Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Kafir In The Kavir

Travelling as a cheap backpacker, reliant on public transport, makes visiting certain places, especially remote, natural sites, particularly difficult. So when my cousin's cousin (Amir) told me that he and a friend of his (Kiarash) were heading off to the kavir (desert) and asked me whether I wanted to tag along I jumped at the opportunity.

Iran is a big country and about two thirds of it is either desert or semi-desert. You can't say you've really seen the place until you spend some time in the deserts. The deserts in Iran are not your cliched sand dunes, but instead are rocky and occupy a high plateau ringed by mountains that are ever-present, which is what really makes the beauty of the area. It also means it's far from warm in winter. What little rain that does fall collects and forms salt flats and marshes.

The tidy desert town of Anarak, nestled in the lee of a mountain range (every town in Iran has its own mountain looming behind it).

Monday, January 24, 2011

Pics 1 (Belgium to Finland)

So far my time in Tehran has been rather mundane, with most of my time spent lazing at home, watching various films I'd picked up en route and sorting through my pictures, getting rid of duds and touching up the others. I'm about half way through them and so thought I might post a few of my favourites because when I'm on the road I don't always get the opportunity to add pics to my posts even when I would like to and along the way I've taken a few pics that I really like and would like to share.

Bruges canals by night.

Church door in Brussels.

Clichéd maybe, but still very pretty. Windmills at Kinderdijk.

The red light district in Groningen. The prostitutes sit behind the glass doors on show for prospective clients. During the day not so many of them are at work and they while away the time by reading, knitting or chatting with their neighbours. The setting is happily mundane and ordinary.

One of the main portals of Bremen's cathedral. As you can see Jesus looks all beatific whilst the evil Jews have devious faces and hooked noses. Obviously this door was made prior to WWII and so today, alongside the door, there is a plaque with a long apology for the Holocaust and explanation of the door's iconography.

Roof detail of Lubeck's Marienkirche.

Detail of the colourful houses in Ribe.

Grey day in Visby.

Obviously these stones do not roll as they have gathered some very photogenic lichen. Gotland.

Reflected trees in Stockholm's peaceful Skogskyrkogården cemetery.

Quiet little alleyway in Stockholm's Gamle Stan (Old Town).

Grave goods from a Viking burial, including a bronze Buddha. God only knows the things that little statuette must have seen on its voyage from the subcontinent to Scandinavia.

Amateur photographer and his muse on Oslo's cool opera house.

One of the many, expressive, enchanting statues in Oslo's Vigeland Park. Public art at its best.

The colourful, wooden, Hansa warehouses of Bergen's Bryggen district.

The wooden stave church at Urnes is almost 850 years old. Not bad going.

After attending a country music festival in the small town of Skjolden I couldn't be bothered to find a place to sleep and so just passed out on a bale of rock wool at the local port. It was quite comfy actually.

A good night's haul dumpster diving with Monica in Røros.

The incredible Lofoten islands.

Getting lost in Finland's Arctic forests in Oulanka national park.

Flowers by the window of an old, wooden house in old Rauma.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


I like to consider myself as a scientist. More specifically a biologist. Not just because I studied it at university and have an inordinate fondness not just for beetles, but for creepy crawlies in general, but because biologists like counting. Unlike their chemist and physicist brethren who can conduct very specific and experiments to look at individual atoms and particles, the living world is for too complex for such experiments, and so biologists are forced to count things, and to put them in categories, to further their knowledge of the world. They like counting. A lot. So here, in no particular order or importance, are some figures from my trip so far.*

Days on the road


Distance travelled (according to Google maps)

c. 28,500km

Number of people couchsurfed with


Number of nights spent

with hosts


camping (or sleeping rough)


in paid accommodation


in transport


Number of people who picked me up when I was hitching (I'm quite proud that I managed to hitch in every single country I travelled through)


Number of pictures taken


Average pictures per day


Total money spent


Average spend per day


I’m particularly pleased that I have managed to stay well under budget (I don’t have a very definite budget, but I guess it’s around £17-18 a day) without compromising on the things I wanted to do and see (e.g. the tour to Chernobyl which cost about £73). It gives me some room for manoeuvre should anything extraordinary come up, and also shows that you don't need a lot of money to travel.

*Since leaving London to arriving in Tehran, but excluding the 5 days spent for Yann's wedding.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

... And Breathe Out

The road from Kurdistan to Iran is called the Hamilton Road, after the Kiwi engineer who designed it (he also wrote a book about his experience, and by all accounts it is a great travelogue), and it cuts an elegant swathe through some of the most beautiful mountain landscapes in the world (even though a gloomy, January morning didn't show it off in its best light). Just before the town of Soran it is at its most spectacular, squeezing its way through a narrow canyon lined with gushing waterfalls. The road was built by the Brits when they were still in their colonialist phase and was intended as a quick link between the British-controlled Levantine coast on the Mediterranean to the heart of Iran and the oil-rich region of the Caspian.

The town of Soran, up until recently, was a scabby little village, but now, with the opening of the Iranian border it has mushroomed in size with cross-border trade and the return of refugees. Therefore the charms of the town are in the lively bazaar rather than any physical sights (although the surrounding mountains are certainly worth a stroll). The shops are crammed with all sorts of tat, most of which you really don't need or want (see picture below). Here Turkey and Iran are battling it out for the hearts and minds of the Kurds via their consumer goods and it looks like Iran is winning. Luckily for me it also meant that almost everyone spoke Farsi, making my life particularly easy.

Snail shampoo? No thank you.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Land Of Surprises

I had no idea of what to expect from Iraqi Kurdistan. I had done some research and knew that it was relatively safe for travelling (the biggest danger being the reckless drivers who have little regard for safety, either theirs or other peoples'). Other than that I was totally unsure about what to expect. I tried to leave my preconceptions at the door and let the country do the talking. First of all Iraq is effectively split into two countries: the Kurdish northeast and the Arab rest. The Arab part is riven with sectarianism and violence and travelling there is akin to Russian roulette, whereas the Kurdish part is safe and peaceful. The Kurds have their own government, border and security controls and even their own flag which can be seen flying everywhere (I only saw a single Iraqi flag in my whole time there, at the border with Turkey and very much dwarfed by the Kurdish one - they didn't even bother with it at the Iranian border). Actually it's a remarkably ordinary place. Apart from regular checkpoints on the roads it resembles the other Arab countries of the Levant. My initial impression was one of muddiness. Although much of the country is desert the Kurdish part is mountainous and consists of fertile farm and pastureland and winter is more rainy than snowy. Poor drainage means that much of the place is covered in a varying layer of brown sludge that has a propensity for caking the soles of your shoes.

Ehm, maybe I won't go that way.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Midnight Express

I got a great New Year's Eve present upon my return to Ankara: my Iranian visa! My joy, however, was tempered by the fact that it is for only 30 days rather than the 90 I had asked for, and so will require further bureaucratic machinations once I get to Tehran. But for the time being those worries are purely academical: I had my foot in the door and was in a hurry to get going ... after a New Year's party in Ankara, of course. After my prolonged stay in the city I had made a few friends which made seeing in the new year more pleasant and normal, and also gave me an opportunity to have one last party before the enforced temperance of stricter regimes.

I had committed the cardinal sin of drinking by mixing my drinks, and so arose on New Year's day with something of a hangover despite not actually having drunk that much the previous night. Luckily I only had to pack my rucksack and walk some 3km to the train station by 4:40pm, when my train was due. I was excited to try out the Turkish railway system as I find that trains are invariably more comfortable and afford better views than buses. That's a big ask here as Turkish intercity buses are more comfortable and pleasant than any in Europe; in fact the only country where I've experienced better buses is Argentina. But I certainly wasn't disappointed on either count: there are only three seats to every row and plenty of legroom besides making dozing off a certainty. And the mountain scenery of eastern Anatolia, clad in its winter finery is worth the trip alone. Where I wasn't too impressed was the speed. Despite being called the Doğu Ekspres, the scheduled time for the 700km trip to Divriği is almost 15 hours (i.e. an average speed of under 50km/h). My train was 2.5 hours late. Must work on punctuality!

Magical Winter landscape seen from my train window.