Saturday, September 27, 2014

mashad marvel

Leaving Turkmenistan was far easier than entering. Customs went smoothly and once again we were shown preferential treatment (much to the chagrin of one wild eyed local woman who glared at us going ahead of her that I thought her eyes would pop out and follow us across the border in order to continue staring.)

Once on the Iran side things suddenly slowed to a complete stop.

After a brief visit to an onsite doctor (it appeared everyone had to visit him before clearing customs) who was so interested in where we were from and what we were doing he almost entirely neglected to ask us any medical related questions at all.

Then we waited. And waited..and continued to wait.There was a solitary man processing forms and about 60 or 70 people waiting to get through. One person would be called up and it would take 5 or 6 minutes for him to tap away on his old computer before they were handed their passport and allowed to go through the gate. One person.

Then suddenly about 7 or 8 long distant lorry drivers would enter and they would get the preferential treatment. They would be processed and then the man would tap away at his computer for another 10 minutes before calling another person. Sometimes more lorry drivers would arrive before he called the next name.

We realised at one time that 20 minutes had passed and not one person sitting waiting had been processed. We really thought we would be there 8 or 9 hours.

After a couple for hours the doctor came out of his room and saw us sitting there and walked over to the fellow at the computer and - Lo!and Behold - we were called up and put through in less than 5 minutes.

We caught a cab on the other side to the holy city of Mashad (about 240kms) for $20!!

Welcome to Iran.

Scenery en route to Mashad:

Mashad is Iran's second largest city and the site of their holiest shrine - that to Imam Reza the 8th Shia Imam (the first being Mohammed) and the only one of Iranian descent.

This shrine was the main reason to stop in Mashad. There was some concern about whether non Muslims would be allowed in to even the main complex area (it is simply enormous - over 267,000m2 and the largest mosque in the world by dimension). Cameras were definitely forbidden, and all bags deposited outside. (Yet oddly - mobile phones and tablets could be taken in and used to snap photos.)

There are parts of the shrine where non Muslims are not allowed - yet Paul had the good fortune to be taken inside one area by a local. Often being mistaken as an Iranian might have helped.

Even though neither of us came away with our phones - I took my old redundant Nokia for the precise purpose of hoping to get a few snaps inside this shrine if we were allowed in.

Inside Imam Reza complex:

A former Hammam (bathhouse) now museum, outside the shrine complex:

No of course you don't see it....perhaps it's an ampallang advertisement!

Friday, September 26, 2014

nylon sheets at the truckstop hot pillow inn

We had a lot to do today.

An early taxi was booked for the 140km trip from Bukhara to the Uzbek/Turkmenistan border. A mad taxi driver saw us arrive in an hour an a half and so we were at the border crossing thirty minutes earlier.

It was a quiet and insignificant border with about a dozen Uzbek or Turmen locals waiting to cross.

One of the benefits of being a tourist is sometimes one gets preferential treatment. And this was one of those cases - we were given priority in getting through customs.

The crossing went relatively quickly and smoothly on both sides. And soon we were introducing ourselves to our Turkmenistan driver.

In order for us to get to Iran from Uzbekistan I realised when planning this trip that there was not a lot of choice. One either had to fly from Tashkent to Tehran via either Istanbul or Kuwait or cross Turkmenistan. The visa situation for the latter is quite difficult. A transit visa is available for 3 - 5 days (which is all we would have wanted) but getting this at the border was extremely risky as many people had been turned down for no apparent reason.

So we opted for the tourist visa - which meant procuring a Letter of Introduction and then picking up the visa at the border. With a tourist visa you HAD to have a guide with you at all times.

So we pared back the Turkmenistan crossing to as brief as possible. We had no desire to see the capital (described as a blend of Moscow and Disneyland) and were only interested in the historical site of Merv near the city of Mary. (Mary and Merv - like visiting your aunt and uncle in West Wyalong.)

Our driver was waiting for us on the other side of Turkmen customs and he drove at speed to the ruins of Merv - about 350kms across the most uninspiring scenery imaginable, desolate desert crisscrossed with a tangle of power lines. More than I have seen anywhere else.

Merv, the most important of Turkmenistan's historical sites, lies about 30kms from the city of Mary.Formerly known as Margiana and Alexandria, it had along and varied history - reputedly being the largest city in the world in the 12th century.

What a letdown!

What is left is a few small dissolving mud walls and massive earth mounds. Whilst no doubt deeply historically significant, it was a disappointment after such a long and difficult crossing of half the country to get to.

We toured the entire site in a couple for hours and then headed for our hotel in Mary.

We had leaned the day before that our original hotel ("The best in Mary" according to the Lonely Planet guidebook) had dumped our booking so the agency that arranged our tour placed us in another.

This turned out to be a dire and dismal place on the outskirts of Mary next to a truck station. loitering outside the door of the hotel's "disco" were a selection of decorative 'ladies' which left no doubt in both our minds as to what they were doing there.

The hotel appeared to be closed up - it was dark and quiet inside, with no staff to be seen. Soon a man appeared and gave us a key and pointed upstairs. While I went up with my bags he began to argue with our driver. Paul was told gruffly that breakfast was at 7.00am. Then that was changed to 7.30.

Our room was fairly squalid, the bathroom a wreck and the beds had nylon sheets that were not long enough to cover the mattresses.

In the morning at 7.30 breakfast was nowhere to be seen. 8.00 we were told despite telling them we were leaving at 8 for our drive to the Iranian border. The hotel manager then held our passports hostage while demanding money. (Our hotel was prepaid to the tour company). Paul smoked 5 cigarettes in half an hour through stress while we waited for our driver to turn up to sort out the situation.
V-E-R-Y unpleasant.

Our driver arrived and we left him to sort things out while we climbed into the car with our luggage (sans breakfast). We had almost 200kms to cross to the Iranian border.

The Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar - built sometime between 1086 - 1157

Thursday, September 25, 2014

bye bye bukhara

Leaving tomorrow morning. All we needed to see today was the Emir's Palace and Paul's souvenir shopping! My main duty semed to be to control his spending!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

brillo bukhara

We are now into our third day in Bukhara.

Another delightful Uzbekistan old city full of tiled mosques and madressas (religious schools) where we have scoured the city's sites at leisure.

In the centre of the old city lies Lyab-i Hauz, a water reservoir like pond with ancient mulberry trees around its perimeter, some reputedly over 500 years old.

It is hot here like Khiva, but sitting around Lyab-i Hauz is surprisingly cool even in the middle of the day.

Our hotel is quite luxurious by our normal standards and is about 50 metres from the cooling pond in the old city centre.

Below are a selection of photos from the 300 or so we have taken here so far!

The day after tomorrow we are heading into Turkmenistan so uncertain of internet there.

Friday, September 19, 2014


Splendidly, sensationally, superbly sublime Samarkand.

We caught an overnight train from Khiva to Samarkand a couple of days ago.  

We booked a VIP cabin (just two beds instead of the more regular four) as in those confined spaces a stranger who snores or has questionable hygiene can make for a night of hell. (My night trains in Ukraine are testament to that fact!)   The compartment was tight and not very luxurious. No room for luggage except on the floor by the door. But we were supplied with sheets and pillow cases.  

The train left at 15.20 and was due into Samarkand at 05.40 the following morning. I set my alarm for 20 minutes earlier.  

Soon after leaving Khiva the scenery turned to desert. And not a glorious sand duney type of desert redolent of Arabian Nights with camels and Bedouin tents, rather a scrubby grubby affair poor on the eyes. So we turned in early.  

I was woken with a start by Paul's slightly panicky shouts of 'we're here...we're here'   I leapt out of my bed and the two of us, in the best Jaques Tati fashion, frantically proceeded to try and gather all of our belongings; food, bags, toiletries, drinks, dignity, whilst trying to stay out of each others way. I shucked off my shorts and decided underwear would add to the delay and attempted to put my trousers on without any for the time being.

Bending over with trousers around my feet, the compartment door flew open and the conductor copped a face full when he came to check on us.   We scrambled out onto the platform with bags half zipped, clothes half dressed and collapsed onto the first platform seat in sight. I then had a chance to discover it was a little after 5am and the train had arrived 40 minutes early.  

While I continued to reorganise my belongings Paul wandered off to find the exit. Five minutes later I set off to join him when all of a sudden a shrill and loud 'cock-a-doodle-do' began to emanate regularly from my day pack. We had decided the night before that it would be fun to change the alarm to a cock crow - and it had just gone off.   Our hotel was fortunately awake at 6am and let us into our room to unpack and change. Then we were straight out to explore Samarkand.

Arriving at the Registan we were thrilled to discover there were no people anywhere. For half an hour we had the place to ourselves.   The buildings that make up the Registan are beautiful. Fantastic tile work and every part of it is ever so slightly out of alignment. We are in Wonkistan said Paul!  

Apart from the Registan we also visited several other sites in town including the Gur e Amir complex and Oq Saray both of which had incredible ceilings and breathtaking tile work.   The second day we hired a taxi and went about 90kms over some nearby mountains to a place called Shakrisabz the birthplace of Timur (or Tamerlane) a 15th century ruler. There are some really nice ruins here and good ice cream!