Tehran, Iran

(For more context, consider first reading the entry from Mashhad.)

Tehran is not my kind of city, and for most Iranians I talked to who weren’t from there, it’s more a necessity than a pleasure of life for them. This city/metropolitan area of 9/16 million is one of the larger ones in the world, comparable to New York (8/20 million) and feeling a whole lot like it in terms of sheer population. An expansive metro runs all over the city, completely packed at all hours of the day, making getting around town feel a whole lot more like going to work. It’s worse on the roads too, as traffic has made Tehran one of the most air-polluted cities in the world; the days before our arrival (which thankfully coincided with rain to clear it up), the air was so polluted that schools were closed and depending on who you ask, between 400 and 1000 people actually died of pollution-related causes. That’s absolutely crazy. There are actually some plans to move the capital of Iran to another city in the future because of this.

(Speaking of New York, in my Tehran hostel, I randomly met someone who turned out to be a friend of a friend. I didn’t know him before, and they’re coworkers in New York. What can I say other than to repeat myself… it’s a small world. This isn’t the first time I’ve had such weird run ins.)

For me, visiting Tehran wasn’t really necessary (though it was for Tom and his visa extension, and I tagged along), but an intriguing little add-on for the sake of its importance to Iran.
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 Esfahan, Iran

After Uzbekistan and Shiraz, I’ve probably seen enough blue-tiled mosques for a lifetime. But even to the jaded eye, Esfahan enthralls.

The most dominant landmark in Esfahan is the Naqsh-e Jahan Square (also Imam Square), the second-largest square in the world after Tiananmen in Beijing. Surrounded by the bazaar and several mosques and palaces, and filled in with fountains, topiaries, and plenty of green space, it’s the centre of activity in the city and full of locals and tourists alike, especially in the late afternoon. It’s great to see such a large public space be used as such: picnickers, bikers, horse carriages, and pedestrians are all active even after dark.
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 Shushtar to Chelgerd, Iran

If a stranger invited you to his or her house literally seconds after meeting you, would you trust them?

Hospitality is Iran’s trademark. It’d almost be weird *not* to say yes here.

Tom and I took a night bus from Shiraz to Shushtar, which unceremoniously arrived at 3:45 am. Immediately, we were invited to the home of one of our fellow passengers, who let us stay not just until a more palatable morning hour, but for a few days. Nima was a wonderful host, showing us his city, as well as the ups and downs of life in Iran with extreme enthusiasm. Like, extreme.
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 Yazd to Shiraz, Iran

It was quite refreshing to leave Mashhad for Yazd. Skipping over the desert in an overnight bus, I woke up to an old city of mud walls and badgirs (wind towers, designed for the hot desert summers). Though a little empty, perhaps due to the late time of year, the people there were much friendlier, beginning a trend I would see magnified to the highest level while continuing through Iran.

I also reunited with Tom, who I had travelled with in Uzbekistan. While sights in Yazd are few and the old city relatively comparable to those in Uzbekistan, we still found some enjoyment in wandering around and taking in the vibe, even if we admittedly didn’t find it all that interesting.

After a rooftop sunset and an evening at a zurkhandeh, a somewhat touristy spectacle where we watched people exercise in rhythm to an Islamic prayer, an hour involving drums, singing, weights, shields, chains, and a whole lot of spinning, we set off the next day for a little day trip around the area. Zipping through the desert, we made a quick stop to wander through the ruins of Kharanagh village, a rather underwhelming stop at the Zoroastrian cliffside temple of Chak Chak, and visited an Sassanian-era mud fortress in Meybod that could date all the way back to the 1st century AD, before returning to Yazd to take the first bus to Shiraz the next day.
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 Mashhad, Iran

Iran has two very wildly diverging reputations in the world.

To the Western powers and its media, Iran is the enemy. A state sponsor of organisations deemed terrorist, anti-American and anti-Israel. Located smack in the center of the Middle East, stoking up conflicts, secretive with nuclear ambitions. Anti-women, forcing all of them (whether local or foreigner) to wear a hijab, enforcing gender segregation. A theocratic regime enforcing Islamic principles on all its people regardless of religion, with “religious police” running around.

To virtually any traveller you meet, Iran is the nicest country in the world, hoping to break free. The sights are beautiful, the country safe, and the locals keen to counter the ridiculous claim that they’re terrorists: in welcoming foreigners with legendary friendliness, helpfulness, and hospitality far beyond what you’ve ever encountered elsewhere; in the youth pushing the limits of Islamic dress and straining against the theocracy, partaking in banned social mores (drinks, drugs, sex) behind closed doors; in the wishes for reform and aspirations to be friendly to the West.

And so, my first impression was confusing.
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 Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Other than the gas crater, if there’s anything Turkmenistan is known for, it’s… how little everyone knows. The country has a reputation comparable to North Korea in more ways than one. Foreign visitors are heavily restricted, with visas subject to arbitrary rejection and guides mandatory (although, to their credit, transit visas without guides are allowed). According to Reporters Without Borders, press freedoms in Turkmenistan rank third-last in the world. (The bottom five are China, Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea in dead last.) But most notoriously, until his death in 2006, Saparmurat Niyazov Turkmenbashi was the dictator president of the country, forming one of the most bizarre personality cults in the world around himself.

This is a man who wrote (or possibly ghost-wrote, as an electrical engineering dropout purportedly not fully literate) a book, the Ruhnama, calling it the spiritual guide for all Turkmen people, and cut subjects from schools like physics and algebra while making Ruhnama study a mandatory part of the curriculum and a tested subject, and closing libraries around the country since “only the Qur’an and Ruhnama are necessary”; who renamed the Turkmen names of the months and the days of the week, some after himself, his book, and even his mother, and required all media to use them; who renamed himself as Turkmenbashi (“leader of the Turkmen people”) and used it in the country’s motto (“People, Nation, Turkmenbashi/Me”) and named a city after himself; who issued arbitrary decrees banning lip syncing, owning cats, facial hair on teens, ballet, smoking in public, and hospitals existing outside of the capital city (?!) in this very large country. That’s only the tip of the iceberg.

And there’s no greater showcase for Niyazov than the capital city of Ashgabat, home to the largest concentration of marble buildings in the world. Not only is it blindingly white, it’s also blindingly full of gold, most of which is used in statues of Niyazov, commissioned by the man himself. (North Korea-like in more ways than one!) Government buildings are decorated with gold-laid carpet patterns — Turkmenistan’s most famous export, even displayed on their flag. And at night, it all lights up impressively too, like some sort of Las Vegas, except all the hotels are made of marble and they’re all empty.

Whew. That’s a lot (of crazy) for a country I just said people know little about. But how is it actually? We know a lot about its presidents (and more on the current one later), but what about everyone else?
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 Darvaza, Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan’s hellish bureaucracy and its uncertainty have been the source of many troubles this trip. It’s the reason why I’ve missed two weddings, why I had to stay in Uzbekistan for weeks longer than intended, why I ended up backtracking great distances to Tashkent twice, why I had to line up at 6:30 am at an embassy three times, and why I rushed through Kazakhstan. Needless to say, it’s incredibly difficult to score a visa, and indeed, it’s likely one of the most difficult places to visit in the world for that reason. All of that effort over the course of seven weeks resulted in a mere four-day transit visa (not even the usual five!) with fixed entry/exit dates and border crossings, and I was only able to apply for it after getting visas for both Uzbekistan and Iran, my origin and destination countries. Better than nothing: many people I met were rejected for no reason, time and effort wasted, trip plans forced to change.

Rather than being brusque and abrupt like their bureaucracy, Turkmen people are very warm (at least if they speak Russian and then realise you can understand at least a little), and that even includes all the staff and soldiers I dealt with at the very time-consuming border, some of whom were more eager to chat than search through my belongings. Crossing the border on foot without my own transport, I was nearly immediately picked up for a free ride 15 km to the share taxi station in Konye-Urgench, and a fellow passenger even invited me to his home the next time I’d be around, audibly and visibly dismayed that I only had four days. (Sadly, with the way things are, it’s not likely I can ever come back…) Other than the people at the border and those working in hotels, locals seem oblivious to how difficult it is for foreigners to get in and for how long they can stay.

Unfortunately, I went against the advice of a nice soldier at the border, who gave me a pretty blatant “hint” about the money situation. While Turkmenistan has an official pegged exchange rate of 3.50 manat to US$1, there seems to be a black market rate somewhere between 6 and 7, far less open and “more” illegal than the one in Uzbekistan. The man who picked me up at the border tried to drive around asking people surreptitiously to exchange money with me, to no avail. All I could get was the bank rate, which hurts in a country as expensive as this one. (Not to mention I can’t use ATMs or credit cards in this country or the next, so cash is tight!)

More egregiously, I vastly overestimated the time I needed to reach Darvaza, completely skipping the UNESCO-designated mosque/mausoleum complex in Konye-Urgench, which the soldier also suggested I visit. While also Khorezm in style, they’re far older than those in Khiva and in a heavier state of ruin, dating back around a thousand years, which fellow passenger Davranbek told me as he implored me to take a photo of him. Our share taxi briefly stopped outside one of the mosques in the complex, and the rest of the passengers said a quick Islamic prayer before we headed off.

Off to where? Hell, of course!
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 Moynaq, Uzbekistan

The Republic of Karakalpakstan isn’t its own country, and of the various large subtractions and additions of territories to Uzbekistan done by the Soviet regime, this one is a bit of an odd fit. Karakalpaks look and sound far more like Kazakhs (that is, more Mongoloid) than Uzbeks, yet they belong to neither group — and even then, they only make up a third of the population of the republic, dwarfed by the number of Uzbeks and even maybe Kazakhs. And even if you consider the entire population of Karakalpakstan, regardless of ethnicity, it only forms 3% of Uzbekistan’s population, yet nearly half of its land mass.

Their own distinct culture, formerly nomadic, is on display at the Karakalpakstan Museum in the republican capital of Nukus, where Alexa, Cesar, and I stayed for both nights we were in the area. Again, their yurts, jewellery, and dress suggest relations far closer to Kazakhs than Uzbeks. More interestingly though, this museum used to be named after the late Igor Savitsky, who moved here from Russia and amassed a collection of banned works during the Soviet era, when paintings of anything *but* realism, people with full bellies, and a “celebratory” mood were not allowed. At over 90,000 pieces, his is the second-largest Soviet art collection in the world (and sadly only a tiny fraction of which was on display) outside of Russia, and while seeing some abstract paintings drawn in cubist or surrealist styles might not sound so interesting, reading about the state of mind of the painters brought it into context. One painting of a dumpling, sadly not displayed, was rendered so plump and juicy… because the artist had been stuck in a gulag, so hungry that he painted what he wanted to eat. While I couldn’t take any pictures inside, it was well worth the visit, and I wish I had opted for a guide to hear more stories.

But what brings me to this area is what’s killed a primary mainstay of Karakalpak culture, their tradition of fishing. The town of Moynaq, 200 km north of Nukus, used to be a port city on the shores of the Aral Sea. It’s now 300 km from the water: the sea is disappearing. You’d have to scroll pretty far north on the map above just to find it!
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 Khiva, Uzbekistan

Khiva is perhaps Uzbekistan’s best-preserved city, the final capital of the former Khorezm kingdom (now just a province and a fraction of its former size), and what used to be the setting of the largest slave market in Central Asia. None of that is visible now in its old town, the Ichon-Qala, a pristine, museum-like place that reaches that uncanny valley of “so cleaned up it doesn’t really look real”, at least to me. It’s still incredibly beautiful, but amongst the medressas and mosques and old town houses transformed to souvenir shops, large tour groups snapping away, and an odd emptiness in the streets, I have to admit that it left me a little cold. (Not to mention it was actually below freezing, for my first time in this entire year of travelling! Perhaps that’s why the streets are empty.)

Having seen enough mosques and medressas and museums (which are often haphazardly translated anyway), I opted to forgo the admission tickets (save for one) and just wander around within and around the old city walls, peering/sneaking into whatever places I could, and climbing up the city walls (rather than pay for the watchtower or minarets) for an overhead look.
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 Boysun and Termiz, Uzbekistan

Finding myself with extra time in Uzbekistan, and having also tired of Tashkent (in which I made a third stay, due to bureaucracy), I took a train to Termiz, again just on the edge of the Afghanistan border, fence visible and 60 km from the major city of Mazar-i-Sharif. (Nope, still not crossing.) Its former history as the southern limit of Soviet control does mean that there’s a large ethnic Russian population, which was a bit of a surprise.

But to be honest, it really just felt like a time-killer, and checking out the sites felt more draining than rewarding. While a perfectly fine and normal city, Termiz isn’t really a place worth going out of your way for. On top of that, travel fatigue is a thing, and having been on the road for quite some time now, I felt unmotivated and lethargic, and also pretty tired of the “prescribed” checkbox-ticking tourist trail in Uzbekistan. Remembering a throwaway suggestion from another traveller, I decided to just head to Boysun, with no info other than it being a pleasant town I might be able to kill a few more days in.

That turned out to be a serendipitous choice, as I couldn’t have predicted the wonderful experience I had, seeing a whole different side of Uzbekistan! But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Termiz may have been a bit dry on spectacle, but that’s not to say there’s nothing of interest.
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