Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.
|Thursday, October 02, 2003 07:10:22|
Central Asia 2003: 6 - Yerevan, Armenia to Rasht Iran
Friday, September 30, 2005
Marilynn returned from the dentist last night brimming with enthusiasm. He had been very gentle and she felt no pain at all. Unlike the dentist in Victoria, who slapped in the filling, he explaining that he had to reconstruct the tooth from the ground up rather than just fill it. Her bite is much more comfortable now and instead of over $300 she paid in Canada, his fee was $30. He had no change, so suggested she pay him the next day. When she said she would be gone he said to just pay the $25 she had in small bills. Eventually she did find some local currency, so at least got close to his fee.
Dinner was at a "medieval inn" type restaurant, with the décor in old Armenian style. There was an 8 piece traditional musical group playing. Dinner was not memorable, except for the quantity, but a couple of bottles of wine eased that problem. The guide wanted to take us to a jazz club after dinner, and while I'd have loved to have gone, we were all beat and I wasn't feeling that great. Roco was also down with a headache, and Jim was looking for his bed, so we didn't even sample the bottle of wine Brent had bought for a farewell drink. Instead we said our goodbyes in the hallway and headed for bed.
The driver picked us up at 7:30 AM. Marilynn and I had the whole van to ourselves, so I sprawled on the back seat and went back to sleep, apparently missing a spectacular sunrise over Mt. Ararat in the process. When I woke up we were driving through spectacular deep canyons through high hills.
Armenia (Armenians call their country Hayastan, and themselves Hay - pronounced "high" -people) certainly seems to be the most advanced of the three Caucus countries. The roads we were travelling on were good, something the others don't have, and road construction and repair was evident everywhere. There were very few animal drawn vehicles, where in Georgia this is a major form of transportation in the countryside. Wealthy Armenians from around the world have poured money into the country - one in the US donated $150 million alone. In addition many of the 7 million Armenians working in other countries are sending money home, and Armenians visiting the home country is a major source of tourism. Armenia has also maintained good relations with Russia, which has been a benefit in many areas. Its surplus of electrical energy has also been a boon to the country. Georgia was by far the poorest of the three countries, with almost no tourism. It was, however, the best to visit as a tourist in my opinion.
We made excellent time on the road until we turned south into very mountainous country towards Kapan and the Iranian boarder at Agarak. Kapan was obviously a very industrial city in Soviet times, with many big factories and a huge number of apartment blocks crowded into the narrow valley for miles. All of the factories were abandoned and in shambles. Although most of the apartments seemed to be occupied, there was no visible means of support for the residents.
As we headed deeper into high mountains we passed the seemingly prosperous town of Kajaran, where a huge open pit mine is still in production. Here we went vertical, climbing for miles until the houses of the town were dots and cars too small to be seen. Marilynn at one point gasped that it was breathtaking, but breathless would likely have been a better word as she'd been holding her breath for the previous half hour as we skirted cliffs on one switchback after another.
The mountains in this area are up to 4,000 meters high. The highest pass we climbed through was at 3,590 meters. The countryside was amazing, covered with a riot of fall colours in the forests. As we snaked our way through the area we passed a steady stream of tank trucks hauling gas from Iran. Over half our travel time was taken covering the last 20% of our journey to the border, which as predicted, took 7 hours.
There were lines of empty tank trucks and car carriers waiting to get through the very slow border procedure. We bypassed them as our vehicle was not crossing the border. They are no used to tourists here - no forms were in English, no one spoke English and no signs were in English. With the help of our driver, who also did not speak English, we completed the lengthy process to leave Armenia, including filling out a currency declaration form. I've filled them out before when entering a country, but never when leaving when there was no entry form!
We said goodbye to Hachek, our driver, and a kindly customs woman got us organized with a fellow who had a pushcart to take our baggage halfway across the bridge for $5. There was a fair bit of road before the bridge on the Armenian side, so when he unloaded his cart at the line in the middle of the bridge, we did not have far to take our gear to the Iranian checkpoint.
Soldiers on the bridge checked our passports, and insisted Marilynn put on her scarf and long raincoat, in spite of the heat. One of them then escorted us to the passport control, where it took a long time for someone to show up. When someone did show up, I was asked into the office with both passports - Marilynn was ignored. I then went to a second office, where I was told to sit down. Again Marilynn was left at the door, with no offer of a seat. This is a very male dominated place! At that point our guide showed up and we were escorted through customs to the car for the 3 ½ hour drive to Tabriz.
Our guide, Ali, had lived with family members in Spokane, Washington for 2 ½ years, and speaks quite good English. It seems I have a reprieve on the other four women, who are from the US and will meet up with us in Tehran in three days. Meanwhile, Ali seemed quite flexible and was a good source of information. When we stopped for a tea break alongside the road, Marilynn was delighted to find he didn't mind her disappearing into the orchard for a cigarette - women smoking in public is frowned upon.
The driver, Meghda, had a bit of a lead foot. I enjoyed that, but Marilynn was terrified. Both guide and driver were from Tehran, and did not know the area well. After a couple of wrong turns we made it to Tabriz. They were pulled over once and ticketed as the guide did not have his seat belt on. It is required that front seat passengers wear seat belts.
Tabriz is an industrial city of about 900,000 people, and what a difference from what we had been seeing, with all the factories and plants in full production and cars everywhere. There are many European, Asian and even Canadian firms here, where farm equipment and heavy machinery is manufactured for local consumption. Foreign companies are welcome on a joint venture basis, where the Iranian government owns 49% of them. The city was bustling, with cars everywhere. Driving here makes Costa Rica look tame!
It was interesting to learn that while Arabic is taught in the schools, Farsi is the language of the country with English as a second language taught from first grade. Road signs and some other signs were bi-lingual, in Farsi and English.
Once checked into our hotel it was off for dinner in a revolving restaurant at the top of a brand new, super deluxe hotel. We got lost three times getting there in the dark, and at one point went several blocks the wrong way down a one way street. This was quite exciting, as it was a busy street. The buffet meal was well worth it, with excellent international food offered - a change for which we were very ready. Marilynn was complaining about having to eat her meals dressed in scarf and long overcoat, and as she said this she poured saffron soup down her front. This did nothing for her mood, but it was good she had the raincoat on! It protected the rest of her cloths.
On our return to the hotel I went to plug in the computer and - disaster - no plug. I left the surge protector, computer plug and converter under the desk in the hotel in Yerevan. In the spring in Asia I had the plug and no computer, now I have a computer and no plug. I'll see if between the tour companies they can get it to me, and in the meantime use the battery for as long as it will last.
Thursday, October 2, 2003
Yesterday was another grinding drive of almost 8 hours. The car is small, the driver is big, and as a result both Marilynn's legs and mine need to fit behind the guide, who we have convinced to cram his knees into the dashboard. We did stop on occasion to let the circulation get going again. The trunk is also too small for all the bags, so we have a carry on in the back seat with us.
The cities and towns we passed through all had wide main streets with boulevards in the centre covered in lawn, trees and flowers. Lots of new freeway construction is underway. This part of the country place has a general feeling of prosperity. The people have been very friendly without exception, and stopping off to put air in the tires, get a pitcher of water or to use bathrooms without buying anything seems very accepted as a courtesy. Internet is quite common, with internet cafes in the cities and all major hotels having business centres with internet for guests.
We asked about religion. There is apparently no discrimination against the various religious groups living in Iran, but there are sever penalties for any Muslim converting to another religion. There was no four forty-five AM call to prayer in Tabriz, but we did hit that in other centres. It is very interesting that Iranians make it clear that they do not particularly like Arabs, and that they are not Arabs. This goes back to the historic Arab invasions of Persia, and the destruction of the culture of that time.
The trip yesterday was initially through flat plains as we headed east. Before getting to the coast of the Caspian Sea we went through a rugged chain of forested mountains. The drive was very beautiful through this section, although the trees have not yet turned to fall colours. We stopped for lunch in the city of Astara, on the Azerbaijanian border. After lunch we finally found a money changer and got some local currency. Only the central bank in Tabriz could change money, a process which can take an hour. The barber in the hotel changed money, but charged a 10% premium to do so. Hotels are not allowed to change money. In non-tourist areas changing money is not easy.
The next stop was the Russian Market, where Marilynn was in her glory - in a large bazaar with local currency! She was able to purchase more scarves and cover-up type clothing. The famous raincoat will now be able to go to the cleaners when we have a couple of days in Tehran!
The shopkeepers here are amazing. They are there to help if you want, but there is no pressure to buy. All Iranian men have a serious, fierce appearance at first, but are quick to smile once approached. There is little bargaining in shops or market stalls - the prices are fairly firm unless you are buying in quantity. On the other hand, they are very honest, not accepting an accidental overpayment or overcharging. One even chased me through the market to give me the equivalent to a few cents in change.
The final leg of our drive was a couple of hours along the Caspian Coast to the city of Bandar Anzali where we spent the night. Both Marilynn and I decided to pass on dinner, as we were tired, we'd had a late lunch, and had done little but sit all day. It was early to bed, and we both had a good sleep.
Today we were to have taken a boat trip from Anzali through a lagoon to see the local famous blue water lily, but as it was cold and rainy, and the trip was in a very wet open boat, we declined. Typical of Murphy's Law, the second time on the trip where it rained is one in which we were to travel in an open boat! Instead we pressed on to Rasht to kill and hour and a half in our hotel. All hotels so far have been equipped with small twin beds - it takes me back to my bunk in the airforce!
As we have visited various places Marilynn and I have had a great laugh in the back of the car. Our driver and guide are a great vaudeville act when it comes to finding anywhere, as they seem perpetually lost. Every couple of blocks we stop to ask directions, do U turns on main streets, retrace our steps up and down roads - the whole routine. It is pretty amusing!
After a good lunch it had stopped raining so we headed off to the mountain village of Masuleh, about an hours drive away. It dates back 2,000 years. The town is built up a steep mountain slope, with the roofs of one level of buildings providing the walkways and terraces in front of the level above them. Marilynn had a ball shopping for local handicrafts at excellent prices. It was an amazing place, and well worth seeing.
There has been no problem memorizing "hello" or "thank you" here. Hello is Salom, and thank you is "merci". Merci was also used in Armenia quite frequently. There is a considerable French influence here, and a lot of French cars built in Iran by joint venture companies.
Tomorrow we will head for Tehran for two nights. Still no word on my computer cord - I'm not quite sure what will happen there. The tour company here is supposed to be contacting the tour company there to try to get it forwarded. This is likely to be the last update done on my computer for awhile, anyhow! I finished off this battery writing this.