Turkey: Lycia

From Anatayla we were carless, which meant we would be on the turkish bus system for our remaining time in Turkey. Our first taste was a journey to Olympos. This was in the heart of the Lycian region, which encompasses some of the southern coast of Turkey. Like the Olympics, Olympos has been ‘hosted’ by many ancient empires of its time. Persian, Roman, Hellenes, Macedonians etc.

Olympos beach

As a modern nation Turkey went through a lot of development of roads and industries in the 1960s under a lot of guidance from Germany. After the 1990s tourism took off. In 2019 51 million people went to turkey. (for reference NZ has 4 million arrive a year). This had led to the coastline being absolutely bombarded with hotels and resorts. Olympos is marketed to tourists as a remedy to this. It is a quiet town located on the coast with none of the major developments of say Antayala.

Beer courtesy of a man with a chilly bin for a backpack, belly courtesy of the beer.

We spent three nights here, mostly hanging out on the beach and checking out some of the surroundings. One of the natural highlights was the Chimaera flames.

Chiamera flames

These methane fuelled open flames have been burning since forever ago. Used as ancient lighthouses for the greeks and allegedly the inspiration for the chimera myth (Homer). It seems the chimera has been tamed by tourists as the ‘fire breathing, mythical beast with the body and head of a lion, with the head of a goat arising from its back, and a tail that ended in a snake’s head’ now spends its days toasting everyone’s marshmallows.

Chimeramallows, hand of a human, arm of tree, blood of sugarcane

From Olympos, another bus. Complete with a complimentary (it was for free) cup of tea. We arrived in Kaş (ş = sh). This is a small seaside town surrounded by massive mountains and Greek islands.

Looking back toward Kaş
One of the beaches on the Kaş peninsula

During our time in Kaş we went on a boat trip. This was a relaxing way to spend a day. The tour took us through some of the nearby islands and stopped several times for a swim.

Issy had the camera, sorry viewers

We cruised past Simena, another ancient Lycian town. Simena had the added interest of being a sunken city. The clear waters allowed for incredible views of houses, docks and buildings which had been submerged since an earthquake in the 2nd century.

Simena

From here we climbed to the top of the island into an old fortress in Kekova. The boat decided to forgo chairs in lieu of mattresses which made it extremely comfortable to chill out. After a few more swims in the incredibly salty Mediterranean we called it a day.

Looking down from Kekova fortress

Our second day in Kaş involved a scooter hire. We drove around and had a thoroughly enjoyable day. Due to an overaggressive grip at the petrol pump we had an excess of gas in the tank. Kas peninsula has a loop road about 4km around. We thought we would host our own ‘Isle of Mann’ to get rid of the extra gas. We spent around 2 hours driving this loop having a great time.

One more bus, destination Fethiye. From Fethiye (Fet – E – ye) we decided to go on a walk. This would prove to be more difficult than we had anticipated. Our map was somewhere between suboptimal and woefully inadequate.

Photo captured by a cctv camera on a local water tap.
Issy making the most of usufruct
Looking down at Oludeniz

We spent 3 hours bush bashing up a hill in the middle of the Turkish summer. Despite the odds, we made it to the top only to find a road which we could have taken. We continued onwards and enjoyed the views. We spent the night in our trusty tent in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t have any sleeping bags or blankets, so it was a bit of a chilly night under our clothes. The next day we continued on to butterfly cove. This was pretty spectacular. We thought we might be able to climb down, but without ropes it was a bit much to consider.

Butterfly Cove

We caught a bus back to Oludeniz, where we were surprised to find ourselves in an English town. We had to do a double take but right there was George, a sunburnt Englishman eating an English breakfast in a pub yelling at the cricket, whilst holding a 10 quid note out to the waiter. The entire town was copies of this, the only changing being the sport, the accent, and the maximum size of the t shirts in the shirts next door. The largest we saw was XXXXXXXXL, not even kidding. I’m pretty sure it was a repurposed sail. For reference, Oludeniz is a small town outside Fethiye, with a great beach and paragliding, it is particularly popular with the English.

Fethiye harbour

After being talked out of trying on the t-shirt (white’s not my colour), we took a quick bus to an abandoned town named Kayaköy. In the 1920’s parts of this area of turkey were inhabited by Greeks. A massive repopulation of 1.6 million people post WWI due to the Ottoman collapse, rise of Turkey and numerous other political happenings occurred.

Looking down from the high point of Kayaköy

Turks from Greece and Greeks from Turkey swapped towns wholesale. The Turks who were moved to mainland Turkey refused to live in buildings which had been inhabited by Christians. As a result the town was abandoned.

It’s interesting walking around ruins of this age, as they are in much better condition than the older towns around. I was reminded of looking at Italian renaissance paintings and how the buildings look in much better nick than today barring the restored stuff. After a reflecting (read: pretentious) walk up here we returned to Oludeniz, where we went out partying. The next morning we had a delicious English breakfast.

Beer 3 of a few.
Paraglider, the sky was never empty while we were walking

Next bus: Pamukkale

Central Turkey

Trabzon is a city right in the North East of Turkey. It is one of the most important trade cities on the Black sea and home to just under a million people.

Trabzon

We got out of our marshrutka and were making our way to our accommodation when a fighter jet took off right next to us. It doubled back and was so low in the sky. It was incredibly loud and quite shocking. We spent 2 days in Trabzon. We saw the Hagia Sophia (not the main one) and started to eat a lot of Turkish food. Every meal we had in Turkey ended up being accompanied by an ayran which is a delicious yoghurt drink and a tea.

Tea
Trabzon Hagia Sofia
Sumela Monastery

We decided to do a road trip to the south and got a car. On the way out of town we went and checked out Sumela monastery. This is a really cool Greek monastery which is carved into the side of the mountain. We continued throughout the country and spent a night in Sivas. The roads were surprisingly good but eastern Anatolia had a rural feel to it.  It was the first time we had driven a car in 5 months, and felt a bit different on the right hand side of the road. Worse was to come.

In the countryside
On the road
Local transport
Cows; Turkish

From Sivas we went to Goreme in Cappadocia. This is a very famous tourist attraction in the middle of Turkey, best known for its geological formations and hot air ballons. The afternoon was spent on a quad bike tour and visiting the Uchisar castle. Our tent from Sziget had made the journey with us and we decided to spend a night camping in a field near by the city, with tasty pide from a local bakery.

Uchisar Castle
Up close, this used to be home to 1000 people in byzantine times
Cappadocia views from the castle.
Fairy Chimneys, from the quad bike tour
Camping spot

The next morning we rolled out of the tent early to watch the ballons, we followed this up with about 4 turkish coffees to offset the early rise and spent the dawn admiring the sky.

Apparently its 300 euro per person to ride these
coming down

We continued on the road to a famous underground city, which was neat.

From here we went south to the coast to a place called Kizkaleesi. From a quick google maps This looked like a small village on the mediterranian coast. We were surprised to find a massive resort town. Either the heat or trying to park in the incredibly narrow streets caused us to work up a sweat. We ventured to beach. Having grown up in NZ we are both used to a certain style of beach, notably empty. As far as we could see the beach was packed 10 loungers deep.

Beach with people

Once we were past the loungers we got to see the castle in the sea which was pretty neat.

Kizkalesi

The legend of this place goes; a fortune teller informs the king that his beautiful daughter will be poisoned by a snake. Shocked by the fortune teller’s words, the king tries to save the princess by building a castle on an island where no snakes live. He sends his daughter to live in the castle. But a snake hides in a grape basket sent from the mainland and poisons the princess. I think the modern rendition would be the same, but sub snake for beach goer and grape basket for jetski.

From a distance

We spent a night here and the next morning we set off on a long coastal drive to Antayla. This drive was very pretty, with mountains, coast and beaches comprising the scenery. We ate gozleme (cheese pancakes) at an roadside stall and had our first cactus fruit. Issy was particularly captivated by these treats.

Old Antalya harbour. there are big resorts down the whole coastline here

We arrived in Antayla in the evening. This is a reasonably popular city, especially with tourists. We spent a few days here and had a great time.

We checked out a few notable places including Termessos, an ancient mountain town which even Alexander the great didn’t manage to conquer. It was abandoned after an earthquake destroyed the aqueduct. The best bit about this was how empty it was. We were on our own to explore in such a nice backdrop.

The old bathhouse and gym Termessos
Enjoying the show at the ampitheatre
View from the top

We also went to Karain cave, this has been occupied by homo species for 200,000 years. Whilst some of the interior decor felt a bit dated, it was pretty amazing to visit see the layers of history.

Main chamber
Research digs

We visted Phaselis which is an old roman port and a great place for a swim.

Phaselis beach
Inside aspendos, considered the best preserved large theatre. they had a production of Carmen on that evening.

Aspendos was also a stop, where Issy was tempted by a delicious looking cactus fruit on the side of the road. In her haste she forgot the cactus part of the deal and subsequently had a hand full on spines. To her credit she managed to eat the fruit to settle the score. The local dairy owners, who spoke no English recognised exactly what had happened when we went to by a coke a few minutes later, much to their amusement.

Roman bridge over Koprulu canyon

From here we went to Koprulu canyon, where we had a bit of a swim and paddle in a raft.

Getting dunked in the waterfall, very cold
Hanging out
Our journey. It took us about 7 days to do the entire thing.

Hungary, Georgia, and Armenia.

In early August we arrived in Europe. Budapest was the lucky city. We were here to catch up with some friends for a music festival. As it turns out the music festival was extremely popular with antipodeans.

Those with a keen eye will notice an All Blacks flag flying.

I swear the most popular passport in the entry queue was the New Zealand one. We had a good time in Budapest and saw a lot of the old city. The houses of parliament along the Danube river was amazing. We found out that Budapest is used to be two cities, Buda on one side of the river and Pest on the other.

At the gates.
A couple of Pests.

In total we spent a week in Budapest, thoroughly enjoying our friends company after months of only talking to each other.

From Budapest we flew into Tblisi the capital of Georgia. We arrived pretty late at night and were feeling tired after week at the festival, so we stayed quiet in our AirBnb for a couple of days. We also sort of forgot about photos for a few weeks so don’t have much.

When we made it outside it proved to be quite nice.

Tblisi means warm and is known as such for its famous hot springs. Unfortunately for us, the receptionist at the baths we had booking at was not so ‘Tblisi’, and we were short changed out of our booking by a suspicious ‘change’ in our booking time.

On a hill in Tblisi

We managed to squeeze in a walking tour (as has become customary for each city we go to) This tour was interesting as Tblisi and Georgia have had such a fascinating history.

Georgia is located on the edge of pretty much every major historical empire, somehow never being fully assimilated each time it was overrun. This has led to a very distinct Georgian culture being established and the city has begun to reflect this since the economy stabilized after leaving the soviet union in the mid 2000’s.

“Balcony’s are the glue that holds Tblisi together” – Our tour guide.
Proximity principle at work in a cosmopolitan city.

The city clock tower. 7pm is puppet show time.

Tblisi was quite captivating, particularly at night, the old city having a real vibe to it. This is helped by the food, beer and wine. Georgia excels at these pursuits. The wines were incredible, with names and styles I’ve never heard of, but after a few tastings we had a real taste for it. The food tasted amazing, but being 50% cheese by the end of four days our belts had gone out a notch.

Khachapuri for one!
They love dogs in Georgia. If you put in a plastic bottle, dog food comes out.

In typical Chris and Issy fashion we had neglected to plan our time in the caucauses very well at all. We did not manage to explore any of the Georgian countryside, which is supposed to be full of great walking and mountains. But, with time up on our Airbnb and a few days before planning to go to Turkey we were looking for things to do. Enter Armenia.

We had met a number of travelers in Iran and Central Asia who had come from Armenia and had nothing but good things to say about it. So we headed to the bus stop in Tbilisi and waited for a few hours for our marshrutka to fill up. We had free entertainment from the Georgian bus drivers, who between puffs of cigarettes, yelled at each other. This was interspersed with riotous laughter. To this day we still can’t figure out if it was good natured yelling or not.

After a long bus ride, Russian lemonade goes a treat.

We misjudged the length of the trip. We were anticipating a four hour journey to get to Yerevan, It took a full 10 hours. The border crossing was one of the most hectic we have been through, just a crush of people for 2 hours masquarding as a line. To be fair, the mountains and countryside on the Armenia side was quite pretty.

Yerevan is known as the pink city and is about 3000 years old. It is so named as most of the buildings are made from pink granite. It is a sparsely vegetated city which makes the effect even more pronounced. We spent a few hours both nights checking out the city, which has a vibrant food and beer scene.

At the top of the Cascade
Down the bottom.

We went on a tour to check out some of the highlights of Armenia the next day. Armenia is the oldest Christian country in the world around 3rd AD century. So naturally some highlights include Mount Ararat of Noah’s ark fame, old monasteries and religious sites. These were broken up with some natural features such as waterfalls. We closed the day with a wine tasting and this made watching the sunset over the countryside all that much better.

Issy with Mount Ararat

The next day we had to get on our way to Turkey. So we booked an overnight train from Yerevan to Batumi which is on the Black sea. We got the last seats and were in different carriages for the trip. It was exceptionally hot on the train and it moved at a top speed of about 35km/hr.

3rd class. 40 degrees.

When we arrived in Batumi we were surprised to find what can only be described as a Russian tourist town. We spent two days here, and spent our time on the beach, and looking around the town. We ended up at a dolphin show. This was a very surreal experience, but overall quite sad. The dolphins were incredible athletes but it all felt very cruel. The audience was packed and apparently every show (3 a day) sells out in peak season. From Batumi, it was another marshrutka to Trabzon in Turkey.

Batumi
Real mix of vibes in the place
Bus station in Georgia, for the curious.

Backpacking Iran: Kashan and Tehran

We only stayed one night in Kashan, so it was a flying visit. We managed to get a taxi driver to take us to some of the highlights of the city. We had already been out in the old city the previous night and were keen to see some of the surrounds

Looking out at the desert early morning

So, early in the morning we set out. Our driver was really good value and knew exactly how to entertain us. He also stopped to picked up two watermelons. He put on his bangers as we were cruising on the way out to the desert.  Once it was finished, he would ask “one more?” and throw it on repeat. Our first stop was the Namak salt lake, just out of town.

On the salt flats
I’m not sure how, but we were talked into this one.

After the desert we went to the Maranjab desert, it was pretty cool walking around the dunes as we were the only people around. It was still early enough to be cool (which is still 30+ degrees!).

Sand dunes
Thank goodness it wasn’t too hot

We thought that buying two watermelons might have been a bit much, but our driver knew a lot more than we did. When we got back from the dunes some camels had come over to say hi and we were able to feed them the water melon. Its hard to describe how much fun this was. They were incredibly shy, but also pretty keen on the watermelon which made for a few laughs. They were very gentle with their teeth which was a nice surprise.

“Hello?”
Loving it

After this treat, we continued on to the Nushaband underground city. This was neat. It was ‘found’ in the 1920s after being lost for a few centuries. Its thought that the city was built to hide from aggressive raiders, or to protect its citizens from the extreme temperatures outside. Either way it was fun to scurry around underground, the passages had old sites of booby traps and rolling stones. Very Indiana Jones.

Old entrance chamber
Exploring the city
Going down further

We went to Aran Va Bigol mosque after this which was very colorful. From here we finished our tour at Jalali castle which has an interesting history of sieges, battles and earthquakes. After this we jumped on our last bus in Iran to Tehran. All of which were incredibly comfortable, with reclining leather seats, TVs and snacks provided

Aran Va Bigol Mosque (borrowed photo)
Jalali Castle
In the watch tower, hot at this point.

We had a few days in Tehran we spent a fair bit of time just walking around and taking in the city. It’s a pretty sizable city, 24th biggest in world and home to 16 million or so people. It is crazy busy however, and traffic is daunting. The local advice for crossing roads was ‘close your eyes’ and ‘walk, don’t run’, both of which are impossible. The metro system is impressively full too. It was the busiest one we went on in our trip, maybe rivalled by Mexico city only.

Not even rush hour.

We spent a bit of time following a self guided walking tour around some of the older parts of town, where the Qajar and the current government have their administrative buildings, and the baazar . We also checked out the art history museum which had some really cool stuff, highlighting the different dynasties styles.

Then we went up to the mountains behind the city. These are over 5000m high and apparently have great skiing in the winter, which we will be returning for one day. The tochal chairlift to get us halfway up from the city took 45 minutes. It looked like it had been in use every single day since 1956, the café at the top had a great view. Their were some local donkeys hanging out there too.

Looking down at Tehran from Tochal
One of the cable cars

At this point we had had some pretty tasty dishes in Iran, but we found a restaurant close to our hostel which would become our favourite. We went four times in 3 days. It was so good.

We also checked out Golestan palace, which is where the last Shah was residing before the turbulent 50’s. This place is stunning and well preserved. It was interesting to reflect on our all the different palaces of the dynasties that we had stood in over the trip.

In the main hall
Outside Golestan
The throne. Complete with puppet
Tusks
Meteorite
Tourists
Lots of Mirrors. The effect with sunlight is amazing

On our last day we checked out two final places. The National museum to the Iran-Iraq war. This was a high tech and immersive museum, and was an interesting and intense way to learn about the war. One particular hall was a simulation of getting bombed by a fighter jet. Complete with shaking floors and incredibly loud noises. Outside the museums the exhibits showed all of Iran’s rocket developments, and all the cars of physicists who have been assassinated since 1979. (very morbid)

As it looks.

Our last stop was the Den of Espionage, FKA the US embassy. This was where the events depicted in Argo took place. This has since been turned into the home of anti us propaganda. It was an entertaining and interesting reading through the documents that were displayed.

Back at work
No.1
No.2 (apparently this is the most major concern with the sanctions for people)

We left for the airport that evening, after one last MesMes meal, and flew to Hungary via Istanbul.  

Post MesMes glow

Backpacking Iran: Yadz

We arrived at 6.30am on our bus from Shiraz and our kind bus driver helped our half asleep selves to get a taxi taking us to hostel in old quarter to our hostel. The hostel we stayed in was another absolute jackpot- it was beautiful with the rooms situated around a main courtyard, and we got a private room for only $10 USD including a buffet persian breakfast every morning, including carrot jam (I have no self control around buffet breakfasts, I was in heaven). After breakfast we went on a walking tour organised by a local hotel which showed us around the old quarter of the city and gave us some insight into Yadz.

Yazd is a city of the desert with its old quarter being a labyrinth of winding lanes, mud-brick houses all joined at their roofs to make it possible for a quick get-away from an enemy.

Yadz is recognised by UNESCO as one of the oldest towns on earth originally settled 5000 years ago, and was once an important stop on the Silk Road- Marco Polo once stopped in Yadz around 1270AD called it “good and noble city”. Remnants of its past as a silk road stop can be seen in multiple features of the city, for example, in the minarets adjoining the mosques where they used to light fires in the large balconies to guide travellers towards them for food and shelter.

We explored a beautiful local mosque in the late afternoon, after sheltering from the 45 degree midday sun in our hostel (in front of the air conditioner!).

Our next day, after another buffet breakfast, we sluggishly headed out to one of the top tripadvisor sights for Yadz- the water museum. It sounds like a strange place to go to but we could not work out how this city in the middle of the desert survived for 5000 years with no nearby river or lakes. I won’t go into all the details but in summary it involved a complex underground aquaduct system moving water from mountains afar to the city which they think were first built 2000 years ago (now modern water systems are in place). We learnt that now Yadz is running out of water, the rivers that once supplied that city have gone almost dry and the city is having to get water from far away cities to supply its population.

Another amazing sight in Yadz, you can see the minarets in the back and the balconies at the top were they would light the fires to guide silk road travellers

We walked (foolishly) in the midday heat to a Zoroastrian fire temple about 3 km from the centre of town. The brick temple contains a fire that has burned for more than 1,500 years. The ancient flame has been kept alive since and relocations, and continues to burn today. The fire was first lit in 470 and has had two other cities as its home before settling where it is today.

About the Zoroastrian symbol
Chris and the very old fire (kept behind glass inside the temple)

We just about passed out from the heat on the way back only to be saved by copious water and the humble soft serve ice cream sold to us by a nice man on the street. We probably could have called it a day then but we had one more sight in Yadz we had to see- The Towers of Silence.

The towers of silence are the two building you can see on the hills in the background

The Towers of Silence, built more than a millenia ago, is the old Zoroastrian cemetery where until 1960s the bodies of the deceased were transported to their final resting place and left to the vultures. In the Zoroastrian belief contaminating the elements (Earth, Air, Fire and Water) with decaying matter such as a corpse is considered sacrilege. Sky burial is considered a clean death because it prevents putrefaction—bodies are exposed to the sun and birds of prey such as vultures can eat a body down to the bones in just a few hours. To me it sounds like a gruesome way to go having grown up in a different belief system, however I can see how it fits in within the Zoroastrian religion. Information at the sight also stated that this way of handling the deceased helped for sanitation “it is said that in case of spreading diseases such as cholera, typhoid, plague, or when large wars broke out, a large number of people were killed in one day and burying the corpses were a big challenge so they used sky burial to prevent disease from spreading.

Since it was disused as a burial site (less than 50 years ago) it has become a local and international tourist spot.

Inside the tower
I did not like being in the towers, I just got a yuck feeling and I left pretty quickly out of them
View from the hill one of the towers is on of Yadz, the towers used to be far out of town but now with the expanding city it is much closer

That evening we had dinner above the city in one of the rooftop restaurants with an amazing view.

The next day we did a tour to Kharanaq, Chak Chak, and Meybod.

We first visited the crumbling mud-brick village of Kharanaq. The site has been occupied for approximately 4,000 years, while the rundown adobe buildings that draw foreigners from around the world date back around 1,000 years.  

The village of Chak Chak, also known as Pir’e Sabz, consists of a Zoroastrian Fire Temple perched beneath a towering cliff face in the desert out of Yadz.

We were a little disappointed at the tea lights supposed to be the fire shire in the temple after slogging up the hill in 40 degree heat

Finally we hit Meybod village where we saw an old castle ruin, a caravanserai dating back to the silk road, and the ice house which was definiately the best part. The ice house is a domed, thick wall structure where ice was stored during the winter months and enjoyed during the hot summers, basically it was a massive freezer.

empty pool outside the ice house, in winter these were filled every day with water and then the ice from the frozen pool was cut up and stored inside the ice house for summer
in the ice house

That afternoon we took a 5 hour bus north to our next destination- Isfahan…

Highlights of Yadz:

  • Free walking tour
  • Walking through the old quarter
  • The beautiful mosques
  • The water museum
  • Zoroastrian fire temple
  • Temple of Silence
  • Meybod Ice house

Backpacking Iran: Shiraz

Iran… wow, where to start?

We heard from other travellers that it was an amazing, hospitable country that was unrivaled for backpacking. After doing a bit of research we were sold and added it our travel itinerary. A week before we were due to fly to Iran seized a UK oil tanker, as well as this the US/the president was talking about Iran in a way we were nervous they might start something- we were pretty concerned and actually discussed not going in case the US bombed Iran etc. In the end we decided we would go, and I would make that decision ten times over.

There were a surprising amount of european backpackers (and even a few aussies) that we met whilst staying at hostels. We learnt whilst we were in Iran that it was forbidden for US, UK, and canadian nationals to travel through Iran unless they were on a government approved group tour.

Our route through Iran over 14 days

Iran was our favourite country of our trip, iranian people were some of our favourite people we have met, iranian food was some of the most delicious and surprising we have had. I can not recommend it enough, the only downside was the visa cost (150 euros each!).

Shiraz

We flew from Almaty via a 5 hour layover in Sharjah airport to arrive in Shiraz, Iran. We checked into our beautiful hostel ( Taha Hostel) with a courtyard, couches and chairs, and a koi pond in the middle of it at around 2pm, and after scoffing down some falafel we walked around the nearby area which was buzzing with people.

Shiraz is one of the oldest Iranian cities, with a vibrant culture of art and craftsmanship and a rich history, both of which are on spectacular display at the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, one of the most beautiful mosques in Iran.

Outside the mosque doesn’t look like anything special but once inside it’s so lovely. With stunning stained glass, painted tiles covering the ceiling and Persian rugs covering the floor, this place of worship is a gorgeous rainbow of color in every direction, like stepping into a kaleidoscope. It became known as the pink mosque because of a large number of pink tiles around the courtyard area, however it is most well-known for the interior of the mosque- when the sun hits the stained glass windows and illuminates the walls and floors with a rainbow of colours. The trick is to go first thing in the morning to catch the morning light.

As we were walking along the road to the next mosque we wanted to see we were approached by a lovely guy in his 20’s who asked where we were from and what we were doing in Shiraz. He told us he normally worked as a teacher and was on school holidays, and asked us if we wanted to hang out and he could show us around. Chris and I are SUPER suspicious of people talking to us now given that every short conversation seems to be a way to get us to go to someone’s shop or buy a tour or go to this guesthouse etc etc. This would be our first of many experience with genuinely friendly, interested locals wanting to chat and show us around! He was super nice, and he went with us to our next spot which was the Shāh-é-Chérāgh Mosque and shrine.

To enter this mosque complex I had to wear a chador (a chador is a body-length outer garment, usually black in colour, but mine was white covered in flowers provided by the mosque). We were shown around by a volunteer tour guide, he normally worked as an engineer but told us he loves meeting tourists and showing him the complex so volunteers once a week. . There was fantastic architecture in this holy mosque with very beautiful crystal mirrors ceiling. It has a dreamy atmosphere and it is easy to forget where you are or what you are looking at. 

We then headed out to Persepolis and Necropolis.

Persepolis is among the world’s greatest archaeological sites according to UNESCO. The city’s immense terrace was begun about 518 BC by Darius the Great (the first), the Achaemenid (Persia) Empire’s king to become the new capital of Persia. On this terrace, successive kings erected a series of architecturally stunning palatial buildings, among them the massive Apadana palace and the Throne Hall (“Hundred-Column Hall”). Unfortunately the city was invaded by Alexander the Great in 330 BC and they plundered the city and burnt down a significant area of it.

The gate into Persepolis

Naqsh-e Rostam (aka Necropolis) is a necropolis of the Achaemenid dynasty including Darius the Great used from approx 550–330 BC with four large tombs cut high into the cliff face. Well below the Achaemenid tombs, near ground level, are rock carvings with large figures of Sassanian kings, some meeting gods, others in combat.

On our way back into the city we stopped for a photo

The next day we went to the Citadel from the Zang dynasty which was constructed in the 18th century, it was ok but after seeing the mosques yesterday we were a little underwhelmed.

We exchanged some more money, nearby to the mosque to find that the exchange rate was completely different to the one we saw when we looked on currency websites. Don’t worry it was good for us! The exchange rate meant we got about 3 times more than we were expecting exchanging the US dollars we brought over. The small downside was that we had old US notes which meant they gave a slightly lower rate but what can you do!

In the early evening we walked to the tomb of Hafez which is the resting place of one of the famous persian poet- Hafez. The tomb is set in a small park complex which was full of couples enjoying what was a surprising romantic setting for a park set around a tomb but I guess it’s the soft lighting and all the poetry that did it.

We finished the day with an ice cream. Ice Cream is super popular in Iran and the streets of Shiraz (and all of Iran) were crammed with shops selling ice cream (usually soft serve). We discovered a local specialty with help from our teacher friend from yesterday’s recommendation. It’s basically a persian take on a spider. Freshly squeezed carrot juice and vanilla soft serve ice cream. I know how it sounds but actually it was pretty tasty! We ended up having more than one!

where to eat in shiraz food guide
image of carrot juice and ice cream borrowed from https://thecitylane.com/where-to-eat-in-shiraz-food-guide/, because I FORGOT TO TAKE A PHOTO!

Later the night we took an overnight bus leaving at midnight to Yadz and the adventure continues!

On another note- the hole in Chris’ shoe is getting bigger- he can no longer walk on wet ground without getting a soggy sock. He refuses to wear his runners, send help.

Highlights of Shiraz:

  • Nasir al-Mulk Mosque
  • Shāh-é-Chérāgh
  • Persepolis and Necropolis
  • Citadel
  • Hafez tomb
  • Carrot ice cream (local specialty)

Kyrgyzstan

After our amazing time in the Pamir’s we had arrived in Osh. This is one of the major cities in Kyrgyzstan home to around 300000 people. It was hot when we arrived which made a nice change from being half frozen in the mountains for the last week.

Hanging out on top of Sulayman Too in Osh

The highlight of Osh was definitely Sulayman Too. Although, the quintessential soviet era theme park would be a close second. This has been a historic pilgrimage site for centuries. Panoramic views were mixed with the call to prayer of several different mosques, making for a great place to take in the evenings. An interesting rock slide on the mountain is used by the locals to increase fertility. There were also claims it could cure back pain, though it seemed more likely to cause it.

A quick flight to the north landed us in the capital city Bishkek (previously Frunze) where we spent a night, including one last trip to a stolovya which had become our principal source of delicious but excess calories while in Russia and Central Asia.

A 4000 year old field of petroglyphs in Cholpon Ata

We set out on a two week tour of lake Issyk-kul (or as issy likes to put it, Issy’s cool). A marshrutka took us to our first stop of cholpon ata. This place was known for being a soviet holiday destination.

Since the fall in the late 80’s it has gone to seed, leaving behind massive abandoned hotels and a eerie feeling around the town It was a nice place to relax, and provided a more than adequate remedy to our long standing beach cravings, even including the traditional sunburn.

The beaches aren’t too bad for a landlocked country.

Karakol beckoned with the call of the mountains. We were surprised to find a new take on our favourite food noodles . Karakol is the home of Ashlan-fu, a cold noodle dish consisting of two types of noodles (rice and wheat), some spring onion, a little scrambled egg and doused in vinegar. These tasty bowls were everywhere, and went down a treat with a fried potato pancake. By the end of our time we had eaten more bowls of this than one lifetime needs.

Ashlan fu

After returning battered and bruised from our hike (see other post)we headed out to KolFest. This was a three day music festival located on the south shore of issyk-kul. The festival location was amazing.

Looking out from the main stage over Issyk-Kul

This was put together by some Germans, Japanese and locals, which made for a fun mix of cultures whilst double parking lagers and sake. We our time in the sun, swimming in the lake, drinking, eating and enjoying the music.

The acts were a mixture of local talent and international DJs. Notable acts were Alina, Kyrgyzstans premiere female beat boxer, Steppefish a Kazakh indie band (the best act of the festival), and Dj Dawee with his afrobeats. One memorable moment was on the final night when the entire festival sang a spirited rendition of ‘All you need is plov’ (The Beatles all you need is love, reimagined).

After the hike and Kolfest we were pretty beat up, notably Issys hiking wounds, and had to spend 4 days recovering around Karakol Here we went to Jeti-oguz, and managed to catch the 150th anniversary celebrations of the city, and demolish another 10 bowls of ashlan-fu (each)

Hanging out with the 7 Bulls in Jeti-Oguz

Leaving Karakol behind we went to Bokonbayevo for 3 days. This is a small village located on the south banks of Issyk Kul. From here we went to the fairytale (skazka canyon) and swam in the lake which is just incredible, clear, cool, deep. Perfect.

Issy looking cool with Isssyk-Kul in the background
Skazka canyon

We joined a locals picnic on a beach, and were plied with bottles of vodka in the early afternoon. Everyone we met in Kyrgyzstan lived up to their reputation of incredible hospitality.

Hanging out with the locals.

The following day we went to a traditional eagle hunt, where our new mate Lightning showed of his skills, including a particularly gruesome scene involving a rabbit.

Lightning, with his cap.
Lightning reaping the rewards of a days labour

Song-kul was next on our list, this is a high altitude lake is one of the major features in every Kyrgyz guidebook, blog, and travellers tale. We decided (optimistically as it turned out) to do a two day horse trek to reach the lake. About 1 hour into the day we both agreed that we had had enough.

Unfortunately for our bums, we had to ride another 8 hours over the next two days. Our horses seemed to understand our reluctance and took the chance to assert their authority, going at their own pace no matter how much we insisted otherwise. The yurt camp at the lake was pretty, but pretty cold, thankfully we had a constant supply of hot tea and bread.

Our camp for night one.
Issy with the family goat.
Looking back from the top of the pass.
Looking down into the valley, Songkul in the distance, rain on the way.

We got back to Bishkek, a leafy, modern city, just in time to watch New Zealand edge out India in the cricket. The ensuing celebration wrote off the next day.

Our final adventure after a month in Kyrgyzstan was white water rafting, The weather was getting seriously hot (38C) so the cool river was a welcome change.

Sadly, due to the nature of white water rafting, good photos don’t occur in the fun spots

We then spent a week in Almaty in Kazakhstan. A modern, european city, where we forgot to take any photos. we weren’t able to get out too much due to illness. But had a lot of fun exploring the city on the metro, and swimming in lake Sayran. The highlight was a crazy roller coaster in the dark on the hill above the city.

Ala-kul to Altyn Arashan (4 days, 3 nights hike)

Krygyzstan turned it up for us on this trek!

From the first few hours into this tramp we knew we were in for something special. We had done a bit of research on hiking before coming to Krygyzstan, with every traveller we had met in central asia telling us we had to have a go at trekking whilst we were here. In the end this 4 day hike won. The gorgeous valleys filled with idyllic meadows with grazing horses, glaciers, high-altitude Ala-kol lake, rivers, blizzards, and one near death experience made this the most amazing trek I’d ever been on. Not to mention the hot springs at Altyn Arashan to soak our tired legs at the end of day 3!

I’d never done much tramping in my life, with my first (and only) ever overnight trip being to Te Rereatukahia Hut in the Kaimai Ranges last year (which was awesome BTW if you are looking for a tramp to do in NZ), anyway, never to let inexperience and fitness get in the way of an adventure- we were going to do this 4 day tramp. We hired a tent, sleeping bags, and a gas cooker from ECOTREK company in Karakol town (our base town), and bought coffee/tea bags, oats, prunes/dried apricots, instant noodles, and 250g each of snickers and mars bars- now we were set.

Day One

We took a mashrutka (shared minibus) from the centre of Karakol town and were dropped off at the end of a road and told this was our stop.

Glacial waters raging

The day of the trek was easy and pretty chill with absolutely gorgeous weather, we walked up a 4 wheel drive track for 16km alongside a raging Karakol river, passing majestic horse filled meadows.

We stopped for lunch in a meadow listening to Nesian Mystic on our speakers as we ate some pastries we picked up that morning in town and Chris even managed to squeeze in a mid-afternoon siesta.

Chris pre siesta

After rousing Chris, we headed further up the road crossing the river and finally hitting the off-road track through bush.

I found a walking stick, despite making me look like someone who treks all the time sadly it did not make the walking easier

At 4pm we arrived at a nice clearing in an alpine meadow- campsite numero uno!

Camp spot for tonight!
GOOORRRRRMMEEEEEYYYYY

We played some cards, read our books, and tucked into the first of many instant noodles meals.

Day Two

The next day we started early, we walked up a steep incline and past a yurt camp where we bought a bottle of juice to reward ourselves. We found a gorgeous spot by a stream for breakfast- porridge, coffee, juice, and prunes. Gourmet!

We headed up and up the mountain after that, over an hour of climbing up along the river.

Stopped for a break to enjoy the view, and pose for a photo!
Chris doing his yoga on a rock

We arrived at the fabled Ala-Kul alpine lake by lunch time, and had about 10 minutes to eat our packet soup heated over our gas cooker before it started snowing/railing. The frozen lake was beautiful and massive (we couldn’t fit the whole thing in any of our photos), but when we started to snow harder we knew we had to get a move on so we wouldn’t get stuck there.

We had to walk out of the “crater” to reach a the top of the pass which would lead us to our next camp spot. Unfortunately once we hit the top of the pass the weather turned into a blizzard, the sky became very dark, the mountain top next to us was covered in cloud that was thundering and lightning was striking nearby. To make matters worse the path that people normally take down the pass into the other valley was non-existent, covered in snow and had disappeared. We couldn’t stay at the top with the terrible weather, the only way down was to try and scale the very steep, snowcovered “ridge”. So in our runners, shorts, and raincoats, with socks on our hands we climbed down backwards hitting our shoes into the snow then our hands into the holes we had made to grip on for what felt like dear life. After about 15 meters of this the ridge became less vertical and we figured our best bet was to slide the rest of the approx 200meters to safe ground on our bums. So thats what we did. Afterwards Chris said he had a fun time on the ridge and it was the highlight of the trip- I sadly developed an ice burn all over my bottom which would continue to burn, wept, graze up and then unheal again for the next week. If I was to do it again- I would probably wear pants.

Said ridge- the shot doesn’t really do the height or incline justice, just know I really did fear for my life.
Chris had a great time

It continued to snow and I was pretty miserable as we walked the last 2 km to the spot we planned to set up camp. We jumped straight inside the tent, ate noodles made in luke-warm water and the rest of our little chocolate bars we brought with us as the weather raged outside.

Day 3

The third day was quite leisurely compared to the previous day, we left our camp around 9am (after porridge and coffee) and walked down along this valley to Altyn Arashan, some rain, a very small town with about 6 guesthouses all boasting their own natural hot spring. By the time we made it in the afternoon we were completely soaked from the rain and pain the $5NZD for an hour in a private hot spring at a guest house to improve our spirits and wait out the weather.

Altyn Arashan

We made camp just out of town, gorged on some biscuits we had bought from a guesthouse, and later found these amazing river side pubic hot springs in the evening.

Dinner was of course, noodles again.

Day 4

Sick of being rained on and injured by this trek we woke up early, packed up the camp, and headed off on 15 km hike along the dirt/rock covered road along the river to escape back to civilisation.

I almost made it out without another injury, then I slipped on the road and landed on my leg- it later turned into a big graze which ran down my shin. We needed to get out of here, I was one more slip away from needing a Westpac helicopter rescue and lift out.

Eventually we hit the road! Happy day! In reflection it was an amazing trek, 4 days of hiking, alpine lakes, cooking on a little gas cooker surviving on noodles and porridge was a great experience, probably the highlight of our time in Kyrgyzstan- but as soon as we got out all I was thinking about was a shower and a beer.

We did it!

The Pamir Highway

Without a doubt travelling along the Pamir Highway has been one of the highlights of this trip from me. It was the ultimate road trip from Dushanbe, Tajikistan to Osh, Kyrgyzstan over 7 days in a 4 wheel drive with views you wouldn’t believe.

The highway cuts between Tajikistan and Afghanistan border and then into the infamous Wakhan Valley, flanked by the Pamir Mountains on one side, and the Hindu Kush on the other.

Image result for pamir highway map
Heres a map of our route from Dushanbe to Osh

The Prep

Before leaving on our trip (organised through the company VisitAlay) we were lucky to have our friend Christian from Germany who we had met when we were in Turkmenistan join us! It was great for the extra company and also meant the cost of the tour (which you pay for by the car) was now reduced by a third (yes!!!).

We were told by the company to bring water and snacks for the next 7 days (breakfast and dinner would be provided by the guesthouses we would stay in, and lunch could be picked up along the road). See below for what we took:

The beans and noodles were brought incase no vegetarian food for me was found, luckily they went uneaten on our trip. Surprisingly the alcohol also went undrunk!
28 litres of water together for Chris and I!

Day One

We set out with Christian and our driver Nabi in his white 4-wheel drive the next day from our hostel in Dushanbe. Just a note- We had a pretty cool hostel in Dushanbe with a cool view, below is a picture of Chris’ evil-looking silhouette in our room (he’s definitely planning something terribly evil here).

It did not take long until we started to see some of the beautiful vistas we were told to expect…

Before long we stopped at an archaeological site in Hulbuk. Destroyed by the Gengis Khan and his crew, the remnants of this fortified palace have been undergoing excavation since 1951 and recently they have started reconstruction of the palace walls and even a minaret. The real highlight of this stop was the very enthusiastic curator insists on showing us around the museum, letting us hold thousands year old artifacts and showing us the best way to pose for photos with them, feeding us fresh apricots from the trees on the grounds, giving us flowers, and letting me hold the keys to the palace and unlock all the gates and doors (I felt very lucky).

Then an hour or two later- we made it to the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, which as you can see from the map above we would drive along for the next few days alongside the Panj River which was the divider between the two countries.

If you look under the “A” Afghanistan you can see a little NZ flag, clearly we are not the first kiwi travellers here!

We stayed the night in Kalaikhum village in a guesthouse right on the river.

Day Two

The next day we were off again. The road continues along the Afghan border with beautiful views and widens up in the Vanj valley with mountain views along the river, ending that day in Khorog City.

Funny story our friend Christian went off walking when we got here, taking pictures of the Afghan side of the river at the “river beach” he was apprehended by the local military and taken away for a few hours for questioning. He managed to sweet talk his way out of it, apparently he bonded with his captors by lifting weights and doing pull ups. In the end all he got was a slap on the wrist, a ride back to the guest house, and a cold dinner.

Issy, Chris, and Christian under the Tajikistan flag
Chris riding a goat, it was very tame.

Day Three

We visited two Fortresses the next day- one was sitting on the river, and the other a 12th century Yamchun Fortress rising from a platform of natural rock quite high up in the valley, walking to the edge of the fort and you had an amazing view of the Wakhan valley.

Chris doing “the worm” at the first fortress
The second fortress
Taking off, I decided to fly the rest of the way getting a little sick of the boys at this point

Further up the hillside are located the hot springs of Bibi Fatima with its crystal waters rich in minerals. We were told people travel from miles around to go to this “hot spring hospital”. I was expecting pools smelling of sulfur and outdoors like a small Hanmer Springs, however I was surprised to find these beautiful natural pool with green and white mineral formations. Gentle cascades of hot water spilled into the pool and there was no sulfur smell. Men and women are separated into completely different areas/pools, and you must go in naked.

So naked it was! When I went in there were some local women, and a mother with two children. One of the young woman was trying to climb into a little cave and grab some stones…

I took this sneaky photo of the spring, you can see the little cave on the right side

I later learned that this wasn’t your ordinary hot spring, Bibi Fatima springs is the place to go to boost fertility, and to double down after your soak you should go to pray for pregnancy. No wonder that young lady was trying so hard to grab some of the stones.

Day Four

This was taken out the front of our guesthouse that we stayed in

We followed the river Pamir all the way to Kargush checkpoint with the chance to admire the Big Pamir of Afghanistan with nomadic Afghan Kyrgyz caravans. At the Kargush pass we did a 3 hour trek to Panorama Ridge at 4800 meters altitude with stunning mountain scenery of Great Pamir on Afghan border on the top of pass.

Afterwards we took a little side trip to see some more alpine lakes and the boys enjoyed a plate full of fish and onions each from one of the lakes. It was a smelly car ride after lunch.

Day Five

Day 5 was pretty chill, we had a bit of a sleep in and then the boys went for a half hour ride on yaks around a field haha.

Next we headed to Karakul lake with the highest pass Akbaital (4655 m) in Tajikistan.

Chris was not 100% at this altitude
Karakul lake

Day Six

After breakfast we headed to the border crossing to cross into Kyrgyzstan, and headed up to the Lenin Peak Base Camp in the mountains.

We found a sheep called Christian at the border crossing

Once at the base of Lenin peak mountain we walked from our Yurt camp up to explored the mountain area by going up to Traveler’s pass at 4130 meters, it started snowing then hailing then snowing but then it stopped and Chris jumped straight into the snow.

Made it to Lenin peak base camp!!!

Day Seven

Driving to OSH! We were done! It was an amazing week, and we have soooooooooo many photos, wow! 10/10 definitely recommend this trip, it was the ultimate road trip!

Uzbekistan

After crossing the border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan- we were in! No visa required, no US dollars to appease the border controllers- too easy!

Uzbekistan is another Central Asian nation and former Soviet republic like Turkmenistan. It has a population of more than 30 million people, the majority of whom live in rural areas rather than in the cities and islam is the clear majority religion. The dress code here is conservative in a sense that shorts and mini skirts would definitely stand out, but jeans and uncovered hair is A-OK. It’s known for its mosques, mausoleums and other sites linked to the Silk Road. On our tour we would go to four areas- Khiva, Bhukara, Samarkant, and Tashkent (very very briefly Tashkent- more on that later).

Khiva

Khiva was an absolute pleasure to visit although we got off to a rocky start having arrived to the city straight from the border with no Uzbekistan currency and all the banks having closed. Our hotel (organised through our tour) let us put some chips and beers on to our room- the next we found out the packet of chips (imagine a very plain normal sized packet of ETA upper cut chips) cost $10 USD- we were sad, but of course paid our debts vowing never to buy chips from a hotel again!

This was taken after eating the “never to be mentioned again” chips. Chris’ face says it all- Issy is about to win- again! We must have played hundreds of games of Whists on this trip.

Khiva is a town that is famous for its long and brutal history as a slave trading post sandwiched in between two large deserts along the silk road. The name “Khiva” apparently came from when a man travelling through the desert fell from dehydration and exhaustion into the sand and his knife pieced through the ground and out sprouted water. He had discovered a well in the middle of the desert and exclaimed “Khi-wa!”- roughly translated to sweet water. (sadly the water in Khiva is now not safe to drink so we were buying our water in Uzbekistan)

We spent a day in Khiva explore the sights- minarets (I learnt these were big cylindrical structures usually part of a mosque), mosques, fancy palaces, and workshops. My favourite spot was the concubine house- where the ruler at the time kept his wives (up to 4 fabulous wives usually from important families) and his concubines (his girlfriends). It sounds like this house was something straight out of The Bachelor TV show- many ladies compete for the affections of the one guy, whilst bullying, gossiping, backstabbing (or even poisoning) where common affairs between the girls.

A friendly local (you could pay 50 cents for a photo with him)
A fruiting mulberry tree appeared!

A fruiting mulberry tree! These were everywhere, and provided shade and a tasty snack! They also the leaf of choice for silkworms whose cocoon unravels into silk. The silk that was so amazing and so prized it had the great road running from China to Venice named after it (hint: the silk road).

Don’t worry I’m still as cute as ever

Khiva’s food speciality that we tried were dumplings! They told us egg dumplings and spinach dumplings were worth the try. I think this is the first vegetarian speciality we were recommended so naturally…

We had a very fancy cup-shaped tomato salad as well

Bukhara

A man, his donkey, and Chris

A short 30 minute flight later we were in Bukhara. Bukhara was one of the major trading cities along the Silk Road, we stayed in “the old city” which was an area of about 1.5km squared of preserved old buildings, roads, parks, and my favourite… minarets.

One of the initiatives taken by the Uzbekistan government is that merchants of certain crafts can sell their wears more or less tax free, and set up inside and around famous city monuments. It was quite surprising to enter these beautiful mosques, old caravan accommodations, and Islam schools to find stores set up all around selling everything from silk cloths, clothes, metal works and jewelry, and even old soviet antiques.

It was HOT in Buhkara and I became obsessed with soft serve ice cream- I had to have at least 1 (or 2) a day to survive. We were lucky that they had one soft serve machine every 50 meters in the old city- clearly this is a common ailment in Buhkara- so I can report that I made it.

Hats and soft serve ice cream were a necessary to survive here

We went to a cultural show before dinner one night which turned out to be national regional dances of Uzbekistan interperst with small fashion shows. The dancing was really impressive and interesting- the fashion show was not quite as engaging. Still we love a good show!

We decided that the most famous monument of Buhkara looks like a pepper grinder, what do you think?
Do you see it now?

Samarkand

We took the train to Samarkand. Samarkand is ancient, we were told it was founded originally in 6-8th century BC. It has been conquered by Genghis Khan and his crew, Alexander the Great, the persians, turks etc. Unlike Khiva and Buhkara the ancient sights were spread far throughout the city, and also unlike the previous cities- I got sick (don’t ask).

Chris told me they went to lots of cool places, here are the photos:

There’s grass on the onion domed roof of this mausuleum from birds pooing on it, they have to clear it away a couple of times a year otherwise the tiles get damaged
Apparently uzbek government spent an exuberant amount of money to restore the inside of this mausoleum with more than 10 kg’s of gold left to decorate this room

Then he went to the Registan. The registan square was the heart of the ancient Samarkand where locals would gather to here the latest proclamations, what was in the news, and public executions. The complex is made up of three big buildings.

A very nice ceiling

Chris dragged me out for a night viewing of the Registan- it was lovely all lit up!

Tashkent

Well. We took the train to Tashkent and had planned to stay and explore the city for a day or two, unfortunately not everything goes to plan. We had to fly last minute to Tajikistan (the next country) for visa reasons, so we spent a very pleasent evening have drinks with some people we had met on our trip, a very brief swim in the hotel pool (it was freezing, how is that possible when its so hot during the day??), and then at 7am the next day we took our taxi to the airport. So we have no idea what Tashkent is like, someone will have to go and let us know!!

Stay tuned for the next country- visa dramas, beautiful vistas, new friendships, and russian dance music…

This post is mostly for Nana who kicked my butt about getting another post up 🙂