THE ULTIMATE CHARITY
Persepolis was cool, really cool. Unlike a lot of ruins, the stones are still standing in their original format. The carvings on the staircases are still intact, as are the staircases themselves and so it makes for the most awesome sight. It was strange to think we were walking through the same city that Alexander the Great had burnt to the ground two and a but thousand years ago. From Persepolis we powered onto Yazd. Being a desert city, Yazd proved a vast contrast to earlier Iranian cities. Unlike the others it had no huge square but was rather a maze of covered streets and alleys. Whilst at Yazd we decided to spilt the drive to Mashhad across two days and so set off the next morning to complete 600km of the 900km to Mashhad. Deserts are generally hot and so is Iran; this combination made for a rather warm journey in the unair-conditioned Subaru. Maybe I'm being a bit harsh on the Subaru - its partially air-conditioned. What I mean by this is that you get about 5 minutes of air-conditioning every two hours. However, despite our horribly sticky backs, the landscape more than made up for this. Despite its barrenness, there is something really cool about being able to see sand and absolutely nothing else. Along the way we visited the site where six American helicopters had crashed in the desert during Operation 'Eagle Claw'. Whilst the wreckage itself was interesting, what really caught our attention was the poster announcing the site. On it was a picture of an Iranian soldier machine gunning the Statue of Liberty. Following this, after about 6 hours of this hot and cold treatment (mainly hot), we arrived at an Oasis in the middle of desert. The surrounding landscape was as dry as a bone yet out of nowhere appeared a huge spread of green. There were pools to swim in and so it was a lovely antidote to the sweat machine of the Subaru. Having stopped for the night we then set off for Mashhad. This was one of those nothing drives and so four hours later we arrived at the hotel where I am writing this blog post. We have set about sorting out our car for Turkmenistan. Given that it is a very secretive country, none of us really know what to expect but I suspect it will be fun and games at the border as usual. KBO.
At the time of my last blog post we had just arrived in Tehran, the capital. Tehran is a huge city of some 12 million people and is covered in a thin film of smog. Our first challenge in Tehran was the Metro. For the equivalent of about 10p a ticket, we hoped on the train and set off for the city centre. One of the most delightful aspects of Iran is that people always come up and ask where you are from etc. Most of these conversations usually end up with a discussion about football. It must be said that the population of Iran are generally glory supporters. I have seen a huge number of t-shirts with Barcelona or Real Madrid but I am yet to see a Swansea or Watford one. The people in Iran seem genuinely interested and such conversations don't tend to lead to the inevitable sales pitch. Indeed one old man came up to us just in order to express his love for George Best. Although Tehran isn't the most beautiful city in the world, the hustle and bustle more than make up for that. We met up with my dad's Godson Robin who was there learning Farsi. He suggested that we go to the Holy Defence Museum. This was an interesting experience. As a museum it attempted to demonstrate the government's line on the Iran-Iraq war; a particular highlight was the 'martyrs stairway to heaven' which was perhaps the most tacky 50m in the Middle East and believe me it has a lot of competition. The most touching expression of Iranian hospitality was when having got on the wrong train, an Iranian man abandoned his own journey in order to set us on the right track. Having forced our way through the Iranian traffic, we set off for Esfahan. Given that Iranian motorways are fairly mundane, we decided to take a route through the mountains. At this point I must say that the Subaru has been performing perfectly apart from two little issues. The more major of the two is that the air conditioning is a little dodgy. It works perfectly in wet drizzle but as soon as it encounters a morsel of heat, it tends to go on strike. The other small fault is that the engineers at Subaru didn't account for all the kit that we have in the car. As such, she is a little short of power on the hills. However, we made it to Esfahan and were met with a total contrast to Tehran. The central square in Esfahan is incredible and the mosque attached to it is one of the most beautiful spaces I have ever seen. Started in 771 A.D, it makes you wonder what on earth we were doing back in the U.K. Following a great day of sightseeing, we headed onto Shiraz. We again took a mountain road; the Subaru wasn't that best pleased but the views made up for it. In doing so we got off the tourist trail (not a very major one) and saw a different, nomadic side to Iran. We stopped off at a local carpet shop as a carpet on your floor at university is a great way to express the fact to everyone that you have been on a 'gap yaah.' After some fairly intense negotiations we left with four carpets. They looked good in the shop so lets just hope they do on my uni floor. Shiraz has once again blown us away but our trip to Persepolis tomorrow is the main reason for a stopover here. KBO
It feels odd being in Iran; to think that we have driven 5000 miles already and yet we are only a third of the way through our journey. Iran has passed all of our expectations – a country that is often vilified by the west is by far the most charming that we have visited. We were all fairly uneasy about the prospect of the Iranian border. Borders in general are a bit of a mission; you drive around collecting stamps and then when you have all the stamps you can go through. Getting out of Turkey was fairly easy and so we passed through a huge iron gate that symbolised our entry into Iran. We were first met by a border official with a revolver on his hip John Wayne style. He looked at our passports with a slightly confused look, asked whether we were German (we said no) and then ushered us into an office which I think was the Ministry of Tourism. At this point we were all thinking this isn’t going particularly well. However, from then on we met some of the most delightful people we have met all trip. One border official asked whether we liked football and then started to lecture us on the failings of Arsene Wenger. Another simply wanted to know what a Subaru was. The whole experience was topped off by the insurance man pulling Charlie to one side and whispering that he would give him a ‘very good price’ – a 30% discount. Iranian roads also have a certain degree of charm to them. The standard of driving is alarmingly bad but it’s quite an experience when another car attempts to give you their Instagram details whilst hurtling down the motorway. Our fathers (Harry’s and mine), wanting a short holiday, are joining us for part of the Iranian experience. Whilst that is obviously great, it’s not as great as the Iranian fuel prices. Our bank account got hammered by Turkish petrol prices and so has welcomed the arrival of petrol at 20p a litre. Following the bazaars of Tabriz, we headed out into rural Iran. The scenery was jaw-dropping and was a huge contrast to the smog filled cities. It must be said that this rural expedition provided a moment that has crowned Harry B as supreme basket case. We had found an extinct volcano with an impressively deep crater. Most of us sensibly decided to keep our possessions away from the edge. Not Harry B, however, who managed to lose his Aquapure traveller waterbottle over the edge – it filters water and so is a fairly crucial bit of kit (can be bought from Objective Travel Safety). Anyway its onto Tehran and then Esfahan. KBO.
Writing this blog post from a tiny hotel in Erzurum, I feel as if we have finally left Europe behind us. Evidentially then, a lot has happened in the last few days. Izmir to Cappadocia was a bit of a mammoth drive, 800km. Given that traffic in Izmir was a bit of a nightmare, we decided on a 4 am start. Now, I am rubbish at early mornings so lucky Charlie B took the first shift and so we powered onto Cappadocia. This had the upshot of meaning that we arrived at around 2pm and so would have the afternoon to relax by the pool that the hostel's website promised. Unfortunately, one mustn't believe everything on the internet and so said pool at present was just an empty hole in the ground. This has to be said is a little unfair on the hostel - the rooms were in a cave and so provided a novel twist to hostel living. Through out our time we had been wondering where all the tourists were and sure enough they were all here. However, it is easy to see why. The landscape, in particular the rock formations, is amazing and so we thought that a leisurely 2 hour stroll through the valleys would be a nice way to see the area. This 2 hour stroll rapidly developed into a 6 hour trek due to shoddy map reading but it has to be said that we didn't really care given what was around us. The thing to do in Cappadocia is evidentially hot air ballooning. Whilst a little out of the 'gap yaah' budget range, we decided that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and so went for it. It didn't disappoint. The sight of 50 hot air ballons itself is fantastic but when you combine it with the landscape it is truly amazing. That night, in order to make up for our extravagance earlier on, we decided to camp. Finding a little disused church/cave we settled in for the night. My viewpoint on ballooning therefore was slightly altered for the worse as we were woken up at 4:30 as they filled the ballons. Leaving Cappadocia behind us, we powered east towards Erzurum. As we headed East there was a marked difference: more police checkpoints, less affluent villages and awful driving. By the time we arrived into Erzurum, the driving experience had rather become a test in concentration. Lanes are now optional, indicating is not the done thing and its rude not to drive within 50cm of the car in front. Perhaps I was unfair on Izmir. Erzurum definitely is a step down the ladder but perhaps that isn't such a bad thing. No more menus in English, no more English full stop for that matter and so perhaps this is what Turkey is really like once you remove the tourist veneer. However, tomorrow it is another early start to get to Dogubayzit and then onto Iran the next day. KBO.
Sitting in a slightly cramped hostel in Izmir, it is hard to believe that it has only been a few days since the last post back in Istanbul. We decided to leave Istanbul at the crack of dawn in order to avoid the bedlam of Turkish rush hour and so found ourselves at Gallipoli surprisingly early. Whilst not a particularly 'gap yaah' thing to do, we thought that we couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit. What we hadn't fully appreciated was that we visiting only a couple of days before ANZAC day. We plugged ANZAC cove into the satnav and soon came across a couple of signs saying 'no unregistered vehicles beyond this point'. At this point we came to the decision that this was one of those times when you just ignore the official line and keep driving; we had seen coaches going through anyway and so thought what was the worst that could happen. We soon realised that these weren't coaches full of tourists but were the Turkish army being positioned as security for the event. However, this did have the upshot of ensuring that we were the only tourists on what is an incredibly moving yet beautiful site. Having stopped by the museum (bit of a Turkish propaganda machine), we drove to the nearby port to catch a ferry over to Asia. The experience was slightly ruined by the fact that the Bodrum SPOR football firm appeared to be on our ferry; whilst undeniably enthusiastic for a team which is in the 4th Turkish division, the quality of their singing seemed to mirror their standing in Turkish football. Following a slightly dubious yet stunning campsite in some Turkish farmer's field, we pressed on for Izmir via Pergamum. We had chosen Pergamum as a visit to break up the days driving but were completely blown away by the experience. Given that Turkey has received a fair amount of bad press recently, there are literally no tourists around and so we had the site to ourselves. Given that it was by now reasonably warm, the idea was to drive to Izmir where having found our hostel we would decamp for the beach. Thinking of going to Izmir on holiday? Don't. I suppose its rather like Rio de Janerio without the beach, Jesus statue or any of the charm. Imagine Portsmouth but 10 degrees warmer and you're there. Izmir did, however, act as a staging post for a trip to Ephesus the following day. Whilst it is a bit of a tourist trap (sellers selling 'genuine fake watches'), the sheer size of the site is jaw dropping. Although it is essentially just a load of stones, these stones have been arranged in a quite amazing way and so is certainly worth a visit. Tomorrow we power onto Cappadocia; a hefty 10 hour drive so lets hope its worth it. KBO.
At the time of my last post, we were waiting to receive our Turkmenistan visa. For those unaware of the struggle, the Turkmenistan visa is probably the 2nd most difficult to get as a Brit, behind North Korea. Well after a couple of hours we had our stamp and so put the foot down towards Bulgaria. With the aid of Google, we had found our camping spot for the night, Irakli Beach. A bit of a hot spot for naturalists in the summer, being April it was totally deserted. It has to be said that getting to the beach was a bit of a struggle. Being a wild beach, it didn't have a direct track to the beach itself - we found a side track that seemed to offer hope of access, only to get the Subaru stuck. Harry B had warned Charlie and myself of such an eventuality and so it was a bit of a 'told you so moment' as we had to do some serious weight shedding to get her out of the rather sticky situation that we had got her into. There followed two amazing nights on the beach. Being the manly contingent of the group, Charlie and I opted for a swim in the Black Sea. It soon became apparent why we were the only ones on the beach. The Black Sea in April is cold, very cold. Following this we set off for Turkey; we were all really excited about this, most of all to put the fairly disgusting Eastern European food behind us. The Bulgaria/Turkey border was our first proper one and it did not disappoint. Getting out of Bulgaria was fine, then the issues started. Google had told us that we could get car insurance on the boarder. The boarder guard at first didn't quite understand this and asked us if we wanted to return to Bulgaria. When we finally got the point across, we were pointed to the appropriate hut. Having woken the sleeping insurance man, the system was apparently 'kaput' until 8:30. This soon became 9:30 but eventually the insurance man rang his mate and we were allowed into Turkey. Istanbul has not disappointed - for one the food is a million times better than the muck in Eastern Europe. Having visited all the major sites including the Aya Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the Cistern, we headed to the Grand Bazaar. Its fair to say that we left with some fairly revolting purchases including a particularly disgusting orange number from Charlie. There was a bit of a moment when Harry B temporarily lost our boarder money for Iran. Harry B swore that the money had been left in a hidden side pouch of his main rucksack. However, being a bit of a basket case like myself with the car keys, he had been walking around Istanbul with a not inconsiderable amount of cash in his day sack. Safe to say that Charlie B is now the only one allowed to keep anything of any value. Anyway, now its onto Gallipoli and then Izmir. KBO
We are all currently sitting outside the Turkmenistan Embassy in Bucharest; yes, after five months we are hopefully getting our transit visa. So, how have we filled the time between now and our last blog post. Well, we had an amazing few days in Transylvania - the landscape still has the wondrous and mystical quality that the name itself implies. If you want to step back 100 years then Transylvania is the place to go. Horse and cart still reigns as the dominant form of transport and the countryside is almost completely untouched, leaving you wondering how much have we altered our surrounding environment in the UK? We were kindly hosted by the Prince of Wales' Guesthouse in Zalanpatak. Now, I don't want to sound unmanly and say that I don't like camping, I do, but it was really nice to enjoy a few home comforts for a few days. Given that we had all been in a car, it was decided that a bike ride around the surrounding countryside would be just the thing to stretch our legs. Whilst this was a great idea at face value, as a plan it had three major flaws. 1. Transylvania is deceptively hilly. 2. The bikes weren't going to make the Tour de France any day soon. 3. Sitting in a car doesn't do wonders for ones cardiovascular ability. Cut a very long and painful story short, we arrived at the guesthouse that evening looking like three Augustus Gloops after a 10K. Following visits to Viscary and Bran castle, we set off for Bucharest. I'll admit that I was looking forward to Bucharest. I had enjoyed Budapest and so why should Bucharest be any different. It turns out that whilst Budapest and Bucharest sound the same, they are very different cities. If your looking for a place for a bit of peace and quiet and your local library isn't quite doing the trick, then head to Bucharest on Easter weekend. Nothing was open and there is only so much cheap beer you can drink before you need to eat something; hence Easter Sunday lunch was a trip to McDonald's and a crappy rip-off of a Lindt chocolate bunny. At least when we get our visas in a few minutes, we can power onto Bulgaria. KBO
So where are we now? Well, now we are in deepest, darkest Transylvania. The question there follows: how are you able to post a blog in that neck of the woods. The answer is of course the wonders of modern technology; even in such a remote place (if you don’t believe me then check our tracking page on the website) I have four bars of 3G signal. It has been an eventful few days since we left Germany. We spent a fairly cold night just outside of Telc – Telc is a beautiful town (UNESCO worthy even) but as we have discovered, it is often a little harder to appreciate such beauty in the pouring rain. However, the Czech weather decided to cheer itself up as we headed towards Brno – the second city of the Czech Republic. We were staying with my old au pair, Monica. During my formative years, I had four au pairs: Monica, Martin, Blanka and George; his real name is actually Jirka but such a name was too much of a challenge for my mother who swiftly changed it when driving him home from Stanstead on his first day. On our tour around Brno we met them all which was a delight and Monica’s home cooking was a lovely change from the petrol station lunches which are steadily deteriorating as we head east. Following Brno, we stopped via Bratislava for lunch and then powered onto Budapest. Being an ‘interrailing veteran’, Harry Behrens once again assigned himself as group leader for ‘The Pest’. However, it must be noted that this time he held himself in much higher stead than ‘The Dam’. Charlie B was the biggest casualty of the night closely followed by myself – you didn’t acquire the nickname ‘half pint Harry’ for nothing. Having completed our recovery in a geothermally heated Hungarian spa, we powered onto Romania. To shorten the drive, we turned to google to provide us with a camping spot somewhere along our route. What Google failed to tell us was that this campsite was at 3,750 ft; shivering in my sleeping bag, I soon realised that the depiction of snow in so many Christmas films is so wrong – Father Christmas never had to camp in it. Now on through Transylvania. Whilst it is true that it’s amazing stepping back 100 years, it appears that the roads have done the same. What’s better, no road or Romanian road – hard to tell. Anyway, a few more days in Romania and then onto Bulgaria. KBO.
Following a lovely two days with Charlie's Grandparents, we left the Black Forest and journeyed east towards Hexenagger. Following another few fairly interesting hours on the Autobahn we arrived in Rothenburg, our stop for lunch. Now we had heard that Rothenburg was a bit of a mecca for the Chinese tourist trade. Whilst this is indeed the case, it is easy to see why they journey half the world to visit. Never bombed during the war, as a town it is still intact in its medieval condition. Given that history is going to be a fairly major part of this trip, Rothenburg was a nice, easy historical 'breaker-in' for the more uncultured of the group. Now when I'm referring to the more uncultured of the group, I am of course referring to Harry Behrens. Having left Rothenburg, we once again powered our way down the Autobahn to Hexenagger. Motorway driving isn't the most electric of activities and so we have to rely on a variety of means to starve off the boredom. The 'Spotify playlist' is the king of such activities. It is always a risky move when you volunteer your playlist. Again, I am sad to say that Harry B also came up short at this hurdle. When the first song on shuffle mode is James Blunt's 'You're Beautiful', it generally says a lot about your music taste. Arriving in Hexenagger, we were given a wonderfully warm welcome by Eberhard, the owner of the Schloss. He then very kindly offered us the use of his bikes, in order cycle to the nearest town. Excepting the usual 'pushbike', we were perhaps introduced to the most 'German' invention of all. Powered by a Bosch battery, most of the cycling was done for you. Given that neither of us are in peak physical condition, this was most welcome, especially on the steep German hills. Anyway, Germany is behind us as we venture further east into the Czech Republic. KBO
After what felt like an age of preparation, we are now finally underway. Its fair to say that the first three days of our trip haven't been uneventful - part of that was down to a bit of a balls up on my part (Harry M), but I will return to that little episode later. As one might imagine the journey from London (circa an hour and a half drive) to Dover wasn't all that eventful. To be honest, the drive from Calais wasn't all that exciting either apart from the odd relapse of realising that everyone over here drives of the wrong side of the road. Amsterdam was our destination and we couldn't wait to get there. Harry B was the troop leader for this particular episode - already a veteran of two visits to the 'Dam'. We camped just out of Amsterdam and headed straight for the centre in what was supposedly our first night of freedom. Cut a long story short, troop leader Harry B wasn't exactly 'leading from the front' as we made our way back to the campsite later that night. The next morning Harry B had recovered and so we proceeded back into the city centre for a day of sightseeing and the such like. I would just note that Amsterdam is a city in which the British don't do themselves a great deal of credit. T-shirted with dire slogans, these groups such as 'Gregg's stag-do' can be heard a mile off as they shout their way towards the red light district. Anyway, we wrapped up Amsterdam after two nights and made our way towards Charlie's Grandparents who live in the middle of the Black Forest. A what again could have been an uneventful drive was livened up by the excitement of the Autobahn. Now I would hastened to tell my parents that we were not speeding - our little Subaru struggles to achieve the 130 mph speeds that some of the Germans were pulling off. As an experience, it is quite unnerving having a slick, sunglassed German drive up your rear at 100mph - sorry for the euphemism. Given the relative stresses of such an experience it was great to stop off at Cochem for lunch. It's the most amazing town on the Rhine and was the perfect way to break-up the monotony of motorway driving. As such we didn't reach Charlie's Grandparents until around 4pm. We were warmly met by Heinz who suggested that a short walk in the Black Forest would be the ideal way to stretch our legs after the drive. It is about here that my cock-up comes into play. After the walk (which was lovely by the way), there was the inevitable question of where were the car keys. We searched for a fairly long time before coming to the conclusion that Harry B, spotted with said keys last, must have dropped them somewhere on our walk. There preceded a brisk 5k back through the rapidly darkening forest looking for these keys. When no such keys could be found in the forest, we searched the car and our bags from top to bottom. It was only when Heinz suggested a beer that I had my eureka moment. I had placed the keys in an obscure front pocket of my rucksack for safekeeping. My 'cunning plan', as Baldrick would say, to keep the keys safe was so cunning that even I was at a lost as to where I had put them. Its fair to say that I got quite a lot of abuse for this from my fellow companions and probably rightly so. Anyway - onto Bavaria. KBO