Tag Archives: Silk Road

Thoughts on my second year of full-time travel

I wasn’t going to write a summary post for my second year of full-time travel, but re-reading my summary from last year I realise that a lot has happened, and my life has taken some unexpected turns!   So I changed my mind 🙂

Here is where I ended up going over the past year (you can click and drag the map, best view is with Africa in the middle):

The Silk Road

The year started out with an overland trip across the Silk Road with Madventure: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, and Iran.

I have to admit that I found this trip quite challenging.  “Overlanding” is about covering distance rather than really exploring a place, and this contrasts completely with how I usually travel.  To deal with the frustration I felt around this, I had to change my thinking to make it all about the journey, not the destinations.  I placed myself on a “mechanical camel” traversing the Silk Road as they did in the old days, scouting locations that I wanted to return to and explore more fully at a later date.

Staring out the window - Turkmenistan

Me in my “mechanical camel” traveling the Silk Road

And where would that be?  Definitely Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and probably Tajikistan.  Loved these countries!  They were very different to other places I’d traveled (well, except Mongolia many years ago), and there are plenty of hiking and trekking opportunities as well 😉

Other highlights:

  • The weirdness of Turkmenistan
  • Crossing the Caspian Sea from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan (I love being on boats)
  • The Registan in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.  It is more impressive than you can possibly imagine 
Registan at night - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

[click and drag to see full panorama]

Greenland

What can I say!  After 20 years of dreaming of visiting this incredible country, I finally went.  I should not have waited so long!  I absolutely LOVE Greenland!  I will return this year for a month and am already working on trying to arrange an extended stay in 2019.

The view across the Nuuk Fjord to an iconic mountain from near Café Inuk in Nuuk, Greenland

You only have to talk to me for about 10 minutes before I’ll bring Greenland up in conversation, and the most common question is “why are you so into this place”?

This is a very difficult thing for me to answer, but here are a few thoughts…

It is a fascinating place.  The way life works in Greenland is dictated by its isolation and the logistical difficulties faced when access to and within the country is so restricted by ice.  It has European tendencies (it is part of Denmark), but there is a whole other aspect as well, with hunting and dog sledding (in winter) and other elements of traditional life still present.  I find the dual-nature of Greenland intriguing.

Greenlandic sled dogs in Kulusuk - East Greenland

Greenlandic sled dogs are still a part of life in much of Greenland

It is surprisingly accessible.  Getting around Greenland (in summer at least) is actually quite easy, though definitely not cheap!  Air Greenland flies regularly to most of the larger towns, and boat transfers operate as the main mode of transportation within a local area.  In addition, although Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) is the official language, almost all Greenlanders speak Danish and most of the younger ones also speak extremely good English.  The latter was an unexpected but welcome surprise that allowed me to gain a little insight into Greenlandic life.

Flying or boating are the main methods used to get around Greenland

Flying (aeroplanes and helicopters) or boating are the main methods used to get around Greenland

It is beautiful.  Did you know that there are no trees in Greenland, but a surprising number of wildflowers in the summer?  I only explored part of the South and East of Greenland last year and they were very different to each other.  South Greenland (in the Narsaq/Narsarsuaq area) is basically sheep country – quite green in summer with lots of rolling hills.  East Greenland is much more remote and dramatic, with spectacular craggy mountains and ice-filled fjords.  Both have their charms, though I admit I was more drawn to the mountains of East Greenland.  

Images showing the contrast between South Greenland and East Greenland

The landscapes in South Greenland (top) and East Greenland (bottom) are very different!

There is no-one there.  The world’s largest island has a population of only 56,000 people and hosted 86,000 tourists in 2017, so you don’t have to go far before you are surrounded by wilderness and completely alone.  Land is not privately owned in Greenland and you can wander and camp wherever you wish – unfettered freedom to explore, enjoy the outdoors, and disconnect from the world.  I’ve already talked about how the silence is one of the reasons I love long-distance trekking so much, though it is very difficult to explain its impact unless you have experienced it for yourself.  Silence and being present in nature abounds in Greenland and is another reason I love it there. 

Panorama of the Tasilap Kua valley in East Greenland

[click and drag to see full panorama]

I re-found me.  The person I was while working as an astronomer in Chile was very different to the person I became while working in Melbourne.  It took almost 2 years of travel, but I finally re-claimed the person I want to be while in East Greenland last year.  Would I have found her somewhere else?  Quite possibly.  But the fact that this coincided with my stay in Greenland is part of the reason why this place is so special to me.

Me with my copy of Nanook's Ataasiusutut Misigissuseq CD

Ecuador

After traveling across the Silk Road, fulfilling my dream of visiting Greenland, and visiting great friends in Portugal (with a side trip to the Azores), my plan was always to live in one place for several months in South America and figure out how I was going to continue to fund this lifestyle of a full-time traveler.  I chose Ecuador as my base, as Chile (my home in South America) has become too expensive and I have always loved Quito. 

Panoramic View of the Historic Center of Quito from the Basilica

[click and drag to see full panorama]

I have to admit, the first 6 weeks were pretty rough!  I had a hard time making the transition from travelling around without a care in the world, to staying put and trying to sort my life.  Plus, my head and heart were still in Greenland.

However, after making some great friends through a Spanish conversation group and figuring out that I really liked living in the area just east of Parque La Carolina, I ended up loving my 6 months in Ecuador.  I didn’t do a lot of touristy things (though I did get out for a few hikes), I simply test-run what it was like to live there.  In the end, it was remarkably difficult to leave and, if I decide to go back and live in South America full-time, it will almost certainly be in Ecuador.

View Laguna Caricocha from the summit of Fuya Fuya near Otavalo, Ecuador

Laguna Caricocha and the Cayambe volcano (just to the right of the lake) from my perch at the summit of Fuya Fuya.

Patagonia

It was not part of my plan for the year to end up in Patagonia for a 7th time.  However, one of the joys of full-time travel is that you can decide things as you go, and when my friend Mathilde (who I’d met in East Greenland) said she was going to be there in February – I thought “why not”.

Mathilde and I at the Mirador Cerro Fitz Roy - El Chaltén - Argentina

Mathilde and I at the Mirador Cerro Fitz Roy

I had a fantastic 5 weeks (mostly in Argentinean Patagonia) hiking and hanging out in one of my favourite parts of the world.  I crossed the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition off my bucketlist – undertaking this remote and incredible journey with Serac Expeditions and Swoop Patagonia, and really enjoyed hanging out with old friends as well as news ones that I made along the way.

[click and drag to see full panorama]

What did I discover

The general things that I talked about last year under this heading are still very valid.  But in addition:

  • I finally cemented in my mind that outdoor adventure (particularly long-distance trekking) is my thing.  My two favourite experiences from this year were the Unplugged Wilderness Trek in East Greenland with Greenland Adventures by Icelandic Mountain Guides, and the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition with Serac Expeditions and Swoop Patagonia.
  • That maybe, just maybe, I can make a living as a travel photographer and writer!  This has always been my dream and I have had some early success this year in offering photography/writing services in exchange for experiences with different companies.  I’m focusing on this much more now and seeing where it could ultimately lead.  Very exciting!
  • That I really love living in South America 🙂  I knew this from when I lived in Chile, but spending 6 months living in Ecuador this year has re-confirmed it for me.
  • That I really want to go live in Greenland for a year – to experience the full change of the seasons and more of the culture and place.
  • That I don’t want to live in Australia at the minute.  As much as I have loved coming home and visiting my family and friends, I actually don’t want to live here right now.  The cost of living, the nanny-state restrictions on what you can and cannot do (most of which should just be common sense), and the parochial outlook of many Australians really struck me this trip home.  I love Australia and have no doubt that I will return one day.  But it is not my place right now.

What’s next

I’ve been home for 2 months now, relaxing, spending time with family and friends, and getting myself sorted for more adventure.   The next 6 months has me visiting friends in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, then trekking pretty solidly for several months through Iceland, Greenland, Nepal and Kenya.

More from the road soon!

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Stuck in the Mud in Kazakhstan – 6 months later…

Just for fun 🙂

Remember at the start of the Silk Road Tour how we got stuck in the mud in Kazakhstan the first day I joined?   Well, Gayle, James and the London-Sydney Overland group visited the Tamgaly Petroglyphs today and went to have a look at what our special site looks like 6 months later.

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Indeed we were excellent road builders!

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

And here was where Alice the truck was stuck nose-in for 5 days.  Still leaving an impression…

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Thanks for sharing the photos Gayle!  Love it!

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Summary: The Central Asia Budget Overland Tour by MAdventure

Well, my two months traveling across the Silk Road on the “mechanical camel” has come to an end.   This was essentially MAdventure’s Central Asia Budget Adventure trip and, once I’d come to terms with the speed of travel (much faster than I normally move), I really, really enjoyed it!

However, it is not for everyone, and it really is “budget” in every way.  The truck is not air-conditioned or heated.

On the truck

Yes, this is me on the truck trying to keep warm in Tajikistan

You are camping about 1/2 the time (which, personally, I loved)

Campsites along the Silk Road

Just a few of the many, many campsites we had along our 2 months on the Silk Road

And you must take your turn with cooking and cleaning.

Cooking on an overland tour

Grub’s up! (top). Claire, Mick and I in Turkmenistan with our masterpiece (middle). Lauren and I in Armenia with our culinary delight (bottom)

You should not expect even basic luxuries on this trip, and it makes them all the sweeter when they do miraculously occur! 

Hotel in Ashgabat - Turkmenistan

The fanciest accommodation of the whole trip was in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

So, should you consider it?  Well that depends on whether you can cope with the following:

  • Being stinking hot
  • Being freezing cold
  • Being dusty
  • Getting dirty
  • Not showering for several days
  • Bush toilets 
  • Disgusting and smelly squat toilets at service stations and most “quick meal” places along the side of the road
  • Taking your turn at cooking
  • Not being a fussy eater
  • Taking your turn at cleaning
  • Chipping in with whatever needs to be done, when it needs to be done – in our case, this also involved building roads and digging out the truck
  • Sleeping in dorm rooms with at least 5 other people (bring earplugs – sooo many people snore!)
  • Taking your turn on a top bunk in said dorm room
  • Being bounced around in the back of a truck to the point where your teeth rattle (ie it is not for you if you have a bad back)
  • Change and uncertainty – the itinerary is what is intended, but there are no guarantees

It is also not for you if you get bored easily and are unable to entertain yourself in the back of a truck for long periods of time.  And if you have an over-inflated sense of self-importance, please, do yourself and your potential fellow travelers a favour and choose a different trip!

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Looking out the window at Iran

Some very quick impressions about Iran:

Bloody hot (she says with a beetroot-coloured face)!

It was stinking hot! - Persepolis - Iran

Women at both extremes – those who cover up completely with a black Chador, and those who flaunt as much as possible the restrictions they are currently placed under (the headscarf is meant to cover all hair).

Flaunting as much as possible in Iran

Water fountains everywhere in the cities with drinkable water (at least I didn’t get sick)  Awesome idea!

communal water fountains - Iran

Donation boxes along many of the main streets in towns.  Love this idea as well!

donation box - Iran

Rice paddies and blackberry bushes in the northwest.  Not sure why I was surprised to see rice paddies given rice is a key ingredient in Iranian cuisine.

rice paddies - northern Iran

Desert further south – somewhat similar to what you see in Chile

camping in the desert of Iran

Camping in the desert of Iran

Upright beach shelters used as tents for camping – including on the footpaths and in the parks of towns.   There are actually signs to tell people not to do this.

weird places to camp - iran

People picnicking. Even during Ramadan, groups of Iranians would spread out their blankets under a tree and picnic … with no food.

Picnicing in Naqsh-e Jahan Square at night - Esfahan - Iran

Trucks! Soooooo many trucks (unfortunately I didn’t manage to get an illustrative photo)! I thought we had a truck problem in Australia on our roads, but the numbers of trucks travelling the roads in Iran is truly staggering!  Fortunately, and unlike Australia, the Iranians have built dual carriageways to allow you to overtake.

trucks - Iran

Motorbikes! Sooooooo many motorbikes!  And they go anywhere and everywhere, including everywhere that pedestrians are trying to walk.  Watch out!

motorbikes everywhere - Iran

Billboards of martyrs everywhere lining the sides of the roads

billboards of martyrs - Iran

As well as:

  • Images of Ayatollah Khomeni and the current Ayatollah Khamenei are everywhere! Apparently, even though Khomeni has been dead since 1989, he adds weight to Khamenei  if they appear together
  • Traffic lights that don’t actually control traffic – the majority just blink orange
  • Speed bumps everywhere
  • Dead watermelons on side of road, their pink guts splattered all over the bitumen, drying in the sun
  • Men everywhere
  • Very few people smoke, and I never saw anyone drinking alcohol (it is illegal, but there is a black market)
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Dressing for Iran

One of the key considerations when heading to Iran is the strictly enforced dress code in place there.   By law (not just for religious reasons), men must wear long pants, women must wear long pants/skirts/dresses that cover the ankles, long sleeves (at least ¾ length) and a headscarf that covers their hair.  In addition, if a woman is wearing a long-sleeved shirt with either pants or a skirt, their top must be long enough to cover their arse completely.  If you do not adhere to these rules, then it is actually possible to be arrested!

Having traveled through Yemen (another extremely conservative muslim country) for a month back in 2008, I figured that the clothing I wore there would be suitable for Iran.  However, I was advised by our Iranian guide, Mr Ali, that my shirt was probably too short – so one of the first things I did in Iran was try to buy something longer.  

Our first stop was the small village of Masuleh, which is super-popular with Iranian tourists. Possibly for this reason, it turned out to be incredibly difficult to find normal clothes!  I eventually found a man’s shirt that I figured would do – but the young girls who were tending the shop burst into uncontrollable fits of giggles over this and essentially refused to sell it to me because it wasn’t for women.  Giving up on them, I eventually managed to find one stall selling non-touristy clothing, and a fellow traveler and I enlisted the assistance of a very fashionable Iranian woman who spoke great English to help us with what was appropriate.

What ensued was much hilarity!  The longest item of clothing he had was – I swear to God – a 1950s vintage granny dress, complete with gaudy and elaborate lace detail in the neckline.  I took one look and said “you have to be kidding” – but they insisted that I put it on – and then laughed their heads off at me.   They were almost rolling around on the ground they were laughing that hard.  There was no mirror, so I couldn’t see how bad it looked, but I got them to take a photo of me.

Iranian outfit - Iran

I actually think the sunnies look worse than the dress! But this is what I had to resort to when my good pair flew out the window in Uzbekistan

I actually don’t think it looked that bad – and I would have bought it if I had to.   But fortunately, we found this much nicer number – which I wore and rinsed on each of the days I spent in Iran.

Iranian outfit - Iran

I’m actually wearing another shirt (which I’d borrowed) under the shirt I bought, given I had to try this all on out in the open

It will convert nicely into an “over swimmers” shirt back in Australia 😊 I also learned through this experience that it is quite difficult to try on clothes when you have to keep a headscarf on at the same time!

So, I managed to avoid getting arrested and, I have to admit, at some level, got used to wearing the headscarf during my stay.   However, the following are my thoughts after wearing the infernal thing for 10 days during an Iranian summer:

  • headscarves are bloody hot – even the lightweight ones
  • they never stay put, particularly if it is windy – the Iranian women must have a secret…
  • they restrict your field of view, which makes crossing the street in Iran challenging (traffic is chaotic as it is and traffic lights often do not seem to work or are optionally obeyed)
  • they get in the way when:
    • you are eating
    • you are drinking
    • you are cleaning your teeth
    • you are going to the toilet (most are squat toilets)
    • you are cooking
    • you are cleaning
    • you are digging out a truck…

Pretty much all the time really…

And by the way, yes – James managed to get the truck stuck again 🙂  Fortunately, this time, only for about an hour, but there were tense moments!

Stuck again - this time in Iran

In the home, of course, Iranian women can take their headscarf off – it is only when they are out in public or there are men who are not part of their family around that they have to wear it.  However, because we camped for 3 of our nights in Iran, we were always out in public.   By the 3rd night, all of us were so hot and had gotten so sick of it getting in the way when we were trying to set up camp, we all converted them into turbans instead to ensure our hair was covered but to keep them out of the way.

Camping in headscarves - not fun - Iran

This was us trying to deal with our headscarves on our first camp in Iran

Here are all the girls done up in our Iranian gear after our last camp in Iran.

The girls in our Iranian gear - Iran

When I got on the plane from Tehran to Abu Dhabi, I have to admit it felt very, very liberating to be able to take off the long sleeves and headscarf.  Perhaps if it wasn’t obligatory and done solely for religious reasons it wouldn’t have been such a big deal.  But I certainly felt the weight was lifted when I no longer had to follow such a strict dress code.  

And all the women I talked to (and many of the men) my age or younger – they all hate it.  This sign on one of the platforms of the Tehran metro pretty much sums it up.

Sign - Tehran metro - Iran

If you look closely you can see that someone has drawn a “sad face” on the woman.

There is definitely a hope amongst the under-45s at least, that when the old guard “move on”, Iran can revert back to the progressive country it was a few decades ago and leave all this behind.

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Yazd to Tehran – Iran

After almost 2 months together, I finally said goodbye to the MAdventure group and headed off on my own – catching the train from Yazd to Tehran.  You can’t actually buy train tickets from outside of Iran, yet all the recommendations say to book it in advance, so I was very thankful that I managed to get a ticket, arranged through the hostel we stayed at in Esfahan.

train ticket - Yazd to Tehran - Iran

Because it was an awesome experience!   The train was meant to leave Yazd at 5am but was about 40 minutes late.  Not to worry – when I finally got on – I was shown to a women’s compartment that had 6 beds in it (3 high in a bunk arrangement) – the bottom 2 of which could convert into seats.  I was provided with sheets and a blanket and, given I’d had very little sleep due to farewells the night before and the early departure of the train, I made up the top bunk and promptly fell asleep for most of the 7-hour trip!  

Train from Yazd to Tehran - Iran

The compartment also had curtains, so we could ditch the headscarves for the journey, and they provided us with snacks and water as well!

Snacks on the train from Yazd to Tehran - Iran

Add in the fact that the train was air-conditioned – it was absolutely heaven!   I did spare a thought of my MAdventure companions who were at that moment back in the un-airconditioned truck in the incredible heat overlanding it towards the border with Turkey.

Arrived in Tehran and decided to catch the Metro to the hostel.   It was incredibly simple to do (Tehran’s Metro is very easy to figure out and very, very cheap) and an interesting experience to be sure! 

Metro ticket - Tehran - Iran

For a start, as I waited on the platform of the station I was yet again confronted with the segregation of men and women in Iran.   The front carriage and rear carriage of the train were reserved for women only, with plenty of signs around, and colour-coded seats on the platform making sure that this is clear.

Segregation at the Metro - Tehran - Iran

The yellow seats indicate the women-only carriages.

For the first leg of the journey, I boarded the rear carriage but could see through to the internal barrier that separated the women’s section from the men’s.

On the metro - Tehran - Iran

You can just see the barriers segregating the women-only carriage behind the woman standing under the LED sign.

Given I had to change lines 3 times, I eventually figured out that women actually were allowed in the men’s carriages (though men were not allowed in those reserved for women), however, few took up that opportunity.   I actually joined a few women in the men’s carriages on the last leg of the journey, and so got to notice the obvious difference between what the “sellers” were offering the passengers.    In the women’s carriage, they were selling wool for knitting, kids clothes and hair accessories.  In the men’s section, they were offering electronics and super-glue.   Not stereotypical at all!

The other cool thing about the Tehran metro is how each station is decorated.  They are amazing! 

Beautiful Metro station - Tehran - Iran

I only had about a day and a half in Tehran, which turned out to be more than fine.  To be honest, Tehran is kind of boring – with very little of interest to visitors.  In the end, I couldn’t be arsed walking around in the heat, so I only visited City Park (Park-e Shahr) in the evening (which was close to the hostel and lovely) and explored the Grand Baazar during the next day.

Even with these two small outings, I have to admit, I was feared for my life.   Not from any terrorist threat or anything like that – but oh my God the traffic!   It is insane!!  I have never seen so many motorbikes in my life (though I admit I’ve not been to SE Asia yet), obeying traffic lights (if they are working) seems to be optional – and Tehran is a city on the move!    Here are my tips for how to cross the road in Tehran:

  • If at all possible, wait for an Iranian to join you and cross with them
  • Failing that:
    • Wait for quarter of a gap in the traffic (there won’t be a gap or a half gap)
    • Eyeball the oncoming traffic – really stare them down
    • Screw up every ounce of courage you have and stride boldly out onto the road
    • Whatever you do, don’t change direction or speed. That will confuse them and you WILL get run over.  Let them swerve around you

Good luck!

And to be honest, you can probably skip Tehran (or get out of there as fast as possible) if you visit Iran 😊

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Zoroastrianism – Yazd – Iran

All the way along the Silk Road we’d heard small bits and pieces about Zoroastrianism – the ancient religion that dominated Central Asia and Iran before the rise of Islam.   Starting around 1,000 – 1,500BC, it was the first religion to posit an omnipotent, invisible God, who asked that followers pray in the direction of light. Given that the only light that could be controlled in those days was fire – this is central to the religion.

Yazd is the centre of Zoroastrianism in Iran and I ended up visiting the two major sites in the city.  The first was the Zoroastrian Ateshkadeh  (Zoroastrian Fire Temple)

Zoroastrian fire temple (Ateshkadeh) - Yazd - Iran

with its fire that has apparently been burning for over 1524 years (a special Zoroastrian priest adds wood daily).

Zoroastrian fire temple (Ateshkadeh) - Yazd - Iran

The building also features the winged figure that symbolizes Fravahar, the part of the spirit that reaches the divine being after death.  From a copy of an old Lonely Planet that we had on the truck: “The old man symbolizes experience and wisdom, the three layers of feathers on the wings symbolize purity of thought, word, and deed, and the semi-long tail in front represents Vohu Mano (good mind), while the rear tail is Ahem Nano (bad mind).”  My souvenir from Iran is actually a pendant with this symbol.

Zoroastrian symbol - Fravahar - Yazd - Iran

The other site we visited was the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, two large circular structures that rise out of the desert on adjacent hillsides, just outside of town. 

The Towers of Silence are the two structures on the hillsides in the background of this image.

Since “Zoroastrians believe in the purity of elements, they refuse to bury their dead (pollutes the earth), or cremate them (pollutes the atmosphere).  Instead, the dead [are] exposed in Towers of Silence, where their bones [are] soon cleaned up by the vultures.”  

Pit where they put the bodies - Zoroastrian Towers of Silence - Yazd - Iran

This practice continued in Yazd until the 1960s, with bodies cast into the central pits of the towers.   Since then, Zoroastrians have disposed of their dead by burying them in concrete-lined graves.

You can visit the site for free if you walk about 300m from the main entrance (the fence literally just stops), and it is a great place to wander around and explore – especially just before sunset.

Zoroastrian Towers of Silence - Yazd - Iran

The added bonus is that the abandoned buildings at the bottom make for interesting photographic angles 🙂 

Zoroastrian Towers of Silence - Yazd - Iran

Oh, and you get a great view back over Yazd!

View over Yazd from Zoroastrian Towers of Silence - Yazd - Iran

And amazing sunset photos!

Sunset - Zoroastrian Towers of Silence - Yazd - Iran

I found the Zoroastrian religion a really interesting addition to our exploration of the Silk Road – I had only vaguely heard of it before this trip. 

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Exploring Yazd – Iran

My last destination with the MAdventure group was Yazd – a desert town renowned for its well-preserved, mud-brick architecture and fascinating “Badgirs” (wind-catchers). 

I didn’t think it was possible to get hotter than Esfahan and Persepolis, but I was absolutely wrong.   Yazd is something else in the heat stakes – 43 degrees for the duration our stay!  

Unfortunately, our visit coincided with a public holiday (we seem to have hit several of these in the last 2 months) so there was very little open – including the bazaar where I had intended to go souvenir shopping.   Instead, I called into the Jameh Mosque, which apparently has the tallest minarets in all of Iran.

Jameh Mosque - Yazd - Iran

More beautiful tile work and architecture

More tiles - Jameh Mosque - Yazd -Iran

and I tried not to intrude too much on these women praying.

Women praying at Jameh Mosque - Yazd - Iran

From there, I went for a choose-your-own-adventure walk through the mud houses of the UNESCO listed Old Town.  Around almost every corner, you could spy a badgir – essentially a giant wind catcher used to cool the building.  These work in one of 3 ways (read the linked article for more information), the most common of which is where wind enters the tower and is directed downwards.  The rate of airflow is what cools the interior, rather than the air itself being actively cooled.

Badgirs - Yazd old town - Iran

My route tended to be dictated by the arches and any undercover sections I could find.

arches and shadows - Yazd old town - Iran

I came across several steep stairwells leading underground – I believe these were accesses to to an extensive canal system (unfortunately all were locked and I didn’t have time to visit the Water Museum).

Passage to the Underground - Yazd - Iran

And this water reservoir, again cooled by badgirs.

Water reservoir - Yazd old town - Iran

The other interesting thing I noted was the door knockers.  There were often two of them and apparently which one you use depends on your gender. 

Male and female door knockers - Yazd - Iran

Different door knockers to let those inside know whether it is a male (left) or female (right) visitor.

This stems from the fact that although women must be completely covered up while in public in Iran (it is a law, not just a religious thing), they can wear whatever they like in private and with other females.  So when someone knocks at the door – how is the lady of the house to know whether she has to cover up or not?  Simple! If it is a male visitor, he uses the knocker shaped like a solid bar which makes a deeper knock.  If the visitor is female, she uses the ring-shaped knocker which results in a lighter knock!

After walking around for a couple of hours, I went and cooled down in the air-conditioning of the hotel for a while and then headed out to see the biggest badgir of all in Dowlatabad Garden.  

Dowlatabad Garden - Yazd - Iran

And while the badgir is impressive, I found the marble baths and stained-glass windows in the building beneath more beautiful.

Under the Badgir - Dowlatabad Garden - Yazd - Iran

Is it worth the 200,000 Rial (USD$6) entrance fee?  In a word – “no” – especially since Iran in general is quite a cheap country to visit.  Though the entire complex is meant to be a classic example of Persian desert garden, if that is your interest.

Of course, no trip to Yazd would be complete without passing by the Amir Chakhmaq Complex at least half a dozen times.  And while I didn’t go in (I’m not sure you can?) its exterior is one of the classic views of Yazd.

Amir Chakhmaq Complex - Yazd - Iran

Although Yazd was interesting and I could have easily spent a few more days there exploring, it did not have as nice a vibe and did not feel as safe as Esfahan – a sentiment shared by several of the women in the group who had issues with the some of the attention directed at them by boys and men.  None of us had had this experience in Esfahan.

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Exploring Persepolis – Iran

For many people, the highlights of Iran (apart from the people) are the mosques and medrassahs and the blue tiles that adorn such buildings.   However, much of this architecture was built after Timur (Tamerlane) cut swathes through the region, and given that he had his capital in Samarkand (Uzbekistan) the most impressive examples are actually found there.   What I’m trying to say is that if you have traveled through Uzbekistan, many of the key sights in Iran are a bit “I’ve seen it all before”.   Sorry, I know that sounds harsh and is a gross generalization – but that was my feeling after wandering around Esfahan for a few days. 

So I was really excited to be travelling several hundred kilometres further south to Persepolis – the capital of the Achaemenid (first Persian) Empire (550-330BC – i.e. well before Timur) – for something completely different.

We arrived at about 2pm, I slathered on sunscreen, and headed out into the 40-degree heat.  I then proceeded to walk around outside for the next 3 hours, turning into a bright red tomato in the process (not sunburn, just hot – remember I’m wearing long pants, long sleeves and a headscarf because I’m a woman in Iran!).  

It was stinking hot! - Persepolis - Iran

But it was totally worth it!  This enormous site is amazing, and more reminiscent of what you would expect to see in Greece or Egypt than anything we’ve seen so far across the Silk Road.

Persepolis - Iran

The complex sits on a raised platform approached by two grand stairways, and consists of several palaces (built by Darius I, Xerxes I and Artaxerxes III), the Gate of all Nations, the Treasury, and various other buildings, all created out of grey limestone.

Gate of All Nations and Temples - Persepolis - Iran

The Gate of All Nations is the top left image, the Treasury is in the top right.

A pair of lamassu, bulls with the heads of bearded men, greet you at the Gate of All Nations at the western threshold to reflect the power of the empire.

Lamassu - Gate of All Nations -Persepolis - Iran

There are columns aplenty, including the decorated stubs of the 72 columns that made up the grand hall of Apadana, the greatest palace at Persepolis.  The 13 columns that remain standing show them to have measured 19m high, with each topped by an animal sculpture.

Columns - Persepolis - Iran

But the highlights of the site really are the bas relief carvings that are found absolutely everywhere.

Bas Relief examples - Persepolis - Iran

This image of a lion mauling a deer is prevalent across the site

Common motif - Persepolis - Iran

As is the Zoroastrian symbol of Fravahar.

Fravahar motif - Persepolis - Iran

But the majority of the carvings tell the story of Persepolis, depicting life and the goings-on there.

Motifs depicting everyday life - Apadana stairway - Persepolis - Iran

The most well-preserved of these are found on the eastern Apadana stairway (which was only unearthed in the 1930s).  I spent ages just sitting exploring the different images of a far distant past.

Motifs depicting everyday life - Apadana stairway - Persepolis - Iran

I also hiked up to the three tombs (one unfinished) that sit above the complex and are thought to be the burial sites of Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III.  Because, you know, you can never get too much sun and heatstroke!

Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III - Persepolis - Iran

I’m not going to go into the history of Persepolis here, as you can read plenty about it online.  Just one small snippet – it was Alexander the Great who destroyed it in 330BC.  But needless to say, it is a fascinating site and definitely worth the visit.  You need at least 4 hours in my opinion, though longer is better (I didn’t even make it inside the museum!)

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Exploring Esfahan – Part 2 – Iran

I started my Day 2 in Esfahan (see here for Day 1) wandering around the parklands that border the River Zayendeh.  Then, after my aborted attempt at visiting the Shah Mosque, I decided that I’d make my way out to the largest mosque in Iran, the Jameh Mosque of Esfahan (the main mosque in each town is called the Jameh Mosque).

It is said that this Mosque is a study in Iranian architecture styles and became the template on which almost all other Iranian mosques were built.  For this reason,  I had hoped they would have an audio tour, but it turns out it was one of the few places that didn’t ☹, though they did have some signs in English as well as in Farsi.

Wandering around, my initial impression was that it was very “messy” (there was stuff dumped everywhere it seemed).  But if you looked closely, there were beautiful details.

Detail - Jameh Mosque of Esfahan

The other problem I initially had was I wasn’t sure where I was allowed to go into and where I wasn’t.  There were clearly “women’s sections” of the mosque, but did that mean that I, as a tourist, wasn’t allowed to go into where there seemed to be only men?   I ummed and ahhed about this for quite a while, until I saw some other women tourists enter the main prayer hall in the South Dome that I’d been dying to see inside.   OK – let’s head in!

This was an enormous space with a very high domed ceiling and extensions out to either side.   To the right, and behind a curtain, was the women’s section.

South Dome Women's Prayer room - Jameh Mosque of Esfahan

To the left was a much larger section with quite a few men sitting talking, praying or sleeping. 

South Dome Men's Prayer room - Jameh Mosque of Esfahan

It was surprisingly uncomfortable walking through both sections – partially because I still wasn’t 100% sure I was allowed in there, partially because it is a place of prayer and I was a gawking tourist, and partially because the whole segregation thing is very strange to me.  But nobody seemed to mind that I was there, they just went on with whatever they were doing.

I ended up back under the main dome and laid down on the carpets to relax (like everyone else) and contemplate.

South Dome Men's Prayer room - Jameh Mosque of Esfahan

Re-emerging outside after about an hour, a couple of men were converting the enormous blank centre of the mosque complex into an outdoor prayer room!

Interior - Jameh Mosque of Esfahan

This is the large plaza in the centre of the complex, looking towards the South Dome.

One of the doors that was locked when I arrived was now open, so I headed in for a look.  In the front room was an altar (mehrab) that was very intricately carved, and said to be one of the most exquisite monuments of the Ilkhanid period (13th century; Iran has a long and complicated history).

Mehrab - Jameh Mosque of Esfahan

There were also 2 examples of Menbars – step-like constructions on which the leader of the congregation would stand.

Menbar - Jameh Mosque of Esfahan

My visit to this part of the mosque coincided with the appearance of a guide and 2 other tourists, and he invited me to accompany them through a second door into a low, tent-like prayer room that featured “skylights” made of thin marble.

Prayer room - Jameh Mosque of Esfahan

I ended up spending a couple of hours out at the mosque (one of which was just lying down under the dome), and then headed back towards the hostel via the enormous covered Gran Bazaar.   This winds its way for several kilometres and ends up at Naqsh-e Jahan Square eventually.  I didn’t go quite that far, but it was interesting to wander the labyrinth of shops selling everything from clothes to jewelry to toys to spare parts to anything to, well, anything you can possible imagine really.

Gran Bazaar of Esfahan - Iran

I was so thankful to be able to escape the sun and walk under cover for the majority of the way, even if I had to dodge bicycles and motorcycles, and even a car at one point.  I’d already discovered that, in Iran, pedestrian ways were also open to 2-wheeled vehicles!

Gran Bazaar of Esfahan - Iran

Finished off my time in Esfahan doing what Iranians do – having a picnic. 

Picnicing in Naqsh-e Jahan Square at night - Esfahan - Iran

The “young’uns” and I went and bought some cooked chook (seriously the tastiest I’ve ever had!) bread and salad, and had a great time joining with the locals in this most Iranian of endeavours.  The reason the above photo is so crap – it was Ramadan and we weren’t allowed to eat in public until well after the sun had set!

Picnicing in Naqsh-e Jahan Square at night - Esfahan - Iran

All in all, I really enjoyed Esfahan – despite the heat!

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