A Travellerspoint blog

Yazd, Iran (5th - 8th September)

In Yazd we stayed at the Silk Road Hotel. We'd read some reviews online where people had booked to stay there, turned up, but then been moved to one of the other hotels owned by the same people instead (some of which don't have great reviews). This slightly put us off booking there, but it was difficult to find anywhere else in Yazd that sounded as good and reasonable, so we took the risk. Happily it paid off and we did get to stay at Silk Road. Although it's called a hotel it's generally described as being more like a hostel. I guess it is more like a hostel than a hotel, but it's not really like a hostel either. I'd say it was most similar to the riads we stayed at in Morocco. It was a beautiful traditional-style place, with bedrooms located around a central open-aired courtyard. Our room was nice and the ensuite was one like we'd had in Fez; where the shower's just in the middle of the room, not in its own cubicle. That was the same everywhere we stayed in Iran, with the exception of Tehran. They supply you with plastic slipper things though, so you can keep your feet dry when going to the toilet after the shower's been used.

The hotel courtyard:
large_P1060050-small.jpg

Ooh, another innovation we discovered in Iran (though have since seen in Russia too), which we thought was genius, was having buttons on tables in restaurants, which you press to call a waiter/waitress over. So simple, but it means you don't have to wait around or try and catch someone's eye when you want to order or get the bill.

Anyway, back to Yazd... Yazd was ridiculously hot. All of Iran was hot, of course, but Yazd was the hottest place we went. This meant we spent quite a while lounging around in the shade in the hotel courtyard. And eating ice-cream.

The main attractions of Yazd are probably the Jame Mosque (AKA Friday Mosque) and the old town area. The old town area's really nice to walk around - lots of narrow winding pathways with mud walls. We did, however, read that it's not a good place for women to walk around on their own in the dark, as they're liable to get groped by men on motorbikes, so we stuck to a daytime walk together!

The old town:
large_P1060060-small.jpg

One of the best places we went to in Yazd was the museum right next to the Jame Mosque. It's just the one small room filled with various artifacts, which wouldn't be worth a special mention on its own, but the guy who works there is brilliant. He guides you around all the artifacts, explaining what they are. The most impressive thing in there is this long thin piece of paper that has the entire Qu'ran written on it in tiny writing. It's written in a decorative pattern as well; it's incredibly intricate.

After you've finished looking at all the artifacts, the curator guy will give you a free Persian lesson, which was fun. You go through it quite quickly, so we didn't actually retain any of the information, but it was still really enjoyable. The guy also likes to learn about where you're from and will ask questions about your country and culture. If you're in Yazd, you have to go. It's not free but it's pretty cheap.

One of the best things about staying at the Silk Road was that they had a really good food menu which you could order off at any time. It had quite a few veggie options too, so we just ate there every night. The breakfast was good too - a buffet that wasn't as extensive as the Tehran hotel but was still a decent selection (and far better than the minimal breakfast in Shiraz).

There's a travel agency that operates through Silk Road, offering tours and such like. We considered taking a half-day tour of Yazd with them, but it was about $20! That was about what we paid for the Persepolis and Necropolis tour, which was decent value for that, but not for a trip around Yazd. We just looked around ourselves instead. However the agency were useful for booking our onwards bus to Esfahan. They were better than the agency in Shiraz, who provided us with minimal info - this time we got tickets printed out for us and were told which company we were travelling with and everything.

On the day we left we got a taxi to the bus station. It was slightly unclear as to where we were meant to catch the bus from, but some people pointed us in the right direction. We had a VIP bus for this journey. These are slightly more expensive (as the name would suggest), but still cheap by European standards. The seats are bigger (only 3 on each row - 2 on one side, 1 on the other) and you get given snacks on board, which is nice. We were sat right at the front, so had a good view out the windscreen. We also had a good view of the driver, which was entertaining. Although he was sat below a sign that indicated no smoking and no mobile phone use, he managed to do both simultaneously, whilst also driving the bus. It was impressive and troubling at the same time. He also managed to make himself cups of tea while he was driving - it was fascinating.

Posted by chantalpatton 05:17 Archived in Iran Comments (0)

Shiraz, Iran (2nd - 5th September)

After arriving in Shiraz and collecting our luggage, we were making our way towards the taxis when we bumped into a French couple we'd very briefly spoken to in the airport in Tehran. Jamie asked where they were heading to, thinking that we could maybe share a taxi if it was relatively close to where we were staying. They turned out to be staying in the same hotel as us! Perfect.

We stayed at Sasan Hotel. It was... adequate. Definitely the worst of the hotels we stayed at in Iran. Largely because they were undergoing renovation, so it was a bit of a mess and full of unpleasant fumes. The smell was so bad on one afternoon that we couldn't stay in our room; we had to go out for a while until the workmen stopped. It might well be nice once it's finished, but it wasn't really fit for guests while we were there. The staff were really nice and helpful though, so that redeemed it a bit.

Breakfast was included at all the hotels in Iran. I forgot to mention the one in Tehran, but it was pretty extensive. It was a huge buffet of stuff, hot and cold, plus you could request fried eggs and omelettes from the chef. It was then quite a stark contrast to get the breakfast in Shiraz. You were served a hard-boiled egg, some bread, a cheese triangle (Laughing Cow type stuff), a bit of butter, a bit of jam and some tea (no option of coffee). This turned out to be a fairly standard thing, but after the bounty of the Tehran breakfast it was quite disappointing.

Shiraz itself was kinda like a smaller and less crowded version of Tehran. The main reason we were there though was to visit Persepolis, which isn't far from Shiraz. So on our first day in Shiraz we went to one of the agencies offering tours of Persepolis and Necropolis and booked one for the following day. We also used them to book our onwards bus tickets to Yazd.

We then made our way to Shah-e-Cheragh Mosque. Women can only enter if they're wearing the chador (the big cloak type thing that covers your whole body). Now, when you see women walking around in the chador generally, the chador tends to be black. However, the ones that are given out to you to use at the mosque, if you don't have your own, are basically just bed sheets - light coloured and with chintzy patterns. How you're meant to walk around with one of those wrapped around you and not find the whole thing amusing is beyond me. No offense intended, but the temptation to pretend to be a ghost was almost overwhelming. Sadly you can't take photos in there (though Jamie managed a sneaky one of me on his phone). We had a walk around the mosque and visited the small museum inside as well. It was good fun, though largely because of my awesome bed sheet it has to be said. I was almost sad to have to deposit it back at the entrance. After that we went to the Tomb of Hafez (famous Iranian poet). It was really busy - we thought there might be some kind of special event going on, but it seemed like they were all just wanting to pay their respects.

The next day was the tour of Necropolis and Persepolis. We were picked up early from our hotel and got on to a minibus with our fellow tourists. There were people from a variety of countries, including a guy from England. It was nice to see a fellow Brit had made it to Iran.

We went to Necropolis first. It was a very bumpy journey in the minibus, so I was relieved to get there and get out. We only spent about half an hour there, I think, as there's not a huge amount to see, but what there is is stunning:

large_P1060003-small.jpg

We then made the short journey to Persepolis. Persepolis is much bigger, so we spent a few hours there. Our tour guide took us around a few areas, explaining what things were, then we were free to roam around ourselves for a while. It was definitely a highlight of our time in Iran, walking round and taking it all in. Although we were also an attraction ourselves, apparently. So many people said hello to us there and asked where we were from etc. The English guy got stopped for a few photos as well. I think the fact that he was ginger made him a particular rarity or something.

Persepolis:
large_P1060036-small.jpg

Travelling back to Shiraz we went on a full-sized coach along with a lot of Iranians. The tour guide encouraged the Iranians to sing (not that they needed much encouragement) and he was then trying to get us all up and dancing. The Iranians were well into it all, but us Europeans were much more shy and reserved. It was good fun though.

That evening we went for a walk to a park that was meant to be really nice, but we got there to discover there was a fairly high entrance fee so we gave it a miss. For dinner we went to the same place we'd gone to the previous day, as we'd really liked it. I think it was called Arabat Cafe. They did a really nice veggie pasta - it was basic but you got loads and it was cheap.

The next morning we got a taxi to the bus station. When we'd booked our tickets through the agency, they said we just needed to collect and pay for our tickets at the bus station, so it sounded like it should all be quite straightforward. However we got there to find that the bus station was rather large and there were various kiosk windows for different bus companies, all with text in Persian, so we had no clue where it was we were meant to go. The agency hadn't even told us which bus company we were booked with. Thankfully we were there pretty early, so we weren't too rushed or panicked, but still, we wandered around in a confused manner for a few minutes. As always in Iran though, you don't need to look lost and confused for long before someone will come and ask if they can help you. A few people crowded around us and asked where we wanted to go. They quickly got us to the right place for booking tickets to Yazd and showed us how the process works and where and when we needed to board the bus. It wasn't the one that we'd been pre-booked on to, as it was half an hour later, but as we'd not paid for that yet anyway it didn't really matter.

As we were booking quite last minute, we weren't allocated seats next to each other, but an English-speaking guy on the bus made sure that we got to sit together anyway, which was nice. The bus was only about haf full anyway, so not totally sure why we weren't given adjacent seats. The bus ended up leaving about half an hour late - supposedly because it was half empty and they were waiting for more people. The whole system seemed pretty flexible and relaxed - people would request to get off in random places and other people would flag the bus down and hop on in random places, paying cash to the driver. There were some proper designated stops as well, of course, but it was a very different experience to riding on the National Express or something!

Posted by chantalpatton 06:30 Archived in Iran Comments (0)

Tehran, Iran (30th August - 2nd September)

As our plane landed in Tehran, all the women started putting their headscarves on, so I followed suit. I was already wearing a top with long sleeves, so that was fine. As a visitor to Iran, the need to follow the Islamic dress code is definitely the biggest difference to visiting most other countries. For men it's not really an issue, just avoid shorts and you're fine. Women, however, need long sleeves (though 3/4 length seemed fine) and a headscarf. My main headscarf was one I got cheap in Primark, though I did also use a pink sarong as a headscarf a few times too. It took a while to get used to, wearing a headscarf all the time, especially with it being so hot, but putting it on becomes quite natural, strangely. Plus I didn't have to bother with straightening my hair - that was a bonus. Plus I only needed sunscreen on my face - so it did have some practical benefits. Seriously though, although it's law to dress a certain way, it's not as strict or restrictive as you might imagine. Some women will cover up more fully with the chador, but lots of women dress very stylishly - much more stylishly than me (not that that's difficult). Plus your headscarf doesn't need to cover all of your hair - some women had quite a lot of hair showing at the front of their heads. It was a lot more relaxed than I'd expected. Wearing tops with long sleeves was slightly awkward for me, just because we're mostly visiting hot countries and my travel wardrobe's suitably skewed towards short sleeves (or no sleeves). I did have one long sleeved top, which I bought during our break in the UK (and which I've actually worn as a dress in other countries - it's a decent length), but I figured that wouldn't be sufficient for nearly 2 weeks in Iran. So when we were in Sofia I went looking for a long sleeved shirt that I could wear over the top of my regular t-shirts. This was more difficult than I'd expected - I'd not realised that 3/4 length sleeves would suffice, plus I didn't want anything too fitted or short, as I'd read that tops should go over your hips - I assumed this was to hide the womanly curves of your waist, but plenty of women in Iran wore clothes that cinched at the waist, so I was slightly over cautious in my shirt shopping. I ended up buying a shirt that I didn't really like, which was a few sizes too big for me, just because it met the modesty criteria. It wasn't awful, it was just a plain white shirt, but it did have poofy shoulders that made me look like I was wearing shoulder pads. Ugh. Anyway, the prescriptive clothing thing's not a big deal, at least on a practical level - I'm not going to start a debate on it from an ideological or feminist perspective - as a visitor to their country I was happy to conform.

The best thing about visiting Iran, without question, is the people. The friendliness, kindness and helpfulness of Iranians was amazing. If we looked remotely unsure of where we were going or what we were doing, someone would offer to help. And it wouldn't be an attempt to extract money from us, like it tends to be in a lot of countries, it would be a genuine desire to help us out. Walking down the street we'd feel like celebrities as random people would say hello to us - including people riding past on motorbikes. Some people would also engage us in longer conversations - usually asking where we're from and what we think of Iran and the Iranian people. The people we met were very keen to stress how much they like people from other countries and how the image and actions of their government don't tend to accurately represent the Iranian people. They did seem pleased by the recent electing of Rouhani, however, as he has more liberal leanings than previous presidents. But yes, we definitely felt like celebrities. Kids would either stare at us open-mouthed, in that lack-of-self-awareness way that kids do well, or they'd get really excited and say 'hello' repeatedly to us until we said it back. Weirdest though was when we got people asking to have their photos taken with us. They wouldn't even chat to us or anything, they'd just want a photo with the tourists. Surreal.

Anyway, back to the specifics of our time in Tehran. After going through passport control etc. and then getting some money exchanged, we wanted to get the bus that goes to one of the metro stations so that we could then take the metro to our hotel. We'd read about it online in advance and were led to believe it runs quite regularly. Anyway, we followed the signs to where it looked like the bus should go from and waited around. A couple of other people were hanging around too, which was slightly reassuring. However, after a while of waiting and no bus turning up we were starting to wonder if we were in the right place. Thankfully one of the other people waiting filled us in - the bus would only leave when there were enough people wanting to use it. As there was just the 4 of us, we'd have to wait a while. So, to save our legs, we went and sat down inside for a bit. I'm not sure how long we waited in total - definitely over an hour - maybe close to 2 hours even. Anyway, the Iranian guy who'd filled us in on the situation carried on talking to us and introduced himself as Ehsad. After we were all sick of waiting for more people to take the bus, we walked around a bit and found out we could share a taxi between us and it wouldn't cost much more than the bus would, so that's what we did. We got a taxi to the metro station and then the metro to our hotel. Ehsad even paid the metro fare for us. He also gave us his contact details and said that he'd show us around Tehran the following day if we liked. Just a few hours in the country and we'd experienced so much kindness already.

Iran was much more developed as a country than I was expecting. Not that I thought it would be all desert and caves or something - I'm not some naive xenophobe - but I thought it might be more similar in feel to either Morocco or Cuba. Instead it was much more similar to Turkey and the other Eastern European countries we'd just been visiting. It was a very natural progression and not too much of a culture shock.

We stayed at Escan Hotel in Tehran. It was the most expensive place we stayed in Iran, by quite a bit, but it wasn't expensive really - just comparatively expensive. Hotels in Tehran were generally more than in other cities, plus we were limited by who replied to e-mails and weren't fully booked. It was quite a fancy hotel by our usual standards. There was a man who opened the front door for you (this is my definition of fancy). Our room was nice, with a regular ensuite - toilet, shower cubicle and sink. We had some problems with the toilet though - we flushed it one time on our first night and it wouldn't stop filling back up. Thankfully Jamie figured out how to stop it, otherwise the bathroom would have flooded. We reported it to reception but they didn't do anything about it that evening, so we mentioned it again the following morning. When we got back that evening it was working fine and we had no further problems, so that was a relief.

The only other minor issue we had at the hotel was the overly-keen maid! We came back up after breakfast one morning and she'd just been in to clean our room. I'm using a carrier bag for putting my dirty clothes in and I'd left it out in our room. It was next to all my other belongings, I'd not put it anywhere prominant, but for some reason the maid (ugh, I don't really like that word but I'm not sure what else to use - housekeeper??) assumed that I wanted her to wash the clothes in it. Thankfully we saw her before we went back into our room and she checked with me that the clothes were for washing. I was totally confused to start with - why did she have a bag full of my clothes? I was worried she'd washed them already and I'd end up with some huge bill for it all - the laundry was priced per item and the bag was quite full. A confusing attempt at conversation ensued. She didn't speak English and was wanting to verify she should take the clothes for washing. I didn't speak Persian and was keen to get my clothes back, plus baffled as to why she'd taken them in the first place! She phoned the receptionist from our room so that she could act as translator. This was a good idea but for some reason the receptionist struggled to understand me. She asked me if I wanted laundry doing - 'yes or no?'
I said 'no.'
She said 'What? Yes or no?'
I said 'no,' again.
She said 'Nine?/Nein?' (not sure which)
I said 'no.'
She said 'Can you speak English please?'
I said nothing for a few seconds. I was baffled as to what else I might have been speaking and how she was unable to understand the word 'no,' particularly when she'd preceded it with a question that specified a 'yes or no' response. I said 'No, I do not want my clothes washing.'
She paused like she still didn't really understand me, then asked me to put the housekeeper back on. Thankfully the housekeeper then went away and left me with my dirty clothes. I re-read the hotel manual thing afterwards and verified that the laundry service is meant to involve you filling in a request form and phoning someone to tell them; not just leaving dirty clothes in a carrier bag in your room. I guess she was just trying to be helpful, but still, bit of a palava. We think she also took some coins of ours from the bedside table. Maybe she assumed they were a tip or something, though they were worth practically nothing.

Anyway, on that first night we arrived at the hotel, we just went down to the hotel restaurant for dinner. There'd been a menu in our room and we'd spotted some veggie pasta on it, so figured Jamie could have that. However, we got down to the restaurant and discovered that those pages weren't in their menu. We didn't want to get up and leave though, so Jamie had 2 starters instead (none of the main courses were vegetarian) and I went for a traditional kebab dish, which was really good.

On our first full day in Tehran we met up with Ehsan. He came and met us at our hotel. First off we walked to the Jewellery Museum, which he wanted to show us. This was our first proper exposure to the roads and driving styles in Iran. The amount of traffic is immense, particularly in Tehran. There are cars and motorbikes everywhere, weaving in and out of lanes and looking generally chaotic. They all seem in control though - we didn't witness any accidents. Pedestrian crossings aren't really a thing though - you get the occasional one, but mostly you have to just walk out into the road. You can look for a brief gap between cars, but there's never much of one, so you just have to trust them to avoid you. It's quite intimidating to start with, so it was good that we had Ehsan to guide us.

We got to the Jewellery Museum to discover it wasn't due to open for a few hours, so we headed further down the road and ended up popping into a museum about the Iranian postal service. Ehsan hadn't been there before but it was cheap and we thought we'd check it out. It had a few interesting bits, plus Ehsan and Jamie enjoyed identifying all the flags on the top of the display cabinets. Also, while we were walking around, one of the staff members brought us a little sandwich each, which was really sweet.

After that we headed to the palace, but the entrance fee was pretty high so we gave it a miss. We then went to the National Museum instead. That had a more reasonable entry fee, though on reflection it was still high for the size of the museum. It wasn't tiny, but it wasn't big. There were some nice artefacts in there though, including some from Persepolis.

To finish off the day we went to a coffee shop and had a drink and a nice long chat. It was a great introduction to the city and we were very thankful to Ehsan for giving up his time for us.

That evening we went to the Iranian Artists Forum for dinner. We'd looked it up online - it was vegetarian, sounded good and was just up the road from where we were staying. Perfect. Jamie ordered a platter type thing that included lots of different little bits of stuff. I fancied a burger but wasn't sure if it would be filling enough on its own. Under the menu heading of 'sandwiches' there were burgers and hot dogs and stuff, but then there were also french fries, potato salad etc. We figured they were accompaniments for the sandwiches and should probably really be under a different heading, so I ordered a burger and also the Russian Potato Salad. I did get a slightly funny look from the waiter but didn't think anything of it. Have you guessed where this is going? Yes, I got a burger and I also got a Russian potato salad sandwich. And yes it was as strange as it sounds. I wasn't really keen on the burger either, but I ate as much as I could of both and Jamie helped me out with them too. To wash down my sandwich feast I'd ordered one of the non-alcoholic beers (Iran's a dry country) as I was curious as to what they'd taste like. It was kinda like shandy, but a really weak shandy, plus kinda different and not really beer like. Quite nice in its own way, but odd that it's made to look like beer. The drink that came with Jamie's meal, however, was just described as 'natural drink'. It turned out to be the same as the drink we'd been given a small glass of at the end of our meal in the restaurant the previous night. This time though, Jamie had a pint glass full of it. I've no idea what it was, but it wasn't pleasant. It tasted slightly medicinal, but not in a good way. All in all it was a bit of a disappointing restaurant experience, but maybe we just ordered the wrong things.

The next day we wanted to go see the Azadi Tower. We took the metro to Azadi Square and then made our way over to the tower. Unfortunately it's in the centre of a big motorway type junction area, so getting to it involves some scary road crossings. We actually made more than we needed to, just because we were scoping out the route to the domestic airport where we were needing to go the following day. Still, once we were at the tower it was surprisingly serene. There's a decent amount of space between it and the road, so you can switch off from the fact you're basically on a large roundabout.

Azadi Tower:
large_P1050986-small.jpg

After that we made our way to the Jewellery Museum, as we'd not managed to go the day before. It's not obvious to find, it's just inside a bank, so if we'd not briefly gone there with Ehsan I don't think we'd have found it. From the name 'jewellery museum' and Ehsan's explanation of it, I was just expecting lots of jewellery, so had quite low expectations to be honest. There is some jewellery in there, but 'Museum of Jewels' would probably be a better description. You have to go through a few security checks and leave your camera, phone etc. in a luggage check, but it's definitely worth doing. You know when cartoons show buried treasure and it's all elaborate gold and jewels? It's just like that! Our favourite was the gold globe with all the land mass represented in various precious stones. I overheard a guide say that it was one of the most expensive/valuable items in the world. We later found out that the items were unearthed from some kind of tomb in Persepolis.

That evening we decided to go back to the veggie place. Mostly for convenience, though I was looking forward to trying out something different and hopefully having a better experience. Pizza seemed like a good option. However we got there to find it was fully booked. They didn't give us the option of waiting or anything, they just said 'no tables'. There went that plan. We returned to the hotel in order to come up with a plan B. The hotel restaurant was a possibility, but Jamie would have been limited to just having starters again. There was also a coffee shop in the hotel though, just above the restaurant. I'd wondered if their menu might include the pages that were missing from the main restaurant's menu - the ones with the veggie pasta. We decided to give it a go and were pleasantly surprised to be right. Jamie had the veggie pasta and I had the chicken one (which seemed to be exactly the same, just with a few bonus chunks of chicken).

The next morning I had a dodgy tummy. Not sure what it was that had angered it, but it wasn't happy about something. I took some tablets for it which thankfully seemed to do the trick once they kicked in. We checked out of the hotel and made our way to the domestic airport. We'd considered walking from the nearest metro stop, as it wasn't far, but after scoping it out the previous day and noting all the crazy lanes of traffic we'd need to cross, we decided to get a taxi instead.

We had a little while to wait before we could check in, but that was nothing compared to how long we had to wait afterwards. Our flight was delayed due to some kind of technical difficulties. That was the only information we were given as well - no clue as to how long the delay would be for. I was very thankful that the diarrhea tablets had worked as there weren't any 'western style' toilets in the airport. Public toilets in Iran are basically a hole in the ground. As a woman I found that awkward enough when going for a wee - I dread to think how unpleasant it would be if you needed to use them for the other alternative. They do flush thankfully, but still, I was very pleased the tablets had worked!

While we were indefinitely waiting to board the plane, an Iranian guy started chatting to us. He'd already been waiting for hours as his early morning flight had been cancelled and then so had the one after that, so he was now waiting for the same flight as us. He kept going to check for any new information, plus he let us know when the airline provided us with our free meal to eat in the airport while we were waiting. We'd have been oblivious to that otherwise. He gave up after a couple more hours though and decided to try again the next day. It wasn't too long after that that we did actually get to board the plane, but still, I don't blame him for giving up.

Another guy helped us out at the airport too. We were worried that the hotel in Shiraz mightn't keep our room for us, as we were going to be arriving much later than we'd told them, so a guy helped Jamie buy and use a phone card so he could call the hotel and let them know we'd be late.

When we did finally board the plane and take off it was three and a half hours later than scheduled. Still, better late than never!

Posted by chantalpatton 08:19 Archived in Iran Comments (1)

Istanbul, Turkey (23rd - 30th August)

We got on the train in Sofia and found our sleeper compartment. We were with a French family who we got chatting to. We were allocated the bottom two beds but as the French family were wanting to sleep sooner than we were, we traded one bottom bunk for a middle bunk as then we could keep our beds as seats for a while longer. Unfortunately, when we did come to turn our seats into beds, we discovered that the middle bunk was broken. Jamie and I therefore got moved into a different compartment instead where we had to have the top 2 bunks. Still, at least we had beds and we could try and get some sleep. We managed a small amount but then got woken up at the Turkish border. Passport officers from Bulgaria came on the train and checked all our passports, which was fine. We then travelled on a bit further to the checkpoint on the Turkish side. At this point you have to get off the train to go through passport control, which we'd known about in advance. Also, thanks to some advice from Jamie's Dad, as well as a check on the Seat 61 website (which is very useful for train journeys in general), we knew that we needed to get a visa sticker before going through passport control. There's a visa window further down the platform and you need a £10 note (or a roughly equivalent amount in Euros or Dollars). That was quick and easy, then we joined the queue for passport control. Unfortunately this involved waiting quite a while as there weren't any border officers there. Even more unfortunately, Jamie felt ill. A border officer eventually appeared and started processing the queue, but Jamie was in a bad way. He had to temporarily leave the queue in order to go and throw up. That thankfully made him feel a bit better, plus he was back just in time for us to get our passports stamped. We then got back on the train and tried to get some more sleep. This wasn't really possible though as as soon as we left we had our passports checked again - I guess to make sure we had actually gone through passport control and hadn't just gotten back on the train. Fair enough. What did seem quite unnecessary, however, was checking our tickets again about 15 minutes later.They'd been checked earlier in the journey and our reservations had been handed in. Did they really need to be checked again? Especially in the middle of the night when we'd hardly slept? It also didn't help that one of the guys in our compartment couldn't find his for ages. He did eventually though, thankfully, then we were able to get more sleep.

I wasn't keeping much track of the time, but we must have just had about an hour and a half of sleep, if that, before it was deemed necessary to wake us up again. As there's some work going on with the Turkish train lines at the moment, the trains aren't running all the way to Istanbul, so we had to get on a bus for the last part of the journey. We were woken up about 30 minutes in advance of that. We assumed this timeframe was to allow us ample time to wake up and casually prepare ourselves for arrival. Wrong. As soon as we'd been woken up the conductor started taking our bed sheets from us. He literally pulled them out from underneath the Brazilian girl on the bottom bunk. The rest of us watched in amazement and then started gathering ours together. The conductor then started folding up any beds that people had gotten down from. He folded up the middle ones while I was still up at the top. I needed to stand on one of the middle ones in order to get down! Thankfully my compartment compatriots assisted me in my descent. I couldn't believe how rude the conductor was and how devoid of compassion he was for the fact we'd hardly slept. I mean, why did the beds even need to be folded away in advance of our arrival at the station? Ugh. Some overnight trains are pretty decent, but I'd advise against the one from Sofia to Istanbul.

On arrival at the station we made our way to the bus. Of course we couldn't all fit on it so we then had to wait for a second bus to arrive. Once we were finally on a bus we made our way to Istanbul. I think the journey was about 2 hours, though we tried to grab as much sleep as we could. Once in Istanbul we found a cash machine to take out some local currency and then took a tram to our hostel. We stayed at Stray Cat Hostel which was decent, though they only had a couple of cats, which was a shame, we were expecting more. Anyway, it was only breakfast time when we arrived, so far too early to check in. We were both really tired though and Jamie still felt ill so we spent a few hours trying to sleep on the sofa in the communal area.

When we were able to check in we were actually upgraded to a double room with a private bathroom (we'd just booked one with a shared bathroom), so that was a nice bonus. The hostel itself was decent - breakfast was fairly basic but sufficient, plus there was tea and coffee available all day. The staff were friendly and helpful and always checking if everything was ok. The wi-fi was a bit temperamental, but that's been pretty common on our travels so far. It doesn't reach up to the top floor, which we discovered later on when we were very briefly moved up there, but you can pick it up everywhere else.

Our original plan was to spend 4 nights in Istanbul and then take a bus to Ankara. We were only going to spend 1 night in Ankara as just needed to be there in order to get the train to Tehran in Iran. However, as Jamie was ill for our first few days in Istanbul, we changed our plans in order to have more time in Istanbul and actually get to explore the city a bit. So instead of spending 1 day on a bus to Ankara and then 2 days on a train to Tehran, we booked an additional 3 nights in Istanbul and then caught a flight to Tehran instead. The only downside of the change was that we'd already booked a non-refundable hotel room for our 1 night in Ankara, so we lost a bit of money there, but I still think it was worth it.

So, our first few days in Istanbul were mostly spent in our hostel room. As well as getting some rest and relaxation, plus Jamie recovering from illness, we also needed to sort some bookings for our time in Iran. This took quite a long time as it's a lot less straightforward than booking things in other countries, partly due to US sanctions and partly because online bookings aren't as prevelant in Iran. The things that we needed to get booked were our hotel rooms for the 4 cities we were visiting, plus an internal flight from Tehran to Shiraz. The flight wasn't too difficult to book, we just did it through an agency (specifically Persia Travel Mart). They were fairly quick at replying to e-mails and we got it all sorted in a couple of days. We had to make payment via Western Union (and also via Thailand), but that was easy enough and we got our flight tickets via e-mail.

Sorting out hotels was a bit more difficult. We'd use reviews on tripadvisor to determine possible places to try, but some of them didn't seem to have websites or any kind of contact details. Plus we'd e-mail some and not get a response. We ended up e-mailing any that we could (and which weren't really expensive) and hoping that we'd hear back from at least one in each city. Thankfully this paid off.

After our initial 4 nights at Stray Cat, we needed to move rooms for our additional 3 nights. Initially we were put up on the top floor in a private 5 bed room, as they seemed keen to upgrade us into better rooms than we were paying for. We moved our stuff in there after breakfast. It was a nice, quirky room. It was called 'seaview' but in order to see the sea you had to stand in a particular spot (marked on the floor) and crane your head out the window to the right. The only downside was the lack of internet. This didn't end up being a problem though as we got moved again that afternoon. We could have stayed in the big room, but mightn't have been able to keep it for the whole of our remaining time there, whereas we could move into the room we were actually paying for instead and not have to worry about moving again. It was a bit of a no-brainer really. The only annoying thing was that we got charged a higher rate for our last 3 days than we did for our first 4. Apparently because their Summer promotion had come to an end. Bit of a pain but nothing we could do about it. That's definitely a benefit of booking places online in advance - you have written confirmation of the price.

Anyway, enough of the pre-amble, you're probably wondering what Istanbul was actually like. Well, it's big, that's for sure - massive infact - so we only got to see some small parts of it. Some of the bits we did see were:

- Taksim Square and the main shopping strip that comes off of it. This was near to where we were staying, though you had to walk up a steep hill to reach it. It was very busy, especially at night, but a nice area to walk around. We went to a traditional restaurant up here too, which was nice, although Jamie's aubergine kebab came with some surprise chunks of lamb in it, which wasn't so good for him, but thankfully there was enough non-meat food on his plate to still be filling.

- The area around the Blue Mosque is probably the biggest draw of the city. We went there a couple of times - once during the day and once in the evening. The mosque itself is stunning:

large_P1050902-small.jpg

- We took a boat across the bosphorous, to and from the Asian part of the city (we were staying in the European part).

- Basilica Cistern. We got here not long before it was due to close, so we had to rush a little bit, but not too much - it doesn't take very long to walk around it all. It's an old underground filtration system, which doesn't sound very exciting, but it looks really atmospheric the way it's lit up:

large_P1050924-small.jpg

I'm sure we only scratched the surface of Istanbul really, but still, it was now time to head to Iran. We had a fairly early flight, but we could take the tram and then the metro to the airport, which was nice and straightforward (and cheaper than a taxi). One of the hostel staff misinformed us though, he said we'd only need 1 token each and we wouldn't have to exit and re-enter barriers between the tram and metro, which we actually did have to do. But still, that aside, the journey to the airport was fine. The airport itself wasn't great though - the queue for passport contol was huge. We then had a quick breakfast, slightly rushed to make the boarding time, but we then boarded late, queued for ages to get on the plane, then left late as well (unsurprisingly). Still, we were on our way to Iran!

Posted by chantalpatton 09:32 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Sofia, Bulgaria (19th - 22nd August)

Sofia train station isn't the best introduction to the city. As well as being quite run down and low on amenities, you get people hassling you and trying to get money out of you by claiming they've helped you out. We experienced this a couple of times, though refused to part with any money. However, we heard that other people had caved and handed money over. Some of those people were only in Sofia for a few hours in order to change trains, so ended up leaving with a very negative view of the city, which is a shame. It is a city that could do with some TLC, which was evident on our walk to our hostel - the pavement's in terrible condition - but it was a good place to spend a few days.

We stayed at Hostel Mostel, which was brilliant. We had a private room, which was really cheap. The private rooms are in a separate building, a few minutes walk from the main hostel building, but you get breakfast included (which has a decent array of food), plus every evening there's a free meal of pasta and a free glass of beer! The communal area's got a nice atmosphere too, plus a free pool table (albeit in quite bad nick). The staff are really friendly and helpful as well. The only minor quibble I had was the lack of air conditioning in our room - especially as it was very noisy if leaving the window open. But still, if visiting Sofia, Hostel Mostel's the place to stay.

It was quite early when we arrived, but we could pay a bit extra and get breakfast, so that saved us having to hunt for somewhere. We still had quite a bit of time to kill before check-in though, so we then went out in search of the Iranian embassy. Not as some random strange-form-of-fun thing, though I guess it needs some further explanation...

Visiting Iran has always been part of our travel plans for this year, though I've mostly avoided telling people, particularly family, as it's portrayed so negatively in the media and I didn't want them to worry (or try and convince me not to go). I'm actually writing this from Iran, though by the time I get round to posting it I'll have long since left, so if you are inclined to worry, no need, I'm fine - Iran was great, though that's a post for another time. In terms of getting our visas, the lack of an embassy in the UK at the moment meant that we couldn't sort them during our 2 weeks there. That wasn't a problem though. The first stage of the process is getting an authorisation number, which you can do online through an agency. You then choose which city's embassy you would like to go to in order to collect the visa. As we were going to be travelling across Europe in advance of entering Iran, we chose Sofia as a convenient place to collect our visas.

This might all sound fairly straightforward, which it should be in theory, though our personal experience wasn't quite as plain-sailing as we'd hoped. We applied online for our authorisation numbers when we were back in the UK. We used the agency iranianvisa.com who were recommended by Lonely Planet and therefore seemed like a safe bet. They got back to us about transferring the payment to them (it was €35 each for the authorisation numbers), which we did, then we should have gotten the authorisation numbers through in 7-10 working days. More than 10 working days went by and we heard nothing. I e-mailed them - no reply. Both Jamie and I e-mailed them again - still no reply. We checked their website one particular day and it was down. Oh dear. We did some online research and found lots of recent posts from people with similar experiences, calling the agency a con - they'd paid their money and then not heard from them again. We felt pretty gutted. We found a different agency to apply through instead, though as we were getting tight for time, we were looking at having to pay for the express service. We exchanged a few e-mails with them, over the course of a few days, checking that they could provide the numbers quickly enough, how much it would cost and how we should transfer the money. Then, on the day we were going to transfer the money, I got a reply to one of my e-mails to iranianvisa.com. I couldn't believe it! They apologised for the delay and said it was due to Ramadan. They said we should get our numbers around the 12th August. We were still doubtful but we didn't think it would be sensible to continue with our 2nd application and pay a lot of extra money when we mightn't need to. So we left our 2nd application and pinned our hopes on the first agency coming through. We really weren't too hopeful though, after a little while we started planning out an alternative way of travelling between Turkey and Russia. I think it involved taking in an additional 5 countries. It turned out unneessary though as we got our authorisation numbers! Yes, we got an e-mail saying they'd been approved. But was the e-mail from iranianvisa? No, it was from the 2nd agency - the one we'd not paid. Weird. A couple of days after that we also got an e-mail from iranianvisa saying that our application had been approved and giving us a different authorisation number. So from thinking that we mightn't get Iranian visas at all, it now seemed like we had 2 each!

So, the next stage, now we were in Sofia, was to go to the Iranian embassy with our authorisation number (we decided to use the one we'd actually paid for) and get our actual visas. We'd looked up the address of the embassy and it was pretty central - not too long a walk from our hostel - so we headed there whilst waiting for check-in. We found the building but it seemed like it was closed. The opening hours stated it should be open, but it all looked pretty run down and deserted. Thankfully I had enough credit on my phone for us to call them. After a bit of confusion we discovered that their offices had moved. Doh. A lot of websites should really update their information - especially as we discovered they moved 4 years ago! Their new offices were less central and really required a taxi journey. As they were now nearing closing time for the day, we decided to try again in the morning. We went back and checked in to the hostel and had a nice relaxing evening.

The next morning, after breakfast, the hostel called a taxi for us and we travelled to the current and open Iranian embassy. Thankfully there was someone who spoke English and he pulled up our authorisation numbers and got us to fill in an additional application form, plus hand over 2 passport photos. We had read we'd need 3 photos, plus I'd read that in women's photos they should be wearing a headscarf, so I'd gotten a set of 5 photos with headscarf taken in preparation. After handing them over, however, the guy said it wasn't necessary for visitors to be wearing the hijab in their visa photo and that they had a special exemption, so I could use some regular photos instead if I liked. I didn't have any other photos on me though, plus what else would I do with photos of me in a hijab? Anyway, the last stage was to transfer the money for the visas. We'd paid the agency for the authorisation number but now needed to pay for the actual visas. As we didn't have long in Sofia, we needed them on a next-day basis, so I think we paid extra for that. It was about €170 each, so not cheap. We had to go to a nearby bank and get the money paid in to a specific account then take the receipt back to the embassy. We were then told our visas would be ready for collection at 11:30 the following day and the guy kindly called a taxi for us to take us back to the centre of town.

We carried on this practical day by booking our onwards train tickets and then going to a big shopping mall to look for a new tablet computer for me. I mentioned before that my tablet died suddenly when we were in Barcelona. Happily in Sofia we found some pretty cheap tablets, so I got one for about a quarter of the price of my old one. I'm using it now to write this. It has most of the capabilities of my old one, but I've also come to appreciate why it was so much cheaper. I've not directly compared the specs, but this tablet is a lot slower and less responsive, especially when using the internet. This makes it quite frustrating at times, but it's still an adequate stand-in for these last few months of travel (I hope). I still need to use Jamie's netbook for uploading photos though, so if I post a blog and it's lacking in photos it's just because I've not had the chance to get them uploaded yet.

For dinner we went to Wok To Walk (which we'd actually done the previous evening too), then we went and did the free walking tour. It's very popular in Sofia, there was a big group of us and there was even a TV camera there for the first part. They maybe hype it up a bit too much though. It was decent enough, but it was lacking in the personal and quirky anecdotes you get on a lot of the other walking tours - I found it quite dry. There's a lot of historical information - you can't fault it on informative content - but it needed more of a fun element too really. There were a few fun things thrown in and it's definitely worth doing, but I've far preferred some of the other ones we've done. Still, the guide was really nice and at the end of it she invited any interested people to join her for food and/or drinks. About 9 or 10 of us went with her to this tucked-away pub and had a couple of drinks. That was really nice. One of the people we spoke to quite a bit was an American guy. He was from one of the central states but he was pretty liberal - he talked about how he doesn't really fit in with most of the people there. Despite his general open-mindedness, however, he thought we were crazy for planning to go to Iran. It's been interesting telling fellow travellers about our plans to visit Iran. People from most countries think nothing of it, but Americans and the British are prone to call us mad. It's definitely been a strong indicator of how negatively the country's portrayed in the American and British media.

On our last full day in Sofia we went back to the Iranian embassy to collect our visas. That was all nice and straightforward. The guy we'd been dealing with also talked to us for a while about our travel plans and then gave us a map of Iran (albeit one from 2004) and a DVD about the country. After that we actually walked back into town, stopping off for a while to get a cold drink (it was hot in Sofia, just like most places we've been since the UK). We had a relaxed evening then, enjoying the free pasta and beer at the hostel.

On the day we checked out our train wasn't until the evening, so we spent most of the day hanging out at the hostel and getting things researched and booked for some of our future travels. Jamie also nipped out to get us some Wok To Walk as well - our 3rd in 4 days, but the last place we'll get to have it on this trip. We then made our way to the station for our overnight train to Istanbul.

Posted by chantalpatton 05:02 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (1)

(Entries 26 - 30 of 63) « Page 1 2 3 4 5 [6] 7 8 9 10 .. »