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ABOUT THIS BLOG

In the summer of 2009, Nicolas Rapp decided to take a break from his Art Director job at The Associated Press to attempt a one-year overland travel around the world in a 1996 Toyota Land Cruiser. He was back in New York in February 2011 after traveling 15 months and 37,000 miles.

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THE ROUTE

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  • Traveling through ancient Iran to Tehran

    Posted on August 13th, 2010 Nicolas 37 comments
    Persepolis entrance gate.

    Persepolis entrance gate.

    An hour after I leave Shiraz, I arrive on the Persepolis site. It is late in the day, so I just camp for a small fee on the parking lot, in front of the police station. It is quite windy, and I have to use ropes to secure the tent fabric tight so I don’t have the flapping noise all night long. In the morning I fold the tent and walk to the site. It is early when I penetrate the gates of Persepolis, and there are not much people.

    The impressive site under the early – and already hot - sun.

    The impressive site under the early – and already hot - sun.

    Persepolis is the symbol of the Achemenid Empire which started in the 7th century BC. It is the most famous masterpiece of the Near Eastern civilizations. The ancient city was lost for hundreds of years, covered by sand, and only in the 30’s excavations have started. As usual in Iran, the site and its museum are very cheap to visit, at US$ 0.50. In fact what is expensive in Iran is the lodging; otherwise it is the perfect destination for the budget traveler.

    Artaxerxes II tomb on the hill dominating the site.

    Artaxerxes II tomb on the hill dominating the site.

    I spend a little bit more than two hours strolling through the site and go back to the truck for the long drive to Esfahan.

    The road to Esfahan.

    The road to Esfahan.

    Esfahan, one of the most beautiful cities in the Eastern world, is the country third largest populated place. It is more complicated to navigate than Shiraz where I went everywhere by foot.

    More carpets in Esfahan.

    More carpets in Esfahan.

    In fact, I decide to spend two nights there, in another touristic complex (US$10) with a vague soviet feel. I leave the car at the campsite and explore the city by bus. Transportation is cheap here also, and you never pay more than few cents to take the bus or, in Tehran, the subway.

    Entering Hakim Mosque in the Esfahan city center.

    Entering Hakim Mosque in the Esfahan city center.

    I first visit the Hakim Mosque, the oldest in the city, as I follow the Lonely Planet walking tour, one of my favorite features in the guide.

    Ablution room. Also nice to cool down a bit after walking in the city.

    Ablution room. Also nice to cool down a bit after walking in the city.

    Then I enter the Bazar-e Bozorg where vendors sell carpet, household items, spice, jewelry and fake brand-name clothing. It is a thousand-year old labyrinth with mosques, banks, gardens and many alleys.

    The Bazar-e Bozorg in Esfahan.

    The Bazar-e Bozorg in Esfahan.

    One of them leads me to the Jameh Mosque dating from the 11th century. The central ablution fountain in the courtyard was designed to imitate the Kaaba in Mecca.

    The Jameh Mosque at the center of the bazaar.

    The Jameh Mosque at the center of the bazaar.

    In this case, I guess I should donate…

    In this case, I guess I should donate…

    I continue to walk through the alleys. Such covered markets are great as you are protected from the heat of the day by the arcades. Around noon I venture out for a quick visit to the bird market where friendly vendors show me some species and we compare the names of the bird in Farsi and English languages.

    The bird market.

    The bird market.

    I also visit the Mausoleum of Harun Vilayet which features impressive mosaics of Khomeini and Khamenei.

    Mausoleum of Harun Vilayet, an important pilgrimage site.

    Mausoleum of Harun Vilayet, an important pilgrimage site.

    Back in the bazaar, I try to find a place to eat. Most of the eating options in Iran are kababs. Those are served with rice, bread and tomatoes. Cooked over charcoal, this food is relatively healthy.

    Back in the bazaar.

    Back in the bazaar.

    Everybody here drink “dugh” which is sour milk and yogurt mixed with water. It is very refreshing and kind of similar with the drinking yogurt you can find in the U.S., without sugar.

    The Sofreh_Khaneh Sonnati restaurant.

    The Sofreh_Khaneh Sonnati restaurant.

    I stop for lunch in a traditional restaurant close to the Imam Square, where parties sit on day bed and can try Iran specialties.

    The Imam Mosque.

    The Imam Mosque.

    Afterward I go visit the Imam Mosque and its two turquoise minarets, another fine example of the astonishing mosques you find in Iran. It is also on Imam Square, the second largest square in the world. By then I begin to be tired but find the energy to visit the Al Qapu Palace from which I can get a good view of the square.

    Imam Square, Esfahan.

    Imam Square, Esfahan.

    Before going back to the campsite after this heavy day of walking, I go get a glimpse at the Si-o-Seh bridge crossing the Zayandeh River. There’s a teahouse at the end of the bridge where people relax and hide from the sun.

    The Si-o-Seh bridge.

    The Si-o-Seh bridge.

    Making friends in the Iranian military.

    Making friends in the Iranian military.

    I go back “home” to take some well deserved rest. I continue to watch the “long way round” television series, and get more excited about crossing Siberia. I decide that I will go straight to the Russian Embassy when I arrive in Tehran and see if it is possible to get a visa quickly.
    After one more day of driving, I enter the crazy traffic of Tehran. At nightfall, I accept that it is no place to camp, and find the Khayyam hotel, a bit too expensive to my taste (US$18), but with a parking lot, which is rare in the city. It will be my base for few days as I will be working on paperwork and visiting the city. The Ramadan begins the following day, and it will be more convenient to be at the hotel, since you can’t drink, eat or smoke in the street during the day. I think the most difficult is to not be able to drink water, especially when you have to run everywhere under a fierce sun to get things done.

    Mural on the wall of the old American embassy.

    Mural on the wall of the old American embassy.

    It is an impossible city to navigate and a challenge to find places. The first day I go to the Russian Embassy to find it close. I spend hours trying to locate the Kazakhstan Embassy and decide to go the following day. I get some work done on my car as the hotel is located in an area where I can find a lot of things usually difficult to get. I lubricate my chassis in the hope it will eradicate a thumping noise I get each time I stop the car. Check and top transfer case oil and change sparking plugs. The following day I am back on the visas quest. The Russians have bad news for me. It would take more than two weeks to get the visa. Plus one week for Kazakhstan and five days for Turkmenistan. My Iranian visa is not long enough, and anyway I need to keep moving.

    The glass and ceramics museum in Tehran.

    The glass and ceramics museum in Tehran.

    I have to find another way. Finally at the end of the afternoon, I find out there may be a container boat leaving Bandar Abbas for Mumbai, India at the end of next week. I have to check back with Maersk, the maritime company on Sunday. That would means I would backtrack 1,000 miles (1,600 km) to the port I arrived at, and stuff the truck in a container. If there is no cabin available in the boat – which is likely – I will take the ferry back to Dubai and fly to Mumbai. The cost of shipping – all included – should be around US$800. The ferry will cost me another $100 and the flight $150. Sailing time for the container boat is four days. Now I am kind of sad to not cross Siberia. But this is the deal. I have to keep moving east.

  • Discovering sophisticated Iran

    Posted on August 8th, 2010 Nicolas 35 comments
    The Nasir-Ol-Molk Mosque prayer hall.

    The Nasir-Ol-Molk Mosque prayer hall.

    I had to be at 4 p.m. at the port of Sharjah, north of Dubai. The ferry boat was leaving harbor at 9 p.m., but as usual, paperwork and immigration had to been taking care of.
    [TRAVELER NOTE: Check out at the end of this post for details about getting Iran visa]
    The boat, few decades old, was operated by the Iranian company Valfarej 8. Anyhow, even with the rust nothing could be scarier than the dhow I took from Djibouti to Yemen, so I embark with confidence. After driving the truck in the belly of the whale, I walk upstairs and sit on one of the many benches travelers already made their territory.

    Taking the boat to cross the Persian Gulf.

    Taking the boat to cross the Persian Gulf.

    The truck in the ferry.

    The truck in the ferry.

    Studying maps, I ask one of the officers on deck some information about roads leading to my first destination in Iran, Shiraz. He insists to take the important matter higher up, and soon the captain of the boat is here, giving advices.  Fidel to the legendary Iranian hospitality, he decides on the spot that I should travel in a more elegant fashion, and make available for me a large cabin on the upper deck. It was a treat to spend the 11 hours in this comfort, and after diner was served, I immediately felt asleep on one of the sofa of the royal cabin among my guidebooks and maps.

    Arriving in Bandar Abbas, Iran.

    Arriving in Bandar Abbas, Iran.

    I woke up an hour before reaching destination and was on the outside deck when the anchor was let down. How exciting to be here, in one of the cradle of the civilization, now a provocative country dominating the media coverage.
    Without waiting any longer, I jumped out of the boat and entered the immigration building. I had to wait a bit, as the usage is to process first the Iranians, and then the foreigners. Of course I was the only foreigners, so I couldn’t help but feel a bit lonely in the massive waiting room.

    It will take many hours to be on the road again.

    It will take many hours to be on the road again.

    But soon, few members of the so-called “Secret police” asked me to follow them. I was asked many questions, and had to write the story of my life listing every place I spent time since I was born. I had to answer many questions on my job, my revenues, why I was doing this trip, why I was not married, if I had a Taeser, which place I would go to in Iran, and where next. After doing copies of my log book to keep a record of all the places I had been in the last months, they inspected my car quickly and took pictures of it. I was free to go, they finally told me. I have to say everybody was very nice.

    Going north toward Shiraz.

    Going north toward Shiraz.

    Almost free in fact, since I had to take care of the import papers for my truck. While I was waiting, someone came to ask me my “Carnet de Passage”, and I assumed he was a custom officer. I should have known better. In fact he was a clearing agent happy to make some money while driving me from office to office, from the bank to the customs, to the port authority to the police. Back and forth. After few hours of this game, I was done and really ready to go. The agent asked me US$ 100 for his work. He was crazy, I told him. Even in the U.S. you don’t make that much money in so little time. I rounded up all the bills of mysterious currencies I keep with my documents, gave it to him and took of. I passed the gate before he was done counting his fortune. $40.

    Still desert, yet a little bit more green.

    Still desert, yet a little bit more green.

    I arrived at 8:30 a.m. and it was now 4 p.m. With difficulty, I was able to get out of Bandar Abbas despite all the signs being in Arabic. My goal was to leave as soon as possible the coastal area and enter the mountains. There, I believed, I would be able to get some drier and colder air, making camping easier. The night came as I was driving. 150 miles from the port, I decided to spend the night on the parking of a gas station I spotted in the arid landscape. An hour later, I was speaking with curious truck drivers, and soon they invited me in a restaurant close to the gas station for refreshments.

    Spectacular landscapes around the Zagros Mountains.

    Spectacular landscapes around the Zagros Mountains.

    Let me tell you my surprise when I was served these “refreshments”. I will just say that it is not the kind of drink you think you will find in a country like Iran. Few glasses later, the drivers paid the drinks and took off to continue their long drive, and I climbed the ladder to go to bed. I was indeed back in a more human climate, with temperatures going down a little at night. I woke up early in the morning, and after making a dent in the food reserves I got in Dubai, I took the road going to Shiraz.

    Bakery.

    Bakery.

    Small tunnels, no emergency exit.

    Small tunnels, no emergency exit.

    The landscape, if dry, was a relief compared to my recent adventures. I was finished with sand. Now there were trees, mountains, greenery. The roads were good, but sometimes slow due to tunnels with two lanes only. Gas is cheap here too, as you can imagine. Foreigners have to pay four times the price for locals. US$ 1.52 per gallon for gasoline (40 cents a liter) is the price I have to pay. Still pretty cheap. Gas doesn’t seem too be very clean, and I can witness a lot of pollution in cities.

    Glad to have a road to drive across the salt pan.

    Glad to have a road to drive across the salt pan.

    I was happy to see a saline as I was driving to Shiraz, but this time I decided to stay away of it, remembering my electric troubles after crossing the Uyuni salar in Bolivia. (getting smarter).
    Shiraz is the center of the Persian culture and one of the most important city in the historical Islamic world. There, I looked for a hotel where I could park my truck off the street, but discouraged by the high prices (US$17), I continued to drive until I finally found a campground half-an-hour walk from the city center (Shiraz Tourist Complex, Ye Sa’di beginning of Nasr Blvd., US$10 a night). I opened my tent and happy to find a shower, I decided to stay here for the next two days.

    Ancient buildings, getting closer to Shiraz.

    Ancient buildings, getting closer to Shiraz.

    The following day, I walked to the center and visited various monuments, including the Aramgah-E Shah-E Cheragh mausoleum, the Bagh-e Narajestan (Orange garden), and the Nasir-Ol-Molk mosque.

    Shiraz, typical street.

    Shiraz, typical street.

    Bazaar in Shiraz.

    Bazaar in Shiraz.

    All these sites were splendid. You can really see the level of refinement in monuments belonging to old civilizations. It reminded me that I didn’t see such marvel probably since I crossed Peru. The architecture through Africa was not precisely stunning, but since Yemen and due to the rich history of the Arab world, the level is improving. That makes spending time in cities more enjoyable, and necessary.

    The Bagh-e Narajestan. Garden and pavilion.

    The Bagh-e Narajestan. Garden and pavilion.

    The day after, I would be equally surprised and comforted in this idea while I visited the bazaars, equaled only in atmospheric charm by markets in the Americas. While Africa was interesting for its inhabitants, landscapes and adventures, I was longing for the sophistication you find in countries as Iran.

    Shiraz's Bazar-e Vakil.

    Shiraz's Bazar-e Vakil.

    After checking few things on the car in the evening and cooking dinner, I watched an episode of “The long way round”. Few readers recommended me to it check out. I was able to download it in Dubai, and wanted to see it as I am now interested in taking the Siberia roads these guys followed. It is interesting to see how much logistic was involved in their trip. I guess I am lucky to still be on the road.

    Selling carpets in a bazaar.

    Selling carpets in a bazaar.

    The following day, I spend few hours in the various and many bazaars in the city. At 4 p.m., I drive the 50 km (31 mi.) to Persepolis. I will camp in the parking lot, and visit the site in the morning.

    Tea house.

    Tea house.


    TRAVELER NOTE ABOUT IRAN VISA:
    I was lucky enough to obtain a visa for Iran. It took me two weeks, and was arranged by “Touran Zamin -Tour Operator”. You just need to send them a scan of your passport, a vague itinerary and for 35 euros they will obtain the visa for you. You can pick it up in any consulate abroad. At the time I applied I was in Djibouti, and I selected Oman as a pick up location, and there it took two days to get the visa sticker after I paid around US$60 for the visa itself.
    Touran Zamin didn’t ask for any hotel reservation, which lot of other company did. I really recommend the company, and you can reach them at this address: touranzamin [AT] yahoo.com
    The fee has to be paid by wire transfer to an account in Germany.