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Golestan Palace and Sam in Concert

Today we had a free day in Tehran and different people were up for different activities. Andrew, Patricia and Emilie hired a cab to go on a day trip to the Caspian Sea, the largest sea on earth. They started at 6am and it took them four hours each way. They especially enjoyed the winding roads up and down the mountains, walking along the shore of the sea and a theme park which Andrew named “Iranian World”. Alistair, my fellow traveler from Scotland, was up for some serious walking and he covered a fair amount of kilometers on the cities ground, also walking towards the mountains. Isabella has spent a couple of dollars on a very detailed map of the city to go on a self-guided walk visiting a number of sights. I wasn’t up for more serious sightseeing and just wanted to soak-up the cities atmosphere. Therefore, I joined Jason to visit the Golestan Palace and to stroll around the streets.

We got a hand-drawn map from the receptionist of our hotel to make our way to the palace. When we started to walk we ran into Isabella and the three of us joined efforts to find the palace. We did pretty well and with the help of two maps and asking five different people we managed to find the way.

Walking to the palace was an experience in itself. The traffic in Iran and especially in Tehran is simply crazy. Drivers seem to stick to no traffic rules and just drive wherever there seems to be a space to drive. This includes the sidewalks which aren’t just used by pedestrians but also motor-cyclists so you continuously need to watch-out you not getting hit by a motorbike. Crossing the street is also a life threatening activity. Cars simply won’t stop even when there is a pedestrian crossing or a red traffic light. Honestly, all traffic signs seem to be considered decoration only and nobody takes them serious in any way.

When we arrived at the palace we found out it’s actually not just one big palace but a number of smaller palaces and museums. We weren’t in the mood to visit every single building in the complex which would have taken hours and so we just had a look into maybe five of them. They were all very shiny using lots of mirrors, marble and gold. Especially mirrors were used very extensively and some rooms were completely covered in them. I would go completely mad if I needed to spend a full day in such a shiny room full of mirrors with the need to look at me at all times.

Since we didn’t know the exact way back to the hotel Jason and I just strolled around in the streets soaking-up the atmosphere of the city. We walked through a number of streets which all were dedicated to the sale of specific goods. There was a street for everything such as a street for electrical components, a street for women’s shoes and even a whole street full of shops selling sexy underwear. Now I know what Iranian women wear underneath their long coats…

The only street we couldn’t find was a restaurant street and so it took us some time to find a place for lunch. We ended-up in a tiny restaurant selling street food. They had chicken kebab for sale of which we had some together with bread and salad. When we wanted to check-out the owner of the shop charged us double the amount we usually have to pay for this type of meal. I don’t mind paying money for good food but I don’t like to be ripped-off. So I started a big discussion with the restaurant owner also involving another guest who was a local which was charged significantly less for his meal. Jason was a bit impatient to have a discussion with the owner and so we ended-up paying whatever he requested from us.

Since we didn’t know the way back to the hotel and were just strolling around in the streets we got kind of lost. Luckily I had taken a picture of Isabella’s map with the location of the hotel on it and was showing it to a couple of locals trying to find out directions. Interestingly most people weren’t able to read English characters but Farsi only. However, somehow we managed to get directions and after walking for a while we magically ended up on the big street leading to our hotel.

We finished our self-guided walk with some relaxing time in a Shisha bar. As most popular locations in Iran the Shisha bar was situated at the basement of a building. The major reason is basements have no windows and are less easy to access than locations at the ground floor of the building. Therefore, couples can date here in a more relaxed environment without the fear of being caught by the police which is also watching religious matters such as people comply to the Muslim dress code or don’t hold hands in public. Here in the basement bar we spotted quite a number of couples enjoying a milkshake and a Shisha while holding hands.

In the hotel I ran into our local guide Mehdi. He had more or less taken a day off to spend some time with one of his female friends in the city. They were also strolling around the streets but got stopped by the police because they were walking together too closely. Luckily Mehdi could somehow convince the police he and his female friend are engaged and also managed to avoid their parents got called by the police to confirm it.

While relaxing in my hotel room I spotted an arrow on the ceiling of the room. This arrow is very convenient for Muslims spending the night away from home. It’s pointing them in the direction of Mecca to which they need to address their prayers.

In the evening we went to the same restaurant as last night. I had chicken which was delicious but just too much so I shared it with three other people. There was also the same folk band playing the same sad songs as last night, what a depressing job. After dinner we chilled-out at the coffee-shop associated with the restaurant. This time they allowed our driver Sam to play the piano which he’s very passionate about. It was the first time we actually heard him playing and were blown away by it. Sam plays purely out of memory without the use of notes. He started off with some classical pieces to not chase away the other guests and then slowly moved to Jazz type of music. Sam played so good that even the folk musicians in the restaurant next door stopped playing and came over to the coffee-shop to listen to his play.

Soltaniyeh Dome and Museum Tour in Tehran

On our way from Zanjan to Tehran we stopped in Sultaniyeh to visit the town’s dome which is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Sultaniyeh Dome is currently under restoration and the inside of the dome is covered by a massive scaffold why we could only imagine its full beauty. The dome is one of the largest brick domes in the world and contains the mausoleum of Öljaitü who was an Iranian ruler. The inside of the dome is covered in beautiful mosaics and from the top of the dome you have an excellent view over the city and the surrounding mountains.

When we arrived in Tehran we checked-in to our hotel which was situated right in the heart of the city. Our driver Sam went to park our truck in a secured parking area which took a while since the traffic in Tehran is crazy. As soon as Sam was back our local guide Mehdi took us on a tour to visit some of the city’s major museums.

The first stop of our tour was the Jewelry Museum showing major parts of the Iranian Crown Jewels. To go there we split our group into three taxis out of which two actually arrived at the museum. The third taxi got lost somewhere in the city. Although I wasn’t too keen on visiting the Jewelry Museum the visit was actually worth it. It’s said the collection is the largest jewelry collection in the world. I’m not sure if this is actually true since everything I saw was in just one room located in the Central Bank of Iran. But the items displayed were very shiny and different, all in a special Persian style. When we finished our visit the guys from the third taxi showed up and we continued our tour.

The next stop was the National Museum of Iran. In this museum I had an actual interest and was hoping to learn more about the country’s history. In fact the museum was rather small and there were no explanations to the exhibits displayed, at least not in English. Therefore, we could more or less only walk through the exhibition and imaging what everything was about. One of the most interesting exhibits was probably the “Salt Man”. It’s the head of an approx. 37 year old man which was found in a salt mine in 1993. Scientists determined the body of the “Salt Man” is approx. 1,700 years old and he must have been a highly ranked man due to his long hair and beard and a golden earing.

The third and last stop of our museum tour was the Glassware and Ceramics Museum of Iran. Same as the Jewelry Museum I wasn’t too excited about it until I actually entered the museum. It’s located in a beautiful building which used to be the Egyptian Embassy for many years. The building features nice woodwork, red carpets and candelabra which gives it a very special atmosphere. The glass and clay work displayed in the museum was also very shiny, well presented and a joy to look at.

After we visited the three museums we had the feeling we have already visited the major sights of the city. Tehran is with its nine million inhabitants a pretty large city but it has no special flair which makes it enjoyable to walk through the streets. It’s all very business-like and except for the city’s parks there are not many spots where you would like to spent a couple of hours and watch the world passing by. Interesting to know is there are mountains very close to the city. In winter-time you can go skiing or snowboarding in the Dizin ski resorts which is with 3,600m one of the highest in the world.

In the evening Mehdi took us to the restaurant of a four star hotel which is supposed to be the best restaurant in walking distance to our hotel. While Patricia and Emilie sampled some eggplant dish, I had fish and the boys had meat with French fries since they cannot see rice anymore. There was also a local folk band playing in the restaurant which was partially enjoyable and partially annoying since the tune sounded very depressing. We also went to this specific restaurant since it features a piano. Our driver Sam is a passionate piano player and he was very keen on playing the piano for a bit. Unfortunately he wasn’t allowed to do so since there was a wedding and they considered piano music inappropriate for this occasion. We will try again tomorrow…

Rock Formations of Kandovan and Historic Bazar of Tabriz

Everybody except of Sam was meeting at 8am to go for a walking tour around Kandovan. Sam is a night person like me and likes to sleep-in whenever possible. Other people with a different biorhythm get up earlier such as my fellow traveler Andrew. When meeting at 8am Andrew had already finished a self-guided walk around the village. During the walk he made friends with some local people who even invited him to their house.

Mehdi, our local Iranian guide, was walking with us through the village. The rock formations and rock houses very much reminded me of what we saw in Cappadocia a couple of days ago. Just the village of Kandovan appeared more authentic and less touristy than Göreme. Many people still live in rock houses as their grandparents did hundreds of years ago but you could also spot some modern devices such as flat-screen TVs and mountain-bikes. Very close to the village was a little hill and after climbing it we had a wonderful view over the village. It appeared very much remote and unreal compared to the fast-moving cities back home. The people living here have a much more basic life but seem to be more relaxed and happier than what is considered a successful person in the Western civilization.

We ended our walking tour in a small coffee shop were we relaxed over a cup of tea, a Shisha with apple flavor and inspiring conversations with fellow travelers. My water pipe didn’t produce any smoke in the beginning but after putting on some more burning charcoals it was working properly. The Shisha was quite strong and after smoking for a while I felt a bit dizzy.

In the late morning we continued our travel towards Tabriz where we stopped for lunch. While some of us went for the known chicken or lamb Kebab others were more adventures and tried Kofta which is basically a giant meat ball consisting of ground lamb meat, rice and spices. Interestingly the Kofta dish came without any rice or vegetables so we were exchanging parts of our food. As one of the locals spotted Jason eating Kofta with rice he actually came to our table to explain we have to eat the plain meat ball and are not supposed to have any rice with it. Also Patricia struggled with her meat ball since it was simply too much food for a lunch type of dish. In the end most of us ended up eating only half of our dishes and we decided to share dishes in the future not just for sampling different types of food but also to not waste any food.

The main reason why we actually visited Tabriz was Andrew who had read in one of his many guidebooks that the Historic Bazar of Tabriz is very fascinating. So after lunch we went to have a look at the bazar. While walking there we ran into a booth selling soft ice crème and I couldn’t resist having one. What looked like vanilla turned out to be rose flavored ice crème which wasn’t quite what I expected but nice.

The bazar of Tabriz was truly fascinating. It’s one of the oldest bazars in the Middle East and the largest covered bazar in the world. It even became an UNESCO World Heritage Site a couple of years ago. I joined Sam walking through the different sections of the bazar. There was one for gold jewelry, one for spices, one for shoes, one for cheap Chinese stuff and so on. The bazar is actually quite large and you need to remember the directions you are coming from otherwise you get lost in what feels like a labyrinth. Actually my fellow travelers Isabella and Alistair managed to get lost and we waited nearly half an hour for them finding their way out of the bazar.

In the afternoon we drove to Zanjan were we spent the night in a lovely hotel. Compared to other overland trips this one feels much more luxurious than the ones I have done before in Africa and South America. During our whole 3.5 week journey from Istanbul to Ashgabat we only camp once while on other overland trips we camp maybe 60% of all nights. The major reason is security or camping is simply not allowed in a number of areas. I really start to miss this basic life in nature.

Crossing the Border into Iran

Today was the day many of us were looking forward to since a long time. We are crossing the border into Iran and are very curious what will actually expect us and how it will differ from the picture we have about the country so far. When talking to family and friends most of us experienced warnings to travel to Iran because it’s considered a dangerous country. When most of us think about Iran we think about the conflicts with Israel, Iraq and the US. We also think about the country’s nuclear program or the recent closure of the British embassy in Tehran. On the other side Iran, also known as Persia, has one of the world’s oldest civilizations which makes it very interesting to visit from a historical point of view. My fellow traveler Andrew has actually studied Persian history and is therefore very keen on visiting the major sites of the country. Actually most people visiting Iran are experienced travelers and a bit older than the people travelling for instance to South America. Central Asia isn’t the location people pick for their first ever overland trip. They have either seen major parts of the world and now come here to see this one or they have a special interest in the region as Andrew has.

Compared to other Muslim countries Iran is also special because of its Islamic government. While most countries keep their politics and religion separate it isn’t the case in Iran. This is also expressed by the countries full name which is “Islamic Republic of Iran”. The Islamic government has a significant impact on the daily life in Iran since the laws of the country do also contain religious aspects. One of laws demands all women over the age of nine to wear a headscarf and long loose-fitting clothes in public. It’s also not allowed to come too close to somebody of the other gender such as holding hands or kissing in public. The compliance with these rules is actually monitored by the police who is not only following up on crimes or traffic as it is the case back home but also on religious matters.

To comply with the law we needed to adjust our usual appearance to what we know is demanded in Iran. For the boys it meant dressing up in long sleeve shirts and trousers. We girls needed to cover up to a larger extend meaning wearing long loose-fitting clothes and a headscarf. I dressed up in the outfit I bought in Istanbul consisting of a manteaux (a kind of trench coat) and a two layered headscarf. Underneath I was wearing a t-shirt, leggings and socks so except for my face and my hands no other part of my body was visible. I guess with this outfit I will be on the save side and a bit more integrated to what the local people are wearing. I have heard some travelers got actually refused entry into the country because the immigration officer didn’t consider their outfit as appropriate. I hope none of our outfits will cause trouble.

On the way from Doğubeyazıt to the border we passed Mount Ararat the highest mountain in Turkey. While yesterday the mountains peak was covered in clouds we were luckier today and could actually see the peak. Shortly before the boarder we tried to visit the second largest meteor crater in the world but the street leading to it was guarded by the police. They requested from our leader Jason to leave his passport behind with them in order to go and visit the site. For understandable reasons Jason didn’t wanted to leave his passport behind so we skipped the visit and continued towards the border.

First we needed to stamp out of Turkey and didn’t expect any problems on this side of the border since usually immigrations and customs only care about you when entering the country but not when exiting it. At this border it was different. The immigration officer stamping us out was checking if each of us had a valid visa for entering Iran before he actually put the Turkish exit stamp in our passport.

There was also a check by customs which required our truck to drive through a massive x-ray machine. I wasn’t sure what they are looking for. Probably there were checking if we carry any halal goods such as alcohol or pork meat. But why they check for these items here at the Turkish side of the border but not the Iranian one? While everybody was still busy with immigrations I went with Jason, Sam and a local guy who popped out of nowhere in order to help us to get the truck x-rayed. The customs officer required us to remove our entire luggage from the truck before it drives through the x-ray machine. He also asked Jason how many there are of us and he answered: “There are three of us HERE” which was correct but probably the officer wanted to know the total number of people which is nine. However, the officer didn’t question Jason’s answer and so we only unloaded some of the daypacks and Jason’s sleeping gear which seemed to be sufficient luggage for three people. I also remembered a leftover pork sausage in our fridge and quickly removed it. In return to the support of the local guy, who showed us around at customs, Sam was changing a few US dollars with him into Iranian Rials.

The whole procedure at the Turkish side took approx. one hour and we expected it will take much longer to pass the Iranian immigration and customs. Surprisingly the immigration at the Iranian side was very efficient. We didn’t even need to fill-out an arrival form as it is the case with all other countries I have visited so far. Instead the immigration officer took our passenger list and scanned the bar code of our Iranian visa which seemed to provide all required information to him. Another interesting fact about the Iranian visa is that it’s advisable to women to submit a passport photo with a headscarf together with the visa application. I took mine in a photo booth in Germany to avoid any strange views when going to a professional photographer. With the visa application you also need to submit a reference number which your local tourist agency in Iran applies for you and a statement you will insure yourself with a local Iranian insurance company upon entry of the country.

We passed immigrations like nothing. At the Iranian border there was also our local guide waiting for us. When I understand it correctly all tourist groups are required to have a local Iranian guide while being in the country so we had no other choice. The name of our guide is Mehdi and he will be with us during our entire stay in Iran. He actually looks quite okay which doesn’t make it too difficult to win Jason’s bet (see Apr 23) if you want to do so. Mehdi was only wearing a t-shirt and from now on all boys in our group stopped wearing long sleeves at the top and changed to more comfortable t-shirts. Regarding customs there was no check as we would have expected them to search us for halal goods.

The more difficult part was getting the truck paperwork done. As every person carries a passport the truck has a Carnet de Passage and need to pass customs. Here they required from our driver Sam to pay an amount of around 800 to 900 USD to insure the truck while being in Iran. Paying this amount of money took maybe three hours since the counter, where we were supposed to pay, was closed for lunch and Sam was send around from one guy to the other all secretly trying to get a bribe for helping the truck crossing the border.

The whole process of crossing the border on the Iranian side took approx. four hours. I killed most of the time by listen to music and talking to some of my fellow travelers. It was also interesting to experience the toilets at the border since you weren’t allowed to enter them in your own shoes. They literally made you taking off your shoes and put on some filthy plastic sandals in order to enter a toilet which was completely under water. We also changed the time at the border but instead of setting it ahead by full hours we needed to set it 1.5 hour ahead.

As soon as we crossed the border we stopped at a petrol station to fill-up the tank of our truck since petrol in Iran is incredible cheap compared to Turkey. One liter of diesel only cost 3,500 Rials (0.21 USD). We also change some money in a town close to the border. It was no proper exchange bureau but more a dark backstreet office which our local guide pointed out to us. Then we continued our journey to Kandovan where we arrived around 9pm because we lost quite some time with border crossing procedures.

Before we were checking-in to our hotel we went for a group dinner to a small restaurant. It actually featured no tables and chairs but raised podiums where you sit on without your shoes so you better have no smelly socks. The food and drinks are put directly in front of you and you need to watch out to not touch them with your feet. The only available dishes on the menu were chicken and lamb kebab. I had chicken since I don’t really like lamb unless the meat is really good. Whenever I’m not sure about the qualities of the meat I go for the save option which is chicken. This choice was a bit difficult for our vegetarian Alistair who ended up having plain rice for dinner. There was also some strange bread which is popular in Iran and which is served with nearly every meal. It has no real taste and looks like a bathmat with knops. We finished our dinner with a cup of tea which is a popular drink for the Iranians as well as for my fellow travelers from Britain.

The hotel for the night was an accommodation in a cave. There was one for us girls, one for the boys and one for our crew members and the local guide. The cave actually offered some kind of privacy provided by a curtain covering the entrance. Our girls cave featured two beds which Emilie and Patricia used while Isabella and I prepared our bed on the ground.

Ishak Pasha Palace near Doğubeyazıt

Different people have different biorhythms. While I like to stay up late and sleep-in the next morning my roommate Emilie likes to go to bed early and get up early the next morning. This was also the case last night when I went to bed around 3am and Emilie had a shower at 5:50am in the morning. She was even awake before this time but after a while she felt the need to get up. Therefore, my night was over as well and my planned sleep-in until 9am was gone.

We left at 9:30am to visit the Ishak Pasha Palace which is only 5km away from Doğubeyazıt. It doesn’t really look like a palace but more like a complex with different sections such as a mosque or a harem which seems to be typical for Ottoman architecture. The palace is currently under restoration so we could only enter parts of it such as the two courts, the men’s quarter and the dungeons. There was also a nice terrace overlooking the valley with a direct view on Mount Ararat who is with an elevation of 5,137m the highest mountain in Turkey. Unfortunately the peak was covered in clouds but we hope it will clear up later on today or tomorrow morning.

Next to the palace was also a small fort which was built into the surrounding mountains. It didn’t take us more than 1-2 hours to visit both, the palace and the fort. Afterwards Isabella and Jason prepared lunch at the parking space next to the palace which was delicious pasta salad made out of the leftover pasta from last night. In the meanwhile some of us talked to a student selling souvenirs outside the palace. He told us due to the earthquake a few months ago his university is currently closed and he bridges the time until the lectures start again by selling souvenirs. I’m not sure if this story is really true or he just tries to make money out of it.

In the afternoon everybody was up for something different. Emilie and Patricia went shopping to buy some loose-fitting clothes for Iran, Isabella went to buy some oven gloves, Alistair went on a hike, Andrew went to see more sights, Jason went to the Hamam, Chris was hanging-out with some soldiers he met in town and I was just chilling. Probably Chris’s activity was the most exciting one since the soldiers invited him to their place and showing him their guns. When he asked if they actually use them he was told “yes, against the rebels” which he found frightening to hear.

In the evening Isabella and Alistair prepared some lovely dinner for us using the kitchen of the hotel. We had chicken with salad, potatoes and fried onions. There was even desert consisting of tea, oranges and Halva, a local sweet. After dinner some people went out for last beers since we will not be allowed to have any alcohol during our entire stay in Iran.

The Border Town of Doğubeyazıt and Flood in our Room

After we had cereals, yoghurt and bananas for breakfast we were ready for another long driving day. Actually our journey through Turkey is less about seeing and experiencing Turkey but more about transferring to Iran where we will be in two days from now. Basically our visit to Turkey had two major highlights which were Istanbul and Göreme. Today’s destination Doğubeyazıt, a town on the border to Iran, is surely no highlight and the two nights we will be spending here are less about seeing the area but getting ready for our visit to Iran.

To get ready for Iran means something different to each of us. Probably most of us need to get familiar with the customs so we are able to treat the local people with respect. For instance as a woman I should avoid to seek direct eye contact with people from the other gender or shouldn’t shake the hands of the other gender unless offered to do so. Getting ready also means to get appropriate clothes which are long loose-fitting clothes for us women covering our arms and legs. It seems to be no issue to wear sandals as long as the ankles are covered. In addition all women are required by law to wear a headscarf at all times so you also need a couple of them. Lastly getting ready also means having last alcoholic drinks and communicate freely since popular websites such as Twitter are blocked in Iran.

At lunch time we stopped at a service station where the second cook group prepared lunch for us. They weren’t aware off we usually don’t cook during lunch time but have something quick such as sandwiches to not lose too much time while being on the road. However, the omelet with vegetables they prepared for us was very delicious and it didn’t take them long to prepare it.

We arrived in Doğubeyazıt in the late afternoon and spend quite some time driving around in town to find our hotel. Our driver Sam had to stop a couple of times to ask the locals for directions to our hotel and it seemed he really enjoyed interacting with them. After touring around for a while we managed to find our hotel which was situated in a busy narrow street. The hotel also featured a kitchen so instead of eating out in a restaurant cook group two prepared a lovely dinner for us. They even made the effort to set the table with proper dishes of the hotel. We also got some red wine with our dinner which makes it one of the most posh dinners I had out of the truck.

Our hotel room was basic but nice. As in all hotels in the area complimentary plastic sandals were provided to us who are worn by all guests of the hotel. I don’t like these shoes and never put them on since I fear to get athlete’s foot from them. What is also special about hotel rooms in the area is you don’t have any shower cubicle but a simple shower head in the middle of the bathroom. Therefore, when having a shower you flood the whole bathroom. If you want you can also be very efficient by sitting on the toilet and brushing your teeth while having a shower at the same time. The issue with our shower was the drainage being bit a blocked why I kept my shower time to a minimum. My roommate Emilie didn’t noticed the blocked drainage and was therefore not just flooding the bathroom but half of our bedroom as well. After avoiding the worst by throwing a couple of towels on the water we informed the guy at the reception of the hotel. We very much apologized for the mess in our room and we were worried water is dripping down on the people in the room underneath us. The receptionist apologized as well for the blocked drainage but didn’t seem to care for any potential damage we have caused. Okay, that’s fine for us.

Going East towards Erzincan

Today was a long driving day from Göreme into the east of Turkey. We were supposed to be by the truck at 7:45am to load our bags into the back-locker of the truck to be ready to leave by 8am. I woke up at 7:30am by someone signing his morning song in the corridor in front of our room. The three ladies around me were still sleeping which surprised me since usually they get up two hours before me. I even gave up to set an alarm clock since they wake me up anyhow. This morning it seemed vice versa thus me waking up everybody else. Before I kicked the other ladies out of their bed I went for a quick shower to clean my teeth and body from last night’s drinking event. Although I had quite some of the Raki I was feeling great this morning without any signs of a hangover.

After everybody managed to get up and have some quick breakfast we left Göreme at some point after 8am. Our first stop was a supermarket in the first town after Göreme since we will be camping tonight and therefore need to prepare our own food. Since Göreme is a touristy town the prices in the supermarket there are quite high why we decided not shop there but in any other place. The seven travelers in our group were paired-up into three cook groups of two. Chris is the only one who will not be cooking since he really don’t like it. Instead he will take over an additional job on the truck. I was paired-up with Andrew, a fellow traveler from the UK, and our group was the first one who was up for preparing the upcoming lunch, dinner and breakfast. Andrew and I quickly came to an agreement what to cook and on which ingredients to spend our money. We even managed to stay under the budget provided while the second cook group, shopping here as well, spent nearly 200% of what they were supposed to spend.

It basically took us all day to travel approx. 500km east. The landscape was quite hilly and we passed many snow covered mountains what I didn’t expect to see in Turkey in spring. Probably it’s the altitude in this area and the fact we going east which makes it a bit chilly.

We arrived in the area of Erzincan in the afternoon and started to look for a place to camp. The original plan was to bush camp but our leader Jason thought it’s better to find a campsite due to security reasons and also to have a bit of comfort in our first night of camping. We actually managed to find a campsite in a less scenic spot behind a petrol station. I personally prefer to bush camp, thus sleeping in nature without any kind of facilities, than in a dirty spot behind a petrol station but sometimes you have no choice.

While Jason and Sam gave a demonstration on how to set up the tents provided by Dragoman I was happy to have brought my own tent which is easier to set up and provides me with some private space. Afterwards I started to prepare dinner which was rice with stir-fried vegetables and chicken. Andrew wasn’t well but luckily there were many other helpful hands around. After dinner I was hanging out for two more hours chatting to some of my fellow travelers which I enjoyed very much.

Hot-Air Balloon Ride, Walking Tour, Hamam and Turkish Night in Göreme

Today was a very busy day. It started at 5:45am when we were picked-up for a hot-air balloon ride. I didn’t fancy the balloon ride itself too much since I was riding hot-air balloons before. But doing a ride over the lunar landscape around Göreme seems to be the number one attraction of the area so I had to do it. Every morning more than one hundred hot-air balloons take-off at the same time which makes Göreme one of the most popular ballooning sites worldwide.

Almost everybody of our group went for the hot-air balloon ride. It lasted one hour and cost 120 EUR which was the cheapest available option. When we arrived at the take-off area the crew was in the process of inflating the giant balloons with hot air which was spectacular to watch. Some of the balloons including ours had a Turkish flag attached to the balloon since it was the national sovereignty day. After our balloon was fully inflated we jumped into it. Our group filled half a basket of one of the balloons so we could enjoy this experience together.

Our pilot was Turkish but he told me quite a number of his colleagues aren’t. Due to the high amount of balloons taking-off at the same time there is a shortage of Turkish pilots and many foreign ones are employed here. Before taking-off our pilot explained the landing position to us and we practiced it once. You basically lean with your back against the basket in the direction of travel and bend your knees.

Then we took-off. The flight over the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia was truly amazing. It gives you the feeling of beeing on the moon and the one hundred other balloons surrounding you add to this special atmosphere. During the ride I also asked the pilot lots of questions about the ballooning business in Göreme and the functionality of the different parts of the balloon which he happily explained to me. After one hour our pilot landed the balloon on a trailer which wasn’t much larger than the basket of the balloon basket itself so precise was he in flying the balloon. We all received a certificate for having survived the flight and a glass of strange tasking champagne.

After returning to the hotel we had breakfast and then Andrew, Emilie, Patricia and I went for a walking tour. Other people did different activities such as Chris and Jason who went quad-biking. Our walking tour started at the hotel and led us to a number of differently shaped and colored fairy chimneys. The first ones we saw were the ones of the so called “Love Valley”. I was wondering why this name was given to the valley and thought it might be because of the phallus shaped rocks. Our guide corrected me and explained the valley got its name from turtles coming here to make love. Unfortunately we didn’t see any here but later on in a different valley. The walk was amazing because we could have a closer look at the rock-hewn houses and churches where people were hiding from their enemies in past times. Also amazing was the color of some of the rocks shining in stripes of white, red and yellow. Our guide also left us plenty of time to chat with locals over a coffee or apple tea and to buy some dried fruit from them. This extended the tour from the originally planned three hours to five hours.

Back in Göreme the four of us went into a Hamam which is a Turkish style bath. It wasn’t mixed gender so we had to leave Andrew at the entrance and go to a special ladies section. There we changed into our bikini. Emilie and Patricia didn’t bring their own bikini and therefore got provided with a tiny blue plastic bikini which barely covered their body. In the Hamam a lady came and put a face mask on our skin with which we went into a hot dry sauna where we stayed for about 15 min. Then we went into a kind of steam bath were our body was soaped and scrubbed by another lady. After a short dip in the pool we ended the Hamam visit with a massage. The whole procedure was very relaxing and made us feel five years younger. Andrew didn’t enjoy his visit to the extent we did since he didn’t fancy a big Turkish man washing, scrubbing and massaging him. Before the Turkish man actually touched him, Andrew made very clear to him which parts of his body he isn’t allowed to put his hands on.

In the evening we went out for a Turkish night which was a mixture of Turkish dancing, eating and drinking. The performance of the belly dancers and the whirling dervishes was very entertaining. Even more entertaining was seeing our leader Jason receiving a belly dancing lesson and our fellow traveler Chris practicing a special dance to attract the female gender. Unfortunately he wasn’t successful in his dancing ending up the Turkish girl he was dancing for denying him. While watching the performance we sampled Turkish specialties and had lots of Raki, an anise-flavored spirit popular in Turkey, with it. I didn’t liked the flavor of the Raki and had the feeling it didn’t contain much alcohol since I usually get tipsy very quickly. But after maybe five of us emptied nearly two bottles of the stuff it kicked-in so I found it a bit hard to walk in a straight line. This night Jason also offered a bet to us which will make him paying for all alcoholic drinks until the end of our journey to the one managing to have sex with our local Iranian guide which we will meet in a couple of days. Probably he thought it will be impossible to achieve in a Muslim country but in the end all men around the world think with their dick and why should this be different in Iran. Back at the hotel we finished this excellent night with another drink before I went to bed to avoid me getting completely drunk.

Ihlara Valley, Selime Monastery and Derinkuyu Underground City

I started the day with a Turkish breakfast consisting of bread, eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers and olives. Afterwards we left for a day-trip visiting the surrounding area of Göreme. There was an option of three tours creatively named red, blue and green tour. We picked the green one because it sounded most exciting. It included a visit of the Ihlara Valley, the Selime Monastery and the Derinkuyu Underground City.

After leaving Göreme we stopped at a view point out of town. Here we had a first view of the bizarre landscape. Looking at it made me feel like being on the moon. It’s truly fascinating how nature can form such tall, thin spires of rock. I would expect mountain climbing in this area is kind of interesting but unfortunately we don’t have time for this activity.

The first stop of our tour was the Ihlara Valley which is a 16 km long gorge cut into volcanic rock. What makes the valley interesting is not just the beautiful landscape but the history associated with it. Unfortunately our guide was not very much into history which my fellow traveler Andrew, who has actually studied history, spotted quickly. So much of what happened here was subject to our imagination or the stories the guide made-up for us. We spotted a number of dwellings and churches hewn in the canyon like rock of the valley. The walls of the churches used to be decorated with frescoes but unfortunately they weren’t well preserved. In this valley the first Christians were hiding from Roman soldiers. Sometimes I would really like to travel a few hundred years back in time to see how live here actually was.

After a walk through parts of the valley we stopped for lunch in a restaurant which had a very touristy appearance. There was no menu but plastic sample meals from which you could see what is the selection you can order from. I had the vegetarian option consisting of potatoes and mushrooms which was surprisingly good.

The second stop was the Selime Monastery. Same as the dwellings and churches we saw in the Ihlara Valley the whole monastery was carved out of rock. It’s said to be done by monks in the 13th century. When wandering through the monastery we spotted the dwellings of the monks, a church, stables for animals and a kitchen.

Our last stop of today’s tour was the Derinkuyu Underground City. It’s a whole city hewn into soft volcanic rock. It was used as a refugee able to accommodate 35,000 to 50,000 people. I find it hard to imagine this high amount of people actually lived here and had a sufficient supply of air, water and food. However, the city featured everything what people would have needed for their daily live such as a church, a kitchen, storage rooms and stables. Another interesting feature were the heavy stone doors which were constructed in a way that they can only be opened from the people living inside the underground city but not by potential enemies.

Back in Göreme we went for a group dinner to a centrally located restaurant with a beautiful roof terrace overlooking the town. Everybody sampled a different dish of the local cuisine including a meal in a hot pot. The pot looked like a simple flower vase but was very hot and contained a meat dish. Before you can actually start eating it the waiter needs to come with a small hammer and take off the upper part of the pot so you can access your food. On the way back to the pension we ran into a local folk dancing competition which we enjoyed watching for a while.

Drive to Göreme

We left Istanbul in the early morning at 6am. At this point in time I also met the complete group of people I’m travelling with for the next few weeks. We are a total of nine people: seven passengers and two Dragoman crew members. Mid of May more people will join us in Ashgabat where the number of passengers is expected to triple. Relating to nationalities we are from the UK, Australia, New Zealand and me from Germany. Our group also has a wide range of ages reaching from mid twenty to retirement age. Some of us will travel on this truck for six weeks, others for three to four months. Last but not least I met “Archie” which is the truck bringing us from Istanbul to Beijing.

Shortly after leaving the center of Istanbul we crossed the Bosphorus marking the boundary between Europe and Asia. It also makes Istanbul the only city in the world which is located on two continents. This gives Istanbul a very special atmosphere which you can feel when strolling through the streets of the city.

Since I went to bed pretty late last night I spent the morning having a snooze in the truck. I only got interrupted twice. The first interruption was breakfast. Our driver Sam had prepared lovely cheese sandwiches for us which we had in the truck while driving to save time. The second interruption was a stop of the truck because we were losing oil or so. Sam and Jason solved the issue quickly so we could continue our drive towards Göreme.

Around lunch time our leader Jason gave us a speech on how he expects us to behave while travelling on this truck. I was still sleepy but tried to pay attention. This was especially challenging because Jason tried to break the record of the longest introductory speech a Dragoman leader ever gave to his passengers. It lasted two hours or so and afterwards we knew every detail about where to find what in the truck, the jobs each of us needs to perform, how Jason plans to deal with relationship issues between passengers etc. I’m really wondering if everybody was able to absorb all this information. After the record-breaking speech we prepared lunch in the driving truck which was again cheese sandwiches.

We arrived in Göreme in the early evening. Göreme is a small town situated in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. The main attraction of the town is the Göreme National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here you can find the so called “fairy chimneys” which are tall, thin spires of volcanic tuff rock. Göreme itself is situated in the middle of this surreal landscape which makes it a very special place. We ended the day with a group dinner in the restaurant of our pension at which we had vegetable soup and a selection of local meat with rice.