Fulfilled


Final stretch

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.
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Unfinished

 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.
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Integration

 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.
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Grudge

 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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Infinite

 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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Overzealous

 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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Light

 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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Preconceptions

 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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Ego

 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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Hell

 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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