Our Tours - Silk Road Expedition 2010
2010 Tour Diary - Turkey and Iran
2nd June: Zanjan to Tehran. The 335km journey to Iran’s capital Tehran was on mostly good motorways subject to regular tolls. As expected the traffic volumes were high but the traffic flowed well and there was plenty of action to keep us amused and at the same time on our toes. While fuel stations were a rarity so were so called motorway services. Just as we were thinking that we may have to opt for the coffee out of the back of the truck option a big newly built services complex appeared on a large billboard. It featured several different Iranian eating options including good coffee. No McDonalds however for reasons that don’t need explaining. We did also manage to get diesel here queuing up with a long line of trucks of which are old 50’s 60’s and 70’s American rigs of which most are very early “Mack’s’ still going strong and doing long distance work.
Our entrance into Tehran via the complex motorway system went without a hitch although our chosen hotel proved to be difficult to find so hired a taxi for a whole $3 to lead our convoy to our destination. The Laleh Hotel used to be the Intercontinental when American businesses were welcome in Tehran. It is in a perfect location and the 3 rather grubby LandCruisers were parked out front for our 2 day stay for all to see. Somewhat notable in Tehran and Iran in general were the distinct lack of overseas visitors. We were looking forward to our city tour of this interesting city tomorrow.
01 June: Urumiyeh to Zanjan. We departed our comfortable central city hotel at 9-15 am to tackle the 560km drive to Zanjan. However before leaving had to pay a 3000 Iranian Rial ($NZ 3.50) parking fine that an overzealous parking warden had plonked on the windscreens of all 3 vehicles while unloading outside the hotel last night. The first part of our journey en-route to Tabriz was crossing a big new causeway across a huge inland lake. This causeway saves considerable mileage and the first part of the trip to the city of Tabriz went quite quickly.
Iran has large quantities oil and gas supplies so fuel has always been cheap. However we were beginning to notice long ques at very sparsely located fuel stations which made us a bit suspicious that perhaps fuel was in short supply. As we were running low we decided that it would be a good idea to fuel sooner than later. As it happened the 1st diesel fuel station we found we had to wait for an hour for the tanker to dump diesel before we could fill. We also discovered that all diesel powered vehicles need a card (like a Mobil card) to activate the pumps to fill so we had to source these at each fill from either the fuel station or another truckie. However the wait was worthwhile as the fuel was only costing $NZ 0.30cents / litre!! The driving in Iran also became a bit of a challenge. Most Iranians drive the Iranian version of a Hillman Hunter called a “Payken”. They have a tendency to ignore lane markings and drive like the wind. In the time that we were to be in Iran no clear road rules, especially in the cities were evident.
Our hotel in Zanjan was easy to find and was a very impressive new complex on the outskirts of town. That meant that we had to drive back into the city for dinner and to check out this seemly pleasant place. Once again the driving posed a few challenges and finding a parking location proved to be difficult as everybody comes out to shop and socialise in the cool of the evening. Day 2 impressions of Iran and its people ended very positively and certainly we have encountered no difficulties so far.
31st May: Van (TR) to Orumiyeh (IR) The Iranian border was still 200km away to the South East at a town called Esendere. The journey took us over a couple of passes on of which we climbed to 2700m which made the trucks smoke a bit due to lack of air. The evidence of up-rated border security was very evident with two patrols stopping us to register passport details. Our last stop before the border was in the town of Yuksekova and a last chance to spend left over Turkish Lira on lunch.
Like most borders around the world that I have experienced, the Turkish – Iran border is a dirty, dusty and very busy place with lots of big administration buildings assembled in no particular order. The Turks were great and hurried our exit procedures along without any problems. After crossing into Iran and waiting for instructions from anyone who seemed to be interested we completed immigration and then with amazing efficiency and a multitude of official stamps and forms from lots of different people we moved on to the carnet documentation process. Iran is one of the only countries on our travels that acknowledge the carnet system (The Carnet is a customs bond payable in NZ to guarantee that the vehicle is not sold in an overseas country. For Iran we have to pay a bond of 470% of the value of the vehicle because Iran is considered a high risk country)
Our entry into Iran was extremely painless and before long we were on our way to Urumiyeh our first overnight destination in Iran. In Iran a few religious rules have to be followed which mainly effect the ladies. From now on they had to wear head scarves and loose fitting clothes at all times. However despite the rules the Iranians are cheerful, friendly and happy to talk to us. A trip to a local restaurant in the city confirmed that the food is still good and so far Iran is a bit of a surprise package despite many people’s reservations.
We head off to Tehran tomorrow and hopefully will be able to up-lift my new laptop that has been sent to Tehran. Also Vodaphone has let us down badly, after promising that the mobile system would work in Iran it has failed to connect and after further investigation it will not work until possibly Tajikistan!! That also means that our “Astrata” vehicle tracking system fitted to the 100 series LandCruiser will also not be working. Apologies for that and as this is a recce expedition we will have remedies for these small issues next year. Already we have plans to make small improvements to the 2011 itinerary.
30th May: Elazig – Van. Today we were scheduled to meet up with our tour agent and travel guide Murray Reedy at our destination at the city of “Van” which was a further 570kms to the east. We passed through the Bingol valley passing over a couple of high passes in excess of 2500m and through the town of “Mush” before reaching the shores of Turkeys largest inland lake “Van” This is much bigger than lake Taupo and the far shore is not visible by eye. We stopped on the shore at a lunch stop close to where ferry boats take tourist to visit an off shore island which is the home to a monastery. Arrival in Van was on schedule and after negotiating the busy streets of Van nestled the 3 LandCruisers into an underground garage belonging to the hotel and away from an excitable mostly Kurdish crowd.
Murray Reedy and Silk Rd client Paul Miller were joining us here for the journey to Kashgar in China so we had lots to chat about including our border crossing into Iran tomorrow. As no alcohol is permitted in Iran we had to make a conscious effort to attempt to consume as much of our stock brought from NZ as possible, but still the hotel staff at the hotel “Yakut” were willing beneficiaries of our cans of Speight’s and almost a full bottle of Jim Beam.
29th May: Goreme – Elazig. Our destination today was the city of Elazig, a distance of 500km to the East. We headed in the direction of Kayseri a modern city with a threatening 3000m volcanic snow capped mountain on its back door step. As we left Kayseri we continued to climb, the road reaching altitudes of 2000m passing through desert like scenery, although well cultivated following the cold winter. We were travelling on good roads leading to our mid day lunch stop “Gorun”.
In and around this area huge road improvements are taking place which in time to come will make this relatively isolated part of Turkey an easy place to travel around by road. We were headed for Malayta one of the bigger cities in the area. From this point another of Turkey’s historical attractions, “Nemrut Dagi” is accessible by road. Nelson suggested that it was worth a visit as he had been there before. So we decided to make the 90km detour to this historical location to see the statues that had been hauled by hand to the top of this mountain site.
Three mountain passes and 2 hours later and travelling on one of the most challenging roads that I have been on in a while we arrived at the 2200m elevation of Nemrut Dagi. It was worth the effort with spectacular views and a sense of achievement having taken the trouble to see this important piece of Turkish history. By the time we retraced our steps back to the main road it was dark. The last 100km into Elazig was a challenge at night but was good practice for things to come.
28th May: Goreme. Cappadocia. The Goreme valley has in recent years become famous for its adventure ballooning and we were all keen to try this out. Nelson and Margret Marshall had experienced this before on a previous trip to Turkey and were instrumental in convincing us that we really should make the effort of getting up at 4.30am to go ballooning at day break. On the advice of our Turkish tour guide friend in Istanbul, Ercan, he had arranged “Sultan Balloons” to pick us up and take us to the lift off point for an hour’s flight. There are lots of different companies that do the balloon activities and soon we were in the air with around 50 other balloons. These things are amazingly manourverable and were literally touching the tree tops and floating through the canyons with ease with 16 people and pilot in the large basket. The pilot then demonstrated his skills by landing the basket on to the back of a tandem trailer in an open paddock before rushing off to repeat the procedure with another group.
With only a day in Goreme we had to utilise our time to the best advantage so for the next 2 hours we hired quad bikes and were guided through some of the well known valleys in the area, Rose, Pigeon and Love valleys. This allowed us to get off track a little and see the area from some great vantage points. Despite being covered in dust this was a great excursion and a good way to experience the area. Straight after lunch our obliging hotel manager was keen to escort us out to a newly discovered and non touristy under-ground city about 27 km from Goreme. We drove our vehicles to this place and spent an hour walking through narrow passages down the 3 levels of 8 into the labyrinth of underground rooms that housed thousands of occupants at any one time. It was also nice and cool underground as now the outside temperatures were starting to significantly warm up despite the altitudes we were travelling at. To finish off the day I had talked the guys and Sue into experiencing a Turkish Bath (Hamami). Most Turkish towns and villages will have one of these establishments. This is a Turkish tradition and involves a visit to a sauna room on arrival to get a good sweat up then after a drenching in warm water, a rub down with a rough mitt (sheep’s gut) to remove dead skin. Next is the most pleasant part of the procedure with a soapy massage on a warm marble slab by a big hairy Turkish gorilla looking character who does not respond to weak suggestions of pain from his victim’s. However once this is all over and followed by a dip in a cold pool you feel like a new person and would be happy to do it all again because it feels great. Needless to say we all slept well after a very full day of activity in Cappadocia.
May 27th: Ankara – Goreme. We left Ankara and headed east on the E88 highway before turning South East at Kirikale. There was lots of excitement and anticipation about our next destination, Goreme in the province of Cappadocia. This area has a unique landscape of soft rock which the locals have used for centuries as cave dwellings.
Our journey took us to the town of Nevishir where we then followed signs to Urgup and Goreme. Entering this area was like visiting another planet with this strange landscape and cobble roads especially in the town of Goreme. Although having visited here in the 80’s on a couple of occasions my recollection of the town was nil and with only having only basic instructions we had a good look at the town while trying to locate our hotel called “SOS Cave Hotel”. Our lodgings were just that, a series of cave dwellings set high on a hill above the town with commanding views overlooking the Goreme valley. The atmosphere was stunning and as a treat the hotel chef prepared a traditional clay pot dish for dinner. On arrival at the table, the clay pot was carefully broken to be able to access the contents.
May 26th: Istanbul – Ankara. Having gathered up Murray and Sue Stewart and Frank Matheson who would drive the red P2P09 LandCruiser we departed Istanbul for Turkey’s capital city Ankara. The first hurdle was to find our way across the “Bosphorus Bridge” which connects Europe with Asia. Turkey’s roading has been improved significantly over the last few years with predominately dual carriage-way throughout the country. However you now have to pay to use these nice roads and to do so have to purchase a swipe card. This process for us took place at the Asia end of the bridge and cost 30 Turkish Lira (which is close to $NZ30). The drive to Ankara is stunning with several long grinds over mountain passes to elevations around 2000m but is certainly not the tough run I remember in the early eighties. Fuel in Turkey is expensive, even in comparison to European countries and the first refuel near Ankara had us paying close 270 TL for a tank full. This works out to over $NZ3 per litre!!
Our arrival in Ankara, a very busy city, was well planned before the rush hour. Nelson Marshall’s GPS easily guided us off Ankara’s ring road and through the busy city streets to our centrally located hotel, the “Dogra Residence” an elegant boutique style hotel and as the name suggests was an up market private residence in a past life. The hotels location meant that it was a short stroll to a local open air market and a multitude of eating establishments. My fond memories of Turkish cuisine came rushing back as now we were enjoying Kebabs, healthy salads, Turkish black tea and Efes beer.
Auckland - London - Istanbul.
The flight to London via LA was almost uneventful. The threat of disruptions from the lingering ash cloud raised its ugly head again as I was about depart LA. Fortunately the delay was only 3 hours which meant an arrival in London slightly later than expected. Nelson and Margaret Marshall met me at the Heathrow with the P2P09 registered vehicle and we hurriedly drove the 2 hours to Cars UK in Chedburgh to collect the 3rd Landcruiser (AWH161) that had been shipped from NZ.
Our 10am Dover (GB) to Dunkirk (F) ferry connection was easily met the next morning (18th May) and the first leg of the “Silk Road” journey was underway. The three NZ registered Landcruiser’s driven by Nelson and Margaret Marshall, Daryl Sutherland and partner Karen and the third by Greg, headed down through Belgium and Germany. We stopped briefly to have a look at the “SPA” race circuit which happened to be en-route to our overnight destination, Nurnbergring. For most circuit racing enthusiasts this is the holy grail of tracks with 22km of torturous up and down hill contours. We did one lap of the famous circuit in each of the Landcruiser’ s then one further lap in the blue vehicle with accomplished motorsport personality Nelson Marshall behind the wheel. We managed a 14 minute lap with 5 persons in the vehicle!!
Next day we continued down through Germany to Stuttgart visiting the fabulous Mercedes Benz Museum, a must if going through this area them on to Munich for the night. However if you are in Munich a visit to the BMW museum is also an important stop whether you are a car enthusiast or not so a couple of hours were relunctley spend here, yeah right.
With some extra time spent checking out these must-see’s we were now slightly behind schedule but a mid afternoon stop in Salzburg (Austria) to check out this beautiful old city centre was essential. We spent a little more time there than anticipated so the 4pm departure for the 300km leg to Vienna was later than expected. We got separated leaving Salzburg due to heavy peak period traffic and did not rendezvous again until 70km short of Vienna.
Once again we needed to check out the city so did so by buying a 1 hour city bus tour the next morning. Most European cities offer these hop on hop off tours catering to those who just want an orientation of the area on a short stay.
Unfortunately it was extremely wet and hard to get an appreciation of this interesting place. We departed for our next destination on this flying trip across Europe to Istanbul with a relatively short drive to Budapest (Hungary) a place that I have not visited before but with a reputation of being one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Eastern Europe and more precisely Southern Poland has been subject to heavy flooding in the last few weeks and some of the rain had affected areas in Hungary. The main autobahn into Budapest was closed at one point due to flooding and a 3 hour detour around the blocked section of road was necessary adding time to our journey today. It was however a nice opportunity to see rural Hungary at work and appreciate how important the motorway network is to the facilitate the huge volumes of truck traffic that flow within Europe.
We were not disappointed with Budapest and verified its reputation by doing a 3 hour morning walk into the central city area and across the Danube River to a lookout point high above the city. Our visit to Budapest was indeed a pleasant and worthwhile one. Disaster did strike here at our Ibis hotel lodgings as I plugged in my laptop to do my daily reports and the computer fuzzed taking out the room lights in the process. Hence the delay in getting reports through to the website. Presently I am using a laptop kindly loaned to me by Margaret Marshall to get my daily communications done with the promise of a new unit being sent up to Tehran.
The journey from here was to become interesting as we headed South a short distance to the Serbian Border and the city of Beograd. This area was of course the former Yugoslavia as I knew it and had driven this route several times in the early eighties. Serbia was an unknown quantity so it was a matter of arriving at the border and seeing what was required. We knew that our “Green Card” European insurance document did not cover Serbia and as it turned out so did the Serbian border authorities. The crossing into Serbia was uneventful but was a traditional border crossing as we used to know it. A payment of 100 Euros ($NZ200) per vehicle had to be made to purchase their version of insurance.
The roads through Serbia are a lot better than I remember with good motorway system that you pay for with regular road tolls. Some of the roads especially through the cities however still resemble pot holed Eastern Block style roads and remind me of what we have installed, as we travel further east. Once having negotiated Beograd we overnighted at a very unsophisticated motorway services stop with basic rooms and was kept awake most of the night with drunken activity in the cafe below the rooms.
An early start took us into Bulgaria passing through Sophia and on to the Turkish border arriving just on 5pm. Once again this is a real border and takes time.
The Erdine border post is a very impressive facility which has been up graded substantially since my last visit there in 1984. Like Serbia Turkey is not included in the Green Card Insurance scheme and it is necessary to purchase insurance which is a relatively painless procedure. These borders do not see a lot of vehicles from NZ so some confusion reigned until someone in authority could interpret our foreign looking paperwork. Unexpectedly the vehicles were noted in our passports which would cause some issues as the red P2P 09 vehicle being repositioned to Istanbul by Daryl Sutherland was to be taken over by Murray Stuart in Istanbul. The border post was not a place to discuss the finer points of this procedure and we were assured that the responsibility for this vehicle could reassigned in Istanbul. This was not going to be easy in my experience and could be a time consuming exercise.
We stayed in the border town of Erdine at the Balta Hotel. The fond memories of Turkey started to come flooding back. The great food, Efes beer, Turkish tea and thick coffee, nice hospitable people and the early morning wailing of the mosques all part of the Turkish experience.
We headed for Istanbul the next morning with only 200km to complete our London Istanbul leg of the trip. We were meeting up with Murray and Sue Stewart and Frank Matheson who had flown in from Auckland and would take over the red P2P09 vehicle. The entrance to Istanbul is quite different to what I remember with a good motorway system taking you right into the heart of the city. Once in the city however, other than a lot more people, Istanbul’s population is close on 20 million, the city is relatively unchanged. The busy Bospherous River, the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar still the top attractions in this wonderful city.
Our nominated hotel, the “Holiday Inn City” was ideally located in the Topkapi area near the old city walls. Istanbul has a great tram system and the tram stops opposite the hotel and takes your very quickly into the heart of the city for just 1.50 Turkish Lira each way. (A Turkish Lira is almost the same value as an NZ Dollar) The team could not resist the temptation to get to the Grand Bazaar which sells almost everything imaginable. Istanbul was a hit with everyone enjoying the experience of this mystical city. I went out to dinner in the city with Murray, Sue and Frank and a Turkish tour guide acquaintance of theirs who would prove very helpful in our quest to contact the customs department to get the vehicle changed over from Daryl’s to Murrays passport.
We all travelled into the central city by tram and converged on a customs office that our Turkish friend Erkan had located after a lot of research. Our visit restored my faith in beauracracy and after a brief explanation of our border experience and our situation the assignment of the vehicle from one passport to another was complete. A celebratory lunch on the busy water front was in order.
Our Silk Road journey officially starts tomorrow travelling to the capital of Turkey, Ankara. The vehicles needed a tidy up after the 3300km express trip from London so spent the afternoon doing just that which included a trip to a back street auto electrician to repair a driver’s window that wouldn’t work on the red Landcruiser. Turkey is like NZ was 20 years ago, you can get anything fixed or rebuilt and is an easy country to operate in. We are looking forward to getting underway tomorrow morning and crossing the Bosphorus into Asia.