Turkey: The West

After a night or two in Fethiye we packed our bags and jumped on a bus to our next destination, Pamukkale. Pamukkale is one of the top tourist pulls in Turkey, for good reason! We arrived in the late afternoon to the small township and were awestruck by the size of the white mountain reflecting the evening back at us. We didn’t get a chance to explore that evening but the next morning we were up bright and early to check it out.

We were in for a treat. A quick read of the signs told us the basics

  • The name literally means “cotton castle” in Turkish.
  • Pamukkale is located nearby the spa town of Hierapolis, at the end of the 2nd century B.C.
  • It has a rich history as Hieropolis was once an important religious epicentre following the acceptance of Christianity by the emperor Constantine and his establishment of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) in 330 A.D.
  • Pamukkale was formed when a spring with a high content of calcium bicarbonate cascaded over the edge of the mountain cliff, which cooled and hardened leaving white-coloured calcium deposits and aquamarine mineral-rich water.


What these signs left out is the contemporary draw of the place which is that Pamukkale one of titans of people watching in our global society. We spent quite an enjoyable morning watching people flaunt themselves and flout the law in sake of the perfect ‘gram in the serene backdrop of the cotton castle.

The best
… and the rest

On top of the hill of Pamukkale sits the old Spa town, which was a little emptier.

TBT

getting amongst

From Pamukkale we headed back to the coast. Izmir is one of Turkey’s major cities. We spent a few days here and enjoying the hostel and walking around the old city streets. We also experienced a fighter jet air show, which once we realised what was happening turned out to be quite the experience.

One of the main attractions of Izmir (and Turkey in general for everyone over the age of 55) is the ancient city Ephesus. This is a short train ride from Izmir, delicious baked goods being sold on the train once again reaffirmed our position that trains are the best way to get around.

Theatre of Ephesus
Library of Cesius

Ephesus It was built in the 10th century BC on the site of the colonists. It flourished during both Hellenic and Roman times. Some of the other draws of the city are. Site of the temple of Artemis, Library of Celsius, the large theatre (seats 25000) and it is stepped in early Christian history.

Busiest library in Turkey
It’s still a city to this day

We explored the city, which actually felt like a bustling metropolis! And headed back to Izmir.

The next day we boarded another bus and headed North up the coastline to Canakkale. This is the major city on the south entrance to the Dardanelles, and the stepping off point to the Gallipoli peninsula. This is also near the (purported) site of ancient city of Troy.  

Trojan horse – Not the original

After a long day in the bus and a delicious kebab on chips on the water front, we spent a night in a hostel we set on a tour of the Gallipoli peninsula.

We went with a Tour that we had organised through our hostel (ANZAC hostel). This proved to be an excellent choice. The tour guide was a wealth of knowledge about the campaign and other historic events like Xerxes pontoon bridge and the Turkish independence war. We started with a lecture, then crossed the Dardanelles and spent the day going to the historic sites and cemeteries.

Lone Pine

After the sombre day we were ready to go elsewhere. The next day we caught a bus up to our final stop. Istanbul.

We spent a week in Istanbul and had a fantastic time. We visited the main attractions, the Hagia Sofia, blue mosque, Taksim, Galata tower.

Sheep on the streets of central Istanbul
Hagia Sofia
Bosphorus feat. seagulls

On a tour of the Tokapi palace (which was where the early sultans lived) we learnt about the reason the sultans had such large harems. It was so that they could have as many eligible heirs as possible, who could learn the cut throat business of leadership by competing against siblings for the throne. This survival of the fittest approach had a high number of victims.

Basicilia Cistern, an old water underground reservior, now site of concerts
Our favourite spot for a cup of tea

We visited a few museums, but were particularly impressed with the Archaeological museums, the age and scope of some of the collections was incredibly impressive. We attended a pub crawl, which was an interesting insight into the nightlife but left Issy a little lacklustre the next day.

Pickle market– Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Issy looking at the Hagia Sofia
Fisherman
Interior of the Hagia Sofia.
Turkish delight. Much less polarising than the one in a favourites box
Egyptian obelisk, in the main square.
Dolmabache palace. Under restoration sadly. This is a worldwide scaffold covering trend.

Some other sights of interest was the Dolmabache palace, where the sultans moved in later years, but accidentally bankrupted themselves and couldn’t even pay for furnishings and lost control of the state earning the empire the title of ‘the sick man of Europe’.

Jellyfish, Asian? European? who knows?

We also checked out the markets, went to the Basilica Cistern, ferried across the Bosporus, drank a copious amount of tea, ayran and ate altogether way too much. We left Istanbul at an early hour on a flight to London.

Galata Tower
See you in the UK!

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)

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!