rainy and cold friday afternoon in Sofia
fishermen on the Galata bridge
I skipped the overland journey through the Balkans flying from Prague to Sofia, which i virtually just run through. By bus from the airport to downtown, short walk to change money, grab dinner and head to central bus station, from where i was in the evening leaving by bus to Istanbul (50 leva). Since the bus was half empty and i had 2 seats just for myself, some sleep was doable as well. In the middle of night, with bit of pain from turkish customs, we cross the border at Kapikule and early in the morning we are in Istanbul.
a lot of people - the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul
Vangolu Ekspresi ready for 50 hours long journey
Istanbul was deja vu for me and i did not have plan to stay here this time. Taking a ferry to the Asian side to Haydarpasa train station and purchasing sleeper ticket (73 liras) for the night train Van Golu Ekspresi, which in 40 hours crosses almost the whole country and ends in town Tatvan on the western shore of Lake Van. I bought enough food for the journey and shortly before 6PM we train starts moving. The sleeper vagon is almost empty and i have compartment just for myself.
Central Anatolia - Kayseri and the volcano Erciyes Dagi (3916m)
we had to wait 8 hours in this small Kurdish village
Late in the night we pass Ankara and entering Central Anatolia plain. Prior noon we are in Kayseri and i can admire the 3917m high volcano Erciyes Dagi rising above the city. Further we continue via Sivas and Elazig, where the second night on the train comes. Next day we loose 8 hours being halt in a small kurdish village in the middle of nowhere. With the sun hitting the horizon we reach Tatvan, our destination. Reaching Van, which is on other side of the lake, yet today looks pretty unrealistic.
the lake Van Golu is behind the Nemrut mountain (in the back)
But luckily i was able to catch the last dolmus of the day and after a very wild ride shortly prior midnight, i'm reaching my today's objective. I wander around the empty streets of Van, looking for a place to sleep. First hotel was pretty expensive for my budget, but second one gives a room and a shower for 20 lira a night. Fair enough.
some 50 km before the border crossing to Iran
mountains on the Turkey-Iraq border
Next day i took a bus from Van to Orumieh, which is city laying the very west of Iran. Ride was 20 lira. After few hickups in Van i'm finally moving further towards southeast. We drive along the beautiful lane Van and climb into the mountains to cross a pass at 2750 metres. I started to chat with Iranian guy named Azad, who lives in Orumiyeh - had a got talk over various topics. After another 2 hours, passing numerous heavily armed military checkpoints, seeing dozens of fully equipped tanks, missiles trucks etc. (real kriegspiel) we are arriving to the remote Esendere - Sero border checkpoint. Crossing the border was a pain for me. Turkish border guards delayed me for half an hour (questioning and checking this or that) and if Azad didn't halt the bus, it would probably leave without me. Anyway after finally being allowed to leave Turkey, with Azad's help all goes smooth on the iranian side and i'm finally entering Iran.
Azam Mosque in Orumiyeh
Protestant church in Orumiyeh
Arriving in Orumiyeh was bit shock for me, but Azad took the lead and presented what iranian hospitality means in practice. He went to change money with me, directed me to a decent hotel Darya, negotiated a discount and gave me his phone number, that i'm free to call him if i need. I spent the rest of afternoon in the streets (getting quite some attention - not a tourist destination here, really), walked around bazaar grabbed chello kebab and famous Zam Zam Pipi lemonade, tasted hot potatoe with vegetable. Next day i had ride to Tabriz on the schedule. However before i was able to leave the bazaar, i ended up invited for a tea into one of the stores. Had a chat with the owner, who first asks things about war in Iraq, but quickly gets to more appropriate topics. He orders to his brother to show me around and then take me to bus station, from where buses to Tabriz leave.
the salt Lake Urmia
portrait of the Ayatollah Khomeini in the Golestan Park (Tabriz)
His brother showed me local church (but he was calling it a mosque all the time), bought me ice cream, nuts, then took me by bus to a terminal and led me to office of a bus company, which is operating buses to Tabriz. Then he disappeared so quickly, that i even couldn't say him thanks. I pick the shared taxi over bus. It's bit more expensive, but lasts half the time and more importantly it passes thru the Lake Urmia, which is the largest lake in Iran. In few minutes we are on the way. Driver calls me Mr. David and drives around 150 kms an hour. Bridge over the lake is not completed, so we have to wait for a ferry. Urmia Lake is extremely salty (almost 300 grams a litre) and you can take salt into your hands like sand in a sea. After we crossed the lake we continued to Tabriz, again driving around 150 an hour.
inside of the Tabriz bazaar
my room in hotel Mashad (Tabriz)
I walked from the Tabriz bus station to downtown, maybe an hour long walk. Took a rest in nice Golestan Park and near bazaar met with Mr. Nasser, who is a legend among travellers. He runs a government funded tourist office in Tabriz and is a great source of information for trips in western Iran. He invited me to his office for tea, gave me info on climb to Mount Sabalan, which i had on the plan for the next two days. Later in the afternoon i anchored in hotel Mashad near the bazaar (20 000 IRR a night). Simple, but clean rooms. I yet managed to stroll a bit around the vast and lively bazaar. Unspoilt of tourism and you can almost "touch" the atmosphere.
first view of the mount Sabalan (4814m)
basecamp at 3650m
Next day morning i grabbed a taxi to bus terminal and took bus (3 hours, 10 000 IRR) to Meshkin Shahr, city laying on the foot of Sabalan volcano. I was bit lost in Meshkin, but with help of few locals (again in a matter of minute, there were 10 people around and offering help) i found the landrovers, which can drive me up to the Base Camp.
drinking tea with Azerbaijans
first sunrays hit the mountain
Of course bit of the gas spilled on my backpack. Nice. The jeep leaves and i'm left alone here. The hut looks pretty shabby, garbage everywhere. Suddenly a hut warden shows up and offers me a room in a small building near the main shelter for 25 000 IRR. Deal. I eat a bit, drink a lot and go for short acclimatization walk up to 3950 metres. Group of Azerbaijans from Astara (lays by the Caspian Sea, -28m) arrived meanwhile. They speak Russian of course, so communication is not a hurdle. We take evening tea with the shelter warden and then i go hit the hay.
view from around 4250m
I woke up at 5AM, Azerbaijans were already outside. In the beginning i walk with them, but they are painfully slow as few of them suffer from AMS. I move ahead in my own pace, wait for them at 4000 metres, but seems, they gave up. Weather is superb, sunny, nice views. From 4400m i walk really slowly and 4 Iranians get ahead of me. At 4600m i meet Majid, a guy from Tabriz, who does mountain climbing as a hobby. He gives me the needed moral to finish the climb.
plateau on the top (4750m)
with Ali and Majid by the crater lake (4780m)
Half an hour later we stand together at 4780 metres. On the summit is a relatively large lake, which is still completely frozen. We take the compulsory photos, rest a bit and start the for me bit painful descent back to the Base Camp. Majid then offers me ride to Tabriz, which i accept with pleasure. In Tabriz he takes to his company office, we chat about mountains and i'm getting invitation for lunch the next day.
view over Tabriz from the El Goli park
Blue Mosque (Tabriz)
The climb on Sabalan took some energy, so next day is more or less dedicated to relaxation. At noon i'm going by taxi to Majid's office and we head for lunch. Delicious chello kebab was served. Later in the afternoon i managed to meet Alireza - guy, who i was in contact with earlier through couchsurfing. We drive to El Goli park and have a very long chat, while drinking all the sorts of non-alcoholic beers.
kids in the village (check out what the kid with brown sweater has as a toy...)
I wanted to move further to Tehran and possibly Esfahan, so went to Mr. Nasser's office to get info on buses or trains. Taking a bus should be more straightforward and no need to book ahead. In the afternoon i use his offer to join 3 other travellers on a trip to cave village Kandovan. In the evening i'm then departing by bus towards the capital of Iran. It's almost empty, but gets quite full in Zanjan. Passangers have to be reshuffled, because of guy having 4 wifes with him and other man can't sit right next to them. After midnight we make a stop at gas station / restaurant in the middle of ride to Tehran. A fight of maybe 10 men triggers, but fortunately noone from our bus got involved, so we can resume the journey. With dawn we arrive to Tehran.
Tehran - morning view to the Azadi Monument
In downtown i anchored in one of the hotels around Ferdowsi Street and headed to explore the city - Tehran Bazaar, former US Embassy (U.S. Den of Espionage), Imam Khomeini Square, Felestin Square, Azadi Monument. Hustle bustle everywhere, but all in all, although Tehran is giant city, it lacks interesting sights. In the evening i kind of replanned my further journey. Striking to continue journey further south to Esfahan and deciding to move back to Tabriz and consequently to Turkey.
mosque close to Tehran's bazaar
old Mercedes trucks
Catched noon time bus and in the late afternoon being back in Tabriz. In office of one of the bus companies, i'm sorting out a bus ticket to Istanbul with departure next day evening. It will be a long 38 hours ride.
with Farid in Tabriz
sun finds it's way to the alleys of Tabriz's bazaar
Last day in Tabriz and also in Iran. Yet to eat some delicious chello kebabs, drink the tasty fruit juices, buy some gifts. In the evening i board a bus to Istanbul. Young guy named Armin sits next to me, studies in Turkey, speaks english, so we start chatting to make the ride running faster. Prior arriving to the border, the bus stops at gas station and is being fully packed with cheap iranian fuel. Crossing the border to Turkey at Bazargan was insane. Brutal chaos, totally overpacked. It took me 1 hour to get to the counter, which was under pressure of over hundred people. Processing the passport was also a painful process and people were even getting someone's else passports. Fortunately i got mine back.
somewhere in central Turkey
morning traffic on the bridge over Bosporus
Yet some waiting outside and the bars dividing Turkey and Iran open, we pass through and thus leave Iran. Passport check on the turkish side went smooth, Iranians immediately headed to duty free shop to buy some booze, iranian women throwed away their scarfes... all this just 20 meters behind the border. Yet one more military check shortly past the border and we can stop for breakfast at locanta near Dogubayazit. I fell asleep then and woke up only in the afternoon somewhere in the middle of Turkey. Before the night fell, somewhere in the middle of nowhere i have to change bus, since the one i'm in reportedly will go only to Ankara. Next day morning we cross the Bosporus and finally arrive to Istanbul.
looking back to Asia
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the middle of the night (Sofia)
I spend one day in Istanbul and following day continue further to Sofia. The ride was uneventful up to the TR - BG border, where we lost 2 hours, because the Turks arrested one of the passengers. Arriving late night to Sofia, i was happy to find a place to sleep. Checking out couchsurfing the next day and noticing, that there is a party organised for tonight. Over 20 people gathered in a flat on General Skobelev street, not far from the hostel i stayed in. I was leaving fairly drunk after 3 o'clock in the morning, but was still able to do some nice night shots of the Nevsky Cathedral. The last day of the whole trip was more or less waiting for the afternoon flight back home. At 17:30 we are in the air and fly over Belgrade, lake Balaton and Vienna to Prague. Khoda Hafez Iran...
back home - the golden Prague