Middle East Archive


On Buying Persian Carpets

When we first started our trip, I had a little mental list (and budget set aside) for a few things I intended to pick up […]

When we first started our trip, I had a little mental list (and budget set aside) for a few things I intended to pick up along the way. It was only a small list, I am not really given to souvenir shopping and this trip was quite importantly a chance to de-couple a bit from the material world. But I did like the idea of investing in a few quality pieces, unique embodiments of cultural experiences if you will, where the shopping would be as much part of the travel experience. To date I have only crossed a single item off this list, a small Tibetan Mandala (Thanka) from Nepal, I had also planned to buy a drum in Africa, but nothing really grabbed me there unfortunately and of course I felt compelled to pick up a carpet in Iran. Given Persian carpets are universally considered to be the best in the world, I did not want to pass up the opportunity when making all that effort to actually travel though Iran, it just seemed the logical thing to do.

A stack of carpets, prayer matt on top

Now, I know nothing about carpets really and had done no real research. Up against sellers with thousands of years of history, expertise and skill behind them, this was not a particularly thrilling prospect. Fortunately though, I had a partner in crime. Victor, a great mate from Tokyo had dropped by to join us for the Iranian leg of our adventure and was able to bring a sprinkling of knowledge, some basic background and most importantly some fresh enthusiasm to the quest. Keen as we were though, we still had no reference points in terms of prices, style preferences or quality, so when we spied an expensive looking Iranian carpet trader in a mall in Dubai, we ducked in for a bit of a sighter and practice run.

Carpet shops all tend to operate on a fairly basic formula. You walk into a shop with something interesting in the window or on the walls and starting looking around rather intelligently. The seller will then get excited, offer you a seat and most likely some tea and then start digging into his many piles of carpets. As he opens specific pieces up, he will hold them out and displaying them on the floor, stacked one on top of another into a large pile. Initially he goes through a wide sample of his inventory and as you make a show of appraising each piece, he tries to get a feel for what you are after so he can narrow down the style of carpets you might be in most interested in. When you have both worn out the options, he then goes back through the large pile on the floor one by one discarding any you don’t like. The final pieces are then isolated for your consideration and initial prices are given and more detail provided on the respective carpets background, key features. If something does take your fancy, then the negotiation process begins.

Checking things out (with Victor & Yuko)

What you are interested in is the tricky bit. Carpets tend to come in 3 sizes big, medium and prayer mats (small) and there are thousands of different designs. A few decades ago there were as many as 7 million people making carpets in Iran and carpet shops are just about everywhere, dominating large sections of every bazaar. These days we heard that the number of people has declined to under 1.5 million, but its’ still a lot of people and given that some of the better carpets can take many months to a year to create, its a huge income provider.

Carpets are produced throughout Iran as well as the neighbouring regions of Azabaijan, Afghanistan, Turkey and Turkmenstan. Each area tends to specialize in a different style and carpet shops tend to accumulate their own network of providers or producers within a certain style range (or for those that do target foreigners accumulate a range of carpets that suite the Western taste). Esfahan is probably the most famous region, specializing in pure silk carpet designs of the highest quality with spectacular, complex floral arrangements similar to the designs of the Iranian mosques. But there are many other variants regionally which work to their own traditional patterns. And then there are the nomadic tribes, which produce carpets in their own distinct style based on the things they see around them. Often they can produce totally unique pieces inspired by every day life, with little pre-planning, they are usually slightly flawed but entirely original.

Decision time - Victor is about to buy!

Judging a carpet is a complicated process – carpets tend to be classified (and priced) based firstly on whether they are made from Pure Silk, Pure Wool, Silk / Wool, Wool & Cotton or numerous other subtle variants (ie. camel wool or lambs wool), the gist being that the more silk used, the higher the price. Then there is the quality of the knots; carpets can be single or double knotted and are generally measured on the number of knots to an inch. The more knots the higher the quality which can be easily seen by turning a carpet over, the higher the quality of a carpet the more clear the design on the back of the carpet will appear to be. Age plays a part as well, older carpets tend to be a lot softer and are valued more highly. Starting to get the idea?

My new Zorastrian carpet

As we sat in our Iranian shop in Dubai feigning genuine purchase intent, I started to comprehend this rich and complex world as the carpets mounted on the floor in front of us. The incredible detail and quality of the Esfahan carpets was captivating, but the pre-dominate bright turquoise and white colour schemes just seemed to clash with everything I could conceive and I really wasn’t looking to spend thousands. The nomadic carpets however were much more interesting, deep / rich tones of red, the elegant designs of Turkmen & Belucci seemed to resonate well, more especially with Victor and the price tags around a thousand dollars or so seemed somewhat in reach. We had some benchmarks, some style ideas (and some budgets), promising we would think about we managed to escape the store. We were ready for Iran.

Megumi struggling to tell the difference anymore

After checking out a carpet shop very briefly in Shiraz, we made our way to Yazd in the dry desert centre of Iran. As we were exploring the ancient mud alleys of the city, we stumbled across a small carpet shop with several large backrooms stacked full of what looked to be very interesting designs. Some quick investigations with the manager revealed that the shop specialized in Zorastrian carpets made largely by and for the Zorastrian community and that the carpets had largely all been pre-owned. A pretty interesting angle really, especially as we both had some fascination with the Zorastrian religion and rituals, so Victor and I settled into see what he had. Zorastrian carpets are quite unique in that they feature designs of fire temples, lotuses and many other practical features of daily life that make for especially good ‘carpet sales’ storytelling, it didn’t take either of us long to find something we liked and after going through the motions, had reduced our piles to a few specific final selections and were ready to negotiate. In the end I walked away with a small, 20 year old Zorastrian designed carpet for around $265, he had started at around $300 or so I think, but really had refused to negotiate – it was all price fixed by the community or so he said. I still thought it great value relative to what we had seen in Dubai though and our later forays revealed this to be the casse. Victor nabbed a very nice, medium sized Turkmen as well for about $450.

A carpet warehouse in Tehran Bazaar

Our first big carpet trial and we had bitten the bullet already, which really took the pressure off. We were both happy and with our carpets wrapped up in newspaper and compressed into a small package, we continued onto Esfahan, famed for its bazaar and carpets alike. While Victor already had a big piece, I was still a little looking for one, so the focus was one me to find something I liked. We tried perhaps 4 or 5 tourist friendly stores specializing in nomadic carpets and after sitting down to various welcomes and tea, had hundreds of carpets thrown at us. Steering clear of the expensive Esfahani carpets, the initial ‘wow’ of it all was starting to wear off and while we came close a couple of times nothing was really grabbing me. Megumi meanwhile had started to go carpet blind and could no longer differentiate between them. So we decided to wait and see what the bazaars in Tehran held.

The Tehran bazaar turned out to be a massive labyrinth, largely domestic focused and very difficult to navigate. Carpet touts hang out at the entrances though waiting for tourists like us to rock up and guide them to key market sights and ultimately see their shops. We were found by a couple of such guys in our forays and led through the rabbit warren into huge carpet warehouses, replete with little backrooms on the upper stories for intimate display. All were incredibly friendly, spoke english and tended to specialize again in the nomadic pieces we were more inclined towards. A couple of times we found ones we liked, the price & range definitely better here than Esfahan, but we had a few days to explore, so we kept the pieces on hold and gave ourselves the chance to keep looking. Eventually as it always happens, we were wandering down a small alley, with carpet stores and squares spiralling off to all sides when a young guy speaking good English asked us if we wanted to see his shop. I am in Lonely Planet he said and shouted his name which I actually recognized from the bible. It was a good omen, so we followed him to his little room, braving the lack of air conditioning to check out his range. Jackpot! Hosseiny as it turns out travels a lot across both Iran and neighbouring lands buying interesting carpets from all around, but rather than focus on one style, he had an amazingly diverse range of quality pieces on offer, exactly what we had been looking for.

My final purchase - the Sharvin wonder

After pouring through the wide array of options, we found several pieces we both liked and went through the difficult task of paring it down to a final selection. After some constructive prompting from the support team, I dived in with a magnificent and totally unique masterpiece from a nomadic master near Sharvin in North Eastern Iran, while Victor picked up an excellent quality prayer mat. As luck would have it Hosseiny was also looking to just clear out his inventory so was willing to cut us very good deals just to move his merchandise. (at least that was his rather genuine story) My carpet cost about $600 in the end, he claimed he would normally expect to get at least double that which made me feel good.

Hosseiny showing off his wares

Task and mission over, satisfied buyers both – Victor generously smuggled the pieces back to Japan for me, so I will have to wait another year or so to see them again. It will be a much anticipated reunion. Leaving Iran though, I was also filled of dreams of all the other pieces I would have loved to have bought and likely would have done had I even the remotest possibility of more floor space somewhere down the track. The colours, designs and weaves are all entrancing, but it is the intricate background stories and unique lifestyles wrought in thread that each piece immortalizes, that really draw you in. And in all, I found the experience thoroughly rewarding. The Iranian sales process was not the bullying, intimidation that I had imagined at all, but a largely pleasant, considered interaction and so it always should be I think – culture is being traded here.


Navigating the Middle East

After Africa, the Middle East was intoxicating, from the wilds of nature to the heights of ancient civilizations, the contrast couldn’t have been more stark or indeed welcome. It was ridiculously hot though, as an Australian I should know better than planning to wander around a place in 40 to 50 degree heat. In truth, I had started with a cunning workaround for the Middle East - spring.............................

I have tried (rather ambitiously) to outline the overall experience of the Middle East in a single post here. I have done so, in part laziness perhaps, but more to try and create a sense of continuity or flow to the whole adventure, which is certainly how it felt for us. Where possible of course I will break out the key highlights into separate posts with more detail, so do bear with me!

Our journey through the Middle East

After Africa, the Middle East was intoxicating, from the wilds of nature to the heights of ancient civilizations, the contrast couldn’t have been more stark or indeed welcome. It was ridiculously hot though, as an Australian I should know better than planning to wander around a place in 40 to 50 degree heat. In truth, I had started with a cunning workaround for the Middle East – spring, but an extra week here & there, another month or so in India and suddenly we were more than 2 months behind schedule and waddyano arriving slap, bang in the middle of summer. ‘Off season’, as its called here, basically because everyone else knows its’ ridiculously hot and stay away, did certainly make things a bit cheaper though and for the most part less crowded, so there were some perks to go with the sweat, sand & lethargy.

Everything's just a little different

We were gearing ourselves for our arrival in Egypt, every traveller we met ‘coming the other way’ so to speak, warned us of the touts, ceaseless harassment, scams and hassles. Almost typically though now, we failed to encounter any of it – perhaps the African and Indian legs of our adventures had upped our immune system and tout tolerance to some ultra, advanced level so that everything appeared weirdly normal, or more simply that we were so grateful to be back in the zone of ‘civilization’ we barely noticed; either way it was an altogether pleasant letdown. Cairo turned out to be fascinating in its way – aging European in its downtown construction along the banks of the Nile, peppered with gardens, parks and nice hotels. By day, it was baking hot, dusty, noisy, chaotic traffic and seemingly empty of pedestrians, but truly came alive after sunset. As dusk sets in, the downtown streets pulse with a festival like atmosphere; Egyptians roam the sidewalks in their thousands perusing the endless window displays of plastic manikins advertising chadors, head scarfs, kids clothing, jeans and lingerie. While either side of the Nile, families, courting couples and groups of teens meander arm in arm soaking up the evening breeze and posing for photo’s. Everywhere side alleys teem with street eateries, tables, chairs, tea, backgammon and waterpipes.

You are never far from a sheeshah!

Everything is open til at least 1am here, with young kids happily playing in the streets alongside the adults right up until the shops close. We spent several days simply walking around, soaking this up, so liberating after the confines of Africa. In the cities of Africa, darkness quickly takes on the feel of a demilitarized zone, even by day most streets are off limits and teeming with the threat of violence. Here we felt immediately safe, barely hassled except by the odd friendly greeting, the darkest alleys held no real threat. For me this is an essential component of travel, the ability to explore on foot, meet people and understand a place at street level, take that away and your experience of a place becomes fleeting, sterile, packaged even. Equally, there was an immense satisfaction in these new Muslim environments from the ability to just randomly slump into a sidewalk chair after a day of wandering about and order up ‘2 hookers with some coke’ and not even warrant a second glance from the young, eager staff. Somehow it just doesn’t seem to get old!

And the camels are everywhere!

Underlying all of this of course was a new Islamic presence – everywhere women are covered head to toe, rarely do you see a woman’s hair in Egypt (except for the tourists at least). At minimum there is a scarf covering the head, with a white or black hair net underneath, certainly no arms or legs on display and at maximum a full black chador with only two slits for eyes and gloves. It certainly set the benchmark for the Middle Eastern experience; we found few other places as conservative as this. Mosques dot the skylines in all directions, with the grandest in old Cairo around the great souq / market. Although I have somehow evolved the ability to sleep in heavily over the years (now suddenly useful), Megumi awakes with the first call to prayer at 5am. And the subsequent day is peppered with the resounding repeats through the ever omnipresent loudspeakers for the morning, lunch and evening renditions. Accordingly people stop, close their shops and disappear in their respective directions for their prayer efforts. Green carpets suddenly fill the alleys and barefooted men, ablutionblocks mysteriously appear, previously unnoticed or dismissed as fountains as barefooted men go about their cleansing. At first this is disorientating – nothing seems open when you need it. But after a few days, you adapt to the rhythm and adjust to the routine that Muslim life necessitates.

Chadors' Cairo style, a million shades of black

Then amongst all this of course came the World Cup, the Egyptians (and the Middle East) is especially nuts about football, as just about everywhere is of course (outside India, the States & Australia anyway). Suddenly the entire days schedule seemed to fill up. After lunchtime prayers comes the first game at 2.30pm, followed by evening prayers and a second game at 5.00pm, before the final game of the day post evening prayers around 9.30pm. As a result all functional accomplishment seemed to rightly disappear with the heat, most particularly in the evening, as the streets filled with chairs and sheeshahs, all universally pointed in the direction of a TV. We were quite happy just to be carried along with it.

One of the Giza Pyramids in the desert dust

After the essential pharaonic explorations in Cairo and up the Nile to Aswan & Luxor, we journeyed by bus from Cairo down to the Sinai region and ultimately Dahab. A journey that crossed the Suez canal (an anti-climax) and along the arid shores of the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba; then upon entering Sinai proceeded to be bogged down with innumerable security stops and checks. I seem to remember at least a dozen occasions that a young, smartly dressed Egyptian guy packing a piece, got on the bus and worked through each passengers’ passport or ID. On other occasions a road hump and street block worked the bus into a controlled traffic channel so that papers & vehicles could be expected. Terrorist bombings targeting tourists in this region (the most recent a couple of years back) have ensured such a close lock down, but it was still quite unexpected. Two young Egyptian guys in the seat in front of me actually got pulled off the bus – their national ID cards casting enough doubt around for some further questioning. It was also the first time in our travels that I have seen real military presence & weapons build up. In parts of Asia, India and Africa you almost get used to men standing around with machine guns on every corner. But several times on the side of the road we passed tank & armoured car divisions, the largest some 30 odd tanks neatly lined up ready for deployment. Somewhat guiltily, it excites and tickles the adrenaline all this stuff – too many war comics, computer games and action movies as a kid I guess.

Desert adventures in Wadi Rum

Dahab is a curious place, once a tiny Bedouin camp in the desert it has evolved from hippy haunt to tourist mecca attracting all range of folk and budget travellers. Restaurants, hostels, pensions and trinkets peddlers line a thin strip of shallow coral, where the ocean drops off into a deep trench. It’s a pleasant enough place to relax, though if you don’t fancy camel rides in the desert, apart from climbing Mt Sinai and visiting Katherine’s Monastery (ie the site of Moses’ burning bush) or diving there was little else to do. (which is probably the point actually). We had heard that the Red Sea is some of the best diving around, but while it was enjoyable it didnt match the splendour, colour and diversity of Australia or Thailand, though perhaps I have been a bit spoilt here. In all I found Dahab, a little too touristy, it felt like it was trying too hard to be a ‘Thailand clone’, albeit short on trees and good food. Mind you, we have left the whole ‘holiday mode’ a long way behind us now, so perhaps we were just struggling to relate to the myriad of Russians, Brits and Europeans on their 2 week sabbaticals.

Bedouin musicians in Petra

From Egypt, we crossed the Red Sea by fast ferry to Aqaba in Jordan – the Ferry was fast in operation only and we ultimately boarded some 5 hours late. Although while waiting in the large departure shed, we did manage to befriend an Irish, Polish and Chinese crew, bonding during the tedium of our shared adversity and who generously gave us a ride to Petra later on. Crossing the border by boat was not that interesting; visas and stamps were all collected on board the funky, cruise ship that also featured a fascinating assortment of Duty Free shopping obviously not targeted at the traveller market that made up the ships current consignment. (ie pots, pans, stereos, televisions, irons, washing machines).

Monastery roof overlooking Petra

Petra was amazing and worth another post in itself. Like the pyramids it was one of our key pilgrimage goals for the Middle East and everything we expected really. The entry to the secret valley through the 3 km winding carved rock channel to first view the great treasury building is exceptionally memorable. We ended up spending 3 days there exploring the ruins til late in the evening, meeting Bedouin lads and other fellow travellers. Without a doubt the highlight was an hour’s climb up the mountain past the main sights to the Monastery for a sunset. Here a friendly collective of Bedouin ran café’s overlooking spectacular viewpoints and sat around playing beautiful music on flutes and lyre and escorting us up secret paths to the Monastery roof. It was magical in every respect and quite ingratiating. We found the Jordanians – Bedouins and Palestinians to be genuinely warm, welcoming, liberal and relaxed, noticeably different from the Egyptians. We then followed that up with an overnight stay in Wadi Rum a 1 hour share taxi away, which is how Jordan seems to operate transport wise, soaking up the sublime landscape and some Bedouin hospitality with a tented camp in the desert. An experience shared with another Irishman we had befriended atop a rock at the Monastery and an Indian woman on leave, while her husband sat for a Doctor’s exam. As fascinating as DH Lawrence’s playground, the desert Bedouin and the landscape was, one day was enough in the heat and we headed onward to Amman, an entirely modern city, where we spent a night, doing little more than watch football with some locals before heading onto Syria and Damascus.

Random bazaar shop in old Damascus

Damascus was one of the real highlights of our trip so far. After securing our Visa’s (Syrian was one of our most interesting experiences yet), we arrived mid afternoon and checked into the Al Rabie hotel, a beautifully restored old Damascan house with a large shared, open courtyard and pleasant rooms, then set about exploring the old town. Damascus lays claim to being the oldest continuously habited city (though it seems every country has one claim to this mantle in the Middle East) and the place teems with a labyrinth of landmarks, historical sights, pilgrims, shops and culture. Old Damascus is a curious mix of Sunni & Shia Muslim pilgrims, Christians and tourists; it shares space with ancient roman ruins, mosques with sacred Muslim sights (including the Prophet ‘John the Baptists’ head & Immam Reza’s tomb), along with Christian landmarks (ie the location of Paul’s conversion and escape); there are also palaces, forts and beautiful old houses here, all adorned with their quirky variations on the ‘copper hand’ doorknockers. But it is the markets and café’s that are most bewitch – The bazaar an intricate network of beautiful wooden doors, paved alleys all heaving with Damascus’ famed inlaid handicrafts, metalwork and fabrics, complimented nicely by the plethora of interesting café’s and restaurants scattered throughout and seemingly hiding around every corner or alleyway. It’s simply an amazing place to explore; the food fantastic & the Syrian people incredibly friendly and welcoming; a long way from the terrorist sponsoring underground of popular fiction. Damascus also coincided with the chance to reconnect with Lindz & Catie – fellow trekkers we had met in Nepal. They had come down via Iran / Iraq and Turkey, so we had plenty of catching up to do and information to trade for which we managed to raid a bar in the Christian quarter to happily facilitate!

View of the Palmyra ruins at Sunset

Dragging ourselves away from Damascus we headed out along the road to Baghdad for Palmyra, and its stunning ancient Roman ruins close to the Iraqi border. Amazingly we had the whole place to ourselves (actually not really so surprising in the 50 degree heat I guess) and little competition for food or hotels. I also ended up watching a world cup quarter final with 50 other local Syrian men at the only place showing the game in town. Heading back inland, we passed a jet fighter base; each plane spectacularly silhouetted under its own bomb proof hanger roof, the surrounding network of hills was peppered with a beehive of deep bunkers, missile defense systems and sophisticated radar gear, as a spectacle it was almost more exciting than the ruins.

Ruin riding in the Dead cities

Leaving the desert behind, we based ourselves at a small town called Hama, famous for its network of large wooden windmills (there are almost 30 of them) called Noria’s that line the river and once used to channel water for the town. Some of the windmills are up to 1,500 years and as these babies turn with the water, they make a deep, eerie double base-like melody. Alongside the river, the entire town seems to reverberate with its melancholic rhythms. “When they stop”, a local told me,“ no-one can sleep here, it’s as though its’ the towns heartbeat”. In Hama, we connected with an English couple and an American woman (one of the few with a Syrian Visa) to explore the captivating nearby castle fort of Crac De Chaveliers as a day tour (booked through the hostel) and on a subsequent day, the Dead Cities, a tiny sample of some of the 700 stone village skeletons that litter the region, all strangely abandoned some thousand years before. We then spent a day getting lost in the souqs of Aleppo, the largest bazaar in the world and while not quite on a par with those of Damascus, we did take the chance to stock up on some of Aleppo’s famed olive soap before dashing across the border to Turkey.

Some Cappadocian Faerie towers

After a brief, enforced schedule stop in the pretty border town of Antakya, we made our way to the stunning Cappadocia region in central Turkey. Arriving in Turkey was for us a ‘return to the first world’ after a 4 month Hiatus, the first time since South Africa probably that we were in a country that bare skin & uncovered heads abounded, shopping brands were familiar and many other creature comforts long forgotten, slowly could rear their heads to grateful recognition. Cappadocia and specifically Goreme, where we were based, was magical. The sculpted, hollow basalt towers, valleys and underground cities that define it, easily occupied several days of relaxed, but intrepid adventuring. Continuing onto Istanbul, we bypassed the rest of Turkey for the moment (it is more European these days anyway), rushing to connect with a flight to Dubai (via Kuwait) in order to meet up with Victor & Yuko (friends from Japan) ahead of exploring Iran.

Tallest tower in the world - Dubai

Dubai was fascinating in itself. After exploring the ancient Middle East, seeing the regions most ambitious variant was a great counterbalance and poignant moment of pause to add to our experiences. Almost a more conservative local Muslim society than any other we have been to, the scale, architecture, ambition and almost insanity (rapidly being proved by its bankcrupcy) of the Emirates is something to behold. Not that there is a lot to do here; we explored endless air conditioned malls, climbed the worlds tallest building and found our way to Atlantis, a Disney style water park located at the very palm fronded-end of the man made miracle that is the Palm shaped Island resort (1 of 3). Dubai is a place, desperately trying to be relevant. Enshrined in its innumerable, albeit largely empty office towers there is an audacious lure to the world’s elite companies trying to plug an economic hole. While the malls, hotels and amusements serve to placate, tempt and distract the wealthy local population and tourists alike. Wajid and his wife, friends of Victor played fantastic hosts to us during our stay here and while there is no escaping the resultant hole in the wallet that Dubai aims to provide, it did prove a fantastic base to reconnect with old friends and witness an ‘other side’ that we had necessarily been avoiding in our budget driven country selection criteria’s to date.

The ancient ruins of Persepolis

Jumping a plane to Shiraz (via Bahrain) with Victor and Yuko, we then set about exploring Iran. As a group of 4 people, we were almost our own tour group and while it took a little while to align pace and style, it came as a welcome change to our usual, isolated random adventuring, not least because I had a carpet buying buddy! Iran itself defies all those preconceived stereotypes and notions, unwittingly forced on us by a relentless western media fuelled (literally) with ulterior motives. In reality, it is a highly modern, liberal and socially vibrant place, its people easily the most welcoming and friendly we have experienced anywhere in our travels. Far from the black cosseted images of the TV, Iranian people (outside the Mosques at least) are largely dressed in a Western fashion and are quite happy to speak their minds. The strict head covering laws are cursorily adhered to with scarfs precariously balanced on the back of the head; freeing up space for a wide range of dramatic fringes, coupled with fashionable, clinging trench coats. It exists in stark comparison with the other more conservative worlds of its Middle Eastern compatriots. Iran has more of a socialist feel to it vs the Arab world; more of a middle class society, with the sort of shared facilities that would be the envy of most countries; free cold water everywhere, incredibly cheap transport infrastructure and clean, fantastically maintained public facilities. Immediately the place welcomes you and enchants, simultaneously birthing ‘an immediate questioning’ of the inherent Western programming and ideas that you see compromised in front of you. In this way Iran was similar to my first encounter with Moscow and more recently those of Syria and Myanmar. This surprise, questioning factor is what makes travel so remarkable I think and creates truly treasured experiences.

The mud alleyways of Yazd

From wandering the pleasant congenial bazaars, museums and mosques of Shiraz, we explored the ancient desert remnants of the original ‘paradise’, Cyrus the Greats’ former palace in Parsegard and the Persian empires’ subsequent crowning glory, the architectural marvel of Persepolis. After becoming ‘star attractions’ at the Shiraz bus stop (there really are few tourist here), we made our way to the sacred, desert city of Yazd. A truly unique mud brick city, parts of which that wouldn’t be out of place on a Star Wars set, Yazd is famed for its sacred Mosques, Zorastrian sky burial towers and an urban skyline of wind cooling towers. Staying at the Silk Road Hotel, a classic, traditional Iranian house with a large open courtyard and (uniquely in Iran) a somewhat varied (ie non-kebab) cuisine, we explored the numerous mud alleys, bought some (Zorastrian) carpets and soaked up the unique location and architecture.

From there we bounced to Esfahan, my favourite city in the Middle East by far. Magical mosques, enchanting markets, tea-houses, parks, bridges and simply the friendliest most welcoming people I have met anywhere. Perhaps our most defining experience of Iran was experienced here, during a sunset over the Khaju bridge, one of many ancient bridges that line the river and parks in Esfahan. As the light set, the arches under the bridge played host to a variety of beautiful candle light talents, as men (young and old) took turns to recite poetry, dance and singing traditional folk songs to the gathering crowds of locals; picnicking, socializing and enjoying the parks in their thousands, as they do quite religiously everywhere in Iran. It was a true cultural and artistic embrace, the like of which you would struggle to match anywhere first world I think – this must be what happens to societies left to their own devices; devoid of good TV or computer games!

Mesmerising Mosque ceilings in Esfahan

From Esfahan, we enjoyed a strange overnight adventure in Quom, the holiest city in Iran and HQ for many of the Ayatollahs, Mullah’ s and clerics of the Islamic regime. Arriving here was easily the most surreal experience of the journey, our alien nature was never more acutely obvious than in the faces of the thousands of black covered Shiite pilgrims as we hauled our backpacks across the square to a small Arabian hotel, full of Iraqi and Saudi pilgrims. This we contrasted with 2 days staying in remote Ghakor Khan, a tiny village hidden in the spectacular Alamut Valley mountains and a great place to break the heat. The Alamut valley is home to the famed ‘Castles of the Assassins’. The veritable ninjas of the Middle East, these ancient Persian magicians were famed for their use of opiates, strange witchcraft and animist rituals, as for hire assassins. There are about 50 ruined castles that dot, the bare, bleak mountain ranges cliff tops here and its easy to imagine that time into being. We climbed up to the one of the most famed castles above the town, for a sunset, while the castles are quite ruined now, destroyed by Genghis long ago, they still echo with wonder and provide for magnificent views over the surrounding valleys and hills.

With Victor & the serious biz of carpet buying

Our final Iranian stop was Tehran, here we again braved the huge Bazaar and picked up some exotic nomadic carpets and soaked up many of the sights on offer. Tehran was not nearly as chaotic, crowded, polluted or unpleasant as I had heard. The subway is more like Tokyo, there are great parks, fantastic monuments and museums showcasing the wealth of the Shahs and rich Persian (and most human) history. Amongst the very fashionable, sexy locals there is also a strong vibrant artistic scene, strangely echoed by the fantastic ‘side-of-a-building’ Islamic propaganda artworks that appear on every corner. Of course every big city has a dark side and Victor lost his camera to a motorcycle ‘snatch and grab’ job, that while devasting in its photo loss, was still captivating in that several riders immediately pulled up, told him to jump on as they tried to give chase to the bandits. I’m not sure where else that would occur.

Fantastic anti-US propaganda pieces abound

After saying sad farewell to Victor and Yuko however, we returned to Istanbul. Happily basking in the experience and soaking up our return to civilization, we were back in the once again foreign land of bare skin, tight fitting clothing and international cuisine. The Middle East has been a fantastic experience for its difference, often unexpected. Old cultures, history and values, so strong and vigorous, some of the safest, most friendly and welcoming people in the world; amazing quality handicrafts, bazaars and sublime architecture and for the most part, good food! As the first world kicks back in again with its’ me first agenda, I realize I will miss the honesty, respect and integrity afforded people in Muslim society. There is much more than a shared history that these people offer us and I feel infinitely better for being able to shake off (for good I hope) many of the stereotypes that have been unwittingly thrust my way. Europe is next and should prove quite the contrast!


Cappidocian Dreaming

You would think after 2 months of exploring ancient cities, ruins and cave dwellings, we would get a bit tired of all this. But every […]

You would think after 2 months of exploring ancient cities, ruins and cave dwellings, we would get a bit tired of all this. But every destination somehow entices, re-invigorates and sets wild the imagination in new ways. In all likelihood I also possess some strange, exotic historic positivity gene I suppose.

Our impromptu Antioch guide, Burtak

After our border shenanigans in Syria, we arrived in Antakya, Turkey mid morning only to find the connecting bus to Cappidocia was full and we were going to have to wait until 8.30pm that evening for another. Resigned to the delay, we set about a late breakfast at the Otogar – the amazing Turkish bus depots that seem to operate like airports here, with their myriad of services, restaurants and comforts. Figuring we had about 8 hours to kill, we inquired after a service bus into town and were instead offered a lift by a genial older gentleman named Burtak. Speaking little English, but with the aid of numerous hand gestures, some French and a few pages of a pretty limiting Japanese–Turkish glossary (mostly food references) in Megumi’s guide book, he proceeded to take us on a guided tour of his town. At first we weren’t too sure of his angle, being the somewhat wary travelers that we have had to become at times. A trip up to the hills overlooking the city in order to show us the great cave cathedral where Paul and Peter met in a series of meetings that laid the foundation for the modern Christian church, pretty much convinced us of his genuine enthusiasm and commitment to taking us on a tour though.

From a series of hand gestures and the odd successfully translated phrase we worked out that he was a teacher and worked to rehabilitate people suffered from head injuries or something like that – if not it was a beautiful lost in translation exercise. He then drove us about the picturesque town of Antakya (or Antioch as it was once known) for the better part of an hour; all of which gave off every feeling of having arrived at the Mediterranean and indeed the western world. Women wore tight clothing, hair and skin was displayed freely, sidewalks abounded with café’s and familiar brands with their requisite advertising popped up everywhere. It was all very welcome. We said goodbye to Burtak (a really fabulous gesture of hospitality) at a fascinating museum full of Byzantium Mosaics, then spent the afternoon patrolling the pleasant shops, restaurants and eateries either side of the river, people spotting and eventually settling into a pub to watch a world cup quarter final.

Breakfast over Goreme

The next morning we arrived in Goreme, Cappidocia after catching possibly the most impressive overnight busride of my life. The back of each bus seat actually had its own TV monitor similar to those in the latest airplanes to chose movies from, plus USB ports so that we could review photos or listen to MP3’s etc. It was still early in the morning, but any claims to tiredness were easily overcome by the mystique cast by the towering rock formations growing up all over town. We set about exploring the place and found a nice pension with rooms carved into the rock-face (ie a cave room), with beds directly carved out of the mountainside itself and featured nice views over the stunning surrounding valley. Rooms are relatively cheap here as there is plenty of competition in town and the locals are very friendly. I had already forged a blood bond with a neighbour over our shared Anzac / WW1 tradition while checking out a room. It boded well – unpacked, breakfasted & relaxed – we had finally arrived.

The Selene Monastery

Cappidocia is one of those places you would expect to only exist in children’s books. Strewn with valleys of strange ‘soft-serve’ shaped rock formations and towers of basalt, its curious geology has attracted people here since the Hittites in ancient times. The region features some 200 underground cities carved up to 7 stories below ground. While the basalt towers themselves have housed monasteries, churches, pigeons and people since the times of Christ – thousands of rock caves and homes are carved into the rock formations everywhere the eye can see. The towers themselves are known as fairy chimneys, because passing travelers on the old silk road, would see candle lights set in the holes of rocks towers from the many hermits and monks ensconced here. To the passers by though, it appeared as though fairy were at play amongst the eerie landscape. It’s a remarkably easy tale to believe actually, the place has that magical quality to it.

Cappidocian tourist trinkets

These days Goreme, one of the many small villages in the Cappidocia expanse is tourist grand central. Hundreds of pensions have been carved into the surrounding rocks and the village centre has been transformed into an epicenter for all the corresponding creature comforts, with a myriad of restaurants, bars and gift shops competing for attention. Just a short walk from this in seemingly every direction though, life remains much the same and villagers go about their daily life the same way as ever. Surrounding valleys are covered with grape vines on plots established long ago and brought under cultivation through the harvesting of pigeon shit via pigeon holes (houses) carved into many of the rock towers. Seriously, everywhere you look you can see the small holes at the top of the rock formations that served as pigeon fertilizer factories! Donkeys and horses still patrol the village roads and fields around and after dusk all the villagers tend to congregate outside their houses for tea and Nargilehs(water pipes) with the extended family in almost timeless fashion.

Rockface houses of the Ilhra valley

Naturally there is no shortage of tours or tour companies here, keen to package the sights. We signed up for a tour to visit some of the more far flung highlights and spent a whole day stopping at different viewpoints and experiencing the largest of the underground cities in Derinkuyu; a fascinating multilevel, 7 story, labyrinth below ground. Initially these were used by the Hittites simply for food storage and cooking in ancient times, but subsequently expanded by the early Christians in the Byzantine era to become full serving vertical villages defendable from persecuting invaders. Complete with churches and innumerable hidey holes, storage rooms, ventilation shafts and other spaces we can only begin to imagine uses for, each village is also amazingly connected to the next several kilometers away by a series of sealing tunnels far below ground as part of their defense network.

We also explored the Ilhra valley where numerous churches are carved into the valley walls and the stunning ‘Selene monastery’, a complex carved into a mountain with innumerable halls, rooms and other levels rising up the mountain rock-face. We then finished the day by soaking up the stunning sunset over Goreme and the cascading evening shades of the Pigeon, Rose and other surrounding valleys. We have done more sunsets in the last year than I can remember ever consciously doing. It just doesn’t seem to get tired, but our photography skills are really not improving at all with the practice.

Small village or pile of rubble?

Done with tours, the next day packed to the gills with liquid we braved the heat to spend the day trekking through the various surrounding valleys and landscapes on our own tod. Cappidocia is a rabbit warren of hidden valleys and features, each of the surrounding valleys surrounding Goreme features different colours and formations. Starting with the open air museum a couple of km out of town, the museum is really a valley of towers that served as a monastery – complete with a series of churches and catherdrals carved into the rock faces. From there, we happily stepped off the reservation got ourselves lost, traipsing through the various shades of the White, Rose, Pigeon, Red, Swords and Honeycomb valley formations. Along the way, we forged our own paths through seemingly forgotten vineyards and abandoned towers – once homes or monasteries long since loved. The combination of colours and bewildering rock formations was mesmerizing, a blank canvas for the creative imaginings of times past or dimensions distant. 8 hours or so later we emerged back on to a main road at another valley, a site full of rock formations that resemble mushrooms, where we caught the bus some 17km back to into town. A really enjoyable day!

The soft serve Rose Valley

Cappidocia is such a weird profusion of natural geological wonders, seemingly perfectly intertwined and adapted for mans requirements throughout history whether fleeing persecution or seeking spiritual seclusion. Yet despite its popularity, its an area still vibrantly and culturally alive, the Turkish people of the region going about the habits largely unencumbered by the tourist influx at work. It’s truly a magical, sacred pace. We could have tarried here much longer had we not a pressing engagement with the great Persian empire.


Showdown on the Syrian Border

It was time…. For an hour I had been sitting back watching the pandemonium in front of me ebb and flow, waiting for a quiet […]

It was time…. For an hour I had been sitting back watching the pandemonium in front of me ebb and flow, waiting for a quiet window or some semblance of order to emerge in the 40 degree heat. It hadn’t happened and with another thousand Syrians pressed up against the border gates behind me, chomping at the bit to get inside time was running out, I needed to get amongst it. With a deep breath, I pressed into the seething mass holding my and Megumi’s passports above my head. Somehow I needed to get past the hundreds of other frantic Syrians to the passport window and get a Visa stamp from the Turkish customs official. There was no line here, just a surging, unrelenting, shouting mass of men pressed desperately up against the window in the heat, women sheltering under the shade away to the side. The other 2 booths were even more manic, progress just didn’t seem obvious at all, but there was no other way around it.

Having crossed some 15 or so land borders so far in our travels, we were starting to become old hands at the game or so we thought. Myanmar had been the toughest visa wise, Nepal / India just plain confusing and Tanzania / Kenya at night probably the most treacherous, but our Syria crossings was more akin to being transported onto the set of a strangely stereotypical Middle Eastern BBC report. It was something else again entirely!

The crossing into Syria had been a mission in itself. A mission of faith, like walking into the unknown if you will. Lonely Planet says everyone needs a Visa before they go and they likely won’t hand it out on arrival. Blogs and other travellers all said otherwise and that they were able to get it just rocking up, but the experience ranged from 8 hour waits (especially for Americans) to outright rejection (again especially for Americans); for others a slight delay perhaps, but hugs from the customs official! Justifiably a little hesitant and unable to wait the 2 months somewhere for the visa approvals in advance, we decided to forego the normal public transport options and throwdown some cash to take a taxi from Amman in Jordan to the Syrian border. If we did get delayed, rejected or any other such major hassle, we would be able to avoid the risk of getting lynched by other bus passengers forced to wait around for our visa resolutions. So take a taxi we did, possibly our most luxurious mode of trans-border transport thus far for the 3 or 4 hour journey to Damascus, we had also heard that the taxi driver usually lent a hand to try and smooth their own ride. We were open to any help we could get.

The Jordan border was interesting, there were no lines, just some 50 or so people amassed against the customs window yelling and thrusting passports in front of them to the officer, a slight portend of things to come as I would later realise. The requisite behaviour on our part ran a little in the face of our cultivated Japanese restraint, the driver not so encumbered, grabbed our passports and thrust himself into the mass trying to use our international status as leverage. 20 minutes later he emerged successful and we were through to the Syrian side. The Syrian border office by contrast was very orderly with a dedicated window for foreigners. The driver pointed us in the direction and we set about filling in our forms and submitting the documents. As we also needed to submit our vehicle number, I stepped back outside to find our taxi number plate and curiously found our driver sitting in the rear of the taxi, tightening screws into the backboard of the driver seat. He acted nonchalant enough, I said nothing and returned inside to argue our case.

With no competition, the customs guy had to deal with us. I explained we were travelling for 9 months and thus had no access to our Syrian embassy back home for the required visa. He pulled some faces, said Australia I can understand, but that he could not accept Japan. We started to argue, the driver re-appeared yelled some stuff as well and after a 10 minute wait while certain backgrounds and details were checked, our passports were returned and we were directed to pay the Visa fee’s (A$100 for me) and be on our way. Returning to the cab, we suddenly noticed we had 2 bags of duty free cigarettes strategically placed at our feet. The driver didn’t even bother to fill us in and obviously was angling to make a buck on our duty free count – I could guess what the back of the seats contained as well. As he jumped into the driver seat, a screw popped out and visually confirmed this for us. And as we pulled up to the customs agent, the backboard fell back to reveal another 5 or so boxes buried underneath. I decided not to notify the driver and let it play, the customs agent didn’t even throw us foreigners a glance so it didn’t matter – we were through. Not such a big deal after all.

Here we are though just over a week later and heading out the other side of Syria on the Turkish border. This time there was supposed to be no visa stress (Australians / Japanese automatically get a visa in Turkey), so we caught an early bus from Aleppo (5am) to Antikaya (Antioch) on the Turkey side. The bus was packed full of a friendly bunch of Syrians taking advantage of their day off (Friday is the start of the weekend in the muslim world) to visit Turkey, it was only an hour to the border and an easy drive. As the only foreigners, our fellow travellers all seemed particularly attentive to our needs on the bus, a nice brand new Turkish number. We were given water, shown how to use the seats and air conditioning (I actually thought they took us for idiots for a while!) and one particular sharply dressed lad with jeans a little too tight was going out of his way in his offers to help us with the Visa / passport queues. Now Syrian people are some of the nicest you will meet so I took this all in our stride. At the Syrian passport control, we were guided to the relevant forms, departure tax area and our passports aggregated and jointly submitted for us nice and efficiently. Then we were naturally asked if we would mind carrying some duty free cigarettes for the helpful fellow. Used to the ritual I said sure, suddenly realising the reason for the friendliness. He had gotten in just in time as well. As we rejoined the bus, we had to wait some 30 minutes while all the other passengers and staff loaded up on Duty Free cigarettes. Bags were being redeposited on the bus, bursting at the seems, duty free bags loaded with smokes were being carried on board and suddenly everyone was clamouring to wrap the cigarette cartoons into smaller bags, (some in black to match the bus interior) and stash them all about the bus. We must have been asked 5 or 6 times to take someone else’s.

When we eventually proceeded through to the Turkish side of the border we found the road blocked and a huge crowd of people in front of the immigration checks, 3 lone toll booth looking things in the middle of the highway. After a 30 minute wait at the gates we were allowed in and told to get our passports checked by Turkish customs so that we could get our Visa. The crowd sprinted away as the gate opened reminding me instantly of those desperate shoppers on the opening morning of the post Christmas sales we always saw on the  TV news growing up. The visa had sounded simple enough really and I guess most days it probably is. This being Friday though, everyone in Syria was on their way to Turkey for the day (likely just for the cigarette run) and anxious not to waste a second. The tiny windows of the 3 immigration / police boxes were the centre of a sweaty manic scrummage. Crowds of hundreds of men pushed against the window waving passports and as progress slowed to an infinite crawl, well positioned men started to take other peoples passports on contract, holding bundles of up to 20 or more in the air. Watching on the outskirts mystified by the chaos on display, we also saw women seductively walked up to the back of the customs police doors and dip their veils to reveal enough hair and skin to entice the official to bypass the process, derailing all progress & incensing the crowd even further. It was a lot to take in.

After 20 minutes of pushing I gave up my futile attempt at getting close to the window – sweating and exhausted I started looking for a short cut. One of the guys from our bus had spent a few hours now squashed desperately against the window and myself along with other members of the bus seeing him as our best option, rallied together to hand him our passports to represent. Inevitably all around us, fights had started breaking out as frustrated overlooked Syrians, jilted passport holders and impatient others all degenerated into heated confrontations. After another hour and a half of yelling, fighting, cursory military interventions and finally strikes by the Turkish immigration officers who started refusing to serve anyone until things quietened down, I got my piece of paper. This precipitated a 200 metre run to the visa payment window and then back again (with the receipt) to hand to our bus guy, still trying to hold a place at the customs window against the tide until everyone on the bus got their passports sorted. In the distance I could see the next thousand Syrians storming through the just opened border flood gates. Way too close!

Wild and exhausted we got back on the bus, but the adventure was far from over. As we approached the customs gate, everyone on the bus started to become nervous and a noticeable tension filled the air. As the bus stopped, a customs officer aggressively boarded, herded us all off and started unloading our bags onto the pavement, scouring every centimetre of the bus with a cigarette detecting comb. A steady stream of black plastic wrapped cigarette cartons were hurled out onto the pavement, then systematically an inspection began on every piece of luggage. We watched, hypnotized by the smuggling farce unravelling before us. From luggage bags, jeans were being removed with cigarettes cleverly inserted into every pocket and cartons down each trouser leg, jackets with packets loaded into every pocket were emptied onto the pavement. Suitcases were cut open and gift wrapped presents torn apart, to reveal other innovative hiding places laden with concealed cartons and individual packets. Bemused, I lost count of how many cartons were seized and hurled away for confiscation, literally hundreds.

Our bags had been strategically place either side of another suspicious looking bag and other personal carry bags seemed to be finding their way into close proximity to where we were standing (Megumi was asked to actually lean on one). Obviously foreigners (non Syrians) had the best chance of getting through this all unscathed, I would hate to know what had actually been put into our backpacks. I had to figure that any spare space was also probably crammed to the gills while we weren’t looking as well and I was preparing myself to ‘deny all knowledge’ when the seemingly inevitable confrontation came. Sure enough though, we didn’t even get checked and the 2 or 3 bags we were ‘protecting’ didn’t get searched either. Completely mesmerized by the spectacle as we were though, one of the bags we were ‘carrying’ for the ‘tight jeaned’ guy somehow got confiscated before we could defend it.

Search & reprimands done (no punishments or fines here, just confiscation), we were herded back into the bus (where I found 2 more black bags strategically placed on my seat) and then we were waved through customs as they moved onto the next bus. No sooner had we had crossed into Turkey, when everyone stood up and started taking stock of their remaining inventories. Black bags were brought down from all sorts of still undiscovered hidey holes; there were sad expressions from Mr Tight jeans and numerous others on board whose cunning plans and strategies had all been foiled; plus some elated grins from the guy who had thought to put his bags next to ours. All told we had spent more than 4 hours in immigration & customs limbo. I have no idea how much these guys were all looking to make from this – probably double their money, a couple of hundred bucks or so maybe which might make it a lucrative profession given the bus staff do this run at least once a day. It was a bizarre and equally otherworldly spectacle with some fantastic learning experiences – never cross the border on the Muslim weekend and next time definitely take a taxi instead! Oh wait……!


In the footsteps of the Pharaohs

Egypt at least initially, whether you like it or not, is all about the pharaohs and ancient Egypt. It is one of those things you […]

Egypt at least initially, whether you like it or not, is all about the pharaohs and ancient Egypt. It is one of those things you just have to do at some point and we had happily resigned ourselves to such a tourist pilgrimage. This felt like a remarkably different kind of departure from any of our prior travel escapades. While we had had glimpses of the mainstream tourist beat in Africa and India at key places, we still felt we were stitching them together in our own rather unique, independent way. Egypt though is literally plagued by tour groups from every corner of the planet and invariably we were on the same path, tainted by the same “rich short term tourist’ brush from the locals and forced to simply grin and bear it in the heat. This post then probably won’t inspire much, its one of those ‘this is what we did’ things and I get the impression that everyone else does more or less the same. But describe it I will, for it is nevertheless an amazing experience & most worthy despite the popularity.

Stage 1 – The Cairo Museum

First stop on the trail was the Cairo museum. A huge building in the middle of downtown Cairo, the place is an overwhelming treasure trove of antiquities. There is so much there it seems that long ago things stopped being categorized, organized or signposted. A new museum is being built next to the pyramids to house all this at some point which I hope will help, but for now, the only way to experience it is to simply immerse yourself floor by floor in the wonders and soak it all up. Packed to the rafters with ancient statues, sarcophagi, mummies and millions of other excavated wonders, you quickly drown in the download. The showstopper though rather obviously is the treasures from the Tutankhamen tomb. We saved it for last and after 4 or 5 hours perusing the sarcophagi, busts and other external trappings from the tombs, seeing a sample of what these may all once have contained leaves you in awe. The gold masks, jewellery and other Tutankhamen treasures are astounding in their colour, quality and detail, while the overwhelming catalogue of ‘other stuff’ found inside simply boggles with the scale of the find. We left totally worn out, but inspired and full of pharaonic dreams, excitedly anticipating the thrill of exploring the actual sites themselves.

Stage 2 – Saqqara, Dashur and Giza

The essential 'Camel snap' in front of a pyramid


Having been forewarned many times of the hassles trying to do this independently, we signed up for a small tour for the day, which included a professional guide (a muslim woman) and more importantly an air conditioned vehicle to take us around. Departing around 8am from Cairo, we first headed for Saqqara, located about 40 minutes outside of the city. This is the site of some of the oldest and most ‘original’ pyramids. After briefly checking out the small museum, largely focused on the originator of the pyramid idea, an architect, designer, priest (and later God) named Imhotep. We headed for the famous step pyramid of Zoser – an impressive complex dating from the 3rd dynasty of the pharaohs (25th Century BC) which basically served as a prototype design for the pyramids to follow. It is Egypt’s oldest stone monument. In remarkable condition, the great steps, the layout of the courts, entrance gate and supporting ceremonial rooms are all still there to see and imagine. Climbing up to a hill either side, dodging offers of camel or horses rides from the Bedouins as we went, you can also see (with the city of Cairo in the distance) numerous other cones of earlier tomb attempts that all still pepper the hills but these days reduced to littered piles of rubble.

Feeling the curse of the Pyramids

From Saqqara, we headed 5 km or so further out, past innumerable ‘carpet factories’ to Dashur, the location of many more pyramids but 2 in particularly good condition, the ‘bent’ and the ‘red’ pyramid. Built by the same king, the bent one is seemingly a failed experiment, (ie someone got the maths wrong & it was not wide enough to support the height, hence they sharp angle in at the top). The red one though is perfect and the first successful prototype of the real pyramid as we have come to know it. Looking much as you would expect from the outside, we climbed the winding staircase to an entrance halfway up the face of the pyramid and then down into the tombs contained within. The steep downward staircase, about 200m into the depths of the pyramid is a narrow shaft, just over a metre high which is descended, face first, in a kind of limbo movement. At the bottom the heat rises to an almost unbearable level and you walk through 3 large (but empty) conical hall-like chambers where the tombs and treasure once lived, long since plundered. Gratefully returning to the air, we realised we could barely walk, the muscles that I had only just discovered during the descent, haunted us for days, in 5 minutes I was more sore than I had been at anytime in Nepal or Kilimanjaro.

The overwhelming scale of Cheops, Giza

The final and really the ‘piece de resistance’ of the day was of course, Giza. Located literally on the edge of Cairo; the site of the great pyramids are flanked by sprawling suburbs, touts, Bedouin camel ride hustlers and papyrus shops. Even from a distance you can see the pyramids rising over the city. But once you enter the site and stand in front of them, their true scale emerges. Despite all the facts you learn at school and read about, nothing prepares you for this. The great pyramid of Cheops is astounding in its magnitude. Each brick in the steep face is more than a metre high and gazing upon it you cannot imagine climbing the thing in less than half a day. Apparently there are enough bricks here to line to the border of France – dodgy guide fact perhaps but its’ easy to believe. Having no urge to climb into this one we proceeded to the look out, further up the hill and pushed our way through the camels touts, and tour buses to look down upon the 3 structures. Cheops, his sons pyramid which is much the same size, but still possesses some its marble façade at the top and the grandsons smaller pyramid, behind all of which are the ‘queens pyramids’ – it is a fantastic viewpoint to contemplate. Next we lapped around the other side to explore the Sphinx, carved out of a quarry on the Northern side of the site and the surrounding temple. The sphinx was great, but not quite as impressive as I had imagined especially next to the scale and presence of the others. But it was still a fitting finale to a full day

Stage 3 – Ashwan and Abu Simbel

The extraordinary entrance to Abu Simbel


Pulling ourselves away from Cairo we headed south down the Nile to Ashwan in Upper Egypt. Treating ourselves to some luxury we caught the overnight sleeper train, arriving in Ashwan about 9am. Ashwan is a quaint town, close to the Sudanese border that straddles a number of islands around a Nile Delta and in sight of the huge Ashwan damn. Our priority here was exploring Abu Simbel, a temple some 3 hours drive from Ashwan but possibly the best preserved of all the sites in ancient Egypt (albeit relocated to make way for the dam). To access Abu Simbel you need to join a 4 am police escorted convoy from town designed to protect the tourists from tourist attacks. We signed up for a tour bus put together by our backpacker and spent the rest of the day avoiding the 48 degree heat, floating on a Felucca (a local sail boat) around the Nile and exploring the markets at night.

Abu Simbel lived up to its reputation and the entrance guarded by the 4 giant statues of Ramses 2 is stunning next to the lake backdrop, as are the elaborate wonders of the intricate decorative scenes on the temple walls inside. Adjacent to this is another smaller temple, with equally mesmerising interiors. Only the 50 degree temperatures dampened our enthusiasm for the experience and gave us a sudden appreciation for the early start. Our tour also included a stop at the temple of Phillae on an island in the middle of the Nile near Ashwan, which was also remarkable with its huge deeply etched figures guarding the entrance. This one we had largely to ourselves – everyone else it seemed had panned further explorations in the crippling heat.

Amazing sculptures from edfu temple

4th Stage – Luxor, The Valley of the Kings and Karnak


The crown jewels, so to speak, of the ancient Egyptian experience is Luxor. This is the location of many of the buried tombs of the pharaohs, their queens and senior administrators and along with the ancient temple of Karnak, the holiest sight in Egyptian history, makes it an absolute treasure trove of archaeological exploration. Tutankhamen was found here and numerous digs and restoration projects are still underway. We arrived via a 5 hour minibus from Ashwan that also stopped at the Edfu Temple dedicated to Horus (the falcon headed God) and Kom Ombu, a temple dually dedicated to Sombek (Crocodile God and Horus). Both enchantingly positioned along the Nile in their original setting, they were in fantastic condition and featured innumerable embedded artwork, hieroglyphics and sculptures of the gods themselves; for mine, these were one of the major highlights of the entire tour.

Soaking up the awesome spectacle of Karnak

Arriving in Luxor in the evening, we explored the Luxor temple located right in the middle of the city, colonnaded by a huge avenue of Sphinxes only recently discovered. (and still being uncovered by the look of the diggings extending hundreds of metres beyond it through the centre of town). We then made our way to a night show at Karaka, the largest temple in existence and where only the pharaohs possessed access to its inner sanctum. Each pharaoh added their own features to this complex over time and the night show rather than explain the facts, tried to communicate the place as it once must have been. An immersive experience that walked you through different sections of the temple with lighting effects, music and tactical voiceovers, it resonated well with us in the cool night air, after days of suicidally scurrying around the desert and temples during the day it was nice to just sit back and imagine how this place might once have operated. Naturally, we did return to explore its wonders in blighted daylight again the next day.

Again on a cheap tour from our hotel we headed to the other side of the river to explore the Valleys of the Kings and Queens, along with Queen Hapshepsut’s temple. While there are 64 odd phaoronic tombs that have been unearthed to date (including Tutankhamen), you only get to visit 3 on any one entry ticket. Our guide had chosen Ramses 1 and Ramses 3 and Tuthmosis 3. Each of which showcased a different style of tomb. The tombs are located here because the pyramid tombs were so easily located and raided for their treasure. The Pharoahs needed to secure their mummies longer term, as they proceeded through the various stages of the afterlife – a process that takes thousands of years and ultimately requires a return to their physical (mummified body), not good when you have been carried off by bandits. The site was important therefore in being remote enough to be able to protect the secrecy of the tombs location; contain a dry temperature to create a perfect preservation environment for the mummies themselves and most notably, for its auspicious natural design, due to the towering pyramid shaped rock that apexes the valley.

Our rather expressive guide & Egyptologist

Each tomb is accessed through little dugouts in the valley walls and proceeds through connecting tunnels once strewn with false doors and booby traps to the inner chambers. The chambers themselves are covered floor to ceiling with hieroglyphics and visual decals – representations and scenes from the book of the dead, instructions and depictions if you will for the pharaohs’ future navigations of the afterlife. The first tomb we visited, Tuthmosis 3, the writing appeared in almost cursive, calligraphic strings and the decals were stick figure designs. A pharaoh who died ahead of his time, so the tomb was rushed a little on completion but it was striking for its difference in this regard. The second was stunning, Ramses 1st’s tomb contained pictures that still contained vibrant colours despite their 3,000 year odd age and incredible detail in each chamber. The final tomb of Ramses 3 was different again, the main tomb destroyed but the entry chambers contained huge, coloured pictures of the king in various godly unions, with adjoining small antechambers that were once crammed with long lost treasures, accompaniments for the afterlife, but now merely decorated intricately with artwork of their former contents – harps, foods, pets and more. Afterwards we toured the valley of the queens, similar to that of the kings, though only a few tombs are currently accessible and while these were still interesting, in context to the kings there was not much to report, a scaled down grandeur to the pharaohs’ lush legacies.

Playing some 'spot the aliens'

And that was the salient Egyptian experience really. It’s hard to encapsulate how one feels about it all. The stunning accomplishments of their great monuments; the complexity, richness and intricate tapestry of their artistic legacies; the bewitching fantastical nature of their gods and requisite paths through the afterlife, it is all so hard to fathom. So old, so full of mystery and seemingly so alien, there is plenty of fertile ground for the conspiracy theorists to cultivate here and the imagination has so much fuel to roam free with our own interpretation. In many respects every civilization since seems to be following in these footsteps, something particularly apparent in the architectural styles of the other ancient sites (Hittites, Persians, Romans & Greeks) that we encountered throughout the rest of the Middle East. All of course failing to match the grandeur, longetivity and enduring legacy that they so mimic and that the pharaohs have so enshrined.