. . telling stories from 20 years of living and travelling in Turkey; some are informative, some cautionary and some are downright hilarious - all of them are interesting. There's never a dull moment.
Alan is the founder of the Okçular Book Project and author of 2 outstanding and best-selling books about Okçular Village; 'Okçular Village - a Guide' and 'Backways and Trackways' a walking and cycling guide to the area including Kösten and Ölemez Mountains. All of the money raised by the project helps his village community. More info: http://archersofokcular.com/okcular-book-bazaar/
I guess you’ve cottoned on to the fact that J and I think that Iran is a pretty amazing place – so amazing that within a few days I was struck down by a mysterious malaise much akin to battle fatigue. It was a mixture of vertigo; aching neck muscles; blurred vision and a sort of cerebral numbness. Before you make any smart comment about being ‘at it again’, I wish to state that in Iran a request to a waiter for ‘a glass of malt’ gets you something that looks like beer and tastes like ‘Vimto’ – if you are lucky! If you are unlucky it tastes like peaches!
(another ‘rescue’ from the very broken Archers blog first posted August 2014)
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes – my mysterious malaise – Ceilingtoliosis. I’m pretty sure that the bug got me on our first day in Iran, here, at the Golistan Palace in Tehran as I stood open-mouthed in amazement.
What follows are just a few photos from part of one day in Esfahan. I’ve thrown in a couple of ‘other’ pics to reduce your chances of catching this incredulity-dulling infection – enjoy!
this is the amazing acoustic ceiling of the 6th floor music room, created from gypsum plaster, in the palace on Imam Square – mini-concerts take place here still
local restaurant – again, we are not talking transfers
in the end, we were glad to jump a cable-car, head for the mountains and photograph . .
Shãhrud is a little bit betwixt and between! It lies roughly halfway between the cities of Mashad, 500kms to the east, near the Afghanistan border and Tehran. As the crow flies, the Caspian Sea is a little over 100kms to the north west over the Arborz Mountains. South, as far as the imagination can imagine, lies the Dasht-e- Kavir, the mighty Salt Desert with the oasis cities and adobe fortresses of Yazd and Rãyen and Bam and the delightful Zein-o-din Caravanserai.
(rescued from Archers blog and first posted August 2014)
After the disappointment surrounding our time in Mashad, J and I were drawn to Shãhrud from the moment we stepped from the train. It felt . . ordinary, nice! That feeling was reinforced by our taxi-driver, Mansour, who readily agreed to be our guide-cum-country chef for our forays into mountains and desert over the next couple of days. What a pleasure it was to be with him – quiet, dignified and a superb barbecue chef!
So, what does Shãhrud have to recommend it apart from being . . nice . . and not being Mashad? Location! Drive out of town one way and you’re in the greenery of well-watered mountains – drive the other way and it’s sand and camels! There’s a very nice old Sufi mosque complex that’s been restored and a nice park with a man-made waterfall where J got taken over (in a very nice way) by a group of nice Turkmen ladies.
The town has water everywhere which is really nice and would have pleased Charlie Dimmock no end. Our hotel was nice too, although they didn’t have much idea about dealing with customers. Tourism has been slow for a number of years and not many travellers stop by. As we dragged our bags and gazed up at the sweat-inducing steps to the entrance, the porter-cum-reception guy helpfully pointed out the long-winding footpath before wandering back into the air-conditioned lounge! Nice!
Anyway, enough of this chit-chat – let’s get on with a few of our impressions of Shãhrud. I don’t know if we’ll have the chance to wind down our flowers, mountains and village life trip here when we return to Iran next Spring. That would be extra nice.
You can read about the desert bit of our stay here, now for some mountains and flowers – but mostly flowers!
I could go on and on with flowers – finally, the very best little restaurant in Shãhrud – the ‘Ariatin’. Lamb shank, buttered rice, green salad, borani (yogurt with mint) and ayran – simple and utterly delicious!
Sometimes, ‘Nice!‘ is so much nicer than ‘Amazing!’ or ‘Fantastic!’
Iran is a fabulous place to visit – wonderful sights (and sites) to see, terrific food to enjoy and delightful people to meet. So good is it that J and I are going back again early next year to spend three weeks wandering the mountains and villages to seek out flowers and people and the rural lifestyle.
(salvaged from Archers blog and first posted August 2014)
Enthusiastic as we are to return, we were never allowed to forget that this country is in the grip of an authoritarian and pervasive theocratic regime. In Shia Islam the ezan is called only three times each day and I have never before heard it made with such gentle and melodic voices. That said, you cannot escape it because even on a train in the depths of the metro system it will insinuate itself almost subliminally, like Muzak, over the speaker system. Public buildings are adorned every few metres with verses from the Koran in Farsi and English and the eyes of the Supreme Leaders, past and present, watch you from giant bill-boards!
With the election of the present ‘more liberal’ regime things are rather more relaxed – we saw no overt presence of the morality or thought police.
There are certainly clergy without number to be seen and I’m sure this must have a dampening effect on those who might want to express an opinion that differs from the party line. Despite 35 years of Jesuit-like control (‘Give me the child and I’ll give you the man!’), there is plenty of kicking back going on.
Rules that state that women must cover their hair for fear that the sight of a loose curl will turn men into ravening beasts is a case in point. Standing out from the crowds of conformists there are women sporting outrageous 60s beehive hair-dos with a strip of material clipped to the back! They are deliberately pushing the boundaries of stifling authoritarianism in the name of individuality – at least until the next clamp-down.
Alcohol is forbidden! That’s why Iranians do a lot of partying at home and I can tell you from personal experience that the stuff they brew under the kitchen sink might not win a gold medal in Paris but would certainly get a very honourable mention in despatches!
It’s the same with art. As long as it fits into neat, narrow, conforming boxes it’s OK. Try and be different and those baleful, dark-rimmed, Ayatollah eyes will be turned upon you – followed by a knock at the door. Dissent is dangerous!
So, imagine J and my delight when we were guided by friends to a location that they and a few artist buddies have turned into a monument to alternative expression – a real ‘Art House’. The building was scheduled for demolition but a kind-hearted, open-minded owner had let them hang out there and free their talents. The results are astonishing! Powerful! Deeply disturbing! Every part of the house, from the cellar to the toilet to every room and passageway is a statement – every one of them dissenting from the stifling, imposed norms. Contributors include street/graffiti artists; musicians; sculptors – some have spent time in prison for pushing back. Many of the rooms/works include sound which you, of course, can’t hear – strobe lights and other unconventional light effects. Faces have been blurred for obvious reasons – I apologise to you and our ‘rebels’ for turning them into zombies.
We had a great day with some great people – individuals bucking against the system. These photos look pathetic when compared with our actual experiences in the ‘Art House’. Wonderful memories and some pretty memorable gifts to bring home (ceramics; music CDs; ‘Blackhand’ original) – thanks guys – see you next time – either here or there. Oh, and do try and stay out of trouble!
Alan back in Okçular
ps safe to put this up now as the place has been demolished
It’s more than two years ago since that class travel and blogging act Natalie Sayın sent me a photograph attached to a ‘what’s this?’ Now, Natalie has some seriously good camera skills, but this pic looked like a lump of ancient, peppermint flavoured chewing gum stuck on a rock! (I know about these things and att a photo of the oldest bit of chewing gum ever found – it’s from Finland and is about 5000 years old complete with Neolithic teeth marks!)
(saved from Archers blog and first posted July 2014)
Anyway, Nat’s photo looked a bit like a Carpathian Blue Slug – Bielzia coerulans, a creature that is supposed to live up to its name and stay in the Carpathian Mountains where it is described as endemic. I sent a copy of the photo and location to my good mate Murat who has made such creatures the study and passion of a lifetime. He also works out of the Dept. of Malacology at Harvard University, it’s safe to assume that he knows about these things!
Such was our joint excitement at Natalie’s find that we decided to mount a field trip to the area between Çamlıhemşim and the Ayder plateau to see if we couldn’t find some more ‘lumps of chewing gum’.
We were expecting to do a lot of scrabbling about under rocks and bushes before we got a result – if we got a result at all! It didn’t quite work out as expected. Shortly after we picked Murat up from the airport and brought him to our hotel the four of us, Murat and E, J and I went for a leg-stretch to explore Çamlıhemşim. With a population of 1500 and one street it didn’t take long! The town sits in a bit of a ravine – it’s vertical rock face; retaining wall; narrow street; row of shops/houses; river; vertical rock face!
We stopped to admire a flowering shrub growing out of the retaining wall when Murat said ‘Hey, look at this!’ and there they were – Blue Slugs – adults and juveniles! So much for the intrepid search for an elusive species that shouldn’t be there. Considering how easily these creatures were spotted it is astonishing that they have never been previously recorded outside of their range in the Carpathians from southern Poland to Romania!
Later, we tracked down the route that Natalie had taken when she saw that first ‘lump of chewing gum’. The walk to Tar Deresi Şelalesi (waterfall) is a very pleasurable one and the waterfall itself is spectacular.
Natalie had said that she saw her slug near to the waterfall and right on cue two were spotted and photographed. We saw a couple more near some rubbish bins in Çamlıhemşim but although we spent time searching other likely and unlikely places that was the extent of our finds. We spent the rest of our time exploring winding back roads, soaking in hot springs, eating fine village and roadside food and enjoying being together in a still beautiful part of Turkey.
Durul Bakan is indeed an extraordinary artist-sculptor. J and I first stumbled, quite literally, across his work some little while back on one of our regular trips to the Lisinia Project. Outside the barn a huge, graceful eagle was under construction from bits and bobs of Ardıç/Juniper trees. We were stunned at the power of the piece.
Of the sculptor there was no sign but by the time we made our next visit the magnificent finished piece was in place to greet us as we drove through the entrance to the project.
With each new visit, either by ourselves or with family or friends, astonishingly beautiful additions had been made to the menagerie. From a Eurasian Lynx to a magnificent Ibex (wild goat) to . .
In the past couple of weeks we’ve had the pleasure of having, first, Numero Uno Daughter Anita and then dear friend Ahmet and his wife Muge for visits. The Lisinia Project is a must-do visit and so it was that on the last call-in I was delighted to find the artist Durul Bakan busy at work on a new piece. We have only ever interacted via social media so getting this chance to press the flesh and look each other in the eye was a real bonus.
The new piece was intriguing because it looked a bit like a giant horse with a mouth full of tiger’s teeth! Questions were soon being answered with the aid of technology.
Apparently, back in seventeen hundred and something or other, a lone Frenchman was wandering about in the general area. He claimed to have seen this monstrous creature with his own eyes and drew a picture.
The guy’s name was Paul Lucas and he wrote a lot of books in his time. Personally I think he’d been on the rakı because he described the creature as a giant ‘hyena’ and called it Datura stramonium, which was all a bit of wishful thinking because no-one had ever seen it before and no-one has seen it since. Until now that is because it is being resurrected under the hands of Durul Bey – I can tell you that J and I are really looking forward to our next visit.
Durul then insisted on dropping everything to give our party an escorted trip around the project. Recently the project has been expanding its facilities to provide exhibition space and visitor area where healthy food, drinks and the projects wonderful organic products can be purchased to support the whole caboodle. Waiting to take pride of place are many of Durul’s latest creations. The way the pieces of wood are chosen to follow and mimic the muscle structure of each creature is uncanny – a bit of imagination (or a glass or two with lunch) could have you believing that at any moment they’ll spring into motion.
So, there you have just a small sample of this amazing artist and his amazing creations – a taster that I hope will encourage you to visit and support the Lisinia Project. As for me, I’m dreaming of commissioning Durul to create something that would look great atop the cairn in our garden hide-away.
Now that really would be something to write home about!
In the blisteringly hot months from early June to the end of August, J and I tend to hibernate. We emerge early to get any jobs done in the relative cool before the sun melts over the mountains and then vanish back indoors like rats down a drainpipe!
Such behaviour is not conducive to having anything to blog about apart from the grim state of the world, a review of ‘The Untold History Of The United States’ or how difficult the last Sodutoo puzzle was! Thank goodness for our Iran trip – it means I have a seemingly bottomless pit of tales to bore you with for the next few weeks!
(rescued from Archers and first posted July 2014)
When we left Kerman we headed north west in the direction of Yazd, this is the main highway from the great port at Bandar Abbas to Tehran and it was here that we were gob-smacked to see a Tesco artic truck in full company colours! Anyway, a two day camel ride, or about 60 kms out of Yazd, set back from the road is a place right out of the tales of Scheherazade’s (or Shahrzãd in Persian) Thousand and One Nights.
Our destination for one night was the beautifully restored Zein-o-din Cararvanserai. Taken over by an extended family of Iranian Baluchis it is a testament to sensitivity and a commitment to ‘doing it right’. Such is the quality and authenticity of their ‘resurrection’ that the caravanserai was granted a UNESCO award in 2005. Restoration took more than three years and some 13,000 pumice stones were used to scour centuries of grime from the walls and arched roof. The building has been returned to near original condition.
There it sits, great walls of adobe blending in with the surrounding desert; its mighty doors capable of providing security for the countless merchants and their camel trains that once trekked the route now polluted by the convoys of trucks that thunder by a few hundred metres away.
Walk inside and you are greeted warmly by the staff . . and by the loudness of silence! A refuge then and a refuge now!
The accommodation is interesting – arrive early enough and you could have a room leading directly off the circular, central courtyard. Otherwise, like J and me, you will be led into the great curved chamber that once housed the trains of animals and merchandise. Here there are raised and curtained platforms that offer total visual privacy and good comfort. What they don’t offer is freedom from the unbelievably bad mannered who roll back late at night bellowing and shouting at each other – if you stay here, and I really do recommend it, then you could use some earplugs just in case!
Toilet and shower facilities are communal but very modern and sparkling clean. The restaurant is a delight of exotic proportions and excellent regional food which also comes in exotic proportions! Each evening the young lads of the family doff their waitering and receptioning mode, step into their Baluchi warrior mode and put on a show of traditional martial dance. It is an inspiring exhibition of the battle training folk dances that speaks volumes about the fearsome reputation of the Baluch who are spread across southern Iran and Pakistan.
Back to a little more history of the place – it was built more than 400 years ago and was part of a network of 999 such hostels built on the orders of Shah Abbas I to promote trade. One of only two circular caravanserais (the other is near Esfahan and is largely destroyed) Zein-o-din now stands as a unique, living monument to the importance of the fabled Silk Road trade route.
At dawn and dusk, deserts are transformed into things of intense beauty as light and shadow, colours and hues swirl and blend – the effects are often truly magical. These are times to make your way to the roof of the caravanserai, face towards the mountains and drink in the intoxicating mix.
Iran’s tourism is beginning to boom, if you intend to visit the unique Zein-o-din Caravanserai, you would do well to book in good time.