Tehran is a big vibrant and fast moving city. We were anxious to see its sights after arriving last night in the dark. A city tour of Tehran had been arranged and the guide “Mansoor” had left a message indicating his intention to have our transport and his guiding services available at 9am. He wanted to get the sightseeing underway and over before the mid- afternoon heat became too unbearable. On his agenda was the Shah’s palace, a reminder of Iran of the past, the history museum and the somewhat unknown and huge and fascinating Tehran bazaar. I unfortunately had a different agenda for my day in Tehran. My priority was to sort out our electrical issues on the 100 series which at this time was not charging. I located a Toyota dealer some 10km from the hotel who although was very busy due to a pending religious holiday, was happy to have a look at our problem. I hired a hotel taxi to lead me through the chaotic traffic to the dealership. They immediately dropped tools on my arrival, appointed their top technician who was so short he needed a stool to stand on to reach into the engine bay. He however pinpointed our problem very quickly as being a series of blown fusible links. These were quickly replaced and an exorbitant bill for the equivalent of just $US15 was paid in return for their prompt and efficient service. With that issue sorted I had time to treat the vehicle to a wash at a facility just 500m up the road. I could only look at the wash taking place by a work force of Afghani labourers. I was ushered into the boss’s office to share a cup of tea and talk about what they knew about New Zealand. The elderly gentlemen boss spoke good English and openly expressed his opinion and dissatisfaction about the current regime in his country. Iranians are very friendly people and in the course of many conversations I came to the conclusion that a political change in the near future is probably inevitable and Tehran may once again become the “Venice of the East”.
We were lucky to escape the pending religious holiday but as we headed east to Sharuud it was obvious that not unlike home a lot of people had taken extra holidays and escaped Tehran early. The traffic volumes were heavier than usual with little Peugeots loaded with family and belongings headed to some favourite holiday destination. Although the roads are mostly dual lane and reasonably straight we saw at least 3 nasty accidents, bad driving and impatience being the most likely cause. Not unlike a holiday weekend out of Auckland or Wellington. Iranians, like their Southern European counterparts take a break mid- afternoon for a rest in the hot summer weather and then open up shop again later in the early evening. So after arriving in the small town of Sharuud we took to the streets on foot to see what the place was about and as usual meet some friendly locals and supported the local economy, something that they always appear grateful for. Ross Taylor has a nose for ice cream or pastry shops and will probably submit names and addresses to Lonely Planet publications on arrival back in NZ.
Mashhad was our last destination in Iran. This is a huge city and one of two holy cities in Iran where pilgrims head to declare their faith. In the 80’s Mashhad was also our last destination before heading in Afghanistan and onto India and Kathmandu. The two holy cities Mashhad and Qom were two places that we generally passed through as quickly as possible as non-Muslims. Again the world is changing and Mashhad is a pleasant place although our very pleasant hotel may be a bit removed from the action. The hotel has a nice out door restaurant serving traditional Iranian dishes and for the first time we have to sit on an elevated table covered in Persian rugs and cushions with legs crossed. This dining practice will become common as we travel further into Central Asia and can be a challenge for anyone with arthritic joints. A smoking pipe is an optional extra at the table and a common practice with the locals, men and woman alike.
Although sad to leave Iran we were looking forward to Turkmenistan, yet another country that not a lot is known about. The “Bajgaran” border post sits high on a mountain at about 2000m and like most land borders it can be a bit of a lottery as to how long it can take to negotiate. The Iranian departure went well and the entry into Turkmenistan is a process taking you from one small cluttered office to another to document and pay for your passage through the country. The Turkmen authorities are organised, polite and smile every time you hand over another tax payment in $US for the various items that need to be paid for. Each time another receipt is issued until you have so many bits of coloured paper that you have no idea what they are all for. I would suggest that Turkmenistan may have good business opportunities for Fletchers or Carter Holt Harvey in the future. Our local guide “Jappa” met us on arrival after satisfying the authorities that we really wanted to visit Turkmenistan and drive on their “rough as guts” roads no matter what the cost. As we had a bit of time to spare before checking into our hotel we drove to “Nisa” a 3rd century Parthian city to check out the ruins and its anticipated partial restoration. When it comes to Turkmen history our guide is a walking encyclopaedia and brings these places to life.
The entry into Turkmenistan also crucially signifies the arrival in Central Asia. This is one of the last frontiers, an area that not a lot is known about by western civilisation but possesses a huge amount of ancient history, some of it quite well preserved. It is a large area that has been raped and pillaged by almost every invader known over the last 2 thousand years. Its boundaries and the names of the respective areas have changed often until recently in 1992 when the USSR surrendered these countries back to independent rule, due to the fact that they could not afford to prop them up any longer. The “Stan” countries, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are tough countries with huge arid deserts and tall mountainous terrain. Some have huge oil and gas deposits, making them rich nations and others can’t even supply fuel to their citizens. Others have little in the way of reserves but have huge rivers that could supply endless water to their oil rich and dry neighbours, but they don’t!! All of these historical, political and domestic issues are what make this part of our travels through this area so interesting and unique. No one else is discovering this area by land as we are and they all make us welcome.
Ashgabat the capital of Turkmenistan is a fairytail city. Built by President Niyazov after an earthquake levelled the old city in 1948, this place is a construction of white marble, gold and spectacular water fountains, and a sight which has to be seen to be believed. Ross is a student of architecture and we drove up and down the empty motorway like Main Street twice photographing these amazing structures most of which are government buildings.
As soon as you leave Ashgabat the scenery is that of the baron “Karakum” desert and the roads severely deteriorate to some of the worst broken tarmac roads in the world. This continues for the next 400km until arriving in the almost civilised city of “Mary”. 100km outside of Mary is “Gonur Depe” one of 5 ancient cities in the area. This visit involves a “desert drive” and is one of the attractions that lead us to this ancient and reasonably well preserved heritage area which dates back to 3000BC. Our late afternoon excursion meant that the high temperatures were at least not so draining on the body.
The 300km drive to the border the next morning through the desert is a nice drive as the road was recently reconstructed due to the fact that the President needed to drive it on one occasion. Leaving Turkmenistan and entering Uzbekistan via a traditional border crossing is always hard work on a hot day with the mandatory and repetitious form filling needed to be done. In our case further complicated by having foreign vehicles to temporarily import. However border crossings in this part of the world are pretty much the same as far as procedure is concerned and we become reasonably good at it and the majority of the officials are pleased to see us and offer all the help they can to speed our exits and entries. Our border crossings normally take about 3 hours. That is about a week quicker than entering NZ with a vehicle.
Uzbekistan is overflowing with Silk Road history and our first night stop is Bukhara a major trading post on the Silk Road route. Our hotel is located in the centre of the old city and you really get a feeling that the area has historical importance as many of the buildings, mosques, minarets and mausoleums are still in use and have interesting and relevant stories pertaining to their use at a prior time in the not so recent history. A stay in Bukhara is always enjoyable as the surroundings transport you back in time and did I mention that the food, the accommodation and the hospitality isn’t bad either. The two night stop is always appreciated here.
Samarkand, like Bukhara is another mystical place that we have either read about, in a fairy-tale or history book. Samarkand is our next two night stop and is just 300km up the Silk Road. “Registan Square” has to be the centre of Silk Road trading of yester-year. The huge conglomerate of ornate and decretive Mosques and Madrassas (schools of religious education) surround what used to be the main trading area right in the heart of Samarkand. We have a local guide show us the sights here which includes an amazing observatory, a series of mausoleums, the museum of ancient artefacts, the Registan Square and “Timur” the local hero’s final resting place. Once again just about every global conqueror has visited and ruled this area over the centuries, something quite difficult for us in NZ to comprehend. At present Uzbekistan is ruled from the capital Tashkent. They are a little vulnerable as they are located in the middle of Central Asia and do not have the resources of their neighbours. Fuel supplies were non-existent last year, and this year and what diesel stock they had was being consumed by tractors and harvesters as they were in the middle of the harvest season. We did manage to find a fuel station en route to the Tajik border that was happy to take our money in return for as much diesel as we wanted which meant that our 100 litres of expensive Turkish fuel was still intact in case we needed it. Just another of many challenges conquered on our Silk Road Expedition.
We now head into the mountainous regions of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and into China. The roads are diabolical and the weather conditions unknown, as we cross several passes up to 4750m on this leg of the journey. - Greg Paul.
Silk Road Report #2 - Istanbul to Tehran
Istanbul is an exciting city to explore. With just a day to do so the Taylors and Pete headed off into the city by tram which happens to run alongside our Holiday Inn Hotel. They elected to see the most important sights in the short time that they had. These being the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, spice market and the Gelata Bridge. We finished off the day with a mandatory Turkish car wash right next to the hotel as tomorrow we cross the Bosporus Bridge and head East.
The drive to Ankara 20 years ago was probably one of the most difficult journeys anywhere in the world with mountain passes and crazy Turkish bus and truck drivers attacking from all directions. Now days the road is excellent and the drivers more refined and the drive is an easy 360km through spectacular scenery climbing to 2000m at one point. Ankara, the capital of Turkey is a busy but refined place. We overnight there in a delightful boutique hotel close to a main market where I buy my genuine Pierre Cardin socks for less than a dollar and dine in a busy street full of eateries.
Cappadocia is a province south east of Ankara and a bit of a deviation from our due east route. However it is a special place that cannot be missed. The town of “Goreme” is our home for the next two nights. As a result of a major volcano more than 2 centuries ago the area has many soft rock structures known as the fairy chimneys. Early Christians carved their homes in the rock and sizable communities lived in underground cities. Our hotel in Goreme the SOS cave hotel replicates this early living style and is a fun place to stay. The best way to discover the many valleys in the area is by quad bike and it didn’t take much persuading to get the lads interested in a 2 hour tour on our day of leisure. This was followed by a 60km drive out to a little known underground city where we were able to see what life was like deep under the earth. Ross was keen to experience a traditional Turkish bath or Hamam. For me this is a must and is an annual ritual when in Turkey to revitalise the body and skin. It starts with a sauna, then a soapy rub down with a rough mitt (sheep’s gut) while lying on a hot marble slab. The plunge pool is next to help the relaxing process and to finish 20 minute oil massage finishes off the process. All in all an action packed day in Goreme. This place is also famous for its hot air balloons. At 6am each morning more than 50 multi coloured balloons with up to 16 passengers in their baskets can be seen negotiating the fairy chimneys of the Goreme Valley. It is a spectacle.
Our journey east continues via Turkeys 3rd largest city Kayseri which lies below the snow covered 3000 metre Mt Ercyles Dagi. From this point on it really feels like an overland adventure has begun. We are heading for the city of Elazig today, a place that certainly does not see too many foreigners. As you read about these areas in eastern Turkey and pass through the rugged mountainous terrain you realise what a hammering this area took over the centuries from many marauding invaders, many of which left their mark in the form of castles and place names. In the Elazig area there are huge hydro developments taking place on the Euphrates and Tigress Rivers ensuring that Turkey is self- sufficient in electricity but not making for good relations with its neighbours Syria where the Turkish controlled rivers flow to. We wandered through the Elazig bazaar not far from the hotel and received a very friendly reception from everyone, giving the impression that here in Elazig they are genuinely pleased to see visitors, actually an impression that we are getting wherever we go in this country.
Van is our next and last stop in Turkey before crossing into Iran. Van is situated on the shores of Lake Van, Turkey’s largest lake and is the home of the famous Van cat which has two different coloured eyes and is not adverse to water or taking a swim. Van is a frontier town and like Elazig just about every invader known over the centuries has passed through leaving there mark. It is a busy place and our first port of call late on a Saturday afternoon was to a flash Toyota dealer to see if they could repair our strange electrical problem on the 100 series which during the course of the day had developed more complications with the electrical and charging system shutting down altogether until low on the transmission was selected. All systems would then bust into life again!! Unfortunately their service department was closed and help was not forthcoming tonight so we would look at sorting the problem in Tehran. Dinner was a very cheap but filling Doner Kebab followed by our last beer at a sports bar in the very busy main street during which time a huge thunderstorm arrived which has almost become a nightly occurrence.
After extracting our Landcruisers from the cramped but secure hotel basement and boiler room we headed out of town stopping to top up our 4 x 20 litre cans of expensive Turkish diesel ($NZ3.70 per litre) Iran had a diesel supply issue last year and we had decided to carry sufficient spare fuel to get out of trouble if needed. The drive to the Iran border at Esendere is a spectacular drive in the mountainous regions, but well patrolled by numerous military posts, one of which is located at a crossroads in a big gorge and could easily be a scene out of a war movie. We were required to present ourselves and passports to the big chief and fill out a complicated form which included the names of our mother and father!!
Currency management plays a big part on a multi country expedition like this. We will handle no less than 15 different currencies and knowing how much to buy going into every country is important. It is just as difficult to get rid of it on departure as it is obtaining it on arrival and you certainly don’t want too much left over as it is worthless outside the country of origin. Having travelled through these countries on previous occasions we now have a good idea on what is required in the way of funds. The last town in a country is always a good place to spend the last of the money so it is usually a top up of the diesel tank, a big lunch or a spend up on supplies of water and eats. Yuksekova, the last town in Turkey was beneficiary of the last of our Turkish funds.
Border crossings are always daunting experiences. We do not have such things in our part of the world and although a trip through either Auckland or Brisbane Airport is not the most welcoming experience it pales in comparison with many of the traditional border crossings that we make on this trip. It is really a case of procedure. The many thousands of dollars and hours spent ensuring that the visas in our passports and dates on them are correct before leaving home now come into play on the day. Borders in most countries are somewhat stereotype. The last 20km of road is very quiet as a few trucks, local buses and very few cars head in your direction after clearing the border post. The places are sparse government buildings in a dirty and dusty compound with derelict and confiscated vehicles littering the area and border personnel manning locked gates and shuffling stacks of truck driver’s paperwork between big desks littered with empty tea cups. Get the picture? It is a bit of a game. We dress up for the occasion carry a briefcase, and the waters part with some in authority usually taking us under their supervision and leading us from desk to desk to complete our documentation in super quick time while the locals all queue in long lines. The exit from Turkey into Iran went very smoothly and were heading in the direction of Orumiyeh our first night stop in Iran within 2 hours of arriving at the border post.
Iran is a steep learning curve in the driving department. It would appear that there are no rules, the push and shove principle applies, pedestrian crossings are just lines painted on the road, use them at you own risk and radar guns on the open highway are used everywhere to help pay for their fantastic motorways. The choice of transport also very interesting as the majority of older cars are the Iranian version of the Hillman Hunter. These have recently been superseded by the Peugeot 405 and a smaller car resembling a Mazda 121. The trucking fleet are old early 80’s Mercedes Benz’s and a lot of very old American Mack’s some dating back to the early 50’s.
Money changing is one of the first chores in Orumiyeh and you need to get your head around some very big numbers as there is 11,500 Iranian Rials to 1 $US. You can become a millionaire very easily but it is uncomfortable to sit on!! Despite what most people imagine Iran to be, it is an interesting and safe place to visit. The people are friendly and very chatty and many do speak English and are happy to make polite conversation. Obviously there are religious requirements that need to be observed. There is no alcohol, however a strange tasting non- alcoholic beer is readily available but the taste is not that great. The woman wear head scarves in public at all times which I am told once you get used to it is not too much of an imposition. The weather at this time of the year in Iran is hot by NZ standards. We had temperatures into the mid 40’s last year but this time round it has been mild with just 39C recording on the outside temp gauge of the 100 series. This is a dry heat and certainly not as uncomfortable as that temperature would feel like in NZ.
We moved on from Orumiyeh crossing the 20km causeway over Lake Umia paying a small toll of 20,000 Iranian Rials (20 cents). Negotiating the busy ring road around Tabriz is always a bit of a challenge for the driving skills but after that Iran’s beautiful dual lane motorways open up and the reasonable high daily mileages soon get gobbled up. Iran is one of the cheapest places in the world for petroleum product and diesel is no exception at 0.40 cents US per litre. Obtaining it can be a mission as fuel stations are far apart, generally about 80kms, so planning fuel stops is essential. You need a card to activate the pumps and we do not have one nor can we buy one so we negotiate with the gas station owner who in turn talks to a friendly truckie. Once the pump is activated and operating it needs to keep going so it fuels both our vehicles at once and we worry about who pays who at a later date. This year we had no issue getting fuel when we wanted it which was indeed a relief and we enjoyed playing the game. Zanjan was our second night stop in Iran where we took a $2 taxi ride into town which was better that going to an amusement park. It also helped us to hone our Iranian driving skills. We only have time to see a small part of this interesting country and having read up on some of the tourist attractions in the Quazvin area we decided to find the famous Alamut Castle (castle of the assassins). It did not look that far on a map but after climbing up and over 2 x 2000m mountain passes we did actually locate it perched high on a rock face. It turned out to be a 200km excursion but has potential for future tour programs and the mountain scenery was just spectacular and certainly not the Iran that most people know about. Our arrival in Tehran was after dark and the traffic was chaotic and it was nice to be back in a city that they once called the “Venice of the East” and too have a two night stop. Iran is a country that leaves you with more questions than answers. - Greg Paul.
Long flights never seem to get any easier unless you can afford the luxury of an up-grade to Premium Economy, business or First class, and that is not me. However Qantas on this occasion kept good time throughout the journey and our arrival in London on a bright sunny spring morning was spectacular. My Rally Tours HQ for the next few days would be the Ibis Hotel near Earls Court an area more than familiar to me from the late 70’s when I lived and worked in the area. Interestingly enough, nothing much has changed, except “Kangaroo Valley” became “Mohammad Alley” and with the introduction of congestion tax in London the traffic volumes have actually decreased!!
Our two expedition Landcruiser’s were “rolled” as the shipping industry calls it. That means due to overloading some containers that were booked on the sailing didn’t make it on to the ship from Tauranga to Tilbury. A very pleasant and apologetic email from the shipping company kindly informed me of this a few days after the boat had sailed with the next sailing ten days down the track. I was not happy with this scenario, as my logistics agent would vouch. That meant, all going well that the vehicles would arrive in London on the 13th May, the same day as my arrival. Not a good start as it would surely delay our departure from London and require alterations to our already reasonably tight itinerary into Istanbul for Sunday the 21st May.
My clients, Murray Taylor and son Ross from Wellington, our only participants on this year’s 2011 Silk Road Expedition, arrived into London Heathrow exactly 24 hours after me. We “tubed” to the hotel in the early part of the day and set to organise a plan of activities for the next few days based around the fact that I had been informed that our vehicles would not be available for collection until Wednesday lunchtime effectively putting us two and a half days behind schedule. Another challenge had also raised its ugly head. My lap top wireless connection had decided to fail. Despite the best efforts from a foreign gentleman with an English accent working from a computer and mobile phone repair shop the size of my hotel bathroom, it was decided that the issue was terminal and an external wireless modem had to be purchased to get my web communication up and running. He also very successfully repaired the broken led screen on my ancient Nokia E65 mobile. So we were back in business and communicating with the world once again. This allowed me to bombard the world with emails as we currently in the final stages of organising Rally spectator tours to Argentina, Finland and Australia.
Murray and Ross’s first real day in London was fully occupied with an open air double decker bus tour of most of the well-known areas of London. For Murray this was a trip down memory lane as he lived and worked in London in the early eighties. This is Ross’s first trip to this part of the world and can now relate to all the names on a Monopoly game board. They also took the opportunity to cruise the Thames and ended up in Greenwich, the centre of time. Peter Franklin, my co-driver and trainee from last year’s Beijing to Paris expedition joined us this evening having arrived in England a week ago, spending some time with family friends. Pete has once again taken up the challenge this time to co-drive the Silk Road.
Monday, and theoretically we should be crossing the English channel into France but instead we picked up a rental, Ford S Max SUV loaded up and headed in the wrong direction to the North to Duxford Air Museum to check out this amazing collection of mostly wartime aircraft. That easily filled in the afternoon looking at everything from the incredible Spitfire to the “Blackbird” stealth bomber of which they have an excellent example. Our accommodation had been arranged by Ian Freestone, a historic Rally car builder of some note who I came to know while he was competing on the Silver Fern Rally in New Zealand in 2008. Ian also flies historic aircraft from an airfield near Northampton and thought that the Art Deco “Aviator hotel would be a good place to catch up for a chat. As usual Ian insisted that we visit his small, actually very small, rally car prep workshop in the centre of Northampton before heading in the right direction, south to Dover. We saw Ian currently building a Mk1 and a Mk 2 Escort for the forthcoming Kenyan Rally championship. The object of the excursion to Dover was to show the Taylor’s the Dover Castle. This well preserved and strategically located monument was saved during the war as it served as a location marker by the German aircraft and was not to be bombed despite the hillside being full of secret tunnels and used by the British command.
Our Landcruiser's were being unloaded from the container at 11.30am this morning (Wednesday 18th May) at Dartford just south of the Thames, near London. We arrived there at 11am and they were ready to go. A quick inspection, a couple of signatures and we were heading south toward Dover to catch the cross channel ferry to Calais. However not all was well as the alternator light and other numerous lights were flashing on the dashboard of the 100 series and it was charging 19 volts which is not good. We came to the conclusion that perhaps it had been jump started incorrectly and the new alternator had been spiked. Once on firm ground again we headed into Belgium and almost got to the German border before dark, resting up for the night at a pleasant Best Western Hotel close to the autobahn in a smallish town called Herstal.
Our object now was to make Istanbul by Sunday so in effect 3000km in 4 days, so that we were back on schedule. Munich was our intended destination by days end, but the alternator issue raised its ugly head first thing this morning necessitating an alternator change on the forecourt of a friendly German Toyota dealer at Aachen. With that problem sorted and now short of our spare alternator we headed down the Rhine valley to Stuttgart. Ross Taylor was keen to visit the amazing Mercedes Museum in Stuttgart and we arrived there with just an hour and a half to spare before closing at 6pm. Just enough time to see most of the exhibits on the eight floors. It was still 220km to Munich when we left Stuttgart but with good roads and still a bit of daylight left it took just a bit over 2 hours to reach the hotel at Munich West although encountered the most incredible electrical storm just short of the city.
Budapest was our next overnight destination, travelling via Salzburg, and Vienna in Austria and into Hungary. We were making good time so diverted into Vienna to view the sights of this interesting city. Our civilised arrival time in Budapest enabled us to walk from our centrally located hotel to the riverside to view the palace which overlooks the Danube River. This is often the starting location for many long distance river boats that the tour the Eastern European Rivers a tour option which has become popular in recent years.
From Budapest we traveled to Serbia where we encounter a traditional border crossing procedures. Having gathered knowledge of how these borders work after last year’s reconnaissance trip the borders are a breeze. However I have a new NZ passport that has the Maori translation of New Zealand on the front cover. The name “Aotearoa” on the passport has raised questions at each subsequent border post since. It will be interesting to see what the immigration and customs officials at the really tough borders think of this. Yugoslavia, as we knew it a few years ago is now broken up into several different countries. Serbia now has an excellent road network down through its centre to facilitate the large amount if intercontinental truck traffic that needs to pass through. However you do pay for the privilege by paying hefty road tolls on a regular basis. We stayed in the city of Nis, Serbia’s second largest city. I have been past this place on numerous occasions over the years but never had the opportunity to stop. It is a delightful place with a clean swift flowing river running through the middle with lots of interesting buildings and old city wall. Yesterday we finished the journey from London with a long drive through the remainder of Serbia, into Bulgaria and then into Turkey.
We tackled three countries in one day with two major border crossings. Both entries into Bulgaria and Turkey went well with no issues. As long as the documentation is in order then it is unlikely that a problems will be encountered, in fact it appears that finally officials in the countries that we passed through are realising or have been instructed that the tourist dollar (or Euro) is key to their survival. The Turkish border crossing took about an hour and a half and I was even greeted by the customs man whose computer system efficiently linked my registration plate on the green Landcruiser with my name even before I handed my passport to him. That is scary!! Sunday night entering Istanbul is no different to getting in or out of Auckland or Wellington. The traffic queue started 50km out of town, so the last part of a long day and a 3000km run through Europe day ended at the very comfortable Holiday Inn near the old Topkapi Palace in Istanbul city.
The next leg of our journey starts tomorrow, the 24th May from Istanbul, crossing the Bosporus Bridge into Asia. We pass thought Turkey, into Iran on Sunday the 29th arriving in Tehran for a two night stop and a chance to post another blog. By this time the temperatures will be in the high 30’s and will be enjoying Kebabs, with no alcohol in sight. - Greg Paul.