The Wild Goat Land Rovers of Iran

Tom – In 1955 two teams from Oxford and Cambridge drove from London to Singapore in two series 1 Land Rovers. They made a film and wrote a book called “The First Overland”.

In Iran they demonstrated their machines to the Iranian Army who promptly ordered a load. We were told that in the country districts you can still see some of these Series 1 survivors chugging up and down the remotest of hills. DSCN1216We have been looking and asking after them but according to most of the garages we have asked they have all finally returned to the earth. In the country districts there are however lots of surviving Series 2’s and 3’s and when you see the patched up state they are in it would be surprising if anything older survives here. Iran also built Land Rovers for a while under licence from Santana who in turn built them under licence from Land Rover in Spain. After the revolution the link with Land Rover was broken but they kept on building all the same out of a random selection of car parts.DSCN3113

The Iranian copy of the Defender is called a Paghan (Wild Goat) and was built here in Iran until 6 years ago. It looks like a Defender from the outside with the body and chassis made in Iran but I’m thinking blasphemous thoughts. Is it better? It’s certainly quieter and more powerful, with a Mitsubishi Pagero V6 3000 engine. It certainly burns a lot of petrol but when it costs 20pence a litre who cares. The running gear is from a Canadian Jeep Wagoner with coil springs. The dashboard is also Pagero but best of all they have somehow managed to get rid of the seatbox and fitted proper comfortable Peugeot seats. It seems faster, quieter and more comfortable than the real thing. However, Iranians fantasise that the British Defender must be by now miles better than their Wild Goat. Thankfully I think we have got away with this illusion as with the Defender now out of production, they will never find out!DSCN1214

There is certainly no doubt that Iranians love Land Rovers. Our 107” Station Wagon fascinates everyone. The Series 1 Station Wagon is one of the rarest Land Rovers. It is unlikely that there were ever any sold in Iran but wherever we stop we have a continues stream of admirers wanting their picture in front of it. We have even been the backdrop to a couple of wedding photo shoots. Although there are lots and lots of very patched up old cars in Iran, our car is certainly the oldest car we have seen so far. We have the date it was built written in Farsi on the back window and everyone is astonished by its age and that we have driven it so far. The most astounded are the people who actually drive these early series Land Rovers on a daily basis. “You must be a very patient man” one said as he looked me up and down, clearly wincing from his own back pain.

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10. Iranians

Tom – It started at the border within about 3 minutes of being in Iran. A smart border guard bought me a hot chocolate as the paperwork for the car was processed. I sat drinking it wondering how much I would eventually be forced to pay for this “gift”.  I then had to photocopy my documents. Another classic border guard scam because I obviously did not have any Iranian money so I had to change some with another customs officer. I’d expected this but not so soon.  I was, however, totally wrong. The hot chocolate was indeed a gift and it turned out I had exactly the correct amount of money exchanged.

DSCN2842Iran if full of surprises but the biggest is the friendliness and honest kindness of the Iranian people. We had heard this before we came here but nothing had prepared us for the reality.  Everyone is at great pains to communicate how pleased they are to have us in Iran. Passing cars beep their horns and shout out the window “Welcome to Iran”. Strangers often invite us to tea.ne family on a moped followed us through town to encourage us to come to their house.  We were expecting a hard sell of something, but it turned out to be tea, biscuits, and fruit and they wanted nothing in return except our smiles and hand gesture communication. One

DSCN0908We have been royally entertained and spoiled by people we have never met before for the entire month we have been here.  Everyone who has approached us (and there have been thousands) have been delightful and respected our space and privacy.  We are told that half the population is not particularly religious and it is this half, the colorfully dressed, smiling half, who go to great lengths to welcome us and often tell us how embarrassed they are by their government. The other half are dressed in black, are polite and helpful but reserved and rarely approach us to talk unless we are on a bus sitting next to them when they chatter away and are just as delightful.

DSCN2432Iran definitely has a duality that we have not experienced in other countries. The conservative, religious side of headscarves, chadors and segregated buses, versus unsegregated public toilets and upmarket wedding photos where brides are in outfits that would make the girls in Newcastle Big Market blush.  Alcohol is strictly prohibited but still drunk and drugs are widely available.  Iran has a major drug problem and people have told us that 80% of Iranian families have experience of addiction either directly, or know someone close to them who is addicted.  Some people have told us that the government almost encourages drugs as it keeps the large amount of educated unemployed youth in a state of apathy.  Once it was pointed out to us we could not help missing the horrible scars on the arms of many young men. Apparently, they lacerate themselves when drugged up and we certainly saw plenty of evidence of this. By contrast, at the top end of society, the knife is also being used. Iran is the “nose job” capital of the world and young ladies sport with pride their nose bandages which, like train track teeth braces, have become a status symbol.  We even saw the occasional man with nose bandages.

DSCN0950Another surprise is that in Turkey, every town village and hamlet has a shiny new, well-funded mosque. Minarets litter the landscape and like the rest of the Middle East, the call to prayer can be heard loudly amplified across the whole country.  In Iran, we have only occasionally heard the un-amplified call to prayer and outside the big cities and towns mosques are discrete, somewhat impoverished buildings that are hardly visible in smaller towns and villages.

DSCN0824Political rhetoric has fuelled a lot of preconceptions about Iran in the West.  Before we came here the kids looked up images of each country online.  Petra had been keen to skip Iran after seeing lots of images of people being hanged! You can certainly get flogged in Iran. If unmarried teens are found in a compromising position it’s 30 lashes for the girl and 10 for the boy but we were told you can pay the lasher to stroke instead of lash. Certainly, not everything is perfect in the country but the people are about as close as it gets.

We are now about to leave Iran having been here a month and I have just been told that the thumbs up gesture means “up yours!” – another indication of the good nature of the people as I’ve daily given the thumbs up at every armed police checkpoint as they wave us past and we have no bullet holes in our rear door!

 

9. Iran 5

Esfahan to the Armenian boarder (Kurdistan)

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screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-19-15-39Justine – Waving goodbye to Esfahan, it was time to head North again.  Kabylie’s speed in the heat meant that there was no time for us to continue to Shiraz and Yazd, but we hoped we could visit some of the Kurdish areas we had had to miss on the way down.  Picturesque Abyaneh Village yielded us a gorgeous camping spot by a stream and it was nice to see the women retaining their traditional dress.

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The lovely Mohamed and Shiva invited us to stay at Mohamed’s family farm near Hamadan.   After another long drive we arrived and were delighted to discover a vast swimming pool and 6 ostriches.  We were royally entertained by them and their family and explored the farm.  It had an unimaginable number of entrepreneurial ventures, from milk to strawberries, vast man-made lakes for fishing, gigantic underground warehouses and tunnels for potatoes and 30 skidoo’s which are used on the grass when the snow melts.  Tragically, the ill-positioned power-station nearby (located here to avoid Sadams bombs in the 1980’s) has used up most of the underground water. The 20 metre well which used to facilitate all these ventures is now 120 metres deep and running out, a fate that has affected all the farms in the area.

 

 

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We headed west into Khodestan (Kurdhistan) to our next stop Takht-e Soleimen, a sacred Zoroastrian site over 1500 years old.  The countryside was utterly beautiful and covered in apple orchards and wild flowers.  As usual, a few hours were added to the journey due to Hossein’s faulty internal compass, but the beauty of the place eased Tom’s frustration.

 

 

We found an utterly sublime place to camp, amongst the fruit trees in a wild flower meadow.  The only problem was that it was private property. We paid the first farmer who came but not long after a second irate farmer who claimed to have rented the land of the first turned up shouting.  It is at these times that you love having a guide for as we hid and made faces at each other, poor Hossein had to deal with the grumpy farmer.  He eventually persuaded the farmer that we were a very strict Christian fundamentalist family and Tom was not ready for his wife and daughter to be seen by strangers, hence we needed somewhere surrounded by trees to camp.  Surprisingly the farmer seemed to buy this tale!

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The sites of Takht-e Soleiman and Zendan-e Soleiman (Soleiman’s prison) are truly wonderful.  Both were built around natural volcanic lakes whose calcium deposits made the hills they are situated on. Takht–e Soleimen still has its azure blue lake, with the  Zoroastrian ruins of a royal palace around it, and later mongol buildings.

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Zendan-e Soleiman on the other side of the valley and is an I credibly bizarre cone, which rises out of the flat land around it like the hill in the film Encounters of the Third Kind. The lake that made it has emptied leaving a cavernous, sulphurous crater which is the same depth of the mountain. DSCN3359Around this there was once a fortified Zoroastrian town topped with a religious sanctuary dating back to 900BC.  After the hot climb up the steep sides, it is a dizzying experience to peer over the edge down into the crater. It was certainly a good place to throw sacrificial people over the edge even if it was not a prison. Neither has anything to do with King Soleimen, but when the Arabs were invading in the 7th century, the temple guardians cunningly invented a tale of King Soleimen having made a pit stop there and this prevented the Arabs from destroying it.

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We walked back to our lovely orchard flower meadow and the kids and I explored the intricate irrigation system of little streams and mini sluice gates directing the water to all the farmer’s thirsty trees.  The water came from the Takht-e Soleimen crater-lake above us and had made a calcified channel called ‘dragon stone’ presumably because it looks like a nobbly dragons back snaking down the hill.

 

DSCN3432The irate farmer returned that night, having forgotten he had agreed to us staying.  He was the only person in the entire country who had not welcomed us with open arms – what on earth was wrong with him!  Why would he not want complete strangers trespassing on his land?  Eventually he left with Hossein sternly telling him that he had disgraced his country by not welcoming us.  I feel very sorry for any Iranian who travels abroad as they will feel very let down by the welcome they receive from other countries.

 

We stopped in Zanjan for our last Iranian bazaar stop.  The Bazaars of Iran really are wonderful mazes of shops and stalls selling everything imaginable.  Vaulted passages lead into old caravanserais or mosques and every corner you turn leads you to another section, either the metal workers, the fruit and veg sellers, the necklace section, or the ‘loo slipper’ section and as I have mentioned before, Iranian loos are pretty grim affairs. The OK ones in hotels often have a pair of plastic flip-flop slippers which you put on to walk to the loo, leaving your dirty shoes by the door.  I thought it was a good idea until Petra said ‘oh great, I get to use the slippers everyone else has peed on and then I will pee on them too for the next person – how right she was.  I find it very surprising that glamorous Iranian women put up with the loos always being dirty and stinky.  As you stand in line waiting to brave it yourself, a very well turned out women exits and you are lulled into thinking ‘oh hurray, it must be a clean squat and drop’ but no, it is grim and as you stagger out holding up your trouser legs and looking hassled, you marvel at the serenity and glamour of the women.

 

I cannot imagine that any country has better markets than Iran and it is a tragedy that there in no room in my ‘cubby-hole’ (we each have a shoe-box sized cupboard for personal effects) for more than a copper water-melon scoop.

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Our last stop in Iran was Babak Castle, near to Kaleybar.  Babak was an Azeri (Azerbaijani Iran has a huge Persian Azeri community)  hero from the 9th century AD.  For 21 years he fought against the Islamic invasion that swept through this part of the world.   His headquarters was Babak Castle, perched on a mountain top wrapped in swirling clouds.

We realised it was a three day holiday commemorating Ayatollah Khomeini’s death when we could not find anywhere to camp.  Iranian picnic tents lined the roadside and we even passed a car dragging a mini ferris wheel up the mountain road to attract the younger holiday crowd.  We eventually found a hotel, which let us camp out the back and we and our tent became the main attraction of the village.

The village police man came first, to eye us suspiciously.  After seeing we had the kids and admiring Kabylie, he kindly instructed the rather avaricious hotel owner to let us stay for free and to let us have hot showers – oh how I love Iranians!

DSCN3495A steady stream of visitors came to visit us, one with kids of Petra and Hector’s age. They made an assault course together. Language is no barrier when you have piles of sand to jump off and rusty barrels to walk on.  They were the first children we had encountered.  There do not seem to be many children about in Iran.  With such high unemployment for the young, the birth rate is dropping. If your family did not fight in the Iran/Iraq war and you are not overtly religious, you are passed over for many jobs.  On the subject of the Iran/Iraq war, in every village and town, there are posters of every person who died lining the central reservation.  These ‘martyrs’’ pictures are constantly reprinted and have been on display since the war ended in 1988, to keep the memory alive.   Martyrs’ families were given housing, jobs and their children sent to special, superior schools.  It made us question how we treat our own soldiers after war.

We had heard from Mohamed and Shiva quite how ghastly the war was during their childhoods and the deep scar it has left.  At Mohamed’s family farm, they often had two hundred people staying for months at a time having evacuated the city due to bombings.  The farm house is not big and there were people lying like sardines in every room and they had to keep slaughtering animals to feed everyone.

DSCN3489Back to Baybak and our camping……. After a night of much thumping music and merriment from all the Iranian picnic tents, we set off early for yoghurt and honey breakfast before we began our hike up to the castle. We set off in the sun but within 20 minutes, the swirling clouds had descended from the castle and the whole mountainside was cloaked in mist.  Deep rumbles of thunder echoed down the valley and bolts of lightning flashed overhead.   As the rain came down, Tom highlighted the fact we were totally unprepared with no rain coats, no warm clothes and no water or food.  The kids and I wanted to go on and democracy won over caution.  As luck would have it, there was a tiny hut on the hillside where an old man sold cinnamon chay (tea) and biscuits.  We huddled inside until the rain lessened and then continued with our 2 hour hike. The castle was worth the wet as it was a magnificent setting, commanding the valley.

 

DSCN3482We spent a second night in the hotel garden and were plied with bags of unripe plumbs and rose-petal jam by a rather weird man who had taken a liking to Tom.  We went through Kabylie looking for all the things we no longer needed, which we could give to Hossein.  Tom was keen to get rid of most the school box as it weighs the car down considerably, but I was sure that anything we got rid of we would then desperately need.

DSCN3514The three hours drive to the Armenian border took us along the Aras river, the biblical river Gihon.  The river cuts through a wonderful red gorge. On one side is Iran and on the other first Azerbaijan and then Armenia.  On the Persian side, picnickers paddled in the river shallows and relaxed on the bank.  On the other side we looked over ruined villages, watch towers and a blown up railway.  The bitter fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh was very evident and had flared again only this April.

 

 

DSCN3507Stopping for ‘tea and pee’ as Hossein would cry, we feasted our eyes on the last of Iran and stocked up on their gorgeous crunchy small cucumbers before stopping at the border.  The place was like a ghost town.  No queues of trucks or endless traders like when we entered from Turkey.  The only other person was a German backpacker who was walking across and who we offered a lift to, if he could face waiting for us as we cleared Kabylie.

 

We said our farewells to Hossein, and all felt rather sad to see him and our last Iranian moments go.  We would however have his catch phrases ‘listen gentleman’, ‘you do your job’  ‘let me tell you something’  ‘Pee and tea’ within our family lexicon for the rest of the trip.

Our passports were thoroughly scrutinized and our names searched on several computers to make sure we had not committed any misdemeanors before we were free to drive across the bridge over the Aras river. It lacked the gravitas of other border crossings where each side has a vast flag at each end of the bridge or crossing, almost in competition with each other as to whose is biggest.  The Armenian flag was there, but very small and fluttering next to a Russian one.   The border guard who checked our passports was also Russian and there was a big photo of Vladimir Putin air brushed to look as if he was 21 gracing the walls. It seemed rather strange to have a foreign power so in charge at another country’s border, but their history is very intertwined and perhaps that is the aim: to tell the world clearly to back off.  Armenia has Russia behind it.  With such a tragic history, this is understandable.

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DSCN3577 (1)Soviet administration greeted us with sour faces, gold teeth and flesh.  Having not seen any for a month, the skimpy tank tops and overly tight leggings seemed rather indecent and one could not help thinking that the bingo-wings might have looked better covered with a chador. The bureaucracy was also indecent.  A great empty hall welcomed us with ten numbered glass booths along one wall.  What followed was a ludicrous dance between the booths.  Once Tom had filled in one paper at booth 1, he was told to go and wait at booth 3, where the same admin girl would pop up 10 minutes later, stamp something and tell him to go to booth 2.  10 booths later and not one smile, Kabylie was scanned on the most high tech, space age bit of equipment ever.  We wondered if it was drugs or weapons they were looking for but the uncommunicative grunts from the officials told us they were not going to tell us.

DSCN3542Our guide book had told us Armenians are incredibly friendly so we were feeling rather let down that no one had come up to us to invite us to their home or buy us lunch.  Darn it!  Iran has now ruined every other country we will go to.  The constant smiles, genuine interest in us and immense hospitality of the Iranians lulls you into a state where you think the whole world is like this.  The contrast with the Russians could not have been more stark.

 

DSCN3522In fact the Aras river could not have divided two more contrasting places, full stop.  If the stereotypical image of Islam is hot and dusty, Christianity is wet and green. Armenia was the first country to become Christian in 301 AD and within half an hour of crossing the border, as we climbed out of the desert the landscape turned suitably Christian, wet and very green. DSCN3534 In hot dry Iran, every square centimetre of grass has a goat or sheep eating it into the dust whereas Armenia is greener and lusher than you can imagine and there is not a sheep or goat in sight, just the odd spoilt cow not sure where to munch next. We can only surmise that the ancient pastoral traditions were broken by the Communist’s  collective farms and few have returned to them.  As a result, huge areas of the south of the country lie fallow which leaves them free to be populated by the most spectacular wild flower meadows we have ever seen.

 

The scenery is breath taking.  Verdant green mountains plunging into deep canyons with the remains of the winter snow clinging to the highest peaks.  Everywhere you look is a wild flower meadow, with perhaps 40 different types of flower, either in clusters of colour or mixed across the breeze-rippled fields.  When we drive through the long grass looking for a suitable roost for the night, the smell of fragrant herbs crushed by the tyres is magical, as is the hubbub of insect life, from the loud drone of the glutenous bees to the busy cicadas rubbing their legs together.

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The most eye catching of all are the butterflies.   I have never seen so many of all colours and size, fluttering in big groups and then settling on the ground.  I have no idea if this is some group mating dance or some sort of parish council meeting but it is certainly wonderful to watch.

 

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8. Iran 4

Kashan to Isfahan

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Justine – We left our lunch party in Kashan for another social engagement. We were meeting Shiva and Mohamed, acquaintances of Sally and Mike’s who they had met several years back in connection with the Alamut castles. At hearing we were in Kashan, they had immediately leapt in their car to come and join us – a mere 5 hour trip from Tehran.

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Mohamed and Shiva were to give us the most wonderful two days firstly visiting an ancient Persian rose garden that sits on a huge hill. The interior of the hill is in fact a huge swiss cheese of secret tunnels carved out by the followers of Mithra, the god of light and pre-curser to the Zoroastrians. Shiva and Mohamed are both academics and bough to life the history of the area, showing us the first Zoroastrian fire temple, over 2000 years old and on which all other four arched, domed temples are based. It was not the Romans who first achieved the arch, but the Zoroastrian Persians.

DSCN1303We camped in the desert hills and by the light of the fire and the moon, Saro, Shiva’s daughter demonstrated the ingenious Iranian collapsible bbq, roasting baby aubergines and tomatoes and then mashing and garlic to make Mirza Ghasemi which we ate with flat bread. Yum!
We had hoped to get up and milk the sheep belonging to the local shepherd, but milking was around 4:30am and we over-slept. The kind shepherd, however bought us a jerry can of fresh frothy milk. We drank creamy sheep milk and ate a delicious breakfast of cucumbers, cream cheese and tomatoes before walking down to the rose fields below. Damask roses are grown around the whole area to be distilled into rose-water. The smell was intoxicating.

DSCN1388Mohamed and Shiva drive a Paghan (Wild Goat) an Iranian built Land Rover and DSCN2813Mohamed is nearly as nuts about the cars as Tom. Both Mohamed and his friend Amir know a lot about engines so the three of them peered and prodded Kabylie’s engine trying to work out what was wrong. The conclusion was the carburettor, so as Amir put his artistic skills to use writing poetry by the great Persian poet Harfez on the doors of Kabylie, Tom changed the carburettor.

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After breakfast I asked casually if there were any camels near to Kashan as Petra were desperate to ride one. Mohamed enthusiastically cried yes and quickly called someone on his phone. In less that half an hour we were in a convoy headed into the desert.

The reason we were so keen on finding camels was the disappointing news that our Turkmenistan transit visas had not been granted. The fact that frequent calls to the embassy had yielded nothing but ‘call back in a week’ for over a month now, had indicated the possibility of a ‘no’ response being a reality. Transit visas are regularly refused, so we had known all along it was a possibility.

We had been thinking of our options for some time, either to reapply for a tourist visa, which meant the expense of a guide to take us the whole way across the country, or change route completely. One of the realities of doing an overland trip is needing to have plans A-Z as there are so many variables, from borders closing, to natural disasters, health and security incidents or the car breaking down – the list is endless.

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The issues floating about in our personal cauldron of decisions were (in no particular order) a) temperature –the kids, car and ourselves starting to suffer and it only gets hotter in June, July and August; b)Speed – it turns out Kabylie likes to travel at a relaxed pace with time for regular tinkering, which is not suited to short visas and deserts. Also in altitudes over 3000 meters, Kabylie really struggles through lack of power and in some parts on the route we would go to 5000m ; c) Security – recent incidents in the Ferganna valley on the Uzbek/Kyrgyz border, creating risks we are not sure we want to take with kids; d) schooling – lack of reliable and fast internet, making home schooling in a foreign language trickier than expected. We are unable to access resources and the teachers we set up to assist us before leaving France. e) Guide – for a large part of our proposed route to Singapore it is necessary to have a guide, either due to our nationality (as in Iran) or to a state regulation as in Turkmenistan, China and Burma. Though our guide in Iran has been great, it defeats the point of travelling in your own vehicle. We cannot stop where we want as the guide fires off or says we have to keep going and you are dictated by their route and timings. Also personalities can clash and you can end up being driven mad by them. All this is before you add in the huge expense of having to have a guide for extended periods. f) tent – our wonderful flying saucer tent , though a cosy nest for us all, attracts a huge amount of attention and we have a constant stream of curious visitors. This has been rather lovely in Iran where people are really respectful of your space but in Asia, there is no doubt we will be surrounded by hundreds of people on a daily basis and the two inviting ladders which support our tent would be an unwanted invitation to many people. A campervan which has a door that closes and can keep people out and you can just drive away from a tricky situation is more conducive to peace in certain countries.

Thus with all these considerations, we have decided that the most fun, comfortable, safe, educational and enjoyable thing to do is to change route. Sadly trans-shipping Kabylie from Dubai to India is not really an option as we would arrive in the Monsoon. Getting a ferry to Russia does not light our fire so much, as it involves long stretches of driving between places of interest, which is tough on the kids. Travelling through Pakistan poses risks we don’t want to take with the our children. We have decided therefore to head to Armenia and Georgia, (luckily Mike came armed with guidebooks for many countries. Being a seasoned overlander himself he well knows the need for alternative routes!) After Armenia and Georgia we will try and get a ferry across the Black Sea to Bulgaria or Romania (we are not sure if this is possible as we have had no internet in Iran to research it) and then we will travel through Eastern Europe for the kids to be back in school by September. Our new route seems to tick all boxes as hopefully we will have had a fabulous 5 month adventure, the kids will have only missed 8 weeks of school, Kabylie will be in one piece and we will still be able to afford the occasional plate de jour in France having not spent all our money on guides.

Sorry for the interlude on our route, but for those of you following our tracker, you needed an explanation as to why we seem to have lost all sense of direction!

 

DSCN2886So back to Kashan and the need for camels. As our route through Iran would no longer take us through the baking desert to Yazd and up to the Turkmenistan border, Petra and Hector were most despondent that they would not get to ride a camel. Luckily Kashan borders the desert and in no time Mohamed was leading the way past wonderful ruined caravanserais and forts into the barren sands.

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As Tom drove, the rest of us rode on the roof of Kabylie, and soaked in the desert atmosphere. The occasional whack by a flying locust was a surprise, and we wondered squeamishly how grim a plague of locusts must be, but in small numbers they are rather beautiful and look like fairies as they come in to land.

DSCN2976As the sun went down we made camp by a camel herder’s hut which had the exact profile of Mary and Joseph’s stable in Bethlehem as portrayed on Hector’s advent calendar last year. Before the full moon came up, the stars began to twinkle over the hut and a herd of camels grazed in the distance. You could almost imagine the three kings paying us a visit – Lo and behold, Kashan is actually where the three Magi came from so we could have been camping exactly where Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspard pitched their camp on the way to bring gifts to baby Jesus.

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head-collars. Ibrahim, the camel owning friend of Mohamed, unbeknownst to us, had been up the entire night looking for his cousin who had the saddles in another town – another example of Iranian hospitality, no thought to say ‘sorry our camels are not available to ride to tomorrow’. Instead Ibrahim did not go to bed to make sure we could have our camel ride.

DSCN2956Before mounting, I was wishing we were doing a proper 5 day camel trek, but ten minutes in, I was most grateful it was only two hours. Knobbly saddles and what to do with one’s legs? Apart from the discomfort though, it was magical to be slowly padding across the desert in a camel train. The kids were utterly beside themselves and within five minutes Petra had named them all, made up their life stories and was pleading for a 5 day camel trek.

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We had been surprised by the whack of locusts, but we were even more surprised by the huge bangs of rockets being fired from the top of a nearby hill. The Revolutionary Guard have taken over a part of the desert to test weapons and we were gently padding across the boundary of that testing zone!DSCN2932

DSCN2935After a fabulous desert experience and an atmospheric explore of a ruined caravanserai, we headed on to Esfahan. It was a long hot journey and by the time we arrived, Petra was ill with sunstroke and a migraine. Hossein our guide cannot multi-task and either drives erratically in and out of the hard shoulder at speed, or if he is talking, he slows down to not much more than jogging pace. He was in deep conversation with Mike for most of the journey, much to the irritation of Kabylie and her passengers behind. The minute you could see Mike’s face profile through the back window and Hossein’s hand gesticulating, we knew our speed would diminish considerably!

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Esfahan was gorgeous. Full of incredible monuments, beautiful tiled mosques and palaces, and the wonderful bazaar and vast square, second only in size to Tiananmen Square. My favourite site however was the pigeon towers.
Esfahan used to be home to 42,000,000 birds kept in over 3000 towers. The birds were used or indeed their pooh was used, to fertilize the city’s famous watermelon fields. Modern fertilizers have left the towers redundant, but more than 700 remain in the city’s environs.
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IMG_4869Our three nights in Esfahan soon went, as did Sally and Mike, who sadly had to leave the retro-road-trip to return to cooler climbs. We were very sad to see them go as we had all shared a wonderful adventure together. There is something very special about travelling as multi generational family.
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This one missed the last blog post but the Caspian Lagoon also got the selfistick!

 

 

7. Iran 3

Qazvin to Qom and Kashan

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Justine – We left you last time in the baking heat with Kabylie breaking down. Why do these things always seem to happen at the worst times and in the worst places? Due to Kabylie’s condition, we had decided to abandon exploring Western Iran and to head south towards Esfahan from where Sally and Mike were to fly home in a week’s time. Our new route was to take us through Qom the Vatican city of Iran where none of us were that keen on going as it is so conservative, and we were unsure we would be very welcome. It was here in the theological schools that the 1979 revolution began and the city and its hard-line clerics remain the centre of power in Iran today.

DSCN1230Qom sits in a hot dusty desert and as we approached the temperature soared. This was of course where Kabylie decided to conk out – in the hottest bit of desert so far, with temperatures hitting 45’. Every kilometre the engine died and a very stressed Tom had to fiddle frantically under the bonnet trying to work out the problem before his in-laws, wife and children boiled to death. The 45km journey to Qom ended up taking 8 hours. The heat was made worse for the girls as being in such a highly conservative area, we were advised to put on our neck to floor black polyester chadors. I found out ‘chador’ means tent and I considered wearing our loo tent as I felt sure it would be cooler. Thank goodness we had enough water in our tank to keep wDSCN1229etting our clothes to keep cool.

As the sweat ran down the interior of our chadors, we were all dreading camping in the heat on a dusty roadside. More complicated was the fact that we were arriving on one of the main religious, week long festivals of the year, where 1 million Shiites from around the world would descend in a couple of days to worship the 12th Imam. As we drove into town there was absolutely nowhere to camp, even the traffic islands were jammed with tents and people. DSCN1246IMG_4640We were just resigning ourselves to very little sleep, when Hossein our guide announced his well connected friend had found us the last hotel room in town! No ordinary hotel, it was in fact a hotel for Mullahs! We were amazed they let the infidel in, but not only that, as we were a family, we were given the VIP vast apartment, with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and …….aircon!!!!!!! to put the icing on the cake, Kabylie could be parked outside the door under an awning, so mechanic Tom could take his baby apart in the shade.

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IMG_4636With boiler suit on and bonnet open it was not long before Tom was approached by a worried looking Mullah with a long beard and black turban (black turban means you are related to the prophet). He had managed to get his car bumper hooked up on the curb. Tom was tired and hungry so gave his car an impatient shove that separated bumper from pavement. Amazed at the miracle Tom had performed, he was immediately grabbed and given a very enthusiastic Mullah man hug with four wet kisses (his beard was wet) on both cheeks. In fact it was so wet that Tom felt he needed to cleanse himself in the shower!

That evening when the temperature had dropped a few degrees, we set off to see the holy shrine of Fatemeh, the 8th Imama’s sister. It is very nice to hear about a female of importance, as there do not seem to be many of them in Islam.

IMG_0453Fatemeh’s shrine was utterly beautiful, particularly at night and it had a fantastic feel to it. The girls of the party had to enter via a special cloaked doorway to check we were covered enough. Sally and I passed the test in full black, but Petra, though fully covered had to put another sheet on top of everything which ensured she nearly passed out from heat. The complex was vast and every inch tiled exquisitely. Families picnicked and kids ran about playing. There seemed to be lots more women then men and this is probably because the women use mosques as a social gathering point as well as a place of worship.IMG_3486

Suddenly a huge wind blasted us, as a dust storm approached. We legged it to the car, chadors and headscarves flying, through the area where you go if you wanted to be temporarily married (Sigheh). Bizarrely the Shiites believe that you can have a temporary wife for anything from 1 hour to several years as long as you pay for it and a Mullah recites some absolving words. When the Mullahs want a temporary wife I assume they can recite the words themselves. There are men who act as agents putting the willing parties together and it all sounds remarkably like the oldest profession in the world but by another name. The women as usual get a duff deal as once you have been a temporary wife (even to a boyfriend), it is unlikely that anyone will marry you, so you are stuck in the trade forever.

DSCN1232We had all decided we needed a recuperation day from the heat and Tom needed a day to fathom out what was wrong with Kabylie. We had a lovely day with the curtains firmly closed (in case an unsuspecting Mullah saw us without our headscarves on) playing games and blog writing, swathed in blissful aircon and using a clean western toilet. Apparently after the revolution, western toilets were banned and everyone had to return to a squat and drop Iranian loo. This caused havoc for all the hotels in the country as you can imagine. It was therefore surprising that here in the mullah VIP suite, western loos reigned, very welcome as the majority of the loos in Iran are dubious, even in nice restaurants and hotels. The one thing that can be said of Iranian loos, though, is that there is ALWAYS soap and somewhere good to wash your hands.

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We left early the next morning for Kashan, keen to escape the 1 million other guests who were on their way to use the city’s loos. Tom was optimistic that he had solved Kabylie’s problem – the float in the carburettor had kept sticking. As the heat of the day mounted, optimism descended as the familiar spluttering and ticking resumed. The routine of stop/start continued all the way to Kashan and we limped, sweating across the desert plain. It was at this point that I began to feel a little relieved that our Turkmenistan visas had still not come through.DSCN2678 (1)

Kashan is a lovely city and the first place we saw other tourists. It’s long history had seen a lot of wealth and it has a wonderful bazaar and numerous old merchant houses which have been restored and are fantastic to visit. From the outside they look nothing, with just a small brick doorway, but this leads to a straw and mud adobe roof, rounded on the outside but concealing a fabulous tiled dome on the inside. On DSCN2683entering, a cool corridor leads to a vast complex with numerous courtyards of trees and pools, and accommodation quarters designated for each of the four seasons to ensure sunshine, shade and breeze during the appropriate months. Kashan and in fact the whole country is full of these mud buildings but sadly not for much longer. Without maintenance they are quickly being eroded away
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Tom went off to find car parts and the rest of us had chay (tea) in a beautifully restored merchant’s house which is now a gorgeous hotel. No sooner had we stepped inside, we were overcome by the urge to blow the budget and stay there.

Sadly no rooms were available, so we made do with a little place Hossein found. Actually we struck gold as there was a wedding going on in the building next to the hotel. The girls were invited (sorry boys) to see it and we quickly rummaged about trying to find appropriate attire though with no idea what to wear to an Iranian wedding.

photo 7 group shot in  restored houseRather like the local buses, many conservative Iranian weddings are segregated. The women celebrate in one room and the men next door. The bride and groom visit each section and are given gifts and money. When we arrived, the happy couple were next door doing the rounds of the men’s room (not the loo). The women our side were attired in the revealing and racy dresses we had seen in every market, but wondered when they were ever worn. Here was the answer. Women dress up for other women and their husband only. As we sat at the back of the room eating cucumbers and riveted at what was going on, there was a sudden outburst of ‘ululating.’ Every woman excitedly joined in and there was a flurry as whirling scarves quickly shrouded the wonderful hairstyles and racy dresses. The ululating was a ‘warning’ ‘Quick! Quick! A man is coming – cover up! Three minutes later the bride and groom entered and we realised the great cover-up was due to this one man entering. What a feeling of power men must have knowing the performance that goes on at their mere presence in a room.View our tracker
DSCN2715The bride was the only one allowed to be unveiled in the presence of the groom and they danced as people gave them money. The groom then left and the bride danced on her own and then sat on the stage alone as everyone else danced, which seemed rather lonely. We were invited into the dancing and everyone was sweet and wanted a selfie with us. One of the guests called Emi spoke really good English and explained how most of the guests were cousins and that the bride and groom had known each other for exactly one month. Gosh! It was not an arranged marriage because they had met at work, but the reason it took so long for them to actually get married was their families had to discuss whether they thought they would get along well and other things. For many marriages, they know each other for a week!

Emi and her family were delightful and invited us for lunch the next day. It was another example of incredible Iranian hospitality and one we heartily accepted.

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6. Iran 2

The Caspian Sea to Alamut Valley

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Justine – After a steaming bowl of porridge for breakfast, we set off to visit Kanrood, the village our guide Hossein is originally from. As we drove to the foot of the jungle-clad mountains, the kids doing ‘bin man’ hanging on the back ladders of Kabylie , we could have been in Bali, with paddy fields stretching out in front of us.  It is rice-planting season, and red and black clad bottoms dotted the fields, as their owners stooped in the backbreaking job of pushing the lush green shots into the watery mud.

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The next day we had a family meeting to discuss the length of time we were spending in the car every day.  Hossein our guide calculates everything in an ‘Iranian time and distance’ that bares no relation to reality.  A two hour journey generally takes six hours.  When we got out the map, we realised that the itinerary that had been devised for us was totally unrealistic in a normal car, let alone in Kabylie.

DSCN0950.jpgHossein protested that being British, there was no way we could change the itinerary and we had to go to all the places laid out for us. To add in a bit of spice to the situation, we then told him that our Turkmenistan visas had not come through yet and if they did not, we would have to change our route altogether.  Hossein nearly had a heart attack and we all decided to look at the map again when his heart rate had returned to normal.

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Travelling in an old car, across numerous borders and countries with changing security situations, you have to be totally flexible, not knowing where you will sleep or even what country you will be in over the next few days. If the route changes, can you get a visa easily for the alternative? Even food is an unknown, as we have no room to store supplies and no fridge, we just have to scour the shelves of unknown products and try to cobble something together on a daily basis.

DSCN0979.jpgNext we headed to Masuleh, a wonderful ancient mud brick village, which was not diverging from our route, so Hossein was happy.  En route we stopped at a Caspian Sea lagoon where a number of speedboats were bobbing amongst the reeds.  I thought the boat trip on offer would be a put-putt-putt in the baking heat, but Hector had clocked the number of ‘horse-backs’ (horse-power) the engine had and excitedly insisted we all go.

We had a fabulous hour firing about the marsh, with our irritating headscarves conveniently blown off and flocks of herons taking to the sky at every rev of the engine.  No ecology protection here.  We exited out of the lagoon into a harbour full of old rusty Russian ships, plying the trade between Iran and Russia.  The ships must have been built on the Caspian, as it is really a giant lake rather than a sea.

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Continuing our route to Masuleh, Hossein started saying it was only another 150km.  What!   We had already driven 5 hours and the whole journey was meant to be 200km.   Darn it!  What is it with this Iranian timing and distance malarkey!

 

The heavens opened and fat drops of rain were soon pounding the windscreen so hard that we had to manually take over the wiper’s job – its one speed was not man enough for the quantity of water descending on us.   As night set in and Kabylie started to climb the jungled mountainside we were all thinking the same thing …….stuff camping, we want a hotel.  On asking Hossein told us that we could not deviate from our plan at all and could not change to a hotel, however, the quantity of water pouring for the heavens and the quality of Sal and Mikes picnic tent were obviously playing on his mind for when Kabylie finally puffed her way into Masuleh, Hossein had organised a little local apartment for us over some shops – hurray for having a guide – ludicrous timings forgiven.

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Mesuleh was gorgeous.  Inhabited for a millennium this mud brick flat roofed little town was perched in the mountains, its cool climate like drinking peppermint water.  We wandered the lanes and rooftops, haggled over brightly coloured slippers knitted by toothless old ladies and bought dried borage flowers from baskets along the path to aid restful sleep.

DSCN2181.jpgPoor Petra missed the morning’s activities, as she was feeling ill, either due to altitude sickness or from being gassed by the stove in the bedroom.  Either way, she had recovered by the afternoon so could join us for a bit of dressing up in the traditional garb of the village.  Sadly no one has worn these brightly coloured clothes any more for 150 years, but Iranian tourists love to dress up in them and we did not want to feel left out.

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That night Mike and I went for a stroll to buy some bread.    The soft dough balls looked so pleasing that I could not resist asking the baker if I could squish one and make a loaf.  ‘Loaf’ is not really the correct word as the bread is usually flat in Iran.  We had seen bread baked on pebbles; bread with a bubble wrap pattern, bread stuck on the side of the oven and now this bread needed ones fingers punched into it.  Mr. baker let me make a whole batch for the queue of peering on-lookers and the rush for infidel made bread was so great that I said I would come back with my children the next day and put them to work, which I duly did.DSCN2265.jpg

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The next part of our adventure was to take us back in time to the 12th century when Hasan-e Sabbah became leader of the radical Ismali sect, known as the Assassins and became the terror of the known world.  We were all highly excited to be going to the Alamut valley, the Assassin stronghold, with none other than Michael Oliver, one of the original British Museum backed team, who discovered the castle in 1960.

We entered the valley from the city of Qazvine where we stopped to marvel at the fabulous Bazar and caravanserais which one day will be converted into fabulous boutique hotels, by the Arab world looking for Halal holiday destinations.    In 1960, Mike had to make the journey over the Alborz Mountains from the Caspian Sea side with a mule train.  With another of Hossein’s random estimations of time, our journey today was almost as arduous as Kabylie struggled up the 3000+ meter passes.

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The scenery however made up for it. Red earth, juxtaposed against green fertile hillsides, cultivated with wheat but awaiting the planting of a new crop of fruit and nut trees.  From looking at Dad’s old footage of the 1960 expedition, I had been expecting a dry, rocky landscape, but this was both beautiful and bountiful.  We camped at Evan Lake, which ripples at the bottom of an amphitheatre of mountains, the snow capped Alborz, glinting behind an inner circle of red-rock hills.

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As Hector rejoiced at being able to build a fire, the first of our trip, Petra and I decided to go for a run around the lake, ridiculous headscarves and all.    We had to wait until dusk before we could swim and even then had to be fully clothed, but it was still glorious floating in the cool and just seeing the ring of mountains around the lake from the corner of your eyes.  The stars began to appear like an unseen hand casting diamonds onto deep velvet.

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The next day, excitement mounted as we zigzagged our way up the Alamut valley.  Mike could not believe that all the green had been planted in the last 60 years.  At last the great rock, like a kneeling camel came into view with the Alamut Castle perched on the top.  Here was the stronghold of Hasan-e Sabbah, the leader of the Assassins.

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It is said that Alamut Castle contained a secret ‘Garden of Paradise’ which was used to quash all fear of death for Hasan’s soldiers.  The soldiers were cunningly given hashish until they fell asleep.  On waking totally stoned, they would find themselves being tended by dusky maidens in a garden overflowing with virgins, milk, honey and other delights a rock fortress is devoid of.  Plied with more drugs, the hapless soldier would awaken back in reality, a flea infested barracks with dubious loos.  Thus knowing death in action bought the delights of Paradise, these soldiers became fearless to the extreme and proceeded to carry out political and religious murders across the 12th century world, standing by the body of their victim until they were discovered and killed themselves.  Their reputation struck fear into hearts across the world so much so that any murder in Europe was hurriedly blamed on the mysterious Assassins.  This fearless lot were locally known as ‘hashish-iyun’ which is the root of the modern English term ‘assassin’.  To find out more about the castle and its history and  Mike’s 1960’s expedition, you will have to read the newspaper article in the ‘Kids Corner’ written by burgeoning journalist Petra Oliver-Russell.  For a possibly more accurate version you can red Peter Willy’s book – Eagles nest!

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The search for Maymun-Diz was our next adventure.  This was the actual assassin castle that Mike’s expedition had re-discovered.  As Hector sang the Indiana Jones theme tune, we asked at various villages, which way Maymun Diz was.  Much head –shaking and mutterings about the quality of the road and eventually a man on a motorbike was found to lead us there. By this time we were all singing the Indian Jones theme tune and were super excited.  Mike was grinning from ear to ear as we left the car and proceeded to walk up a rocky river for about an hour and a half. Avoiding twisting my ankle on the rocks, I read out extracts for Peter Willey the expedition leader’s book ‘the Castle of the Assassins’ and we learnt how Dad aged 19 was the Quarter-master of the expedition and accomplished rock-climber  – handy as Maymum-Diz  means ‘Castle of the Apes’ and was half way up a cliff-face in caves in the rock.

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It was a wonderful day reliving Dad’s expedition.  We even found the grave of the local climber from the village who had been known as ‘Ape-man’ as he was so proficient.   As we had tea at our guide from the village’s home, he told us how he and some friends had illegally dug at Alamut and found an inscribed tablet.  Though he was caught and spent 3 nights in prison, it was clearly worth it as he had been able to buy land and a house with the money he got from flogging it to an antiques trader.  It could have been a new Rosetta stone, but is now sitting in the loo of some Russian oligarchs private collection.

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With all the archaeological excitement, I have forgotten to write about poor Kabylie as she had definitely taken second place to Indiana Oliver.  The hills of the Alamut valley had taken their toll and a green light on the dashboard kept illuminating with the engine intermittently losing power.  As we descended back to the baking plains of Qazvine poor Tom began to stress about whether he could fix her.

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5. Iran 1

Turkish boarder to the Caspian Sea

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dscn0858Justine –  When we left you last time we were bathing in the warmth of Iranian hospitality, having just had our lunch bought, by a stranger.  After this both well fed and well surprised, we visited the cave dwellings of Kandovan.  Most of the houses are still lived in today, and we were invited into one by a wizened old lady.  The house comprised of one room with several storage alcoves off it, one housing a makeshift kitchen, another a vast quantity of blankets and a washroom.  Learning that the village in winter is under 3 feet of snow, you could understand why there was the need for so many blankets. A hard place to live but apparently they moved up into the hills to hide from the marauding Mongols.

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Kandovan is renowned for it’s sweet spring water, which is so good that people journey all the way from Tehran to collect it.  Clearly we had to fill our tanks from such a source, so we relayed the water bowser backwards and forwards across the river to fill the main water tank in Kabylie.

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The next stop was Tabriz where we had a hotel for a night, which was well needed after several days of no showering.  As we checked in,

Tom was handed a note from a Mr. Moien, which just said ‘ a friend of Ray’s’.  Ray is a Canadian who’s made a similar trip to ours several months ago.  He had clearly read our blog, knew Kabylie had been suffering and had asked his friend to contact us. How he found us in a city of several million people is still a mystery. It is not just Iranian kindness out there but Canadian too!

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Iran has very, very few modern cars, due to sanctions everything on the roads has been patched up and repaired many, many times .  Most of the cars are about 20 years old but the lorries are older and we often get a peep and a wave of solidarity from the oldest of them. Despite this we are still the oldest car that we have seen in Iran.

IMG_4538.jpgA fabulous old shop on the corner of our hotel caught Tom’s eye.  In side was every possible car part from every ancient car. Metal and grease lined the walls and it was just a shame that Kabylie is short on space.  Actually perhaps it is a good thing, or we might have been carrying a vast array of greasy car parts for our onward journey.

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Tabriz was definitely more conservative than the areas we had seen so far.  There were a lot of full-length black outfits and Mike even had his forearms sternly tapped by a man who clearly did not appreciate the cool airiness of a short-sleeved shirt.  After visiting the beautiful blue mosque and some other sites, we caught a local bus to experience the daily segregation of the local populace.  We girls were sent to the back as the boys rode in front and it made us think of apartheid in South Africa.

That evening we searched about for something smart to wear as we were going to take Ali (the Iranian who had bought us our lunch) up on his offer of supper at his apartment.  We were very much hoping that the offer had not been what the Iranians call “Ta’arof” where they offer you something repeatedly but you are never meant to say yes!  Oooops! – was he in fact horrified that seven of us were on our way!DSCN0896.jpg

Later we rolled back to our hotel utterly stuffed. Only after we had gorged ourselves on a plethora of delights were we to discover that was just the aperitif and an entire Iranian feast was to follow.  It was a wonderful evening and immense kindness from Ali and Sevile his wife.

DSCN0909.jpgAfter Tabriz, we headed towards the Caspian Sea, such a romantic name and one which for many British people conjures up images of C.S Lewis, Prince Caspian and Narnia.

The scenery began to change from wide-open plains with snow-capped mountains in the background, to steep climbs over the forest and the cloud covered Hiran pass.  So steep was the road that it was lined with expectant ambulances and pick up trucks which was somewhat disconcerting.  Poor Kabylie had to have her breaks cooled several times by Hector and Tom spitting mouthfuls of water at them.  One’s mouth is far superior at aiming than a cup or bottle.

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The scenery was more like the Panamanian jungle to what you would expect in Iran. The Caspian coast gets a huge amount of rainfall and we were certainly feeling the humidity mount in the back of Kabylie.  I have just found out that the word ‘jungle’ is in fact Persian, so rather wonderful to see the scenery that it originated from.  We eventually descended to Astara, which borders Azerbaijan.  We went straight to the police station to check in as being British, we have to be monitored and let the police know exactly where we are.  There were loads of likely lads hanging about the police station who turned out to be moneychangers for all the people coming from Azerbaijan.  Clearly a highly secretive black market, if the police station is their stomping ground!

DSCN0936.jpgWe camped that night on the shores of the Caspian.  It sounds more romantic than it was as Iranians have a very different relationship with rubbish than we do and are quite happy to liberally spread it about.  It was not easy to find a good camp spot devoid of litter.  This is one of the very few faults we have with Iran, the fact that there is lots of litter everywhere and for a population who loves to picnic and enjoy the countryside, it is surprising that they feast amongst the birdsong and then just get up and leave all their rubbish behind.  We were told by an academic, that when asked, Iranians say it is a protest against the government, though I am not sure how affective it is as the population suffer more than their rulers.

That night we all snuggled into our roof tent and cozily listened to Bill Bryson’s ‘At Home’ a routine we were to continue for as long as the roof-rack could hold the weight of all six of us!

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DSCN2138.jpgThe nightingale’s song that night, was interspersed by another visitation… from the authorities shining torches at our tents, this time with guns though they were friendly and a phone call to our guide saw them melt into the darkness. We were left to sleep with the howl of jackals and the splutter of tractor engines.  Peering out our windows, we were amazed to see tractors in the shallows of the Caspian driving up and down the beach in the sea.  After much speculation, and theorising as to what they were doing, we found out later that they drag implements to dig up all the shallow shells to turn into some sort of tiling.  Next time you buy a lovely terratzo bowl from John Lewis, you can ponder on the diminishing shells of the Caspian.

 

4. Turkey 2

Trabzon to the Iranian boarder

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screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-18-58-19Justine- The illustrious Yali hotel overlooked the run way at Trabzon airport and Petra and Hector excitedly watched for Sally and Mike’s (Justine’s parents) plane to land.  It was not long before there was a tap at the door and in entered the beatniks.  As mentioned in the last blog post, Sally and Mike drove through Iran in the 1960’s on their meandering way via Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to South Africa . The headline in the Lebanese press when they arrived and camped on the beach was “ Beatniks Hit Beirut” They insist they were NOT Hippies!

As the beatniks unpacked their vast amount of luggage, Tom’s eyes started spinning like a fruit machine.  Tea bags, burkhas, guide-books, blow-up matresses, camp chairs, even a kitchen sink (foldable) were clocking through Tom’s mind as he tried to mentally cram it all into Kabylie, estimating that we were going to be about twice as heavy as we should be.  One of the golden rules of overlanding ‘don’t overload your vehicle’ would soon be out the window.

The next day after a vast breakfast of every olive, cheese, vegetable, jam and halva under the sun, we decided that to make the Iranian border in time to meet our guide Mr Hossein we would have to set off immediately.  We spent a fair time squashing everything into the car and just when it was all in, bulging against the doors, the hotel bought out our laundry.

With all six of us aboard we pulled out of Trabzon. With her new load, Kabylie inched her way up the ever increasing slopes and Hector kept leaning out of the window to tell us that the tyres looked very squashed.  As the snowline got nearer, we pulled into a roadside café. It turned out to be a good moment as for the first time on the trip steam had just begun to ominously boil from the radiator.View our tracker

When the engine had cooled, we set off into a huge tunnel through the mountain. We entered the tunnel in sunshine and exited under dark forbidding clouds.  The weather began to deteriorate rapidly as we passed our first heavily armed checkpoint. A sobering reminder that the security situation in this part of Turkey was not great.  We stopped to fill up with petrol as lightning flashed and hail stones bounced off Kabylie.  We set off again with all of us squashed in under the darkening sky, and Tom, commenting that Kabylie did not feel right and was loosing power. By now we had reached the snowline and poor Kabylie was crawling like a snail in first gear as rain lashed her sides.  Although Tom had replaced every door seal, these early Land Rovers are as draffy as an English church so everything we could lay our hands on was stuffed around the doors to keep the weather out.  We were warm on the slow assents as the engine laboured and the wind-chill lessened and freezing on the fast dissents with the drum brakes steaming.

The scenery was very dramatic, barren, treeless hills with just the zig-zag snake of the newly tarmaced road descending down, down, down below.  At about 2500m we slowed to take a photo.  An error.  The engine stalled. Here we were on a barren mountainside, with storm clouds all around us and in hostile territory about 30km from Bayburt, where we planned to sleep.  Much praying and clenching of buttocks and eventually poor Kabylie spluttered to life.  We limped up the last few kilometres of yet another huge 2500m pass now in low ratio with Hector yelling he could smell burning and Tom yelling back that he knew, but he had no choice but to keep going or he would never get her started again. He could not even risk stopping to let us all out to walk. With much relief Kabylie summited and begun to role down the other side with Tom desperately coxing the last life out of the engine. The gods were with us for as she finally gave up and her engine died we rolled the last 20 meters into a newly built and quite rare in these parts, roadside hotel.

Tom is fantastic in an emergency and though all day he had known Kabylie was in a bad way, he calmly kept her moving, showing no sign of the hidden danger. It’s never good to be stranded with your family and in-laws on a deserted mountain-side in a snow storm but particularly not in Eastern Turkey!

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Tom did not even set foot in the hotel lobby.  He did his super-man change into his boiler suit and was at work, his sous mechanic Mike holding the torch and giving encouragement.  Finally the conclusion was the head gasket had blown.  The head gasket is what seals the joint between the top and bottom parts of the engine. The jam in the engine sandwich. The only real way to be sure this was the problem was to to take the entire top off the engine. This could have been a big mistake if Tom had not guessed correctly. Thus by torch-light and mugs of tea, Tom stripped the engine, discovered that it was indeed the head gasket (luckily we were carrying a spare) replaced it and rebuilt the top of the engine. To Tom’s huge relief and enormous satisfaction it started first time and appeared to work! Exhaustedly the mechanic and sous-mechanic fell into bed.

 

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Next morning, Tom was up early, checking that Kabylie was indeed alive and that she would actually start again.  Amazingly she did first time, but it was no respite for Tom’s worry as after a new head gasket, you should really take it easy and tighten (re-taque) the head bolts that squash the sandwich together but we knew we had to press on, again overloaded, if we were going to get to the Iranian border on time.

We stopped at Bayburt castle , an impressive perimeter wall of a fort over 1000 year old, which had been an important staging post along the Silk Road.  As Tom got 15 minutes sleep in the car, the rest of us ran up to the fort.  No sooner had we stepped inside the great gate, then a gale whipped up from nowhere.  So strong was the wind that we could hardly get down the steps and back to the car.  It certainly felt like some hostile force did not want us to be there.

The castle guard assured us that there were no hills between Bayburt and Iran, as we set off out of town.  It was not long however, before Tom started moving down the gears and we began to climb yet again.  Every time we stopped to fill up, Tom was under the bonnet with a spanner in his hand.  The only vehicles we passed were heavily armed and had soldiers and weapons hanging off them.

Kabylie struggled on.  Another range of passes taking us up to 2429 meters and above the snow line.  We considered two or three of us taking a bus to the border if we could find one but it did not feel right splitting the retro-road trip team.

After one more night in a hotel near the border, excitement and trepidation was in the air for our crossing into Iran.  Would our papers be in order, would our carnet de passage  (passport for the car) be correct, would our guide Mr Hossein be there to meet us?  Only British, American and Canadian’s have to have a guide and it is a painful process and was due to this that we had been so late in getting our visas for Iran.

That morning, Sally had whipped out two floor length black dresses which she had been assured would be the correct thing to wear in Iran.  Mum had duly bought us both one and though I said dressing like the locals actually makes one stand out even more, mum was determined to wear her voluminous cover-all.  We stopped for a photo in our new garb as we passed the vast and fabulous Mount Ararat.  Totally covered in snow, it was much bigger than anything around it, and had a huge and perfectly flat shelf near its summit, which was clearly where Noah had landed his ark.

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 When we started seeing lorries lining the road, we knew we had reached the border. There were a few cars offloading people with vast bags and boxes, but we seemed to be the only car driving through and were beckoned to the front.  We were informed that only Tom and the car could drive through, so the rest of us walked into the ‘salon’ ready to show our passports to exit Turkey.  A quick loo stop confirmed that you would not like to be ill in this place and have to visit the facilities more than once (in a lifetime.)

The ‘salon’ was crowded with traders who had all bought sack-loads of Haribo jelly sweets, chocolates and other products you obviously could not get in Iran. We stood in the queue for two hours, swelteringly hot and being bustled by bulging haribo bags.  I must praise the kids for being incredibly good as it was boring and hot and with nowhere to sit.

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With our passports being meticulously inspected we were eventually waved through the Turkish side.  The girls donned their black scarves and we walked through the railed corridor into Iran.  Out of the melle, a small white bearded man emerged with a huge smile ‘Arrrh Justine, you have arrived’ What are you wearing!  No-one wears this long black thing here and oh dear why no colour?’ It was Mr Hossein, our guide.

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Getting through immigration, we were immediately pleased we had a guide as Mr Hossein seemed to know everyone and did a lot of laughing in the right places with the police and officials.  Being British, we had to have every finger and knuckle print taken.

We emptied poor Kabylie of her extra load, namely my parents and their weighty bags which we have just discovered include a small library of hard-backed books on Iran and set off in convoy with Mr Hossein either firing off at high speed and leaving us cursing , miles behind in his wake or driving like an erratic tortoise. We followed him in this fashion down the most magnificent red canyon along the Azerbijan, Iran border with strict instructions that taking photos was not allowed.

We had all read that May is the best time to travel in Iran as the wild flowers bloom everywhere and we had all imagined wild camping in fields of luminous colour.  Thus we were somewhat disappointed when with the light fading, Hossein drove us into a rather kitsch ornamental park with families promenading and sitting on benches. The large ‘do not walk on the grass’ sign was promptly ignored by Hossein who instead advised us to erected Sal and Mikes tent on it.  Catastrophe! It now transpired that the blow up matrasses that Sally and Mike had bought were far too big to fit in the tent we had got them in France. With much shoving and cursing and inflation and de-inflation, they were crammed in, but it meant that the roof of the tent was inches from their faces, bulging at the sides and had clothing stuffed in to the hole where the mosquito net would not close.  Hats off to these stalwart travellers.  There are not many 73 and 75
year olds who would hoot with laughter and embrace this discomfort. Respect to the beatnik generation!

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As we finished making camp, a steady stream of people approached  us in amazement and delight, at us and our extraordinary car and roof tent. We had though the Turks were friendly, but Iranians are something else.  At least fourty people came to say hello over the next few hours. Never all at once but family-by-family, impeccably polite and never intrusive. They all wanted to chat, welcome us to their country, to have their photos taken with us or invite us to their homes.  So much for mum in her muller outfit, everyone we met was colourful and chic!  Only the fundamentalists’ wear black, everyone else is in tight trousers or leggings and colourful thigh length coats and headscarves.  Lots of make-up and lots of hair showing. Poor Hossein kept telling us to change into something better….alas we had nothing better!

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The next day we headed to Kandovan, Iran’s version of the Cappadocian cave houses in Turkey.  Stopping for kebabs at a roadside café, a strong London accent welcomed us and asked if we had tried the omelette. Ally had spent 14 years living in London and had now returned to Iran and he and his wife were on a weekend break.  After insisting that we eat half his delicious Iranian omelette he amazed us by discretely paying for our lunch! As he left the café, he implored us to come for supper at his house in Tabriz.  As you can imagine the rest of our meal was spent discussing the extraordinary friendliness and generosity of the Persians.

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We and Kabylie were given a contestant welcome and attention wherever we went. Horns pooped, people waved and came up to us to say hello. That night, when we camped near to Kandovan, it was a public  holiday.  Iranians had taken to the countryside en-mass and pic-nicers occupied every green space. So much so that we could not find a place to camp and had to make do with an abandoned football pitch, only occupied by a lonely shepherd and his flock.  As the pic-nicers headed home, they passed us on the road.   Two seconds later however, there would be a screech of breaks and they would reverse back towards us and then all pile out of the car to come and say hello.  There was genuine delight that some ‘Englizistan’ people were visiting their country. Our vast rooftop tent is not discrete and soon the tourists had become the biggest attraction in town.

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We went to bed happily reflecting on all the delightful people we had met only to be rudely awakened by bright lights and aggressive voices in the early hours. The religious police had also come to see the new tourist attraction. Thankfully a sleepy Hossein, our guide, managed to deploy his disarming laugh and convinced them it was not a good moment to wake the kids and we were allowed to go back to sleep………though unsurprisingly, none of us did!

We are now in the North of Iran and our journey will take us south towards Isfahan and Shiraz. We are still waiting for our Turkmenistan visas and are beginning to be concerned that we may not be granted them. Transit visas to Turkmenistan are regularly refused and it’s beginning to look like we may not be given them. If this is the case we may well have to head back into Turkey after Iran and weigh up our options but we will keep you posted in the next instalment……….
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Head Gasket

Tom – Got into a bit of trouble yesterday when our head gasket blew. Literally rolled into a hotel car park and changed it last night behind the back of the hotel. I’m the monkey in Blue and Mike Oliver is the consultant with the torch. It seems to work this morning but we will have to see when we hit the road

 

3. Turkey 1

Istanbul to Trabzon

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screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-18-53-19DSCN0470Tom – As we crossed into Asia over the vast suspension bridge that spans the Bosphorous the heavens opened. Our first impressions of Asia was not at all the dusty dry Turkey that we have seen in summer. Here in April, it is lush, green and verdant and again more like England in the spring.

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Out of all the countries we are planning to travel through, Turkey has been the one we were most concerned about due to the current situation in Syria. So far, Turkey has actually been a wonderful surprise. Though Tom and I have sailed up the Mediterranean coast of Turkey before, the interior is new to us. Everywhere we go, people are utterly delightful and delighted to see us. People are so keen to communicate with us and it is frustrating that we cannot get much further than mad grinning and hand-signals. English is a rare thing along the Black Sea coast and our Turkish is non-existent, but in almost every encounter with the locals we are asked to visit their family and given telephone numbers of relatives. Other times cars poop their horns and people wave as we pass. Its mafia style man-hugs for me, cheek squeezing for the kids and hand-shakes for Justine.

We spent the next five or so hours climbing to about 2000m into the Anatolian highlands and as we climbed the rain got heavier and we moved from England to what looked more like the Scottish boarders. Every hour or so we passed a recently overturned car or lorry. The road was perfect and empty so I’m not sure why there were all these accidents but it certainly helped me focus as I peered through the small arch swept by our tiny Lucas wiper blades.  The wiper on the passenger side is very slow, so Justine has to manoeuvre her wiper by hand!

DSCN0643 (1)As we pulled into fill up, a comedy show repeats itself at ever filling station as the eager attendant darts round and round the car looking for the filler cap. All passengers jump out of the car for saftey’s sake as in Series One Land Rovers the petrol tank filler is alarmingly under the front seats.

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As evening closed in we rolled down the long hill to Safranbolu passing a vast steel mill. The rain had finally begun to subside but we noticed a haze from the loads on the trucks we were now following. The steel on their trailers was still glowing hot and the last spits of rain turned to steam on contact.

DSCN0478Safranbolu is an old Ottoman town in the hills and has a renowned ancient bathhouse. It’s certainly very old and from the outside on a cold rainy night did not look like the sort of place I fancied taking my clothes off in. However we needed a wash so a hamam and a massage was rather tempting after a long drive. The girls delightedly went in one door and Hector and I reluctantly in another. We had been hoping for something DSCN0483Balinese with flowers and floaty music but it was not long before we were face down on a marble slab being sandpapered (exfoliated) by a very fat Turk called Abdulla. Abdulla then soaped us up with an impressive soapy pillowcase trick and pummelled us before throwing buckets of water at us to rinse us down. Actually, it was a surprisingly good massage but I feel slightly ill when I think of the moment that my face was sandwiched between Abdulla’s vast belly and the marble slab as he massaged my back. The girls had a similar pummelling but in their case had a vast breast, face, marble slab, sandwich. We all joked that it was a long way from a Balinese massage.

Justine – Our questhouse was in an old Ottoman house up steep narrow cobbled streets and we slept like logs only awaking to an incredible dawn chorus. The amazing spread of breakfast was too far from the Fruit and Fibre that Tom avidly sticks to at home. Olives, salty cheese and tapenade was welcomed by Petra and I, but Hector and Tom stuck to the rose-petal jam and bread, which looked comfortingly familiar.

The next morning we wandered into the town to explore the cobbled streets of what is renowned to be Turkey’s most thoroughly preserved Ottoman town. During our whole route so far we have not met or even seen any foreign tourists (except the three in our guesthouse in Istanbul.)

After buying some of Safranbolu’s fabled walnut halva we headed out of town with some steep hill descents, which called for us to douse the brakes with water a couple of times.  Even this does not perturb Kabylie who is functioning so well that it is incredible to think that a few weeks ago, she had only ever been 3km to the beach and back! In the last two weeks she has driven over 3200km without a problem except for ‘The Squeak.’ A really irritating squeak has developed in Petra’s door hinge, which no amount of tinkering seems to fix. Jamming a fork rather precariously in it can only quieten it. No amount of adjustment seems to cure it for long and the conclusion is that it is probably due to our large roof load.

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DSCN0517Most of the landscape we have driven through is green and mountainous. Small villages huddled around mosques perched on improbably steep hillsides all the way up to the height of the thawing snow. We have managed to wild camp some nights, finding dirt roads through small villages where the bird song at dawn and the stars at night are incredible. One gorgeous spot was in a field at the end of an old lady’s garden. Cape Jason, where apparently Jason and the Argonauts rested before searching for the Golden Fleece was too exposed and it was getting late. I spotted an elderly lady in traditional clothes stoking a fire. With a stroke of luck the word for ‘camp’ in Turkish is the same as English so with my one word and much gesturing, she agreed to let us camp in the field at the end of her garden overlooking the bay. We managed to communicate via a phone call to her granddaughter in Izmir who duly translated questions too and fro.

We have finally arrived in Trabzon, one of the last significant cities in Turkey on the road to Iran. Tonight my parents arrive and tomorrow all 6 of us (and their vast bags) stuff ourselves into Kabylie and head over the mountains to the Iranian boarder. We are not sure how much Internet access we will have in Iran so this may be the last post for a while.

FullSizeRenderWe are all very excited about Sally and Mike Oliver, my parents joining the retro-road trip. It is probably due to both sets of parents that we are on this trip at all as it was them that infused us with the adventuring spirit throughout our childhoods. Interestingly both my parents and Tom’s dad drove the very route we have taken so far when they were in their 20’s. In 1960 Mike, my father, drove to Iran with the British Museum backed Oxford University expedition in search of one of the lost castles of the Assassins in the Alamut Valley, which incidentally they did actually find. In 1963 Andrew, Tom’s father drove a Bedford van with three friends from the UK to Syria.

Then in 1966 Mike and Sally (my mother) set off with four others in a split screen VW for three months to drive to South Africa. One years later they arrived in Cape Town having taken in most of the Middle East, Afghanistan and India on route. They fondly remember a newspaper article written about them headlining ‘Beatniks Hit Beirut.’ Thus our trip seems rather humble compared to theirs!

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Tom was very keen to find someone to service the car today. We managed to find a Land Rover garage and whether it was the car or Tom’s super-man change into his blue boiler-suit, we were royally welcomed. The only English that was uttered was the Land Rover team pointing at Tom exclaiming ‘Jim Carey! That must have been a compliment as we were not only welcomed like long lost friends but given a vast lunch, an oil change and the replacement of a front wheel bearing oil seal and they would not accept payment! They were as excited by Kabylie as Hector with a new Lego set at Christmas. We left after Tom was kissed and man-hugged like a mafia godfather. Delightful, kind and generous people. This once gain confirmed our good impression of Turkey. Fabulous roads, everything is clean and impeccably managed and even the dogs, yes even they are well managed and remain silent at night!DSCN0694

For the next leg of our journey from Trabzon to the Iranian border Petra and I are concerned that we look too like a military vehicle though Tom and Hector are insistent you would have to be pretty daft to make that mistake. After some pressure Tom has reluctantly agreed to a “Love and Peace” camouflage idea. He has kept putting it off but the time has come. Between here and the Iranian border we will be passing Mount Ararat, which many Christians believe was the final resting place of Noah’s ark. It was felt that a dove was maybe too symbolic but who could have a problem with a parrot.!! South American, another continent! Over the next few weeks we will see if the parrot is the new dove………….

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Finally, a few people have asked how our roof tent works…..I hope this youtube explains it better…..

2. Venice to Istanbul

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Tom – We have arrived in Istanbul! A last minute flash of inspiration by Justine saved us from a dodgy looking campsite miles from the city and conjured up instead a fantastic, family run, bargain priced guesthouse next to the Blue Mosque. I had been really worried about not having secure parking for Kabylie, with our ladders, jerry cans and other additions looking rather tempting to pilfer, but the guesthouse owner’s assurances that the street was safe enough for the lure of Istanbul to over-rule car security concerns………Kabylie is currently wedged between flower pots in the street outside our window with the night watchmen practically camped on the bonnet.

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To get to Istanbul, we had to take a ship from Venice to Ignomanitsa in Greece, which Petra had been looking forward to since we set off and she was thankfully not disappointed. Our cabin had massive fold down beds that delighted the kids and were large enough for a Geek lorry driver. Kabylie was parked happily on deck and was one of the few cars whose clutch didn’t bellow smoke on the very steep ramp up to it. The view of Venice from the deck as we slipped out of the lagoon into the AegeIMG_0088an looked so romantic and made us rather sad that we did not have time to visit the city.
We happily sailed south over the glistening sea slowly choking on the second hand smoke of our shipmates.

 

Our first camp site in Greece was our first encounter with the “Overland” crowd and their various contraptions. The crème de la crème was a couple from Chantilly, France on recumbent bikes that are planning to cycle our route this season. This gave us a bit more confidence in our schedule and a bit of concern at theirs. One of Justine’s worries has been crossing the Turkmen desert on a 5 day transit visa in up to 40 degree heat. They are going to have to cycle it in the same time and hotter temperatures in August!

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We stayed 2 nights and the team swam in the sea, ran on the beach and paddle boarded on an old windsurfer while I serviced the car and adjusted the brakes.

DSCN0395With the last bit of salt from the boat washed off the car, we set off towards the snow capped Greek mountains. I can’t remember driving on a better road with less traffic.View our tracker

All was going well with two more lorries overtaken when it was generally agreed that there was a burning smell and it was coming from us. As we pulled up to the next tollbooth I pulled over to take a look. One of the rear wheels was almost on fire, so hot that when I doused it with the conveniently placed shower the water boiled to steam off the wheel nuts. I had over tightened the brake shoes the DSCN0399day before in an attempt to improve the breaking. A broken spanner and a few tense minutes and the problem was sorted and we were back on our way, though sniffing regularly out of the windows.

 

The next stop in Greece was a nice one by the sea which alas turned sour as the sun went down and we nested in our tent. The lapping of the waves was soon accompanied by Woof, Woof….Woof all flipping night. It is interesting how some nationalities love to tie mangey dogs on short ropes to their property. DSCN0411They seem to serve no function except to drive the neighbours mad barking the entire night. They are useless as guard dogs as they are chained up and bark constantly whether one is being robbed or not. We can only assume that the Greeks have much better ear-plugs than we do.

A few people have asked about our sleeping arrangements. Our roof tent is like a large popup book. When the book is closed, it is roughly the size of the roof-rack. As the book opens, the back cover folds out, pulling up the tent and extending out over the roofrack, where it is supported by the two entry ladders. The tent is a vast and wonderful den taking about 10 minutes to assemble, (longer to put away). There is a ‘room divider’ which we can put up to make two rooms, one for us and one for the kids. The tent has great mosquito netting except where the poles extend to the floor where there are holes. We are still working on effectively blocking them as the rousing whine of mozzies around ones ears is nearly as annoying as the dogs.

I see that polar explorers Pom Oliver and Sue Richies are signed up for this blog and I remember from your talk to the RGS Sue that everyone is fascinated about how to pee in a tent. In our case it’s a (very) wide necked apple juice bottle for Monsieur and a tupperware for Madame. It works very well and also catches out the native night time apple juice thief when placed on the bonnet.

The truth is Justine and I have not been sleeping well but this is more to do with the task in hand than the tent. As we blearily packed up the tent the next morning Hector wonderfully asked “Dad, do they sell good bungees in the East?” DSCN0388He had picked up on our apprehension as we approached the boarder and this was obviously his personal concern. We had sadly seen some refugees being returned by the police on the ferry from Greece and in tents camping by the roadside.
We therefore thought it best to tackle the border in the morning so we found a great spot near the sea for our first wild-camp (i.e. not on a campsite) next to a Cyclopes cave, which seemed appropriate for our last night in Greece. Close but not too close to the border.

FullSizeRenderThe road to Turkey was again deserted making us think that maybe the border was closed. A queue of trucks and the first vast Turkish flag, the first of many that line the road all the way to Istanbul, marked the frontier. As it turned out it was quite painless. The border crossing though certainly looked the part. A rickety bridge with Greek flags one side and Turkish the other. Bristling with armed guards scouring at each other over the Meric river. On the Turkish side our documents were inspected closely.View our tracker

 

 

“Occupation?” I was asked. (I often look shifty at this question)DSCN0425

“Construction” I replied hesitantly

“Where yoow going” He asked looking me up and down and then the car.

“Iran” I said

“Haahh C.I.A” he scowled as he tossed me back my passport

 

He had obviously been watching Bond films and had seen Moneypenny in the passenger seat.

We trundled off on another excellent road into Turkey and were ecstatic as we overtook not one but two cars and about 5 lorries. Strangely this part of Turkey looks uncannily like Essex in June at this time of year. The same rolling countryside and the oilseed rape just coming into flower but again the roads are better. We will have to see how long this lasts but since leaving Cambridge the M11 is by far the worst and most heavily congested road we have been on.

Unlike in Greece, petrol stations in Turkey are every kilometre, sell everything and even it seems have prayer rooms. Hector spotted this when he came back telling us about a gym. On the way to the loo he had seen through a door people doing what he was sure was gymnastics on the floor.

DSCN0444Approaching Istanbul by car is becoming more like approaching a vast Chinese city. Miles of sprawling tower blocks and shopping centres. We were beginning to panic that maybe driving into Istanbul was a mistake but Petra had insisted and we were not disappointed. The last minute change of plan and a call to the Marmara Guesthouse found us driving down magical streets in the depths of the old town to a guesthouse ridiculously close to Hagia Sophia. The colour and smells and the blasts from the ships horns in the Bosphorus drifted over the old city and mingled with the call to prayer from the meuzzin’s in the minarets of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. What a city!

IMG_3341We have spent a fantastic day seeing all the sites a stone throw from our guesthouse. Even better, there is no space in the car for anyone to buy anything so even visiting the Grand Bazaar was a pleasure. The recent tragic attacks here have cleared the city of tourists so we have had the place to ourselves. Tomorrow we will somehow untangle Kabylie from the street she is wedged into and again head East into Asia for the first time. Our next post will hopefully be from Trabzon in Eastern Turkey where we meet Justine’s parents before hopefully crossing into Iran.

 

 

 

1. Biarritz – Venice

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Tom – We are now on the ferry to Greece from Venice. Petra is feeling slightly sick already and the rest of us are drowsily (Stugeron) lying about reflecting on the last few action packed days.

Having been delayed a week we ended up on Friday morning having almost done everything on Justine’s list, including bombarding our poor neighbour’s letterbox with extra, extra, extra sets of spare keys.

We were just beginning to panic that our passports and visas were not going to arrive before the weekend when Petra suggested checking the post box. Of course they had been there all morning!

It’s strange to do something as mundane as locking your front door knowing you may not be back for such a long time. Everyone bundled into the car as if late for school and off we drove.

I’d tested, re-tested, stroked, oiled and greased Kabylie for the last few months but as we drove out of Biarritz I was acutely aware that statistically this was a seriously unreliable car. Our visa delay had meant that we had just over two weeks to cover 4,174km from Biarritz in S.W France to Trebzon in Eastern Turkey. No small challenge for a nearly 60 year old car, laden to the brink and entirely rebuilt by an amateur. Having most recently broken down only the day before it seemed likely we might be fishing keys out of the neighbour’s letterbox before nightfall! View our tracker

To our collective surprise everything went surprisingly smoothly and with heart in my mouth we slipped onto the auto-route and roared up to cruising speed. (80km/h) Our first drama slowly begun to emerge from the bonnet as I realised I had not tested my canvass spare wheel cover at these crazy speeds. It inflated like a large pasty obscuring most of the road as the trucks roared past.

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Having finally found somewhere to stop to strap everything down we were off again and the kids slipped into long journey stupor. We often drive to the UK so they know the routine and are very good at it. Thanks to a technical trick this old girl was now quiet (almost) as a Roller. Noise reduction headphones and extra seat foam are a vintage car must.

As we passed Pau the first “I’m hungry” came from the back. The sun had now come out and was shining off the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees in the distance. It was time for our first campsite.

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The next day was the big slog from near Tarbes to somewhere near Arles. For me it was a pleasure because as the kms slipped by, the statistical likelihood of Kabylie breaking down, dramatically reduced. I appreciate that 80km/h is not fast but it feels more than enough when you’re grateful to be moving at all.

As we roared down towards the Med from Carcassonne there was great celebration when three dead flys were spotted on the windscreen. Kabylie’s stock was also greatly increased when a trailer in front suddenly shed its entire cargo of plastic crates. Swerving was impossible with such a load so we ploughed through the lot like the Millennium Falcon in an asteroid belt. There was a very large bang and dust in our wake. If we had been in a car we would have been is serious trouble. View our tracker

We camped near Arles on the edge of the Camargue and hungrily ate pizza out of the wind in the Petanque club polytunnel. We deployed the rooftop tent in a record 10 min and snuggled down to our first long awaited film in………Hindustani. So we tried another and another and yes, it turned out that all the films Petra had found us were all somehow the Hindustani version apart from one about the Mormon Church, so we watched that and it sent us to sleep rather well!

Arles to Italy was another slog. Our image was greatly improved by writing 1957 on the back window. Suddenly we were “les aventuriers” not some annoying goons from the circus, holding up traffic. We had honks and waves all along the Côte d Azur and crowds around the car at the frequent petrol stops. I can’t say it didn’t feel rather good, especially when one of our admirers offered to swop his very fancy Porsche for it! The pleasure was momentary as I glanced at Justine and saw the YES YES written in her eyes! As we rumbled past St Tropez the same very fancy Porsche rode with us as outrider for a while, honking his horn before he sped off into the distance with an impressive roar.

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After lunch we broke the journey by hooking up with the Veritys. We had introduced Tom and Heather to each other at our wedding and now two gorgeous children later, they too had taken to the road to tour Europe in their van. Two adventure vehicles both being in the same part of France was too much and we had to make a detour to briefly swop stories of lack or sleep and life on the road (for us a mere two nights of it!)

We continued along the hamster run of an auto-route that leads to the Italian border. Tunnel, bridge, tunnel, bridge all the way. caged in with high fences and no hard shoulder with an obscene number of supercars buzzing past. Tiring driving. If we broke down here we would be in serious trouble. However it was not Kabylie who nearly had to be resuscitated but Hector who holds his breath at every tunnel. A 1.8km tunnel nearly finished him off.

Once in Italy we hunted around looking for a campsite that did not look too dodgy but when we found one, crammed with motor homes, the whole place stopped and stared as we drove in like cowboys from out of town walking into a saloon. The roof tent caused a sensation and confirmed we were definitely aliens.

The next day we managed to make it all the way to Venice ready for our ferry. Another enormous distance but we did manage to overtake three lorries on the long hill out of Genoa and a van puffing smoke near Verona.

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We also came across a fabulous shop selling lorry air horns and we were all struck with a primeval urge to get one. In some ways maybe doing an overland adventure is really only an excuse to fit extra lights and horns to your car. We all agreed that if we make it to Iran we might need some meter long, two tone, bad boys! View our tracker

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Passports and Visas have arrived!

Tom – We are good to go! The Visas and Passports arrived 5 minutes ago! A spot of lunch and then we go……………….DSCN0321

Still in Biarritz!

Tom- Its been a hectic week. We were supposed to leave on Sunday but we are waiting by the post box for our Iranian Visas. The delay has however helped us get more organised this end. Hopefully our passports and visas will arrive tomorrow but if we are much more delayed we are going to have rather hideous dash across Europe to be at the Iranian border on time. Not what we had planned in a 60 year old car!

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Justine is still knee deep in paperwork and tackling the lists seems to be like running in quicksand. She says she is getting there.

The delay has enabled us to test out our cooking facilities which alarmingly runs on unleaded. We managed tea without the loss of eyebrows.DSCN0316

Justine does not know this but I have also had time to fix a wheel stud that alarmingly came off as I was tightening the wheel nut. Luckily this has happened before so I know what to do.

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I have also just come back from my final weigh-in at the local gravel yard. 2140kg full of fuel (not the jerry cans) but empty of Justine’s clothes and the four of us. The “Poid maximum en charge autorise” according to the plate on the side is 2354kg so that gives us 214 for us and Justine’s bag. Weight is one of our issues at the moment and for this reason I have had to ditch this nice HI-Lift jack. Sorry Evelyn, I know you said its a must have but lets hope Central Asia is less boggy than Africa.

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Visa Trouble

Justine -The 10th of April, our set off date is approaching far too fast. In an ideal world, we would be doing a few trial runs with everything packed up and ready to go, checking life in Kabylie works. Sadly there has been no time for our planned shake-down and the closest we have got to it was sleeping in the vast and beautiful roof-tent in the garden this weekend. We were all very excited to try it out and check our bedding .

The verdict was A+ for comfort, A+ for darkness, C for bedding fold-ability, E- for loo options. We still have not come up with a good loo option for the girls. Petra has declared “she cannot go in anything that is not porcelain”. Hector on the other hand is longing to deposit in anything he can lay his hands on.

Our trial night was short. After two hours of cars and motorbikes zooming past us, and sleep being impossible, we returned to our comfortable beds indoors……hummmm not sure how well that bodes!

There is still much to organise and pack and where Tom and I should be beavering away in Biarritz, we are in fact, sitting in Charles de Gaulle airport hoping to get on our plane back to Biarritz with no passport. As we waited in the 4 hour queue at the Iranian embassy this morning, it suddenly dawned on us that if we were leaving our passports how were we going to be able to get our flight home to Biarritz? Not only that, but when we were finally seen and had our fingerprints taken, we were informed that the passports would not take a week as stated but 10 days. Thus our departure date is now looking like the 14th April. So probably time for Tom to address the oil leak under the car that is particularly concerning Hector. Apparently “its normal”

At last – the tent arrives

Justine –

“My lorry is too big!  It is 30 tons and the roads in this **** town are too small.”  The voice of a very stressed delivery man from the Netherlands shrilled down the phone.  After about forty minutes of him shrieking from different unknown locations around town, Mr Netherlands declared he was abandoning the delivery and heading to Spain where his girlfriend lived.  Noooooo! After waiting two months for the tent and getting alarmingly close to our departure date, we had to get our hands on it.  When it did finally arrive, getting our hands on it was more difficult than I had imagined.  Over 100kg and enormous, it took a pully system from wrapped around our bed and out of our bedroom window to actually lift the thing onto the roof.  With the weight of us inside it, as well, there might be a great groaning as Kabylie concertina’s beneath us as we slumber.

 

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Brakes!

Tom – The story has it that when my mother took her driving test in 1959 the instructor thought the brakes were so good on Land Rovers that with no seat belts there was a danger of him flying through the windscreen so she was exempt from the emergency stop.

Is there something  wrong with my brakes?

No matter how much I mess about with the brakes there is no chance of any driving instructor hitting the windscreen!

 

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Justine Oliver - Security and travel advice

Justine Oliver is a travel and security consultant and freelance writer

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