Monthly Archives: August 2013

Don’t Go Near There: Travel Advisories

I got the following email today:

The travel advice for Turkey has been reviewed and reissued.

The Advice was last issued on Thursday, 29 August 2013. It contains new
information under Civil unrest/political tension (Australians in border
areas with Syria who hold concerns for their safety as a result of the
current regional tensions surrounding events in Syria should consider
departing these areas). We continue to advise you to exercise a high degree
of caution in Turkey because of the high threat of terrorist attack and to
avoid all protests and demonstrations.

For a full text of the revised advice, please refer to www.smartraveller.gov.au.

Yours sincerely
Consular Section
Australian Embassy, Ankara, Turkey

It came because back in July I laboriously entered my travel plans into the Department of Foreign Affairs Smart Traveller website, so they know I’ll be in Istanbul tomorrow night on the way back home and they must email those Australians who they know will be in the area. It is welcome, since I’ve been away from the news for a few days and missed the accelerated reaction to the nerve gas attack in Syria. Turkey is NATO’s frontline in this conflict and, without the support of the UN, the greater conflict becomes one of NATO/rebels vs Russia/Iran/Syrian government. The Syrian rebels have, until now, largely been supported by the gulf Arab countries, mainly Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But if NATO steps in, they take a backseat, and Turkey becomes the easiest enemy for Iran/Syria/Hezbollah to hit.

So DFAT‘s concerns so far fill us with a great deal of confidence. So far.

The problem starts when you actually follow the links to the website and start reading the advisories. They have 5 levels of advice for each country and, in some cases, significant parts of each country:

1. Do not travel

2. Reconsider your need to travel

3. Exercise a high degree of caution

4. Exercise normal safety precautions

5. (Nothing, it’s all good, do whatever you like, don’t bother with normal safety precautions, you’ll be fine)

Now, can we guess which countries are in the Do not travel category? Syria, obviously. Afghanistan, correct. Iraq, too (although parts of Iraqi Kurdistan get the Reconsider seal of sort of approval). Libya gets it too, more than two years after ousting Gaddafi. Two countries in central Africa, two in the Sahel region and three in east Africa get it, as well as Yemen in the Middle East. That’s it.

So, what about the safest places, those places where less than the normal safety precautions are all you need, according to DFAT? They are Andorra in the Pyrenees, the vast majority of the islands of the Caribbean (but not famously-lawless Jamaica, they get high degree of caution), lots of islands in the Pacific where nothing really happens (including, amusingly, our own penal colony, Nauru), obviously that Mecca of happiness Bhutan, a couple of sleepy central European countries. And…Bulgaria. Yes, it seems the same Bulgaria where Aussie Jock Palfreeman stood up for a couple of gypsies and a lot went wrong and he’s now in a Bulgarian prison for a very long time. Japan? I hear you ask? No, Japan requires you to exercise Normal safety precautions. Yes, that same Japan where you couldn’t get 2 screens into buying a train ticket before some kind Japanese person did it for you and then led you to your platform, missing their own train in the process. New Zealand, surely? Nope, they get Normal safety precautions too. Is it because of the earthquakes? Seems unfair.

So what about our good friends the United States of America? Where an Australian in a sleepy town was shot in the back by some bored kids? Relax, only Normal safety precautions required there. In the entire USA. Does a kevlar running vest count as normal precautions? And what about the United Kingdom? There’s parts of London you don’t want to go, so there’s got to be a travel advice for the UK. But then again, even the roughest parts of London seem safer than Bulgaria, so…now I’m confused. The UK gets Normal safety precautions too.

Now, the absurdity of these advisories comes into greater focus having just been to a country like Iran. Iran escapes the Do not travel tag and scrapes in with Reconsider your need to travel (the more lawless parts of the border areas do get Do not travel).  But I have never felt safer among people than in that country. I’m well aware of the corruption of the system and the Australian government’s inability to offer much help because of limited political ties with Iran, but the people there understand all this too, and they know what to do. There is no rapacious tourist industry and there is a culture of hospitality that the rest of the world would do well to emulate. Contrast that with Bali and parts of Indonesia where institutions are corrupt and tourists are a regular target for all kinds of crime.

It is not DFAT’s job to issue travel advisories for, say, Northbridge in Perth, or the northern suburbs of Melbourne, or the bus to Frankston, but one wonders what travel advisories they might give foreign tourists if they had to apply the same standards. Even if we do make too much of the crime on our streets sometimes, a lot of the world is much, much safer than our cities, and that’s impossible to see in these advisories.

But the Turkey advisory today is welcome. Even if it has got me worried that someone might bomb the Sheraton tomorrow on my first ever night in a Sheraton.

Now here are some pictures of nice people from Iran (Reconsider your need to travel) and Georgia (Exercise normal safety precautions):

Alika and his son Erekle - our hosts for lunch in Dartlo

Alika and his son Erekle – our hosts for lunch in Dartlo

The nephews of our driver from Omalo back to Kakheti. They sat quietly in the back the whole 3 hour drive

The nephews of our driver from Omalo back to Kakheti. They sat quietly in the back the whole 3 hour drive

My guide and translator Salome in the village of Sighnaghi, at the end of a long day touring Kakheti

My guide and translator Salome in the village of Sighnaghi, at the end of a long day touring Kakheti

Kamelia, Azalia & Vanusheh - Grandmother, Mother and Daughter. My beautiful extended family in Lahijan

Kamelia, Azalia & Vanusheh – Grandmother, Mother and Daughter. My beautiful extended family in Lahijan

This man selling textiles in the Rasht bazaar shouted to us "Hey! Come take a picture of me!"

This man selling textiles in the Rasht bazaar shouted to us “Hey! Come take a picture of me!”

Upon learning that I was Australian, this man threw open the doors to the normally-closed rooms of his mosque in Lahijan. Inside were a number of tombs and a memorial for a local hero of the area, Imam Hasan.

Upon learning that I was Australian, this man threw open the doors to the normally-closed rooms of his mosque in Lahijan. Inside were a number of tombs and a memorial for a local hero of the area, Imam Hasan.

This lady sold me some handicrafts on Masouleh. She's from the Talysh ethnic group of people who live in the green hilly areas on the south-west coast of the Caspian Sea.

This lady sold me some handicrafts on Masouleh. She’s from the Talysh ethnic group of people who live in the green hilly areas on the south-west coast of the Caspian Sea.

Vanusheh outside her kindergarten after school

Vanusheh outside her kindergarten after school

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Tusheti Photo Gallery

The Stori River valley on the road to Omalo, looking back towards Kakheti

The Stori River valley on the road to Omalo, looking back towards Kakheti

The Alazani River Valley and the road to Omalo

The Alazani River Valley and the road to Omalo

The map of Tusheti outside the visitors centre in Omalo

The map of Tusheti outside the visitors centre in Omalo

Our hotel and their dog Gabi in the warming afternoon sun

Our hotel and their dog Gabi in the warming afternoon sun

Our host Paata plays a traditional Tushetian song before dinner

Our host Paata plays a traditional Tushetian song before dinner

Wildcat, badger and bear skins hanging in the hotel, which is also Paata's family's house

Wildcat, badger and bear skins hanging in the hotel, which is also Paata’s family’s house

The fields of Lower Omalo and our horses for the day's trek to Lake Oreti

The fields of Lower Omalo and our horses for the day’s trek to Lake Oreti

Omalo, with the towers of Keselo watching over

Omalo, with the towers of Keselo watching over

Looking out over the Alazani Valley towards Dagestan from our lunch stop near Lake Oreti

Looking out over the Alazani Valley towards Dagestan from our lunch stop near Lake Oreti

One of the locals in the village of Dartlo

One of the locals in the village of Dartlo

Our host for lunch in Dartlo, Alika, and his son Erekle. The boy would not leave his father's side and, confusingly for me, kept sayng "Mama, Mama!". "Mama" means "father" in Georgian.

Our host for lunch in Dartlo, Alika, and his son Erekle. The boy would not leave his father’s side and, confusingly for me, kept saying “Mama, Mama!”. “Mama” means “father” in Georgian.

An impromptu lunch offer from Alika, who gave us a lift from Omalo to Dartlo. The pizza-looking dish is Khachapuri, a typical Georgian cheese bread. After lunch we and his family piled into his Hilux for the ride to Omalo. They were moving back to Kakheti for the long Tushetian winter.

An impromptu lunch offer from Alika, who gave us a lift from Omalo to Dartlo. The pizza-looking dish is Khachapuri, a typical Georgian cheese bread. After lunch we and his family piled into his Hilux for the ride to Omalo. They were moving back to Kakheti for the long Tushetian winter.

We visited a museum in one of the Keselo towers and a rain storm came through. After it had cleared we stepped out to the sight of afternoon rainbows

We visited a museum in one of the Keselo towers and a rain storm came through. After it had cleared we stepped out to the sight of afternoon rainbows

Rainbow Over Omalo

These houses on the side of a hill near Shenako are where the animals are kept for the winter. Three families in Shenako remain for the winter to look after the flocks.

These houses on the side of a hill near Shenako are where the animals are kept for the winter. Three families in Shenako remain for the winter to look after the flocks.

The frescoes in the little church on the hill in Shenako

The frescoes in the little church on the hill in Shenako

Berries by the roadside on the walk to Shenako

Berries by the roadside on the walk to Shenako

On the walk back from Shenako, a 30-year-old Lada Niva rumbled past and offered us a lift. In the back, in a box, was this Caucasian sheep dog puppy. They cut the ears when days old so they don't impede the dog's hearing.

On the walk back from Shenako, a 30-year-old Lada Niva rumbled past and offered us a lift. In the back, in a box, was this Caucasian sheep dog puppy. They cut the ears when days old so they don’t impede the dog’s hearing.

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29 August, 2013 · 19:51

Tusheti

The view from the towers of Keselo, which watch over the village of Omalo in Tusheti

The view from the towers of Keselo, which watch over the village of Omalo in Tusheti

It was during a toast over our hearty mountain dinner that it hit me for the first time that day. I’m not sure if it was the third or the fourth toast of the night, but this toast was for the horses and the dogs, I think. We’d already had the toast for the dead relatives, and the one for the folks who never had any kids – they got their very own toast – now we were celebrating our most loyal beasts. We were necking Georgian white wine by the glass and, as my guide and translator screwed her face up at the shock of yet another one down the gullet, and ashed her cigarette in an hollowed-out horse’s hoof, it occurred to me: I was actually in Tusheti.

Flowers in Tusheti

Flowers in Tusheti

Overland travel, and travel on a budget, has a habit of moving so slowly sometimes, that you don’t actually notice that anything is changing. The Turks are pretty much like the Greeks, the Persians are pretty much like the Turks, and the Georgians are a jumble of all three, with a heavy dose of Russian influence that they don’t seem all that keen to acknowledge.
But this night was different. Little over 24 hours earlier I’d been trudging the cobbled streets of Georgia’s quaint and European, but not exactly exciting, capital city Tbilisi, looking for a way out. I wanted to see the north-east of the country and, not for want of trying, I’d failed to organised anything prior to arriving in the capital. With my days ebbing away in museums and cafes, this was my last chance to lock in 5 days in what is supposed to be the most pristine corner of this curious nation in the middle of the Caucasus. So I went door to door. In and out of office buildings, up and down stairs, I knocked on any door that had the word “travel” on the sign.

Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, by night

Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, by night

Eventually a door opened into a spartan room occupied by three smiling women at two desks who shared one computer. They seemed sceptical: it was very expensive for just one person to get to Tusheti and their company had no groups going. But that wasn’t reason enough for me to give up, so one of them got on the mobile to a man named Shota. Shota knew no English, but he had a car, and he sure knew Tusheti. So Shota got on the phone to a friend who had never been to Tusheti, but knew how to speak English. Eventually the smiling women were able to give me a price for the return trip with Shota, and a price per day for the guide, who would ride with us. Within an hour, I’d handed over a small fortune in Georgian laris to the smiling women, and received in return a receipt, and an agreed pickup time and place the next morning.
Shota, a warm and amiable father in his late 20s and Salome, a female masters student a few years younger, collected me from my hotel lobby fashionably late, just late enough to relieve me of the growing feeling that I’d been sold a dummy, and we set off without delay.

Lake Oreti, to the south of Omalo, in late summer

Lake Oreti, to the south of Omalo, in late summer

Georgia is instantly beautiful. There’s something about green hills that appeal to a man living on the edge of a desert, and Georgia delivers before you’ve even left the city limits. The hills are gentle and pleasing right into the wine-growing region of Kakheti, where we swapped our minivan for a Land Cruiser 4WD. Once in the Land Cruiser, the landscape got serious. We plunged into a river valley, steep, deep green and pine treed either side and rushing, rocky blue waters in the middle. For two hours, Salome and I stared out of the windows with the same childish joy in our faces. Only periodic motion sickness could take our minds off the nature show going on outside. On the road we jostled with Border Police trucks, winded and climbed, past the tree line and into the clouds, over a pass at about 2900m and then began descending. We looked down on a valley below bathed in sunshine, bottomed out near the rushing Alazani River, and wound steadily up to our destination.

The church in Shenako, a few hours walk from Omalo toward the border with Dagestan

The church in Shenako, a few hours walk from Omalo toward the border with Dagestan

Approaching the village, we disturbed a bird of prey perched on a post, who took off and flew level with us for a few hundred meters. The village of Omalo is a cluster of houses clinging to a hill overlooking the twists of the Alazani before that river disappears into the Russian republic of Dagestan. The hill is crested by a cluster of medieval defensive towers, carpeted in yellow and purple flowers, and surrounded by deep green and snow-coated mountains. The geography has kept Tushetians isolated enough that centuries of Christianity, then Islam, then Soviet atheism, and Christianity again, have failed to dislodge their native pagan animist traditions. The climate helps, too – for 3 seasons of the year the village is practically deserted, left to the wolves and the bears, buried beneath meters of snow, the passes impassable even by 4WD cars. We coasted up to a balconied wooden inn with a table and chairs lazing in the afternoon sun, and checked in.

The ruined church in the village of Dartlo. A lot of government and church money is going into restoring the treasures of Dartlo and this building will be restored in time, too

The ruined church in the village of Dartlo. A lot of government and church money is going into restoring the treasures of Dartlo and this building will be restored in time, too

And so it was that I found myself toasting dead horses with a Tushetian man drinking Kakhetian wine, while my Tbilisian guide and translator ashed her cigarette in the former foot (shoe included) of one of the very creatures we were celebrating. Outside were the cacophonous squeaks of a litter of Tushetian sheep dogs crying to be fed and a rumble of thunder signalled it was late August and the Tushetian summer was coming to an end. I was truly, to use the cliche, a world away. How unlikely it all looked little more than a day before on the cosmopolitan streets of Tbilisi.

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Iran

My Tehran friend's cousin's dog Shanti. He's about 12 months old. He's only a little shih tzu but my friend's rottweiler is scared of the little guy. Dogs are popular as pets in wealthier parts of Tehran.

My Tehran friend’s cousin’s dog Shanti. He’s about 12 months old. He’s only a little shih tzu but my friend’s rottweiler is scared of the little guy. Dogs are popular as pets in wealthier parts of Tehran.

Shaman, my friend's 9 month old rottweiler, who came to my room with this face each morning. They didn't choose her but they've fallen in love with this little girl. In Iran you can have your dog seized for simply walking them in public. They take the dogs to Evin Prison (seriously) and leave them to die. So, with a typically Iranian solution, they have worked out that they can train her to be a rescue dog in an earthquake, and then they can take her for long walks and the government can't take her away.

Shaman, my friend’s 9 month old rottweiler, who came to my room with this face each morning. They didn’t choose her but they’ve fallen in love with this little girl. In Iran you can have your dog seized for simply walking them in public. They take the dogs to Evin Prison (seriously) and leave them to die. So, with a typically Iranian solution, they have worked out that they can train her to be a rescue dog in an earthquake, and then they can take her for long walk and the government can’t take her away.

In the Caspian province of Gilan, my friend Zia's friend's daughter Vanusheh plays with dolls dressed in typical Gilani dress. The dress (and Vanusheh) show that Iranians are far more lively, colourful and cheeky than the Islamic Republic would like us to believe. Iranians in general don't feel part of the Islamic Republic  - at best they have learned to work around the government's entrenched corruption and criminality in the name of god - but a great many despise it and wake up each morning wanting it gone.

In the Caspian province of Gilan, my friend Zia’s friend’s daughter Vanusheh plays with dolls dressed in typical Gilani dress. The dress (and Vanusheh) show that Iranians are far more lively, colourful and cheeky than the Islamic Republic would like us to believe. Iranians in general don’t feel part of the Islamic Republic – at best they have learned to work around the government’s entrenched corruption and criminality in the name of god – but a great many despise it and wake up each morning wanting it gone.

A boat on the Caspian Sea. The sand is dark and sometimes pebbly, and the waves aren't great. But this lush green region in the north is where many Iranians come to get away from the dry heat of the country.

A boat on the Caspian Sea. The sand is dark and sometimes pebbly, and the waves aren’t great. But this lush green region in the north is where many Iranians come to get away from the dry heat of the country.

Diners at a popular foodie's destination in Gilan - Khavar Khanum. Word about the restaurant's kebab spread on the internet and they now do 2000 meals a day and are hurriedly constructing an extension.

Diners at a popular foodie’s destination in Gilan – Khavar Khanum. Word about the restaurant’s kebab spread on the internet and they now do 2000 meals a day and are hurriedly constructing an extension.

The kebabs at Khavar Khanum on the grill. This was the best meal I've had in Iran. The Gilani taste for sour food extends to the sauce they use on the meat and chicken kebabs.

The kebabs at Khavar Khanum on the grill. This was the best meal I’ve had in Iran. The Gilani taste for sour food extends to the sauce they use on the meat and chicken kebabs.

A frog on the edge of a lake near Lahijan in Gilan. The lake was quite dry and it was hot and very humid so there was little evidence of wildlife until this guy popped up.

A frog on the edge of a lake near Lahijan in Gilan. The lake was quite dry and it was hot and very humid so there was little evidence of wildlife until this guy popped up.

The village of Masouleh, a couple of hours drive into the deep green mountains from Lahijan, is built into a steep hill. So steep, in fact, that they built the houses so that the roof of one house is the front yard and street for the one above. It's popular with Iranian tourists.

The village of Masouleh, a couple of hours drive into the deep green mountains from Lahijan, is built into a steep hill. So steep, in fact, that they built the houses so that the roof of one house is the front yard and street for the one above. It’s popular with Iranian tourists.

Tea wasn't grown in Iran  until the late 1800s. Now it is a permanent presence in daily life and Lahijan in Gilan is where the finest Iranian tea comes from.

Tea wasn’t grown in Iran until the late 1800s. Now it is a permanent presence in daily life and Lahijan in Gilan is where the finest Iranian tea comes from.

My friend Zia introduced me to his friend Afshin who has a tea factory in Lahijan. Even with the sanctions, he sell tea to Lipton in the Netherlands because the quality is so desirable.

My friend Zia introduced me to his friend Afshin who has a tea factory in Lahijan. Even with the sanctions, he sells tea to Lipton in the Netherlands because the quality is so desirable.

Afshin the tea man and his son pose outside his offices in Lahijan. His office is like a meeting place, with friends always passing through for a cup of tea.

Afshin the tea man and his son pose outside his offices in Lahijan. His office is like a meeting place, with friends always passing through for a cup of tea.

Zia outside the fish shop in the port of Bandar Anzali, where we tracked down some caviar. The signs in Gilan are all like this, large and colourful, and they brighten up the sometimes grubby and down-at-heel streets. Farsi script is very attractive and because I can't read them, simple words like "Shilat Fish Restaurant" look like art to me.

Zia outside the fish shop in the port of Bandar Anzali, where we tracked down some caviar. The signs in Gilan are all like this, large and colourful, and they brighten up the sometimes grubby and down-at-heel streets. Farsi script is very attractive and because I can’t read them, simple words like “Shilat Fish Restaurant” look like art to me.

The dam at Manjil, on the drive back from Lahijan to Tehran. This is the watershed, the point where the lush, greenery of Gilan changes into the dry, brown landscape where Tehran sits.

The dam at Manjil, on the drive back from Lahijan to Tehran. This is the watershed, the point where the lush, greenery of Gilan changes into the dry, brown landscape where Tehran sits.

A caravanserai, sits by the Aras River near Jolfa in Iran's far north-west. The Aras forms the narrow border between Iran and Azerbaijan's Nakhchivan province here, and between Iran and Armenia to the east.

A caravanserai, sits by the Aras River near Jolfa in Iran’s far north-west, with the mountains of Azerbaijan in the background. The Aras forms the narrow border between Iran and Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan province here, and between Iran and Armenia to the east.

The Armenian Orthodox church of St Stephanos near Jolfa and the Nakhchivan border. The church is pre-1600s and has only recently been restored. This part of the world has been racked by war since the early 90s, with Armenia and Azerbaijan pitted against one another and Iran having to maintain relations with both.

The Armenian Orthodox church of St Stephanos near Jolfa and the Nakhchivan border. The church is pre-1600s and has only recently been restored. This part of the world has been racked by war since the early 90s, with Armenia and Azerbaijan pitted against one another and Iran having to maintain relations with both.

Along the Aras, across from Armenia, there was a sign saying "Kordasht Bath Room". My driver stopped, I thought because he needed the toilet, but when I followed him I found it was beautiful old defunct bath house in the middle of nowhere.

Along the Aras, across from Armenia, there was a sign saying “Kordasht Bath Room”. My driver stopped, I thought because he needed the toilet, but when I followed him I found it was beautiful old defunct bath house in the middle of nowhere.

Many of the interesting stops in the Aras Valley only seem to have opened up since a peace has been reached between Armenia and Turkey-backed Azerbaijan. But there are still regular military posts along the road and the tourist needs to be wary about where he chooses to take photos.

Many of the interesting stops in the Aras Valley only seem to have opened up since a peace has been reached between Armenia and Turkey-backed Azerbaijan. But there are still regular military posts along the road and the tourist needs to be wary about where he chooses to take photos.

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21 August, 2013 · 16:10

The Value of Things

1,010,000 rials - enough for 5 long distance bus trips. Or about 30g of caviar.

1,010,000 rials – enough for 5 long distance bus trips. Or about 30g of caviar.

The currency in Iran seems at first to be one of those things deliberately designed to deceive tourists into parting with their money. Then you remind yourself there are few tourists to confuse, and no one seems to ever rip you off. But as a foreigner, no matter how confident you get with the place, you still find yourself at a shop offering far too little, or far too much, and a shopkeeper will, embarrassingly, reach into your wallet and pull out the required notes himself. It takes a solid 10 days in this country to go through the process of being thoroughly and completely confused.

The gold bazar in Tabriz, where they'll quote US Dollars without asking.

The gold bazar in Tabriz, where they’ll quote US Dollars without asking.

The 5 steps to currency confusion:

1. Check xe.com for the Iranian rial (IRR) to US dollar (USD) rate. Then ignore it. The real rate is 3 times that.

2. The rial is the currency, but no one quotes rial prices. People talk in tomans, an unofficial unit. One toman is 10 rials.

50g of caviar, roughly a week's wages for a professional here.

50g of caviar, roughly a week’s wages for a professional here.

3. The currency is so low, that very few things can be bought for less than 1000 tomans, or “hezar toman”, so often “hezar”, the word for “thousand”, is omitted when they tell you the price. Sometimes they leave out the “toman” too and just quote a 1-, 2- or 3-digit number.

4. This would be manageable if you knew the rough value of whatever it is you’re buying. But the relative value of things here is nothing like in Australia. A 6-hour air-conditioned bus trip (with complimentary snacks) costs 18,000 tomans (5-6 USD). Adobe Photoshop photo editing software costs 1000 tomans (30 US cents). But a flashdisk, to save Photoshop on, still costs about 150,000 tomans (~40 USD). A full tank of petrol – 40,000 tomans (~11 USD). A cup of tea from a chaykhaneh (teahouse) is usually around 1000 toman (30c), but in upmarket parts of Tehran you could be charged ten times that in a European-style cafe. Just 50 grams of locally-caught caviar costs 150,000 tomans, or the equivalent of nearly 4 tanks of petrol.

5. Finally, it’s possible that if they know you’re a foreigner, in certain places like carpet and jewellery shops, they’ll quote prices in US dollars without making it clear.

The lads at the olive shop in Rudbar, between Lahijan and Tehran.

The lads at the olive shop in Rudbar, between Lahijan and Tehran.

On the long drive from Lahijan near the Caspian Sea to Tehran, we bought 1kg of olives, 4 boxes of cookies and a bottle of water. The man behind the counter simply said “si o panj” – “thirty five”. Thirty five what? What’s the value of a kilo of olives and locally-baked cookies? Thirty five rials? No way, that’s a fraction of a cent. Thirty five tomans? Doubt it, that’s only one cent. Must be thirty five thousand tomans, then. Three hundred and fifty thousand rials. Ten dollars. Is that cheap? I have no idea any more.

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İstanbul

Sunset over the old city from the Kadiköy ferry

Sunset over the old city from the Kadiköy ferry

Its ruins are Roman and look west into Europe, its palaces and mosques are Ottoman. The language, brutish and unintelligible, was carried centuries ago on horseback from the ranges and plains of central Asia, assimilating words from Persian and Arabic along the way. On the tram, the locals’ distant looks pass through you from round, full Asiatic faces the colour of cafe-au-lait. In the old city, home to an embarrassment of riches in Roman ruins, palaces and mosques, the tourist industry feels restrained and dignified – not rapacious, but ever tempted by the armies of naive cruise ship passengers passing through.

A couple at the 6th century Basilica Sistern in the old city

A couple at the 6th century Basilica Sistern in the old city

The call to prayer that rings out in stereo over the rooftops in İstanbul is noticeably different from those in Indonesia and the Arab world. İstanbul’s faith is an open and tolerant Islam softened by the miles and the need to adapt – sufi mysticism still has a visible cultural, if not religious, impact in İstanbul. But the old city is only a tiny part of a metropolis of 14 million. Immediately to the west, the suburbs around Fatih are staunchly religious, conservative and inward-looking – imagine the characters in Deliverance occupying a pocket of Manhattan. Sombre women cloaked head to toe in chador are the norm and there’s barely a smile for the visitor.

Turkish delight, fruits and spices at the Spice Market in the old city

Turkish delight, fruits and spices at the Spice Market in the old city

Unexpectedly, a short ferry ride away on the Asian side, the girls of Kadiköy stride joyous and confident in tight jeans past boutique fashion stores and restaurants with football on the telly. It’s not empty consumerism or a hipster trend, Istanbul is a fluid, maritime European city and Kadiköy has soul. The call to prayer sings out over lanes bustling with busy coffee shops and raki bars in the long, warm evening. Street bands play into the night as Kurdish waiters joke around with busking drummer girls.

It’s different again on the handful of islands to the city’s south, a popular getaway. There the asiatic faces fall away, replaced by mediterranean features and weathered, dark chocolate skin. The syllables sound Greek, orthodox Christian monasteries top the hills and the day moves at a languid pace, as in Crete, Sicily and Lipari. And it’s in the view from the Princes Islands, these sleepy refuges from the hectic city, that the scale of İstanbul is most apparent. The city is built up in almost a 180 degree vista – it’s buildings as far as the eye can see into Europe to the left and into Asia to the right. Pockets of high rise pop up randomly along the coasts and you know that somewhere, behind the hills, up the Bosphorus, there’s more.

View of just part of Asian side of the city from the island of Büyükada

View of just part of Asian side of the city from the island of Büyükada

And the Bosphorus flows quietly, comfortable in the knowledge that it’s the reason İstanbul exists. Its silent waters are all that separates Southern Europe from Asia, and all that unites the Black Sea with the Mediterranean. They hold hostage the warm water ports of 6 nations – Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania and Bulgaria. Geography rarely gets the credit it deserves for shaping history, but in Istanbul it’s inescapable. The container ships that loom over your passenger ferry, and the dozens moored off the European shore, need these waters and they echo ancient trade routes that have enriched these shores for millennia, and still continue to do so.

A container ship on the Bosphorus with the new city in the background

A container ship on the Bosphorus with the new city in the background

İstanbul is the capital of an ancient power and the cultural heart of a nation aspiring to the EU. It’s a romantic cruise on an ancient waterway and a Russian container hulk headed for Brazil. It’s fiercely secular and devoutly religious. It’s a whirling dervish and an installation at the İstanbul Modern. And İstanbul is no open air museum – it’s a city very much of the present, protecting the treasures of its past.

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Baths

The washing facilities at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul's Old City

The washing facilities at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul’s Old City

Why didn’t anyone tell me about Turkish baths?

The first step is to completely undress, put all of your clothes and valuables into a locker and don only what looks like a sarong and a pair of plastic slippers. Then the attendant shows you into the bath room and walks away, closing the door behind him. The air is dense and humid and the room is clad completely in white marble. There’s a hexagonal slab in the centre about the height of a man’s knee and several metres in diameter. Around the walls of the room there are a series of knee-high sinks, complete with hot and cold taps and ample space either side for a person to sit. If you’re lucky, you’re totally alone. The only sound ringing through the heavy space is a drip somewhere in the system. Your first job is to sit against the wall and drench yourself with the pail that sits in each sink. The sarong stays on – it’s meant to get wet. They leave you for a little longer than you need, necessitating some quiet meditation. Just as you start to wonder if they’ve forgotten about you, a man with a big moustache walks in clad in a smile and a similar sarong, carrying a heavy mit. He orders you to lie face down on the marble slab. Then he begins to rub your exposed skin with his mit. It’s like a giant cat’s tongue, and the dead grey skin falls away with each scrub. You turn over and he scrubs your chest and stomach. You’re not sure whether to close your eyes or leave them open staring at him as he goes about his work.

Then stage 2 begins. He places at your feet a bucket of warm water and in his other hand he holds a bag with a weight in the bottom. He dunks the bag in the bucket and it emerges enormous like a fabric balloon. He dangles it over you and squeezes it from the top with his other hand. A cloud of milk white suds billows from the bag and lands on your body, condensing as a thick film of soap. He does this several times, after each time rubbing the soap in and massaging your muscles. He goes between your fingers, between your toes, and then you turn over and he soaps and pushes the knots out of your back in the same way.
Finally, he orders you back to the seat next to the sink, and there he washes your hair, throws your neck around and douses you with waves of hot, then warm, then steadily cooler water. With the last rinse he leaves you, the echo of the drips still ringing through the empty room.

The man returns through the humidity holding out a dry towel and dry sarong. You drape the towel over your shoulders, replace the sarong, and follow him out of the room. The bath door closes with a thud and you’re back in reality. You return to your locker, dry yourself, dress yourself and replace the slippers with your shoes.

Outsourcing your own hygiene. It’s brilliant. I did this twice in my first 3 days here, and both times out of necessity – the first was after a 10 hour flight while my Sultanahmet hotel room was unavailable and the second simply to avoid showering in the horrid facilities of the Cihangir apartment I was renting. The first bathhouse was 500 years old and eye-wateringly expensive, while the second was from the 80s and unfeasibly cheap.

(there are no photos of the baths. Mainly because I was worried about the humidity doing things to my lenses. But also because it’s an odd thing to request)

A kid stood still for me in front of the Aya Sofya (Hagia Sofia)

A kid stood still for me in front of the Aya Sofya (Hagia Sofia)

Crowds entering the Blue Mosque for taraweeh prayers

Crowds entering the Blue Mosque for taraweeh prayers

 

Ramadan sweets for sale on the Hippodrome in Istanbul's old city

Ramadan sweets for sale on the Hippodrome in Istanbul’s old city

 

The old city as seen from the Kadikoy Ferry on the Bosphorus. L-R The Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya

The old city as seen from the Kadikoy Ferry on the Bosphorus. L-R The Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya

 

The interior of the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque), complete with Australian cruise ship tourists' heads at the bottom of your picture

The interior of the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque), complete with Australian cruise ship tourists’ heads at the bottom of your picture

 

Cheese scrolls for breakfast made by an Armenian woman: a real rarity (not the cheese scrolls)

Cheese scrolls for breakfast made by an Armenian woman: a real rarity (not the cheese scrolls)

 

The streets of Kadikoy, from where I am posting this (sounds of street gypsy band and dancing not included)

The streets of Kadikoy, from where I am posting this (sounds of street gypsy band and dancing not included)

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