I had arrived from my 6000 km bike trip a few days ago, and I had spent some quality time in Luxembourg with friends, building a mobile squat rack for my garden/garage, building a shelter for wood for the barbecue and chimney, picking up wood logs from the forest, rollerblading around, and messing about. Oh I forgot one more
I stayed up till late at Shelly and BBITH (Nils alias Big Boss In The Hood) just hanging around, and had to do some more stuff after that. In the morning, I wanted to get a quick workout in, and I still had to clean and close down the house, and get some more stuff sorted out. When you are not often at home, you have to make the most of it once you are there! I had to take the plane the morning after from near Basel to Istanbul. I would have gone hitchhiking but fuck it I had no time! Anyhow got my entire bag packed up in the usual half an hour, and left. Took the latest train that afternoon.
I chose a quiet compartment in which the electricity did not work, so there were no lights. It was a really funny feeling slowly getting away from my home into the night, accompanied by the sunset, and silence. It was going to be an epic trip. I just felt it. My original plan was to go to Basel, and then go up to the airport walking through the night, but as I saw the red airport lights to the right as we went passed them with the train, I had a new idea. I got down at Saint Luis, and found out that there were no night buses. This was good news since I’d have to go for a night walk. I went through some corn fields and took some with me for when I’d get hungry. It was so cool to walk alone under the stars without really knowing where to go. Eventually I made it, only that I was on the wrong side. So I had to do quite a detour, and ended up just jumping a fence or two Arriving to the EuroAirport (it’s next by the border between France, Germany and Switzerland), it felt again like the zombies had taken over the world since there was no one around but everything was open. Finally I saw some people, calmed down, and went as high up as I could to find a place to sleep (I like sleeping in heights).
Breakfast was fresh corn that I’d picked last night. During boarding I met a beautiful Turkish girl, and we sat together. She was fun, and I ended up falling asleep on her shoulder. I think girls make excellent pillows! Arriving at Istanbul, you had to buy a visa. I took the bus to Taksim, on which I met a guy who would not stop talking. LOL Sounds like me on a few Red Bulls. I told him that I was on a rush to get to the Iranian Consulate to pick up my Visa, and he told me that there was NO WAY that I could make it on time. That it was impossible! We crossed the bridge that links Europe to Asia. (There was even a panel saying something like welcome to Asia) That was it, I was officially in Asia. Arriving to Taksim, I jumped off and took the first taxi I saw. I told gave him the consulate address and told him I was in a hurry. Man that guy took it serious! It was like driving in a formula 1 car (not that I’ve been in one but I imagine from TV. Actually I was once in one of those simulators that throw you around… ). I made it to the consulate, just 5 minutes before its closing time. It felt nice achieving something “impossible”. And then I got a big slap on the face while reading a paper on the door that said.. Extraordinarily closed for Ramadan. LOL!! Looks like I’d have to stay in Istanbul for a few more days! So be it, it was time to start having fun. But hey it was actually quite lucky that it happened for a few reasons. One of them was that the 72h train to Teheran was fully booked, and it only ran once a week on that day, so I was gutted. But it’s lucky that it was fully booked! Another reason is that I met some beautifully minded people that I would have not otherwise met.
I wandered around the city, ending up having some roasted corn by Sultanahmet, chilling in front of the Blue Mosque. I went downhill looking for somewhere quieter where I could find a hostel. Some guy in the street asked me if I was looking for something that he could help me with. Hostel. He told me that he knew a good one for me, around the corner. Hostel Simbad. Going into my shared room, I met Bart, a Lithuanian guy who was chilling. He seemed quite tired from last night. I left my bag and off I was going around Istanbul as a shark goes around the ocean.
Sometime after I came back for a shower, and met Irma and the Window Girl (as I named her). They were also Lithuanian, and they’d been on some European exchange thing by the forest. We had quite a few jokes about it
That night we all went out together, and had a great time. We went for a walk around some park, and later by the seaside. We had loads of laughs joking around, and ended up in a shisha bar. We played some cards game.
The bus journey to Karaj would be of 40 hours. LOL. I guess it depends how you look at it… I knew that it would be so much fun going through all that new land and such a different experience! With mountains and colours going past, it was some kind of reflection of life. Everything was blurry on the sides, but there was a clear path ahead which we were following. I wonder what would have happened if we had no destination… The other people in the bus couldn’t speak good English, but we still communicated in a very friendly and amicable way. Every 3 or 4 hours we would have a break, to go to toilet and buy some food. I loved all those food shops around, they were selling so many products I’d never seen before, and plenty of nuts as well! My favourite was by a petrol station with a supermarket inside that had hundreds of different nuts and dried fruit. I got so much different stuff at such a good price. People called me Spania. Not many tourists go to Iran, especially not by bus from Istanbul, and it was something very special to all of them. And even more for me, being there somewhere completely new isolated from my past life, enjoying a new part of it. The people were always making tea and offering me, and some more people gave me some specialty foods to eat. Everyone was so nice. Sleeping was also something new. But as we were in a VIP coach, things were easier! The only time that was tough was when I drank all the things they gave me and had to hold on until the next stop! Well, until the next hole in the ground, because that’s how the toilets are over there.
Approaching the border, they told me to put on long trousers, as Iran is a Muslim country. Crossing the border was a nightmare. You had to go through so many gates and wait so many queues where there was no order whatsoever. In addition to that, the informatics system broke down and there were riots, and a few people got arrested. I saw things flying around, shouts, punches, and general chaos. All this while waiting for quite a few hours until the system would work again. For the nationals it was easier since they just needed a stamp, but the foreigners needed to be checked on the system.
My bus left without me because they didn’t know how long more I’d have to wait there. Finally the system started working again and I went through. I was still many hundreds of kilometres away from my friend, and I didn’t have a single Iranian rial/tommam. Luckily I still had a few Turkish notes that I exchanged with some old guy with a calculator. I got lucky because he didn’t screw me over. I had no clue about what I’d do next. The guard had recommended that I go to the next city, and find a bus there. I was quite lost man. And without much money. Luckily I found a bus, and one of the guys spoke some English. He agreed to take me for a smaller amount of money. Lucky times.
In the bus, I started speaking with a couple. The woman had studied English. And later on I started talking to the father of a family. He was learning Spanish, and I taught him some words. At the next stop, we went for lunch. But I didn’t have enough money, and some people offered me some of their food. But I politely refused and bought some nuts instead (really cheap and tasty!) I met there some of the youngsters I’d met previously at the border crossing. The landscapes were really different. Everything was dry, and it seemed like a desert. I took a picture of a nuclear plant. Why would anyone care about that? Bah, doesn’t matter, move on.
I didn’t really know where in Karaj would the bus drop me off, and my mobile phone’s SIM didn’t work in Iran. But the father of the family used his phone to call Payan and to tell him where I’d get dropped off. I got woken up, we’d had arrived to my destination, under a bridge, somewhere along the highway around downtown Karaj. I waited a while, and I saw Payan in a car waving at me. I crossed the fucking busy road, and dived into the car. It was so cool to see Payan again, in such a different place! A few months before he’d told me: “Man, you gotta come to Iran this summer”. And the rest was past story. I soon realized that the driving there is nuts, which is probably why Iran has one of the highest (the highest according to some statistics) rate of traffic fatalities per year.
We got to his home, with a refreshing swimming pool (which is definitely useful as the temperature goes quite high) and plenty of fruit trees. The house was big and comfy, and both his parents and his brother were really really generous, nice, and hospitable! I felt really comfortable throughout the whole trip.
There’s so much we did in Iran, and so much more about it. It’s kind of impossible to write down 2.5 weeks in full when you are on it, but I’ll write down some bullet points:
-We went hiking in the mountains with Payan, Koushan (Payan’s brother), and some of their friends. The mountains over there are pure desert, sometimes with a small spring somewhere in a valley. No matter how hot it is, you still have to have long trousers (Muslim law). In order to get to the mountains, we walked next to the largest prison in Iran. It was huge, and surrounded by very tall walls patrolled by guards with big weapons (just like in any other country). On our other side there were apartment style buildings, similar to the ones in “Counter strike” or “Call of duty” (desert scenarios e.g. Iraq). Some of them seemed abandoned and half falling apart, some of them seemed in construction, and some of them were habited by people. It was so much fun walking through different vegetation (in the more humid areas in the bottom of valleys). We had a barbecue by a spring where we smoked shisha. I felt like doing some solo climbing on my own, so I left the group (slowed down by the girls ) and went in front. After a while, just before I lost sight of them, my friends looked as small as ants. The view from the top was terrific! You could see the whole of Karaj, and far into its plateau. On the other side laid a forever chain and combination of mountains across which, on the other side, lied the jungles in the north. I found loads of bullets from hunting weapons, and a few bones on the floor on my way down. It took a while to find my friends, but when Koushan and I met then we were all relieved. Payan decided to test his skills by throwing (and filming slow motion) my yellow frisbee. It went very far, and took quite a while to find because it was hidden between rocks. Nima and I did some crazy jumping downhill on a sandy dune, and it was awesome! It was on that walk that I met Sethare, a smiley and friendly Iranian girl. At the end of the walk we started holding hands. Oh, I say it for the record: Iran is not like England (where you say to a girl: “Hey, nice legs, at what time do they open?”). Things go muuuuuch slower there, and it’s cool, it’s just different than in the whole of Europe!
-During the nights, when it was finally cooler, we used to go to shisha bars way up in the mountains, and smoke shisha while drinking tea and relaxing between friends in open cubicles. The view from up there was incredible. There was the moon shining up in the sky (I only saw clouds once in that part of Iran), illuminating the mountain’s shape and colour, and then there was the distant glimmer of the city. It felt really special, like being in another dimension where everything was more relaxed and spiritual.
-When there would be not much to do, we (and plenty of other youngsters in Iran) would go have a car ride around the city. The petrol in Iran used to be of 5p/litre (that’s less than 6cents/litre!! However, because of the sanctions imposed by the USA on Iran, the price of petrol is now about 20p/litre. Which is still not bad!! And there is also a subsidy of 60 litres a month given to most cars at the cost of 15p/litre. No wonder everyone is always on the car going somewhere! Oh that is another thing! You will only see very few European or American cars, because the taxes to import them are so high. Instead, you see plenty of small affordable Iran made cars that all look the same. Plenty of KIA Prides and Saipa Sabas can be seen at any place any time! The automotive industry there is the second largest industry in the country (the first industry is oil/gas), because most people have no other choice than buying an Iranian car! Oh the only exception to the rule is white Peugeot 201s (for some reason you never see black ones). Anyway, there was this guy (Payan, Koushan, and later my friend) surnamed Mamat Schumacher. He was the psycho of street driving. I almost never get adrenaline rushes anymore off almost any activity, but man, with this guy on the wheel, things were different. Check the video that I filmed and Payan put together of crazy driving in Iran: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTtgXPW81xs
Driving in Iran really felt like being in a racing video game where everything was allowed. There were neon lights everywhere, flags, surreal looking like bridges, and when you had some good tunes, it would feel like you were on something speedy.
-We drove to the jungles in the north, following the Chalus road from Karaj, which follows a river through the mountains, and has an amazing scenery, going past damns, elevated places, steep hills, oases, and plenty of shisha bars. Up north there is such a radical change when you cross the tunnel. (Oh just before crossing we stopped at a bar for tea, and we saw 2 goats fighting each other up in the mountains (I have a video which I’ll put online one day) ) .There was brume covering everything, and there were clouds, and trees, and waterfalls, sharp hills and canyons and green colours everywhere! We stayed at Payan and Koushan’s aunt’s house, next to some orange plantations, with jungle on one side and the beach in the other. Oh and guess what, we smoked more shisha.
-On the beach, it was interesting to see how it had been separated into two parts, by a long wall that went into the sea. Facing the sea, the right side was for men, and the left one for women. There were military people with guns supervising this. There was a rope parallel to the sea shore that was as far as the wall into the sea went, that indicated that it was forbidden to go past it, as otherwise it would be able to see the female beach. We had some fun playing frisbee around, and I wrestled with Nima (who had been state champion in wrestling and this year he came 3rd (he broke his finger) ), and to be completely honest, he destroyed me! XD But it was a really good laugh never the less getting beaten up by a good friend. XD After the swim, we smoked some more shisha in the shisha bar.
-I guess that, due to the oppressing and compulsory rules, most people express their need of freedom by partying. Therefore, there were private parties and celebrations going on non-stop. As these parties are private, girls and women can take off their veil, and show off their dresses. It is not uncommon to go to parties with other older family members and dance and smoke shisha the night away. In one of these parties, we were almost only young people, and on the food table there was also Alcohol!! Alcohol is strictly forbidden in Iran, and if you get caught with it, you’ll get slashed about 50 times on the back, as well as paying quite a hefty fine. Ouch. But in some underground cellars you can stock up on booze. The people running them often have contacts with police or high rank officials and bribe them as to avoid problems. Anyhow, risky stuff. It was strange seeing girls and boys having a good time together, because it is actually not allowed for boys and girls to walk in the street together unless they are married. If the police see you, they’ll arrest you, and call your parents, who will have to come pick you up to the police station. I met Maede there, a really pretty and fun Iranian girl. And something really funny happened next. I was talking with Maede alone in a room inside the house (the party was outside on the lawn), when Sethare came in (I kinda had something going on with her), and tried to pull me away from the room. It was basically one girl grabbing me by one arm and the other one by the other. What I didn’t know until then was that they were cousins!! XDXD FAIL! The rest of the evening was such a funny show, and a tough choice! At the end of the party, Maede and I hid from her brother, and I took a photo of her mobile phone number. (I didn’t have a phone on me) I mention this because the morning after Sethare saw the photo ad it was a big laugh. After the party, Koushan and I went back to the front seat in the car with our 3 female friends in the back. It was such a funny ride back home. Payan was at home, he had been with his girlfriend. We talked and laughed at various things. Oh I forgot to mention that Koushan and his girlfriend stole my bed! XD
-We went to some pre wedding dinner. This was also separated between men and women. We had some good tasty traditional food (e.g. Ash: a sort of green soup made with beans). We left early, but apparently later on guys and girls mix up. We also went to a big and fun wedding party. There were neon bulbs everywhere in the outside area, a under the stars shisha bar, a banquet room and a dancing room, where there were playing traditional Iranian music, and people dancing to it in the traditional manner. All this was new to me, and a lot of fun. My favourite part, was when I ate 3 chickens I’ve got witnesses! I took a video. After the party we chilled out by the shisha, and then, as the tradition states, everyone accompanied the Just Married couple with their cars, honking and using the flashing beacons, leaning out of the window and shouting, all the way to their apartment (present from the bride’s mum). Once there, the tradition states that a sheep needs to be sacrificed in from of the new home to be inaugurated. The sheep was there, and so was a man with a knife and a few more sharp tools. Everyone walked away, except me. I was intrigued, puzzled, and mildly disgusted, but I wanted to see which feelings that cultural traditional act would awaken in me. The man cut deep on the sheep’s neck, and it started bleeding severely. As the animal struggled….(you know what, I’ll skip this part). I felt both sad, curious, pissed off, understanding, fascinated, and perhaps the most important, sorry for the sheep. But hey folks every culture´s got its own way of doing things, and that just because you do things differently doesn´t mean that it´s better or worse. I mean in our society we eat meat almost daily. Can you imagine the number of animals that have been fucking assassined for us to eat them?? Hey Joao and Davide, how many chickens were slaughtered for us to have our chicken wing competition? (My record was about 75 chicken wings after drinking 1l beer and eating loads of French fries and carrot sticks)
-Payan had a training bench and dumbbells. Some mornings or afternoons we’d work out on the lawn. We’d do heavy squats and bench presses and shoulder presses, plenty of weighted pull-ups and deadlifts, and dips. It was funny because we spent more water showering the equipment (it got sooo hot from the sun you got burned unless you cooled it with water every 2 minutes) than watering the plants. It felt so good going back to training after 2 months of no training (bike trip + trying it out!!) After the workout we’d go for a swim in the pool in his garden. I’d also go around the garden collecting and eating all the Sharon fruits, apples, pomegranates, king berries from the trees, and even figs! Man I loved all those fresh fruits. My favourite were the king berries, after a few days of being dried by the sun, they would be amazingly crunchy and sweet.
Me walking on my own: spies, rocks, sleep. Top.
–Kalepache (sheep’s head and toes) is a very traditional dish in Iran. After hearing plenty of things about it, I just had to give it a try. We (Payan and I) met Nima, Farnad, and 2 girls, and we went to a local place to try the speciality. At the entrance, you would see sheep’s skulls in a big soup marmite. In one of the photos you can see On the table: tongue, brains, feet, cheeks, and soup made of sheep’s head. I ate all of the dishes (5 dishes + bread), and then one of the girls asked me if I wanted her cheeks. Of course I answered YES! Since I am a Yes Man! And man it was such a fatty food, I was full till dinner. The tongue and meaty parts of the cheeks were really exquisite and tasty, but the rest was waaaaay to fatty. But worth a try! Btw I still only have one neurone left, and eating brain didn´t make me cleverer. Just in case you are thinking about it. But I’m sure no one is. Well maybe me. And you too now!
-After scaring everyone in my host family with my insanely high fruit consumption, we decided it would be a good idea to go fruit picking in an orchard they owned somewhere away from everything. We had a good time learning the most efficient way of picking each fruit. I found shake the pear trees as hard as I could for about a minute, and then we’d all collect the pears on the floor. For the apple tree, it would be easier to shake it in a more aggressive intermittent way. I’d also have to carry Payan on my shoulders so that he’d reach a few more apples higher up. And for the deliciously sweet mini plums, we’d have to collect them one by one from the tree. The bad thing with them was that they tasted so nice so we had the tendency to eat all of them instead of putting them in the bag. Oh and I almost fell off a wall picking some up! In total Payan, his mum and me we picked about 30 kg of fruit. We came back some days later, with some girls. We had a nice barbecue and shisha by the river under the trees. And Maede’s sister was sooo funny because she was sooo annoying, always following us! Oh we also collected fresh chestnuts from the trees, and some in the ground. You should peel the skin before you eat it because it’s bitter, and you should also wash your hand right after doing that, as otherwise your hands will get dyed black from some substance in the outer layer of the chestnut.
-We went to Tehran (Iran’s capital) a few times, as it was only about a half an hour drive. It’s a huge city, and just crossing it by car takes ages. There is no centre as such, but rather many local centres. A cool place that we went to was the “Fire and water park”. It was a modern park, on which there were pillars on top of which there were flames, and to the rhythm of music the flames creeped up and down. Then there were some water jets, fountain styles. People went around rollerblading, or playing badminton there in the night. There was also a lighthouse which you could climb into and enjoy a beautiful view over Tehran. There was also a futuristic looking bridge that united it to a revolutionary in construction building. And all around the park, there were Segway’s. Oh and for the first time of my life I saw a “shisha forbidden” sign. Going up to the mountain in Tehran was also a good experience. It was quite crowded, and because the street up in really narrow, the cars have a tough time. You can deffo smell the burnt clutch some cars get when attempting this hill but at the top you can have a really good time. I went for some grilled liver, and we had some tea and shisha. Oh, and while waiting for the corn to get roasted at a stand, I met some Iranian guys that were studying in Lausanne (Switzerland), and it was so funny talking about such familiar places. Oh they also invited me to the corn. We took ages to get out of Tehran, as we kept getting lost. But it was fun! And we always ended up going past near the highest tower around.
-Because it is not allowed for guys and girls to meet publicly unless they are married, people usually meet up in shisha bars. Actually there is this hill at one extreme of Karaj from which you have a magnificent view of the city, and all along the road there are shisha bars. There is where guys and girls usually get to know each other. The funny part is the how: Guys in cars write their phone numbers and give it to some girls in other cars, or by the side of the road. Then they call each other, talk, and later meet up in some shisha bar. I met Maede at the shisha bar. We had a good time, and then we went for a walk on Gohardasht (the main street in Karaj). Man it was so weird getting all those looks from people just because we were holding hands! We went to some galleries and got some typical corn with sauce, and some bracelets. At some point, we saw a police car, and we decided to walk separate for a bit. Then 2 more of her friends came and we went to a park. It was funny that all the guys around were so jealous from such a normal situation in other cultures. It actually almost got me into a fight! It could have been a new fun experience if the 3 girls wouldn’t have completely thrown the other guys away who knows
-They say that a visit of Iran is not a full visit unless you visit Isfahan. Payan’s parents proposed that we go there. Game on! The way there was so cool. We had to cross deserts, emptiness, going past the occasional small city, and small shop/petrol station. The road was mostly straight, with the occasional bend. It was a tiny bit of civilized concrete in a huge vast empty space. We had plenty of nuts and fruits on the way. Isfahan was the city that inspired the Assassin’s creed game. When I was there I understood why. It felt a bit like living in a medieval Jerusalem. Not that I’ve been there but I’ve got a good imagination. We started off by visiting the world’s second biggest square (after Tiananmen). It was there that the sport Polo originated, and they used to have plenty of matches in the square back then, well before the fountain in the middle was built. There were also plenty of shops around selling carpets, and typical sweets made with pistachio nuts. Then there was a huge mosque that Payan and I explored. It was full of blue colour everywhere, and I usually don’t care much about buildings, but this one was quite impressive. We also got lost going through random roads, under arches, through cool architectures. It was fun, different, exciting. We also checked out the oldest hotel around, which was a very luxurious one with an incredible entrance, and a nice relaxed garden where we could have cinnamon tea and loads of other stuff. We also went to the famous bridge 33 in Isfahan. The water from the river had been cut since they were building a metro underneath, and you could walk where there was once water There were really cool echoes from people singing inside some of the arches.
A few random notes:
-There are almost no Supermarkets. Instead, there are plenty of small corner shops and kiosks, and if you want to do your groceries, you’d have to go to quite different shops to get all what you need. E.g. one for the bread, one for veggies and fruits, one for the milk and a few cans and cleaning stuff, another one for the newspaper, other one for the meat etc., you get the idea.
-The copyright laws on Software, CD’s and DVD’s only apply to Iranian products. Because of this, there are plenty of shops that legally sell pirate copies of virtually every single video game, or software for a pound or two. I bought Windows 7, Matlab and AutoCAD for my uni, costing about 5 pounds in total. It would have cost more than a thousand pounds here in the UK.
-Many street vendors sell on place cooked meat snacks, roasted corn on the hob, fresh pistachios, and walnuts in brine. All of them taste amazing. As for meat I had some brochettes of liver, kidney, heart, and something else, and they were all really tasty if you just forget about prejudices. As for the fresh pistachios, they still have the skin on, and taste very different than the ones we usually buy in supermarkets. I like them more, but loool today I had a whole bag of dried ones so it’s not that I dislike them anyway
-The typical dishes in Iran are centred around rice. They also have some mini cucumbers which are very crunchy and tasty. Tea is always getting brew, and sometimes they add cinnamon to it. Ash (a kind of green looking like bean soup) is also a tasty staple equally in weddings as in normal life.
-Many young people that I met want to live the country because they feel oppressed, and the job market opportunities suck. (So I heard) I met quite a few youngsters who had good degrees not finding job at all or working as a secretary or in a factory. For many of them, going to Europe, USA or Canada would be like a dream come true. But it sucks that in those places sometimes the same happens! Oh and there are almost no old people there!
-A few older more extreme rules still exist. E.g. if you steal something and get caught, you could get your hand (fingers?) chopped off. Well, you can’t say that it is not an effective way of reducing theft.
-At some point, Payan, Nima, and later I fell sick. Interestingly, instead of getting penicillin tablets given, over there they almost put you a penicillin injection. The medical service was much faster there that I’ve ever seen in Europe, since we only had to wait like 3 minutes to see the doctor. Oh and the injection was on the gluteus, and the guy doing them didn’t even close the door, which was really funny considering the circumstances and the funny guy that was giving the injections. And it was really cheap to get medical care and medicines. Sometimes, when people need something, they just go to the pharmacy and tell them what the problem is, and the pharmacist just gives them something himself. Oh when we went to the pharmacy with Nima, he told us that the very skinny shrimp looking guy behind the counter was a champion bodybuilder. Payan and I laughed later on for quite a while.
Oh, before leaving Iran, I would like to say that it sucks that the world perceives Iran as a breeding ground for terrorism where daily violence and bombings are routine. It sucks because that point of view is bullshit. Iranian people are among the kindest I’ve met in my life, and they will always help you out and offer you their food and home. I saw no signs of violence, and to be honest, it is worse here in the UK than there! People in Iran are happy, and enjoy their daily life. They are normal people, not how we think they are before we meet them. I had such an amazing time in Iran, and I regard some of the moments there as some of the best ones in my life. The only “problem” that I encountered was the rule by force that I observed, that explains also the (for me) undesirable over militarizing all over the country, since I think that it is a bit extreme to see armed military people/police at every corner. But hey, different countries, different hobbies.
The tough day came along, and I had to say goodbye to Iran, Payan & his family, and all the other awesome people I’d met. But this is life: you get experiences, learn and enjoy them, and then it’s time to move on as a better, more complete person. I want expansion, greatness, not getting stuck in comfort. I want to go through it all to where the truth lies within you. I took the bus that Payan’s mum had kindly booked towards Yerevan. It was another of these comfy couches, actually much better than the ones I’ve been to in Europe! Only dodgy point was that there was no toilet, but hey that’s just a good training for the bladder muscles! Or just drink less I met a group of very diverse people. One of them owned a Biotechnological company, one girl was a journalist and presented a sports show, another guy was a leading researcher in Cancer, the other guy was a IDoAll kinda guy: motivational speaker, masters in IForgotWhat, author of some book called something like ‘’Things they don’t know that we don’t know’’, and another guy and girl who seemed like they were always travelling around India, Thailand, or the rest of the world. We had a really good time all together, and I learned quite a bit from them. We talked about many things, and one that I found intriguingly interesting was about cloning. Even though the European Constitution states that it is illegal to do so with human beings, I got told that it was nevertheless being done. You know, maybe it’s just one of these things we hear, but… The rest of the conversation showed that they knew what they were talking about. I had some of the typical food they offered me, and some more nuts I was carrying. We slept in the couch, and halfway through the night we entered the Armenian border. It was so funny because just after crossing the line on the bridge that separated Iranian and Armenian ground, the girls took away their veils covering their hair, and I put shorts on. Man I had missed those shorts!! I’m the kinda guy always active and on the move, and shorts are just ideal! After waiting for a few hours to cross the border, getting the Visas, and changing some money, it was time to eat some canned aloe vera (I’d seen it in Iran and bought it for the first time in my life to give it a try. It was very tender and mildly sweet. Loved it.) and go to bed. Well more like go to the seat. Or seats as I always lie across 2 seats with the legs hanging on the corridor. In the morning we stopped by the road on some café with loads of grapes hanging off the vines all around the café. That plus some bread and cheese that I got offered was the breakfast. The total bus journey was only of about 22 hours, but it was well worth it as I had a great time, and saw more beautiful infinite like landscapes.
We got to the coach station in Yerevan, and there were loads of local people that jumped on us offering (usually their house/second house) accommodation. Sometimes I go for this kind of stuff when I’m with friends of girlfriend, but when you are alone it’s usually more fun and cheap to go to a hostel.
Everywhere there were panels that advertised a local brandy drink called Ararat, that was manufactured around the corner. It was actually a bit strange walking on the street, because everywhere, there were so many people dressed up in military uniforms and there seemed to be something big going on. So we asked around, and got told that it was the 20th anniversary of the independence of Armenia! Which explained all the music, red and white colors, partying on the streets, all the massive crown of people, the blocked roads, the stages with music and other acts, the arts on the streets, and later on an Armenian flag painted on my face. It was a big coincidence having arrived that particular day, especially considering that a few weeks before that I’d arrived to Tallinn when it was the 20th anniversary of independence there, also by chance. The mood in the streets was awesome. I got a free map and guide from a hotel, which I used to find the cheapest hostel in town. I think it was something like the equivalent of 7 euros or so. And then tackled the city. Man, that was some crazy celebration! I found loads of cool spots in the city, some in ghetto like parts, and some on the top of the long stairs by the amusement park. I also got lost on my way back to town centre, which was fun. In the night, the huge square in the city centre was completely filled with people. There was a massive show with fireworks, lights, projecting stuff onto buildings, some videos made 20 years ago, an orchestra and a few more things. I also, randomly noticed world’s most random sign. It was a ‘’trumpets forbidden’’ sign. While I was walking (trying) to go through the square following the flow of hordes of people, a girl said something quite annoying to me. And then XD, I don’t know what happened because I have never done this, but I thought that it would be quite funny to answer back something annoying too, just for fun (it was the first time in so long that someone had said something rude to me, and I couldn’t resist the fun of playing the game). I told her: “Shut the fuck up, bitch” and then smiled XDXD. Now I understand that this is a really rude and antisocial thing to do, especially in another country. She gave me the first slap I’d gotten in a few years (well deserved), and I complimented her on the soft touch of her hand caressing my face (as a mock of course), and disappeared into the crowd before she would take a chainsaw and slice me with it. I’ve told this chapter a few times to friends and it always brings back a curious slightly funny moment I the trip. The fireworks afterwards were awesome, and it took a detour to get back to the hostel as some roads were locked.
The day after I wanted to have a blast, so I went to a nearby gym. I met the 10 times in a row Mister Armenia (for bodybuilding), and we had a chat. He was a really nice guy underneath the tough face and body. I left his gym to have one of my insane post workout meals (about a kilo of bread with bananas, and loads of milk and a few pastries), and to keep visiting the city. I kinda forgot what happened, but I remember watching the sunset over the city from the top of a Ferris wheel in the theme park eating some popcorn. It was so nice to take some time for myself and chill out with the amazing view.
The morning after I went into downtown Yerevan to see the real local lifestyle and traditional markets. There were plenty of corner shops with different people in charge of different things inside them. E.g. there was one corner for milk, yoghurts, cottage cheese etc., another one for candy and chocolate, another one for fruits etc. In the market, it was crazy how cheap everything was! There was a really cool local market at the train station that I visited before taking the train towards Tbilisi (capital of Georgia).
The train was comfortable and cheap when taking into account that the beds were included in the price (although we would arrive that same night. We went through small dry hills and many dry fields. One thing that surprised me at the border with turkey (the train did a massive detour) was that the train ticket controller told me to not take pictures, even though it was not a real well defined border as such. But the train journey was an awesome experience meeting loads of locals.
I got to Tbilisi after dawn at around 10-11pm, with no local money, and no directions towards my hostel that I’d booked the night before. No one had a clue where it was, or even where a nearby big square was located. And the currency exchange offices were closed. Now I could have just taken the tube, but that would have been way too easy. So I started walking around towards an illuminated tower on a hill that seemed attractive. After a few dark roads, I met 2 guys and a girl on the street next to their car, and asked them for directions. They didn’t really have a clue where everything was, partly because they’d been drinking, partly because they didn’t live there. But they thought that it would be fun to help me out, so they invited me in, and off we were. We went all around the city by car, and I was really enjoying it! The city had greatness within, big monuments and imposing buildings, and it was fun going all over! But at some point, we stopped by the Marriott hotel to get some directions. The receptionist made a phone call, and wrote down a phone number, an address, and a map. The guys I’d met in the car were fun for sure, but it was getting late and I wanted to find the hostel, so I said goodbye to them and set off zigzagging into the unknown city. After quite a while, I finally arrived to the address I’d got given, but there was nothing there except a house. Damn it, I got given the wrong address! XD It was already like 2am. Coincidentally, that pm I’d been texting with Irma, and I asked her if she could Google the hostel’s address. Ok, maybe it was a bit cheating that way, but at least I’d find it! With the correct address this time, I approached some taxi drivers, and asked them the whereabouts of the Tbilisi Old Town Hostel. They’d never heard of it, but they used an application on their not so modern phones to locate it on a map. After 10 minutes, I was there! And it was only around 3am!
The hotel was lovely, comfortable, clean, the staff really friendly, and the rooms huge and spacious with an amazing view from the balcony over the city’s rooftops. I’d recommend it to everyone! The following days I spent the time going all over the city doing random stuff and getting lost in old parts and roads of the city. I went to the local sulphur baths, which consists of warm sulphureted source water flowing out of showers, warm baths and a sauna, separate for men and woman as everyone walked around naked. A girl by at the hostel had recommended me to get a massage there, so I went for it. It was really cheap (about 5 euros for 20-30mins), and something quite new. That is because the massage was lying naked on some flat stone by the common area while the masseur guy used some bubbly slippery soap to massage your back, legs, arms, chest and stomach. But to calm down some of you I will add that this was very professional. Other day I went sprinting up the hills. Once up, I could see the whole city by one side and the botanical garden by the other. I kept jogging around hills because the view was so good, and then after a few more sprints I decided to go up to the illuminated tower (the sun had just set) on the top of this hill. I asked a few people for directions and shot uphill in the dark tripping over stuff from time to time and getting surprised by cats, people, and weird stuff on my way up. But hey, once up there, I was happy I’d come this far. The view was fantastic, and you could see every shining light from the top. There was also a theme park up there. On the way down I sort of cheated slightly because I used a shortcut to get down: There was this train like shuttle that went uphill, and I went down some straight stairs that followed the rails.
On some other walkabout on more central parts of the city, I realized that Tbilisi was a police and military state. There were police and security men EVERYWHERE! And it felt like you were under constant surveillance. As a half a joke note, I found a nice park to lie down, but one of the guards came over and told me that I could not lie down in a park! LOL
While going past a church, there seemed to be something big going on, and some people had the traditional clothes on, with a dagger on one side and a gun on the other. But once I was inside of the church and quite a few people were looking at me while I realized that there was a guy in a coffin by the middle, I just had to keep walking. There was something going on at the parliament, and I got to see the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
On another occasion, I found the old train station which had been abandoned and the weeds were taking control of it. And close to there were thousands of people selling and buying studying books for the upcoming school and uni year. I got 2 German books I got lost again and ended up along some railways on another abandoned industrial station and later on walking past communist looking like tall grey apartments.
After 2 nights and 3 days in Tbilisi, I took the bus at dawn towards the airport. I found a comfy space on the upper floor of the airport, where I slept and read a local newspaper that I’d gotten at the tourist office until the morning, when I took the plane to Istanbul.
Everything was now familiar, but that morning I had another mission in hand. I had to find a gym because I was feeling pumped. I followed the now empty but in the night hugely crowded pedestrian road (from Taksim leading towards Galata tower), and saw some model posing for a photographer. At a hostel I got given directions, and found the gym after 5 minutes. The lifts were going up very fast since I’d started training again, and I felt in my element. After buying the many pretzels, bananas and bread and milk post workout, I found a chilled spot by the seaside almost under a bridge to eat all of it. After a few minutes, I saw a familiar looking blonde girl walking by and we started talking. I asked her if she’d arrived this morning with the plane from Copenhagen (Denmark), and she was like, how the hell did you know? (I’d seen her at the airport). We stayed together for the first part of the day, and then she took the train towards south to meet up with some adventure group and I bought my train tickets for that night, left my luggage in a lock, and went to some more new places (after a nap in a park of course (as it was legal to lie down on a park in Turkey :P). There is this street in Istanbul where they sell fake branded clothes which look quite authentic, and after short but efficient negotiations I got some underwear, polo shirts, and a cap really cheap each.
I spent the sunset seating by the waterfront nearby the harbour eating a chicken and giving the skin left overs to some cats around.
In the night train to Plovdiv (Bulgaria) I was in the same compartment as 2 really cool dudes. One of them was a supertraveller guy who had all thirty something pages of his passport completely stamped. He’d been all over the place, many times round. The other one was a Japanese guy who (like almost all Japanese people) had 6 days of summer holiday (and 3 in Christmas), and had taken the opportunity to travel around Tehran, Istanbul, and Sofia (Bulgaria). We had a really good time all together and so many laughs about everything, and it felt like we had been good friends for really long. I got off at Plovdiv (Bulgaria) in the morning, and they stayed on it towards Sofia. I wandered around trying to figure out where everything was. Once at the tourist office, I asked for a map and hostels, and if there would be anything going on. They said that there wouldn’t, but later on.. I left my stuff at the hostel, which had an awesome view over Plovdiv, and it was in the old town, which was full of lovely old colourful houses. A bit Bavarian style, with the high roofs and the wooden structures. There was the old coliseum that you could perfectly see from the outside without paying, and at the top of the old town, there was an empty space with rocks that was like the romantic spot in the city. And you could see other cliffs further away and the city being alive. There was another hill nearby that seemed cool too so I went there and checked it out. And in the Meteo/Media station at the top they were playing some good tunes. I recommend to everyone to go up there, even though it’s quite a tough way up if you don’t follow a path. But it’s fun that’s for sure!
I had been recommended to go to a local big tobacco factory that had been transformed into a Gym in the downtown area. I couldn’t wait to try it out! It was soo cool in there, a mix between modern and warehouse style building. I beat a few new PB, maybe because of the location, maybe because I was high in life. And the usual huge Post Workout meal consisted on a few kilos of yoghurt, bananas and some bread. And while eating the whole thing of the go I saw another really cool looking Gym and went inside to check it out for a few minutes which got transformed into more like half an hour. There was the champion bodybuilder of the region, and some other freaks, and the level was really high. Man I gotta come back to Plovdiv one day just to have a blast there!
Later on, there was a massive concert in the central square. Apparently it was part of some type of local electoral campaign. I saw the whole thing from the top of a statue which I just HAD TO climb. And later on, in front of the town hall, there were riots, and shed loads of riot police, and special forces with balaclavas. The guys were huge. So much for nothing happening that day! I asked in a few places what the riot was about, and they told me that it was against gypsies, because they live without paying taxes, stealing, and to top that up there had been a recent incident in which some gypsies ran over (and killed) a local man. And that was the drop that overflowed the glass.
When I woke up the next morning in the hotel, the guy from the reception asked me if I wanted some Rakia. I had no clue what that was, but I’m a Yes Man! He went over to the fridge, picked a water bottle and filled 2 small glasses and offered me one. Man that shit was strong. Especially for a non drinker like me. Apparently, Rakia is a local made brandy with 50%+ alcohol. I said goodbye, and went somewhere near the train station, to go hitchhiking until the airport. The local airport was really small, and there weren’t even direct buses to it. The only bus left you about 2-3km away from it. I got quite lucky and got a ride straight from there to where the bus would have dropped me off, then walked 100m into the airport road, stuck my thumb up, and the first car that went past picked me up and dropped me at the airport. They were going to see a friend of them that was leaving in my flight to London.
Once at London, I went to Charly’s place. It was really nice to catch up with her as I hadn’t seen her in ages! Well, the night before the bike trip! In the morning, I hadn’t bought a ticket to go back to Loughborough, so I decided to go hitchhiking! We said goodbye at the tube station, and I got off at Brent’s Cross. From there I walked up to the start of the M1, and stuck my thumb and a panel that said Leicester up. I got a lift quite fast, and it was such a coincidence. The guy in the van was a former Olympic Taekwondo athlete, and he used to be the GB coach at Loughborough a few years ago. And he was going straight to Loughborough! Now how much more awesome than that could things be? We had some really good sport and funny stuff conversation. I got dropped off at the front door of the Loc8te me office, where I needed to collect the keys to my room, and greet my friends working there. And of course, tell them about all my adventures! Back in Loughborough in my new room, I was happy and ready to make a change of rhythm.