Falling for the most beautiful blue city of all

When I google “beautiful blue tile city” two names come up every time – The city of Esfahan in Iran, and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Sorry Google, you are wrong – the Blue Mosque is gorgeous but it’s no city! 
Imam Mosque, Esfahan, also known as Jammu Mosque or Friday mosque

My feelings for Esfahan were short and sweet. The city did no wrong, I would love to have spent more time in Esfahan but instead I ended up having a whirlwind sightseeing dash in a rented taxi. Why? On entering Iran we were given 7 day visas, and at the time it was conventional wisdom that it was easy to get visas extended in Esfahan. Not that day though, our request for an extension was denied, and we had four days left to cross the country and depart into Pakistan. Did we want to test what would happen if we overstayed our visa’s in Iran? No! So we decided to spend the rest of the day in Esfahan, dash to Persepolis the following day and then drive in shifts for the remaining days to make sure we got through the Baluchistan desert to the border in time. Our nice slow overland trip had suddenly become a race.
Imam Mosque, Esfahan, also known as Jammu Mosque or Friday mosque

But in spite of that mad dash it was impossible not to notice the historic but modern city centre of beautiful blue tiled buildings, enhanced with graceful squares, wide tree-lined boulevards and stunning bridges. It seems everything old and beautiful in Iran is known by many names. We headed straight to Naghsh-i Jahan square, (also known as Imam square) to see the Friday Mosque, (or Masjed-e-Jameh) with it’s many gates, halls and domes.
Imam Square, Esfahan

The Grand Bazaar is right next to the mosque, very handy. There are few things that will excite me more than a grand bazaar, souk or medina, but I did have one big constraint. In 1990, it was illegal to take a persian carpet out of Iran if you were a foreigner, so I could only look, not buy. As a carpet lover, and frequent buyer in my travels, that was hard, really really hard. But I did have a lot of money to spend. Not my usual state of affairs as a backpacker but it happened like this. On entry to Iran, we were required to catch US$100 at the official exchange rate. On reaching Esfahan the previous evening, we had gone to the bazaar to exchange money at the real rate. I changed another $50, at about 20 times the “official” rate. And then I had a problem, the wad of notes they handed over was about 4 cm thick and was really difficult to stuff discretely into my money belt. I thought it would last me another 10 days and some market shopping.
Esfahan Grand Bazaar

Now without the visa extension I pretty much needed to spend it all in one day – Thomas Cook were not going to exchange it back in London!. And I couldn’t buy a carpet. Ah, the agony. So we scurried around the beautiful Grand Bazaar, and I ended up buying a huge pile of locally printed table clothes and napkins (I know, what every backpacker needs!), lots of hand made leather accessories, and a few souvenir blue and white tiles.
Martyrs Cemetery

A much more sobering stop was at the Martyrs Cemetery,  a huge symbol of the devastation of the Iran/Iraq ten year war. Row upon hundreds of rows of tombstones with pictures of the young men of Iran who had fallen. When the family hadn’t been able to supply a photo, there was a picture of the Ayatollah instead. It was ironic that the reminder of the Iran/Iraq hatred made us feel relatively safe to be in Iran while the first Gulf war was being waged next door in Iraq. 
Khaju Bridge, Esfahan, Iran

And we watched the sunset behind Khaju Bridge, with it’s rush of water and it’s beautiful repetitive arches, I really really wished I could stay in Esfahan longer – damn that visa.

Persepolis – the most amazing ruins most people will never see

The unique 2500 year old ruin of the capital of the Achaemenid Empire? The site of the 1971 extravagant celebrations of 2500 years of monarchy which provoked a backlash that grew into the  1979 Islamic revolution? Are you with me yet? Possibly not, as the spectacular old Iranian city of Persepolis is not a site visited by many tourists, with Iran still seen as an unlikely holiday destination for most westerners.
Griffions, Persepolis, Iran

The spectacular ruins of Persepolis, Iran.

First built circa 550 BC, and often rebuilt after being razed to the ground over the centuries by such luminaries as Alexander the Great, I found the ruins of Persepolis spectacular, with a style different to anything I saw in neighbouring countries. I particularly liked the strange animals like the griffions and the “push-me-pull-you” horse. The name Persepolis literally means “Persian City”. I stayed in the alluringly named nearby town of Shiraz, becoming somewhat disappointed when I remembered that Iran is a non-alcohol country.
the push-me-pull-you horse, Persepolis, Iran

The party of 25 centuries in Persepolis, Iran.

I think I would’ve enjoyed being at the (reputedly) $200 million party thrown by the Shah of Iran at Persepolis in 1971, celebrating 2500 years of the Persian monarchy. Who wouldn’t enjoy a guest list of A-list royalty, 5000 bottles of champagne, meals courtesy of Maxim’s de Paris, and a luxurious air-conditioned “tent” city fitted out with marble bathrooms, the finest French bed linens and exquisite Persian carpets? Well, possibly the ordinary Iranians who were banned from going anywhere near the festivities. 
Persepolis, Iran, The Gate of all nations

The party that changed Iran.

Many credit this over the top party as the “beginning of the end’ for the Shah, proving how out of touch he was with ordinary Iranians and their beliefs. The festivities ignored centuries of Islamic rule in Iran, provoking scorn from a certain Ayatollah Khomeini, and added momentum to the groundswell of discontent that led to the revolution in 1979. After the revolution Persepolis was initially despised by the regime for its association with the former excesses, and it was left to fall into disrepair, much as I saw it when I visited 11 years later in 1990. But recently Iran has begun to promote Persepolis as a tourism destination again, and is even promoting plans to rebuild the famed “tent city”, this time as a tourism centre and accommodation for tourists – now that sounds like a pretty amazing “luxury ecolodge” to me – well worth a visit after all these years.

How we found a desert oasis in Pakistan

With just minutes to spare before the border closed for the day, we drove out of Iran, through the barbed wire fence, into Pakistan. Before we reached the Pakistan border, in no-man’s-land, a Pakistani official waved us down and jumped on board. With a huge smile, he said “don’t worry, be happy, you are now free. You are in Pakistan, we don’t have all those rules they have in Iran”. Looking straight at us, he continued “you don’t need to cover up in Pakistan, we are a free country, throw off your head scarves, throw off you chador’s, welcome to Pakistan”. Everything is relative it seems.

mosque, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990
mosque, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990

After a couple of days driving through the Baluchistan desert in Iran, we continued on through the same desert in Pakistan, the mountain range to our left outlining the inhospitable border with Afghanistan. And then we arrived in Quetta, and it seemed like an oasis in the desert. Sure, it was a dry sandy desert, but it was also a very friendly, hospitable stop.

markets, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990
markets, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990

Back in 1990, Iran granted visas to very few westerners – Germans (it was a WWI/WWII thing), and Aussies and Kiwis. So in far north eastern Turkey, five of us parted ways with our other six truck-mates, and we went overland through Iran, while they had to back track to Istanbul, fly to Karachi, and then train up to Quetta to link up with us again. Which meant we had a few days to chill out in Quetta and we found it a very enjoyable stopover indeed.

making fresh naan bread, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990
making fresh naan bread, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990

If I google ‘Quetta’ now I see titles like “Taliban stronghold’. But 20 years ago it seemed a very different place (or maybe we were just naive or lucky). We wiled away the days wandering the hot, dusty streets. We got measured for our own salwar kameez, so that we might blend in a bit more (a tunic top over truly enormous gather-at-the-waist trousers). We sampled perfect, hot pita bread out of an under-floor charcoal oven. We drunk tea and conversed in pigeon english/pakistani/ sign language for hours in the local fabric shop. For a few days it felt like we become a part of the fabric of daily life in Quetta. It was an easy, smiling, welcoming town back then. Western tourists in big trucks were rare, and were warmly welcomed, however odd we may have seemed to the locals.

clothes shop, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990
clothes shop, Quetta, Pakistan, 1990

Back then we were on an overland from London to Kathmandu, during the first Gulf war. All the western countries were giving stern warnings to not travel to the Middle East, to not travel to Pakistan. As you do when you are young and have spent all year saving for this once in a lifetime trip, we ignored all the warnings, and we had a truly exceptional experience. We had an amazing, non-threatening, welcoming time everywhere we went. So I have to wonder – would it be the same now? Do I just think it is less safe now, just because I am older. Do I believe the media/government websites now more than I did then, or am I missing a great opportunity. It saddens me a bit that I even have to ask myself these questions. It does seem that Pakistan is a much riskier place to travel now than then, and I have noticed that most of the overland truck companies do not go through there anymore. Which is a shame. Because twenty years ago it was a highlight that I will never forget.

#fridayfaces – how to spot the Kiwi’s in Iran 1990

taxi girls Esfahan, Iran
taxi girls Esfahan, Iran

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.


Bam, Iran, the world’s oldest mud fortress

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.
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

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.  
Bam destruction after earthquake
It is strange to think that future overland travellers will never see what we saw. However 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 has exposed the older layers of mud brick structures which is extremely interesting for archaeologists. 

#fridayfaces – boys at Badshahi Mosque, Lahore, Pakistan

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.

Boys of Lahore, Pakistan, 1990
Boys of Lahore, Pakistan, 1990

Photos of the faces of people I come across in my travels take me right back to that time and place.

Rafting the Sun Kosi – the best thing I have done travelling (so far)

None of us slept well that night, our fourth night of sleeping in pup tents on the sand in the bends of the Sun Kosi river in Nepal. It wasn’t lack of comfort, or lack of tiredness – whitewater rafting all day and getting up before sunrise meant we were happily exhausted and crawling into our tents before 9.30 every night and sleeping deeply.
Our raft gets the rock, Harkapur 2, Nepal

No, it was a potent mix of adrenalin, fear and excitement that had us all tossing and turning that night. Well, the ten of us travellers on our ten day white water rafting expedition were tossing and turning, it’s quite possible that Samir and Nigel, our guides, were sleeping much more comfortably. Four days previously we had all met up in Kathmandu and headed off up into the mountains for our “put-in” spot on the Sun Kosi. We inflated the two rafts, stuffed everything in dry bags and strapped everything we would need to eat, drink and sleep for the next ten days into a large pile in the middle of the rafts. From the put-in at Dolalghat to the take-out at Chatra, 272 kms later, there were no roads or towns, just the occasional picturesque village and friendly shouts of ‘Namaste’ from the bank.

Daily life white water rafting on the Sun Kosi.

Each day we were up before sunrise, getting back into our cold damp clothes from the day before (it’s too cold for them to dry overnight). It was sunny, even hot, on the water in the middle of the day, but very cool overnight. We had to pull off the river and make camp each day by about 3pm otherwise we lost the light behind the mountains and canyon walls. We quickly fell into the routine of unpacking all the gear off the rafts, carrying the rafts and the gear up the beach, gathering firewood while it was still light enough, getting a fire going and the tents up. Then we relaxed around the campfire for the night, as the temperature fell quickly, and re-lived the day’s rapids, and heard about the ones still to come.
Nigel's raft, Harkapur 2 rapid, Sun Kosi, nepal

That’s how we knew about Harkapur 2, the toughest rapid on this river.

The monsoon every year changes the flow and rapids of the Sun Kosi, and so once the monsoons were over in October, the guides from the different rafting companies joined together to do a “guides trip” down the river, to see how things had changed. Harkapur 2 is a fast deep rapid strewn with massive boulders where a tributory joins the Sun Kosi on a bend. And this monsoon had washed much debris in from the tributory river, narrowing the bend in the  Sun Kosi, forcing the water volume through the narrower gap and  making the rapids more dangerous. Nigel and Samir delighted in telling us how one of the guide rafts had gotten into trouble, had been trapped in a whirlpool, and the raft had filled with water and sunk to the bottom of the river. All the guides aboard were thrown lines and were pulled out, but the raft was still down there. Normally a grade 5+, it was now a Grade 6 rapid. Since we were there only 4 weeks later, with river levels still very high, the good news for us was that it was still considered unraftable, and that we would be portaging our rafts around it. Although the idea of scrambling over rocks for hundreds of metres carrying the rafts and all our gear didn’t sound like fun either.

A grade 5 rapid is defined as: “Exceedingly difficult, long and violent rapids, following each other almost without interruption; riverbed extremely obstructed; big drops; violent current; very steep gradient; close study essential but often difficult. Requires best person, boat, and outfit suited to the situation. All possible precautions must be taken.”

A grade 6 rapid is defined as:  “These runs have almost never been attempted and often exemplify the extremes of difficulty, unpredictability and danger. The consequences of errors are very severe and rescue may be impossible. For teams of experts only, at favorable water levels, after close personal inspection and taking all precautions. After a Class VI rapids has been run many times, its rating may be changed to an appropriate Class 5.x rating.”

Here comes the challenge.

At the end of our fourth day we made camp after Harkapur 1 and just before Harkapur 2. Nigel and Samir went down to survey the river ahead in the remaining light while we set up camp. They arrived back in the gloomy dusk and announced “the river has fallen a bit,  no-one has run it yet this season, we think we should raft it tomorrow”. We all went silent, went to bed early, and tossed and turned all night to the sound of the rapid thundering right next to us.
Oar Raft, Harkepur 2, Nepal

At day break we were ready to go. We had our two rafts and had been joined by a third (oar) raft which had caught up with us yesterday evening as well. There is a pecking order in rafting, on “real” rafting everyone has a paddle, including the guide who uses the paddle to steer and control the raft. Oar rafts on the other hand are maneuvered manually by the guide using 2 long oars. Other rafts consider oar rafts to be “cheating” – yes there is rivalry, even on water. This morning however it’s all about safety in numbers. We will go one raft at a time, with the members of the other two rafts spread out along the rocky bank over the length of the rapid, armed with life buoys and ropes to attempt a rescue if any raft or people get in trouble. We draw straws, our sister raft will go first, then the oar raft, then us.
Samir on alert, Harkapur 2, Nepal

How to run a Grade 6 rapid.

We gather on the bank and map out a plan to get through the rapid. The real danger is getting pulled across with the huge current into the outside half of the curve in the river – this is where the guide raft foundered a few weeks before. Each raft needs to be strong enough to paddle across the high and wild current, get on the front side of the large boulder in the middle, and bounce off it into the shute which will take us through the raftable part of the rapid. Easy!

Nigel’s raft went first, didn’t make the rock in the middle, went under the water and filled up to within an inch of the brim, went through the rest of the rapid backwards, unable to turn the heavy water-laden raft, and somehow made it through the other side with everyone intact and without sinking further.

Then the oar raft went, they had an easier time of it with the oars, got on the right side of the rock, into the shute and then almost got stuck under the lip of a three foot drop but managed to drag their water-logged raft through as well.

This left us feeling a bit paranoid – were we going to be the spectacular spill, the ones that prove just how easy it is for it to all go wrong? Off we go, hearts in our mouths, paddling in unison, giving it everything we had for the next few minutes. We were in a massive, deep, fast and furious body of water. We hit the rock, bounced off into the shute sideways, went over quite a few drops (still sideways) and came out the end, still paddling, whooping with joy.

By definition, if the water level had dropped enough for us to raft it, and we got through, then it was no longer a grade 6, it was a grade 5+. But forget the semantics – for us, we had just run a grade 6 rapid and survived, and there was no sweeter feeling of achievement. The next four days on the water and the final two days in Chitwan were a blur of fun, we were all so high on adrenaline that it was as if we were walking on water. Many more huge rapids, plenty of quiet parts of the river where we occupied ourselves swimming the minor rapids and trying to remember all the words for American Pie. Twenty years later I can vividly recall that rapid, that trip. For me it was pure adrenalin and pure happiness, and that’s what made it the best thing I have done travelling – so far.