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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.

Journal Entry:

Wednesday, October 15, 2003 05:23:46

Central Asia 2003: 10 - Esfahan, Tehran, Mashhad, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan

Thursday, October 9, 2003

The remaining high points consisted of some of the bridges over the beautiful Zayandeh Rood River which runs though Esfahan, some dating back over 1,000 years. Rowing boats dot the river, and there are places where powerful fountains shoot the water high into the sky.

We had to kill some time before dinner, so went for tea in a restaurant located under the 33 arches bridge, which had tables on the elongated bridge foundations in the river. Marilynn at first erred by sitting among tables with big hookah pipes on them - this was reserved for men. A narrow plank walkway over the water connected it to the foundation of the next arch where women were permitted. Seating was limited, so we sat with three young people who were in the process of riding motor cycles from England to Australia. The guys were from New Zealand and Scotland respectively, and the girl was from Australia. What an adventure! They are planning to take six months.

Dinner was in a restaurant near the Imam Mosque in the main square, and was very good. Both of us were glad of the knowledge that we would soon be back on our own again, though. Travelling with the ladies was most definitely trying on the patience!

Friday, October 10, 2003

After being shocked into wakefulness at 4:45AM by first the travel alarm and then the wake up call, we got ourselves together, checked out and waited for the guide who was his traditional ten minutes late. I told him not to bother accompanying us to the airport, but he insisted so away we went by taxi. The flight was on time and comfortable. When we arrived in Tehran, Ali the first guide was waiting for us - yes, with my computer cord! I'm back to working on the laptop!

After being ticketed and screened by security we sat - and sat. The plane was two hours late in leaving. It was a very worn, vintage Russian aircraft of unknown parentage and its various groans and rattles kept Marilynn on the edge of her seat. Ali had got us bulkhead seats in the hope of legroom, but the seats were impossibly close to the bulkhead. A flight attendant took me in hand and had me stand at the back of the plane until everyone was on board, but the flight was completely full and those with legroom weren't moving. He told me that as he'd have to stand for the whole flight that I might as well join him. Mistaking me for British, he said, "You shouldn't mind this. When things get tough your countrymen have a reputation for rising to the occasion." - he had quite a sense of humour! He eventually did find us all seats in a different section of the plane that had enough room for my legs.

The plane was in a terrible state of repair, and when the tray table with lunch gave way drenching me in the famous and popular Zam Zam cola, the stewardess explained helpfully that the seat was broken. None of us were unhappy when the plane noisily reconnected with the ground!

Ali hired a cab to take us to the Homa Hotel, where once again we scored a big room with kitchenette, a great view and a king size bed. As no driver was laid on for us, we took another taxi and headed for the holy shrine of Imam Reza, the destination of thousands of Muslim pilgrims. The shrine is huge, covering the equivalent of several city blocks. Under it is a circular 4 lane road connecting the high capacity parking garages under each of its four entrances. Much of it's extravagance was paid for by the late Shah's father who had Reza in both his, and his son's names.

The shrine is only open to Muslim pilgrims, so Ali told them we were non Farsi speaking Muslims. A kind lady took Marilynn in hand in the woman's entrance, outfitting her with a loaned chador so she would be permitted inside. The crush of people was unbelievable, yet Ali says in the three times he's been here this was the least crowded. He and I were patted down as we entered the men's entrance, and I was made to check my camera. Inside we reconnected with the disguised Marilynn and proceeded to explored the main courtyard.

Ali and I decided to enter the main mosque where the holy shrine is located. Marilynn elected to stay in the courtyard, as she would have had to go into the women's entrance far from the men's entrance and we felt we'd never find her again. Once we were through the scramble of checking our shoes, we began the shuffle through the building. We could move our feet no more than a couple of centimetres at a time, so shuffle it was through this dense sea of thousands and thousands of the faithful. With my height I could see everything going on, and keep an eye on where Ali was, but a shorter person would see nothing up an undulating forest of clothing.

The inside of the place was unlike anything I could have been prepared for, even after the spectacular sights we had already taken in. It was room after room of towering arched ceilings supported by high pillars, with every inch from the floor to the top of the arches and down the other side covered with silver and cut mirrors. This whole fantasy was lit by hundreds of giant chandeliers. Add the thousands of shuffling bodies, the women in their black chadors, and you can get a faint idea of this real life fantasy.

Some of the wide arched passageways were so long that they glittered their way into the distance, where people ceased to be seen as individuals and were just a solid undulating mass. The place had acres of Persian carpets covering the floors, and it was necessary to look down frequently to avoid tripping over pilgrims who, amidst the crush, had pressed their foreheads to the floor in prayer. Perhaps they were praying for less people, or for a clue to the way out!

After that we went to a shopping centre where Marilynn picked up for a few things, and back to the hotel for a delicious dinner of the Mashhad specialty - a kebab of rack of lamb with the bones still in.

Saturday, October 11, 2003

Another early departure, leaving the hotel at 7 AM. The cab driver from yesterday had proved to be a good fellow and a competent driver, so he was hired to take us to the Turkmenistan frontier. The drive was a bit over 3 hours to the border, through beautiful, bare mountains. Our worries about the visas were quickly set aside as the friendly border people quickly and efficiently cleared us through. What a change from the group that stamped us into the country!

On the drive a lot of thoughts went through our minds about what a complete contradiction Iran had turned out to be from what we had expected. The many US tourists were treated well and hospitably. Most people spoke well of the US, in spite of the government's "Great Satan" line. The secret service is still alive and well as we expected, and our guides had to make daily reports to the security service when we were with the people from the US, but it is not essential with most other countries. We were surprised by the amount of freedom of speech and opinion people had, and how willing they were to express their feelings, not caring who was listening.

While the women still had to cover their heads and wear at least a mantau, they were shorter and more form fitting than I'd expected. Marilynn had become quite used to it by the end of the time in the country and was quite comfortable. Now she doesn't need it she is still wearing it! We were also told by various people that the purity expected by forcing women to wear this garb just was not working. Premarital sex is normal, and in Tehran almost reaches promiscuity. The government tries to combat it by detaining women found out at night, with their husbands or not, but biology is winning over legislation on all fronts.

The trade embargo on Iran seems to be having a reverse effect. They are wanting for nothing, but the countries participating in the embargo are losing money in sales, particularly with major items. Smaller items such as computers, appliances and so on are readily available, many with US brand names such as Compaq and Westinghouse. Where Europe and the US lose big money is in commercial aircraft - they wanted to place a two billion US dollar order, but could not, so were forced to turn to Russia. It seems so foolish with the disastrous US balance of trade and Boeing suffering in sales.

Nuclear power is another area in which huge sales are being lost to the Russians. In both cases they would have purchased Western technology if permitted, and what better way to monitor their nuclear program than by supplying it! As far as normal consumer goods go, there was nothing we could not buy, and usually at prices less than we would pay elsewhere.

Airfares in Iran are inexpensive - a two hour flight would run $60 - 65. Tea drinking is different. A lump of sugar is placed in the mouth first and the tea sipped through it. We were getting quite on to the system! Women had their own entrances in mosques and had to go through their own section for airport security. These are a few of the things that are different, but the bottom line is that Iran is a country of friendly, helpful, largely honest people who seem to be in good health and live in a vibrant and growing economy. Most we talked to would like to get rid of the theocracy, and were not afraid to say it.

The border crossing on the Iranian side today was at the ancient town of Badjgiran, which has been an entry and customs point from far back in history. Fittingly enough, translated it means "bribe". We had to move out watches ahead an hour and half at the border.

It was a long way to the customs point of Turkmenistan, but they had let the van that was to take us to Ashkhabad through. I didn't know the van was for us at the time, as the driver spoke no English. When we arrived at the Turkmenistan check point I assumed it was a border to border shuttle, said goodbye to the driver and gave him a tip for handling the luggage, much to his surprise. It didn't stop him from taking it, though.

Getting through the formalities into Turkmenistan took a bit of doing. A guide met us, but she did not speak English - she just had a few basic sentences written on a piece of paper which she would read at more or less appropriate moments. Customs and immigration were all in the same room at this very small and little used border point - there was not another vehicle that went through in the hour we were there.

I had to declare currency and my computer with one fellow who used the baggage inspection platform as a desk. Then it was necessary to go to the far end of the platform to pay an entry fee of $10 each. The receipt for that then had to be taken to the end of the room we first went into for the passport fellow to look at. Next it was back to the far end of the room for another form to be filled out. At one point we were deadlocked as people at both ends of the room needed the passports at the same time, but neither could do anything until the other finished with them. It finally all worked out in the end, and we were equipped with three certificates for various things, all to be kept in our passports. Nobody moves in this country without a travel permit.

Our baggage was loaded back aboard the cargo van that brought us between the border points and we were ferried into Ashkhabad. Conversation was limited due to the language barrier, but the staff at the Hotel Nissa spoke English well enough, so they took from our "guide".

We hit the restaurant for lunch, and I had a tall, cold Russian beer, which was a very satisfying end to the long drought. Service and food in the restaurant was great. After lunch we changed some money. In Iran, where the largest banknote is for 10,000 reals - worth $1.20, we got about an inch high stack of money for $100. Here, we got at least six inches of money for $100, as the largest bill is 10,000 manats, but they had no bill over 5,000 manats at the hotel, which is worth about 24 cents! The locals love it that the official exchange rate is 5,000 manats to the dollar at banks or through the government, as they can get 21 or 22,000 to the dollar at any exchange place then spend it through the government or banks for a large gain.

We went for a wander around the area, enjoying the freedom of being on our own for a change. The president here is very fond of his own features, and huge pictures of him adorn signs and posters on pretty well all buildings, inside and out. There are huge statues of him all through the park areas, with a giant gold one atop an observation tower which Marilynn and I went up - first in a funicular up one of the legs of the building, then in an inside elevator. The statue rotates so the president's outstretched arms always embrace the sun. The buildings, parks and fountains are very beautiful, and almost all brand new. The city was completely levelled by an earthquake in 1948 and has been totally rebuilt, with most major construction done over the last ten years.

We stopped at the Sheraton for a pee and so I could take in some more beer, then went to the Russian market where we wandered through the stalls which sold mostly essentials and food. The Turkmen women dress in beautiful traditional formal length dresses with colourful designs on them. There are a lot of Russians here, with very white skin and blue eyes.

Back at the hotel I tested the water in the pool and declared it too cold to be swimable, and then lay down for a siesta. This was interrupted by a phone call from our guide to be, who was in the lobby.

We went down to see her, but really didn't get much from the meeting except that our passports and travel permits were to be left at reception to be stamped by the government tomorrow before we'd be allowed to take an internal flight, and that she would meet us at 9 AM. She understood very little English, and really did not seem too sharp.

Marilynn proclaimed that tonight would be her proper birthday dinner with just the two of us, so there were martinis and a bottle of wine. We were joined by the hotel owner for awhile, who lived in Canada for 15 years and still has business interests there. He runs a very sharp operation here - the service throughout the hotel is excellent. He's promised us a special meal for tomorrow night.

As there is 24 hour internet service at the hotel, I'll get this away.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

So much for the idea of sending this report off! Yes, the hotel has 24 hour internet service, however, this city of over a million people has only one server, and it is all but impossible to get onto it. I'm told by our guide, who has internet access in the office, that if you do manage to get on it is desperately slow. Apparently there were a number of internet cafes opened up, but the government has shut them all down, and internet at home is all but unheard of. There is a policy here to keep any international news away from the people, so internet is discouraged and likely monitored. As a result of this policy there are no newspapers, other than government publications which are not read due to there being no real news in them.

The fact that the president got 99.3% of the votes in the last election leads to speculation as to what might have happened to the 0.7% who didn't vote for him! While political opponents are not arrested, it is assumed that anyone who would oppose the president must be quite mad, so they find themselves in insane asylums. There was an attempt to assassinate the president last November, said to have been led by the minister of foreign affairs, who now languishes in jail along with any other suspected participant, plus the family, friends and neighbours of anyone thought to be involved in the plot. It seems it didn't matter if there was actual participation, close was good enough. Capital punishment was abolished here, so long terms in very unsavoury jails is the fate of these people.

The president is a rags to riches story. He was born in 1938. His father was killed in WWII and the rest of his family - mother and two brothers - were killed in the devastating earthquake of Oct 6, 1948. He grew up in orphanages and with distant relatives. He became active in the Communist Party, rising to head of the Turkmenistan Soviet Socialist Republic for which he had a seat on the Supreme Soviet in Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union he managed to maintain and consolidate his position as supreme ruler of Turkmenistan. His wife, from whom he is separated, lives in Moscow with their daughter, and his son lives in Europe, so he has a palace here all to himself.

He did save the country some of the agonies of other former soviet republics by maintaining universal medical insurance, free education including university, and introduced free gas, electricity, water and salt for all citizens up to a reasonable limit. Even if it is exceeded the rates are very low. As a result, poor people don't turn the gas off to save the cost of buying matches! Apparently the university is cutting back on enrolment, and now to get in it is necessary to bribe the property officials.

The country is very tightly controlled. Travel permits are required to travel anywhere, special permits are required to change residence location, moving to another city requires permissions and there are checks everywhere for documents.

Air travel is interesting. Tickets are relatively cheap, but 15 days prior to a flight they stop selling tickets. If you want to buy a seat, you must go to the airport, where it is necessary to bribe someone to sell you a ticket, making the price much higher. When we arrived for the internal flight to Mary a woman was shouting for half an hour at the top of her lungs. She had bought tickets in advance, but arrived 20 minutes before the flight instead of half an hour and her tickets had been sold, even though the plane was an hour late leaving. There are no refunds. Her only recourse was to repurchase the tickets, which, with the bribe, would have been about ten times what she originally paid. If you want to cancel a ticket well before a flight the refund is 30% of the purchase price.

On our first morning we met our two male travel companions, one a Canadian who has lived in New York State for many years and a Californian, both around our age. The guide we had could not understand enough English to get by, so it was not possible to have questions answered. We had a walk through the massive Sunday bazaar and came across camels for the first time. Turkmenistan is 80% desert, so camels are common. We also visited the site of ancient Nisa just outside the city of Ashkhabad, which was the winter capital of the Parthian empire in the 3rd century BC.

At the carpet museum there was an English speaking guide. Here the first and third largest Persian type carpets in the world are hung on specially built walls. The largest, at 301 sq. meters had the framed Guinness Book of Records certificate beside it on the wall. It weights a metric tonne and a half, and it took forty people to weave it.

The national museum also had an excellent English speaking guide. This is another of the spectacular buildings built as part of the president's monument to himself. It is new, and it's tall marble columns and interior cost $59 million to construct. It was interesting, and contained the second largest Persian type carpet, weighing a little over a metric tonne.

Yesterday morning was an early one - departure from the hotel to the airport for the flight to the City of Mary, capital of the province of Mary, was at 5:30 AM. Travel documents were prepared for us and stamped during the night - as I said, no one moves here without a lot of paperwork.

We were accompanied by an excellent guide, Emmi. This was our second flight on a Russian aircraft this trip and it was also late for mechanical reasons - by one hour. Emmi had arranged a seat for me in the bulkhead row. When we reached our destination the seatbelt had jammed and would not open no matter what. The fellow sitting beside me noticed by problem, and pulled out a strong metal shoe horn. He went to work on the belt and in about five minutes had me free - I thought I might be doing the return flight!

A van a driver met us and we were driven to Merve, a remarkable 100 sq. km. historical site which contains the remains of five walled cities. Instead of building one on top of the other, which is more traditional, they were each built in a slightly different area, so all are visible in various states of repair. There are signs of settlement near Merve, at Margush, dating from 3,000 BC. The Eak Kula part of Merve was founded in 700-600 BC by Darius, the Persian Emperor, then expanded by Alexander the Great to become Gyaer Kula. Sultan Kula was built in 800 AD at the time of the Turkmen empire, only to be destroyed by Genghis Khan. Another major walled city was built in the 14 and 15th centuries.

The driver had arranged to have us to his house for dinner. He lives in a brick single family dwelling, typical of the area. It is fairly large, but had no western type furniture - there are carpets on the floor with mats to sit on and cushions to lean on. In the dining room a table cloth - I guess here a floor cloth - was laid on the carpets in the middle of the room with mats around it for us to sit on. There was a china cabinet in this room with crystal glasses and so on in it, the only piece of furniture I saw in the house.

The meal was wonderful. First there were salads, bread and fruit. Then came a delicious soup followed by the main course of meat stuffed pastry about the size of a medium pizza, cut in quarters. It was so good we all overstuffed ourselves! Finally there was more fruit and tea. On the "table" were bottles of excellent sherry and vodka throughout the meal. The only complaint from our host was that we weren't eating and drinking enough! As is traditional, only the male members of the family joined us for dinner.

Shoes are removed before entering the house, and had to be put on for any trip to the bathroom and toilet, which were in separate rooms but in a different building outside. That must be a bit inconvenient during the cold, snowy winters they get here! All in all, it was a great time and a wonderful opportunity to see how a Turkman family lived. After dinner it was back to the airport for the return flight to Ashkhabad. This time I sat beside the seat with the broken seat belt, and noticed that the last occupant had escaped by extending the belt to its maximum and wiggling out of it. That must have been interesting to watch!

The people here, unlike in Iran, are very pushy - both in trying to sell their wares and physically in a crowd or line-up. It requires some self control when going through the market or getting on a plane when someone has their hand or elbow in your back and is pushing for all they are worth. I've taken to stopping dead, which causes them to crash into my back and usually relieves the pressure for a few moments while they recover. Most people here only come up to my chest, so there is a distinct height advantage.

There seem to be as many Russians living here as there are Turkmen. There seems to be no animosity towards the Russians.

Getting married can be an expensive experience. The usual dowry is about $5,000 to $7,000 payable to the family of the bride for locals, however if a non-citizen wants to marry a Turkman girl a dowry of $50,000 must be paid to the government. Once a girl is married she will wear a scarf to cover her head, making it easy to pick out single girls.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Another brutally early morning, with a departure from the hotel for the airport at 5:15 AM, this time with baggage. The flight this morning was to the northern city of Tashauz, from where we were driven 100 km on poor roads to the archaeological site of Kunyha Urgench, the capital of once powerful Khorezmia in the 6th century BC. The city lasted until it was destroyed by the Mongol invasion.

After stopping for a beer and bowl of tasty dumpling soup, we drove to the border of Uzbekistan, only about 20 minutes from Tashauz. Throughout Turkmenistan there have been many uniformed guards and military people, and the border was no exception. The remarkable thing is that none have been armed with anything more than a club.

Naturally, throughout the other cities we visited were prominent gold statures of the megalomaniac president, along with his huge photo everywhere one could be put up, including on the planes. He apparently dyed his grey hair dark not too long ago, and squads of people were sent throughout the country to change the colour of his hair on all the photos and paintings. The people here laugh at him behind his back as he is very unpopular, but no one would dare get caught ridiculing him.

When we were driving we were in cotton country, and the crop was being harvested. There were several roadblocks, where people are forced to leave their vehicle and be transported to the fields to pick cotton. Students are pressed into service as well. This press gang labour is paid 500 manats a kilo for picking the cotton - so for about 35 or 40 minutes work the pay is two and a half cents. There is 60% unemployment in Turkmenistan, so I guess this reduces that statistic for a short while! The wage for those who have jobs averages between $75 and $120 per month, depending upon whether it is a private sector or government position. Fortunately foreigners and their guides are exempted from cotton picking!

The border formalities were handled fairly quickly and efficiently, with the officials of Uzbekistan being particularly friendly and helpful. We were picked up in a near new van by a driver and our guide, Timor, who took us to the Hotel Horazm Palace in Urgench. We were settled into a comfortable room with a king size bed by 4 PM. It was great to have some time to ourselves! Nothing now until 9 AM in the morning - that is almost like a holiday!