A Travellerspoint blog

September 2010

Turning up the volume

Last time I left you I think we were wondering the desolate streets of Beirut. Well things definitely picked up - until 8am :)

We spent the whole night and day with sweet Aileen, a young chinese girl who was taking a long weekend break away from working in the admin dept of a Jordanian factory. Her planned travel buddy was unfortunately turned away from the syrian border earlier in the day because they managed to find out that she had previously travelled to Israel. Poor lass. Aileen decided to go on alone, having never done anything like that before, and so we adopted each other in the taxi. We had a great day wandering around the bullet ridden streets, wandering round the smart redeveloped streets, going on the so-bad-its-good ferris wheel, swimming in the Med, chilling out in the green oasis of the American University, watching the street carnival in the student area and introducing Aileen to her first taste of Italian food (!) and her first Gin and Tonic.

There is a strange atmosphere sometimes. There are some beautiful old buildings with a definite old french feel - all balconies, shutters and frills round the edge - alongside the smart sleek modern buildings. But the old buildings are completely peppered with bullets, as are some of the monuments. It's hard to believe this city centre was a warzone. The new buildings definitely outnumber the old, although you wouldnt get that impression from our photos which is why i mention it :) There is no other sign that anything happened here, no one talks about it. But during the night of the festival people were letting off fireworks in the next street along and there were some very nervous looking people around. Sitting where we were we couldnt see the fireworks in the sky but could hear the explosions and echos through the streets and see the casings drop to earth and it certainly gave us a small window into what it must have been like in those streets during the 1980s.

We left Aileen to get a well earned nights sleep while we headed out with Sebastien, a super fun german guy we immediately hit it off with in our hostel, to a well known club in Beirut called B018. In Beirut people dont really start their night till after dinner which doesnt start till 9, so the bars get going around 12 and the clubs at 2. Our kind of town:)

It was a lovely little one room club, good crowd, staff tolerant to our late night cork-throwing silliness, we could dance on the tables and the roof opened several times during the night and sunrise.

We all happily fell into our beds at 8am that morning with sore feet and sore cheeks.

Only to drag ourselves out of bed at 2pm and off for some more sightseeing to the Jeita grotto: a 2km lonng cave chock full of the biggest stalegtites/mites you can imagine. All tastefully lit and even included a boat trip to reach the lower caves. A perfect cool, jaw-droppingly awesome place to spend an afternoon's hangover. We headed back to catch the second day of the street festival including local bands and food stalls - all very Dulwich - but we flagged and headed back to see if we could catch Sebastien again to potentially perk us up. Instead we met two lovely dutch girls - Amy and Daun - on the roof for some nightcap beers and together watched the dormant rooftop nightclub over the road get louder and louder and glitzier and flashier: not unlike our experience of the city itself.

Posted by rachndave 23:38 Archived in Lebanon Tagged sea history festivals cave clubbing Comments (1)

Lost at last


A new country with new money, personalities, language, shapes and sounds.

Not too much to report from Damascus because we spent two days just wandering around the souks and streets of the old town. the main covered souk is wide, dark and cool with quite modern shops lining the sides - at night, after ramadan fast is broken this street is heaving with interesting looking people - arabs in robes and tea towels, families, nomads, tourists. There are hunderds of tiny lights in the roof that look scattered and random just like stars, a very pretty sight that looks like a design feature until you read that they are bullet holes made by french fighters in the 1925 war. After walking along this long arcade you are greeted by crumbling roman arches, an enormous marble floored mosque and the entrance to the old town via streets shaded by overhead vines.

The streets in most places look to me like medieval english cottages straight out of shakespeare's day or the old streets of York with their narrow streets of plastered mud walls and overhanging first floors supported by diagonal wooden struts. I was always on the look out for a washer woman throwing dirty water out of the top window. Other architecture in the old town looked to me like spanish or italian design with ornate balconies and decorated window arches. Many of the cafes and hotels, and the tranquil little art gallery we stopped in at, had cool central courtyards with fountains and vines. This is the first time we've been able to get tea during the day! and we had our first beer in a month!

After being properly lost in the streets (this made us very happy, after failing to ever get lost in venice, morocco or yazd - those places that tell you to get lost in their streets but somehow you never really can) we rewarded ourselves for this achievement by sitting for a few hours on the streets of the old town listening to the old story teller inside banging his stick on his table of tea (apparently he was telling a story about an Arab champion who was captured and fought bravely to escape...we have to await tomorrow to find out the end and start the next tale) while we drank lemonade, tea and smoked our ever-replenishing shisha and chatting to shock-of-all-shocks *actual* tourists. We havent seen any of those in a long while. It's very nice to talk at last to other travelers and exchange stories and tips for onward countries, yet at the same time we all seem to look and act the same and it has actually felt very, erm, exclusive(?) to be in a country where you cant spot the travelers a mile off.

Although we both loved Damascus we have decided not to spend too much time in Syria because we'd rather spend more time in Lebanon and Jordan so we're in Beirut now, although it's pretty quiet on the streets because it's Eid today so imagine walking the streets on Christmas day and that's what it feels like. I like the feel of this city though, and there's supposed to be a music festival in the university district over the next few days so maybe things will pick up tonight. I'll report back later.

Posted by rachndave 05:15 Archived in Syria Tagged walking travelers Comments (1)

you come me here nature come normal

Trekking in the Alamut Valley - Dave


We wanted to go trekking in the Alamut Valley - an area of the Alborz mountains north of Tehran. Needed a guide. So we headed up there, phoned a guy in the guidebook, and 2 hours later we were sitting in a car with Mehdi, a crazy guy who was describing what we would get using his vocabulary of 200 words, in between bursts of pidgin-opera. And he really made out trek memorable, with his appreciation of nature (in between shouts of day-oh), knowledge of all the mountain herbs, and friendship with people in the villages on the way. Each time we got to a village we would stop at a friend's home, where we'd eat the BEST home-made ewes cheese, yoghurt, hearty soup and freshly baked bread from the special bread-oven-hut. Mehdi was also pretty adept at finding a way for us up the loose shingle slopes in the pitch dark, and borrowing people's fires when his gas stove didnt work.

We hiked for 3 days from the Alamut village of Garmarud, over a mountain pass and down through lush valleys to Yuj, towards the Caspian Sea. We really saved the best til last as the views were stunning, ranging from alpine style pastures and leafy villages with their flowers and orchards, to barren rock landscapes and towering rocky peaks, waterfalls and 100m canyons that we had to traverse above. And the stars - wow! These are villages where although roads are slowly starting to connect them up, there are still villages only accessible on foot, with donkeys as the prime mode of transport.

The Alamut Valley is famous for its Castles of the Assassins - A guy formed a feared cult in which he recruited people to kidnap & rob in return for a place in Paradise. He showed them visions of paradise to prove it - gardens and maidens...oh and he got them stoned first on the local whacky baccy. Hashish-ians they were known as, which eventually became the word 'assassin'.

During the trek Rachel became 'Boy-Girl' since she replaced her headscarf with a hat when on the trail, and I became 'Mr Sugar' for my sweet tooth. Mehdi warned us about the wildlife: "Wolf come children you soup" (we'll get fed to the wolf's cubs), and ordered us about: "Go you water cold come" (please fetch some cold water), and helped us out: "Me come you t-shirt go here" (I've taken your washing down and put it here).

By the time we reached Yuj, we really didnt want the trek to end, and could have done another week

Posted by rachndave 06:44 Archived in Iran Tagged mountains Comments (2)

Photos Up


I've uploaded a bunch of photos from Iran, take a look.

Posted by rachndave 06:42 Archived in Iran Tagged photos Comments (0)

Closing impressions of Iran


We arrived in Damascus last night and are having a bit of an admin day today. Dave is registering us for Glastonbury next to me, we've just booked flights to Malawi (woop), going to the post office next. Oh the excitement.

So here are my final impressions of Iran and a few miscellaneous observations i've jotted down

1. Travelling round the country has been a breeze. Mountains, deserts, lakes and cities all connected by a fantastic and cheap transport network.
2. An obsession with shoes. Shoe shops are *everywhere*. Shoe menders and cleaners are everywhere. Every hotel room provides you with an abundance of plastic sandals on a rack. Every home has shoes outside the door and inside sandals outside the bathroom. There are shoes in many toilets. Even in the airport as we were leaving there was a shelf of these sandals next to the metal detectors and I have no idea why.
3. Mystery switches. Every hotel room we have ever stayed in has at least one switch that does nothing. Every. single. one.
4. There are huge piles of watermelons everywhere
5. Squat toilets and water hoses really werent designed for women and require a unexpected amount of dexterity/timing
6. We have a favourite non alcoholic beer called Heyday, which is a very refreshing lemon-meets-malt flavour. There are other brands but this one is the best. I wonder if you can get it in London somewhere.
7. Standard hotel checkout at 2pm. This should be an international standard!
8. Shops here are very specialist. Shoe shops only sell shoes (not laces, nor odor eaters). Cosmetic shops only sell cosmetics (not hairbands). This makes it quite tricky to buy specific things when you dont know where your type of shop lives.
9. There are butterflies everywhere. You cant be outside anywhere without a beautiful butterfly in sight. I resolve to plant butterfly friendly plants in my garden when I get one.
10. Everything is covered in the manufacturers plastic. All office-like chairs for certain wherever you encounter them like ticket offices or internet cafes - but usually they are broken :) I have seen clocks on the wall and even remote controls wrapped in plastic.
11. The people and the government are not in any way in alignment either in outlook or demeanor. This makes people very self conscious about what we as visitors think, and how iranians are percieved back home. They are bothered. Of course we have only really spoken with people who are interested in tourists so perhaps that is a biased view but we havent encountered any attitude to the contrary.
12. It feels as if everything is about 30 years behind the UK. fashion, decor, attitudes, most equipment and services. This actually gives me hope.
13. It turns out I can't sit crossed legged for more than 15 minutes and it is surprisingly difficult to eat from the plastic table sheet on the floor when you sit sidesaddle. Also see point number 5 - i really need to go back to yoga classes when I get back.
14. Everywhere we go there is building work going on. In the countryside this is done by teams of men by hand. This gives every town a living feel to it.
15. Family is everything and they really get on with each other. Not only that but as a visitor you feel like one of the family too.
16. The country is a place where people *live*. It's hard to explain this point but it's connected to point 15. People in London *work* and *play* for example rather than live - the living stuff is what happens in between work and play i think. But here people here live for and with each other, and even the work people are doing feels like a way just to support their home lives where they can be with their families and in their communities. Perhaps that is because it is an old culture, perhaps it is the islamic cultural influence - that i'm not so sure of without experiencing other islamic cultures. Whatever the reason it makes the place feel unshakable and is a core atmosphere everywhere we pass through.

Anyway I'm sure more will occur to me as we continue but for now it's goodbye Iran, hello Syria.

Posted by rachndave 04:14 Archived in Iran Tagged final_thoughts observations Comments (3)

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