Path: Travel > Destinations > Middle East 2006 > ME2006 Mails English

ME2006 Mails English

Following is the full text of all English emails we sent during this trip. The texts are original copies, shown here as sent: typos, errors, warts and all (the same in French).


Subject: Istanbul - Ankara - Bogazkale

Date: Sun, 26 Mar 2006 16:58:52 +0300

Dear all:
we are now in a small town in Central Anatolia called Sungurlu. This
is the springboard for a place called Bogazkale, which we will visit
tomorrow. Bogazkale was the Hittite capital, a few thousand years ago,
and there seem to be sizeable remains (translation: heaps of
rubble:-)). From what the guide book says, it must be impressive...
we'll see. Let's just hope it doesn't rain.
Because that's the current fly in the ointment: the weather is not
very good. To be honest, it is downright bad. We have daytime temps of
around 8 to 10C, and the nights can be close to freezing (Istanbul was
slightly warmer, especially our first day, last Thursday, when we had
indeed some sun.) The Anatolian plateau, being about 1000m above sea
level, is definitely cooler.
It was good coming back to Istanbul. We saw most of the great mosques
once again, the Galata tower, strolled along the banks of the
Bosphorus and visited the bazaar. A full program for a day! But we
knew all that, of course, so no big surprises there.
Then we took a bus to Ankara which was in some ways a surprise and in
others a disappointment. We thought that city would be modern, along
the same lines as Istanbul is a modern, Westernized city. Parts of
Ankara are certainly modern but the general feeling we had after
strolling through a few neighbourhoods was more that of a rundown city
with a distinctly Eastern Bloc feeling (the buses, for example, look
definitely like old Russian stinkers and they produce about as much
fumes, making Ankara a rather polluted place). After dark, the streets
are mostly unlit, whatever light there is comes from shops and the
like. In short: it was not the sort of modern, shiny place we had
expected after Istanbul (or even after such Turkish cities as Bursa or
Konya: both look more cheerful, less neglected than Ankara).
Beside the citadel (impressive) and a couple of mosques (among them
one so-called forest mosque: all columns are made of big wooden posts
and support a wonderful wooden ceiling), Ankara has the Anit Kabir,
Ataturk's monumental mausoleum (this man really suffers from a bad
case of personality cult) and the highly touted Museum for Anatolian
Civilisations.We found the latter interesting though a bit
disappointing: too many pieces (many admittedly of amazing beauty or
quality) but not enough explanations: often we had no idea where a
piece originated or what time period it came from. One of those cases
where just a little more effort would have gone a long way... (By the
way: we have a nice "comparison museum", so to speak, as we did the
Cyprus National Museum in Nicosia just a few months ago: this was
first class.)
Well, that's it for the time being. We are still adjusting to the cold
and we think that Erzurum, being another 1000m higher than Central
Anatolia, will be a lot of fun:-). But we have woollen hats, gloves,
fleece pullovers etc.
Ah yes, in the meantime we have indeed received our authorisation code
for the Iranian visas and Vero had today, in Sungurlu, her picture
taken: she looks very strict, like a schoolteacher, with a tight
headscarf and no strand of hair in sight. Well, if that's what it
takes to get the visas...
We'll probably get in touch from Erzurum, in about a week or so.
Have a nice week!
Vero + Thomas

Subject: Bogazkale - Amasya - Sivas - Erzurum absurd theatre

Date: Mon, 3 Apr 2006 18:10:50 +0300

Dear all,
a little later than expected, because we are still trying to thaw
ourselves: Erzurum is a really f...ing cold place. There's still lots
of snow around and we even had some pretty big flakes today. And we
have finally realised that we must be crazy.
As to Bogazkale, the Hittite capital of 3500 years ago, it was
impressive in the same way as Troy was: a great site though not much
"reality" is left. There were a few foundations of giant temples, one
with an enigmatic green cubic stone sent by Ramses II ages ago as a
wedding present. We also saw a few gates, with lions and sphinxes and
a good part of the city walls as well as two castles. The whole thing
is immense, but one needs a good bit of imagination to picture how
life might have been there a few millenia ago. Worthwhile, though not
one of the top sites in Turkey.
Along the way to Amasya, our next stop, we went through Corum, the
chickpea capital of Turkey and probably the world. You would not
believe how many varieties and ways of preparing the little peas these
guys have over there.
Then came Amasya, a nice riverside town with a castle, a few huge
Pontic tombs (hewn into the bare rock, not unlike a more primitive
version of Petra) and the old half-timbered houses lining the banks of
the river (Yesilirmak). Very relaxing spot, but we did something very
unTurkish there: we climbed a mountain to the southwest of Amasya,
about 300m above town... to watch the total solar eclipse, of course.
It wasn't our first total, but it was definitely an amazing
experience: how the town far below sank into darkness, how the lights
went on over the river and mosques, how the sun came back. A very
nice, if sweaty excursion.
After this we continued our trek east to Sivas, an old Seljuk town
with quite a few impressive Seljuk monuments: medresses (Islamic
schools), mosques, tombs. Here, the influence of the
Persian/Central-Asian style of architecture was already clearly
visible.
This is true even more in the case of Erzurum, where we are now. We
are only about 300 km from the Iranian border now, and the minarets
and mosques do not look anymore like they do in Central Anatolia: not
the typical slender Ottoman "rocket" but more the thick,
brick-and-tile style of Persia.
Some intricate Seljuk monuments notwithstanding, Erzurum is not really
an attractive town. Rather dirty, run-down, polluted... Anyway, the
main reason to come here was to get our Iranian visas. Which we
actually received today: we spent a whole day in the Iranian
consulate, together with about 12 Turkmenistan travellers, and it was
pure absurd theatre, Beckett and Kafka rolled into one: absolutely no
information about what goes on (or doesn't go on), no facilities, just
a bored, silent clerk with a command of about two-and-a-half words of
English behind a huge mirrored glass wall, so that we couldn't look
inside.
But we got the visas: punctually at 16.30 (closing time) the clerk
arrived with a huge bundle of passports and distributed them among the
waiting plebs with great magnamity. Thomas has a suspicion that all
the visas were ready by midday and that they just kept us all waiting
for the sake of it. Well, at least the Turkmen (and ...women) were a
jolly bunch of companions. It was bad but it could have been much
worse.
Worse is, by the way, the word for the weather. Since Sivas it rains
or snows and it's completely overcast and cold. If this goes on, we'll
not even see a glimpse of Mt Ararat!
By the way, on the way from Sivas to Erzurum, the bus followed for a
good 100km the young Euphrates: a rather small but very lively river
up here, winding its way through deep, rocky gorges. Difficult to
imagine its grandeur further down.
Next mail will come from Iran, but no idea from where. Perhaps Tabriz
or Tehran, we will see.
All is okay, otherwise, we are in good mood and are looking forward to
seeing Iran.
All the best
Thomas and Vero

Subject: Dogubeyazit - Tabriz

Date: Sun, 9 Apr 2006 16:13:19 +0430

Dear all,
we are now in Tabriz and all went well so far. Iran seems to be not
unlike Syria in some respects: the government and some officials are
nasty and obstructive when given half a chance -- but the actual
people on the ground are enormously friendly. In fact, some are almost
too friendly: they keep asking us whether we have problems, need help
or whether they can do ANYTHING for us. A few seem disappointed that
we have no problems so far:-)
Back to our last days in Turkey. We drove from Erzurum to Dogubeyazit
with an old minibus over very bad roads (the roads in Iran are MUCH
better than in Eastern Turkey) and stayed there for another day. There
is a famous castle-cum-mosque-cum-palace about 6km to the southeast
and we went up there next day. The Isaac Pasha palace, as it's called,
is indeed a wondrous thing: it sits in the middle of nowhere, with a
fabulous landscape around (not anymore the green of the Anatolian
steppe but already the dry and parched earth of Persia) and it looks
really like a palace out of 1001 nights. (We'll send pics, promised.)
Well worth the trip, even if we had some spits and spots of rain on
the way back.
The other famous sight there is of course Mt Ararat and though it was
very cloudy when we arrived we did see patches of the lower slopes,
with masses of snow. Later on we even saw almost the whole mountain,
just the middle part was still covered. The whole heap is big but not
as big as we imagined: not unlike Kilimanjaro which is, despite its
5895m, not that impressive when seen from the plains.
The following day we crossed the border at Bazargan: no problems, just
30 mins and an anxious Vero who feared not to pass the Iranian dress
code test. The fact is that some Iranian women (mostly young
urbanites) do show quite some hair, some even more than just the
fringes, while others dare to walk in sandals without (!) socks and
the tight jeans rolled up to show their nice ankles. The ladies are
all very slender here and many wear figure-hugging jackets, covering
barely the bottom.
So on that front all went well. Transport is quite well organised
though smaller villages seem to have similar "connectivity" problems
as in Turkey. So we took a bus from Maku (near the border) to Tabriz
(250km), a famous old oasis on the silk road and our first stop.
(Marco Polo was here as well.)
We liked the place though it sometimes looks more like a English
industrial landscape: big buildings with huge windows, made of small
yellow/beige bricks very much like in the UK.
The big thing to see here is the Blue Mosque which broke down about
200 years ago in an earthquake and was re-built just a few decades
ago. Indeed the re-building effort continues to this day. There are
still many of the old tiles left which are not the simple rectangular
type, but an intricate inlaid work with many colours. A fine mosque
and definitely a nice introduction to the Persian style of mosque
building (quite different to the Ottoman mosques of Turkey: much more
colourful with not as many minarets and a completely different style
for the central dome).
Today we've been to a small village deep in the mountains southeast of
Tabriz called Kandovan: this is a sort of mini-Cappadocia where people
and sheep (nowadays mostly the latter) live troglodyte-style in
fairy-tale "chimney" rocks. It's an interesting place but certainly
not as varied as Cappadocia. But it was a very fine excursion where we
even had some snow on the higher slopes.
The weather has finally turned sunny and almost hot (for us, the
locals still run around as if it's deepest winter). This evening we'll
try to take a night train to Tehran; as we're only on standby, we'll
see what happens. If we can't get places we take a night bus instead.
The next installment might come in a week or so, from either Kashan or
Yazd.
That's it for the time being, please do take care! And thanks for all
who wrote back: we really appreciate that!
Vero + Thomas

Subject: Tehran - Kashan - Esfahan (at last)

Date: Sun, 16 Apr 2006 13:32:58 +0430

Dear all,
we've just arrived in Esfahan, one of THE jewels of Persia. In fact,
we can already see that this place deserves a mail on its own so we
will send another installment relatively quickly (perhaps on
Thursday?) to tell you about the many wonders of Esfahan.
Anyway, we left you in Tabriz. It turned out that the train was full,
so we took a night bus. The first bus we chartered in central Tabriz
developed a fault within a few kilometres, but as luck would have it,
we were not too far away from the brightly lit main bus station. So we
shouldered our bags (we had not yet paid the fare), crossed a few
motorway lanes and wandered to the bus station, where we immediately
found another bus in working order. The journey was okayish, though we
got not as much sleep as in a hotel room. But night travel is a great
time-saver.
Well, Tehran. This is a place one has to see to believe how awful it
can get. The traffic is... there's no word for it. Forget London,
Paris, Madrid... forget even Cairo: Tehran is a monster. There are no
rules, everyone drives everywhere and into every possible direction
(any signs notwithstanding). Favourite is driving backwards in one-way
streets: we have seen cases where people were simply run over by a
driver who backtracked and didn't pay one bit of attention to what
went on behind him. Then there are the guys who take a roundabout in
the wrong direction...
But all that is manageable. What is not and what makes Tehran a)
dangerous and b) impossible to enjoy is the immense number of
motorcycles. These outnumber cars by about 3 to 1 and at times the
streets literally sound like a Formula-1 racing course. The noise is
deafening and after a while you wish you were anywhere... but not in
Tehran.
Pollution is impossible as well. There is a huge, snowy mountain chain
(the Alborz) to the north of Tehran (highest point is Mt Davarmand
with 5617m) and it's an awesome sight from the streets of Tehran...
but the snow appears not white, not even grey, it's an unhealthy
brown.
Other than traffic, Tehran has a few palaces (Golestan and the late
Shah's residences) but they are not very impressive. The Shah was a
man of dubious taste at best (some of the rooms are decorated in such
a manner that painting the walls in a pure white would be a great
relief). Still, it's interesting to walk in the footsteps of history
and see, for example, the room where the Shah and his CIA contacts
plotted the 1953 coup against Mossadegh.
The Golestan palaces are mostly Qajar creations (about 100 to 200
years old), and once again the painted tiles are less than tasteful:
very colourful, that's for sure, but colour is not all:-)
There were a few other sights in Tehran (like Imam Khomeini's shrine,
a complete non-event: looks like a cross between a half-finished
factory and the Musee Beaubourg in Paris)... but in retrospect we
should have stayed just two, not three days. Well, at least we did
some hiking and scrambling in the foothills of the Alborz: amazing how
quickly Tehran peters out... a few hundred meters and we were in the
mountains.
Next stop was Kashan, a place about 200km south of Tehran. Kashan is a
complete change of scenery: a town on the fringes of the desert, most
houses are made of mud or brick which is covered with a layer of mud.
Twisting lanes, hot sun, but what a joy after Tehran! There are some
very impressive Islamic tombs and medresses there and also a few
traditional houses, built some 150 years ago by rich merchants. These
houses are unassuming from the outside: just bare walls, covered with
mud. But inside there is pure luxury: cool pools, shady iwans, green
gardens... and more rooms than even Bill Gates could fill.
Well, yesterday we took the bus to Esfahan... and what little we have
seen so far is indeed breathtaking. But all that will wait for the
next mail. Instead, here are some general remarks and impressions of
Iran:
* The number of people with Mongolian/Chinese faces is astonishing.
Well, this is one of the countries most often overrun by Mongols and
other assorted tribes from the East. Still, we have not seen this type
of people in Eastern Turkey or Syria.
* There are many people who'd rather leave Iran if they could (mostly
educated or young guys, also many women). The list of "hosts" is
topped by Canada, followed by France and Germany. But some would even
go to Russia...!
* The famed bazars of Iran are a mixed bags so far. Tabriz was
disappointing: not very active and the carpet traders have taken over
many lanes and stalls. Tehran was much livelier and also more varied.
Kashan's is nice (climbing on the roof and seeing the maze of
mud-covered domes was an experience!) but too small to be really
impressive. Esfahan... well, we'll report.
* People in the long-distance buses use rose water to refresh
themselves and we'll long remember that distinctive, sensual sweet
smell: not a scent you normally connect with long, sweaty bus
drives:-)
* The locals are absolute teetotallers (like in Syria, though not in
Turkey, alas). New and a very welcome change is that almost nobody
smokes either (other than waterpipes, that is).
* Many (though by no means all) Iranian shopkeepers, hotels, taxi
drivers... have a policy of dual pricing, not unlike in Jordan. A
foreigner pays between 20 and 100% more, depending on his/her nose,
the greed of the seller, the moon phase and God knows what. Two ways
to deal with that are to watch what locals pay and to buy in shops
which display prices (Iranians seem to assume that if we can't read
Farsi, we can't read the numbers either).
* One Euro buys about 70 litres of diesel. That's not a typo: one
litre of diesel costs about 1.5 cent or 1p.
* There are no or not many kids on the streets. In Tehran, this may
well be a simple survival policy but even in other places we've not
seen many kids. This gives the streets a somber and sometimes subdued
feeling.
* It's difficult to find eateries with "real" local food. Either it's
fast food, pizzas or very strange looking sandwiches, or it's a sort
of place that sells a soup made of tripes (the smell is bad enough,
thanks). Or we resort to the tourist traps, as far as they exist: also
not a very good option.
Well, that's it for the time being. Next mail will come in a few days'
time, after we've digested the beautiful Esfahani monuments and
sights!
So take care and keep writing!
Vero + Thomas
PS: The weather has finally turned hot: if this were England we would
talk about heatwaves:-) All the rest is in working order as well.

Subject: Esfahan - Esfahan - Esfahan

Date: Wed, 19 Apr 2006 10:46:13 -0230

Dear all,
after we've been granted an audience with his HH Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei, Thomas has been elevated to the formidable position of
Defender of the Faith, Ever-bubbling Fountain of Wisdom and Promoter
of Tourism in Iran. (After thoroughly checking Vero's headgear the
Ayatollah agreed to promote her as well: she is now the Assistant of
the Defender of the Faith etc.)
And here is the first statement of the Defender of the Faith etc: COME
AND SEE ESFAHAN!
Okay, seriously. Esfahan has more than repaid us for our troubles in
Tehran: this city is a definite MUST SEE. And we mean it: the
splendours of Esfahan are such that we would need to be a Hafez or a
Rumi (famous Persian poets) rolled into one to do them any justice.
There is the Imam Mosque: perhaps the most amazing mosque in the
Middle East. There is the Ali Qapu palace: a marvel of Persian secular
arts. (Search the internet for photos.) There is the Jameh Mosque:
largest in Iran, and a veritable museum of mosque building over 800
years. Or the Chetel Sotun palace...
And Esfahan has not only the monuments and sights. It also has broad,
green boulevards, a big, cool river (Iranians love water), wonderful
old bridges-cum-palaces  (think Chenonceau), enchanting river walks,
charming teahouses... and even lots of restaurants!
In a word, it is the Paris of the Middle East. Or is perhaps Paris the
Esfahan of Europe? Please do yourself a favour and book a trip to this
city: you'll not regret it, guaranteed. (As to safety: Iran is safe,
period. Well, it's safe as long as Mr Bush keeps his WMDs out of the
country:-)).
Here are some more impressions:
* The US embargo is an utter joke. Iranians can buy almost whatever
they want, whether it's HP, Microsoft, Xerox, Coke... And the Iranian
police, much to Vero's amazement, uses Motorola radios (so much for
export control).
* As mentioned Iranians love water. There are the most elaborate water
games wherever you go (even Tehran has a few). And the parks and green
spaces, and the streets as well, are pretty clean, not rubbish pits as
they are in Syria and elsewhere in the region.
* Iranians also love picnics. The Imam Square (second biggest square
in the world after Tiananmen and easily on a par with Madrid's or
Brussels' city squares) fills in the evenings with Iranian families
(including kids!): the whole party complete with cooker, carpet, tea,
chicken, cutlery... They do put up a real show!
* Tehran walls sport quite a few crude anti-American slogans. Tehranis
are also less welcoming than other Iranians though this may have more
to do with the hectic pace of life there.
* The segregation (it's at places almost a sort of Apartheid) can be
ridiculous. In local busses women have the back half, men the front.
What happens sometimes is that there are 40, 50 women pressed in the
back and the seats at the men's are half empty. Or the other way
round. At some bakeries there are two queues... you get the idea.
* There are almost no audible calls to prayer here. The muezzins are
very quiet and discreet. Probably they don't want to disturb the sweet
dreams of tourists:-)
* Keep away from uniformed people. These almost always will forbid
some interesting thing, like climbing up a roof and taking a pic. And
they are rather unfriendly.
* But overall the country is easy-going. It's a joy to wander the
streets and even in the late evening there's no question: we're
feeling 100% safe. In this respect it is really like Syria: Western
media paint a picture that is at best a quarter true.
Well, that's it from Esfahan. Tomorrow we'll catch a bus to Shiraz
(insh'allah), another super highlight of Iran. We'll tell you more
about how the two cities compare in a few days' time.
Otherwise, all is well. We have tried a few Persian food specialities
(there is a certain restaurant scene here, not like Kashan) and we
like it.
All the best!
The Defender of the Faith etc and his Assistant

Subject: Shiraz - Yazd (and a dead Muvo)

Date: Thu, 27 Apr 2006 12:40:10 +0430

Dear all,
the Muvo of the subject line is one of our two MP3 players and the
blasted thing has given up the ghost just a couple days ago: dead like
a stone (or perhaps Ayatollah Khamenei didn't like Rammstein and has
issued a fatwa). Anyway, the thing had all the good music on it. The
other one is much smaller and so this is a bit sad.
Other than that we have seen Shiraz, the second "jewel" of Persia and
it is not as smooth and monumental as Esfahan but it still has
something: there is always a nice smell in the air (from the blooming
orange trees, or the many flower gardens, or the rosewater
producers...) Shiraz is a city of poets and of the arts. The style of
the mosques is sweeter and more flowery than in Esfahan.
There are many gardens in all shapes and sizes and these gardens show
that the "Persian soul" is different to the Arabs': there are more
nice gardens in Shiraz than in all of Egypt, Jordan and Syria
together. Colourful, nicely tended and watered, they are an earthly
paradise if there ever was one. (I am waxing almost as lyrical as a
Shirazi poet:-)).
There is a deeper thing behind this, perhaps, and it may be this: we
feel that the Persian way of life and enjoying things is maybe not
very compatible with the stony-faced Islam of Khomenei. The Iranians
are a deeply romantic and sensual people and one can feel that there
is a certain tension between this and the mullahs' ideas (generally
speaking, of course).
There are two poets' tombs in Shiraz (Hafez and Sa'di) and going there
and watching the heartfelt respect, even devotion Iranian visitors pay
to the marble gravestones is a lesson in humility.These were secular
persons, not holy men, after all.
After Shiraz we took a bus to Yazd, at the fringes of the Dasht-e Lut
desert. This city is famous for its old town (one of the oldest on
earth) and it is indeed a joy to wander through its twisting, turning
alleys and lanes, with the sun burning overhead. The houses are made
of brick and covered with mud: amazingly photogenic stuff. Almost
every house has a badgir: that's a tall windtower, designed to catch
every passing breeze and direct it down into the courtyard, for
cooling the inhabitants (very necessary, as the temperature even in
April is over 30C!).
We have also seen many Zoroastrian sites: Yazd is the centre for this
ancient religion. Then there are of course mosques, shrines etc. but
to be honest we are starting to suffer from a certain mosque
lassitude... The Jameh (Friday) mosque of
Yazd is, however, a marvellous thing to behold.
Yesterday we had "camelburgers" for dinner... yes, made with real
camel meat. Tasted not spectacularly different to say mutton though
less strong. As for the restaurants, it was easy to find good Iranian
food in Esfahan and Shiraz. But Yazd is once again more difficult:
sandwiches and pizzas abound. One thing we will admit though: if the
food comes with rice (called chelo) this is ALWAYS a delight. We don't
know how they do it, but the rice is almost a meal in itself:
fluttery, tasty, never mushy or sticky... even in the cheapest kebabi
stall.
Well, that's it for today. Next mail will come from west of Tehran:
Zanjan, perhaps.
Take care and keep the messages flowing.
Thomas and Vero

Subject: Qazvin - Zanjan - Tabriz

Date: Fri, 5 May 2006 18:33:41 +0430

Dear all,
in our last mail from Shiraz/Yazd we completely forgot to talk about
one of the highlights of Iran: the ruins of Persepolis, located about
40km off Shiraz. Well, the fact that we forgot them perhaps tells you
something about their state of ruin:-)
In fact, after Alexander the Great visited the place not much was left
standing, apart from some huge winged lions and a few columns. One
needs an ounce or two of imagination to see the splendour of the
place, as it must have been 500 BC... There is, however, one thing
left that is truly amazing and worthwhile: the bas-reliefs on the
staircases to the different palaces. They are nothing short of
stunning and are more than worth the journey.
Near Persepolis are four huge rock-cut tombs of the various Achaemenid
Kings: Darius, Xerxes etc. These are also pretty impressive and invite
comparisons with Petra (purely on matters of size, stylistically
they're totally different).
Back to Yazd where we left you. We took a night train to Tehran:
interesting experience. The berths (1st class) are slightly more comfy
than the Indian 2nd class sleepers but overall much smaller. But we
spent a good night... until about 5am when the train stopped -- for
the morning prayer! At least half the people left the train and went
to pray in a nearby mosque. (The old man who was sharing the
compartment with us went to pray as well and in the process almost
blinded Thomas when he tried to grab his jacket and instead put his
thumb right into sleeping Thomas' eye. Fortunately nothing came of it,
just a very bad headache.)
From Tehran we immediately took another train to Qazvin, about 200km
northwest. This was once the capital of Persia and has its fair share
of palaces, tombs, mosques... you get the idea. Alas, after so many
amazing sights these things tend to pale a little and we now almost
overlook mosques we would have died to see just a month ago!
Qazvin also was the base for the famous castles of the Assasins in the
Alamut region. It was rather difficult to get there but it was worth
the hassle. The huge valleys and snow-capped mountains, the pot-holed
streets and the grindingly slow minibus reminded us very much of
Nepal... so of course we liked it!
The castles are really only heaps of stones but the setting is
fantastic. We stayed two days in the mountains as this is clearly
another highlight of Iran. (Freya Stark has written a very readable
account of her stay there in the 1930s: read it for an idea about the
place and its history.)
From Qazvin we bussed it to Zanjan, a city with few monuments but the
base for Soltaniyeh and its huge mausoleum of Olejtu (a Mongol khan of
the 14th century). This has a brick dome (48m high, the largest brick
dome in the world) but the thing is in a rather sad state of repair,
though it still stands. Scaffolding everywhere!
From Zanjan, we also visited Takht-e Soleiman, a Zoroastrian temple
about 150km into the mountains (via taxi). Again we had most
incredible views: Iran is in fact a very beautiful country and the
Iranians sit on a touristic goldmine. Trekking, climbing, rafting...
the possibilities for adventure or outdoor activities are endless.
The actual site was a bit disappointing as not much is left. But there
is a huge crater lake in the middle of the temple as well as another
one a few kilometres away: very photogenic.
Well, today we took the bus to Tabriz and it rained all the time (it
still rains). It seems Iran is sad that we now proceed to leave the
country. But after almost five weeks we are not unhappy to go back to
Turkey. Alas, Iran is not the easiest country to travel in:
- The general mood in the streets is not in general one of
cheerfulness. Iranians have no joie de vivre (for example, they don't
laugh very often and there's not much music in the streets: compare
that with Egypt). That almost everybody dresses in dark or grey
colours doesn't help either.
- We were not pestered by children (usually the norm in these
countries) but the main reason for that is that there are not many
kids on the streets. However, their older brothers (18-25 years) made
valiant attempts to pester us: especially in smaller cities like
Qazvin or Zanjan, almost every adolescent seems bend to blare his
three or four stock phrases of English ("I love you" among the
favourites) into our ears. Sure, bearable for a few days but it quite
got on our nerves after a while. All the more as these guys do not
understand a single word of English...
- Food still is a problem. Fruits are neither as good nor as varied as
we expected: apples for example come ALWAYS with brownish marks and
look like 2nd hand, and it's always the same two or three varieties.
On our quest to dodge sandwiches and pizzas we found some interesting
Iranian food, like sheep brain salad (really, the hopefully fresh
brains are in the counter to be inspected by potential customers) or
grilled kebab made of strips of beef lungs.
But the main thing that we find disappointing after almost five weeks
is the lookout of most Iranians. They really live in another world.
Even if they do speak English (a surprising number also speaks German
well) it is almost impossible to have a meaningful conversation. Their
value systems, their outlook on the world, their ideas are so far
removed from our ideas and our way of thinking that a discussion is
more often than not an exercise in frustration. This is a huge
difference to countries like Jordan or Syria, not to talk about
Turkey.
Some more observations and impressions:
- The standards of driving are appaling. We have seen more accidents
in the last four weeks in Iran (about a good dozen or so) than during
last year's 15-week Cairo-Istanbul trip. In this sense this really is
a dangerous place and we are happy that we survived our two long taxi
excursions (especially the 2nd driver was a suicidal maniac).
- When some Iranians (about 1 in 4) learn that Thomas is German, they
begin to congratulate him on the achievements of Hitler. Trying to
explain that AH was not a good man is hopeless. This is not unlike
places in the Middle East but the number of these people is still
surprisingly high.
- The Iranians are certainly a friendly people, although. after five
weeks, we have learned to distinguish between friendliness and
politeness: often they are simply being polite (or curious) but still
keep their reserve and distance. They are definitely not as warm, as
open-hearted and "effusive" as Arabs.
- The lack of music in the streets is something we only realised in
Shiraz: there were many birds (nightingales?) around and suddenly we
realised that we had not heard music for quite a while.
Lest all this sounds too negative: Iran is still an interesting and
deeply fascinating place to visit. But it could be even more
interesting (and cheerful) if the people could leave the straitjacket
of the mullahs behind and lead their lives in the way they want. There
are glimpes of that but not more.
Well, we'll stay another three days in Iran and then we'll cross back
into Turkey and go to Van and its famous lake. The next message might
come from there or from Diyarbakir.
All is well, we feel good and we have a constant supply of Iranian
sweets (they have a BIG, BIG sweet tooth, these Iranians) to keep us
afloat. No sheep brain salad, though!
Take care and keep in touch
Vero + Thomas

Subject: Orumiyeh - Van and its lake

Date: Thu, 11 May 2006 17:01:08 +0300

Dear all,
we are now in the southeastern-most edge of Turkey: Van and the famous lake.
A final vignette from Iran which also epitomizes the way the country
works: we are at the Iran/Turkey border at Sero. An Iranian
immigration officer has already checked our passports, the visa
extensions and so on. Another guy checks, double-checks and
triple-checks and gives his OK. A third one approaches, with a huge
set of keys. He leads us through a dark chamber to a corridor with two
steel doors. He leafs through our passports once more (every page,
just to make sure all is really OK), opens the first door and leads us
down the corridor to the second. He juggles the keys and reluctantly
opens the second door... behind whose bars we can already see the
Turkish immigration hall. Yes, the whole thing felt eerily like
leaving a prison (not that we have that much experience...).
And this also sums up Iran: it's a prison. All who can escape and the
rest just waits. Something will happen, something must happen... but
what? There is hopelessness in the air. We felt this very strongly
during the last few days in Orumiyeh (also on a lake) when we told
people we would soon go to Turkey. "Turkey..." they repeated, with a
sad smile.
Iran was a fascinating experience but we felt sad for the people when
we left. But there is more, much more to say about this than we can in
these short mails. Perhaps, once we're at home...
Okay, so we arrived on the Turkish side, took two dolmuses (shared
taxis) to Van and here we are. Well, the lake is fantastic, the
weather is very good as well (we had a few so-so days in the last
week). We have not seen the famous Van cat (which likes to swim in the
lake and has one blue and one yellow eye) but the city is full of
photos of the beast.
We have visited the Rock of Van, the old Armenian city (almost nothing
left) and a beautiful Armenian church on an island (Akdamar) about 40
km southwest of Van. We also walked up some ridges: amazing scenery.
This cries out for further exploration. The lake is deep blue or
turquoise and it's HUGE. There are many high mountains, most still
snowcapped and green foothills with sheep and donkeys. Indeed, the
lake would not look out of place in the heart of Switzerland.
The Kurds are predominant here in the region and they are, compared to
the rest of Turkey, phenomenally friendly. No bad feelings, no bad
vibes in the air, we feel really welcome and well-treated.
Needless to say, everything here in Van is more colourful than in
Iran, there is music on the streets (and in this Internet cafe). Women
are "back to normal" and though Van is no architectural beauty it
strikes us as a nice and fascinating place...
Tomorrow we'll take a bus to Diyarbakir, then weather permitting will
climb Mt Nemrut, then go on to Sanliurfa and Mardin. From there we'll
cross into Syria but we will send another mail before.
We are fine otherwise and just hope that the weather holds.
All the best, take care!
Vero + Thomas

Subject: Diyarbakir - Nemrut Dagi - Urfa - Mardin - Midyat

Date: Sun, 21 May 2006 10:59:11 +0300

Dear all,
we are now in Midyat, (almost) bang on the Turkish/Syrian border. The
southeast is a very lively and interesting region; in fact we like
this part of Turkey very much, partly because the locals are very
friendly and partly because it already has an arabic feel.
>From Van we took a bus to Diyarbakir, almost circumventing the Lake of
Van (very scenic drive indeed, but over extremly bad roads: the
infrastructure in the southeast is totally rundown in places and
sometimes we think it's no wonder that the Kurds are such a rebellious
bunch).
Diyarbakir, the recent Kurd troubles and bad reports from other
travellers notwithstanding, proved to be a very nice and relaxed
place. The old city feels more like an arabic place (think Egypt) than
Turkey and the number of kids (some begging, some pestering tourists,
most just playing) on the streets is just staggering. The black
basaltic city walls (6km) are an amazing achievement and the Tigris
down in the valley makes for a beautiful backdrop.
Next was Nemrut Dagi, a famous mountain top with ancient temples and a
tumulus. Most people do this as a day trip from the south but we
wanted to have it all and had decided to approach from the north, walk
over the mountain (staying for sunrise and sunset) and come down on
the southern side. So we took a bus right to the turn-off from the
main road from Malatya and hoped for either a dolmus (shared taxi) or
a lift. However, it was Sunday and cars were very thin on the ground.
Of the 84km we only managed 72 and stayed just above the last village,
sleeping rough under a few trees (cold but bearable). Next day we
hiked up the remaining 12km and 800 vertical metres (no cars, but much
sweat) and spent the whole day on site, marvelling at the scenery as
much as at the statues and temples. Once again we slept rough (we had
brought food from Diyarbakir), directly on the Western terrace and
amidst the famous huge heads. After an uneventful sunrise we got a
lift down to Kahta and went on to Urfa (also called Sanliurfa).
This is another gem: a nice and relaxed city, birthplace of Abraham
(called Ibrahim hereabouts) and a famous pilgrimage site for Muslims
(we saw hundreds of Iranian pilgrims, easily spotted by virtue of
their dress: a black knot in the crowds was inevitably an Iranian
group). There are big, well-tended gardens (a rarity in Turkey) and
also two big ponds filled with holy fish (carp, to be exact). The
beasts, being holy, are fed by the masses of pilgrims. Consequently,
they are fat and so numerous that the whole spectacle borders on the
tasteless. Well, at least this is surely THE place for any budding
fish fetishist!
Urfa was as lively as Diyarbakir and it had, as an added bonus, a very
arabic-feeling bazaar. The men (mostly Kurds) wear their traditional
baggy trousers and characteristic mauve head scarves we've only seen
in Urfa. This is a place where the Orient is not far!
Next we moved to Mardin, another supposed gem with its famous old
houses and churches and the setting on a hill, overlooking the Syrian
plain. However, in marked contrast to Urfa and Diyarbakir, we found
Mardin a rather unfriendly place. The architecture was also not as
beautiful as we expected since many houses in the old quarters were
pulled down and replaced by drab concrete. It's still a worthwhile
detour, though, with the views over the plain and the intricate
carving in some of the houses.
Well, 65km east lies Midyat where we are now: a more friendly place
that also sports many old houses and churches (we attended a service,
held in Aramaic, of the Syrian Orthodox church here). We have also
seen Hasankeyf, a spectacular ruined settlement high above the Tigris
and later today will go to visit the monastery of Mar Gabriel.
Tomorrow we'll hop across the border to Syria. A day in Qamishli,
another hop and we'll once again see the fabulous ruins of Palmyra,
our favourite site in Syria.
We are all well and getting really tanned now. The weather has turned
very hot and we expect more of that in the Syrian desert: 35C and
more...
The next message will come from Damascus, perhaps. Until then, enjoy
life and take care...
Vero + Thomas
PS: A few of you have asked who writes what. Well, Thomas writes most
of the English stuff (supervised by Vero:-)) whereas Vero is doing the
French mails (proofread by Thomas).
As to photos: we do quite a few this time but we will only upload a
selection to the website once we're back in Boringstoke.

Subject: Qamishli - Palmyra - Damascus - Bosra

Date: Mon, 29 May 2006 00:29:49 -0700

Dear all,
we're now sitting in a cool Internet cafe in Damascus and are bracing
ourselves for another 37C day. The heat is intense but so far it's
bearable.
After the last mail we crossed the border without a hitch, spent a day
in dusty Qamishli and tried to get used to the fact that Syria is one
big rubbish pit (if there is one thing we dislike about the place it's
the rather nonchalant attitude of the Syrians towards any sort of
garbage).
But other than that we found the place still as warm (also
literally:-)) and friendly as we remembered: within two hours of
arriving in Qamishli we were sitting with a till then unknown family
in their shady garden and were having a great lunch and discussing the
state of affairs (one of the sons spoke very good German and had
overheard us on the street).
We also enjoyed the many churches and the general feeling of
relaxedness. We had timed our visit right, as at 5pm all the churches
were filled to bursting... quite a difference to the Turkish border
churches we had seen just a few days before and which were rather
empty.
Next we took a bus to Palmyra. Oh, the bleak desert, the columns and
temples and arches, the intense heat, the green oasis in the middle...
this is one of the three or four must-see sites in the Middle East.
'Course, we loved it:-) (To J+D: once again in the same room in the
Bal Shamin:-)).
Normally we do have the ruins for us, but this time there were
actually some other tourists around (mainly French tour groups). But
the site is so huge and the midday heat so intense (and the French
have to have a proper lunch anyway) that it didn't matter. Very much
recommended.
Next we came to Damascus. Not so much to see here, but a relaxed,
wonderful city all the same. The Ummayad mosque in the Old City is a
gem and the whole of the Old City is good for aimless strolling. Once
again, the friendly co-existence between Christians and Muslims amazed
us.
There is another thing which all Syrians take part in and that is the
World Cup: as Syria doesn't play the Syrians are free to show their
support for their favourite team. They do this by flying big flags in
the respective colours out of windows, from balconies, towers...
Thomas is glad to say that, together with Brazil, Germany leads the
pack. In fact, the Syrians seem convinced that the Final will be a
repeat of 2002. (Vero, meanwhile, is still searching for a French
flag:-).) After Brazil and Germany, there are also a few Italian and
Argentine flags. No English flag, though.
Yesterday we went to Bosra, in the far south, almost at the Jordanian
border. A very atmospheric town with many Roman/Nabatean/Byzantine
ruins. Crowning glory is an almost completely preserved Roman theatre
for about 9000 people, after Orange (southern France) perhaps the
nicest we've seen (but bear in mind that we have not yet been to
Rome...).
All this is in starkly black basalt and many houses and mansions are
built in the same distinctive style we had seen last year in the
desert east of Amman. The black stones though made this visit a very
hot one... On the way back we had our second bus breakdown: a case of
an exploding gearbox. But another bus picked us up about one hour
later, so no big deal.
Ah yes. Another thing we enjoy immensely is the Arabic food. After the
countless kebabs and shish tavuks we had in Turkey and Iran it's a joy
to have a go at the
simple Arabic mezze style dishes and plates: hommos, Baba Ganoush (an
aubergine-based dip), fuul (broad beans with olive oil and tahini
sauce), Muhammara (a concoction of ground walnuts, spices and oil),
fattoush (salad with pieces of grilled bread, like croutons)... and of
course falafels, deep-fried balls of chick peas. Miam, miam...
Well, that's it for the time being. Tomorrow we'll skip over the
Lebanese border to the ruins of Baalbek which we have seen four years
ago: time for an encore. Next is Beirut and then Tripoli, from where
we might send another message.
All the best and take care
Vero + Thomas

Subject: Baalbek - Beirut - Tripoli

Date: Thu, 8 Jun 2006 19:26:47 +0300

Dear all,
we're now back in Syria after 9 days in Lebanon. We went from Damascus
to Baalbek, to re-visit the famous Jupiter temple site. The site
itself is smaller than Palmyra but the actual ruins are HUGE. One
feels like a dwarf beside the columns or inside the Bacchus
sub-temple. We visited during the day and came back for the sunset:
definitely worthwhile.
The Bekaa valley itself seemed calmer and more relaxed than four years
ago. The Syrian army is gone and the checkposts are mostly empty holes
nowadays. The people are more at ease though Baalbek is still a town
where nightlife consists mainly of cruising the streets with one's
car, screeching tyres and all.
Yeah, lebanese men (or should we say boys?) and cars: they love 'em.
Their machines have to be big, fast and expensive and this means
invariably Mercedes-Benzes or BMWs. Showing off what you've got is
very much the thing here. That's true for the girls as well: if the
boys show what's under their bonnet, the girls very much show what's
in their cups (generally quite something, as Lebanese women are not
exactly the slender type). In fact, even Muslim ladies in Lebanon look
very Western, spaghetti-tops, short skirts and all.
Next stop was Beirut. We came with little expectations (after all,
parts of the city were completely destroyed during the 1975-90 civil
war). Even so, the place succeeded in underwhelming us. Dirty, the
center full of reconstruction work, many destroyed houses still
standing, dead ruins with blind windows and tell-tale holes in the
walls... But this was to be expected. What we found astonishing and
disconcerting was the lack of a feeling of community: in a sense
Beirut is still not at ease with itself. And some parts of it (where
the reconstruction is more or less finished) look more like an
elaborate film-set than like a real cityscape.
The famous corniche was a certain disappointment as well. The sea-side
is fine as it goes but the other side is rather life- and soulless: no
cafes, no restaurants, no places to just sit and do a bit of people
watching.
Anyway, we did two nice excursions from there: to Sidon in the south
(a nice and incredible dirty labyrinth of souks, a tiny Crusader
castle on a promontory and a few mosques) and to the Jeita grotto, a
huge cave split into a lower and an upper part. The lower part is
basically a lake and is done by boat: there are many amazing
formations, stalactites and -mites. But it's the upper part, a walk of
about a kilometre, where we saw most of the dazzling structures,
cleverly lit. A must-see.
From Beirut we took a bus to Tripoli, with mixed feelings. But Tripoli
turned out to be much more interesting than Beirut. The town has never
been subjected to the sort of in-fighting that destroyed Beirut, and
not just physically. Tripoli feels like a living thing, like a "real"
city: there's the sort of "spirit" in the air we missed so much in
Beirut. We really enjoyed that aspect of Tripoli.
There was of course more: a huge Crusader castle, many medresses
(Koran schools), another big and dirty souk with quite a few khans
(places where caravans rest and store their wares).
From Tripoli we did Byblos, one of the oldest inhabited places
hereabouts. A nice little harbour from where almost all the famous
Lebanese cedar wood was shipped to Egypt (some of it is in the
pyramids, for instance) and many other places. There's also the
inevitable Crusader castle and ruins from every civilisations that
ever called Byblos home. As the place is relatively small, this means
there's a certain chaos: everything is mixed up with everything else.
All the same, an interesting excursion.
The last two days we spent in Bcharre, high in the mountains (1500m).
First objective was to see the famous cedars or rather the sad remains
of what once covered the whole mountainside: there are a mere 300
trees left above Bcharre. But some of those are truly Methusalems: a
diameter of 14m and about 2000 years old. The stand of trees is
explored by a small network of paths and despite the small number it
was a great feeling walking among these giants. And then the nice
smell...
Next day we walked down the Qadisha valley, again from Bcharre. This
is a deep gorge cut by a river which gushed out of the rock not far
from the cedars. There are many caves down there (and there were many
hermits) as well as monastery, tiny ones for just a handful of monks
and big ones, for dozens and dozens. Indeed, the valley is considered
the birthplace of the Maronite faith. A very enjoyable walk though the
end was slightly less enjoyable as we had to regain the rim of the
valley: that meant a few hundred vertical metres in the blazing sun.
Still, another must-see.
And at least up there the air was relatively dry: down at the coast it
can be positively unbearable: the humidity and the stickiness are
unbelievable. We sweated even when we sat in the shade and did
nothing. The locals assured us that it was too hot for the season but
that was a small consolation.
Well, other than that Lebanon is as dirty and rubishy as Syria, if not
more so. That is one thing we did not expect: after all, this was once
called the Oriental Switzerland. Well, many people in a place in Arab
countries always mean lots of rubbish.
Now we're back in Syria, in Hama with its famous waterwheels. Nice,
relaxed place and we love very much coming back. (For those in the
know: we stay in the Riad this time, not in the Cairo.)
Next mail will come perhaps from Lattakia or even from Cappadocia; we'll see.
Other than that all is well and we hope that's the case for you as well!
Vero + Thomas

Subject: Hama - Aleppo - Lattakia

Date: Thu, 15 Jun 2006 10:53:07 +0300

Dear all,
so we left you in Hama, with the Orontes river and its famous norias
(wooden waterwheels that sound like a battery of lawn mowers). This
city is always a pleasure to be in though there are not many sights.
So, next morning we daytripped to Apamea (once a really big Roman
place, now extensive ruins) and Masyaf (a town with an Arab castle,
once a stronghold of the Syrian branch of the Assassins).
Then we headed towards Aleppo, one of our favourite cities in the
Middle East. And we're happy to report that the vaulted Aleppine souks
are still as atmospheric and enjoyable as they have always been.
Damascus or Tehran may be bigger and offer more choice but no souk in
the region beats Aleppo for sheer atmosphere.
There is also the citadel, the Great Mosque (less impressive than in
Damascus but still worth a look) and many, many khans. So many in fact
that to see them all is nigh impossible. And there's, of course,
Jdaide, the rather big Christian quarter, with a huge Maronite
cathedral and assorted other churches (permute Syrian, Armenian and
Greek with Orthodox, Roman and Catholic and you get an idea:-)). The
cathedral was the scene for a high-profile marriage (makes for a nice
change: normally we run into funerals). The women looked as if they
had just stepped out of a Parisian fashion magazine... amazing.
From Aleppo we also visited the so-called Dead Cities, a collection of
Byzantine towns dating from the 6th to 10th centuries which are
nowadays deserted. Many ruins of houses, churches, tombs in a very
distinctive style similar to the famous St Simeon basilica in the
northwest of Aleppo.
We also did the mosaics museum in a market town called Maarat al Numan
(very nice, especially since many of the mosaics have been restored
and show crisp colours and many fine details). Incidentally, Maarat is
also (in)famous (among Arabs, that is) for the fact that the
Crusaders, plagued by an extreme shortage of food, after besieging and
conquering the place, boiled and ate the inhabitants.
From Aleppo we drove to Lattakia (bus broke down with a clutch problem
but was repaired within half an hour). Lattakia is boring but there
are a few Crusader castles around: last year we did Qalaat Saladin,
this time we re-visited Qalaat Marqab, a huge castle dominating the
coast line (very impressive views down to the Mediterranean and a
couple of big oil refineries).
Today we'll head into the mountains east of Lattakia, for some cooler
air and views (though it's pretty cloudy, we'll see whether we see
anything). Tomorrow we'll cross into Turkey (last border crossing) and
see the Antakya mosaics that so pleased us last year. From Antakya we
will drive up to Cappadocia: those who received last year's mails know
that we enjoyed the place even more than Petra, so we're really
looking forward to that. We may stay there for ten days or so and will
probably send a short mail.
We're still all fine and well though the rather high tempo of the last
two months and the many monuments we've seen start to make us feel a
certain travel lassitude. Unfortunately Syria is not the place to cure
that: the beaches are not nice (in fact, they are rubbish pits) and
Syrians have no concept of "beaching" anyway. But we will recharge the
batteries with Cappadocia's beautiful landscapes and walks...
That's it, next mail in about 10 to 12 days.
Vero + Thomas
PS: There have been a couple of questions about money. For one thing,
we have all the money we need with us in cash. No TCs or plastic (we
do have cards, but would only use them in an emergency). The
guidebooks advise against this, of course, and we would probably not
carry a few thousands pounds in Kenya or Tanzania -- but this region
always felt safe to us and so we see no big risk. And Iran is a
cash-only destination anyway.
As to the actual daily budgets: this depends obviously on the country.
Turkey and Lebanon are relatively expensive (we reckon about 30
Euro/20 Pound per day). On the other hand Syria and Iran are much
cheaper: here we're looking at 15 Euro/10 Pound, if not less.) Keep in
mind though that we do most things like the locals would: no smart
air-con hotel rooms, no three-star restaurants, local buses etc.

Subject: Antakya and Kayseri - Cappadocia

Date: Mon, 26 Jun 2006 15:24:31 +0300

Dear all,
we are now the ninth day in Cappadocia and we still think this region
is the navel of the earth (okay, a small exaggeration). But really,
the fantastic landscapes (in two meanings), the incredible rock-cut
churches, the frescoes... This is a place one has to see to believe:-)
It's also a great place for kids, with all the fairy chimneys, the
tiny, hobbit-style houses, the rock towers in all shapes and colours.
(Photos will follow on the website, please bear with us.)
Tomorrow we'll leave the so-called rocky part of Cappadocia and bus it
to Ihlara and its valley: supposedly another super location with
amazing walks and churches. We will report.
Well, before Cappadocia we did the same route as last year: from
Lattakia to Antakya (old Antioch) and then Kayseri. The mosaics in the
Antakya museum are still as crisp and detailed as they've been last
year: we like that museum very much (in fact, it was one of the
reasons why we went through Antakya again).
Then Kayseri and the snow-capped Erciyes, a 3916m high volcano. This
is an 8 hour bus drive from Antakya, so we had not much time left for
sightseeing. Then again we had already seen most of the city last
year. And afterwards... Cappadocia. We have walked a lot in the last 9
days though the weather is nice yet brutal: full sun, no cloud cover
and temperatures in the low to mid 30C, so there's a lot of sweat
dripping and flowing down the valleys... High summer must be almost
unbearable here.
We are now thinking of returning one of these days for a longer stay,
in the region of 4 months or so, preferable in autumn and the start of
winter (winters seem to be brutal as well, but in the other
direction). If we do, we would take the opportunity to write the
definite guidebook for the region:-)
Then again, there are so many plans, so maybe it'll come to nothing.
We will write one other mail from Istanbul in about a weeks' time. All
is well, we drink tea and coke literally by the gallon, and are
looking forward to seeing Germany beat France in the final! (We have
no idea how the different teams perform as we only see some of the
results: football is not our thing.)
Take care and we'll be back!
Vero and Thomas

Subject: Ihlara valley - Egirdir - Istanbul

Date: Thu, 6 Jul 2006 10:58:42 +0300

Dear all,
well, we (especially Thomas) have to backtrack on the German vs France
final. The Germans, weaklings that they are, succumbed to the Italians
as we have learned the morning after (we don't see the games live). A
pity but perhaps good for our marriage:-)
Back to travelling. We went from main Cappadocia with a sad heart to
the famous Ihlara valley, a deep gorge in the fringe mountains of
Cappadocia. The guidebooks hype the place up beyond belief so we
expected a lot but we were a bit disappointed: it's a gorge all right
with lots of steep mountains around, it's a nice river walk with a
good few rock-cut churches thrown in, but it's not THAT spectacular.
On the other hand, at the entrance of the gorge there's a huge
rock-cut monastery complex which is hardly mentioned by our guidebooks
but which proved to be a fascinating 3D maze of churches, chapels,
tunnels, rooms, caves, kitchens etc. Perhaps this complex is the most
amazing, most impressive single site in all of Cappadocia: it is
unbelievable that people cut all this out of sheer rock.
Then we drove on to Egirdir, a town near a huge freshwater lake with
its very own island, the whole surrounded by high mountains. We did
the obvious and climbed the "hausberg" of Egirdir, a stiff 1000m
ascent in the rather scorching sun. But the views were indeed
fabulous.
After that (literally) we took a night bus to Istanbul, which wasn't
as bad as we expected. And so we are now re-exploring all the sights
and monuments we fell in love with first time round. And discover new
things as well: there's a wonderful mosaic museum with mosaics from
Justinian the Great's palace (the palace is almost destroyed, just a
few walls and those incredible mosaics remain). Or a small Byzantine
church in the middle of nowhere with a few well-preserved mosaics (not
in any of our guidebooks, we just found it by chance). And again, we
often had that uncanny feeling that if we just started to dig we might
unearth God knows what: palaces, churches, tombs, jewels...
So Istanbul remains a fascinating place: sometimes coming back to a
city one has already seen can be a disappointment, in its way. Not
with Istanbul though -- this is one of the few truly great cities of
the world.
Well, that's it, folks. Another message will come one of these days
from Boringstoke, to wrap up the whole business.
All the best
Vero + Thomas

Subject: Middle East 2006 - wrapping up

Date: Tue, 18 Jul 2006 12:52:11 +0000

Dear all,
it feels a bit strange to sit here in snug Hampshire and view the
pictures of Beirut and Tripoli or the road to Damascus we just
travelled a few weeks ago being bombed. On the other hand we had a
strange feeling in Lebanon: the place is most certainly not at ease
with itself. For one thing, people (of whatever faith) don't like
talking about "this Hezbollah thing" with strangers -- they seem to
know that Hezbollah and their activities are not a good thing, not for
Lebanon as a whole at least, but they are afraid to talk about this
(unlike the Iranians who talk openly about "our bad government and the
mullahs").
Well, back to more prosaic things. We have settled back into our usual
post-travelling routine and Vero is already busy preparing the next
trip: during the weekend she was seen sitting in the living room,
surrounded by six or seven guidebooks about Thailand, Cambodia,
Vietnam and Laos and feverishly scribbling notes on small scraps of
paper -- no guessing then where we're headed to next!
Here's a list of the top fifteen things we saw, in strictly
chronological order and leaving out stuff we already did last year
(like incredible Palmyra or the Syrian crusader castles):
 1. Eclipse in Amasya
 2. Roof of the bazaar, Kashan (Thomas) / Jewel Museum, Tehran (Vero)
 3. Ali Qapu palace, Isfahan
 4. Imam mosque, Isfahan
 5. The gardens, birds and smells of Shiraz
 6. The reliefs in Persepolis
 7. The Jameh mosque in Yazd
 8. Tahkt-e-Soleiman (including driving there from Zanjan)
 9. Lake Van
10. The street kids in Diyarbakir
11. Nemrut Dagi
12. Urfa
13. Old city of Tripoli and St Gilles castle
14. Bcharre valley and the Cedars
15. Mosaic Museum in Istanbul
Two things we have to mention though we have already rhapsodised about
them last year: Cappadocia was wonderful, once again. We spent 11 days
there and it was not enough. And Istanbul... a city with so many
things. The Aya Sofia is a wonder: perhaps the most amazing building
we ever saw (Thomas certainly thinks so, Vero tends to favour the Taj
Mahal).
The worst thing we saw during this trip was the Charles Helou bus
station in Beirut. In fact, this abomination must be among the most
depressing places in the world: imagine a huge concrete flyover, with
a multi-storey bus station below, the whole thing grey or blackened,
almost completely abandoned and turned into a dirty, dusty rubbish pit
with a few stinking ad-hoc public toilets in the darker corners: this
is Charles Helou bus station. It's so bad that it's almost a sight in
its own right. (We refrain from suggesting the obvious.)
Here are a few statistics, all Istanbul - Istanbul:
Number of nights: 108
Number of hotels: 35 (3.08 days per hotel)
Number of hotels with cockroaches in the room: 1 (in Damascus, we
changed venues first thing next morning)
Most expensive hotel night: 40 YTL or 20 Euro (Arsenal, Istanbul)
Cheapest hotel night: 200 Syrian Pound or 3 EUR (Bal Shameen, Palmyra)
Number of kebabs: we don't know but definitely too many.
Number of kilometres in busses, coaches, taxis etc: 12650
Number of kilometres in trains: 925
Number of kilometres on ferries: 4 (twice across the Bosporus, once
across Orumiyeh lake in Iran)
Number of kilometres on foot: who knows? Perhaps 2200 or so.
Kilometres per day: around 145
We will put a few photos on Thomas' website, one of these days.
Problem is, we have 1360 pics and we have first to sort them out. But
we'll do it, promised, and we'll post another short message once the
stuff is online.
A final anecdote: Iran, near Tahkt-e-Soleiman. We were coming down one
of the extinct volcano craters there (an amazing sight, these things)
and there was a car with a small group of tourists, standing next to
our taxi (our driver was fast asleep and snoring inside). They were
obviously discussing something of life-shattering importance and they
seemed to be slightly miffed.
It turned out they had TWO bottles of red wine (French) with
them...which in dry Iran is not something you see every day -- BUT NO
CORKSCREW! This was in the middle of nowhere and anyway, Iranians
normally don't carry these things around. Clearly we were their very
last hope.
Well, we have all sorts of things in our daypack, torches, maps, a
lighter, aspirin, USB sticks, strings and wires... and we have a
pocketknife (Swiss). So a minute later we were standing there, each a
glass of wine in hand and toasting the clever makers of our
pocketknife who in their endless wisdom had included a corkscrew. (We
could reveal the home country of those wine-loving guys, but we don't
want to fuel any national stereotypes or prejudices. What's more, if
we would do so, perhaps our Polish friends would stop talking with
us:-)).
And that is that, folks. Thanks for being with us so far... we will
return later in the year!
Thomas + Vero
PS: Go to http://www.patmedia.net/marklevinson/cool/cool_illusion.html
and prepare to be amazed. We've seen many illusions but this one has
to be seen:-) to be believed...


$updated from: ME2006 Mails English.htxt Sat 18 Jan 2014 13:14:23 thomasl (By Thomas Lauer)$