Category Archives: Travel

a break in Bamiyan

I have to make a hard decision. I’d like to go to Bamiyan. The flight is expensive and boring but the road maybe unsafe. My Couchsurfing host makes some calls on my behalf and after getting assurances from a friend who lives along the safer of two routes that the trip should be OK I decide to chance it. With the help of the guy  I met in Mikrorayon I buy a chador which even covers my face as to be as inconspicuous as I can possibly be.  Early the next morning my host’s driver takes me to a shared taxi stand and negotiates with the driver. He instructs me to take a seat in the front so that I won’t sit directly next to any of the other male passengers and emphasizes that I am not to talk to anybody.

The landscape is beautiful and after some hesitation I start taking pictures. Everything is going smooth until we stop at a roadside cafe. I hadn’t counted on this happening and am unsure what to do now. The driver says something to me but I don’t understand a word. I don’t even know if it’s Dari or Pashtun. He points to a room which after having entered I see is the family room. A waiter comes in and asks something. I really know what to do but manage to say ‘chai’ in a hope that that instruction will suffice and stop any further attempts to communicate with me. I figure’d I must have blown my cover but who knows, in this country where so many different languages are spoken and women are supposed to be quiet and invisible my appearance might not be that noteworthy.

After finishing the chai I get back in the car and wait for the other passengers, after fifteen or so minutes we are off again. Not long after we get to a checkpoint. Bamiyan is an area of relative peace and it’s entrance roads are well protected like some mini-state. ‘The soldier wants to see your passport’ says the guy sitting in the middle behind me. I’m kind of relieved I have somebody that can explain things to me now. After we get talking he reveals to me what gave me easily away was my footwear.  Afghan women don’t wear sandals he tells me. He translates the comments of the other people in the car. The driver expresses worry about what would have happened to him if the car was stopped by robbers and I kind of feel like a jerk. In talking the decision to travel by road I hadn’t even taken the safety of my fellow passengers in consideration.

The guy in the back turns out to be a civil servant working for the culture ministry who’s visiting his family in Bamiyan. ‘Would you like to stay at my mother’s house?’ he asks me and I gladly take up the offer relieved that I don’t have to wander around town in search for a hotel.

We through farm fields for about twenty minutes until we get to his family’s compound. A modest collection of mud brick buildings where his mother, brothers and their families live. Over the next few days we visit a collection of sites, the remains of the Buddhas, Band-E Ameer a lake so beautiful it looks photoshopped, the ruins of a city destroyed by Chengis Khan.

Meeting my new friend was an absolute stroke of luck. The context he provides about the things I see is gives me an unexpected insight into daily life of the people around me. And the chance to hang out with his mother and sisters in law at the family home, and to picnic with the female half of his relatives we run into at the lake me to feel so much more free and relaxed than in Herat and Kabul. But it’s not just having a personal connection. I’m far from the only tourist around, it’s just that all the other tourists are Afghans. Bamiyan’s relative safety, beautiful scenery and rich history provides the perfect backdrop for a weekend getaway.

sightseeing in Kabul

I land at Kabul airport in the evening. It’s dark already and I have to wander around a bit before I can find the driver my Couchsurfing host sent to pick me up. As we drive to the apartment we pass a long row of colorfully and brightly lit buildings. I say that this must be the Las Vegas of Afghanistan, the driver laughs and says they’re wedding halls. I didn’t really know what to expect, but certainly not an long row of fluorescently lit buildings.

When we get to the place it turns out that it’s being rented by my host and his brother as a place to relax and smoke shisha, a hang out for a bunch of friends. The building is in a fancy part of town, the office of the ICRC is just across the street, and the entrance is perpetually watched over by rotation of friendly broad shouldered guys in olive colored uniforms with a Kalashnikov slung over their shoulders.

I take it easy in Kabul. I spent just four or five hours a day going outside. I don’t exactly know if it’s the city’s reputation or I’m subconsciously picking something up in the streets, I just don’t feel entirely at ease wandering around town. But I do notice that there are no other visible foreigners on the street. Nobody seems to pay real attention to me, but if I stop for a few minutes at a place a police officer or a soldier inevitably comes up to me and says I have to keep moving, I guess if I stand still I’m asking for trouble.

I spent the first two days looking for an ATM which takes my card. The stress of an increasingly empty wallet is a good distraction from the stress of walking around the center of a city dominated by blast walls and the frequent sightings of armed men on the street.

One of the places I most looked forward to visiting is the history museum. It’s one of those institutions that in itself is worthy of a museum. Situated next to the ruins of the old royal palace, the museum’s collection displays the country’s fascinatingly rich historical past with artifacts that were fairly recently taken out of hiding or painstakingly reconstructed after the Taliban were driven out of Kabul.

Another day I walk to a part of the city called ‘Makroryan’. Built by the Soviets and inhabited by the upper middle class the area is an orderly and leafy yet drab neighborhood and if it wasn’t for two young beggars following me in around I would just as soon believe I’m some non-descript post Soviet town.  I run into a guy in his late teens walking around with his siblings whose keen to practice his English. After a few selfies with his Ipad he distracts the begging girls while I make my way out of the labyrint of Khrushchyovki.

Two years earlier I spent half a day trying to find a museum in Andijan, Uzbekistan. It was dedicated to the founder of the Mughal dynasty Babur, who was born in that city. After leaving the Ferghana valley and conquering a fair bit of the Subcontinent Babur decided he wanted to buried in the city he found most beautiful of all, Kabul. A park is preserved around his grave for which an admission is currently charged. After having paid I spent a few hours in the place, together with well off Afghani’s fleeing the dust and noise of the world outside the park’s gates.

First days in Afghanistan

I just realize I have to leave Iran today instead of tomorrow. I got an 30 day extension on my visa and I miscalculated earlier, this is the 60th day I’m in the country not my 59th. But with the help of a a local guy I get a seat in a shared taxi to Afghanistan. I sit wedged between the door and a fat lady totally oblivious to any discomfort as I closely watching every detail rolling by. After an uneventful border crossing we set out to Herat. We don’t pass that many villages, and most of the ones we do pass are abandoned, but maybe it just looks that way?

When we stop at the driver’s office I borrow his phone to call my couchsurfing host. As I wait outside on the street I notice I don’t really know how to act. Not different than in Iran I guess, but it’s just that the reputation of the country leads me to second guess myself more. I just go into the waiting room, until my host shows up on a scooter and we drive to his place. Later in the evening we walk to a restaurant and sit down in a side room, the family section where men and women can sit together freely.  My hosts advises me to wear a longer shirt and I realize even though there are no government enforced dress codes in the country it’s better to dress more conservatively than I did in Iran.

Next morning I walk alone to the center of town. I’m pretty sure I stand out, even though I’m wearing a long shirt and a head scarve, the latter is an unusual shade of turquoise, and I still haven’t managed to be able to wear it without having to constantly readjust it. But nobody seems to pay any attention to me. First thing I visit is the Friday Mosque. It’s quiet, some people hang out under the shade of the arched entryways, but the central court is empty. It gives off a very serene impression. Next I try and fail to find a place that accepts, my ATM card, not a real problem as I still have some Iranian money left. I exchange it with a guy who lived in Enschede while waiting for his eventually unsuccessful asylum application to go through.

The next day I walk around the old center. First sticking to the main roads, then I decide to wander into through the alleyways of neighborhood. It looks mundane enough, the name of famous football players graffitied on high sand colored walls, narrow alleyways turning at random point after several dozen meters. I quickly I decide it’s too much of a maze and I turn to go back. As I walk towards the main road, a man shouts a few words at me. The only thing I understand is Taleban. I don’t know if he’s threatening or warning me. Afterwards I pay a visit to a a famous collection of minarets and the old citadel which now houses a museum with brightly lit display. And my day is more and more starting to feel like a normal tourist’s day out.

The next day a local guy I’ve contacted through couchsurfing takes me to see some more out of the way sights. We visit a Sufi shrine. After being mobbed by crowd of young boys offering incense and a watchful eye over the car in exchange for a bit of money in the parking lot the shrine itself does seem like a sanctuary for contemplation and quietness. Afterwards we head out to the Jihad museum, build a local warlord to commemorate the fight against the Soviets. It features a collection of guns, including some ancient Enfield and Winchester rifles and an incredibly detailed diorama.

I’d love to take the backroads to Kabul, past the Jam minarette but several people tell me that road is now in the hands of the Taleban. Even the main road past Kandahar is too risky and I decide to fly. After a taxi to the airport I have to go through three security check points before I board a plane. It kind of feels like cheating, and I regret missing out on the beautiful landscapes that I will undoubtedly miss out on, but I guess my stubbornness has finally reached the limit of the risk I’m willing to take.

two worlds, one city

Mashad is knows as Iran’s most conservative city, and on the streets that’s certainly noticeable. Most women wear chadors but it even looks like there are just less women out on the street. Except near the shrine where I have to slowly shuffle past the security amongst a never ending stream of visitors until I’m fished out of the stream by some women who instruct me to wait until a personal guide shows up. She takes me past some museums and a specially trained cleric whom I can ask theological question though unfortunately for him I’m much more interested in the actual history of the shrine itself. I can’t get to the actual shrine itself though. I’d have to convert first which seems like more trouble than it’s worth.

The stiffing strictness stops at the front door. The place where I’m couchsurfing seems to be the gathering place for the city’s secular. In the evening I join some people in going to a casual get together where stalled out for the guests are, apart from the expected chips and fruit juice, are also bottles of vodka and weed. Virtually the last things I was expected to run into in Mashad. The next evening I end exchanging old Soviet jokes with jokes about Ayatollah Khomeini with some people who invited me for dinner.

My impressions are balanced out by meeting up with another guy I met through couchsurfing. He grew up in a very traditional family, and takes me over to meet his sister to show her that women can travel by themselves. I spend some time at his mother’s house too. where several generations while away the hours in the living room by drinking endless cups of tea.

Together with him and a cousin we spent a day visiting an old caravansersai and Nishapur, once one of Asia’s most important city until it was burnt down by Genghis Khan’s hordes.  Though it’s current incarnation doesn’t reflect its former status well but just thinking about the city’s history leaves me in awe.

Some nice surprises

I’m still not hitchhiking. I guess I just got lazy and tired of the cultural misunderstandings. But I really miss the practicality of it when I try to find the bus to Sari. I read that there’s several ones a day but I can’t even find the station. A random lady giving me a cookie on the middle of the street only slightly improves my mood. And I’m finally saved when a local person out of nowhere steps up to me and asks if I need help in English. I guess in a place like Tehran you can never be truly lost for too long.

Being picked up from the bus station by my couchsurfing host is a reminder that the overbearing Iranian hospitality does have its perks. The guy super friendly, in the evening over a glass of wine we talk about our favorite books and  his plans for the future.

I spent a day walking around the town, through it’s narrow market in search of an old museum. It’s still hot and having moved closer to the coast the humidity is getting worse. But fortunately it gets better as I move closer to the border with Turkmenistan, to the city of Gonbad. There are actually a few camels to be spotted in the desert north of the town, but more impressive is the hippodrome where young horses are being trained for.

Despite having a fascinating history, there is not much to see in Gonbad. Its biggest, and only tourist attraction is an old tower in the center but entering it doesn’t seem like it’s worth the entrance cost, there is also a slight trace of on old war on the edge of the town which my couchsurfing host tells me might be a remnant of the Great Wall of Gonbad. I do get super lucky though when a friend of my couchsurfing host offers to drive me around the area’s beautiful countryside.

My host in Bojnord is not from Couchsurfing, instead he’s a friend of a guy I met in Tehran. Maybe because he’s not used to having guests around he takes extra care to show me around. He works for a local tour group and we join one of the company’s outings along to an ever deeper stream, till we end up swimming, fully clothed to a waterfall. The sun is so hot, my clothes are bone dry again not long after I get out of the water. We also visit a few local museums and the ruins of a huge fortress Pretty impressive for a place I hadn’t even heard of a week or so before my arrival. It makes me realize that Iran has so much more to offer than what I have time for. With my visa running out I head toward the holy city of Mashad.

different worlds

  The bus to Tehran departs nearly empty, so it’s no surprise that after an hour or so the few passengers are transferred to another bus. Still things seem rather calm and orderly, a last few hours of peace before arriving in the huge metropolis. I am staying at one of the most famous Couchsurfing places in the city. The host has several of hundred positive references of people who have stayed with him. Or rather in the basement of his family house which he has turned into some kind of free hostel. Perfect since I’ll be in the city for a while arranging visa which during this scorching hot month of Ramadan I suspect will take some time. I can stay as long as you want and he doesn’t want anything in return. Plus the host organizes couchsurfing meetings and get-togethers to read Darwin, the Avesta and Farsi poetry, he seems like a great guy.

I don’t actually get to meet up with him a whole lot, but do join in for a few of his meetings and one iftar meal with his family. The rest of my time I mostly hang out with other tourists and the handful of young men who regularly visit the basement. And since the city is huge there’s plenty to do during my three weeks stay in the city.

I visit several museums vilifying the regime’s enemies, praising its heroes and being fairly ambivalent about the country’s past. It becomes clear that museums should have a moral lesson when I conclude that the best designed museum in the city by far is the one dedicated to the Iran Iraq war. I spent other days visiting different neighborhoods and parks, including a surprisingly blatant gay cruising spot and one occasion even attending an overpriced but still fascinating slightly experimental music concert in an art gallery. Still it feels like a difficult city to understand, I know there must be many interesting things going on but I’m too much of an outsider to get caught up in them. So when I have received my Uzbekistan and Afghanistan visa I head out to the bus station and leave town.

changing history

My next hosts are almost polar opposites, as close to a yuppie couple as I have met in Iran, living in a big house with a nice yard in the center of Hamadan. It feels like the government control stops as soon as the garden gate is closed and both the husband and the wife disappear to change into more comfortable clothing.

For two evenings we join another young couple, with their child, in a public park to have an iftar meal. The atmosphere is very pleasant, with families gathering now that the heat has died down and people are allowed to eat and drink again. But perhaps I feel a bit too comfortable, I get rightfully reprehended by my host because my shirt is way too short. It should cover my butt, but it only goes a centimeter or two past my the waist of my trousers. No matter how at ease I feel with other people, I should still be aware that the government controls public space.

Hamadan is one of the world’s oldest cities, and there is a huge but fairly empty archaeological site to prove it which oddly enough includes a non-functioning Armenian church with a lot of pictures depicting only Jesus and Maria. But luckily the city has a few of other historic sides including cuniform inscriptions left by Darius and Xerxes and the graves of Ibn Sina and the Esther and Mordechai.

boiling over

 

It’s not a good morning, I couldn’t get the air conditioner to work and even the water in the bathroom only ran hot. I can’t wait to get to the next place but I don’t really look forward to another day of hitchhiking. Dragging my bag across town to the highway a young man actually offers me a ride pretty quickly and he speaks English as well, but when he offers to drop me off at the bus station I don’t even argue. I’ve had it with hitchhiking, for now.

In Khoramabad I finally have a couchsurfing host. He takes me to a friend’s house in the country for an early dinner before we go to his house. There another friend drops by. A friendly young man keen on learning English he keeps insisting I go to his house to stay with his wife and daughter. I don’t want to be rude to my host but he won’t take no for an answer and my current host seems rather ambivalent so in the end I give in.

Things turn out pretty good. My new host is new to couchsurfing, he learned English by himself but did not have many opportunities to practice, and what’s more he makes his living selling fruit on the street. His wife, who unfortunately does not speak English and is a hairdresser. A very interesting change from the usual university educated middle class host.

a trip through time

A fellow passenger in the shared taxi to Shushtar has taken it upon himself to help me find a good hotel, I’ve already found a cheap place online however and after some effort I convince him that that’s the place for me. I go for a walk after checking in but it’s so hot my eyeballs hurt from the heat so I retreat to my hotel room. The air conditioning struggles against the heat but at least there’s a bit of relief.

The next day I walk around the city a bit, and hang out by the ancient water works purportedly built by a captured legion of Roman soldiers. While walking around town a few random people come up to me and state that they speak English and are ready to help. It’s Ramadan and I’m too hungry to wait for sundown so I head out to a fancy hotel where I am greeted by a fluent German speaker a former engineering student who invites takes me to the only working take away place, and then to his home where I can eat in peace while his relatives are arriving for iftar.

The next day my GPS on my phone finally stops working, it’s been spotty for days but now it’s gone completely. Luckily an English speaking guy in a car stops and offers to take me to the right crossing. The next ride takes me all the way to the ziggurat and he’s friendly overall, but something feels slightly off. So I insist that I walk back which initially goes well until it gets so hot that I hide under an overpass. Two passersby offer me a lift and I leave them puzzled when I set out on foot further. When I have to take a detour to a museum I can luckily leave my bags at a police post and once back there it doesn’t take too much effort to find another ride to Shush my last destination of the day.

I get dropped off by a shrine dedicated to the Daniel, the minor Jewish prophet. The inside of the shrine reminds me a bit of a garish nightclub with plenty of tiny mirrors but dozens of women in chadors are lounging around the the female half of the shrine. When I go outside the town’s dead. It’s still Ramadan and it’s still scorching. And once I get to the hotel it turns out to be closed. Luckily a man tells me that it will open at 5 so I drag my bags over to the museum to kill some time there until I can seek shelter from the heat in a hotel room.

what are you doing here? 22 to 23-05-2016

My last ride to the border is given by a young soldier in traditional clothing. He tells me about his wife and kids and invites me into his house for lunch. I accept but when I get there I find out that his family is in Sulaymaniyah and I start to feel uneasy, I never take up these kinds of invitations unless I know there’ll be women present. After a quick cup of tea I ask him if we can leave. He looks a bit puzzled but relents.

Initially the border crossing into Iran goes smooth. They check my bags for bottles of alcohol and let me through. Just before arriving the soldier who gave me a ride pointed out a smuggler on a motorbike in the mountains and the check seems more like a formality than an actual act resulting from suspicion. But when I walk past the next desk I get told to wait outside to talk to some guys in a separate building. I wait about 15 minutes before being let in. One of the men speaks English and asks me all kinds of political questions, I just keep repeating in different ways that I’m a tourist and that I don’t know much about politics. He talks to his colleagues in Azerbaijani a language not locally spoken in this Kurdish area. I figure they must be some kind of special security unit keeping an eye on the unruly Kurds. Being finally satisfied with my lack of interest in politics they let me through.

Three guys offer me my first ride to town but after that it becomes more difficult. People keep offering to bring me to the bus station but eventually I get a ride from an English teacher and his wife heading out for a family picknick in the mountains. They keep offering to bring me back to the border town to spent the night and I keep repeating I need to be in Tabriz on time to meet with friends. Eventually they relent but not before arranging a ride in the back of a small truck to the next city where I spent the night.

Hitchhiking doesn’t become easier the next day. I get stopped by plain clothes police officers with neatly trimmed beards, perhaps members of Iran’s notorious revolutionary guard. But they let go without much fuzz. I have a more difficult time explaining my intention to a laborer who also happens to be walking the same way out of town. He even calls his English speaking colleague over to explain that what I’m doing is dangerous. I want to get away from him but I don’t want to be rude, and at the same time, since we’re walking in the same direction I can’t get rid of him easily. After some time I just stop walking and try to wave down a car. He gives up, and helps me find a ride with a lovely family who bring me all the way to Tabriz.