Tainan, Kenting, and Hualien, Taiwan 臺南、墾丁、花蓮
With Taipei’s treats capturing so much of my attention, I was left with just one week to circle the rest of the island.
Where Taipei looks forward with modern trends, Tainan looks back to history and tradition, as the oldest city in Taiwan. On the streets, I hear far more Taiwanese than I do Mandarin. And as if Taipei didn’t have enough temples, well… Tainan’s chock full of them, and each of them are chock full of people. Tradition isn’t something just for the old though.
Taipei, Taiwan 臺北
I said I was done with travelling for the time being. Turns out sometimes trips just happen, and a bunch of factors led me to say goodbye to home again, but just for three weeks. (There is an end!) Being in Hong Kong for a wedding meant a short hop over to Taiwan, a nation (for lack of a better word… we’ll get to that later) I’ve been to around 20 years ago, but only remember of it a hotel room shared with my family and a hospital: I was sick the entire time. Never saw anything else other than some traffic, but never felt curious enough to return either.
What was I thinking?!
Amongst the hordes of Hong Kong tourists I encountered (and eavesdropped on) throughout Taiwan, there’s one primary thing on the minds of visitors. I count myself in that crowd, and certainly didn’t have to hear it from them: it’s the food.
Food food food food food.
Now firmly in Europe and no longer on the Silk Road, I was completely caught off guard by how sudden the changes would be. After being close to alone for so long, I was now surrounded by tourists. Everyone can speak English. Fancy mosques are replaced by fancy churches, and all the buildings — spires, statues, windows, paint — exude Europe. Crowded streets of hodge-podge clothing stores give way to wide streets of high fashion. Instead of small businesses’ neon signs fighting for attention, it’s billboard-sized screens. Pop culture, advertisements, posters depicting people of a far more diverse spectrum of skin colours and subcultures both mainstream and niche, promoting individuality, but also frequently flaunting flashier things, wearing less clothes, trying too hard. And no more marshrutkas, dolmuş, or minivans: it’s all trams. For better or for worse, I was very much back in the Western world again.
I’m satisfied that this is the end of my trip, and though I passed through some stunning locales most people would go out of their way just to see, I have to admit that my focus wasn’t all there anymore. My planning only took me up to Istanbul, and the places thereafter — all of which warrant another future visit — were really a bit of an afterthought: all I wanted to do was to see my friends.
Even more so, I just wanted to feel like a normal person again.
Doğubeyazit to Istanbul, Turkey
Standing at the Esenler bus terminal in Istanbul after a 23-hour bus journey, I felt a sense of going full circle.
Istanbul is the endpoint I had in mind for this journey, a city straddling both Asia and Europe, and the Silk Road to its most logical conclusion. While finally reaching it is still an accomplishment I can be proud of, it felt a little anticlimatic, given that I skipped the rest of Turkey yet again and took a direct bus over. But four years ago, I found myself at this very station, taking a bus to whatever was available and feasible (which ended up being Macedonia and Kosovo) in a moment of grief for a friend lost days before our reunion and intended trip. But at the same time, I was confounded by this bus station, with destinations every which way — to Europe, but also eastwards towards Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and connections to other points further. I saw flags around that I didn’t recognise. It may seem tenuous as I didn’t visit any of those places save for Iran, but it really was that one glimmer of curiosity that planted the seeds for this Silk Road trip.
But anyways, where did I leave off? Right, Iran. After crossing into Turkey, I made a brief stop in Doğubeyazit, the town closest to the border.
Sanandaj to Tabriz, Iran
The words “Kurdistan” and “Azerbaijan” typically don’t bring Iran to mind. Kurds are often associated with separatist movements in the countries they live in: Turkey (where the Kurdish Worker’s Party, or PKK, engage in acts of terrorism), Syria, and Iraq (where there’s already the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region). Azerbaijan… well, they already have a country to the north of Iran.
To my pleasant surprise, both of these minority groups seem generally happy as part of Iran. (There is still a Kurdish movement for autonomy/independence and incidents of violence, but much smaller than those of neighbouring countries.) Locals are as nice as always as in the rest of Iran, if not nicer, and as much as I heard “welcome to Kurdistan” and “welcome to Azerbaijan,” from my experience, they’d happily add “welcome to Iran!” in the same breath.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.