Friday, October 14, 2011

2 and a bit years of blogging to catch up on...

But I gotta start somewhere, right?

2010 was an American trip - LA, New York, Boston, DC, St Augustine and New Orleans. I'll write about them some day.

2011 was the USA epic road trip, then Burning Man, Portland and Austin.

I think I am due for a trip to an onscure country soon!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Yet another obscure border crossing.....

The border post is at the end of a long dirt road with at least a queue of 70 trucks lined up - a road which is knee deep in snud (snow and mud all mixed together) just wet enough that it oozes into over your shoes and down into your socks.

The border post itself is nothing too flash (except for the massive flat screen tv). The guard who is supposed to stamp me out of the country doesn't want to do his job - or, more likely, wants me to pay him so that he will stamp my passport.

There's a gaggle of tiny old women (I'm actually a giant compared to these women) all covered up in huge padded jackets and hats - what few teeth they do have are gold covered and their ethnicity is unlear - not chinese, not persian, not european, not mongolian but something in between.

I have been instructed through grunts and pointing to sit down and wait. The guard saunters past me again, I point at my watch and make a stamping of passport motion, but he just shrugs his shoulders and goes off to have a cuppa and watch the TV. I take to circling him, on my 10th circle he starts to get angry and stomps back to his post. Still won't stamp my passport and I still won't pay. I take to standing in the window area of his counter so that no-one can get through - about 20 furious truck drivers try to push past me but I ain't moving and I ain't paying a bribe. This tactic seems to work and I get my stamp and head out into more snud.

You have to catch a bus betweeen the two border posts - not allowed to walk. The only other person on the bus is an old guy who has a huge white hessian sack of something huge, heavy and jellylike. I can't tell if it's a dead pig, a live person being smuggled, a dead backpacker who didn't pay the guards bribes, an alien or just a large sack of jelly (or if my imagination is just over active).

2 more stamp checks before I can leave country A. Then a small rickity wooden bridge across a barely flowing mud river/puddle absoluely filled with rubbish. Mist everywhere so you can hardly see 100m - and rolls of really old barbed wire that seems to be aimed at making a fence. Although why anyone in their right mind would want to either escape into either of the countries that this border covers is beyond me.

Across the bridge and the uniforms of the guards has changed. Their demenour hasn't though. The initial border post is basically a phone box with a bit cut out of thr front. I felt a bit sorry for the guard as he was jammed in here - it was no Tardis. He has a look at my passport, nods. Reaches down and gets out one of those old phones that was used in WW1 to contact the bigwigs from the trenches. This phone has seen better days - it's covered in black tape to hold it together and the receiver is about twice the size it should have been because of this. The guard has to wind the phone up, which is a challenge because he is wearing huge mittens and the handle for the winding thing kept faling off. Then when he got the winding up bit done the cord connecting the receiver to the phone machine bit kept falling out - it seemed quite difficult to re-attach the cord while wearing mittens but he wasn't going to give up or take his mittens off. So he persisted and I was trying not to laugh or freeze. After about 5 failed attempts he threw the phone down and just waved me through.

Another guard house check 50m on and then I enter the first of 2 portable classroom type buildings. The first closet sized room was empty to I pushed open the next door but was prevented from entering by a guard that bawled "Docktor" at me. Then an older guy with an alcoholics nose and smell, but wearing a white coat so I figured he must be a doctor, escorts me into an even smaller closet like room and demands my passport. While he's checking my passport I take a look around - I can't understand any of the writing but there is one poster of a chicken which is coughing and a big red cross next to it. "Ah, Bird Flu", I think. But as I clearly didn't resemble a chicken with a cough I seemed to pass the medical (although I did hide the open weeping sores on my arms as they might think I had the plague or something). I presume the "Doctor" went back to drinking vodka.

Now I am allowed into the main room. In the room are 10 guards sitting around looking really bored. One of the clone like guards looks at me and says "moolannee janey". OK, I think, Big Brother is alive and well. So I go through the usual paperwork checks and triplicate form filling (sans carbon paper) while being closely watched by all 10 guards. "You pay money" says the only guard that seems to be allowed to speak - "OK" I say and hand over my $12. "No" he says, "At Bank". "Bank?", I say and look around and make a quizzicle face - I've not seen a bank at this mistly, snud covered end of the world. Then he gets up from behind the partially glassed desk, goes into another booth, puts up a sign which I can decipher as "Bank" - so while wondering why, I go the 1m to the other counter and hand him my $12. (It's $10 for the visa and $2 for the bank fee). "More" he says, I know full well it's $12 but he seems satisfied with $1 extra dollar (I figured at 10c per guard that was a cheap shake down...) and I really, really need this visa stamp. "OK" he says, "X-Ray now", I'm thinking "I have to be x-rayed?", no but my bags do. The guard pulls a plastic cover off a cold war relic of a machine and i put my bags down. Nothing happens for about 5 minutes then another guard (not one of the original 10) comes in through another door (how many more are out there?). This one is clearly more senior as she gets to operate the x-ray machine. So my bags go through, very slowly as all 11 guards present have to have a look and it's only a very small screen.

My bags seem to be OK, and I get handed my paperwork - passport plus 4 seperate receipts and stamped bits of paper. Then the far door opens and in walks a bear of man in a red jacket (albeit a slightly crumpled bear of a man), he sees me and his face breaks out into a huge grin, as he reaches forward to shake my hand and grab my other arm he says "I am Oleg. Welcome to Turkmenistan".

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Iran - the wrap

The people. I had expected Persopolis to be the highlight, but I was underwhelmed. Gotta say that Palmyra is way better.

Decent cups of Coffee
0. None. Nyet. Nada.
I've been reduced to "3 in one" Nescafe coffee mix to provide warmth and sustenance.

Amusing events
Way too many. But here's one.
The overnight bus from Tabriz to Kermanshah was supposed to be an "overnight" bus and get in at about 7am. Umm no. At 4am we pulled in to the outskirts of Kermanshah, it's snowing and it's very dark. OK, so need to find a taxi and a hotel, because I am not sitting by the side of the road in the snow at 4am - even in Iran.
Using a taxi involved getting a $1.50 voucher - "seems civilized and fair" I thought. But the chubby faced, smiling, curly haired Kurdish taxi driver insisted on extorting more money out of me - away from the taxi voucher stand, he just pulled over and said "more money" with a smile on his face. "oh well" I thought, "at least he is robbing me with a smile", and because it was in the middle of nowhere, snowing, 4am and very dark I paid up (about $3).
So we went to the hotel. Closed, with no sleeping guard in the lobby (as one would expect). I was happy to sit outside and wait. But my taxi driver (prob feeling guilty for extorting money out of me) insisted that I get back into cab and check out another hotel. Closed. Repeat 4 times. Another extortion of money out me (his guilt must have been running low by this point) and we went to the 4* hotel - not where I wanted to stay but this driving around was getting ridiculous and I figured they would definately have a guard. They did. But he refused to let me in. By this point, completely fed up I got my bag out and sat on my bag, in the snow, outside the guardhouse. This caused great consternation for both the taxi driver and guard - both got very animated in farsi. But this lady wasn't for moving. So, with defeat in his eyes the guard opened the gate and let me into the lobby of the hotel where I kipped on a chair til the staff turned up at 7.

Random moments
Small town, dust everywhere and no-one speaking english I got into a "conversation" with an old toothless guy, and 2 of his mates, while waiting for a bus. This involved, pointing at a map of iran, sharing some biscuits and alot of smiling. Eventually we moved onto where was I from - this is done (generally) by a person pointing at you and saying "Deutsh?, Ingliz?". "Australian" I said. Ah, Australia. The he jumps up and starts miming soccer, then pumps his arm in the air (slowly - he was pretty old) and says "Iran - Australia". "Ah", I realise, they beat us in a soccer game about 10 years ago and he's reminding me of that. Bless.

Best miming effort
The spag bol I had eaten a couple of days before must have had MSG in it. (Go figure?) And I had come up in a terrible itchy rash that I get when I eat too much MSG. My antihistimine tablets were not cutting it so off to the chemist I went. Managed to mine eating something, then pointed to the open sores on my arms and started miming scratching, and put on a very sad face. "Ah" the lightbulb went off in the shopkeeps eyes, and I was sent on my way with some (very effective) creams and tablets for about 50c. Happy backpacker again.

Anyway I had a ball in Iran. Highly recommended.

Turkey - the wrap (I wish I had a Turkey wrap to eat)

The mosiac museum in Gaziantep. Impossible to put into words just how amazing this place is. It's the best I've seen - and I admit to being a mosiac junkie. Check out the photo's - esp of gypsy girl.

Decent Cups of Coffee
4 - woohoo!
2 at the cafe near the Uzbekistan Embassy (right in the heart of the embassy district)
2 at Starbucks (I said decent cup of coffee, and decent has become a relative concept).

Food Highlight
Eggplant and lamb kebab in Gaziantep. Very tasty. But I caused huge amounts of amusement to the staff and the other patrons when I ate the charred skin of the eggplant.
As per usual, I was alone in a restaurant, and everyone was watching me. But as was enjoying my charred eggplant the waiter came over and took my cutlery off me and scraped off the charred skin, put it on a seperate plate, handed me back my cutlery and nodded sagely at me - I was then allowed to finish enjoying my lunch. I happen to like charred eggplant, oh well.

Most fun charades
My backpack waist strap was broken (note to self: don't buy cheap backpacks on Sydney Rd and expect them to be any good) and I really had to get it fixed. So with backpack on I go to a shop that sells backpacks and show the guy how it was broken, by putting the clip together and having it just fall apart, andsaying "new" in Turkish. He just shook his head, so I left but turned around when I heard an oldman (shop owner?) castigate the guy I was talking to (well it sounded like he was castigating him - you can tell from the tone of the voice), then point at me and then point out in the street.
Next minute I am being told to follow the young guy through some tiny back alletways of the bazaar, down some stairs, up some other stairs and then I am left in a small underground shop which sold buckles and clips.

Another miming of the backpack problem and the 2 guys in this shop ferret about for 10 mins (laughing alot) until they come up with the right clip for the backpack - for 50cents. I then mime sewing - and their eys light up - and the old guy graps my hand and pulls me along up some stairs, round 4 corners, through some alleyways, down some more stairs and then finally to the top of an old shopping complex til we emerged into a smoke filled room. When my eyes (and lungs) cleared I could see 4 even older guys and an even older sewing machine. Again, some more miming, and then some tea, and then my backpack got it's new strap and buckle sewed on. They wouldn't take an money. So much smiling and waving later I was on my way - with a fixed backpack.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Syria - the wrap

Well Syria hadn't changed much in the 3 years since I had seen it last. Still friendly, still full of crazy traffic and still hugely amusing.

Favourite bit

Palmyra (of course)

Decent Cups of Coffee

0 - zip - none - nada

Good food experiences

Only one springs to mind - a decent chicken rice and yoghurt dish in Palmyra was the highlight.

Bad food experiences

Diseased chicken kebab in Aleppo. Tasted good but a day later I realised I had got a bug travelling with me and that it wasn't going to leave of it's own accord. Killed the bug in Malatya with some super Turkish antibiotics (yah for Turkish chemists!).

Most memorable day

Dier-Ez Zur (for all the wrong reasons).

It was destined to be "one of those days" from the moment I tried to leave Palmyra.

Firstly the bus that I was supposed to catch at 8am didn't exist - it had never existed. And the sign up in the town put up by the bus company saying that the bus left at 8 was just wrong - I pointed this out to the guy at the bus station but he just shrugged his shoulders and said "ah well, maybe there will be a bus at 8 one day". So a 3 hour wait for the bus that did exist was the order of the morning. The bus that turned up was fine, but it was full. I was told to wait for the next bus, "when was that going to be" I asked, "oh, maybe at 3pm, Inshallah (god willing)" said the little bus man. Since they had sold me a ticket and people who bought tickets after me had got a seat I kicked up a fuss and a couple of Syrian men in their 50's took my side in the argument and we won.

At least this meant I had some new friends on the bus - which was to prove useful later on.

The bus trip was fine, I ended up having to hold a baby for a while - this proved greatly entertaining to the other passengers. I had to then have my photo taken with the baby by about 10 people on the bus and then was duly fed the usual Syrian biscuits, cola and chocolate that one is always fed by passengers on buses.

I should have mentioned that Dier-Ez Zur is close to Iraq and the area has had a couple of notable security "incidents" in recent times.

So given this I was not suprised to be hauled off the bus by the police before we got to Dier.

The conversation went something like this:

Policeman (PM) [chubby faced young man who was trying to affect the Hugh Grant foppish look but it just wasn't working] - Hello, how are you, where you from? oh Passport please.
Me: Very good, Australia and here is my passport.
PM: Why are you here?
Me: to see Dara Europus
PM: shakes his head. But why?
Me: Because it is interesting. Good History.
PM: It is very old and there is not much left, just some stones.
Me: Yes - that is why I want to see it.

PM: shakes his head OK. Where is your husband?

Me: No husband, just travelling by myself

PM: Hmmmff. What is your hotel?

Me: Rakshied

PM: NO. NO. NO. Rakshied. You stay at Ziad.

Me: But I don't want to stay there. It is very expensive.

PM: Rakshied bad, very bad. Mimes a thief - then gets my bit of paper with the Rakshied written on it and scribbles it out and writes Ziad. Then registers me at Ziad to my protest.

Me: Ok, I guess then I will stay at Ziad.

PM: very cheerfully. Yes Miss, that is a very good choice, enjoy your stay.

OK well then I thought - I guess I am staying at the Ziad. As I left the police station and made my way into town I ran into one of my friends from the bus. He, very helpfully, found me a taxi for the next couple of days for a good price. Taxi driver spoke no english so lots of pointing at maps, counting on fingers and working out times by pointing at watches ensued - and apart from the fact that Syrian drivers are mad, the roads are bad and it was raining, all went quite smoothly. Except for the Ziad Hotel.

The Lonely Planet (2008 ed) writes about the Ziad that it is a friendly, helpful, clean and comfortable hotel for $25 per night with an excellent management that can assist with travel requirements. I would say that it is unfriendly, unhelpful, clean and uncomfortable for $35 a night with the rudest and most surly staff this side of the worst Intourist Hotel in Russia. I'll put up with a lot but not being allowed to have the heater on (it was freezing and they wouldn't let guests have the remote control for the brand new split-cycle heaters in the room), no hot water (after being told that the water was hot - they refused to admit that the freezing water coming out of the tap was actually cold - instead the guy just shrugged his shoulders and said rather huffily, "we have hot water" and a refusal to change any US$ into Syrian pounds (unheard of for this to happen anywhere else in Syria) so I could buy some food. Consequently I spent a cold, muddy and hungry night at the Ziad - after being forced to stay there by the police - who I suspect get a kickback from the Ziad. In the morning I attempted to pay for the one bottle of water I bought with a 1USD note - the guy actually had the hide to say i owed them 3 cents (slight diff b'tw the usd and syrian pound). I left in a huff. Shame the yanks didn't bomb the Ziad on their earlier raid.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Jolly old Christmas time

Standing in the courtyard of a 1600's cathedral in south Esfahan with christmas trees, lights and a santa in a train I am wondering whether I have entered a parallel universe. Then that horrible "Macarena" song comes on over the loudspeaker - it's a mixed dance version with "Joy to the world" interspersed in with it and i am really questioning the reality of the situation. Then I fall down some stairs and take out a chunk of my knee and my hand and I realise that this really is happening and also I am in a lot of pain. (Why do I always fall over?) Much consternation by the people around me - but just a bit of blood to clean up - which is hard because you aren't allowed to show leg here and most of the blood was coming out of my knee.

The Vank cathedral is the central part of the Armenian quarter here in Esfahan. The christians, jews and muslims have pretty much all gotten along with each other for hundreds of years in Iran. The "People of the Book" (christians, jews and mandeans) have their own reserved seats in parliament, don't have to do military service and aren't subject to the same restrictions as the muslim iranians. This picture of peaceful co-existance doesn't quite gel with how Bush Jnr and his cronies would have us think about Iran.

So anyway enough of the history and me being on my soapbox! Christmas day in Esfahan is peaceful - I went shopping and bought a very fine rug, a salt bag (for carrying your salt in the desert on your camel), and a lovely piccy of a camel painted onto some camel bone. Hope you all had a good xmas and not too many family fights. I'm off the the desert for a few days to hang out with some camels and eat some dates.

Scorn of the women

Bah, Sadaam, Sadaam, Sadaam wailed the old woman.
"what is she saying about Sadaam" I ask my guide Ashkan
"she is cursing him, they are all cursing him"

I am standing in a scrubby bit of wasteland near the Iraq border where some of the bloodiest battles of the Iran/Iraq war occurred in the 80's. I had no intention of being at this memorial but my guide knew I was interested in the war and thought he would take me. When we go there it was just a desolate area with some broken old tanks, lots of rusting shrapnel, rusty barbed wire and a new mosque. There was no-one else there. About 5 minutes later 3 bus loads of the wives and daughters of the dead martyrs turned up. So I was invited to a tour of the place that their husbands and fathers died over 20 years ago. We walked through the trenches, visited their trench mosque, climbed around the barbed wire together. None of these women spoke english but I was welcomed, kissed and many prayers were said for me - they even sang me a song. I was choking back tears at the sad wailing songs they were singing and the photos of their loved ones that they showed me. Then they all wanted to take my photo and kiss me and tell me they loved me. So it was kind of a carnival mixed with a sad and sombre event. Not sure how to describe it. But so far it's been the real stand out event of the trip - a random encounter of the most wonderful kind.

One woman was telling me (through Ashkan - but I could guess what she was saying through the tone of her voice and my scrappy farsi) that Iran will always be strong and that "is Israel attacks we will fight them" - but the other women around her didn't look so sure about that - they've seen enough tragedy and death in their lives already.

Oh and at the end we all put scorn on Sadaam I helped curse him as well.