Monthly Archives: December 2016

The Islamic Republic of Iran

After I had exchanged money at the airport I engaged a taxi driver who wasn’t very appealing but offered the best price for a ride into the city. He was unshaven, his fingers were nicotine stained and he had a voice to wake the dead. His car was nearly falling apart and some parts had actually fallen off already. But the redeeming factor was that he was old enough. My theory is that a driver who is over 50 and has survived the traffic in a country like Iran must have some skills. However, it soon became evident that my theory was to be challenged. For a time we drove on a bus lane, we drove through traffic lights that by all accounts were red and we frequently drove on the wrong side of the road. Meanwhile my driver entertained me by counting to one hundred in bad English, unfazed by near death collisions with heavy haulage lorries…. In the end I paid roughly 13 dollars whereas on the internet the consensus seems to be that 20 to 25 dollars is the going rate…

Tehran was cold and bleak, the pollution horrendous. Unfortunately, I had caught a bad cold and so I took it easy for a few days. The hostel provided free tea so I drank copious amounts of this beverage during my recovery.

The currency of Iran is the rial. At the time of my visit, a euro bought roughly 38.000 rials. Iranians, however, more often than not, use the toman, which is 10.000 rials. If this is not enough, thousands are often omitted. So 5 toman is the same as 5.000 toman is the same as 50.000 rial. In the future Iran will hopefully abandon the rial in favour of the toman and they might as well drop a few zero’s when they’re at it. Everybody happy.

In Kashan I visited the Sialk ziggurat. It was my first ziggurat. It was very old and severely eroded. From a distance it looks like a natural hill, but at closer inspection one can see it is made of bricks and mud. This ziggurat was made by the Elamites around 2900 BC and is reputedly the oldest ziggurat in the world. Ziggurats are huge stepped structures on which the ancients built temples. The biblical story of the Tower of Babel is, according to some, based on the ziggurat of Babylon.
Later, when I was walking around in Kashan, I saw a lot of old buildings that seemed to have been made of similar material.

The photo to the left is colour enhanced to make it look more like an example of a ziggurat in an archaeology textbook…

In Kahsan I stayed in a traditional house that functioned as a hostel. When I deposited my valuables in the safe of the hotel, the woman at the reception counted my money.
This is all you have? The woman asked.
Em…. yes.
It’s very little.
She said.

A notice on the door of the toilet read:
Dear tourist
Please do not throw toilet paper into the toilet
It will overfill because Iranian toilet paper is very thick.

Next morning I took my breakfast to the upper floor where I sat on an old rug in the morning sun. Behind a lattice I heard the twittering and giggling of girls and while I ate my flatbread and cheese, I felt like a figure in Arabian Nights who involuntary overhears the women in the harem of the sultan….

The bread is baked in cylindrical clay ovens, or tandoors, in small bakeries you see everywhere. They are often busy with people scooping up the freshly baked bread. During my stay I saw mainly two varieties: barbari  and sangak. The latter has an interesting history: it is baked with pebbles and was the bread traditionally eaten by the army. Every soldier would carry a handful of pebbles and when it came to baking the bread they put the pebbles together and baked the bread for the whole army. It is still made in a very traditional way; bakers use a patch of the dough of the previous day instead of yeast. Eating this bread can cost you your teeth as there are sometimes small stones left in it….
Another word used for bread is the more generic naan, which many travellers who have been to India or have frequented Indian restaurants will recognise.

Women entering a mosque.
Banner with Ali and Hussein, two Imams in Shia islam.
Propaganda with heroic soldier.

During my stay in Kashan there were several holidays. This was not as festive as I imagined and it meant most businesses were closed and people stayed indoors to mourn as it was all about people that had died and the people were very sorry for it. They were all dressed in black and music was forbidden.
Apart from this, even on non-holidays, I had a hard time finding a nice place to eat or even a small teahouse to just drink tea. Most of the time I ate in joyless, mostly empty, fast food outlets.

On my last day I bought a ticket for the night train to Shiraz. It was in Persian and the date was the 18th of the 9th month of 1395. This is, interestingly, following the Solar Hijri calendar. The year in this calendar starts with the arrival of spring on the 21st or 22nd of March and is as long as our Gregorian calendar. The origin of the calendar is determined on the Hegira of Mohammed from Mecca to Median in 622 CE. A great advantage of this is that to convert to the Gregorian calendar is suffices to add 622 or 621 years (depending of course whether the date is before or after the March equinox).

A great improvement compared to the lunar Islamic calendar which is a mess.


From Khiva to the Caspian Sea

Travelling west and coming from Samarkand and Bukhara, Khiva is the next city of interest on the Silk Road. The remarkably well preserved old city is turned into a museum with intermittent cafe’s and souvenir shops. In Khiva I saw the only camel I’ve seen in Central Asia. It stands there for touristic purposes.


The fat tower in the picture above is the Kalta Minor, an unfinished minaret. It was originally started by Mohammed Amin Khan who wanted to make it so tall so as to enable him to see Bukhara in the distance, which is 400 kilometre away. The Khan probably didn’t know that in order to do so, it needed to be a fair bit taller than Mount Everest, this because of the curvature of the Earth. The monument is not quite as old as many of the buildings in Samarkand or Bukhara or in Khiva for that matter. It was only built in 1851.

Khiva is famously the birthplace of the 8th century mathematician and geographer Al Khawarizmi. It was only by happening on his statue just outside the Western Gate that I found this out. Al Khawarizmi gave his name to our algotithm and he wrote a book the title of which later introduced the word algebra in European languages. Unfortunately, the mists of time have obscured the significance of his person and so it is unclear whether he was a brilliant thinker or merely a compiler of then existing knowledge. However, it was by his works that Europe received Hindu numerals and the fundamental concepts of algebra.


A few days after my arrival, the temperature suddenly dropped. The bazaar, which was outdoors, didn’t stop. The sellers covered the fruit up with blankets so it wouldn’t get damaged by frost. The wind was arctic, but the vendors were wrapped up in layers of fur and sat stoically behind their piles of carrots and turnips or whatever else they were selling.

As everywhere else in Asia, the market is always a good place to find good and cheap food and the bazaar in Khiva was no exception. Next to a small eatery, I saw  samsas in a kiln. Samsas are small pies with savoury fillings like samosas and there seems to be a connection with India where the snack is very popular. Some sources suggest samsas actually originated in Central Asia and were later brought to India where the name changed to samosa.


One day as I was walking along the city’s ancient walls, I saw a mysterious figure climb up the old walls. It was Michael Jackson, or, at closer inspection, a Japanese guy who was dressed like Michael Jackson. Billie Jean-san.

From Khiva I took a shared taxi to Urgench and from there I took another shared taxi to Nukus. I had bought a train ticket from Nukus in Uzbekistan to Aktau in Kazachstan and from there I would fly to Tehran in Iran.

Nukus is the capital of Karakalpakstan, which means something like Land of the Black Hats. The taxi drove through the Red Desert and crossed the Amu Darya. The Arabs hold that the Amu Darya is one of the four rivers of the Garden of Eden, or  more precisely, the river Ghion.To the Greeks the Amu Darya was known as the Oxus. The lands across the river were known as Transoxiana. These were once the outer reaches of The Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great and I find it confronting to think of Alexander the Great and all that he had accomplished. If we, Alexander the Great and I, for the sake of comparison, would have been born at the same time than, by now he would have conquered half the known world and would have fought many battles betwee life and death. On top of that he would have been dead for 15 years. So it’s not all that bad….

The next morning I woke up at four in the morning and a taxi brought me to the railway station. A thermometer in the car showed the outside temperature: minus 16 degrees Celsius. The train stood ready and I was happy to find out that the carriages were comfortably heated and snugly I climbed in my berth and fell asleep under a blanket.

This time I travelled platskarty, which resembles a sort dormitory on wheels. The journey took roughly 27 hours. During the day I spent my time reading, watching the snow covered desert and the incessant throng of people filing through the train selling all sorts of things. The train stopped occasionally at forlorn stations in the middle of the frozen desert for no apparent reason. As all trains in this part of Asia, every carriage had a samovar and I was happy to have brought nescafe and noodles with me so I could make hot beverages whenever I felt like it . I shared my compartment with a family of wodka smugglers which became evident during the border crossing when they moved plastic bags with clinking bottles to put them in the far recesses of their enormous baggage. The pater familias of the wodka smugglers was delighted with me and started a confusing conversation.
Goodbye! he said to me in a booming voice.
? I asked him surprised.
Good morning!  
He replied in the same loud voice. It now became clear to me that he was practising his English.The more so because it was evening.
Good evening. I said therefore politely.
Stand up!
Sit down!
We were getting along just fine.
His grandson, a toddler, was playing with a bundle of banknotes. He was too young to count them, but he was placing them in bundles before him.

The border crossing took a long time, but didn’t present any problems. The hotel registration slips were in order and nobody wanted to count my money. The border formalities were over by seven o’clock in the evening which promised  a good night’s sleep before we would arrive in Aktau.


At the time we arrived in Aktau, it just started to get light. It was sunny but sill bitterly cold. From the train station I took a shared taxi into the city.

My main concern in Aktau was to purchase dollars for the next leg of my trip which would take me to Iran. Since this country still suffers under sanctions of the Western world, it was necessary to bring hard cash into the country as it was otherwise nearly impossible, or very expensive, to use any of my bankcards. In a bank I met a young man who spoke English and was happy to help me.
Actually, the people here are not very nice to foreigners, the man warned me and he advised me to take a hotel and stay inside.
It never fails to surprise me how little people think of their nearest neighbours. After leaving the bank I settled myself in a small fastfood restaurant and from there made several forays into the surrounding area. All the people I met were very friendly and helpful.

I walked to the shore of the Caspian Sea.

Wikitravel had an alarming article on Aktau and warned that the city was shockingly expensive. That didn’t seem all that accurate and I was happy to find a taxi to the airport, a distance of 25 kilometre, that cost me only 2000 Tenge, the equivalent of 6 dollars. Food  and drink was similarly inexpensive.

On the Silk Road

After breakfast in Samarkand I paid my bill and changed some more money. Fifty dollars bought me three bricks of Uzbek money. I put the money in my backpack and walked to the main street where I took bus to the railway station. Traffic was chaotic and it took us around ten minutes to circumnavigate a small traffic circle where it was a free for all. No apparent rules, just cars filling every inch and slowly nudging forward. It caused unnecessary congestion and I observed the spectacle with the utmost curiosity.
The railway station was sealed off and I was directed towards the ‘kacca’ where I had to buy a ticket. That was very straightforward and with my ticket in hand I was allowed to enter the railway station which was spacious and nearly empty. I bought a snack and something that was optimistically called coffee, a deplorable drink that resembled coffee in the same way yak butter tea does.
The train arrived on time and I entered my carriage which was utilitarian. I found my seat which was in front of a blaring television and children were busy running up and down the aisle. It was lively and messy, and less than romantic. As soon as we were moving out of the station, I changed my seat for one that was furthest from the television set and by then the rattling of the train had drowned the tv noise and I was happily reading my book. Later still the children left the train and someone had switched off the tv. All was well.

In Bukhara I took a taxi to the city which was inconveniently far from the station. The station looked very much like the one in Samarkand and later I found out that indeed they all look very much the same. The architect had done a fine job and  and they were constructed with their respective names in huge lettering.

Bukhara has more of an old city than Samarkand. It’s not very lively though. The narrow alleys are empty and most of the commerce is relocated to newer parts of the city.  Some old men sat playing backgammon under a tree in front of an old mosque. In the late afternoon I sat in front of one of the big madrassas. Children were playing and their voices echoed against the huge diwans. Next to the madrassa stood the famous minaret, named Kalyon. The minaret was built using mortar mixed with bulls’ blood, camel milk and eggs.


Raw sketch of Bukhara. It was too cold to sketch….

A legend tells of a princess who was loved by the people but (for whatever reason) was forced to jump off the tower. She had asked her father for a last wish and after been granted this, the princess dressed in all her clothes and accordingly landed safely cushioned at the foot of the tower. Standing next to the tower I grew skeptical of the story because it was tapering off and it seemed to me the princess had to be quite athletic to pull off this long jump without risking at the least severe spinal injury.
The minaret is also known as the Tower of Death because criminals were hurled off it in a sack, after being sentenced to death. This had happened at least three times in the three years before George Curzon, who became later the viceroy of India, visited the city in 1888. He wrote:

The execution is fixed for a bazaar day, when the adjoining streets and the square at the base of the tower are crowded with people. The public crier proclaims aloud the guilt of the condemned man and the avenging justice of the sovereign. The culprit is then hurled from the summit, and, spinning through the air, is dashed to pieces at the hard ground at the base. This mode of punishment, whose publicity and horror are well calculated to act as a deterrent among the Oriental population” is proof that “the nineteenth century can scarcely be considered as yet to have got firm hold upon Bokhara.

The last sentence is a scarcely concealed rebuke of the Russians considering the Emirate was a Russian protectorate at the time.

The Bazaar was not in the old city and maybe for that reason it had a very authentic feel. Near the bazaar I found a little eatery where I could have lunch in the afternoon sun. It was very pleasant: two skewers of kebab, a salad with green radish, some fresh goat cheese, bread and a pot of tea for 9800 som. (6800 som in a dollar). A pomegrenate juice for 2000 som…

One day I set out to the park to try a watercolour of the Samanid mausoleum. The weather was warm and I found a bench with an unobstructed view of the little structure. It is the most ancient monument of Islamic architecture in Central Asia and the only one that survives from the Samanid Dynatsty (one of the last native Persian dynasties), because a flood had covered it in mud just before the Mongols razed the city.


Sketch of Samanid Mausoleum, Bukhara

This happenend in 1220 when Genghis Khan sacked Bukhara. One witness who escaped wrote: They came, they raped, they burnt, they slew, they plundered and they departed.  One of the reasons for this harsh behaviour was that the Mongols were unduely aggrieved by the fact that the ruler of Khwarezm had killed their envoys, something regarded as a heinous crime among the Mongols. It was in this context that Genghis Khan declared himself the Wrath of God.

Only a few decades later Bukhara hosted the Polo Brothers, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, the father and uncle of Marco Polo, on their first trip to China. They stayed in the city for three years because some Mongols were waging war amongst themselves and in such a way that it blocked their way back to Europe. Eventually they joined an envoy to the Khans court in Karakorum and there they had to wait several years before they were let go. Finally, they were asked to return to Europe and ask the Pope to submit to the Khan, and could they please bring some oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and, now we are at it, bring this letter, wait, I’ll sign it, so, off you go.. So they went all the way back to Venice (route?), but two years later they started on their second journey, this time with Marco Polo, who was seventeen years old, two friars and the holy oil. The friars got second thoughts, but the Polos went on. Must have been a bit of a chore, carrying that oil all the way to Karakorum….

Still later, Ibn Battuta came through the city in 1333, but he wrote “its mosques, colleges and bazaars are in ruins” and further that “there is not one person in it today who possesses any religious learning or who shows any concern for acquiring it”. Always moaning, this Battuta.

On my last day in Bukhara I visited the Ark, a formidable fortress with tapering walls. Later, much later, Bukhara played an interesting role in the Great Game, the historic tug of war between Russia and England and it was here, in front of the Ark, that two Brits came to an unfortunate end. Bukhara was an Emirate at the time and the Russians were successfully vying for influence at the Emirs court and it was this that prompted the English to send a diplomatic mission to try to win influence in the region. Unfortunately, it was decided to send Colonel Stoddart who had a distinguished carreer with the British East India Company, but the diplomatic skills of a humpback whale.
The Emir of Bukhara at the time, Nasrullah Khan, had a narcissistic personality disorder paired with unadulterated sadism and dictatorial power. To become the Emir of Bukhara he had 31 relatives murdered including three of his brothers. He reputedly cut his chief advisor in half with an axe, though I would like to see medical confirmation of this being even possible from a physical point of view. To not allow any misunderstanding on his position he bestowed himself with the title Shadow of God Upon Earth, but behind his back the citizens of Bukhara referred to him as The Butcher, which was probably easier to remember…
Stoddart and the Emir didn’t get along very well and after a few diplomatic faux pas, the Colonel was thrown in the Bug Pit. This was a 21 feet deep hole in the ground, covered with an iron grill and accessible only by rope. The pit was infested with vermin varying according to different sources, but likely scorpions, rats and sheep ticks. For three years, Stoddart was in and out of the pit, depending on the fortunes of the British Empire. At some point, in an attempt to save his life, Stoddart converted to Islam. After this time a second Brit visited the Emir, Captain Arthur Conolly, who had bravely come to the rescue. It was Conolly who had actually coined the phrase Great Game which was later popularised by Ruduyard Kipling. He was very religious and had heard of the conversion to Islam by Stoddart. His attempt was ill fated and both men were thrown in the pit. The situation grew much worse after the British lost a battle in the Afghan War and the Emir had no longer any British retribution to fear. In his last message Connolly writes: This is the hundred and seventh day of our confinement without change of clothes, but the weather having become warmer, we can do without the garments that most harboured the vermin we found so distressing. Eventually, both men were marched outside and after digging their own graves were beheaded in front of the Ark.

The story didn’t end there. Years later, the eccentric Bavarian clergyman, Joseph Wolff visited the Emir. With him he brought three dozen copies of Robinson Crusoe translated in Arabic. He ostentatiously prostrated himself in full canonical attire for the Emir and in this way miraculously escaped the Emir’s wrath. He brought back the sad news of the two British officers.

Notwithstanding Nasrullah’s wickedness, the Emirate saw a revival of its glorious past and was at some point home to 150 madrassas and nearly 300 mosques. There were so many of these religious buildings that people struggled to find proper homes…

In the evening I took a taxi to the train station. The driving style of my driver was erratic, but exemplary of Uzbekistan. Apparently, it was good practice to flick your headlights on and off in order to warn other drivers that you can’t drive. I was told that it is a common practice to buy your drivers license and that at most one is required to show the ability to operate the car, that is, drive it around in a circle and successfully bring it to a standstill. Once on the road, the preferred style is then to try to drive as fast as possible without hitting anything. An interesting approach I thought.

My train to Navoi was an hour late and my connecting train to Urgench must have had left already. Together with some other passengers I jumped from the train and I walked in the dark along the looming carriages with sleeping people, in a desperate attempt to find my train to Urgench, but it was hopelessly confusing. Some people with flashlights gave me directions but I ended up crossing the tracks to the station where I had to leave the station and find the ‘kacca’ to see what solutions could be found. Here I explained my situation and I was asked to wait. It was nearly midnight and I studied the timetables which were in Cyrillic and saw that there was another train to Urgench that would leave at 2.30 in the morning. It was cold, but there was nothing I could do. After an hour a man in a uniform showed up and told me that I would be travelling on the 2.30 train. I asked him about the ticket, but he laughed and pointed at himself explaining: ‘billeti, I’.
‘You are my ticket’, I said.
He beamed, ‘Yes, I am ticket’. He was evidently pleased with this little joke.
When the train arrived, the uniformed man came and together with a colleague escorted me to the train. They talked to the provodnik of one of the carriages and he brought me to a compartment in kupe class where I got a berth. He brought me some sheets and blankets and soon I was asleep.

In the morning I woke up to find my fellow travellers at breakfast: a woman who happened to be an English teacher, her son of ten years and her mother. They invited me to share their breakfast to which I did not object and and after that I played two games of chess with the boy which I both lost. Later, after we had arrived in Urgench, they helped me find a shared taxi to Khiva.