Mongolian Trails

Get off the beaten path to uncover the special character of Mongolia’s remote regions on this unique special interest tour.
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Selected topic: Stories Maziristan

The last Mazar
In central Asia there is no shortage of ‘Mazars’ erected in honour of important people.   On our travels we have visited many. Some intentionally and others we discovered with the...Read more...

In central Asia there is no shortage of ‘Mazars’ erected in honour of important people.   On our travels we have visited many. Some intentionally and others we discovered with the assistance of our excellent local guides. At all of these places, bar one, we found local people making pilgrimage or paying homage.    turkmenbashi tombThe exception is the gleaming Carrera marble tomb of Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan’s great visionary, literary genius and father of the Turkmen nation.   On the day that we stopped by not one other soul was in sight.  In fact the whole dazzlingly white precinct of gardens, highways and pedestrian byways was totally deserted.  Yep its true. Here in Legoland Turkmenistan is proof positive that Paul McCartney was right when he penned “Money can’t buy me love“.

Our band of sleepy travellers has had a very early morning flight from Ashgabat to Dashoguz in Turkmenistans far north east.  Our bleary eyed departure and comfort along the way was courtesy of a very spiffy, efficient and modern but not ostentatious airport and a very efficient and modern state airline.  Top marks Turkmenistan!   Konya urgench pic 1We are here to visit the great historic capital of the Khorazem empire, Konye Urgench which is 100km to the north of Dashoguz.      Konye Urgench was the lynch pin of trade, religious study and intellectual endeavour on the northern most branch of the Silk Road  in ancient times.   It suffered badly at the hands of successive invaders and is now a ruin.  As a consequence  Turkmen have a very jaundiced view of Arabs, Mongols and Uzbeks. Most especially the latter since the Mongol-Uzbek Timur or Tamerlane as he is known in the west came calling four times before totally destroying the city and ploughing the ground with salt.  He was a tyrant typical of his time but now is an Uzbek national hero.

Konya urgench pic 2When the USSR went belly up the Central Asian Soviet Socialist Republics were left to fend for themselves.  It must have been a prime opportunity for the Turkish tribes of central Asia to settle a few long held grievances.    Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Turkmen may have a common language root but they aren’t chums and they have a long history of beating up on each other.
Defining new national borders was going to be the first real test of kinship and it didn’t go well for the Uzbeks who relied on the negotiating skills of cotton farmer Yuldash Okhunbabaev, former 1st Secretary of the Uzbek SSR and a man who failed to see why the new state of Uzbekistan would want a corridor to the Caspian sea.  The Uzbeks had the Aral sea as well as the Amu Darya river that fed it.   No need for a lido on the Caspian as well.

Sorry to say that the Aral sea is no more and the mighty Amu Darya river will die the death of a thousand cuts if Mr Okhunabanaev’s relatives continue to siphon off its water to ‘flood irrigate’ tens of thousands of hectares of cotton.  If you live in the middle of a desert it doesn’t pay to take water for granted.    That lesson was learned at ancient Konye Urgench and at more than 500 other cities of antiquity that relied on the fickle course of the Amu Darya.    In these parts a river can be here today and gone tomorrow.

khiva pic 2We had to endure a further bout of form filling with another bunch of border guards amusing themselves at our expense at the Dashoguz border with Uzbekistan.  Our destination was the Historic city of Khiva, infamous as the last slave market operating in 20th century Central Asia and site of the opulent Khiva Khanate.     Today it is one of the most intact historic cities of central asia with fine examples of buildings typical of Silk Road cities of the 16th century.   There is much to see in Khiva but we had our sights fixed 3 hrs north on Nukus the capital of the khiva pic 1Uzbek Autonomous Republic of Karalpakia.  The road to Nukus will ultimately take you across the desert and around the Caspian sea to Volgograd in Russia.   This is about the most remote spot in central asia and it is the most unlikely venue for what must be one of the greatest collections of Russian avant-guarde paintings in the world.  

Igor Savitski the Russian painter, archaeologist and collector first visited Karakpakia in 1950 on an archaeological and ethnographic expedition.  Initially he concentrated on collecting the applied arts of the Karalpakia region but he also took the opportunity to track down and collect the works of Russian painters whose work was banned by the soviet authorities.  Incuded were the works of Klimet Red’ko, Lyubova Popova and Robert Falk, artists who were recognised in western europe but banned in Soviet Russia.    With great courage in the face of soviet opposition he managed to collect thousands of works by known and unknown artists.   These and 20,000 other works are now housed in the stunning Art Museum of Karalpakia in Nukus.  Savitski’s collections are the icing on our cake and the last stop on our tour.  We have travelled far and been humbled by the hospitality that we received.  Mazaristan was initially just an idea without much substance.  It may still be  a fanciful notion but personally I think that somewhere out there along the ancient trade routes and caravan serais of Armenia, Iran and central Asia there is such a place waiting for travellers to discover it.

This is the final blog in the Mazaristan series.

 

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Anyone for Marbles
When I was a kid we used to play marbles. I don’t know why it was called marbles because we played with glass spheres. In my whole marble playing career...Read more...

When I was a kid we used to play marbles. I don’t know why it was called marbles because we played with glass spheres. In my whole marble playing career I never played with anything that was actually made of marble.     It must also have been the case when President Turkmenbashi was a lad.  Glass is clearly no substitute if you can have the real thing and too much of the real thing can lead to a much larger enterprise than fiddling little spheres around a playground.

Mr Turkmenbashi’s enduring enterprise is the new city of Ashgabat.  It is such an improbable collection of gardens, boulavads, edifices and monuments set on the edge of the Karakum desert that it has variously been described as Lego Land and Vegas without the fun.   The fun is down in the old Russian part of the town amongst the leafy plane trees and soviet era appartment blocks.  20150925_114007 Uptown there are square kilometres of empty white marble apartment blocks, 6 lane boulevards without a single car navigating the cloverleaf overpasses or waiting at the high tech traffic lights.  Public transport circulates to bus stops where no one waits and high tech retail markets lack the one essential ingredient; there are no shoppers.  Occassionally citzens do appear on the streets but to all intents and purposes this ‘new’ town is a ghost town conjured up out of the desert by an alchemist who learned how to convert natural gas into marble. 

20150925_113728We have arrived in Ashgabat from Mashaad, Iran by way of the Bajgiran border which is only 40Km from Ashgabat.    An early AM start  from Mashaad ensured that we were out of the city and heading north before the locals busy with their daily routine of clogging up the highways and byways.     Last night while out to dinner in a swanky neighbourhood I noticed a fair smattering of Porches and Mercs amongst the swarm of boxy little family cars.   In a city of 27 million tourists/pilgrims per annum someone has to be making money.        The road to Ashgabat is smooth but the immigration procedures at the Turkmenistan border are long winded.  There is more than just a whiff of the old soviet era paranoia in the air.  This is something that is likely to cause the Turkmenistan authorities strife if they dont get a simpler, smoother process in place by the time the Asia Games take place in Ashgabat in 2017.  20150925_093838The facilities, gleaming white and palatial will be empty while regiments of pen pushers labor to record, register and process the atheletes.      Early tomorrow we are off to the north. To ancient Khorozem to persue our silk road objectives.    Our goal is historic Konye Urgench, the once upon a time lavish capital of a long vanished empire of builders in mud brick and glazed tile.    When the water supply dried up so did Konye Urgench.   Funny that. It leaves me wondering how Ashgabat will get on if and when its tenuous water supply fails. 

 

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Welcome in Iran
Our travels in Iran are over bar 200kms from Mashhad to the Bajgiran border with Turkmenistan.  For the past 12 days and over the course of more than 2,000km we...Read more...

Our travels in Iran are over bar 200kms from Mashhad to the Bajgiran border with Turkmenistan.  For the past 12 days and over the course of more than 2,000km we have been poking about off the beaten track exploring Iran’s connections with the Silk Road.  Its been an eye popping and humbling experience.    We have been welcomed, fêted, fed and congratulated by local people everywhere.  “Welcome in Iran” defines and typifies Iran’s attitude to travellers and we have been pretty happy to be on the receiving end of it.

20150922_163624Mashhad is a big town and an important one.   It is Islam’s most holy city after Mecca. That was news to me when I heard it last evening.  We are here because two of Persia’s most important people are buried here. The one Ḥakīm Abu’l-Qāsim Firdowsī Țusī (Ferdowsi), might be credited with the revival of Persian culture and traditions after the Arab conquest. The other, Imam Reza, heir to the Abbasid Caliphate and eighth Shiite Immam is the reason that 27 million people from all over the world make pilgrimage to Mashhad every year.     This week is a holy festival at the 85 hectare complex of Astana-e Qods-e Razavi.  The city is choked with 1 million pilgrims and we are in the middle of it and enjoying every minute.

20150922_180347Last evening we joined the throng making its quiet and respectful way to the Shrine for evening prayers.   We were “welcome”. Actually, we were more than just welcome, we were respectfully included.  Frankly I don’t know how to describe an experience like this.  I’ve been to some holy places in my travels but I have never observed an occassion like this before and probably I never will again.  Today aircraft are landing at Mashhad international as if on a conveyor belt. Pilgrims are arriving from all over the Islamic world; from Arab States, Emirates, Kingdoms, Republics and Territories. From South and South East Asia, Europe and Africa.   People are progressing to the Shrine with quiet dignity and their Iranian hosts are probably out there greeting all and everyone; Shiia and Sunni alike with “Welcome in Iran

20150923_100042Out at Ferdowsi’s Tomb at the village of Tuss it is as quiet as a church yard.  Families are strolling in the beautiful gardens and parents are reciting stories about the great man and his epic work to their children.   My scholarly efforts were positively puny by comparison to this mans achievements.  Over the course of 35years he collected and recorded, in the Persian language all of the traditional fables and legends of a 20150923_113200culture that had been swamped by the Arab invasion of the 7th century.   It was a large and dangerous enterprise and not popular with his Samanid rulers but ultimately appreciated by Persian’s as a foundation stone of  Persia’s cultural revival.   Seems to me that Ferdowsi got the quite introspective spot for his ‘Mazar’ and while Imam Reza has the centre stage in Mashhad both of these gentlemen are of equal importance to a lay person like me. The one for his contribution to Persia’s secular heritage and the other for his place in its religious  culture.  Well tomorrow we are off to the Shrine of another of the regions significant figures, in Ashgabat Turkmenistan where the great Turkmenbashi, self crowned king and protector of the post Soviet people of Turkmenistan has erected his own Mazar.

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Persian Literatte
Our band of travellers is making its way eastwards along the flank of the Alboraz mountains towards the holy city of Mashhad by way of Damghan, Shahrud and Sabzevar.  Tonight...Read more...

Our band of travellers is making its way eastwards along the flank of the Alboraz mountains towards the holy city of Mashhad by way of Damghan, Shahrud and Sabzevar.  Tonight we’ll be putting up in the historic cultural city of Nishapur.  This is a key destination for us since it was the once upon a time capital of the Khorasan empire back in the day of the Sassanid dynasty in 320BCE. Many important members of Persia’s litterati lived and worked in Nishapur.  Omar Khayam, Attar of Nishapur and many other great poets and writers worked here under the patronage of the Royal families of Khorasan. It was an important trading city then and still is today although the 21st century method of moving commodities from East to west now relies on a double track highspeed rail line and a four lane expressway.

There is a serious volume of traffic pouring down this stip of pavement.  Containerised freight heading from Istanbul to Ashgabat, Tashkent and Almaty and 20 million Iranian pilgrims making their way to Mashaad.  Islam’s most holy city after Mecca.  If you travel this road it is impossible not to notice that a different kind of Persian litterati is hard at work  distributing plastic trash over the fields along side the highway and particularly around the rest areas.  We have seen it before on our travels but here in the desert the flood of plastic containers and bottles has reached biblical proportions.  Noah and his Ark may have beached on Mount Ararat but if that senario was to be replayed now all of that plastic trash that lurks mid Pacific would be hard pressed to find space if washed up here in Iran.

This is all a bit disconcerting. How is it possible that this nation of picnicers can leave their trash behind. This is especially so because the cities and towns are immaculate.  A ‘fatwah’ against trashing the countryside would certainly do the trick. I’m not going to post any pictures of this. Its not the Iranian way to make a big song and dance about something for which they may feel embarrassment.   Instead we are resolved to write to the gentlemen administrators about the matter in the interests of Iran’s road side ecology which is gagging on plastic and cannot speak for itself.  I’m sure that Omar Khyam would agree, he was a man of few words and he used them wisely and to good effect. Khyam, like his contemporaries Rumi amd Fedowsi took the persian language to places that it had never been and used it to circumvent the imposed language -arabic- of their conquerors. Arabic script may be written in Iran but it is seldom spoken.  Thanks mainly to Fedowsi who laboured for 30 years to write the epic poem that ultimately preserved the Persian language.   

20150921_101459Our journey today began in the old silkroad city of Damgham.  It is a modern town with an old heart which includes the earliest Mosque built in Persia and two of the countrys oldest and tallest minarets.   That they are still standing says a lot about the technology of the day 1000 years ago back in the Seljuk era when they were built.      Unfortunately for the Seljuk dynasty the Mongol horde turned up in the 12th Century and put an end to all this intricate building with baked bricks.  As far as Genghis Khan was concerned even two bricks standing atop each other was one too many.  ‘Leave no brick standing’ they probably shouted as they poured over the city wall and swamped the hapless Seljukians.  The remnants of the city wall are still standing in Damghan. Possibly as a reminder to build higher walls in future but we were pleased to find the minarets with their beautiful brick detailing were also standing albeit somewhat off plumb.  From Damghan our 20150919_141642road to the east is ploughing its way past a sucession of spectacular caravanserai.  They pop up every 40km or so, some in total ruin and others partially so.   Some date back 2000 years and others just a few hundred. Along with water cisterns and ice houses there are so many that we have become blase about them after the tremendous excitement of our first encounters.  I first saw these silk road way points of trade and travel 6 years ago.    They impressed me then and I’m impressed today.    Iranians just take them for granted but they are without any doubt in my much silkroad travelled view the finest collection of caravanseri in the world.  Second thoughts.  I retract everything I have just said.   Mums the word!

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Below the radar
I regularly ‘bang on’ about travel advisories.   I don’t understand what possible service they provide when any savy traveller can find out all they need to know about the pros...Read more...

I regularly ‘bang on’ about travel advisories.   I don’t understand what possible service they provide when any savy traveller can find out all they need to know about the pros and cons of a destination in 5 minutes of research on the web.  Sure, there are fools abroad but no travel advisory is going to deflect them from a potential sticky end regardless of which colour flag someone in a consular affairs office is waving.  If I understand this flag bit correctly Green means help yourself but look both ways when crossing the road. Orange means look left, look right and left again before crossing. Red means dont cross but if you have to then keep an eye out for IED’s.   Frankly its all too confusing to my mind.

20150918_124240Right now I’m in the land of Iran.   According to George W Bush this is heartland ‘Axis of Evil’  if any place should be red flagged its Iran.   Actually these days diplomats want to remove that particularly spiteful label and give Iran a better school report.   Iran’s flag is actually green, white and red. I dont know if I should cross with caution or not cross at all.  Come to think of it California has red in its State flag.  I dont recall seeing a travel advisory against California despite the fact that more people die of gunshot wounds there than most other places that a sane traveller might want to go.  Its a funny old world in travel advisory-istan.

20150919_135345We have been out and about on the highways and byways of Iran for the past week.  Peeking into mosques, mazars and madrassas, sampling the excellent cusine and exploring the covered bazzars.   Not too many Iranian’s speak our language and we dont speak theirs but few Iranian’s will pass you in the street without the greeting ‘Welcome in Iran’.     I am humbled by the generosity, kindness and understanding that we have received from people everywhere.    I dont see the need for some consular official to be sorting thro flags to post on a travel advisory web site where Iran is concerned.   I say let them put their own house in order first.

20150918_112118We have been holed up in Qasvin, one time Royal Capital and present day custodian of a truely stunning assemblage of Persian cultural heritage.  Truth be told I’m a bit reluctant to say too much about Qasvin. It would be a tragedy if – in the post sanction brave new world- that the place was to be overrun by package tourists.  Qasvin is just perfect for folk who want to poke about in small groups.    Our journey ended today in Semnan, another historic trade route city with roots deep into ancient Persia’s early civilizations.  Zorastraianism may have had its early beginnings in Semnan. Alexander the Great definately passed by on his conquests and the place must have quaked in its boots when the Mogol horde rode into town.    Semnan has the dubious record of being deconstructed more times in its history by invading hordes than any other Persian city.  Yet for all this the city retains many fine examples of its historic fabric.   The covered bazzar is unique in Iran and the Jamee Mosque is one of the earliest examples of Seljuk era architecture.    Its probably another of those spots to keep ‘mum’ about in case a horde of 21st century invaders rolls up in a fleet 48 seat coaches.

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One size fits all
Iran has more cars than there are fleas on a gum diggers dog.  I was too young to remember the time when Germany produced a small bug like auto that...Read more...

Iran has more cars than there are fleas on a gum diggers dog.  I was too young to remember the time when Germany produced a small bug like auto that was popularly known as the ‘peoples car’.  It wasn’t the only car on the block but it sure beat standing in a long line for a Merc or a BMW.   VW ‘bugs’ were available, they were fuel effecient, carried four passengers in reasonable comfort and could be repaired with a ring spanner.    In Iran the average car owning Iranian family man has a few different makes and models to choose from but it will have many of the charactistics of the VW era of motoring.  Same cc rating, same bhp, same colours – mostly white – same wheel radius, no bling and mostly all locally produced for a market that seems happy with the idea that one size fits all.  If you like cars as expressions of self esteem Iran is ‘petrol head’ purgatory.

We have been dicing with swarms of boxy little four door family sedans this past week.  They press every advantage on the open road and clog every town centre.  Our driver is a man of consumate skill and endless patience who has yet to raise an eyebrow at the antics of his fellow drivers.  He is a man who drives to survive and we are more than happy to be in his care.  Our ‘road trip’ has taken us from the Armenia border across Ardibil province to the Caspian coast and now we are in the historic capital of Qasvin.  Now that we have a  thousand or so kilometers or so under our belts we have some experience with Iran’s transport infrastructure and it is impressive.   Iran has a modern well engineered highway system which leaves me thinking that one thing they might do for us in the land down under is build us some half decent roads.

20150916_191208We have arrived in Qasvin from Masule.  The contrast between the green misty forests of Gilan province and the arid desert fringe at Qasvin is stunning.  This once upon a time Royal capital has plenty of interest for us and we are here to explore its Persian Royal Road connections with the Silk Road.   Qasvin has had a strategic position on the east, west and northern trade routes since at least 250BCE.    Although a one time capital of Persia under the Safavid dynasty there is archaeological evidence that  a settlement existed here from prehistoric times.   Many notable Persians are buried in Qasvin so it is another important destination on our journey across ‘Mazaristan’.     Before we get out 20150917_124435and about in Qasvin however we are off to the rugged interior to visit the mysterious castle of Hasan-i-Sabbah at Alamut.   This was the home base of the so called ‘Sect of the Assassins’ and the principal site of one of the most intriguing eras of Persian history.    It is an imposing spot for a fortress perched on the top of a gigantic rock outcrop.  Enough of it remains to make the climb worth the effort to reach the summit where broken masonary and dark passageways lead deep into the cliff.    It looks imposing but clearly didn’t bother the Mongols who in 1256 overcame the defences demolished the fort and burned its famous library.

Nowadays the ancestors of the original inhabitants of the Shia Nizari Ismaili state are spread far and wide across central asia’s mountainous regions; in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan province, Tajikistan’s Pamir and in China’s Tashkorgan Tajik Autonomous Prefecture.   They are a liberal minded, forward thinking folk who value equal rights for men and women and are engaged in enterprise and commerce in most places in the modern world.   Iran is the exception.      We are back in Qasvin late in the afternoon along with a strong desert breeze and a swarm of little white cars gusting like windblown litter along the city streets.

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A tern in the Caspian
There were no Caspian Terns on the beach at Astara when we rolled up.  Just a bunch of Kiwis and few Roo’s cautiously dipping toes at the ‘family paddling only’...Read more...

There were no Caspian Terns on the beach at Astara when we rolled up.  Just a bunch of Kiwis and few Roo’s cautiously dipping toes at the ‘family paddling only’ section of the beach. Serious swimmers were getting their daily fix of heavy metals in screened off enclosures nearby.   Orange screens for the gentlemen and blue for the ladies.   It is the last week of the Iran summer school holiday and the region is a magnet for families doing exactly the sort of thing that families back home in NZ do.  Beach, sandcastles, a turn in the potentially toxic tide and picnicing.  Iran is possibly the picnic capital of the 20150914_150331world. Everyone picnics and every possible picnic spot is occupied as we whiz by searching for our own little patch of nature to spread out our rug and get stuck into some of the magnificent stone and pip fruit that the region produces.   Sadly few Iranians take their litter away and Iran has to share its nature with an awful lot of plastic.

Our programme got underway today with a visit to the Shrine – Mazar- of Shaykh Safi al-Din Ardibili who died in 1334 and is interred in what in my 20150914_091429opinion is one of the most beautiful Shrines in Asia.  I have seen many but few can rival the decorated splendor of this, those that do are mostly in Iran.  The Shaykh was a Sufi leader who trained his followers in Islamic mystic practises.  He was very much respected because he never mixed religion with politics.  That came much later at the instigation of a Shah Ismai’l a direct descendent who seized power in 1501 and subsequently founded the Safavid dynasty and also established the Shia form of Islamic belief as the state religion.  It remains so to day.   Now the shrine is an important place of pilgrimage for mystics and Shia alike.   It is also a key destination for us because it is the first significant Mazar on our journey across Iran.

Late in the day we arrived in Masuleh high in the forested hills Gilan Province just 40km inland from the city of Rasht.  It is a lovely spot where old terraced houses with wooden fretwork balconies cascade down the slope of a forested 20150915_160009mountain.   After the nose to tail hussle of traffic along the coastal highway it is a relief to get up into the hills and away from the creative antics of Iranian drivers.    Masouleh is a pedestrial village where each house yard is formed from the roof of its down hill heighbour.  We are set up in exclusive occupancy of the towns only remaining tradional hotel.  The rooms are all furnished in 1950’s ‘Russian colonial’ style with serious gas califonts, exposed water pipes festooned with all manner of taps, valves and stop cocks plus a delightful balcony that looks out across the village.  We have a full day here to unwind and get the ‘bus’ knots out of our bottoms.

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Good Morning Iran
Duty free is the last Armenian outpost on the European side of the Agrak-Noorduz border with Iran.  Its loaded with booze and must be a serious hazard to the folk...Read more...

Duty free is the last Armenian outpost on the European side of the Agrak-Noorduz border with Iran.  Its loaded with booze and must be a serious hazard to the folk making their way north over the Aras river, Iranian passports in hand.  We pass it, bye bye Armenian brandy, without a second thought.  Ahead in the Iranian customs hall there are scanners reputed to be capable of sniffing out anything more potent that H20.   A rumor that soon becomes credible when the official directs us to run our bags thro a machine that looks like one of those industrial things I have seen luking in the background on ‘Border Security’.   We are not carrying any forbidded fruits so the process is pretty relaxed.

20150914_130032At immigration it becomes obvious that we are expected by the gentleman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who has an intent gaze and a list of set questions; what is the name of your father;  how large is your town of Greemerth; and ‘what is the name of the nearest large city;  to which I am about to answer Greymouth of course’ when I realise that he is reading an electronic copy of the visa application that I submitted to the Iran Embassy in Wellington.  “Christchurch”  I say reminding my self to downcast my eyes when I next encounter the Mayor of my clearly less than significant town.

Our Iranian crew arrives to recover us a little later than anticipated. It is a long way to our overnight stop of Ardibil and there are numerous police check points along the road.  So many in fact that it adds an hour to the journey and explains why our hosts were unexpectedly delayed coming out to pick us up. Lunch of Kebobs, sweet tomatoes and local bread at a wayside garden cafe is all it takes to get into the relaxed informal groove that is such an enjoyable part of travelling in Iran.  We are following the Armenia border down the Aras valley for the next 70km or so.  The Aras has  defined territory in this region since antiquity.  Also known as the Araxes in Hellenistic times the river is also mentioned in the  last chapter of Virgil’s Aeneid V111.  This is a river border with a long and turbulent history and roots buried in the past but Iran is clearly part of present. If anything can be gleaned by the volume of traffic beating a path along these 21st century roads then Iran is also going to have a big part in the future of this prosperous region.

I’m a bit surpised at the extent of commerce and enterprise rushing past our bus in this remote corner of north eastern Iran. At least it seemed remote to me from the omnipotent gaze of of a Google map. The reality is  quite different 20150914_104542and I’m left thinking what on earth the Iranians might be lacking that they would want from anyone else.  I can spot an economy in economic difficulty from the state of its rural communities and small towns.    I ought to know, I live in one.  In Iranian Azerbaijan people are clearly well off. Towns and villages are pumping with produce and retail goods of every make and variety. Sure its harvest time and that does explain the huge volume of produce for sale on the roadside or making its way down to the Caspian coast but the village shops are full of sophisticated consumer goods and I didnt spot any closing down sales.

After a short stop in the historic trading city of Ahar to visit the Shrine of Sufi scholar and mystic, we arrive late in Ardibil the regional capital and the reason that we chose this particular route in Iran over any other.   Tomorrow we are visiting one of Persia’s most important sites and I’m  anxious that my expectations may be unrealistic.

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High Flying over Tatev
In spite of all my ‘worldly’ experience I cant shake my small town NZ centric view of telecomunicating.    I live in a place where politicians and telco’s work hard...Read more...

In spite of all my ‘worldly’ experience I cant shake my small town NZ centric view of telecomunicating.    I live in a place where politicians and telco’s work hard to convince me that I have digital telecommunications second to none in the developed world. Yeah Right! Well I’m building a list of places where cell coverage and broadband speeds are a whole lot better than the stuff that I live with.  Armenia can proudly go on that list along with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.   A few places with more rough and tough terrain than the South Island and universal cell coverage sufficient to make a NZ telco weep.

So much for my idea that digital coms in southern Armenia might be patchy. Our group of adventurers has been on the windy mountainous roads of Sevan, Sisian and Goris districts for two days and I have yet to lose a cell phone signal!    Our route has taken us from Yerervan east to Sevan Lake and then progressively south down Europes corridor into western Asia.

There have been historic churches to visit, a mediaeval Silk Road caravanserai and some eyepopping scenery.

20150911_121855There have been a few surprises along the way. Near Sisavan there is a bronze age cluster of standing stones that has no clear purpose but is thought to have been either an observatory or a religious site.   Zorats Karer standing stones was erected some 7000 years ago but the purpose of the 203 stones, some with 5-7cm diameter holes bored thro them is going to remain a mystery until someone solves the puzzle.

20150911_152839Along the road at Tatev a stupendous modern feat of engineering whisks visitors up to the Tatev monastery.  It is a classic example of the idea that if you can dream it then why not do it.  Of course it takes money, an awful lot of it to build an aerial tramway of the size and audacity of the ‘Wings of Tatev’  but Armenians living abroard seem to have both money and  the idea to put it to good use back home.    At Tatev its a winning formula.

Our journey is taking us steadily down that long finger of volcanic rocks towards the border with Iran on the Aras river.  There is a lot of petrolium product making a one way journey up this road from Iran to Yerevan.  Its heartening to see that Armenia has a relationship with its neighbour that is based on practicality rather than paranoia.

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Kardashiing about in Yerevan
Every truly great city needs a truly great backdrop.   A harbour will do the job, a harbour with hills or mountains is good too but its hard to beat...Read more...

Every truly great city needs a truly great backdrop.   A harbour will do the job, a harbour with hills or mountains is good too but its hard to beat a city perched on the side of a hill with a view of Mt Ararat from every living room.    I don’t think this happened by chance.  Way back in antiquity a fortress called Ebuni was constructed to guard the caravan route between Anatoila and Central Asia.   When the Persians arrived in the 12th century the name changed to Yerevan.  By my quick calculation that makes Yerevan one of the world’s oldest continuously occupied cities.   Thats no mean feat you might say and I’d certainly agree that the Armenians have a fair weight of the planets cultural heritage on their shoulders.

Armenia became the world’s oldest Christian kingdom in 371AD at a time when Christianity wasn’t the most popular option available to King Trdat 111.   His Persian and Roman neighbours were only just coming to grips with the whole idea of One God religious movements and the Jews and Zorastrioans had the inside running until Saint Gregory the Illuminator turned up and converted Trdat.   The neighbours became very unhappy about this.  A lot of pushing and shoving went on but the long and short of the story is that Christianity prevailed even if the kingdom of Trdat did not.

Well it was one thing to be Christian amongst a turmoil of other religious beliefs but to rub salt into that particular wound the Armenians then produced their own alphabet. That also got the attention of the Greeks, Romans and Persians all of whom had perfectly good alphabets of their own.  This time the neighbours turned up with sharp objects and a crowd of rowdy folk from the Gulf of Arabia who definitely believed that they had the franchise on the One God idea.   Persian influence eventually prevailed.  Aremenia became  the largest community of Christians in the Persian Empire but Armenians were leaving for greener fields long before that.

It would be a big ask of any Nation to safeguard that kind of obligation but this is a small landlocked country at the sharp end of a tumultuous region.  The resident population is only 2.5 million souls  but there are a further 10 million living in at least 60 other nations who definitely regard Armenia as the mother country and they know how to show it.

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Yerevan is rich with bequeaths and gifts given by Armenians who made it rich elsewhere in the world. There are some stunning and extravagant works of art and public works sprinkled around the city.  Fat ladies may sing but what ever that blue kiwi is up to is beyond me.    The Cascade Art Museum of Gerard Cafesjian is perhaps the most elaborate of the cities iconic art districts. Construction began in 1971 during the Soviet era when the idea of vast monumental structures wasn’t automatically a ticket to the state asylum.     Now it is Yerevan’s show piece among many.     Yerevan has transformed itself from your average post Soviet capital city struggling with a weak economy into a modern day city with a vibrant and definitely European character where street vendors sell icecream in all the traditional Armenian flavours; bubble gum. cookies and cream and cola with chocolate.   More time here would be ideal but we have a long way to go and its time to get to grips with the road to the East.

For the next few day Murray is going ‘off the grid’ into Aremenia’s southern corner.  When the www returns so will more on this blog.

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