drive up to the front of the queue. Feeling a bit rude, but pretty chuffed at the special treatment we were receiving, we went back to Trevor and skipping 37 cars, were waved straight through the gates. We can justify it to ourselves though because while we might get to skip the queue, the border process for us always takes a lot longer and they all end up getting out faster than us anyway.

This was a properly built up border crossing, with professional guards that knew the protocols and systems, and we were directed to park, get out the car, and take our passports to passport control. As this border’s designated driver, Denner was to separate from us and take our Carnet and his own passport to a separate office.

We were whisked through the passport checking process and sent on our way to no man’s land. Through the windows we could see Denner getting into the driver’s seat and at the same time as us, heading towards no man’s land. Was it possible that the car processing had only taken as long as the passport processing?

Alas, he had to pull aside at the next gate, and we watched as he got out the car and carried some paperwork back to someone in some office. At that point we thought maybe we’d been too hopeful, and in actual fact we would be waiting the usual several hours for nothing to happen. Ten minutes later though, he showed some paper to the guard that had stopped him, was waved through the gate, and pulled up for us to jump in.

It turns out that the process had been as simple as possible, and the problem was only that one paper that needed to be stamped had been very small and had fallen to the bottom of our plastic pocket, causing Denner to miss it. When the guard had asked for it, he’d had to go back and most of his time was just spent trying to negotiate his way through traffic to the office where it was promptly stamped.

We got to Georgia and were struck immediately by the non-Soviet nature of everything. Even Azerbaijan in all its efficiency and with such a surprising lack of unwarranted bureaucracy, has a very Soviet feel with its typical Soviet uniforms, high military presence and buildings obviously from the Soviet era. The Georgian police on the other hand were dressed in simple navy spray jackets with “Police” (in Georgian and English) printed on the back, plain slacks, no lapel pins and no imposing hats. Officials went about their business in understated smart casual – a style that is lost in Asia and the Middle East, and the only army guards that we saw were far away on the side lines, not involved in the day to day running of the border whatsoever. Waiting in an orderly queue with no guns pointed at us, no armed guards circling our car, and no Customs Officials trying to sell us guided tours, we felt like we could be entering Australia (if there was such a thing as a land border) or any European country.

After a few minutes of queuing we drove up next to a window where a policeman asked for our passports. He flicked through them, obviously looking for a visa, so I (in the passenger’s seat with our steering wheel on the wrong side) said “no visa”, under the impression that we were to buy visas for $20 at the border. He asked for our “car passport”, so I handed him the Carnet and he entered our number plate and personal details into his computer. We waited to be pulled aside and separated from the driver, but instead he had each of us look into the camera through the car windows and promptly stamped us into the country. From there we were waved on, and no other process was required.

Perhaps when I said “no visa”, he assumed it to mean that I knew what I was talking about and we didn’t require a visa, or more likely (and hopefully), the visas have actually been abolished. Either way it took us less than an hour to enter the country, and seeing we went back one hour by crossing from Azerbaijan to Georgia, we emerged on the other side of the border four minutes earlier than when we first pulled up as the 38th car in the queue waiting to enter the border area.

Our most satisfyingly simple border crossing yet.

Day 215 - A fiery mountain, a construction site, and two very peculiar meals. (Azerbaijan)

Leaving Baku we headed towards Yanar Dagh (Flaming Mountain). Like with Darvaza, the gas crater in Turkmenistan (Blog Day 182 – The BurningGates of Hell), a supply of natural gas is seeping out of the ground and having been set alight, is now continuously burning. We’ve heard a couple of stories as to how it was set alight: one is that it was lit 1,000 or 2,000 years ago; the other story involves a shepherd in the 1950’s dropping his cigarette on the ground and getting a surprise when it exploded. Our problem is that having seen the 70m gas crater in Turkmenistan, probably nothing in our lives will ever live up to it, so this 10m of flaming hillside was a bit of a let-down. This is much more an indictment on how amazing Darvaza was and how ridiculously high our standards are now set. Any piece of rock that has been on fire for either 60 or thousands of years is pretty special.

We’ve seen a few relics of the almost extinct first monotheistic religion of Zoroastrianism. Our first experience was a very friendly group of them from Shiraz, visiting Gonbad e Kavus and using an ancient tower as a haven where they could remove their headscarves and sing traditional songs. Throughout Iran we came across various fire temples and visited a couple of ruined ones. Not far from Baku we visited Atashgah, a fire temple which is in the process of renovation. Some of the fires have been relit by connecting gas mains, which although not true to history, seems the only way to maintain the essence of the temple. Around the walls are small rooms that would have been used as sleeping quarters, or in fact torture chambers. Now they are inhabited by manikins depicting examples of self torture, and an amusing array of workmen’s gear and food supplies. The men rebuilding the walls have quite clearly moved in for the duration of their contract, and claiming the place as their own did not adjust their work just because they had a few tourists. Rocks were being thrown off 5m walls with complete disregard of whether anyone was below, and we had some cement scraped off right on top of our heads.

Covered in dust from being amidst a construction site, we headed towards the town of Shaki, taking a small detour off the main road to visit the mountain village of Lahic. Aside from the spectacular drive and the quaint town, the detour was well worth it for cheaper saffron than we can comprehend. Not usually in the market for such a product, I am led to believe that in Australia it is horribly expensive, costing over $5 per gram (this figure may be inaccurate). In Iran we were told about how cheap it was compared to the world market. The family who kindly invited us into their home in Shiraz gifted us with a small box with a couple of grams in it, which they had bought for a couple of dollars. In Lahic however, we were able to buy a bag weighing probably over an ounce for only 2 Manat ($2.50).

Shaki is a rural town with a renovated old town. There were a few things we were interested in visiting there – a couple of museums, a Shar’s Palace and examples of the local unique style of making stained glass windows. The thing that really drew us though was the opportunity to stay at a beautifully converted karavan saray. Sure enough the place was charming with a lovely garden courtyard surrounded by two-storey walls of arched entrance ways leading to the renovated sleeping quarters. The entrance to a cafe offering shisha, tea and traditional Azeri sweets lay at one end of the courtyard, whilst the large brick entrance hall, lit by brass chandeliers and fitted with a small pond, lay at the other. With soft beds, couches, bathrooms and a television in each room, it’s the best accommodation we’ve stayed at in a very long time.

As with most old towns, it was a bit deserted so we headed towards the real town for a bite to eat for lunch. Before we got there though, a fast food place caught our attention and we decided to give that a go. The building was new, but done in the traditional naked brick with arched windows and doors. Inside was fitted with brand new Ikea style wooden tables and round light fittings, and decorated with Grill’d style “trendy” posters and wall hangings. Apart from a lady stroking a sleeping baby who was laid out on four chairs, the restaurant was empty. We approached the spotless, brand new counter, and feasted our eyes on the extensive overhead menu of chicken, burgers, fries, ice cream and soft drink. When nobody appeared from behind the shiny silver kitchen fittings, we got the attention from the lady with a baby and tried to order. She apparently did work there after all, and informed us that actually that menu wasn’t available and slid a laminated doner, soup and salad menu towards us. We made our choices, ordered and sat down at a table. She walked past the unused post mix machine, switched the extractor fan on and exited the kitchen through a back door.

A few minutes later she returned and pulled cold sausages and bread from a cupboard in the kitchen, which she then fed to her baby and ate herself while we waited for our lunch. After 10 minutes or so we were seriously considering whether there was anyone cooking our food. We could see an empty doner meat rotator, none of the bain maries were switched on and no one other than this lady had appeared from anywhere – and she certainly wasn’t cooking our food. She had switched on the fan, but was that just for show? Had we found ourselves at an exhibition-only fast food joint?

When her and her baby had finished their lunch, we asked how much longer we’d be waiting. She indicated 5 minutes, and rushed on out back again. Was there really someone there that she was talking to about our food? Then a few minutes later, we watched in bemusement as a man carried a plastic bag from his car to the front door of the restaurant, and our “waitress” rushed to meet him. Obviously embarrassed, she grabbed the bag from him, and briskly walked straight past us to the kitchen. He was obviously supposed to deliver it to the back door, but had made a heinous mistake. Our food had actually been ordered from elsewhere and delivered! We were right – there really wasn’t anyone in the kitchen cooking for us. She returned from the kitchen a few minutes later with our food emptied from the plastic carry bags and laid on a selection of mismatched side plates and paper bowls.

According to all the leaflets lying around, this place was open 24/7, and when we passed at 11pm or so that night, all the lights were off, but the sign still said “open”. I guess she and her baby just sleep there on the off-chance that a customer will show up at any hour. We considered how amusing it would be to go in at 3am and just order a bread or a serving of chips.

This wasn’t our only ridiculous meal experience during our one day stay in Shaki. That evening we made our way into the real town centre. After we stopped for a drink in a cafe/bar where I was the only woman, we were the only group under the age of 60, and the only customers not drinking tea, we sat down for a meal at the only restaurant we could find. The interior was adorned with stuffed animals and birds, brass chandeliers, antique bottles and ornaments, and a huge group of Asian tourists. The seats we were guided to were up a narrow staircase, along a thin landing and through a wooden door which even I had to duck to get through. Behind this door was a room that can only be described as a large barrel (large for a barrel, not for a room), in which our table was waiting for us. The waiter adamantly closed the door on us, not understanding that we weren’t particularly keen on absolute privacy, and would prefer not to be cooped up in a 2m x 2m barrel. Unlike lunch this was certainly a real restaurant with a functioning kitchen, but we ate our meal inside a barrel.



Some more photos are up on our facebook page. Check the Azerbaijan album for the most recent additions.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Day 213 – Big flags and small books. (Azerbaijan)

We arrived in Baku expecting it to be another ex-Soviet Dictator’s artificial capital. What we in fact found though was a very European feeling city with a lovely big central square sporting the usual array of designer stores and up-market bars. Surrounding the centre was a jumble of very narrow, over-crowded and definitely organic laneways and alleys that were built long before cars were an everyday commodity – just like most European cities. Navigating our way from the outskirts to the centre was simple enough despite the one way streets, but once we got there, getting through the maze and finding a parking spot was a different story. In streets barely wide enough for two cars, there was double parking, and every dead end was used as a parking lot. I wouldn’t be overly happy if I parked at the end of a dead end, only to find myself parked in by 20 or so other cars.

Enjoying our first McDonald’s meal since Thailand (yes, we enjoy McDonald’s and we’re not going to apologise for it), we used their free wi-fi to try to no avail to find an apartment for rent. Hospitality Club and Couch Surfing couldn’t help us out at such short notice, and we ended up staying at the only vaguely reasonably priced hostel in town. Azerbaijan is quite an expensive country, especially considering its neighbours, and accommodation in Baku is no exception. At 16 Manat ($20) each per night for a dorm bed, we felt incredibly ripped off, but seeing it was in the centre of Old Town and the only option under about 60 Manat pp, we had no option. It’s hard to describe it as “value for money”, but it was actually a decent place – the rooms and bathrooms were clean, the staff were reasonably friendly and we met some other very interesting travellers.

Whilst enjoying Fountain Square, we noticed a few people in “Press” jackets with large camera bags standing around a particular point. Unsure what they were waiting for, and disinclined to hang around just to find out, we continued on our way. As we were leaving the square a few minutes later, we heard a few screams and excited voices and looked over to where they were coming from. Realising that the peaceful square was now occupied by a large group of protestors, we looked on as they marched up and down the square, followed by rows of fully armed police. They seemed to disperse, then a few minutes later a small riot would break out and the police would emerge with a handful of kicking and screaming activists. This pattern went on for a couple of hours. A fellow bystander told us the people are “unhappy with the government”. Are anti-government protests happening all the time, or do they only break out when we’re in town? (Blog Day 193 – Batons and tear gasand Day 194 – Economics andGender Studies)

Baku, and in fact all of Azerbaijan’s recent claim to fame, is that as the 2011 winner of Eurovision, they were the 2012 host of the song contest. Only two months after the event, the city is still strewn with posters, murals, advertising, merchandise and shaped plants. Even specially produced Eurovision beer is still sold in most shops. From a point on top of the hill, we got a spectacular view of the Crystal Palace where the contest was hosted, lit up at night with shimmering blue lights, shining into the sky and sparkling against the dark sky backdrop. Next to the Crystal Palace is Azerbaijan’s less recent, but possibly more legitimate claim to fame – the former tallest flagpole in the world, and the current largest flag. Stretching 162m into the sky, it certainly is a sight to behold, not to mention the engineering prowess that surely went into constructing such an object. At the time of construction, this was the tallest in the world, but was overtaken by Dushanbe in 2011. At 70m x 35m the flag is too big to fly at the moment because of high winds, so the one we saw was its smaller replacement.

Apart from the usual variety of picturesque cobble-stoned streets, ruined bazaars, mosques, walls and towers, we did find one particularly interesting museum in the old town. Having walked around all the standard sights we stumbled across the small, but extensive Miniature Book Museum. Housing over 2,000 books from all over the world, covering several topics and ranging from antique to modern, it was a delightful and unique little museum. With free entry and a very passionate spiel (albeit in Azeri) from the grandmotherly curator, we were very glad to have found it.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Back In The USSR: Crossing the Iranian – Azerbaijan Border by Ben Crowley.

                We camped 30km’s from the border in order to make an early run. On the way of course we filled up every last square centimetre of our tank with the best wondrously cheap petrol the Iranian State Oil Company could provide and then after getting lost in the streets of the border town Astara, eventually made our way to the non-descript gates that we found to be the entrance to Customs.

                The first order of business on exiting Iran was to have our Carnet checked very quickly and our details entered into a large register. After this we were given a receipt and told to continue on. At Astara customs, continuing on is no easy feat. The massive complex is a maze of loading bays and trucks, thousands upon thousands of primarily Turkish and Iranian lorries sit idly by waiting for approval to exit, some of which had surely been waiting weeks if not months in order to cross the border. After several right turns and a couple of lefts we eventually found our next destination: a double story, reinforced concrete, crumbling building surrounded by men playing backgammon, drinking tea, sleeping and generally meandering about, all the signs of bureaucracy in this part of the world.

We had heard this was going to be a particularly tough border. Numerous factors worried us. Firstly, we were leaving a Middle Eastern country, namely Iran, not exactly friends with much of the world at this moment, and we were entering a former Soviet country. Secondly, from our research (blogs, lonely planet, wikitravel and various government websites) we had been led to believe that the Azerbaijan process would be an uphill battle. We were told that right-hand drive vehicles (being from Australia, Trev is) were not allowed and most worryingly that Azerbaijan demanded thousands of dollars in security deposit for foreign vehicles. Of slightly less concern was the need for Azeri insurance and road tax, which knowing border guards would most likely be inflated at the mere sight of Western tourists. As such it was decided that I would do this border, having generally the best track record at kicking heads and getting through the mighty current of corruption and bureaucracy as we attempted to head upstream.

                I entered with our paperwork to be met with hundreds of truck drivers all attempting to get piles of paperwork completed. Approaching one of the desks I was asked who my agent was. Still to this day I’m not sure they ever really understood I myself wasn’t a truck driver but just driving our own personal car through Iran. Lots of silly repetitive questions were answered and eventually our Carnet was taken off to be completed (incorrectly as usual). In the mean time I was chatted up by one of the administration staff, who, like everyone else in Iran wanted to immigrate to Australia, and was hoping I would be the magic contact they wanted. It was hard to explain that “knowing someone” rarely is the manner in which things work in Australia. Actually meeting the criteria and completing the necessary steps is how one achieves an Australian Visa.

                All stamps in place we were then told to continue on to the border gate. Hooray! We were about to leave and it only took about 35 minutes. Or so we thought. We arrived at the gate to find it closed. One of the sides was closed for lunch, and as such needed to wait an hour and a half. We decided at this point that the only thing to do was get the cricket bat and ball out and have a game. An MCG size crowd gathered and cheered us on, or more accurately stared in the same manner we would if we saw someone cutting up his own clothes with a carving knife. Eilidh sat in the shade in Bay 13 as the furious pace of Tom Denner threw down in-swinger after in-swinger to Tom Unkles who stood his ground like a modern Graham Gooch. I’m sure if the spectators understood the game they would have been enthralled. An hour and a half passed and we were allowed to continue. Of course this is never enough and the others were asked leave...

                Eilidh: After having already waited for Ben to complete the paperwork, and now an hour and a half while Azerbaijan had lunch, we were most frustrated when the man at the passport window informed us that only the driver’s passport could be processed at that window, and the rest of us would have to make our way to the passenger terminal. Winding our way back through the maze of trucks we climbed through a hole in a fence, passed a Customs building and walked along a residential street until we reached the passenger entrance. A swarm of people with the usual array of bags of clothes, trolleys of food items and packaged rugs and bins was pushing to squeeze through a door that was being blocked by a guard. We shoved our way into the throng and when the guard saw us, everyone else was moved aside and we were waved through. The same happened at the next queue, and we found ourselves at another queue. Here we waited an hour and a half more while the guard took 10 minutes per person to process all the Iranians first. Eventually a security guard appeared and ushered us away – apparently we’d just waited an hour and a half in another queue we didn’t need to be in. We were escorted upstairs to an office covered in pictures of Ayatollah, with a policeman at a desk adorned with Iranian flags. He knew immediately who we were and reciting “Binyamin” (Benjamin) and “FJI” (the start of our number plate) we realised Ben had already paid him a visit. Through the smirk that never left his face, he wanted to know the purpose of our trip and our destinations. Satisfied with our interview (during which he didn’t once look at or acknowledge me) we were sent away. Our security guard escort guided us back down the stairs and we were free to go. A very entrepreneurial businessman followed us to the bridge that is the border, offering to change our money and assist with any other service that he of course is the only person in Iran who can offer. Unsure of where Ben might be waiting, and slightly concerned that he would have been moved on during this time, we were very pleased when we found him and Trevor just at the other side of the bridge.

In the meantime I had continued to the bridge across no-man’s land, where I was stopped for one quick passport check. The policeman asked for the back of the car to be opened, pulled out any water bottles he could find and sniffed each one for alcohol. He obviously had a party that night and needed supplies. I then drove across the bridge where after 30 minutes all four of us were reunited, ready to tackle the much feared Azerbaijani side of the border. We were shocked at the sudden change; everything from gardens, guards, buildings to road markings were so ordered and beautifully presented. The border guards immaculately presented colourful uniforms was a rude awakening from what we had experienced in Iran. The quality of the grounds and buildings was like stepping forward 100 years, to ironically, an ex-soviet country.

We approached each guard station carefully and were waved on each time to the next. They actually knew exactly where we needed to go and sent us straightforwardly there. We were then directed to a parking spot from which we would enter the customs building to deal with the importation of Trev. For the first time we were not requested to split up. A gray haired superior who was more like a lovely old grandfatherly figure spoke quite reasonable English and explained the process we had in order. We had our passports quickly stamped, the car paperwork photocopied and checked. I then needed to pay road tax and insurance, $40 in total, but a painless affair. I just handed the cashier the money and received the two pieces of paperwork in return. With the paperwork in order in about 20 minutes, we had only one task left: every item in the car needed to be taken out and x-rayed, for only the second time this trip. This took another 20 minutes and with the police convinced we weren’t international drug or arms smugglers, we were free to enter Azerbaijan. Making this possibly the most painless and professional border crossing so far this trip.

Day 211 – Flaming water and Mud volcanos. (Azerbaijan)

Only 6km from Astara, the border town, is a roadside water spring that one of the Azeri border guards told us about once he was satisfied that we weren’t drug or arms smugglers. He pointed on our map and mimed water flowing, then using a lighter indicated that the water would explode. We weren’t exactly sure what he meant but it sounded pretty interesting so we thought we’d have a look.

By asking directions from several obliging locals, we found the spring called Yanar Bulaq. As we pulled up next to the small domed shelter there were locals coming and going filling up large water canisters from the spring. A little unsure of what we were actually supposed to do here, we sidled up to the centre of the hub and awkwardly stood around waiting for everyone to leave so we could figure out what to do. As people left though, more arrived, but eventually a kind man ushered us over and demonstrated holding a lighter to the top of the erupting spring and watching it burst into flames. Methane gas occurs naturally at an exceptionally high rate in this particular source of water and as a result the gas bubbles that emerge from the flow set alight. Lighting and re-lighting the water, between others filling up their containers, kept us occupied for quite some time. A simple but exciting natural delight that was to be outshone by what we witnessed the following day.

A few kilometres from the main road we took an unmade track that led to a ferociously muddy path on the side of a small hill. As we drove towards our destination it began spitting and after not long it was raining quite heavily. With 4WD on, we made it to the top of the hill and stopped at a large orange danger sign (we assume – the words were obviously in Azeri, but danger signs tend to look pretty similar worldwide) at the corner of a plateau. We decided to sit in the car and wait out the rain a bit, but stupidly I got out to take a photo. The mud plain that we were parked on was wet and sticky because of the rain and my shoes became caked to the point where I could barely lift my feet. Laying a plastic bag on the floor, I wiped the majority of the mud off and got back in the car. A few minutes later the rain eased off so we decided to brave the sludge, and tying plastic bags over our shoes (which in my case were already covered anyway) made our way across the plateau to the volcanos. The first 50m or so was easy enough to walk on, but then the ground became very soft and very slippery. We found ourselves amidst a moon-like scape, small volcanos – mostly a metre or two high – bubbling and erupting mud, rising out of the barren brown ground. Still heavily overcast and now approaching dusk, the charcoal gray sky and the rich brown ground made for an eerie picture. We scrambled and slid our way up and down the sides of the volcanos, doing our very best to remain on our bagged feet, which to the most part we managed. As the sky moved from charcoal to navy and our plastic bags began ripping with the weight of the mud, we made our way back to Trevor who was still waiting for us at the danger sign.

Away from the incessant towns that are built up along the main road, we wanted to find a camping spot nearby. Our usual concerns of wind, flat ground, potential firewood and most importantly onlookers, was outweighed by the possibility of rain exacerbating the already very soft ground. We found a nice spot though where we had everything but firewood and thankfully it didn’t rain overnight.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Day 200 – Acoustics, Antiques and Religious Atrocities. (Iran)

Our friend Ali who took us around Tehran for a couple of days kindly put us in touch with a host in Esfahan who welcomed us into his home and showed us around the city. We’d heard many great things about Esfahan – everyone we’d spoken to told us about how beautiful and interesting it is and how we absolutely must go there. Well we can’t disagree with this; we did have a great time in Esfahan.

Imam Square is a vast courtyard in the centre of Esfahan, walled by a bazaar on three sides, and Imam Mosque on the other. The city is planned so that no buildings are visible from inside the square. Some time ago a proposal for a high rise was dismissed on the basis that because of the size and location it would have been seen from inside Imam Square. The mosque was in many ways similar to most of the other mosques we’ve visited, but there was one room which was particularly unique. Open on three sides, the high roof was domed and the walls built from stone and marble. In the centre of the space was a plain, unvarnished stone set into the ground. The feature that makes this room stand out so much is the incredible acoustics that are integrated into the structure. From the very centre of the room – marked by the stone in the floor – the echo is crystal clear and will reverberate several times. A single clap for example will bounce back to you as a dozen individual claps. A voice will reverberate back sounding exactly as that person’s voice. From anywhere else you’re able to hear the echo, but only from that single spot is it so perfectly clear. Denner (a graduated sound engineer student) had a fantastic time exploring the room and listening to the differences in the sound, clapping and humming to himself as we left him to it.

Amidst the bazaar surrounding Imam Square, our host showed us to one of the shisha bars where the women’s section still remains. Through a narrow alleyway covered in antique brass objects hanging from the ceilings, a humble door leads into the fruity smelling, smoky room lit by a hotch-potch of various sizes, colours and styles of lights. Like in the alleyway we took to reach it, old Persian tools and utensils covered the ceilings and walls, along with all sorts of paintings, posters and ornaments. The first time we visited this shisha bar we were amongst only a handful of other patrons, but on our second visit we had to wait just to sit at a spare table. Young Iranian couples and groups of friends obviously use this relaxed establishment as a fun hang-out spot. Interestingly though, I never witnessed a group of girls unaccompanied by a male. There was a lot of rolling up of long sleeves and allowing headscarves to slip back without adjusting them though – much more so than you’d usually find in public. Because of its location and the nature of allowing women inside, we also bumped into a few tourists enjoying the shisha, including a group of Melbournians who live in neighbouring suburbs to us!

The Armenian Quarter of Esfahan is iconic for its quite separate culture. Where Iranians drink tea and smoke shishas, Armenians seem to frequent European style coffee shops and sip cappuccinos and lattes. (The coffees incidentally were very peculiar renditions of what we’re used to in Melbourne, involving liquorice in the cappuccino, half the latte glass filled with froth and chocolate sprinkled on everything.) In place of the usual array of mosques, the Vank Cathedral is the landmarked place of worship in the Armenian Quarter. Almost every attraction in Iran costs 5,000 Rial (less than 20c) to visit, and on payment you’re presented with an identical ticket (we have hundreds of this ticket floating around now). The price is fixed and legitimate and the same for locals and foreigners. Iran is far from perfect, but this is one thing they definitely seem to have sorted out. Only a handful of attractions vary from this standardised pricing system and we were very disappointed to find that Vank Cathedral is one of them. Travelling through other parts of the world I have often been shocked and quite disgusted at the way in which a lot of mosques and places of Islamic importance have completely sold out to become a tourist attraction and line the pockets of whoever sells the tickets. Usually though I have found churches and cathedrals and places of Christian importance to be very respectful and focused on aspects other than the income of funds. This is certainly one instance where this trend was revoked. Many mosques in Iran are free to enter, used entirely for religious purposes, yet open to the public as any place of worship should be. The particularly historical ones that are essentially unused now have all been brought under the blanket of the 5,000 Rial entry fee. It is quite inappropriate in my mind that the main Cathedral in town should be rendered un-functioning by the 30,000 Rial ticket price - it’s not much in monetary terms, but at six times the price of any other site it’s certainly a statement.


Day 197 – Iranian television stars. (Iran)


From Tehran we drove South towards Esfahan and Shiraz which we’d been assured were must-see spots in Iran. Between Tehran and Esfahan are three places we wanted to stop. The first was Qom which is historically the religious and academic centre of Iran, and even today is home to the majority of Islamic teaching and is very religiously focused. As a result it’s a highly conservative city and quite a change from our previous two destinations - the bustling and modern Tehran, and the relaxed holiday destination of Babol Sar. The main sight in town is the Holy Shrine which as expected I had to wear a chador to enter. Most of the areas are male and female segregated, but the central square and a few religious areas are free for families to enjoy together. The female section that I went to was busier and noisier than the uni-sex train carriage in Tehran (Blog Day 194 – Economics and Gender Studies), and quite different from the hushed and relaxed female section in the mosque in Gonbad e Kavus. Every woman was rushing to reach the centre of the room, throwing themselves on top of each other and screaming hysterically. The entrances and exits were like mosh-pits, with everyone straining to kiss and touch the doors. Almost every woman on the street was in a chador and we saw more mullahs than we’ve seen throughout the rest of the country.

Our next stop was Kashan which compared to Qom was a liberal frontier, but in comparison to the rest of the country was a total back water. After eating lunch in a cafe which turned out to be the centre of some sort of fist/broom/stanley knife fight, we wandered through the domed mud brick bazaar and an archaeological site, before visiting Kashan’s highlight – the Fin Gardens. Iran is a country that knows how to do blissful gardens with charming water features and quaint teahouses, and this was no exception with natural springs trickling through the shady grounds. The springs were ideal for leaf and twig racing and as we were doing so a man approached and asked if we’d mind appearing on an Iranian television travel show. Why, of course not! We left our twigs mid race and followed him to meet the eccentric director and smiley cameraman. Unfortunately the microphones were broken so they weren’t able to interview us as planned, but they took some delightful footage of us meandering through the gardens with the host (the man who first approached us) and we got some useful travel advice ourselves. We have no idea when, but at some point in the future we should appear on a show called “Iran Travel Guide” on an Iranian channel called “Sahar TV”.

Egos stroked, we headed towards Abyaneh, the village that the tv host had insisted we visit. Set into the hills, away from any major towns or roads, Abyaneh is a traditional red mud village. Seeming to be inhabited mostly by old ladies it is a typical country township. I found intriguing the fact that all the ladies seemed to wear exactly the same design of headscarf – a large white square with twee pink flowers dotted all over it. I would have bought one if they hadn’t heaped on a tourist tax when I asked the price.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Day 194 - Economics and Gender Studies. (Iran)

Approaching Tehran we were prepared for the pollution that allegedly kills over 40,000 people per year. Tangling ourselves in the mass of traffic and the maze of roads, it’s an incredible number, but sadly not unbelievable. And that figure doesn’t even include road tolls which there are more of per capita in Iran than any other country in the world. Cars, buses, scooters, pedestrians and anything else that finds itself on the road literally push each other out of the way, completely ignoring signs, markings and other objects. Having driven in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Chengdu on this trip, not to mention Paris, Rome and Brussels previously, I can quite confidently say that Tehran roads are the most challenging I’ve ever come across. As a very unusual turn of events we chose not to drive around town during our stay, not so much even because of the traffic (because that’s actually kind of fun), but because of parking. Parking was next to impossible.
The Tehran bazaar covers more than 10 square kilometres and is said to control one third of the entire country’s economy. It has the usual bag district, shoe town, suit village, jewellery precinct, shisha street and carpet city, but everything is on a huge scale and to a greater extent than usual. The carpet sellers are said to be the big guys, not making their money from selling the much sought-after Persian rugs, but from the ongoing currency and gold exchanging that brings in the big bucks. The building that houses the bazaar is in the traditional Persian style with domed roofs adjoining domed roofs, separated by archways and decorated with colourful bricks and tiles.
We visited the bazaar on our first day in Tehran, and in hindsight were very glad we did because the following day it was closed. Closing down a third of the country’s economy is a pretty huge statement. From what we’ve gathered, this would be similar to if the stock exchange closed for a day – it does not happen.
That day was a bit surreal – Tehran had gone from being this bubbly hub of life and activity, to suddenly most of the city being alarmingly deserted. After our first encounter which I mentioned in the previous blog (Blog Day 193 – Batons and tear gas) where a nice man warned us to take a detour around the square and briefly explained that the protests were about the disastrous economy, we stumbled upon various signs of the chaos.
We’d caught the metro to a particular station and after navigating our way to the underground exit, emerged into daylight, caught ourselves up in what we presumed to be regular Tehranian pedestrian traffic and rounded the corner to cross the road. Tom Unkles was in the lead and he stopped abruptly, turned around and started walking back towards us. Looking ahead we spotted the 100 or so armed policemen facing away from us towards the road intersection and realised that we had inadvertently made our way to the back of a police barricade. Hastily re-entering the underground we found a different exit, skirted around that particular protest and continued on our way. A little way down the road we noticed black smoke billowing from a building one or two blocks away, and over the course of the day we came across several flaming bins and many smashed windows.
Most of the protestors were shop owners or people from the bazaar who’s business was taking a hasty downhill slide as the value of the Rial dropped (so I don’t know why they were vandalising each other’s properties). Although we didn’t actually witness any violence first hand, a Tehranian man who showed us around for a couple of days found himself amidst a riot and felt the tear gas that the police implemented.
That evening we sat on the roof of our hotel and watched the street that we had struggled to navigate our way down a couple of days before, now almost deserted and eerily quiet. Several entirely empty buses drove past, and streams of police vans whistled down the road. We weren’t quite sure whether these protests were going to fizzle out or blow up.
The day after that main day of protests we went back to the bazaar, hoping it would be re-opened. Parts of it were open, but huge sections were still completely shut up. A few weasels had decided to open up and take advantage of the lack of competition that day, while their fellow bazaarians were still out protesting for their livelihood.

On the metro there are women’s only carriages and uni-sex carriages. Most women travel on the women’s carriage, but there’s always a few travelling with the men. On our first trip I chose to board with my male companions and ride the uni-sex carriage. After we squeezed on to the already packed train, another hoard of travellers forced themselves on. I was almost lifted from the ground by the force, and breathing through the stench of BO, breath and aftershave was a feat. I endured a man’s arm that had been tangled up in the throng and wrapped around some other torsos, strategically resting on my body about 10cm below my chin. There wasn’t much I could do, but when the wave of bodies swayed and moved at the next station, an onlooker who had witnessed my predicament kindly stood up and offered me his seat. I decided to give the women’s carriage a go on our next trip.
I never travelled with the men on the train again. The women weren’t as smelly or as pushy and there was marginally more space. They were all very jovial with each other; it felt as if the whole carriage was occupied by one group that was travelling together. I was still stared at, but more out of interest than disdain – at least that’s what I’m happy to believe.
We stayed near the centre of Tehran, slightly to the South, which is the poorer, dirtier and more conservative part of the city. Thinking it would be nice to experience a different side of Tehran we adventured to Ghandi Street in the North. It was a bit of an adventure to get there as the exit from the metro took us onto the wrong side of a freeway intersection. We had to sidle down the side of the freeway, then double back to get onto a sort of footpath, cross the freeway and go under a bridge, then scramble up a grassy slope at the side of the road that took us to the grounds of a stable which backed onto an unfinished but very well guarded Docklands (in Melbourne) style futuristic building project. A few side streets later we found the Ghandi Shopping Centre and there we found an array of Western style cafes selling coffee, and a selection of boutique clothes stores. The difference in wealth between the South and the North was abundant – everyone on this side of town was well-dressed, the cars were slightly less bashed up, the shops were posh and expensive looking, and the women especially were much less conservative in their clothing style.
Although we carry our own shisha which we bought in Kazakhstan and use regularly whilst camping, we do like to visit shisha bars in cities when we get the opportunity. A packet of molasses which will last for maybe four shishas costs between 10,000 and 25,000 Rial ($1 = 24,000 – 35,000 Rial depending on the ever fluctuating exchange rate), but sitting in a cafe with one will cost 50,000 Rial. It’s a huge mark up, but we enjoy doing it anyway. Unfortunately though, the only ones we found in Tehran wouldn’t let me in. We have heard that until recently women were allowed to smoke shishas in public, but four months ago it became illegal. It is also illegal for women to smoke cigarettes in public, and this rule really is abided by. A few places have chosen to overlook the law and allow the women’s section to remain, but most have become completely men’s only establishments now. I assume there were plenty of men’s only places to begin with anyway. Unlike the trains where there are women’s only carriages, and women are allowed in the men’s carriages, the men’s section in a shisha bar is for men only, but men are welcome to join the women in the uni-sex section.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Day 189 – Hijabs and chadors. (Iran)

Babol Sar is a fairly non-descript town on the Northen Coast of Iran. We took four days to get here from the Turkmen border, exploring bits and pieces in between.
When we stopped in Quchan, the first town after crossing the border, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The first thing that stood out though was of course the women who were all covered head to toe in a black cape. The chador, as we have since found out it is called, is a garment I’ve never come across in another country. I’m familiar with the standard headscarf of all shapes and styles, the burka and the hijab, but the chador is new to me. It’s usually plain black (as I believe it is supposed to be), but sometimes there is a subtle pattern, it might be sheer in places, or it might just be in a colourful pattern. As far as I can see it is basically a large sheet, although I think some of them are shaped either around the head or curved around the bottom, and it is draped over the entire body, held in place usually by the woman’s hands, although I have seen a few older ladies pinning it together with their teeth.
I have never envied women that are forced to wear headscarves, imagining it to be quite uncomfortable and restrictive, and more importantly very hot in a climate such as Iran’s. What I’ve never really been aware of though is the women actually seeming to be uncomfortable. I’ve always assumed that if you’ve done something for your whole life and it’s all you know, then it’s not so bad. Most cultures – including Westerners – are forced into social and cultural restrictions and norms that individuals would prefer not to be part of. Some may be more extreme or overt than others, but we’re all used to what we’re used to. What has shocked me about Iran though is that the vast majority of women look visibly uncomfortable in what they’re forced to wear. I had to don a chador in order to visit a mosque, and not only is it stifling as expected (especially considering you still need to have your full covering underneath, including headscarf), it is incredibly hard to keep in place and is a constant struggle just to hold together. Of course it’s a struggle for me, being a first timer – but they all look as uncomfortable as I felt.
It’s been interesting passing through several different towns and observing the differences in each. It seems that the smaller towns have more women in chadors, and if not, then certainly properly covered in bland colours. A couple of larger cities we’ve visited have been very interesting in that forearm, ankle and almost the whole top of the head has been quite prevalent, and we’ve even spotted the occasional public display of affection (linked arms and hand holding). We stopped at a tiny village in the mountains to buy some supplies, and although the women I saw there were mostly in chadors and certainly fully covered (mind you it was freezing so even I didn’t mind covering up there) it was the first place where I was no more or less goggled at than my male companions.
There isn’t the overt sexism directed towards me that I had expected - the men just ignore me, and quite blatantly so. I actually can’t ask for a bill or fill up petrol, because no one responds to me. Even the 20 year old boy, studying to become an English teacher, who showed us around the town of Gonbad e Kavus and took us to the mosque where I wore a chador never once looked me in the eye. So it was really refreshing to visit this tiny village and be spoken at, gestured to and pointed at just as much as Ben, Tom and Tom.
Now we are in the beach town of Babol Sar on the Caspian Coast. Despite the fact that it’s not mentioned in any Western guide books and is only a small town with nothing particularly significant to visit, it is an ever so interesting place. This is where Iranians go for their holidays, and it’s something really special to witness how the locals let their hair down. After flukily finding an apartment on the beach (on a hunch, we picked up an old man with not a word of English who was standing at the side of the road waving a yellow sign in Farsi), we spent the evening milling around on the beach. Although the girls were still completely covered compared to Western standards, we saw a lot of hair falling out the front of scarves, neck uncovered by loose fitting garments, lots of rolled up sleeves, bare feet, and more colour than we’ve seen in the last four days. “Big hair” – large buns and scrunchies on top of the head, making the head scarf sit high in quite a suggestive position, seems to be the fashion, and we saw some big hair last night that would put Lady Gaga to shame.
I had been led to believe that the older generation – the ladies who remembered how it was in the older days – were quite liberal with their covering, fulfilling the bare minimum requirements and nothing more, the middle generation – the ones brought up in the 80’s – would be the most fundamentalist as it’s really all they’ve known, and the younger generation would by very nature, be more rebellious. What I’ve actually observed though is that the older ladies are more often than not covered in black chadors, the middle generation are often in chadors, or at least modestly dressed, and the younger generation is – as anticipated – more rebellious.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Day 184 – A City of White and Gold: The Dictator’s Dream. (Turkmenistan)

With only a five day transit visa, we’d spent our first day dealing with the border and finding Darvaza (Blog Day 182 – TheBurning Gates of Hell), the second day got us to Kow Ata (Blog Day 183 – Kow Ata), and now we had three days to get ourselves to Ashgabat, explore the city, and cross the border into Iran.

Ashgabat is the capital of Turkmenistan, an ex-Soviet state that has been run as a dictatorship since 1991. Turkmenbashy was the first President of the independent nation, and still revered by his people, is the classic supreme leader. When he died in 2006, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (who rumour has it was Turkmenbashy’s dentist) assumed power and followed in the great leader’s footsteps. Ashgabat is the current President’s project so it is still in the processes of construction.

We stopped at Tolkuchka Bazaar (the main market) on the way in to town. From the highway we were directed down an immaculate boulevard, lined with billboards of all things Turkmen and gated by a magnificent banner of the President. We parked the car and made our way into what we assumed to be the heart of the market. It was a very peculiar place; worlds apart from the lively, overcrowded, haphazard bazaars that we’ve become accustomed to, this felt more like an abandoned show ground. There were still a few people milling around the overly spacious grounds, and we ate in a more than satisfactory cafe where we enjoyed the fact that no one tried to rip us off. The shops were all open, the place ticked the boxes of being a regular and functioning market place, but it was so obviously purposely set up, and as a result lacked the heart and soul that most bazaars ooze. We were very excited though when we found Turkmen tracksuits and decked ourselves out with a matching kit. 

We hoped to make it back to this bazaar at some point, but when we did everything was closed. It was only then that we lapped the grounds and discovered the full scale of the market place. It covered several km, and laid out in neat sections, each building numbered and mapped out on the giant billboards, it was an eerie sight. 

Arriving in Ashgabat by mid-morning, we planned on finding accommodation quickly – we weren’t going to be fussy and were prepared to settle for the sake of making the most of our time in this unique capital city. We couldn’t believe it though when we were greeted in every single hotel/hostel/guesthouse with either “nyeto, nyeto” or “full”. We even tried the very top end hotels, including the Nissa which is owned by the President’s son and is located across the road from the President’s Palace. Aware that all hotel rooms inhabited by foreigners are required by law to be bugged, we came to the conclusion that there are only a few, if any, bugged rooms available for foreigners in each hotel. Eventually we found a dump where the sheets seemed to have been washed in head cat, but having wasted so much time we were glad just to have found somewhere that would take us in. 

Although we were on the outskirts, the way the city has been developed by the President in the last five years has a sprawl of white and gold buildings and monuments spread out along flat, wide boulevards, fanning out from the city in the direction of our hotel. So we drove along one of these avenues towards the city centre, taking the compulsory detour around the President’s Palace as the 6-lane road circling it is manned by policemen ensuring that the road not be driven on. We can assume it’s for security purposes, though I highly suspect it’s because the President would prefer to have a view of an unused, clean road out of his bedroom window.

Our first stop was the Lenin statue which we are led to believe is a meeting place for young homosexual Turkmens. We’ve seen plenty of monuments to Lenin in our time in Ex-Soviet Central Asia, but this one was particularly ornate. Unfortunately we didn’t stumble across any unconventional social meetings.

A bronze monument depicting a bull carrying the world on his horns had caught our attention on the way into town, so we revisited it and discovered that it’s a monument to a devastating earthquake that flattened the city in 1948 and took 110,000 lives, making it the 12th largest earthquake ever. The Soviets who were in power at the time brushed the incident under the carpet and denied the extent of the damage. Only in recent times have pictures and stories started coming out. It’s almost a humbling and tasteful monument, except for the golden baby Turkmenbashy held by his dead mother, rising out of the crack caused by the quake.

Ashgabat is certainly a city like no other I can imagine – the huge television screens flashing pictures of white buildings we were driving past, the favourite horses, carpets, flags and of course, the ever present President; surveillance cameras every one or two hundred metres; monuments to peace and independence on every second street corner; the manicured shrubs lining the perfect streets; gold statues and busts of the President and Turkmenbashy in roundabouts and squares , on buildings and banners; glamorous water features and above all the continuous white and gold that was every piece of architecture in the city. The Turkmenbashy House of Free Creativity is a building shaped like an open book with a golden bust of himself placed neatly in the top corner. Another building was decorated with golden carvings of the rugs on the Turkmen flag. Another has a giant globe suspended above it, Turkmenistan highlighted in gold and represented as approximately the size of China.

We stopped at Independence Park to take a close up look at Independence Monument, a large golden Turkmenbashy statue which used to rotate to face the sun, and the only statue of a book we’ve ever seen. We’d seen the giant Ruhnama from the road, but up close it was something else. Set amid a circular water feature, the pink and green book really stands out in the sea of white and gold. Turkmenbashy wrote the Ruhnama as a bible for the Turkmen people, and it is said that if it’s read three times (or 100, we’ve heard conflicting ideas), the reader will be granted access to heaven. The interesting thing about the Ruhnama as opposed to most other books of religious guidance (Bible, Khoran, etc) is that it is directed exclusively towards Turkmen people.

We really couldn’t find much in the way of evening/night life, so for dinner we made the slightly ironic decision of eating at the British pub, which we found to be quite satisfactory. It was quite surreal being inside this very British feeling establishment, knowing that we were in fact in the midst of one of the most unusual and repressed cities in the world. At about 10.30pm we had to come back to the bizarre reality that we were part of and make sure we were home in time for 11pm curfew.

The city at night was something else. All the white and gold and glamour that we’d spent the day taking in was set to dazzle come nightfall. Each building was spot lit in white, each water feature was flashing and colourful, and the magnificent streetlights glowed on every street. The aforementioned road circling the President’s Palace though was the most spectacular with not only the usual array of lights, but the white road markings also lit up. An incredible and ridiculous sight.

The following day our first stop was the Arch of Neutrality, which used to be in the centre of the city but has now been moved to the very edge of town. Set on the side of the hill to the South of Ashgabat, it is visible from most of the new city. A heinously wide divided boulevard leads up to the monument with large car parks on either side. Other than us, the boulevard and the car parks were empty. This was the case at each attraction we went to. I’m not sure whether the infrastructure has been constructed to host a future onslaught of tourism, or whether the President just enjoys large, empty car parks.

The Monument to the Constitution was our next visit – another white and gold phallic structure, surrounded by deserted car parks. And then the very exciting Wheel of Enlightenment which we were all looking forward to. White and gold as is the trend, this one was particularly exciting because it is a building in the shape of a wheel, and inside is the largest indoor ferris wheel in the world. It cost us 13 Manat ($5) for all of us to get into the complex and ride the wheel, and it was 13 Manat well spent. 

The young man who was manning the entrance to the wheel asked Denner if he was Jewish. We giggled at the assumption and corrected him, at which point he got very embarrassed and in some sort of effort to dig himself out of his hole, made it bigger by going on with “I hate Jews”. A little shocked and confused, but mostly just wanting to get on with our activities, we got into one of the air conditioned cabins. Through the white and golden framed windows we got a grand view point over the city, enjoying the sense of Enlightenment as we completed the circle. As we disembarked, our very humiliated friend made an awkward and unnecessary effort to apologise for his previous mistake.

The wheel itself wasn’t the only attraction inside the building. There was also a children’s game room, a teenagers’ game room, a souvenir shop and a food court. The souvenir shop was for display only – it is never open and nothing is for sale. The game rooms and food court were spotless and well staffed, yet void of customers. 

We spotted a bookshop and thought we’d take a look inside, hoping to find some Turkmen gems. Which we did. Amongst other things, Tom Unkles bought a delightful hardback depicting the President in all his glory riding horses and flying aeroplanes, but when Ben decided he wanted to follow Tom’s footsteps, he was devastated to find that that had been the last English copy. The ladies were very apologetic and gave him directions to somewhere that they were sure would stock it.

With the help of a friendly policeman, we found the Exhibition Centre which we had been directed to, and parked Trevor amidst the shiny Lexuses and spotless Landcruisers out front. Apprehensive as to whether we were about to try and enter an invite-only event, we approached the doors. Tom Unkles was turned away because he had shorts on, so he waited by the car while we went in to look for Ben’s book.

We had stumbled upon a Turkmen/Presidential exhibition, as I imagine they all are. When we realised this I went back to the car for my camera and to rescue Tom Unkles who donned a pair of jeans and joined us inside. Stalls selling the President’s many publications lined the walls along with carpet and traditional dress displays and a model of a proposed new building. Ben found the book he was looking for but decided to go with “The Leader”, the newest Presidential publication which the centre of the room seemed to be set up as a book signing area for. It’s hard to imagine the President actually sitting there in the midst of his people, but the scene would make an exceptional backdrop for a Photoshop job that can maybe be used for his next book.

When we’d had our fill of the “VII International Exposition-Fair: Book-Way of Collaboration and Progress”, we continued on our drive around the shining streets of Ashgabat. A bit hungry by this point we were hoping to find some sort of convenience store and spotting a building with advertising at the front that resembled a supermarket, we thought we’d hit jackpot. As we emerged through the front doors though, we realised we had found ourselves at yet another exhibition. This one was much smaller, but mostly along the same lines. Aside from the usual book and carpet stands though, there was an entire section dedicated to Uzbek products. The beer stand offering free samples took our fancy and we got chatting to the Uzbek stallholder, who didn’t bother to hide his disdain, about how tough it is trying to do business with Turkmens. As expected everything is overly controlled and he finds it very frustrating working with people who refuse to think for themselves. He’s hoping his reasonably priced Uzbek beer will do well because of the Soviet mind-set that Turkmenistan is still hung up on where imported goods are always better than local goods. 

Still hungry, we went to look at the convenience store at the corner of the exhibition hall. While I was considering whether to get crisps or biscuits and which soft drink I fancied, Ben was trying on an un-badged police hat. Thinking that could be another brilliant souvenir we asked the lady how much it was, and were greatly disappointed to find out that this was also display only. We’d seen their exhibitions, and the souvenir shop at the Wheel of Enlightenment, but this was a convenience store on a street corner in the city! Incredible! 

We hoped to visit Disneyland and the Presidential Museum, but Disneyland was closed and the Presidential Museum was expensive, so we went to have a closer look at a big ball on top of a hill that had caught our eye while we were driving around. The big ball was the Palace of Happiness, a globe inside a box of stars, which depicted Turkmenistan in the same light as the one on top of the previously mentioned building – huge, golden and central. 

As we drove back to our hotel the weather began to set in. The last and only other time we’d experienced rain in Central Asia was on our first afternoon in Astana – another dictator’s masterpiece; an eerie coincidence. We tried eating in a different establishment, but couldn’t find anything satisfactory so ended up back at the British pub again.

Before leaving the hotel, we’d carefully backed up all our photos, prepared for them to be rigorously checked and possibly deleted on exiting the country. We were glad we hadn’t been picked up saying anything inappropriate by the bugs in our rooms. 

Having such a short time in Turkmenistan made us really focus on appreciating it and although we don’t like the idea of having to wake up early and rush around like Japanese tourists on a tour bus, we did find ourselves oddly elated by the whole concept. The fact that Turkmenistan has such strict visa requirements is part of what made it such a unique and memorable country.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Day 183 – Kow Ata (Turkmenistan)


After seeing “The Gates of Hell”, we were pretty content that Turkmenistan was already worth it. Tempted to spend the entirety of our 5 day transit visa at Darvaza, we resisted andmoved towards Ashgabat in search of Kow Ata - a natural thermal lake buried deep inside a cave 100km West of the capital.

Despite the fact that no maps of Turkmenistan seem to have been drawn in at least the last five years, we found the location easily enough, and pulled up in the car park surrounded by kebab stall owners lighting the fires for their barbeques. We approached the signposted entrance, not exactly sure what we were going to, and were very sceptical when a man with a bum bag asked us for 40 Manat ($14) each. We’ve become very cautious about unauthorised civilians deciding to charge an ambiguous entry fee, but when we asked to see a ticket he was able to show a fairly official looking ticket book with the price clearly marked. He even was so kind as to point out that this ticket was for foreigners and his other ticket book was for locals. These ones also had the price clearly marked, the difference being that it was 3 Manat ($1) for them. How’s that for some dual pricing! This, we were soon to find out, was a trend that would continue throughout Turkmenistan.

Though insulting, 40 Manat is not actually an insane amount of money, and we had already made the trip, so we decided to bite the bullet and pay the price of being a tourist in a country that does not want tourists. We weren’t sure about male/female segregation and were prepared for the fact that that could be an issue, but the man with the bum bag looked at us a bit strangely when we asked, and assured us it was no problem.

We got our swimming gear out the car, stored our tickets, and using the slippery and ever so uneven steps, descended the 55m into the heart of the cave. The only lighting was a few naked globes suspended above the intermittent hand railing. It got more and more slippery as we approached the lake, and we felt the thermal heat encroaching on us as we descended.

There were quite a few other people in the lake when we got to it. Most of them were fairly boisterous young men who were quite taken with yelling and splashing. Given we were there from about 4:00 – 6:00 pm, we thought it could be a matter of knocking off work and going for a swim. At 3 Manat they can probably afford to. It seemed like a surprisingly “cool” place for youngsters to hang out.

A couple of young families with children came and went, and several women came for a swim. The strange thing about the women was that some swam fully clothed in modest dresses and trousers, while others wore particularly revealing and suggestive bikinis, or simply just their underwear. I felt quite out of place in my one-piece swimming costume; an uncomfortable middle ground.

The lake itself was a pond of shimmering blue at the base of the cave. The stink of sulphur was invasive, yet strangely enticing and the stagnant heat was suffocating. Once immersed in the water, the warmth took over our bodies, intoxicatingly refreshing and cleansing. Despite the irritating splashing and shouting from our young male companions, it was a beautiful place to relax.

The main part of the pool was vaguely circular, under a high ceiling, and lit by the fluorescent globes at the bottom of the stairs. Extending 75m into the cave though, this wasn’t all there was to see. We swam away from the people and the lights towards where a narrow opening in the stone walls led to another pool, and past that, the rest of the 75m of water. A couple of the more vocal of our fellow swimmers called out to us, crossing their arms in front of their chests in the international sign for “no”. Not sure whether they were just being rude or whether there actually was some reason that we shouldn’t go there, we decided to play it safe and resumed position on a conveniently placed bench-shaped rock that we took a liking to. When a couple of other men went the way we’d wanted to, and we could see them perched in the next opening, we decided it was probably fine and we’d take the risk. We’re still not sure why they were telling us not to go there, but we made it to a nice big perching rock where we hung out for as long as we could bear. The heat and the smell of sulphur became even more intense the deeper we got, and it wasn’t long until we felt the need to return to the main section of water.

When we felt that we were suitably restored and had most importantly had gotten our 40 Manat worth, we used the damp changing cubicles and began the ascent back to the cave entrance. Still moist and sticky from the humidity and sulphur, the climb back up those stairs was exhausting. We hadn’t quite realised on the way down, but some of the individual steps were as tall as my knees. As we emerged from the depths of the cave, the cool air from outside hit us. By the time we got to the top we were huffing and puffing quite considerably and very glad for the kebab stalls and their cold drinks.


Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Day 182 - The Burning Gates of Hell. (Turkmenistan)

Once we were through the border town of Dashoguz, we faced 300 km of desert before reaching our most anticipated destination on this trip. The flaming gas crater caused by a failed Soviet exploration of Turkmenistan’s natural gas reserves in 1971, has been left burning ever since. A 70m wide fiery hole in the ground, it has been suitably dubbed “The Gates of Hell”.

Other than the occasional car speeding past at 140 km/h and an intermittent convoy of Iranian trucks, it was just us, the sand dunes and some ankle high shrubbery all the way to Darvaza. Darvaza is a scattered and very dilapidated village; only a handful of tiny brick constructions strewn along the side of the road. A few partial foundations, shells of buildings and a couple of deserted chimneys were the only indication of what this place used to be. Darvaza was once a functioning and thriving town, but when the exalted President took a drive and found the town, he condemned it and demanded that it be demolished as he did not like how it looked. I wonder whether he has been back since and what he would think of the ghost of a town it has now become.

Just after the not so charming town, there is a road bridge that crosses the railway tracks. The peculiar thing about this is that the road doesn’t in fact join up to the bridge, but rather goes around it, crossing the railway tracks on the ground. The bridge in all its cemented glory, complete with barriers and street lights, is suspended beside the road with no way to drive on or off; a bizarre reflection on the state of Turkmenistan’s progress.

A couple of kilometres down the road from this memorable piece of infrastructure there is a sign pointing to something West of the road, and opposite the sign is a variety of tracks leading towards the sand dunes East of the road. At this point the tracks all lead in vaguely the same direction, so we chose the bit that seemed the best for driving and off we went. We crossed a small ridge that ran parallel to the road, then skidded our way through some sand dunes, and suddenly the tracks weren’t all going the same way and we had to try and guess which one to take. We mistakenly took a left hand fork and got ourselves a little bogged in the sand, right in front of a bizarre red cross made of heavy duty gas valves. We couldn’t decide whether it was a functioning piece of equipment or an odd monument of some kind. We inspected it at great length, had a fiddle, and when it sounded like gas was coming out of a valve that Ben had twisted, we decided to keep moving. 4WD on and we were no longer stuck.

We doubled back and took a different fork which led us East again. A couple of sand dunes later we realised that what we were approaching was some sort of mining field. A man poked his head out from behind a digger and we took the opportunity to ask directions. He knew exactly what we were talking about, and using the sand as a drawing board, gave us quite specific but mostly undiscernible instructions. We gathered that we should go back the way we had come and then either turn left or not turn left.

We turned around and headed back towards the main road, choosing to turn left where the landscape became a bit lunar and we suspected there could be some craters. After a bit of bumpy, but more solid driving, we concluded that this probably wasn’t the way and we should go back to our original track. As we began the u-turn though we spotted a kid on a bike up ahead so we approached him and asked for Darvaza. Again he knew exactly what we were referring to and again we were pointed back the way we had come. This was starting to feel like a wild goose chase. Then the kid offered to take us there if we wanted – of course we wanted! For a fee – darn. We had a quick discussion and decided given we’d already been driving around in circles for an hour and dusk was starting to set in, we should take up the chance of such a service. We pulled out 3 Manat, aware that at just over $1 it’s not really a lot of money, but he’s only a child and he seems to be going that way anyway. Surely he’d be pretty chuffed at the idea of $1 (I would have been when I was 12), and everyone wins. He laughed at our offer and asked for 70 Manat. No thanks.

Back to our original track once again. This time we decided to cross the track, getting a good feeling about a narrow but reasonably well worn path leading between two mounds. Funnily enough this was only 100m or so past the spot where we’d gotten stuck next to the weird gas valve cross over an hour before. We reached the small saddle joining the mounds, and as we descended the other side we were instantaneously struck speechless by the fierce glow emerging from the giant flaming crater that was suddenly visible up ahead.

Completely awestruck, we parked Trevor and ran down the valley towards the flames. Even from 200m away the heat was intense, catching in the wind and throwing itself at us. As we neared the edge of the crater, the enormity of the phenomenon began to become apparent to us. Even at dusk, the haze hovering in the air was thick and the glow immense. This giant crater, 70m in diameter, of which we were the only witnesses at this time, has been on fire for over 40 years. Drawn to the unguarded edge, perfectly aware of the imminent danger, yet strangely immune to the fear, we saw for ourselves the reality in the imagery of the name given the crater – “The Gates of Hell”. One gigantic flame swirled out from the centre of the hole, curling several metres into the air, while smaller flames seeped out from cracks all over the rock walls, blurring in the haze. We watched the burning crater all evening, from dusk to well into the night, continuing to be amazed by the increased intensity of the colour against the night back drop.

Our camping spot that night beats any other that I can possibly think of. The wind was strong, blowing the heat from the fire, along with sand from the desert floor up at us. It made for one of the dustiest and in many ways most uncomfortable evenings we’ve had, but all that was trumped by the sense of elation we all felt from the red glow rising from the earth in front of us. Even our camp stove struggled to stay lit in the gusty wind, and by the time we got around to eating our dinner, it was mainly dirt, mixed together with a bit of dirt. We barely noticed.

Had this man made natural disaster taken place in almost any other country in the world, it would not be the same experience. Most countries would put out the fire, bowing to the international pressure that would surely be placed on a government hosting such an environmental hazard. Many countries would leave it burning simply for the sake of attracting tourism, charging an extortionate entrance fee, littering the place with excessively friendly tour guides and vibrant information boards, and undoubtedly encouraging small business owners to set up shops selling cold drinks and a range of overpriced, tacky souvenirs. Tourism bureaus would probably build some sort of walkway over the top, there might be a photography service available, and of course the basic safety railing that would be required in keeping with safety regulations. Perhaps a clever investor would build some swanky apartment blocks, and it wouldn’t be long until an international hotel chain would set up shop advertising rooms with either “Desert View” or “Burning Gates of Hell View”.

Not only has none of this come to fruition in Turkmenistan, but most incredibly, I cannot stress the awesomeness of being completely alone with this unique scene. I presume that for a vast majority of the time, there’s not a single sole present at the crater. It brings to mind the old adage of whether the tree falling in an empty forest still thuds as it hits the ground.

I could easily write for pages on how unbelievable the scene was.