(29) Tashkent, Uzbekistan: Paper pushers pushing my buttons

With ticket in hand, I actually got on a train in the morning to Tashkent. Marta and Kuba and two other travellers were in a different car, so I was on my own in first class.

First class on these trains is a fairly meaningless term. I suppose there is tonnes of leg room, which I was thankful for, but the barely functioning air conditioning meant that the windows were closed and the car sweated and fans themselves the entire 8 hours. A young man going to Tashkent for a university entrance English test so we chatted off and on through out the trip as we also each tried to nap through the heat. The usual questions came up, including the question of my religion. “Muslim”, he says as he points to himself. “Christian?” He points to me. I shake my head. He holds up two fingers, looks at them, and says, “Muslim, Christian” as if he’s run out of fingers and there are only two possible religions. He tries again, and remains confused. “No Christian. But you have God,” he says, more of a statement than a question. OK, sure, I have god. I feel I might blow your mind if I try to explain atheism.

The scenery was more desert. Dust. Scrub. Did catch a glimpse of mountains as we went through Samarkand, even one with some remnants of winter snow. I’m bypassing Samarkand so as to sort out a Kyrgyz visa in Tashkent first. I’ll catch Samarkand on my way through to Tajikistan. While Kyrgyzstan is not definitely in my plans yet, I still hope to get there. I’ve been reading the forums on Lonely Planet’s website, and will base my decisions on what fellow travellers are saying. Considering Kyrgyzstan was the main reason for this trip in the first place, I would be incredibly disappointed not to go.

Arriving in Tashkent I took the metro to near my intended hotel, and walked the rest of the way. I’ve been impressed with accommodation so far in Uzbekistan – definitely the nicest for the lowest prices – but this was more like a (low) standard hotel. Clean and the BBC; I suppose I couldn’t ask for much more.

My main goal for my first afternoon was to get rid of my lovely (grumble grumble) painting I’ve been carrying around since Mary. Uzbek post wasn’t necessarily reliable, but Tashkent did have a DHL, so if I didn’t mind forking out some money, there was a more secure option for my painting to get home.

Instead however, I ended up heading out with Yoko, the non-sick half of a Japanese couple, to get something to eat and check out the wifi that was apparently available at a nearby mall. Yoko and her husband, Hiro, have been biking around the world since 2008. From what I gather they started in Turkey, went south all the way to South Africa, flew over to Central (and South?) America, and most recently through China and now in Central Asia. A few years ago they also spent a working holiday in Canada, where it turns out they spent 4 months in Vernon, just less that an hour away from my hometown of Salmon Arm. The world just got smaller.

I had no success connecting to wifi, but borrowed Yoko’s iPod Touch to find out that I was likely not in luck for a quick Kyrgyz visa as I could have swore I had read online a few days before in Buchara. The embassy is closed Thursdays, and it takes two days, meaning I would apply Friday, and not be able to pick up until Monday.

(insert string of expletives here)

Back at the hotel I fell into a slumber until 11pm, got up and showered, and went back to sleep with my mosquito net as my only cover. I planned to get up early the next morning to try the Kyrgyz visa anyway.

But I was not in luck. Friday it would have to be. There’s nothing worse than be excited to leave something and start something new only to find stupid details claw you back to where to don’t want to be anymore. If only I hadn’t been sick. If only I had been able to get on the train the first time I wanted to. But then I wouldn’t have been able to run into some of the friends I have met along the way, and I wouldn’t take the time to hang out in Samarkand, which is what I’ve decided to do.

So today, instead of hanging out at the Kyrgyz embassy, I went to the main bazaar in town, bought a lovely plate, took photos. With the help of many people, I tracked down the DHL office to enquire about sending my Turkmenistan painting home. It would cost over $100, which I’m OK with since I would prefer that it would actually arrive in Canada. But what I wasn’t expecting was the extra step of getting permission from the Ministry of Art and Culture or somethingorother. Which would cost another $20-$40 and unknown time. Even though I have a certificate from Turkmenistan, and I didn’t buy the damned thing here. The young man working there was very nice. He was originally from Tajikistan, but left during the civil war in the 90s. He points to a 3 inch scar above his left eye. “For my parents, this was the final straw,” he says.

I guess I’ll carry it to Tajikistan and try again their. I’m getting used to carrying it around anyway.

In the evening I meet up with Yoko and Hiro for dinner. Our server speaks no English but a series of chicken noises, chopping motions, and hand squeezing gestures, we wind up with the dinner we expected – a variety of kabobs and some salad. The temperature had become bearable.

Finally, the day to apply for my Kyrgyz visa comes. I arrive at 10:10. It’s still not open, and I’m 4th in the queue. I get my paperwork by 10:30, and rush to the bank to pay my visa fee. If all goes well, I should pay, and get back to the embassy by 11 so that I can drop off all my paperwork before they close between 11:30 and 2:30.

But of course it couldn’t be that easy. Step 1 at the bank – some unknown paperwork – was fine. But step 2, actually paying, was not. Step 2 only takes 2 minutes, but when you have two Korean business people trying to withdraw tens of thousands of US dollars and it takes an hour and a half, step 2 actual takes an hour and a half and two minutes. At least I was amused by the lack of personal space people have here. While the teller is handing over stacks of 100 dollar bills, an insistent old woman stands right between them, complaining about how long it’s taking (or so I assume). There are about 12 people waiting behind me, and eventually a guard tells most of them to go, as they will be closing for lunch soon after the Koreans are done. The 3 women working in the other nearby teller windows have been mostly chatting the last hour. I’m not a fan of the ridiculous paperwork and lack of service orientation. I suppose the bureaucracy provides jobs for a huge proportion of the population, but I’m over it.

I get back to the embassy at 12:30, and wait. I’m hungry, but I want to keep my place in line. Somehow, a woman that arrives after me gets to drop off her stuff first, but soon enough I, too, get to drop off my paperwork. Done.

I just have a small overnight bag with me – laptop, underwear, mosquito net, and toiletries – and head straight away on the metro to the bus station, where I quickly pick up a shared taxi to Tashkent. Get me out of here. I need a break from bureaucracy.

(21) Mashhad, Iran: Saying goodbye

Three goodbyes in four days. After Tom and I parted ways in Kashan, it was time for a final visit and goodbye with Somayeh and her family in Tehran, and soon for goodbye to Iran in general. The goodbyes in this case were kind of tough. There’s something to be said for the comfort and certainty of good people around you. It’s easy to stay a bit longer than you originally intended because you know you will enjoy yourself.

I felt bad only staying one more night in Tehran. Like I wasn’t paying proper respect to the family that had made my stay in Iran a remarkable one. Our evening was a quiet one, mirroring the many evenings spent here before. An early nap, some South American soap operas, and a lovely dinner (bademjan, my favourite!) before packing and bed. Big hugs to Hediye. I told her to come to Canada when she’s 19. She said we should stay up all night talking.

I got up early to catch the 7am train. Amir Hossein had asked to be woken up to say goodbye, but (like I would have) changed his mind when it actually came to waking up at 6:30am. Rani brought a pitcher of water to throw out after me, and I was off in a taxi with a few tears.

The train ride was nice, but I kind of wasn’t in the mood for much. I slept when the aircon was on, fanned myself when it stopped working, and ate the most disgusting transit meal ever. In order of what I ate the most of to the least for lunch:

  • Lukewarm Zam Zam cola
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Packet of mayonnaise
  • Cold star-shaped breaded chicken pieces
  • Cold pickled cauliflower
  • Lukewarm Honeydew jello
  • Dry white bun
  • Cold pickled other vegetables (carrots, onion, celery)
  • Cold crescent shaped breaded shrimp (? maybe actually deli meat ?) pieces

The train ride I guess wasn’t all that bad. Perhaps I’m just grumpy while writing this entry.

Mashhad, my final major destination, gets a bad rap from me not because the city itself sucks, but at this point in Iran, I just want to get to Turkmenistan. Any extra hours in Mashhad were hours I could have spent continuing in Kashan or Tehran. Plus my accommodation had cockroaches, which I don’t do well with. The other people that have been staying here are all cyclists. With most of them started in Europe and are heading though Central Asia towards China; I feel like a chump next to them on my buses, trains and taxis.

Here I sent a package home ($12 for 2.5kg), exchanged some Iranian Rials back into Euros, and attempted to see the holy shrine, which is the main raison d’etre of Mashhad. However, seeing as the best areas of the shrine are only available to Muslims, and I had failed to plan for three of the requirements of entry (no water, no camera, covered feet required), even with my borrowed chador, I couldn’t get into the outside area. Meh. I’m apathetic at this point. I just want to get to Turkmenistan. At least the accommodation has (spotty) wifi, and I can catch up with home via Skype.

Earlier in this trip, I thought I had come to the realization that this would be my last extended backpacking trip. Instead, I realize now that I’m done with super budget travelling. I now browse the mid-range accommodation options in the guidebooks, and don’t flinch at double digit dollar ranges. I value clean sheets, security and hot water. I know I won’t get that everyday throughout the rest of this trip, but I’ll have no qualms splurging when I need it.

I have had the privilege of well paying jobs, and also the will to lead a reasonably simple life in Canada, each which afford me the ability, the luxury of taking extended periods of time to see the world. And if I want a hot shower, I’m gonna fork out for it. No matter what look that prissy but dirty budget traveller is giving me.

So my last few hours in Iran will consist of getting to the border. I have $15 in Iranian money left for 4 hours of bus and taxi starting at 6am tomorrow. I’m looking forward to Turkmenistan. It’s costing me more per day than any other country or tour I’ve ever done, but I’m OK with that. I have to have a guide with me the whole time as I’m doing more than just transiting across the country (as per Turkmenistan rules), but as I figure I’ll probably never be back, in the grand scheme of things this money will be well spent. I don’t want to regret cheaping out on the 2nd most media-controlled state in the world.

(17) Esfahan, Iran: An Officer and a Gentlewoman

I left Tehran with plans to spend just 5 days in the south, so as to join up with Somayeh and Nasi to do a northern road trip. The overnight train was the first in Iran which didn’t end in an invitation to a home. I had been spoiled with so much hospitality previously, that I was almost disappointed on this ride – no food shared, and in the morning when I was keen to get off my 3rd level bunk, no effort to make room on the seats down below.

The train arrived at about 6:30am, and as I was arranging a taxi into town in my half-asleep stupor, I met Tom from New Zealand, who had heard me say something in English and figured correctly that we were headed in the same direction, even to the same hotel. Our first choice was full, and the second attempt resulted in confusion with our desire to share a room. Once we viewed the room and checked in, an attendant tried to take away my pack from my bed to bring to another room. “Mostarak” we tried to explain (shared). He went downstairs, back up again, and then tried to take Tom’s pack away from his bed. Eventually we realized that as an obviously unmarried couple, sharing a room was not going to be possible here.

Finally, we had success. A beautiful traditional house outside of the main area of town, with rooms around a green courtyard. I find it funny how quickly one can come to trusting a fellow traveller. I had known Tom for a bit over an hour by the time we settled in, and already we were sharing a double bed.

Tom, as Peter had been, was another great travel partner. We both are comfortable with long silences, enjoy eclectic music genres on iPods, and can handwash in sinks like nobody’s business . Tom, however, is even better at sleeping anyplace-anytime than I am. (Those close to me will find this hard to believe, but really, it’s true).

We found breakfast after our extended hotel search at a little spot offering “Olden Food” (which thankfully was made fresh) and headed for a walk around town. It was Friday, meaning most holy places and many others would be closed for the day. Lonely Planet really should have a section for each town that lists “What to Do Here on a Friday”. It seemed that everything was closing up as we arrived, even in the Christian quarter of town.

Esfahan is where we established our daily routine, which generally involved exploring sights in the morning, practicing the Iranian art of picnicking in the park for lunch, napping in the heat of the afternoon, and heading back out for sights and dinner in the evening.

Our first picnic in Esfahan we were joined by an “actor” from Tehran. I’m not sure if he was actually an actor, but he was definitely a character. Soon into the conversation he establishes that Tom and I are friends and not married.

“I am single”, he shares.

Wow, this guy is forward.

And then he breaks out into song, asking “Good?” before he even takes a breath.

Ah, he means he is a singer. (Like the actor bit, still questionable).

He breaks out into song again.

“Good, or very good?” he asks.

I let Tom have this one.

“Is Iran better than other countries?”

I let Tom have this one too. I actually let Tom have a lot of the questions. It’s usually men that approach us; typically they are quite forward, often have something to sell, and are pretty hard to shake off.

Another example. On our way back to our room for a siesta, an older man approaches us, apologizes for interrupting, and asks if he can speak English with us.

“In other countries, men and women can know each other before marriage. In Iran this is not possible, they do not know each other.”

I can see this is probably going to go nowhere good.

“In other countries, men and women can live together, have sexual relations. I think all the problems of marriage are solved by sex.”

It was like bargaining. He started off at 100% but we got him down to 70%. Still, he wasn’t going to concede.

The conversation went on like this for about 10 minutes, the three of us walking down the main street.

When he finally left, two young men that had been following us since our last conversation started move in. This conversation lasted just as long, but was focused more so on Enrique Iglesias. I’m pretty sure they were disappointed Tom wasn’t more of a fan.

In addition to the personal conversations, we’ll get entertaining and less time-consuming gestures of welcome by people riding by at about 50km/h on motorbikes.

“HELLO WELCOme to Esfah…”

The women that approach, however, are much more pleasant. They usually approach quite shyly and are genuinely apologetic for taking my time. School girls like to get pictures taken with me, whereas women like to ask “What is your idea about Iran?” or if I’m married or what my religion is. And then they’re off before I really get a chance to engage them further, and I rack up another point in the “unobtrusive conversation” competition Tom and I soon start.

Day two in Esfahan is spent wandering the (now open on a Saturday) sights. Tree-lined streets, exquisite mosaics, impressive mosques, dinosaur statues. You know, the usual. The region of Esfahan that hosts the main attractions is very scenic. I’m sure there’s a downtown somewhere that is not all that appealing, but the area we saw was lovely. I think our impression was also helped by staying at such a lovely guesthouse – even our afternoon naps and clotheswashing were in green, quiet settings.

Probably my two favourite sights of Esfahan were the artisan areas of the market and the inner dome of the main mosque off Imam Square. The artisan area was off the main market rows. Initially unassuming, each little square box off the narrow lanes held one or more people working away hard preparing the precursors for the lovely items displayed in the main market area. Shaping copper vases, hammering designs onto tar-backed metals, painting and etching plates. Hammers, blowtorches, brushes all working away.

The mosque’s inner dome was literally breathtaking. I’m neither a religious nor spiritual person, but every once in a while I come across a sight that gives me a feeling of something, I don’t know, more or bigger or powerful, and I tear up. The last time this happened I was in Peru overlooking concentric stone circles near Urubamba. This time I walked into the inner dome, and it was a sight I can’t really explain. Pictures don’t do justice, but I’ll use them to remind me of the feeling that I had.

In the evening we met up with Erika and some of her friends for a great dinner at a traditional restaurant (raised platform, seated on carpet with pillows). I met Erika in Tehran at the Tajikistan embassy; she’s in Esfahan for 9 months studying Farsi. It’s probably the loveliest place in Tehran to do it. Between us and her friends, Farsi, Italian, French, English and New Zealandish were floating around over dinner. I say New Zealandish because whenever Tom talked to Erika’s Italian friend, Erika would have to repeat in English or French for the meaning to sink in.

In order to meet up with Somayeh and her sister for the northern road trip, I couldn’t stay in Esfahan longer than two days, and had plans to try to get to my next destination, Shiraz, via a longer, less easily navigated, mountain route. Tom was also interested so our travels together will continue.

Overall, I highly recommend Esfahan. Lovely sights, great accommodation options, and while the tourists are aplenty, only about 10 of them are from outside Iran, so the crowds of picnickers in the parks make for interesting photographs. Lonely Planet gives a recommended route for tourists on a transit visa in Iran for 5 days, and even they recommend to spend two of them in Esfahan. You just might want to avoid Fridays though.

(16) Western Iran: Hospitality and heroin

I had bought a ticket earlier in the day, both to guarantee I would get one, and to make sure I knew where I was going. I’m glad I did because it’s a bit station and the entrance is not where I expected it to be. Amir Hossein had got me in a shared taxi heading there, and I was on my way before 8.

I didn’t see my bus where I expected it to be at the time I expected it to be there. I tried asking a few people, but didn’t receive any good information. Eventually I approached a trio of people that were going on the same bus, could speak basic English, and assured me that they would make sure I got on. They introduced themselves as Kurdish, and I felt immediately relieved. Ah, Kurds again. I had such great experiences with Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, so I felt at ease knowing they had my back. We chatted a bit and they let me know if I needed anything, or had any questions once we were on the bus, that they were there for me.

On the bus I was seated beside a young, overly stylish woman. Big sunglasses, a bit too skinny, probably had long fake nails if I had looked. I must say I’m a huge fan of the Iranian bus system, where females travelling alone are paired with other females. No worries of creepy men/ large men/ snoring men ending up beside you on the long distance buses.

It soon became obvious that the woman was keen to talk to me, but she spoke about 100 words of English. We established ages, marital status, that Iran was beautiful. The usual. If ever I completely did not understand what she was saying, she would laugh and grab my arm. At one point she blurts out the few English words she hasn’t had a chance to use yet: “I love you, too.” We were best buddies.

Before we went/tried to sleep, she made house gestures, and from what I understood from the hand motions and words, she wanted me to come to her home when we arrived in Sanandaj. There she had a Farsi – English dictionary. We would eat there, I could rest some more, and then head to Paveh later in the day. Agreed.

Sleep was off and on, as it usually is on a night bus, and we arrived in Sanandaj early in the morning, but it was already light. At this point I’m expecting my new best friend and I to get off the bus together, where she would lead me to a taxi to her home, we would eat, rest and I would be on my way to Paveh later in the afternoon.

So I was a bit surprised when the bus reached its destination and she stood up, waved and said, “Good bye!” with a huge smile.

What happened to being best buddies? I thought we had something. You told me you loved me, too!

I waved back with a smile, and pretended like I wasn’t confused. Ah well.

Although I wanted to get to Paveh, I hadn’t decided on a route. I definitely wanted to complete a circuit of a mountain route near the Iraq border, but didn’t know if I would start or end at the Paveh side.

I sat down with my Lonely Planet, pondering my options, when I hear a shared taxi driver yell “Marivan”, and my decision was made. Counter-clockwise it would be.

I shared the taxi with a young man and a couple, and we made great time to Marivan. The couple was headed to the same hotel I was interested in, so I was happy to know I would be able to get to my destination without too much trouble. I was a bit let down when we arrived though. The best option in town was actually a bit out of town. Near a lake, but not near enough to make it worthwhile to be near the lake. And finally, it was full, so that was probably the main reason it wasn’t a good place for me. I caught a taxi ride back to the centre of the town, bought a toothbrush to stand in for the toiletries bag I forgot in Tehran (I forgot my watch too – oops!), checked email, and tried to figure out a plan of action.

I decided to try to get to where I was originally going to spend my second night, Howraman. It doesn’t have any official accommodation, but that generally hadn’t posed too much of a problem in the past for me. My first bus to the junction I needed to get off at had me sharing some fruit and nuts (what a great way to break ice!), getting my fare paid for by a local teacher (Kurdish people are so generous!), and relearning some Kurdish I picked up in Iraq and Turkey. It’s amazing how a quick “spas” (thank you) lights up faces.

At the junction I found a shared taxi to Howraman, and we were quickly on our way. Except for the flat tire, that is. But it was fixed in just enough time for me to find the back side of a bush for use as a toilet.

We climbed over increasingly higher and steeper hills. I could see where the road forked ahead, and where the right fork’s road was cut jaggedly like a zigzag into the mountain’s side and up and over onto the other. We took the other fork, and descended into the valley below where Howraman lay. The three other men in the taxi got dropped off, and the driver stopped at a few places for me to take photos. At one point, we were wandering around a shrine when I heard from above “Paveh!” – a bus was leaving (or at least this is what I swear I heard). I knew I wasn’t going to have time to run back to the taxi, grab my bags, and get to the bus. I watched it drive away.

At this point I was planning to just get dropped of in Howraman and let the rest sort itself out. But I succumbed to the persuasion of the driver. There are no buses to Paveh on this road he says. The road is a bad road he says. I need to take the other route he says. I should go back to Marivan he says. I should wait at the fork for a bus on the other road he says.

Eventually I ride with him back to the fork, and some confusion results when I want to get out, and not go with him back to Marivan, and not go with him on the other route to Paveh. I just want out. I want my bags. I finally get them, and the driver, as nice as he truly is once the confusion subsides, arranges a ride for me with a Kurdish family travelling in three cars. We chat a bit over ice cream with a few soldiers and the man with the ice cream cooler on the back of his motorbike. I finally have a way to get to Paveh. Considering Paveh is where I planned to spend my third night on this side trip, I’m way ahead of schedule and need to find some more destinations before heading back to Tehran.

I had a great ride with the family. They were on a holiday picnic drive from Marivan, and stopped like regular tourists at all the places I was happy to stop at. Snowball fights at the pass. Photos at the viewpoint of the valley floor reaching over to Iraq. Have I said recently that I love mountains?

We stopped for a picnic. Iranians do picnics well. Picnics do not just consist of sandwiches on a blanket. We had rice, barbecued fish, bread, drinks, tea, and more. And dancing. They wanted to show me a traditional Kurdish dance, which involves stepping forward and back, arms linked with the person beside you, the lead and end each waving handkerchiefs. It’s a political dance I’m told. The steps symbolize land, and the willingness to fight for it. The linked arms symbolize solidarity. The waving handkerchiefs symbolize a flag for an independent Kurdistan. They ask me if I have a website where I describe my travels, and they ask me not to post photos of the dance.

After lunch they have decided not to go to Paveh, as the day is getting too long, but even with my insistence that yes, I can take a taxi, they still drive me all the way to Paveh, and drive all the way through the town to make sure I have a good place to sleep, and finally we say goodbye.

That night in Paveh I try to sort out the route I will take from here, considering I’ve only had one long day and I still have at least two more before I need to get back to the assortment of various embassies in Tehran for visa duty. I finally decide on another long day of travel to get to Andimeshk, from where I can see some interesting sights and take a scenic train through canyons and mountains.

First is a bus to Kermanshah, from where I catch a shared taxi to Khorammabad. Four college guys sit across the back. It takes me a while to let my guard down, as when people (men) are laughing in obvious reference to me when travelling, I always assume that some sort of sexual jokes are being told. I know this is overreacting, but honestly, it’s not nice to laugh when someone that doesn’t speak your language is in your company – you feel you’re being laughed at, not with. They also ask innocent, but to my suspicious ear, creepy, questions. Do you have a cell phone? Does your cell phone have GPS? I jump to the obvious conclusion that they are going to drive me somewhere remote where I can’t call for help or find my way back to civilization. Of course, they are just curious about the technology I’m carrying, but in my hopped-up hyper-paranoid state, I think the extreme. I keep an eye out for road signs.

But of course, they end up being very friendly young Kurdish guys. I get treated to lunch and when we get to Khorammabad they bypass their destination and pay for my taxi to the next shared taxi stand and ensure that I get a car to my next destination at the right price.

The final ride was the neatest. The landscape changed dramatically to an odd mountainous dessert. This is actually what I imagine much of Iraq looks like, and it probably does. Baghdad is about 300km away.

It’s kind of like the Monument Valley in Arizona (where Forrest Gump stopped running), but a few hundred million years before. Erosion hasn’t happened to its fullest yet. Even still, I could make out amazing sedimentary layers in the walls of the hills around me, many of them worn away slightly. The topography itself looks like a topographic map.

I noticed the temperature gauge in the car was 44. Then 46. At it’s highest it reached 49. I figured it must be a mistake, though it was pretty damn hot.

The driver was probably the craziest I’ve had yet. He was a huge fan of weaving in and out of traffic, which in and of itself isn’t so unusual, but he even liked to test out passing on blind corners, which isn’t that common even in this area of the world. Whenever there was a big line of trucks or cars in front of us, he would flash his lights repeatedly at oncoming traffic and make question gestures with his arms, as if to ask, “What’s going on up ahead? Radar?” I was, however, able to confirm that tailgating is the international sign for, “Speed up or move over,” and flashing one’s headlights once means “Cops up ahead.” I was also able to confirm that the middle finger is, in fact, NOT the international symbol for “You drive like a ninny.” In Iran, a thumbs up is used instead. I’m not joking. It’s really amusing to see a pissed off driver give someone a glare, a few choice words, and a thumbs up.

In Andimeshk, I settled into my hotel and cranked the air con. Maybe it was 49. I waited a while before heading out to explore the town, but I eventually ended up buying some vegetables for the train ride the next morning (at this point I had completely forgotten about visiting nearby ruins. A day trip in the dessert at 50 degrees was NOT going to happen), confirming the train’s departure time, checking my email, and browsing a fine selection of camouflage gear, which appears to be all the rage in Andimeshk.

I grabbed dinner at a restaurant off one of the town’s squares (or really it was more like a circle). I was soon joined by a few men who were keen to try to chat. Again I read too far into innocent questions, like “Where is your hotel?” I’m passed a cell phone by an older gentleman – it’s his wife, and she speaks English. She asks if she can help me. “Nope, I’m just enjoying my dinner, and I was passed the phone to talk to you.” I take the opportunity to find out what the temperature was today. “49,” she tells me. We chat briefly, and she apologizes for for interrupting my dinner. I pass the phone back to the man. He chats to her briefly and passes the phone back to me. She invites me to stay at their home. I thank her, but let her know that I already have a room, and I have to wake up at 3:30am the next morning for the train. The man offers to take me back to my hotel, but my guard is still up, and I’m fine with the 100m walk.

Back at the hotel, I try to sort out a way to wake up at 3:30am. There’s about 6 other men in the hotel lobby/cafeteria dressed in Kurdish attire and I test out my Kurdish again. It falls flat. I know that there are many different languages spoken in the multi-country Kurdistan, but this is the first time my offers of “thank you” and “what is your name” are not understood.

In the end I think I have at least two men plus the hotel attendent waking me up in the morning. For backup, I use what I  call my water bottle alarm. I drink a litre of water before I go to bed. If nothing else, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night having to pee.

The water bottle alarm worked too well. I had only slept just over an hour before I woke up. And then after that I woke up every half hour to check the clock on my camera. I was wide awake and getting ready when the men knocked quietly at my door in succession. They were way too quiet to have woken me up if I had really needed them.

At 4am, the town is quiet, but incredibly warm. It really hasn’t cooled down much, and must still be close to 40. I expect the train station to be dead at this time in the morning, but it’s buzzing with hundreds of people all planning to take this train. I stand in line for about 2 minutes before an attendent leads me around back to the ticket sellers and I get a ticket in 1 minute instead of 30. It costs about 40 cents for a seven hour ride. I feel like a celebrity, and have to admit I don’t mind the service. I wait, sitting on my bag, briefly, before being led into a special, spacious, waiting room. Soon enough, I am led out to the train before the masses. It’s soon evident that I am on the “women and children” car. I had heard that this train was incredibly packed, but this is obviously only true for the co-ed passengers. My car at first only had one other set of seats taken – a woman and her three children. Soon enough she has claimed me for her own, and one of her older boys is relegated to my former seat.

She shares water and food with me. I’m thankful. She speaks no English, and I at this point only speak limited Farsi. When she tries to get something across to me, she seems to think it would be effective to repeat the same phrase over and over again. When I laugh sheepishly and shrug my shoulders, she pinches my cheeks and slips her fingers away as if a clothespin was being tugged from my face. Her intentions are playful, but it hurts a bit each time she does it.

The scenery on the train ride was well worth the early morning. At first we sidled through broad dessert valleys, but soon moved into increasingly narrower canyons. The morning light was golden, and cast a warm orange glow on the rocks around us. Soon enough though, it was hot. Too hot. We nodded in and out of sleep most of the rest of the journey. The best part of the ride was in the early morning anyway.

As the train continued, our car filled more and more, but was still not cramped. It was entertaining to watch men board at the various stations, thinking they had come across some undiscovered empty seats, only to be quickly thereafter ushered out by train attendants.

Throughout the journey, I got an increasingly, I don’t know, negative? feeling about this woman and her children. Her young daughter seemed sweet, but the older boys were a bit corrupted or something. At one point, a toddler in the next berth over was standing in the corridor just past us. I was engaging the young boy, making funny faces. On of the sons turned around with a sour face and shooed him away like a pest. I can’t quite describe the vibe I got from this family, but it wasn’t entirely positive.

By this point in my journey, I had made the decision to head back to Tehran on a night train. I had been throwing around the idea of heading to Esfahan, but I had a feeling that unless I had a clear and firm plan, I was going to be hijacked by this woman.

Which is what happened. At the station, she pulled me along with her. I was obviously coming to her house. I convinced her to at least allow me to get my ticket to Tehran. Overnight train. Leaving at 6:30pm. It was about 11am. 7 hours to kill with her.

We walked to a quiet area of town, and it became clear we weren’t heading to her home, but to someone’s she was visiting. We entered the modest home of her brother and his wife and children.

No one spoke English. We went as far as we could with the very basics – family structure, names, marital status, ages. Soon they invited a family friend over, an intellectual type who spoke a bit better English. It made things run a lot more smoothly, except sometimes he would ask questions that made no sense to me whatsoever.

“Mother, father, love, expensive?”

???

He tries to explain the sort of answer he’s expecting.

“1, 2, 3, 4, Tehran,” he continues, moving his head back and forth and waving his arms around in front of him as if he must have made himself understood.

???

The older boys and their male cousins are little shits. They yell at me in Farsi to get my attention while I’m talking to the family friend, or shout out basic English phrases like “Mother Penis” to get me to look. I do my best to ignore, or shake my head disapprovingly. The father takes a stick once and a while and smacks the annoying boys. He also has some dental issues and soaks small pieces of tissue in ethanol ever few minutes to dab a tooth or two with. He’s a bit of a rough character. If I understand correctly, he was a soldier (or police officer?) in the Iran-Iraq war.

The adults take out a water pipe. I decline, though I’m not really ever offered. Whenever the dad leaves the room, the oldest son rushes over and sneak a few puffs.

We enjoy lunch. Probably the highlight of my stay here. Really good.

After lunch I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to pass the next few hours as quickly as possible. A nap is suggested – yes! I sleep (or really, I lie awake) way longer than necessary in the afternoon, but it takes me that much closer to when I have to depart.

When I come out of the room in which I have been napping, I hear and see a small propane stove and know that I’m going to see the dad smoking drugs. He is. Now, everything I’ve learned about hard drugs I’ve learned from the movies, so I’m not sure exactly what it is he’s smoking. He’s got two metal wires, and he intermittently touches them together and inhales the resulting smoke through a small pipe – perhaps it’s the shell of an old pen. When I describe the scenario to others later I’m told that he was smoking opium. Whatever it was, doing it in front of the whole family (or at all) was not cool to me.

While the father is getting high, the older boys continue with their rude comments and gestures. They make like they’re injecting drugs, and slap their inner elbows and mime a needle breaking the surface of their skin. The mothers don’t even bat an eye. While the dad’s sister seems to be used to this, I suspect the wife, although used to this, probably doesn’t have any power in the household to say anything without risk.

At the point the father has two lengths of sticks in front of him. He uses them to hit the children with, so that he doesn’t have to move to beat them. The kids seem used to this. It’s clear that the older boys are too far gone, and are likely to grow up into nothing good without intervention. The young girl is not too far behind. It’s a sad scene.

At this point, I’m really looking forward to leaving. I don’t feel like I’m in any danger, but it’s just a really messed up situation. The family and family friend try to convince me that I need to change my train ticket. That 6:30pm is a bad train, and that a better one leaves at 10pm. They tell me there are bad people on the 6:30pm train. Worse or better than this family?, I question to myself. They tell me that the train will arrive in the middle of the night. I explain I have a friend to pick me up. I tell them I have a meeting in the morning at an embassy. All of a sudden, the train might not arrive until 9 or 10.

I try to compromise. That we will go to the station, and I will ask about the other train. I will MAYBE change ticket, I try to explain. I don’t know if the family friend understands the word maybe, so I follow up with “Maybe yes, maybe no.” “Yes! Yes! Change ticket!” he exclaims. This is not going to be easy.

Before I leave, they would like to take me to a park for photos, and to bring me to a viewpoint over the city. I make to take my bags with me, but they try to force them back down, since I’m changing tickets, right?

At this point I’m quite forceful and insist. We head into town, but not to the train station. Instead, we stop at an English school, so they can get a better English-speaking person to convince me to change tickets. I explain to the very friendly owner that I appreciate their concern for me, but that it’s important for me to arrive in Tehran early. The original arguments of late trains and bad people are repeated over and over again, this time in better English. I repeat my position, and am firm. I wonder if the owner realizes the man in front of me is an addict and understands my reasoning.

Finally, I say my position one final time, ask the man to please express my gratitude for their help and concern, and I use a hand wiping gesture to indicate that this is final. The family finally retreats, and we head to the park for photos. Thankfully it’s just the adults that I travel with, and not the rude boys. We take it seems like 100 photos, and walk to the riverside. I try to express how beautiful I think the nearly-dry riverbed littered with garbage and weeds is.

Next we drive up to the city view point. It really is lovely. The family friend points out the cement factory and explains, for the 20th, 21st and 22nd times, that his father worked at the factory, but not any more, and that that over there is where they get the rock for the cement from, and that those big trucks carry the rocks to the cement factory, and that the dust is very bad.

And then finally, we head to the train station for my 6:30pm train. The family has obviously given up on me changing a ticket, but still wants the visit to end positively. They drive me along a back route to get right up close to the train. They talk to an attendent to make sure I’m in a nice berth, and arrange a move. They give me their mobile phone numbers and addresses so that if I have problems to call them, and to make sure I call them when I arrive. They are genuinely worried about me on this train. But how warped is it that the original woman though that inviting me to her brother’s home where he gets high and whacks his children and nephews is normal? The train is bad but their home is fine?

I am quietly hoping they leave before the train does so that I can sneak off the train and wait for the 1st class sleeper train at 10. But they don’t. They wave me off.

My original berth is with 6 young girls, but I am soon moved to another berth with a single woman and a young family. But then I am moved back to the berth with the young girls. They range in age from about 12 to 30, and we have a good evening. We share food and basic information. We lock the door and take off our head scarves. And finally we let the seats slide down and meet in the middle so that we can stagger ourselves head to toe and get some sleep. I don’t get much, but I feel safe, secure, and surprisingly comfortable.

In the morning, I wake up groggy, and share the food that I have with the girls. Cucumbers, date cookies. Their breakfast so far was just processed cookies, so they seem thankful. Near the end of the trip they invite me to stay with them. I thank them profusely, and explain that I am meeting a friend, and that my luggage is at her house. Before we part ways at the Tehran station, they give me a  simple aluminum ring as a gift.

I decide to use it as my fake wedding ring. I’ve never followed this suggestion before, but seeing as I now have a ring, I might as well try it.

After I arrive back at Somayeh’s, it takes all of 5 minutes for each of them to separately notice the ring and exclaim jokingly at my apparently new marital status.

(8) Goreme, Turkey: Motorcycle mama

Ahhh…I’m back to being in love with night trains.

When I left you last in Istanbul, I was recovering from a creepy man on a night train and questioning my existence as a traveller. Catching (by 2minutes) a ferry across the Bosphorus to the train station, I made it to my third attempt at a positive night train experience. I was not disappointed.

I spent the equivalent of about $45 for a 16 hour train ride and an immaculate room with bunk beds all to myself. An attendant on each car cam to make up the beds and provide a towel. There was a pull out countertop to make a portable office, and a mini fridge stocked with a few tasty items.

Can’t say I sleep totally well, though, as every time my ladder knocked against the wall or any other similar sound was made, I woke up with a start thinking creepy man was trying to get back in my room again.

Otherwise, lovely.

Arrived in a city called Kayseri, where I slogged to a bus stop with a couple from Montreal in order get to the main bus station. A man at the stop said that he was getting on the same bus and would show us when to get off. He also offered to pay for us. Note that I’m assuming this is what he said based on his hand gestures. Much uncertainty, but it seemed alright to me. The young woman from Montreal almost started crying – the uncertainty, the heat, her heavy pack. She said she was more independent when she travelled alone, but the near meltdown had me thinking otherwise.

Göreme is a main tourist centre of a region of Turkey called Cappadocia. Cappadocia, which once had an economy based on underground lemon storage and collecting pigeon shit for fertilizer, is now heavily tourism dependent. Lemons are still stored. The pigeon shit industry, however, has collapsed.

The attraction of Cappadocia lies in its unique geography and related homes and churches. Long periods of erosion have left many pillars of stone and dirt which dot the landscape. The pillars, called fairy chimneys, once contained complete homes, and but more often now contain guest houses. Similarly unique-looking valleys have complete villages carved into the earth, with bricks used only sparingly.

My stay in Göreme was overwhelmingly relaxing. I spent four days here overall, and used my time to hike, motorcycle, and write. It helped that the place I found to stay at had a lovely shaded rooftop terrace, wifi, and a great view.

While Göreme has become well touristed over the years, I don’t find it offensive. (Update: Camels were just brought by our outdoor restaurant eating area for rides. Perhaps I spoke too soon). I think the surroundings help – the immediate physical geography surrounding the town means there is a reason for people to be here.

My longest hike took me 5 hours up above Göreme, under sedimentary layers and above eroding, rolling, technicolour canyons. I found myself in old rooms (homes?) carved into the mountain, with doors that walked off into thin air (has the geography changed so much?). I spotted lemon caves and old pigeon shit collectors, admired frescoes in old churches built within rock walls, and wandered through a semi-abandoned village carved out of hills and fairy chimneys.

The walk was a great reminder that what I love about travel is most often the physical geography. I can be at peace in stunning surroundings. I can sit, think, enjoy views and be content. History? Meh.

On the hike I also finally bent my orthodontic wire enough so that it snapped off. It’s still in contact with 4 teeth – I hope my hard earned teeth stay in place for the next five months.

My motorcycle circuit took me far. It had been suggested to me the night previously by a local restauranteur that the valley to the east of Göreme was much more scenic than the valleys south. I’m so glad I took his advice. While the road was cold, even with my fleece done up tight, the air was lovely and the views ever changing. I stopped at a great little old monastery looked after by an engaging host who had been looking after the area as a volunteer (along with his father) for 40 years.

Winding my way through the hills, I knew I was getting low on gas, and was starting to get concerned as I hadn’t seen a gas station since I started earlier in the day. I’m sure most villages have a “gas guy” that has buckets of gas somewhere, but I wasn’t desperate enough to start asking, and soon could see that I would make it to the next big town, where I was sure gas would await.

And it did. I filled up, had some chai with with a group hanging out at the station, and headed back to Göreme on a long boring highway. At this point, I was cold, tired and sore and just wanted to get home, but stopped just before Göreme at another scenic village and some viewpoints. I’m really loving the geology here.

Other than these two more major excursions, I walked, met some interesting people, had some great food, and enjoyed the weather (though the nights are cold). I’ve had a lot of time to think about my plans for the next few days, and I’m torn. There are one or two places that interest me, but I worry that I would put a lot of time and effort to getting there, only to be disappointed. I suppose that a poor excuse, but unless the location is in physically stunning surroundings (do I hear an echo in here?), I’m not content (especially if the accommodation is crap). So I’ve cut two originally intended destinations from plans, and am heading directly to Savur, a small village set among valleys and mountains, with a unique guest house. It’s expensive compared to what I’m used to, but I hope it will be worth it.

(6) Croatia to Turkey via Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Greece: Yes, it was a long commute

Yes, this was 50 hours of crazy transit.

While I wanted to spend a bit of time in this area, especially Dubrovnik, Kotor and Pristine, I decided just to push on.

After reviewing my email re: my Iranian visa application number, it sounds as though Thursday and Friday comprise the weekend in Turkey, and my number is only good until approximately the 10th and I want to give myself some “oh shit” days just in case. So while I was tempted to stop over in Dubrovnik and Pristine, the best I did was spend 30 minutes enjoying the fortress views in Kotor Stari Grad, 5 hours in Podgorica enjoying dinner and an impromptu tour of the city with three young local girls, and 5 hours brushing up on my Greek in Thessaloniki thanks to my days taking physics.

I got up for a 5:30am bus across the island from Vela Luka (why did I even try hitching?) all the way through to Dubrovnik. Had a little freakout as the bus schedule said buses further into Montenegro only went on odd numbered days, of which this was not one. But I asked, and one was leaving in 30 minutes. The bus ride through to Kotor was fantastic along the ocean – winding roads with steep drop-offs (complete with rusted smashed cars down below) and beautiful views of the coastline and Adriatic architecture (= terra cotta roof and cream walls). The bus to Podgorica surprised me – outstanding views of mountains and a huge lake I completely did not expect. I associate walls of mountains with ranges like the Himalayas, Rockies, Alps, Southern Alps, or Andes. These weren’t quite as high, but they were nonetheless snowcapped. Also met a man working for the American Embassy in Podgorica who is responsible for distributing military and state aid related to defense for Montenegro. Learning some political and cultural contexts of the area was nice.

The brief stopover in Podgorica was uneventful, but interesting. At one point I offered to take a picture for a group of girls on a bridge, who then offered to show me around. The cousins all had matching shirts, which were in support of one of their brothers, who was running/working for a party that was campaigning on a platform of “clean government” (ie no corruption). As we toured it became obvious that they were disappointed they couldn’t show me very interested things. I explained that just walking around and speaking with people that live in Montenegro was very interesting for me. We’ll catch up further on Facebook.

Interesting fact: Montenegro is home to the ‘.me’ domain, popular with URL shorteners like fb.me and wp.me.

Then onto the overnight bus to Pristina. Had a bit more success sleeping than the last time, but arrived in Pristina at 4:45am. My original intent was to explore the city and take an afternoon overnight bus through to Istanbul, but a Skopje bus was there when I arrived, and I didn’t feel like starting my day walking around at 5am. Kind of wish this part of the trip had been during the day – I could tell we were winding up and around through mountains on narrow roads with snow still on the banks. In Skopje found a soon leaving train to Thessaloniki, which is where I sit now. The views through the rest of Macedonia were stunning – more mountains and staggering canyons. I’ll be landing in Greece soon, hoping to find my next departure to Istanbul. I’m afraid I’m going to be arriving at night, but I’ll just have to make do.

So altogether otherwise it’s been 4 hour bus, 2.5 hour bus, 3 hour bus, 8 hour bus, 2 hour bus, 5 hour train, and a yet unknown hour train to Istanbul, all with minor breaks in between (or sometimes not at all).

While I brushed my teeth out the window at the Macedonia/Greece border, I’m sure what I really need is a shower.

(Update: The train was a night train, so I’ll be arriving in the morning, yay! And it is an 11.5 hour train, with lovely bunk sleeping berths. I have room to myself.)

(Update #2: I hadn’t even considered the current economic situation in Greece – apparently general strikes are about to occur. I guess I lucked out.)

(Update #3: Lovely night train was not so lovely. Creepy man kept trying to get into my room – turning the handle, or knocking and then stepping away to the side (though I could still see him through the fisheye peep hole). After this happening 3 times over 1.5 hours, I yelled at him to stay away from my door. Never heard from him or saw him again, but nonetheless spent 45 minutes standing at my door with my eye to the peep hole, followed by 2 hours half-sleeping sitting up, followed by 4 hours sleeping with the light on. Had to use the toilet, but opted to pee in the small corner sink in my room. I hope they clean those things in between trips.)

(2) Zagreb, Croatia: Scamming the bus system

I don’t have much time in the Balkans (or Central Europe as Marina calls it), so I have to enjoy each place to it’s fullest in the least amount of time. I didn’t original intend to even visit this area, but once my flight (that I got with points) was set for Munich, and an Iranian visa application number for Istanbul was received, I knew I could spend up to 10 days in the area.

This day I spent wandering Zagreb. Scammed one more free tram ride to the city centre before I could change money, but overall spent a lovely day walking through city gardens and flowers, exploring the old part of the city and it’s amazingly steep hills and dramatic stone buildings, and enjoying a latte and wifi at one of the many cafes around the city. Marina described this min café area as the “living room” of Zagreb, and she wasn’t wrong. Sometimes I couldn’t even tell where the actually cafes were, but the pedestrian streets were filled with tables and umbrellas, packed with people drinking and smoking. There was also a definite culture of biking here – lots of bike lanes, bikes, and people on them.

When I travel I often consider whether or not I could imagining living in the places I visit. On my 1-year trip through NZ-Australia up through SE Asia, I decided I could probably really enjoy living almost anywhere in NZ, in Vientiane, Laos, and Hanoi, Vietnam. Zagreb is another one of those places. A really great vibe.

But, I couldn’t stay for too long. Found a night train to Sarajevo, which seemed to be a great idea at the time. Save on accommodation, don’t waste precious daylight in transit. Right? Win-win. Right? As much as people might believe I can sleep anywhere (exhibit 1), apparently night trains are an exception to the rule. I slept for about an hour. I’m going to be tired.

PS. I didn’t get a stamp in my passport when I entered Bosnia and Hercegovina. :(