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Published: March 14th 2016
Alamut CastleDay 50 Tuesday 8th March 2016 - Qazvin
Alborz Mountains from the Castle
Booked out of the hotel and got the same hotel driver that drove us to Kandovan to take us to the bus terminal, after a bit of negotiation with the price of course. As we saw the terminal from a distance we got excited as it is a huge modern building but as we got closer realised that it is not opened yet. The moment we got out of the taxi we were harassed by aggressive ticket sellers quoting a ridiculous 800,000 rials ($40 AUD) for both of us for a bus journey to Qazvin, so we pushed through to get to where the buses were parked. There were even more around the buses so we just keep saying “Qazvin” and one pointed to the bus and said 600,000 so the price was dropping but this seemed to infuriate the original seller and an argument started between them all, we said no again and he dropped the price to 500,000 to which we said yes as it was getting quite heated and the whole bus terminal was looking at us. Threw our bags in the bus cargo area
The crush of people
and jumped on board to escape the furore outside; we really make an impression. Let’s hope the new terminal opens soon so you can go to a counter and buy a ticket without this nonsense. We eventually started to move about 10.00am and slowly made our way out of the terminal still trying to pick up more passengers. The bus drivers here have been pretty good with no daredevil manoeuvres and a good speed which makes the trip pretty relaxing looking out the window. The countryside is rolling green hills with snow covered mountains as a backdrop, then further down the road there are reddish brown hills that simmered in the sun. The scenery was beautiful although you did have to squint every now and again to block out the mountain of rubbish strewn across the fields, most of it being plastic bags; the curse of modern society.
Stopped a few times for no particular reason we could see before a lunch break about 2.30pm for 40 minutes, great as I was bursting but do you think I could find the toilets. A young lady from our bus saw me looking and said she was going too,
I am so lucky because I am not sure I would have found them even though they were in plain sight. Off to the side there were three little kiosk/sheds in the middle one there was a man who I assume was a ticket seller or something like that, as we got closer I saw that the two kiosks either side covered stairs going down. We paid the man in the middle 3,000 rials (14 cents) I am so lucky she took pity on me as the signage was all in Farsi with not even a WC sign or a female/male picture which is a first in Iran along with paying for a toilet.
Scott had talked to the co-driver and said that we wanted to get off at Qazvin as the bus was going to continue onto Tehran. We stopped about 5kms from the Qazvin and the driver and his side kick hopped off nothing unusual there but as we took off we realised the man Scott spoke to did not get back on – Damn was that our stop. We knew that the bus was going through to Tehran so we probably would be dropped
External walls covered in scaffold
off at the side of the road and as there were taxis there maybe that was it. The nice lady from earlier got up and spoke to the crew so we assumed she was getting off soon, and when the bus stopped for her we jumped out. We checked with her and got told yes get off so grabbed our bags even though there were no taxis and we were standing on the side of a freeway. We were so lucky to meet Sanaz and her Dad who was there on a pushbike to greet her, so how far could it be to houses and taxis? It was only a short walk to the taxis and they sorted out all the details with him and as we said goodbye Sanaz gave us her phone number with an invitation to dinner if we get a chance. Its funny how the people who you pay for a service e.g. bus staff, some hotels are indifferent yet the people on the street/bus are so lovely and helpful.
We were glad to see the hotel only to be told that they were booked out and only had a suite available for
Look at all that leg room
US$104, but after some discussion we got it for $90 a night. We have come to realise that a suite in Iran does not mean a luxury room but a family room usually with one double and two single beds. As we were getting settled the phone rang and reception said I (Michele) did not have an Iranian visa, will this day never end. A few people have had trouble locating it in our passports so I wandered down, only to be told that our visa had run out and no longer valid – Noooooooo. Our visas are still valid according to the Iranian Embassy in Australia because we checked and double checked with them before we left and they had our itinerary with the dates and were told “all good”. Why is the wording so confusing on visas, you are given a three month window you can enter the country and then 30 days from date of entry even if this goes past the entry window, no wonder the lady on the front desk was confused. Not sure that she fully understood and hopefully we have no more trouble before we leave on Sunday.
The road down into the Alamut Valley
nice uneventful dinner not far from the hotel and retired to the room, sorry, “suite” before anything else happens. Day 51 Wednesday 9th March 2016 – Alamut Castle
Today we want to check out Alamut castle, and last night we asked reception at the hotel about how to get there and they vaguely suggested a complex set of taxis. Looked in the LP and their rundown on getting out there was via a series of shared taxis that would add up to around $50 USD. This morning we enquired with a different person on the front desk and they said they could get us a driver who would take us out there and back for $70; and although dearer it seemed easier so we took it. We had to wait a bit but the driver picked us up at 10.30 and we were off. We were told we were getting a driver/guide but as predicted the guy only knew a few words of English so he was really only a driver, and as drivers go he was fairly ordinary and extremely dangerous.
Today’s drive was
Castle sits on this rock
a 2 hour journey through the Alborz Mountain range. We had seen quite a bit of this mountain range, but from a distance so it was great to actually be travelling through it. The mountain views were just as spectacular as anything we saw in the South American Andes with some of the mountain peaks nearing the 4000 metre mark. The road was fairly rough and extremely windy and we were either going up a mountain or down one. Our driver would often recklessly overtake trucks on blind corners or come in way too fast on corners where the guardrail was missing or ripped out where someone else had gone through. Shelley had opted for the front seat so she got the full show while I elected to hide in the back and watch the scenery wiz past. We passed through lots of small villages that although situated in a picturesque location were far from picture perfect. Also as we saw yesterday there were large areas covered in rubbish and strewn with thousands of plastic bags; just such a shame.
At 12.30 we finally reached our destination, the legendary Alamut Castle. This was the HQ for the
The external walls of the castle
medieval Islamic heretical Ismaili sect that was known as the Assassins. Led initially by Hasan-e Sabbah (1070-1124) the assassins established a string of well fortified castles across the Alborz Mountains as well as others throughout the Middle East. Their tactics were more mercenary than standard combat and they gained notoriety through assassinating high profile political, military and spiritual leaders in the Middle East. The followers were believed to be high on hashish, and this gave them their popular name “hashish-iyun”, root of the modern English term assassin. When any followers was sent out to assassinate it was a given that he would not return and was basically a suicide mission, they were not meant to kill themselves but were expected to die in combat. Their reign of terror could possibly be compared to the present day ISIL/Daesh who employ slightly different tactics but still use followers in suicide attacks as a weapon. The assassins managed to piss a lot of people off in their time and eventually annoyed the wrong person. In 1256 Hulagu Khan of the Mongols apparently survived an assassination attempt and had enough of them and swept down on them and destroyed every single castle and put
Shelley at the Castle lookout
the majority of the followers to the sword. To make sure they didn’t emerge again he had all their castles burnt and dismantled to the ground level. Today the Ismali Sect still exists but mainly in Tajikistan and not Iran, and the Assassins have started to be romanticised by western scholars and by video games like “Assassins Creed”.
The Alamut Castle is situated on a huge lump of rock on the side of a mountain and it was a good half hour walk from where we were dropped off to get to the original entry gate. Most of the site is covered in tube and fitting and steel roofing, and you can see that the Mongols did a good job in destroying it. As far as castle ruins go this isn’t very good but the location is sublime with incredible vistas across the Alamut Valley, and the site does have a unique history. There has been extensive work done here by archaeologists and we believe the Iranian Government is keen to promote this location but today there wasn’t a lot of work being done, and only a couple of guys sweeping the place. Looked around the castle
Alamut Valley and Alborz Mountains
for over an hour and then wandered back to our driver and had lunch with him at a small hotel/restaurant that overlooked the castle. We were charged an absolute ridiculous price for our kebab lunch but it was worth every cent for the sensational view.
After lunch our driver half offered to take us to a couple more sites but one would add 2 more hours to the drive and we really didn’t want to be caught driving home up and down the mountains in the dark so opted to head back to town. It was another crazy drive home with plenty of close calls and some amazing mountain scenery and we arrived back at our hotel in Qazvin at 5.00. It had been an expensive day but well worth it, not only for the small piece of history but for the scenery.
Back at our hotel we still hadn’t got a confirmation for our hotel in Tehran so we got the woman at reception to ring them. She wasn’t happy with the price they wanted to charge so spent the next hour ringing other hotels in Tehran before going back to the original
one and haggling the price down for us. We were both now very relieved that we had somewhere to stay for our final 3 nights in Iran as the Iranian No-Ruz holiday season is nearly on us and hotels are booking out fast. Day 52 Thursday 10th March 2016 - Tehran
Moving onto Tehran today and because it is only 2 hours down the road and we can’t check into the hotel till 2pm, there was no need to hurry. Slept in, had our pot of tea for breakfast and checked out. The woman on reception in the morning was a bit of a sharpie and was trying to force us into paying in Rials rather than the usual US dollars, because her conversion rate was a bit biased her way. It was amazing how the woman at reception in the afternoon was so helpful and the morning one so bad. Got through that and then asked about getting a taxi and before we knew it she had one ordered.
Taxi turned up and parked out the front and it was a brand new shiny
taxi, way too good for us. Went to negotiate a fee for the ride and the guy couldn’t understand English or just couldn’t hear me because he had earphones on and refused to remove them, and after trying my best to communicate with him, gave up and went looking for another taxi. Looked down the road and spotted something that looked like it had just fallen off a tall cliff…that’s our taxi. Driver stopped, he knew the words “bus terminal” and gave us a cheap price. Stuffed our bags in the boot and when I opened the rear door to let Michele in I discovered it was only held on with one hinge and nearly came off in my hand. By this time the original taxi guy was getting stroppy and the woman on reception came out demanding we take the first taxi; too bad. Inside our taxi on the way to the terminal we had the best Farsi/English non conversation ever, and the best laugh of the trip playing charades. Note to anyone getting taxis in Iran you will find generally the back seat seatbelts either are not there or don’t work, but the front ones do and it
Alborz Mountains with wires
must be law to wear them as the drivers always use them - when they see the police. Today I had to sit in the front seat but discovered my seat belt wrapped round a piece of steal welded across the width of the taxi as if to hold the sides together.
Got to the bus terminal and gave our driver a small tip on his agreed fee as he was worth it and then got directed onto a bus to Tehran. The bus was packed and our only choice were the seats right at the back of the bus. As Michele went to squeeze into the seat she hit her head on the overhead storage compartment really hard and like any good Aussie girl just screamed out “F#ck”. The horrified looks Michele got was priceless.
The trip to Tehran was only 2 hours and as usual the bus was stinking hot to the point women were complaining to the bus driver who would put the air con on for just brief bursts; okay for him he had his window open. Got to Tehran and straight off the bus into the hands of a
Man and Donkey on mountain trail
taxi driver, he said he knew where to take us and then took the option of “ask a friend”. Soon after moving he was on the phone and ringing people who knew English better than him and handing the phone to us. Got nowhere with this option but got my GPS working and showed him the location with street names in Farsi and we were okay and heading in the right direction. The smog that hangs over Tehran is almost as bad as the traffic and I guess they go hand in hand. It was nearly an hours drive to get from the western edge of Tehran to the centre, and it was with a great deal of relief when we arrived. We are staying at the Escan Hotel and lucky for us we got a discount on the room, which is pretty good. Day 53 Friday 11th March 2016 - Tehran
Oh My God, a proper breakfast this morning, with fruit, omelette, a variety of fruit juices, a toaster and the rarest of all things in Iran - coffee. After breakfast we looked into getting some laundry done, as
Scott walking to the gates
we have a small pile, probably enough to fill a small washing machine. Did a calculation from the price list in the room which gives you the price per item and the cost was going to be $50 AUD, so we thought we would have a word to the woman at reception to see if we could get it cheaper. Her indifference at our plight was quite astonishing as she didn’t seem to have a problem with us paying $2 to have a pair of socks washed or $4 to wash a T-shirt. Down in the markets later on we spotted socks and T-shirts cheaper than that so maybe we should just throw them away and buy new ones rather than wash them. Wasn’t going to spend that sort of money on washing so decided to do it ourselves to give us enough clothes to get us into the next country where we hope laundry is cheaper.
After our laundry shock we headed out and down towards the bazaar, because it was Friday we didn’t expect anything open but when we got there we noticed a lot of shops open and crowds were starting to gather. Before
Water Cisterns of the castle
heading in we decided to look at the Golestan Palace which we missed last time we were here. The Golestan Palace is a collection of buildings mainly built by Nasser al-Din Shah between 1848 to 1896, and it costs 150,000 entry fee just to get into the grounds and between 80,000 to 150,000 rials ($4 - $8 AUD) to enter each building adding up to nearly AUD$50 if you want to see them all, if they are all open, which generally they are not. Today we paid to get on the grounds $7.50 each and $11 to see the two best buildings. The first was the Talar-e Ayaheh (hall of mirrors), which was the main reception hall and like its name suggests it is filled with mirrors and is amazing. Some of the rooms have mannequins of the old shah including sitting on the throne and it was actually a nice touch.
The other building we entered was the Shams-Al Emarat (Edifice of the Sun), which was far grander from the outside than in. The outside of the buildings are OK but are overshadowed by the encroaching city. We spent probably about 90 minutes inside looking around
Watch your step
and when we got back out and went to walk through the bazaar we got the shock of our lives, the place was packed. We couldn’t even get near the main entrance as it was just a wall of people. It was as if everyone in Tehran had descended on the place, it was absolute chaos. We are coming up to the Iranian No Ruz holiday season which is sort of like new year and Christmas rolled into one and involves gift giving so sort of assumed everyone was down here to buy gifts. We both took one look at all those people and decided to give it a miss and maybe come back early tomorrow morning.
Did the long walk back to our hotel and spent the afternoon doing washing in our sink, how we love doing that. For dinner we went back to Bobos for a pizza and a coke. Day 54 Saturday 12th March 2016 - Tehran
Wow our last full day in Iran. After another great breakfast we did the long walk back down to the bazaar to see if we can get
Typical Iranian statue with book. "I'm off to the library"
in today. The crowd was heavy but nowhere near as bad as yesterday so we were able to slip and wander the lanes. For me (Scott) the bazaars have become as dull as wandering through a shopping mall looking for a pair of jeans, but with the hassle of being pushed and shoved all the way. The bazaars of Iran are of course are full of stuff for the people of Iran, and very little for the tourist, in fact we have seen very little in the way of souvenirs. Our only souvenirs from Iran are a toy bear, a handbag and a couple of newspapers; didn’t even spot an “I love Iran” T-shirt. After a couple of hours of wandering around I had hit a wall with bazaaroland and so we headed back up the long road to our hotel. Came to realise something today about the statues of Iran, I don’t think we have seen any carrying a sword or weapon. Everywhere we have been in the world you will see statues of Generals on horseback or soldiers with razed swords or guns. In Iran there isn’t a lot of statues but nearly everyone is carrying a book
Typical Tehran intersection
(no doubt the Koran), sort of refreshing. In every town throughout Iran on the main streets you will see pictures of young men that died during the 1979 revolution and the Iran Iraq war, but it is only their faces and no weapons are shown. Iran tries very hard to be seen as a peaceful nation.
Only had half hour rest in our room and we were walking back down the road to Iran’s Premier Tourist attraction “The National Jewels Museum”. For their number one attraction, they sort of treat the thing like a secret, it is only open from Saturday to Tuesday and only between 2-4.30pm, you cannot take anything into the museum and no photos of inside or even the outside of the place. The museum houses over 200 years of jewel collecting from the rulers of Iran and is so valuable that in the 1930’s it was transferred to the National Bank as a reserve for the national currency. It is still housed in a bank vault in the basement of a bank, and to say the collection is stunning is an absolute understatement. Amongst the collection is the Darya-ye Nur (Sea of Light),
Iranian all weather motorcycle
the largest pink diamond in the world, and also a 34kg Globe of Jewels made in 1869 using 51,366 precious stones. The thing is just so over the top and studded with diamonds everywhere, and the maker must have been trying to show some sort of utopian planet because it is missing both Tasmania and New Zealand – (sorry guys). The collection isn’t massive but the quality is incredible and we did two slow circuits in under two hours, the crowds were bad to start with but towards the end the place emptied a bit.
Walked back to our room for a short rest and then out to dinner and for our last Iranian meal went hamburgers stuffed with pickles, it sort of sums up Iran.
Tips for Iran.
1. Watch for those motorbikes on the footpaths, they will not slow down or swerve even for children and prams. They will however scream “Hello” as they run over your foot.
2. The difference between Rials and Tommen is only one zero not two, although when they want to con you it will be two zeros.
Edifice of the Sun
3. The nation of Iran has Tourette’s. The political situation in the nation is complicated to say the least: basically you have the country governed by the “moderates” who are west leaning, but ruled by the Principalists/Clerics who want to run the country via the Koran. The Government signed the agreement to give up on Iran’s nuclear ambition and encourage trade and tourism, while the governing body (Clerics) rage against imperialist USA and Israel. Elections generally end up about 50:50 between the moderates and principalists, so the Government and Clerics have a weird semi control of steering the country. The people you encounter don’t talk politics but they can give you that same feeling of hot and cold. Generally (but not all) people you deal with where you are paying for a service (tickets, hotels, restaurants) can ignore you to the point of it being rudely comical, but the people you meet in the street are by far the nicest, warmest people we have met in our travels, and will do anything to help you. When we have had no luck trying to get help from a bus driver or ticket seller someone always walks up and takes us by
4. This country can be taxing but very doable for independent travel, and seems ill prepared for any volume of international tourists. Don’t think there is any need to rush over here as Tehran will never be a “Paris” or “Venice” for tourists and a small increase in tourist numbers would only create more competition and choice in hotels for the future. A lot of tourist sites are still a bit rustic but this may change with an increase in tourist numbers and more money coming in. The only reason to rush over would be because of the ever changing international political situation.
5. Most people fly and it is fairly cheap. We avoided it because I read an article about how Iran Air has kept their aging fleet of aircraft airborne and didn’t want to take the chance. With the end of sanctions and 20 billion Euros worth of airbuses on the way, things will improve. Also if you fly you will miss the sauna – I mean bus trip and the countryside.
6. Note a hotel suite is not a luxury room but a family room with
Whats left of the Mosque
lots of beds. And they put their doona covers on the wrong way with the button under your chin or is just me who puts them at the bottom? Also they insist on filling the rooms with furniture, nearly every square inch so there is no room to move.
Iran is a great destination, chock full of history and some of the friendliest people you will ever meet.
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