Unexpected

Both Iran and Turkey make world famous carpets. I almost bought one in Esfahan in Iran. Having looked at about 50 in different sizes and colours on one particular shop, I saw one that would go well in my living room. The asking price was €600. I wasn't convinced and anyway I couldn't afford it.  Then "just for you" he said "my best price is €400." I thought I'd chance my arm, so I offered €200. After much scribbling and scratching he said he'd take it if I paid cash there and then. It was my first carpet shop so I declined. As it happens, I didn't visit any other carpet shops in Iran.

Today I went with George to the Grand Bazar in Istanbul with no particular objective. Just before closing time we stopped for tea. Right next door was a carpet shop, so we chatted over our tea with one of the salesmen. We talked about carpets and Iran and about the mix of wool and silk, and so on. He knows Esfahan well and sells Iranian carpets as well as Turkish.

I told him I was out of the market but I liked his wares. I also told him about the carpet I liked in Esfahan. He showed me one more than twice the size just to show off. It was really nice, but way out of my price range at €1400.

Then the owner of the shop came out and joined the conversion. While he was telling me about the quality of the carpet in question I could hear George chatting in Turkish with the salesman. A nod in my direction seemed to indicate they were talking about me. George translated: "I told him you're a teacher so you don't have much money."

The boss overheard.  "You're a teacher?" he asked. "I have great respect for teachers. Thanks to my teachers I can speak English with you.  How much could you pay for this carpet without causing yourself pain?"  I had no intention of buying, so I replied "If I offered you €200 I bet you'd be offended."

With that, the boss issued some kind of orders to one of his assistants. Next thing I see someone rolling the carpet and wrapping it. "This is going to be my calling card in Paris. You'll tell everyone where you bought this, and that's worth more than money to me."

Next time any of you come to my place, I'll happily give you his business card.

Unexpectedly pleased!

The same only different

Those of you who know Paris may know the cluster of small streets near Place Saint Michel where there are lots of crappy "Greek" restaurants filled with tourists. The area of Istanbul where I had dinner last night reminds me of that.

Except it's much bigger, the restaurants are Turkish (no quotes) and the proportion of natives to tourists is about 80%.

Oh, and the food is really good.

Cleanliness and godliness

Going on a tour of Iran and Turkey is an adventure. I didn't have any experience of countries where Islam is the cultural norm. Everything is different from what I'm used to: lots of tea in cafés and "bars", not so much beer (better in Istanbul than Tehran, granted); mosques everywhere instead of churches; water jets rather than paper in the toilets.

This last was the most difficult to manage. I had read about the phenomenon and brought the necessary materials (wet variety in a resealable pack). But it turns out I didn't need it as much as I expected. The facilities are mixed, traditional and "western". And in general very clean in both countries.

Here's a tip: next time you're driving between cities in Turkey and you're looking for a place to stop to powder your nose, look out for a chain of service stations called Opet (written with a stylised initial O); they proudly boast that they have the cleanest public toilets in the country.

I've tried several. You can trust them.

Communities lost and found, and soon to be drowned

Turkey has seen many different cultures and peoples come and go over the millennia. We know quite a lot about most of them, such as the Greeks, the Persians, the Romans, the Arabs and the Mongols.

Each left their own mark, physical or otherwise. Perhaps the most obvious is the legacy of the Arabs who brought Islam to Turkey. Today over 90% of Turks are Muslim, culturally at least, if not devout.

Armenian cathedral, Aktamar Island,
Lake Van
But there are many sites that bear witness to the Christian heritage of what we now call Turkey.  Aktamar Island in Lake Van in south-eastern Turkey is the site of a 10th century Armenian cathedral. It has an impressive array of bas-relief carvings of biblical scenes on its outside walls, and some remains of frescoes on the inside. The whole island was a monastic settlement until 1915.

Church, Diyarbakir
We visited two Christian churches in Diyarbakir (there should not be a dot on that last i, but I don't know how to type it), one Armenian, the other or Syriac. Although they are not of the same religious community, their respective congregations are so small they hold a joint service on Sundays, alternately in one church or the other.

Göreme
Today we visited an incredible site in Göreme in central Anatolia: a network of churches built in caves during the Roman period when Christianity was the prevailing religion in the region.  The name Göreme means "cannot be seen" as the churches, monasteries and convents were hidden behind mounds of soft rock, which have since eroded. The site is in the middle of an area of strange rock formations nicknamed "fairy chimneys".

Göpekli Tepe
(detail)
These former communities, ancient and more recent, are well documented for their historical significance.  Completely unknown until the 1990s, however, is another site of huge archaeological importance: Göpekli Tepe.  This is the oldest architectural structure yet discovered in the world, dating from around the 10th millennium BC.  That's millennium, not century.

Hasankeyf
c. 1800 BC — AD 2015
It's wonderful that we are still discovering ancient sites of human development, but we are also losing some.  The loss might be through migration or other social phenomena, but sometimes it is a result of decisions taken in the name of modernisation.  The town of Hasankeyf is about to be lost forever.  It is scheduled to be flooded by an artificial lake on the Euphrates created by a dam just completed but not yet operational.  The waters will rise to the level of the top of the minaret of the town's mosque.

The next time I see it will be on a diving holiday.

Choice

Van is one of the biggest cities in eastern Anatolia. The population is mainly Kurdish and Muslim. It was our first stop in Turkey after almost two weeks in Iran.

Here, women wear headscarves if they choose; in Iran, women and girls over the age of nine are obliged to cover their heads in public. We can get alcohol in some restaurants and shops here; in Iran, that's not possible (unless you give the right nods and winks to a waiter who might know someone who has a supply and can arrange a delivery, to be consumed in secret in your hotel room). And I can wear shorts, which I was strongly advised not to try in Iran.

In politics too there are significant differences. Iranians vote in free elections for their parliament and president, but all political and legal decisions are subject to approval by the supreme leader. Nowadays the head of state doesn't wear diamond-studded regalia as in the days of the Shah; he wears clerical robes.

Turks elect their leaders, and chose a hegemonic, corrupt, "progressive-conservative-secular-Islamist" -- with stress on parts two and four -- as prime minister in three successive elections. The multi-faced Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is now standing for election as president of the Turkish Republic. In a Putin-Medvedev-style manoeuvre, he is proposing that the current president, Gül, take over as prime minister.

Cheers to choice!

Crossing the line

You expect to wait in line when you're crossing a border. So there was no surprise at Tehran train station when it took a long time to get through security and passport control. The x-ray machine was out of order so we all had to open or suitcases for checking.

Then it was "all aboard!", lots of whistles, and we set off in a great cloud of steam, bound for Turkey.

Nah, the steam was a joke. Diesel train.

I've already described my feelings about the train, so let's skip forward to the next afternoon and our arrival at the border. Our German travelling companion had done the trip in the opposite direction a few weeks previously. He warned us of the long delays on both sides of the frontier.

He wasn't joking! Iranian police boarded the train to check passports. We queued for quite a long time in the dining car before a table of officers.

My turn came and I was ordered to sit in front of a rather stern officer. He stared at me for a minute holding my passport open at arm's length. "What's your name?" This was no doubt a trick he learned at the passport control training day he did 20 years ago to see if I'd crack and say a different name to the one on my papers. I got it right.  "Where are you from?" I started to sweat. But I got that one right too.  Then he did a pen-and-paper calculation to see if my exit date was within the 15 days allowed on my visa. "Go!" Sigh of relief.

I went back to my cabin to relax and get over the trauma. We were just starting to laugh about the situation when a guard stuck his head on. "All off the train, with all your baggage." Not funny anymore.

All 300 passengers trundled into a hot waiting room with no air conditioning and waited for something to happen. Nothing did for over an hour, then we got the order to file into the next room where our bags would be checked again. I suppose this was just in case we'd manufactured some illegal or immoral items since the check at departure.

In the event both George and I were waved through without having to open our bags, so out we went into the sun to wait again. We couldn't get back on the train as the police were checking the compartments one by one. Another hour later we finely got the OK to board. But not before another quick check of every passport, visa and exit stamp.

God knows how long later we finally got going again, but not for long. Around five minutes and 200 metres later we arrived at the Turkish border post.

This time we had to disembark sans bagages. The queue moved reasonably fast and within only an hour all 250 or so passengers were checked. But we still couldn't get back on the train. They had to change the locomotive from an Iranian one to a Turkish. But the Turkish one was not yet available...

Frustrating! The word isn't strong enough. Infuriating would be closer, but still doesn't quite do the job.

Overall we calculated that we wasted six hours with bureaucratic nonsense. Why didn't the Iranian border police board the train at Tabriz, the last boarding station in Iran before the border, and go through the cabins while the train was moving? The Turkish police could do the same. Why did they have to check our bags again?

I don't expect logical answers to those questions, but I'm going to send them to various official bodies in both countries. If I get any replies I'll keep you posted.

Don't hold your breath.

Just because everyone says it...

... it doesn't make it true!

In all the articles, books and blogs we read about Iran before the trip, the most common theme was how nice the people are, how happy they are to see foreign visitors, and how willing they are to help. In this case, it is true!

Everywhere we've been in Iran – Tehran, Esfahan, Yazd, Shiraz – we've met the nicest people (excpt the taxi driver who tried to rip us off in Shiraz). People spontaneously offered to help when they heard us speaking English: in shops, train stations, at historic monuments. Some were quite fluent in English, while others had a basic grasp of the language. In all situations, though, their English was better than our Farsi! There were also many people who spoke Azerbaijani – a Turkic language – so George could manage to discuss things with them. So all in all, communication was manageable. 

But we have to reserve a special mention for our new Iranian friends. We had the good fortune to meet Masoud in Paris while we were planning our trip. He gave us lots of advice about places to go, things to see. He was also very helpful in my quest to get a visa, and he put us in touch with his friend, Asmaneh, who is a travel agent in Tehran. She organised my visa and our internal travel within Iran.

Masoud's friends Behrooz and Samaneh offered to put us up for our first night in Tehran, thus sparing us the hassle of finding a hotel. In fact, they insisted we stay with them for the three nights we spent in the city before heading south for our tour.

They in turn introduced us to their friends, Saman and Asma. All four were charming, generous hosts. They fed and watered us -- even when they, themselves, were observing the Ramadan fast -- and chauffered us around Tehran. They organised visits to museums and galleries, and showed us a side of the daily life of Iranians that we would not otherwise have seen.

Maybe some day we'll be able to return the compliment to our Iranian friends in Paris, Istanbul or Dublin.

We're leaving Iran today, heading for Turkey. But we're taking fond memories and new friendships with us.

Thank you!

Gökçe & Páraic.

Why so few photos?

Internet connections in Iran are complicated! First of all, the WiFi in the places we've stayed has been unreliable. Then we have to deal with filters imposed by the government that block undesirable websites such as Facebook and Blogger (which I use to publish my blog). There are ways around this censorship and many Iranians use Facebook regularly. But it's a bit more tricky when you're on the road.

So, I actually post to this blog via email, which limits the possibility of publishing photos because of the size. I have loads of photos, some more of which I'll post once I get to Turkey on Thursday.


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(Sent from my tablet device)

Great?

Alexander, the Macedonian king, is often called "the great". This is because he conquered many lands and peoples, not because he was a great guy. 

If you had any doubts about that, a visit to the ruins of Persepolis would put you straight. Alexander plundered Darius I's great royal complex of Parsa -- as it was then known -- taking away 3000 camel-loads of jewellery. What he couldn't take, he torched.

The remains of the site were abandoned and eventually almost completely covered in sand, with only the tallest columns visible. It wasn't until the 20th century that a new wave of plundering could begin when the ruins were rediscovered. This time there was less left to take.

The Iranians, not having the necessary expertise in archaeology, called on Europeans for help. The deal was they could take away stonework or pottery, but not any gold or precious stones. Next time you're in the Louvre or the British Museum, look out for items from Persepolis and spare a thought for the Iranian people whose heritage you're admiring.

Our guide was very knowledgeable and spoke good English. (All of the above is from him -- paraphrased by me -- to you, dear reader.) He pointed out a lot of the detail that can still be seen in the bas-relief sculptures, despite the widespread damage to the structures overall.  You can identify the representatives of the many nations that were subjects of the Persian empire by the style of their robes and headgear. They are depicted paying homage to Darius and offering gifts from their own regions.

We visited on an extremely hot day, suitably clad in wide-brimmed hats, long trousers and long sleeves. In our group there were three Austrians, two Luxemburgers, a guy from Hong Kong, and us.

In a way it's rather a sad, desolate site, an echo of an age long past. You just have to imagine the splendour of the place before Alexander rode through. 

Alexander the Git!


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(Sent from my tablet device)

When is a rial not a rial?

When it's a tenth of a toman.

The currency of Iran is the rial. At current rates you get about 40000 rials to a euro.  That means you chop off five zeros and divide by four to convert prices. The really confusing thing is that most Iranians talk in tomans. One toman is a thousand rials. So you have to be careful how many zeros you truncate. Shops sometimes display prices in rials, sometimes in tomans. Even more confusing is that people in markets, for example, will give a price as "five" when they mean five thousand tomans, which is fifty thousand rials, or €1.25. Are you with me?

We had a bad experience tonight with a taxi driver. As usual, we negotiated a price before we got in (there are no meters): "three" (that's 3000 tomans, 30000 rials, about 0.75 euro). We arrived at our destination and presented the driver with the money. No! he shouted. He took out two 50000 rial notes and said "that's one, you owe me three!" He wanted 300000 rials, ten times the normal fare. We left the money and got out of the car. He followed us, gesticulating and shouting, explaining his case (apparently) to shopkeepers and passersby. 

A few moments after arriving in our hotel room, the phone rang, but though I could hear voices, no one spoke. We went down to reception to see what was up. The crooked taxi driver had been in looking for us. We told the manager our story and he agreed it was an attempted rip off. We suggested calling the police if the guy came back, though I confess I didn't relish the prospect of an investigation. The driver didn't stick around long, but we wondered if he was waiting nearby.

We'll see...



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(Sent from my tablet device)

Silence

Yazd is a small city in the desert between two mountain ranges, and sits at 1200 metres above sea level. My guide book describes is as one of the highlights of a trip to Iran. I disagree; it's been the lowlight so far on this trip.

That's not to say it was a wasted visit; its maze of narrow covered alleys, its water museum and the nearby Zoroastrian tower of silence were interesting. 

This last is a temple on a hill just outside town. It comprises two towers on small hills, surrounded by a series of low adobe houses.

Maybe it's the time of year -- high summer coinciding with Ramadan -- but the whole town was very quiet.

If you happen to be passing, stop for a few hours.  But don't bother making the detour.


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(Sent from my tablet device)

Half the world?

When the Safavid dynasty came to power in the 16th century they established their capital in various places before finally settling on Esfahan (or Isfahan, or Ispahan). Here, they set about building a fine city, worthy of the name Capital of the Persian Empire. They used to say "Esfahan nesf-e jahan" - Esfahan is half the world, an indication of how they perceived their own realm.

Their legacy is a sight to behold: several great mosques, including Jameh Mosque, one of the biggest in the country, with elements from Mongol, Turkic and Persian cultures; Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, with its fabulously decorated domed ceiling (the background image of this blog); and the Shah Mosque (called Imam Mosque since the revolution), beautifully decorated in blue-tiled mosaics.  These are the most remarkable among many mosques in the city.

But it wasn't all about piety for the Safavids.  They also built palaces to display their wealth, gardens with fountains and artificial streams for pleasure, and the fine Si-o-seh Bridge with its 33 arches to cross the Zayendeh River (completely dry in summer).

Many people in the street stopped us to ask where we were from and to welcome us to Iran. Most were genuinely pleased just to have visitors, but a few had ulterior motives. "It's so nice to see you! Come and have tea in my carpet shop." We did visit one carpet shop and saw some beautiful pieces. The prices are negotiable, and I got one guy down to half his asking price. I didn't buy; it was just practice. Maybe in Shiraz.

Although we're in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan (here, they say Ramazan), we could still get food and during the day in the restaurants and cafés of international hotels. But no alcohol! One waiter told us he could get us a bottle, but it would be expensive. For example, €100 for a bottle of cognac. We declined.

A trip to the Zoroastrian fire temple just outside the town rounded off our visit to Esfahan. Now we're off to the town with the biggest Zoroastrian population on the country, Yazd.

Money

You wouldn't believe the number of banks in Tehran! There are several long streets where about half of the shop-fronts are banks, often five or six in a row. And they all have their name in Farsi and English, so I don't believe it's a misunderstanding on my part.

We arrived in Iran with cash in euros only so we needed to change some into rials. A friend -- not our host -- took us out to do the necessary. As we sailed past rows of banks we wondered which one he was going to choose. 

Then the car stopped and two guys approached us from another car. Police? Were we speeding? Heated exchange between our fiend and the two strangers.

"He says 41000 rials." For what? "That's the exchange rate per euro." The shady guys were freelance money dealers. After more discussion and lots of brandishing of calculators we drove away with almost 25 million rials.

Millionaires at last!

Crown jewels

Iran's former kings certainly had a taste for precious stones! The Qajars and Pahlavis amassed a collection of beautiful crowns, tiaras, sceptres, broaches, amulets, swords and other symbols of power, encrusted with unbelievable numbers of precious stones.

With the overthrow of the last shah, the collection was transferred from the royal palace to the vaults of the Central Bank of Iran. The airport-style security system at the entrance -- no cameras, telephones, cigarette lighters, etc. -- is understandable when you see the more than 30 display cases packed with pieces containing hundreds of kilograms of gold and many thousands of jewels, including grape-sized diamonds and emeralds the size of a ping-pong ball. Our guide told us the precise details of selected pieces and let us observe the rest of the jaw-dropping collection in our own time.

As we browsed we noticed a large number of men in suits shadowing the visitors; I estimated one agent for five visitors.

A breathtaking collection, not to be missed on your next trip to Tehran.

Photos

I've added a new Photos page to the blog.  This will be updated less frequently than the text page due to difficulties in getting a stable connection.

Murder in Alamut Valley

Alamut Valley, beneath the giant peaks of the Alborz Mountains to the north-west of Tehran, is the site of a chain of 50 fortresses. They were built in Mediaeval times and taken over by the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam – currently led by the Aga Khan – and their tough sidekicks, the Assassins.

The latter gave their name to a rather robust method of dealing with political enemies. Legend has it they are also the origin of the word hashish.  According to legend, they would get high on weed before going on a mission.

The name Alamut means "eagle's nest" – for its position, perched on top of a giant rock – and the strategic importance of its dominant position is clear.

The scenery is fabulous and the views from the ramparts are impressive.  The 40-minute to climb to the castle this afternoon in 38°C was murder!

Next glass of wine?

"How are you going to manage two weeks without a drink?" That was one of the most common questions (just after "isn't it dangerous, going to Iran?").

I consoled myself with the notion that a booze-free stretch would do the body good. And they have good tea in Iran, so it's going to be easy. Easier than I expected.

Little did I think that on my first day in the Islamic Republic of Iran I would drink wine and apple schnapps... and eat pork!

Welcome to Iran!

Considering the urgency of my visa situation (see previous posts), our Iran travel advisor organised an authorisation number directly from the ministry – of what, I don't exactly know – in Tehran, to be presented in exchange for a visa on arrival at Imam Khomeini Airport.

I expected an ordeal, maybe a few hours' wait while they checked me out (we arrived at night); perhaps even a refusal. Nothing of the kind! I showed my number, paid €40, and the official placed the pre-prepared visa in my passport. "Welcome to Iran!" she said with a smile and a slight inclination of the head. "Enjoy your stay!" said the police officer who checked my passport.

But that was just the start of the pleasant experience. We took a tax – having agreed the €15 fare before getting in – the 60 kilometres to the house of our hosts, friends of our Paris-based Iranian friend, Masoud. This newly-wed couple waited up until we arrived at 3.30 a.m. (in other words, the middle of the night). They made us sandwiches and fruit drinks and started arranging a day trip for the next day...

A tale of two visas

Two problems have been resolved at the last minute, both concerning visas – one with a capital V, the other a small one, though this does not reflect the importance of each problem.

The big problem is the visa!  After a dozen unanswered phone calls, several emails and two trips to the consulate of the Iranian embassy in Paris (including one when I was accompanied by an Iranian friend whose family has very kindly offered to vouch for us), I finally got confirmation today that my visa application has been approved.  I don't have an actual visa yet, but I have an authorisation number that will allow me to get one on arrival in Tehran.

The other issue is my Visa card.  I changed banks a few months ago and have only in the last few days received my new card.  It's no use in Iran but will be much used and abused in Turkey and whatever other countries I visit before I travel back to Paris.

Next post from Tehran – airport, jail, hotel or cybercafé... we'll see!