Silk Road Adventures 2: Istanbul — Iran

Istanbul is an exciting city to explore!

With just a day to do so, the Taylors and Pete headed off into the city by the tram that runs past our Holiday Inn Hotel before we continue on our Silk Road adventure.

The elected sights to see were the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, Spice Market and the Gelata Bridge. We finished off the day with a mandatory Turkish car wash right next to the hotel before crossing the Bosporus Bridge and heading East.

The drive to Ankara 20 years ago was probably one of the most difficult journeys anywhere in the world, with mountain passes and crazy Turkish bus and truck drivers attacking from all directions. These days the road is excellent and the driving much improved making it an easy 360km trip through spectacular scenery, climbing to 2000m at one point.

Ankara, the capital of Turkey is a busy but refined place. We overnighted there in a delightful boutique hotel, close to the main market, where I could buy my genuine Pierre Cardin socks for less than a dollar, and dine in a busy street full of eateries.

Cappadocia is a province south-east of Ankara, and a bit of a deviation from our due east route, but is a special place that should not be missed. The area has many soft rock structures known as the fairy chimneys, the result of a major eruption of Mt Ericeys more than 2000 years ago.

Early Christians carved their homes in the rock and sizable communities lived in underground cities. In Goreme, our hotel for two nights was the SOS Cave Hotel, which replicates this early living style and is a fun place to stay.

The best way to discover the many valleys in the area is by quad bike and it didn’t take much persuading to get the lads interested in a 2-hour tour. This was followed by a 60km drive out to a little known underground city, where we were able to see what life was like deep under the earth.

Ross was keen to experience a traditional Turkish bath (or Hamam). For me, this is a must and is an annual ritual when in Turkey. It starts with a sauna, then a soapy rub down with a rough mitt (sheep’s gut) while lying on a hot marble slab. The plunge pool is next to help the relaxing process, and to finish, 20-minute oil massage.

This place is also famous for its hot air balloon rides. At 6 am each morning more than 50 multicoloured balloons, with up to 16 passengers in their baskets can be seen negotiating the fairy chimneys of the Goreme Valley. It is spectacular.

Our journey east continues via Turkeys 3rd largest city, Kayseri, which lies below the snow-covered 3000 metre high Mt Ercyes Dagi. From this point on, it really feels like an overland adventure has begun.

We are heading for the city of Elazig, a place that certainly does not see too many foreigners. Reading about these areas in eastern Turkey and passing through the rugged mountainous terrain, you realise what a hammering this area took over the centuries from marauding invaders, many of whom left their mark in the form of castles and place names.

In the Elazig area, there are huge hydro developments taking place on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers ensuring, that Turkey is self- sufficient in electricity, but not making for good relations with its neighbours.

Van is our next and last stop in Turkey, before crossing into Iran. Van is situated on the shores of Lake Van, Turkey’s largest lake, and is the home of the famous Van cat which has two different coloured eyes and is not adverse to water or taking a swim. Van is a frontier town, and like Elazig has seen many invasions.

It is a busy place, and our first port of call late on a Saturday afternoon was to a flash Toyota dealer, to see if they could repair our strange electrical problem on the 100 series. During the course of the day, it had developed more complications, with the electrical and charging system shutting down altogether until low on the transmission was selected when all systems would then burst into life again!

Unfortunately, their service department was closed, and help would have to wait till Tehran. Dinner was a very cheap but filling doner kebab followed by our last beer, at a sports bar in the very busy main street.

After extracting our Landcruisers from the cramped but secure hotel basement, we headed out of town, stopping to top up our 4 x 20-litre cans of expensive Turkish diesel ($NZ3.70 per litre). Iran had a diesel supply issue last year, and we had decided to carry sufficient spare fuel to get out of trouble if needed.

The road to the Iranian border at Esendere is a spectacular drive in the mountainous regions, well patrolled from numerous military posts, one of which is located at a crossroads in a big gorge and could easily be a scene from a war movie. We were required to present ourselves and passports to the big chief and fill out a complicated form, which even included the names of our mother and father.

Currency management plays a big part in a multi-country expedition like this. We will handle no less than 15 different currencies and know how much to buy going into every country is important.

Having travelled through these countries on previous occasions, we now have a good idea of what is required in the way of funds. The last town in a country is always a good place to spend the last of the money so it is usually a top up of the diesel tank, and a big lunch or a spend up on supplies of water and eats. Yuksekova, the last town in Turkey was the beneficiary of our remaining Turkish funds.

Border crossings are always daunting experiences. It is really a case of procedure. The many thousands of dollars, and hours, spent ensuring that the visas and dates in our passports are correct before leaving home now come into play.

Borders in most countries are somewhat of a stereotype. The last 20km of the road is very quiet as a few trucks, local buses and very few cars head in your direction after clearing the border post. These places are sparse government buildings in a dirty and dusty compound with derelict and confiscated vehicles littering the area and border personnel manning locked gates and shuffling stacks of truck driver’s paperwork between big desks littered with empty tea cups. Get the picture?

It is a bit of a game. We dress up for the occasion, carry a briefcase, and the waters part, with someone in authority usually taking us under their supervision and leading us from desk to desk to complete our documentation in super quick time, while the locals all queue in long lines.

The exit from Turkey into Iran went very smoothly, and we headed in the direction of Orumiyeh, our first night stop in Iran, within two hours of arriving at the border post.

Iran is a steep learning curve in the driving department. It would appear that there are no rules, and the push and shove principle applies. Pedestrian crossings are just lines painted on the road (use them at your own risk) and radar guns on the open highway are used everywhere to help pay for their fantastic motorways.

The choice of transport also very interesting as the majority of older cars are the Iranian version of the Hillman Hunter. These have recently been superseded by the Peugeot 405 and a smaller car resembling a Mazda 121. The trucking fleet is old, early ’80s Mercedes Benz’s and a lot of very old American Macks, some dating back to the early ’50s.

Money changing was one of the first chores in Orumiyeh and we needed to get our heads around some very big numbers, with11,500 Iranian Rials to US$1. You can become a millionaire very easily but it is uncomfortable to sit on.

Despite what most people imagine Iran to be, it is an interesting and safe place to visit. The people are friendly and very chatty, and as many do speak English they are happy to make polite conversation.

Obviously, there are religious requirements that need to be observed. There is no alcohol, but a strange tasting non- alcoholic beer is readily available, and the women wear headscarves in public at all times.

The weather at this time of the year in Iran is hot by NZ standards. We had temperatures into the mid-40s last year but this time around just recorded 39 degrees on the outside temp gauge of the 100 series. This is a dry heat and certainly not as uncomfortable as the same temperature would feel in NZ.

We moved on from Orumiyeh, crossing the 20km causeway over Lake Umia, paying a small toll of 20,000 Iranian Rials (20 cents). Negotiating the busy ring road around Tabriz was a bit of a challenge for the driving skills, but after that Iran’s beautiful dual lane motorways opened up and the reasonable high daily mileages soon got gobbled up.

Iran is one of the cheapest places in the world for petroleum product and diesel is no exception at 0.40 cents US per litre. Obtaining it can be a mission as fuel stations are far apart (generally about 80kms), so planning fuel stops is essential.

You need a card to activate the pumps, and we did not have one, nor could we buy one, so we negotiated with the gas station owner, who in turn talked to a friendly truckie.

Once the pump was activated and operating, it needed to keep going, so it fuelled both vehicles at once, and we worried about who would pay what at a later date. This year we had no issue getting fuel when we wanted it which was indeed a relief and we enjoyed playing the game.

Zanjan was our second night stop in Iran, where we took a $2 taxi ride into town, which was better than going to an amusement park. It also helped us to hone our Iranian driving skills. We only had time to see a small part of this interesting country, and having read up on some of the tourist attractions in the Quazvin area, we decided to find the famous Alamut Castle (Castle of the Assassins).

It did not look that far on a map but after climbing up and over 2 x 2000m mountain passes we did actually locate it perched high on a rock face. It turned out to be a 200km excursion but had the potential for future tour programs with the mountain scenery just spectacular, and certainly not the Iran that most people know about.

Our arrival in Tehran was after dark, and the traffic was chaotic, but it was nice to be back in a city that they once called the “Venice of the East”.

However, Iran is a country that leaves you with more questions than answers.

Photos by Greg Paul and Murray Taylor.

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