How to spot Kiwi girls going through Iran on an overland truck (or sitting in the back seat of a taxi) in 1990? – “Raybans and Reeboks” gave us away every time, even though we were covered in the full black chador and headscarf.
Photos of the faces of people I come across in my travels (and sometimes me too) take me right back to that time and place.
Twenty years ago, while racing across country to get out of Iran before our visas expired (now there’s a story for another day), we came across the world’s oldest mud fortress, the Citadel of Bam, just as the last of the afternoon sun was hanging over the horizon.
View from the Citadel of Bam, Iran at dusk
sunset’s glow on Bam, Iran’s mud fortress
Glowing red in the sunset light as we drove up, and quickly falling into the gloom of dusk, we sprinted through it’s 2000 year old streets and wound our way up to the very top of the citadel. The view was like something Hollywood might dream up, falling away beneath me in all directions were the streets and buildings of a city made entirely of mud bricks, clay, straw and the trunks of palm trees.
View from the Citadel town of Bam, Iran at dusk
view of the mud town and fortress of Bam, Iran at dusk
View from the Citadel of Bam, Iran at dusk
A city had stood there almost two thousand years, and the citadel and surrounds that I was looking at had been built 400-600 years previously – all in mud, surrounded by desert. It was a fleeting visit to somewhere so unique that I would never forget it.
In 2003 Bam was hit by a large earthquake, which killed 25,000 people and destroyed 80% of the citadel and old fortified town, as well as much of the new town that had grown around it. A horribly sad, tragic event.
The earthquake destruction of Bam citadel http://mceer.buffalo.edu/research/Reconnaissance/Bam12-26-03/bamprint.asp
The earthquake destruction of Bam in 2003 Photograph: Hasan Sarbakhshian, AP http://www.guardian.co.uk/gall/0,,1113730,00.html
The earthquake destruction of Bam in 2003 http://www.kvonphotography.com/bam/index_0.html Kvon Behpour 2004
The experts say there is some optimism that an international effort to excavate the site and slowly rebuild parts of the Citadel will one day restore at least part of its former glory. In the meantime the earthquake exposed the older layers of mud brick structures which is extremely useful for archaeologists. I have a sad feeling that travellers now will never have the opportunity for the same awe and wonder that we felt when we first spied Bam.
I heard a story once. About how, during the prohibition, gambling rooms and bars had to be hidden from the law in Las Vegas. So they were housed in plain brick nondescript units, as boring and un-noticeable as possible. There were no windows so no risk that the cops would know there were people inside at night. By all accounts they flourished.
Going legal in Nevada.
And when prohibition was lifted, and then gambling relegalised in Nevada in 1931, the suddenly legal owners wanted ways to to advertise that they were there, to attract more clientele, without investing in new premises. Luckily for them, neon had been invented, and very quickly every bar and casino in Las Vegas was covered in brightly coloured neon lights and signs to attract the crowds. While the premises did indeed get replaced by ever newer and bigger and grander buildings, the neon has remained a constant image of Vegas.
And then in the 1990s it got overtaken by LED, and suddenly neon was expensive and temperamental and old fashioned. And one by one, the old signs and decorations got replaced, the old neon was scrapped.
Neon death and resurrection.
But some of those classic old neon signs live on, or at least are lying in limbo waiting for a saviour, at the Neon Boneyard, part of the Neon Museum in Las Vegas. A passionate group of enthusiasts work on recovering as many of the old signs as possible (currently about 150 in the Boneyard), and look for sponsors to pay for their restoration. And the best bit is, we can go visit the Neon Boneyard and get right up close with all this colourful history. In a barren dusty lot just a bit north of the strip, a small fee of $15 will let you join a tour around the boneyard, led by one of those passionate volunteers that make this organisation work. This is a down-and-dirty tour, there’s plenty of debris and broken glass on the ground, and enclosed flat shoes must be worn for your own safety.
The rawness of what is basically a neon dump, with the stories of old Vegas that each sign invokes from the volunteer guide, makes this an engrossing and fascinating afternoon in the sun, and my favourite attraction in Vegas.
Neon in working order.
And for a taste of what the neon looks like in working order, in situ, go to Fremont St in old Vegas. The Neon museum has a self-guided walking tour in their outdoor downtown “gallery” of restored working signs . The gallery begins in front of the Neonopolis at Las Vegas Boulevard near the Hacienda Horse and Rider and includes the original Aladdin’s Lamp. The gallery extends to the 3rd Street cul-de-sac adjacent to The Fremont Street Experience canopy and includes The Flame Restaurant, Chief Court Motel, Andy Anderson, The Red Barn, Wedding Information, Nevada Motel, and Dots Flowers. So when you check out the Fremont St experience one night, don’t forget to do the walking tour of the Neon signs as well
My tip for the Neon Boneyard – book early, there are limited spots and it books out fast. To book, go to Neon Boneyard. Oh, and turn up on time, once the guide has taken the group through the barbed wire security gate into the lot, he locks it, and you can’t come in!
I met these friendly, cheeky young locals in 1990 in Lahore, Pakistan, while visiting the impressive and beautiful 15th century Mughal mosque, the Badshahi mosque. I was making my way slowly from London to Kathmandu on an overland truck.
Photos of the faces of people I come across in my travels take me right back to that time and place.
The rat pack, the 1950’s and 60’s, the old classic movies, the original Ocean’s 11. Visit Las Vegas now and it can be hard to find any trace of the old Vegas, the backdrop to so many old movies and TV shows we grew up with.
I first visited Vegas in 1989, on a long Greyhound trip from the Grand Canyon to LA. Arriving late at night at the bus terminal, we headed to Circus Circus, the flashest place in town, ate cheap buffet, blagged free drinks and soaked up the entertainment until we jumped on another Greyhound in the morning and headed out of town. A fleeting and slightly dazed visit!
So on a more recent trip to Vegas, I am lucky to have a local friend who re-introduces me to the original Vegas. To get in the mood, we start at the Peppermill Cafe & Fireside lounge, at the very northern end of the strip. The Peppermill is a classic 60’s diner, and the fireside lounge is a lush pink and purple neon classic cocktail bar – I think it is the brightest most colourful room i have ever been in. It’s all 60’s cool, there is even a sunken circular lounge around a fire pool – hence the name. The perfect place to channel my inner Austin Powers and have a few classic martini’s.
Then it’s on to Fremont Street, where the strip began! This is old-school Vegas – definitely best visited at night. New Vegas, on the strip, is all LED these days – old Vegas is the original Neon Vegas. I feel like I am in a movie set, and of course I am because some of these casinos and signs have featured in many movies and TV shows over the decades.
There’s the Golden Nugget casino and the Glitter Gulch girlie bar, the Plaza hotel and the big neon Malborough Man.There’s the $1 shrimp cocktails at the Golden Gate casino. There are old school steakhouses and slot machines and roulette wheels and cheap souvenir kiosks – in fact everything is a whole lot cheaper than down on the Strip. It’s busy and bustling and visited by an average 25,000 people a day, (so they tell me).
Old Las Vegas Fremont St Experience
Old Las Vegas Fremont St Experience
And from sunset onwards, every hour on the hour, there’s the Fremont Street experience. This is a ‘sound and light show’ like no other I have seen. It’s massive. It’s projected onto the huge curved roof over my head, 1500 feet in length – that’s about 500 metres people, half a kilometre of sight and 555,000 watts of sound! It goes for six minutes each time which is just about long enough for me to not get a crick in my neck and to not get dizzy and fall over (just). It’s bright and loud and very Vegas – lots of hot girls and even a few hot boys. Ahhh… the nostalgia of it all! Go there and party like it’s 1959.
After the heat of the ruins of Angkor Wat, it was a nice change to spend the afternoon out on nearby Tonle Sap, at the floating village. The kids of the floating village could certainly steer their tin tubs like a real boat and turn on the charm for the tourists.
The photos that make the most impact on me when I travel are the faces of people I come across in my travels.