One thing that always strikes me with travel (especially from Australia) is how it really just a series of 'waits'. Waiting to go through security, waiting to board, waiting to take off, waiting to land, waiting to disembark, waiting for security checks, waiting to be assigned a gate, waiting to board... and repeat for each flight. As it was 3 flights to get here, I have definitely mastered the art of waiting over the past 30 hours of travel.

I flew through Doha to get to Tehran. Doha's airport may be covered in a perpetual layer of grey dust dulling its shine but it proudly claims to be state of the art technologically and environmentally... in stark contrast to Imam Khomeini which feels like an unloved 80s ghost. There were so few people at the airport that my wait for the visa on arrival was only slowed down by the pace of the officials who liked to wander around a lot with only occasional interruptions of any activity. From my flight there was a grand total of 4 of us getting visas which turned out to be far simpler and less rigorous than I'd been lead to believe. After securing my entry, I sat in the empty, echoing airport to wait for Tom's flight which was 2 hours after mine with just as few people getting visas, which severely cuts down on the wait time with no queue for passport checks or customs.

We took a taxi into Tehran as we had a few hours to kill before our next flight. What with bags, Tom's self inflicted tiredness from too much Romanian fun and my woebegone exhaustion from jet lag and sleep deprivation, we were reasonably hampered so all we did was head to the Teahouse in the central City Park (Park-e Shah). It was a good introduction to Iranian life... like the airport, the pace was relaxed, we experienced the famed Iranian hospitality for the first time when a woman sitting with her Shisha and tea insisted on me having a cup and refilling it, and we were chased by the waiter for absconding on the bill because of our currency confusion.

The currency would (and, I'm sure, will) befuddle me at my sharpest, which given the aforementioned sleep deprivation and jet lag, this was not. Not only is it all in such high numbers it becomes meaningless (ie 1 AUD is roughly 25,000 rial), there are two different currencies in active use, both use the same coins and notes but are quoted differently when asking the price. There is an official currency - rials - and there's an unofficial currency - tomens. So if you go to pay, you're quoted the price at, say, 21 which you then confirm means 21 thousand, and everyone agrees. Only when you hand over 25,000 expecting change, the guy looks at you as though you're trying to take the piss... only to remember he quoted in tokens, you're paying in rials so you need to give him 250,000.

We both keep mucking it up, causing consternation and suspicion. The only upside to all of this is that for the next week on a humble budget we are both billionaires!

Really this is just a long winded way of saying that Tom and I successfully found each other in Tehran and we've got where we need to be. Today we'll start to explore the area...


This morning we went out to Kandovan, marketed as Iran's Cappadocia. Our hostel organised a lovely driver who made random stops to show us apricots drying in the sun, a thousand year old tree that onced housed a man, a ghost village next door to Kandovan that had the hill fall in on it 200 years ago and to meet his friend who offered tea, samples of his wares and much appreciation that we were from Australia.

But I really should start from the beginning...

Being a Friday, the morning was very quiet with everyone at mosque. We started the day getting a small glimpse of our street for the next couple of days. It's not far from the Bazaar which we'll explore tomorrow as well as the Blue Mosque and museums.

Our driver arrived pretty quickly and despite claiming poor English, immediately proved himself wrong! He told us little tit bits along the way and made stops for photos he thought we'd be interested in. The first was a quick u-turn on the highway when he noticed some men putting apricots out to dry. It was a spectacular sight, this orange gold fruit glowing along the sides of a quiet alley. Tom was given a handful of the fresh fruit which we munched on in the car afterwards... they go down as the best apricots either of us has ever tasted. Subtly sweet and almost fragrant but not pungent. I couldn't resist taking a shot of the rapturous look on Tom's face as he bit into one. Our driver pointed out the orchards along the road which in true European style (well in my experience) were without fences.

Our next stop, involved our driver stopping in the middle of the road (Persian roads and driving deserve their very own blog post!) at the foot of a tree which he proceeded to inform us was a thousand years old. There was a statue at the base of a man who lived in the hollow trunk for 50 years and when he died, the villagers sealed it shut. He then gave us a handful of green plums that were tart and delicious.

The next stop we could easily have missed if he hadn't stopped for us. Just before Kandovan is a smaller village built into the rock in the same way. But 200 years ago, the hill collapsed on it so it is now abandoned but we were able to go exploring the remaining open caves which helped make sense of what we later saw in Kandovan. The cave homes still had all the benches, nooks and shelves carved out so you could easily see how they'd have been lived in once upon a time. They were very low, even I had to dip my head to enter and walk around.

When I emerged from the last cave home I explored, I was going to catch up to Tom who had climbed up to a more in tact part but I got distracted by a herd a goats that were being moved through by their shepherds who were putting some in the caves, I assume to shelter from the heat. By the time I went to head up the hill, our driver was saying it was time to move on so I'll let Tom's photos and stories fill you in on that!

Which really brings us to Kandovan - the troglodyte village of manmade cliff dwellings which are still lived in. The village is hard to describe, covering a rocky hillside, crawling with tourists and with no straight lines, it is like no other place I've been. I'll let the photos below do it for me. It's a small village, apparently at the last census there were less than 700 people belonging to around 150 families. The place is now set up for tourism with many of them offering a 'free entry to cliff home', but when you walk in, you find they've turned their main living area into a shop selling tat. Though no real pressure or active spruiking which seems to be an Iranian thing.

The highlight for me was when our driver introduced us to his friend who ran a shop down near the riverbed - he sat us down, talked to Tom wanting to know where we were from, how we were liking Iran, etc. He brought out tea and started giving us samples, the area is famous for honey and he calmly assured us that a teaspoon a day at breakfast would mean we were never sick! The sour preserved red damson plums were tangy and lovely but the yellow were too sour for me. The almonds and walnuts were juicy, straight out of their shells. Tom bought some pistachios in the end - twice the size of any I've seen before.

In the dry riverbed at the base of the hill, people had set up picnics - Iranians seem to take picnicking seriously, there are burners and shades and rugs. And by the time we left, it was clear many more were going to set up as there was a steady stream of cars heading out there.

For the afternoon, I took a siesta while Tom headed off to hunt lunch and find a haircut/shave. I'll let him tell you about mourning his beard!


Yesterday afternoon after Tom's beard massacre and my recharge, we headed to a park in town that Tom's new Tabrizi friend from our flight had told him about. Tom will tell you more of that I'm sure, I was so jet lagged on the Tehran > Tabriz flight I only half paid attention and nodded politely every now and then.

As with the other parks we've seen it's well utilised, full of picnics and lounging. Though unlike the City Park in Tehran there was no sad zoo in the centre. This one had lots of fountains and a hill. The park had a pond in which you could peddle large plastic swans about or take a short joyride in a speed boat - it was really very odd!

After we'd wandered round a bit, Tom had the bright idea to walk up a nearby hill to a lookout. In the heat it really made me hate the multiple layers I'm having to wear. I told Tom to push ahead because I just couldn't keep up - in Iran to meet the dress code I'm in jeans, long sleeved top, tunic and head scarf. Even though it's cotton and breathing and roomy enough for air movement... it's hot. The scarf traps the hot air against my head and face, the jeans would be fine in heat with a tshirt but everything else it does feel suffocating. It makes sense of the slower walking pace I've noticed amongst the women!

The views were pretty spectacular once I got to the top... so I will grudgingly say it was worth it!

After that it was a quiet night grabbing some dinner and gratefully falling into bed.

^Can you believe that this is a toilet block?!

^Almost at the top!

Today was spent on a walking tour round Tabriz. We started by trying to see the cartoon museum which our first attempt lead us to the strangest little museum in the rear basement of the same building. It had been set up for a man who had created over a thousand models of Iranian food - it was seriously weird. For anyone who has seen the Instagram account @thriftstoreart - it was the type of stuff that would belong there.

Unfortunately the cartoon museum was closed, they were having an annual caricature competition which Tom was hoping would include some choice Trump depictions but it was not to be.

We walked from there to the Constitutional Museum which commemorate the revolution in 1906 (when Tabriz was the capital of Iran). The museum is housed in the mansion where the revolution was plotted. It was fascinating to me the way the revolution which introduced the first democratic elections and limited the royal influence was still very heartily celebrated. I realise with the current regime there's a common enemy in the Shah, but it still felt at odds. This contradiction is something I keep noticing in Iran - the historical and cultural openness to ideas and expression against the stories we hear from the outside, particularly the ostensibly white Western political sphere.

From there we wandered the streets to the bazaar, it's the largest covered Bazaar in the world and it was easy to see how you could get lost in there. One thing that struck me was the lack of pressure to buy. There were no screaming spruikers and we were often ignored even the few times we were interested in buying something.

^these little coloured stickers seem to be on every letterbox and front door. We still haven't worked out what they are!

^so many different types of pistachios!

After the Bazaar, we made our way to the Poet's Tomb. Trust Iran to generate their poets the way others do prime ministers or religious figures! And from there it was a short walk to Blue Mosque which lost its blue tiling in an earthquake.

After that it was the Azerbaijan museum. This area of Iran proudly calls itself East Azerbaijan, yet there's also a heavy Turkish influence, with many growing up speaking turkish. Overlay this against the already rich cultural tapestry of East meets West, it feels like I'm in Europe, Nepal, India, Turkey and the Middle East all at once.

^Had to include this for you, mum. I'm in love with the second last paragraph

The last stop of the day was at the University's Architecture Department building in an old Tabrizi mansion - its in reasonable disrepair so I'm assuming (hoping) it is being used as a live project!

Zanjan, Iran

So when I last left you, we were in Tabriz. Yesterday we jumped on a bus to Zanjan (using the time to publish the last post). We arrived here in the earlier afternoon to discover the two hotels we had in mind had substantially higher prices than reported in the LP. In fact, we are pretty sure whoever wrote the LP entry ended up confusing Tomen and Rials because the quoted pricing makes little sense.

As we were searching for another mentioned in the guide we were rescued by two lovely men asking if we were looking for a hotel and assuring us there was one much nicer than where we were heading. Iranian warmth and hospitality winning out again because we were brought to a great little hotel, run by a young, enterprising Iranian with a reasonable level of English who has done everything to make our stay comfortable - arranging a car for our day trip, exchanging money, etc.

After dumping our things, I plotted out a taster of downtown Zanjan - very loose but all within a km or two of the hotel. We started by walking through the bazaar looking for a restaurant known for its Dizi Sangi (or dizzy sandwich), a rich lamb stew with various accoutrements and a ritual for how you eat it. We thought we stumbled across it but instead found something even better.

After seeing a sign with an image of the stew pointing down an alley off the bazaar, we walked into a tiny stand which was effectively a kitchen with two narrow benches. The rear one was taken up by some men already so we slipped into the one on the side wall. We asked for Dizi and after some confusion found out it had run out (or he doesn't make it or... well, whatever it was, it wasn't available). In the meantime I'd eyed off what he'd made for one of the other men - some shakshuka (or, omelette, as he called it). So we greedily pointed at it and asked for what he was having.

We settled in with some chai as tomatoes, mushrooms and shallots all got chopped and fried in front of us. It was served with a huge plate of wager thin bread which you form into little bite size parcels with some of the eggy tomatoey mixture. It was hands down the best meal we've had in Iran (so good, in fact, we went back today!). We quickly became the star attraction with people heartily welcoming us to Iran, wanting to know if we had babies (no), had been to <insert hometown here> (no), if we had Skype or whatsapp working (no) and if we'd be in selfies with them (yes)!

I have no idea what made the shakshuka so much better than any I've tried before - might be just the quality of the produce because I tried to watch what he was doing and there was nothing exotic about it. We washed it down with chai from the large samovar and dogh (like Turkish Ayran - salted yoghurt drink with mint in it).

At the end we were taarof-ed for the first time, being told not to pay and having to heartily insist we would be paying. It was a crazily low $2.50 for the whole meal... especially crazy considering how much better it was than anything else we've had.

After lunch we wandered around the bazaar some more and made our way to the Rakhtshoot Khaneh - a stone laundry and washouse that a local businessman built over a spring for the women of Zanjan to use for free. You'll have to excuse the lack of photos for the afternoon as I only had my big camera with me and I can't do anything with those images until I get home. Don't worry, your usual channel will surely supply a good variety.

We ended the day back at a teahouse in the bazaar where we sat drank tea and finally found some Dizi Sangi. The stew comes in clay pots, you pour the broth into a bowl leaving the meat and veg to cool down. The broth was beyond delicious, so rich and beautifully cooked. You tear up bits of the flat bread to hearten the broth while you drink it. The meat and veg then get mashed with a special mashing stick you're given and the subsequent paste is smeared on to pieces of the thin bread. It was lovely but the other table (and other descriptions I've read say it comes with herbs and leaves to flavour it but we couldn't seem to get ours)!

On our way back to the hotel we stopped by the mosque, which was lovely. The evening call to prayer was going out and families sat in the forecourt while men went through ablutions. Tom made yet more friends while I wandered around with the camera!

Today we had organised to go out to Takht-e Soleiman and Soltaniyeh by car - it ended up being a big driving day, leaving at 8amand getting back at 4pm. We had been going to head to Qazvin a day early but after so many hours in a car neither of us felt like sitting on a bus right away. Also the shakshuka was calling us again!

The morning drive out to Takht-e Soleiman was spectacular. It's a UNESCO World Herotage site up in the top of the mountains. We passed quarries and lorries abdcable cars of rocks on the way with mountains on every direction. It was hard to grab good images of it from the taxi though.

Takht-e Soleiman was originally one of the most important temples for the Zoroastrians - so we're talking old, we're talking 5th Century BC old. And before that there's archeological evidence of other human activity as well. The centre of the site is a turquoise artesian lake pouring forth about 50L/second. It has steep sides with the edges being around 40-50m deep and Tom said over 100m deep at the centre. It's on a slight rise within a huge basin at the top of the mountains. It became known as Solomon's Throne when the Arab Conquest threatened the site - the locals claiming Solomon had spent time there (and denying its Zoroastrian significance).

It was stunning, though the light was brutally bright making photos hard. Especially as these are jpgs so I can't process them more subtly. You'll just have to wait (and hope) that I got some that can be salvaged!

From there we headed back to Zanjan and out the other side to see Soltaniyeh - a reasonably well preserved blue domed mosque. Though we didn't know it was full of scaffolding inside so couldn't explore it fully.

^Tom making friends (again)

Alamut Castle

We travelled down to Qazvin by bus, the network here is so efficient and there are so many of them that we haven't needed to book in advance, merely show up and find our way on to a bus. Similar to the buses I caught when I was in Myanmar - the VIP buses have large seats like a business class domestic flight and more legroom than I know what to do with!

Yet again, the drive took us through spectacular landscapes and scenery. I can see why Iran makes a good location for filming.

After sorting our hotel and dropping our bags, we went for a wander into the bazaar for lunch, finding a great version of the local cuisine qimeh naser - a beautiful lamb stew, served inside a mound of rice covered in sliced pistachios, orange rind and barberries. Insanely tasty and jewel-like to look at.

Walking through the bazaar later, we were leapt upon by a carpet dealer who was making his way home for lunch. We were soon gathered up by his energy, as he proudly proclaimed us as his third son and third daughter (having two of each already). Sharrom was lovely, very sharp having taught himself English and is enamoured with foreigners. At one point he called his eldest son who is a doctor in Hong Kong and put us on the phone with him. His son sounded bemused but not surprised saying his father had been inciting foreigners home at every opportunity. "He is very friendly" was the understated description. We passed a pleasant afternoon in Sharrom's apartment being plied with yet more food, tea, fruit and being shown his carpets (the most expensive of which were hidden under cheaper versions on the floor.

We showed him pictures of Mum and Pete who he then claimed as his brother and sister. And when he returned to his shop, we walked back with him and discovered the restored caravanserais. There is a distinct jump in wealth here, is noticed the proliferation of Western brand name cars, cleaner/shinier apartment buildings, fewer black shrouded women and more trendy/hipster outfits. It was no surprise when we were told this is a retreat area for wealthy Tehran-ites to get away for the weekend. I mention this because the caravanserais demonstrated this beautifully, sensitively restored with gorgeous shops showcasing local designers and makers. It restored my faith in local handicrafts which I thought might have disappeared given the cheap Chinese, Taiwanese, Pakistani, etc products in the bazaars.

Today we'd organised with a local guide to go out to Alamut Valley to see the Assassins Castles. The landscape was monumental, the valley is in the Albers Mountains which are dry and rock encrusted with deeply green spring fed valleys. We visited two castles, the first was a relatively easy 10min walk while the second involved climbing the side of a hill on rock stairs that kept winding their way up. The Castles were part of a network of roughly 50 that were built in the valley in the 12th Century for the Ismaili followers of Hasan-e Sabbah. The sect he lead and the castles have formed the basis of many myths over the centuries and movies/video games today (Creed of Assassins and Prince of Persia).

Stories of Hasan-e Sabbah's time here and the mercenary organisation he ran are numerous, some more sumpathetic than others. At best, he headed an Ismaili sect that championed a free thinking, pro-science Islamic tradition. At worst, he used hashish to bolster his mercenaries courage and foster visions of secret gardens full of maidens that would await them for following orders to murder or kidnap political and religious leaders of the day. The use of hashish gave the mercenaries the popular name of 'hashish-yun' which is the origin of the term assassin.

Despite heavy fortifications, elaborate cistern systems and food reserves which meant the castles could survive years-long sieges (17 years being the longest recorded), the Mongols managed to capture them using 'diplomatic trickery'. To avoid future difficulty, the Mongols went on to destroy much of the castles and their cistern systems leaving only bits of rubble, foundations and ruined walls today.

Standing in the ruins of each of the castles, you could easily imagine the strategic advantages of their lines of sight. The landscape necessitates a single entry/exit point focussing all defence manoeuvres. And the height of each within the valley means they could see for miles.

Like other parts of Northern Iran, domestic tourism seems to account for the bulk of visitors. Being closer to Tehran, we have seen a few more Western/European tourists but it's only a handful even here. Some may not feel the bits of ruins justify the effort to get here but I hope in an effort to drive tourism they don't succumb to creating reenactment versions or easily reachable car parks. I don't think we'd have understood the reality of these fortresses without walking the route ourselves... no matter how intensive it can be, especially in full heat. Mind you, I say that well aware that we had a warm but crisp day so the shade provided proper relief from the sun. In full heat, our guide said it the climb to the top is 'hell'.

Please excuse some of these photos - the intensity of the light meant metering and exposure were topping out and I was reliant on the histogram to check exposure as the camera metering was struggling. I'll get better control once I can process the images from the Nikon...

And photo spamming starts now

^Tom, unwittingly, giving me the opportunity to pay tribute to Casper David Friedrich

^many stairs

^field of green beans

Alamut Castle

We decided to spend an extra day in Alamut when it turned out the incredible guide we'd hired for the Castles also organised what he called a Lost in Paradise experience - time in a village and a homestay at the other end of the valley.

Unfortunately Tom was sick but I got to enjoy a couple hour hike in the mountains around the village - walking up from the nut and fruit trees at the bottom of the valley to the arid areas at the top. It was beautiful walking through the orchards and we were lucky enough to bump into some people who were picking apricots so we're invited to join in, then enjoy the haul under the trees.

Old landslides were evident along the route, at best this meant paths that skimmed the top of what was essentially a cliff edge, at worst there were homes you could still peer into, though morbid seeing bones in there that haven't been retrieved.

It was a quiet day, nothing big or notable happened but I really enjoyed it, again I was struck by the generosity and hospitality of the Iranian culture. Each village we walked through came with offers to come and sit for chai, women wanting to show me their handicrafts and men wanting to welcome me to Iran.

^Cars included got scale

^my walk took us up to the base of the rocky top of the mountain

^spot the woman checking us out

^almost every house had fruit drying in the sun

^lots of dry walling

^the shining roofs in the distance are the village we stayed in

^anyone with weak ankles can probably imagine how I felt walking back downhill on this


A last look at Iran


We've come to the end of our time in Iran as we did at the airport ready to fly to Yerevan for our Lada adventure through Armenia and Georgia.

Yesterday was really just made up of making our way back to Tehran where we went to the former US embassy (now called the US Den of Espionage) - unfortunately closed - before going out to Darband Mountain which is a mountain at the end of the metro trainline. There are long taxi cues to take you to the top in ridiculous traffic. Once up there, it's about 1-2km of mountain side that is terraced and covered in teahouses and restaurants along a stream. It has potential to be spectacular but instead the workmanship is shoddy, rubbish is building up in the stream and the stalls are selling cheap imported tat. Despite this, there is a wonderful variety of people drawn here - the walking/mountaineering group who have their retractable poles, ropes, helmets and the earnest hiker look; hipsters making their way to the open areas at the top for shisha; trendoids wanting to be seen, taking selfies in the middle of the stream; and domestic tourists at the end of their sightseeing days.

I was pleased to have an experience true to today's Iran to finish, especially as it was relaxed and gave time for some reflection. I'm very glad we reduced our time in Tehran, it's an entirely charmless city rivalled only by Jakarta in my experience. The traffic is solid and once it gets moving would rival any South East Asian city for chaos and disregard for others. It's the first place in Iran we negotiated with taxi drivers, were overcharged or felt like targets (is walking wallets), unlike what we experienced in the North, there's a sense of competition at the expense of others. Not uncommon in large cities and to be expected but was an uncomfortable transition from the relative ease we had experienced elsewhere.

[warning: the next bit is overly verbose, long winded and really just random thoughts rather than anything thought through... in other words, feel free to skip if entirely!]

I've been reflecting a lot on Iran, what we've seen and trying to put together some coherent thoughts. In no particular order:

- cars and vehicles are great indicators of relative wealth and this was very true across the four towns/cities we spent time in. In most areas and particularly outside Tehran, Paykan rules the roads. The Iranian made vehicles are clearly what happens when your country is embargoed and you quickly need to start producing your own. Personally, I quite like the look of them and if I had the skills to modify engines and gearboxes, would happily take a body home. Most are in terrible condition. From there you have the knock offs - Saba (Saab), Peuge (Peugeot), Jac (Jag) and BWM (BMW). We saw some of these in Tabriz but there were even more in Qazvin as we got closer to Tehran. And then there are the 'brand names' - Kia, Peugeot, Renault, Toyota, etc. These were most common in Tehran. We didn't see many luxury vehicles even in Tehran - and largely these were BMW.

- there's a shoddiness to a lot of the craftsmanship across the country. Whether it was traditional crafts such as silk weaving, knife grinding or carpentry, or modern construction/manufacturing. Everything was just poorly constructed, a lack of care or attention to detail. One of the reasons I loved the caravanserai in Qazvin was the proliferation of local modern designers who were evidence of people putting time, effort and skill into creating objects of beauty. The need for beauty is a human thing but in a culture that reveres poetry and the arts, it feels sad to be buying manufactured crap that will fall apart immediately.

- from what I've read and heard, Iran has a long history of progressiveness and liberal thinking, and it would appear some of this is filtering back into the culture. There was a Guardian article published while we were here about women removing the hijab in cars in Tehran, but we also saw it here. Hijabs are loose and in some cases cursory, ankles/wrists are on show even in more conservative rural areas. No one blinked an eye when in answer to their question about our religion we said 'no religion'. And there is a respect and aspiration for learning and education. English was spoken widely with many speaking 3 or more languages and people studying for higher degrees, or speaking of friends studying abroad

- there is a warm and seemingly genuine love for australia, I've never been gladder for my citizenship. So many we spoke to wistfully expressed a desire to come to Australia anda few were already making plans

- while I've always felt travel highlights the difference between citizenry and government, it was stronger and starker here than I've experienced. It meant the local Iranian people we spent time with would not only distance themselves from government policy but they also pass this on to others. There is a deeply ingrained understanding that these are separate points of view and aren't to be confused (understandable given their history).

- picnicking is the national sport and every Iranian appears to be an elite athlete at it. Carpets, shade cloth, kebab grills, butane, etc. are all lugged up hills and into parks for long lunches. The only other place I've been that comes close is South Korea but even they pale in comparison!

- as a gross generalisation, Iranian women are the most elegant on earth. The attention to detail (matching shoes/trainers to scarves or details in their chameez, scarf tying/folding, mixing of patterns etc) and the pride in appearance leave me shamed

Finally, it's no surprise that gender has been on my mind since being here. I've always found Muslim countries are more visibly male - on the street, on transport, etc. you see more men than women. But this is further confounded due to the dress laws. I've whinged about the scarf and made jokes about it, but in reality it goes deeper than that (of course). While the dress rules are grounded in modesty, the experience of having to follow these rules and wearing the hijab was, for me, constantly distracting and an overt reminder of needing correction.

By constant distraction, I don't mean the irritation of a fly buzzing around and distracting you lightly. I mean the girl in the nightclub in a dress that is too tight and riding up so she's constantly pulling and tugging and playing with her clothes. It's a constant stream of thought that is policing the placement of the fabric - how it is wound around your bag handle, if it's stuck on the chair back, has it dropped off completely, is it choking, etc. Now, I'm the first to admit that some of this would become second nature with longer term use but it's never something women are unaware of. So few carry bags and their hands are often hovering either actively fiddling or ready to catch it if it falls. For me, I've felt this hampered the way I processed where we've been and what we've done. In both my photos and my memories there's a distance, I haven't quite been there. For my photos I've fought this hard to try and really focus and grab opportunities but I'm really feeling it in my memories which feel removed rather than fully lived.

On the other hand, the dress (along with cultural behaviour) have made me more aware of the overt differentiation of being female. That sense that in being female there is something 'not quite right' at best and downright immoral/incorrect/disliked at worst. The dress and behaviours compound as overt symbols and reminders of this 'lesser-ness'. I see it in the women here as well, they are friendly, generous and gracious but shyer, engaging less readily than the men. The men when they approach us speak to Tom directly, glancing at me. In some ways it suits me because it puts me more in the role of observer which is where I'm comfortable... but it also is muting. And it's there in micro-interactions as well. Where western men will often make space for women, here it's men nudging women aside or standing in a way that pushes me into a corner or out of the way. I don't have an answer in terms of which is 'better', there are issues with both - any system that is based on constituted differences rather than mutual respect feels destined for problematic power dynamics to me. But the change from one system (covert) to another (overt) has made me more conscious (for now) of my gender and what that signifies to others.

Finally, it's not that the men we've spoken to have left me out or shown me disrespect - I'd never want that to be misunderstood. In fact most, especially Sharrom and Hosein, went out of their way to open conversations with me or draw me in to what they were talking about with Tom. These observations are based more on the accumulation of things - rather than one off examples.


The last couple of days have seen us settling into Armenian life. Yerevan was a blessed relief after Tehran... cleaner, more charming and easier to walk around. Yerevan is a mix of early Soviet elegance and later Soviet brutalism. All crumbling and fraying at the edges.

We spent a couple of days in Yerevan, going on a walking tour, visiting the Armenian Genocide museum and going out to see nearby monasteries, I think we've started to get a sense of it. A few things stood out pretty quickly -

1 Being the oldest Christian country, monasteries and religion is BIG here

2 Armenia has been disputed ground for centuries and almost always seems to be under the rule of another power

3 Armenia has a serious Mercedes fetish - I've never seen so many in my life

4 And Yerevan takes parks very seriously

Yerevan gave Tom the opportunity for a beer again - though the first one was a significant disappointment. And for me, it was just a wonderful city to walk around and admire. The street life ramps up after dark, every street seems to be lined with outdoor cafes.

^We stumbled across a watermelon festival in one of the many parks

^Wonderful soviet train stations

We also picked up a car - due to confusion our first day wasn't in a Lada *sob* but this was rectified. The car gave us an opportunity to head out to Khor Virap, a nearby monastery. It set against the backdrop of Mt Ararat which is spectacular though with midday sun and a hazy day, it was hard to capture. You'll have to excuse the exposure on these images as well because my little Fuji was struggling in the flat bright light.


Yesterday after having our dear Lada Gaga delivered to the hostel, we headed off to Dilijan via monasteries at Garni and Gerghard.

Garni is from the 1st C BC and is the only of its kind in the region. Armenia had declared itself Christian in 300BC and was the first country to do so. What is left is in relatively good condition, it seems this is thanks to some USAID spent here and at Gerghard.

From there we headed up to Gerghard which is the current favourite when it comes to monasteries... and will be hard to beat! It is set in a cliffside with a whole network of caves. It was extremely busy and I realised I've forgotten what it's like to be surrounded by bus tours!

We stopped at Lake Sevan for lunch where there was another monastery on top of a hill on a spit on the lake. The lake is huge, accounting for 5% of Armenia's land surface.

From there we headed up to Dilijan, to discover that the b&b we booked is more like a homestay than the one in Alamut Valley! It's a lovely family who runs the place, Tom was immediately smitten when they took him up to their 'basins' to get some trout for the dinner BBQ! We've been plied with so much homegrown/made food, including a Linden leaf tea which I wish I could have all the time.

And today we've wandered around an abandoned amusement park, visited a lake and now we're just relaxing at the house.


As you'll have read in Tom's post, I followed in his footsteps by getting gastro. Although unlike him, I didn't choose a day when I could lie in a bed and wish death upon myself. Oh no, instead I chose to do it the day we drove and drove and drove down some terrible, terrible roads. I don't have (m)any photos from that day except the videos Tom has already shared. But I will say, don't fear... the roads have got worse since then as well.

The day after the first epic drive, we headed to Vardzia down yet another glorified sheep path that clung to the sides of a mountain and zig zagged so tightly that the GPS couldn't decide what part of the road we were on. Vardzia is a cave monastery full of ascetic monk cells but also remaining frescoes and the remnants of fuller living quarters. It was largely abandoned after the Ottoman takeover in the sixteenth century but in the past 10 years it has started to operate as a monastery again, though we didn't see any monks.

From there we went on to Kutaisi where we rounded off our day of Christianity by going to see the Kutaisi pillar where a monk lives on offerings at the top of a pillar of rock.

We lucked upon another hostel that made us dinner from their home grown produce which was one of my favourite meals of the trip so far - not that I could eat much!

^using Tom for scale


So we had had little hints over the first couple of days in Georgia that this a country that seems to like its rules and procedures. At the border, Tom had followed the car ahead of us into the Georgian passport area and both cars had passed to the left of an empty guard post. The border guard standing near the passport office angrily told both of us to turn around and come back through on the right hand side of the empty post... despite the fact we ended up in exactly the same spot as we had been.

At Vardzia, we paid for and were given tickets at the booth and then 2m on another man checked our tickets and let us proceed.

Well today we were going to find out that this emphasis on protocol and bureaucracy is ingrained to an extent we've never seen before. And I've travelled in India where they really do love their protocols and procedures.

But I am jumping ahead slightly. We started the day off slowly, heading into the city to check out the produce market (unfortunately the fruit was not as good as it has been in Armenia and Iran). From there we went to the Prometheus Cave which is the biggest cave found in Georgia. It was discovered in 1984 (though I have some trouble believing no one came across them before then) and has since been explored and opened as a 'natural wonder' of Georgia. It is certainly large, the walking tour covers roughly 1km through the main body of the caves and the larger caverns are immense.

While the cave was impressive, it has been 'dolled up' for tourism with brightly coloured neon lights and piped music making for a very odd experience. There was a sad boat ride at the end that really just followed a tunnel for 300m barely pausing so you couldn't really really see anything.

After this, we ended up on a 3hr diversion pursuing a look at the Okshan Canyon, involving the worst roads to date (neither of us have ever seen anything like them) and a bureaucracy mad ranger who scuttled us at the last hurdle. It started off relatively harmlessly, with a 'maps.me special' path sending us down gravelly roads with tight corners and steep gradients. Nothing we hadn't seen before on this trip, though the rocks were both larger and looser making it reasonably hairy.

After taking us down to the river and trying to send us across a pedestrian swing bridge (even Lada Gaga couldn't take that on), we finally ended up back on relatively normal roads (by Georgian standards). We passed a small village before finding a turn off from the bitumen onto dirt that would lead to the canyon. After navigating barely visible tracks we finally found the way down. The first nudge of the nose down the 'road' it looked rocky but potentially do-able but within a couple of metres both of us were silently praying the road would be a loop and we wouldn't have to come back. The road was tight and the rocks so loose that there was nothing to do but commit to it as we went down incredibly steep gradients on rocks that wouldn't stop moving. There was a slight reprieve going through deep puddles and mud before an even steeper, looser descent. It was a nightmare, especially as the 4wd system (like trying to get her into reverse) is extremely finicky and at that stage Tom hadn't been able to turn it on despite much playing with the lever so all he had was the low range.

Despite all of this, we did make it to the car park for the canyon, greeted by some bemused and at times amazed Georgians! We gladly rocked up to the pathway that would lead us down into the canyon to be told we needed a ticket. The ranger spoke no English so called someone who did, we politely pointed out that the ticket booth was empty but were told we needed to go to the visitors centre. We had passed no visitors centre so asked if we could go through and pay on the way out... or pay the ranger... or...

We went back and forth but there was no budging Georgian bureaucracy, the visitors centre we were told was 1km away back up the horrific road we'd come in on and we'd have to go back get a ticket and then come down again! We tried everything but there was no budging him.

We trudged back to the car with the faintest glimmer of hope that maybe we'd somehow missed it on the way down and headed off. Going back was worse than coming in. The Pajero ahead of us was sliding so badly on the first steep ascent we all had to reverse back and start again. Then there were 4wd and tour buses coming in the other direction that sent us reversing back down these impossibly tight laneways. It felt never ending. Thankfully in this, Tom finally managed to sweet talk Lada Gaga into 4wd and between that and low range he managed to get us out.

We never found the visitors centre, though it must be there somewhere. And neither of us could face it all again (even being a passenger was stressful). It was gutting that after 3 hours spent finding it and then the horror of the road, the ranger drunk on what little power he has wouldn't let us in or help us out.

It made for a quiet drive north to Mestia, now pushed for time and still on shitty roads where 60km feels like highway speed. This is further hampered by the sheer number of cows... turns out bureaucracy is not the only thing Georgia shares with India. There are cows on every road, sitting, lying, standing nonchalantly flicking their tails and sending clouds of flies into the air. It's an extra little surprise to find yourself facing 6 cows, 2 lying in each lane and the standing around so you have to weave in between them.

Needless to say, finally arriving in Mestia was an amazing feeling. Especially as we were greeted st the door by two gorgeous puppies vying for attention!

^spot the photo bomber


Today has been a bit of a break from the intensity of the past few days. We had a late start and then walked up to the nearby glacier where we met a lovely Swiss couple who will come with us to Ushguli tomorrow.

Apart from an incredibly disappointing museum in one of the blood feud towers there's little else to report... I'll let the photos do the talking for this one!

^the torrential river is glacier melt while the shallow overflow is the path


<ADD LOCATION: Zagara Pass>

Tom's description of the drive to Ushguli and down to Kutaisi says it all really, so I'll just add some of my photos. So get ready for some self indulgence...

All the above photos are of Mestia and the nearby glacier we drove up to. The rain and cold and wet didn't make it an easy walk but the landscape was spectacular. The village is small but seems to be growing fast - it would seem there are many families who are banking on the tourists coming in larger numbers when the road is finished.

The next photos will be the Zagara Pass drive...

And some gratuitous shots of wildflowers for mum - these were head height!

^As we drove down out of the mountains, there were small farming communities, remote and, I'm sure, cut off for much of the year. This was the first time we saw many horses and, pleasingly, they were in great condition. I'm sure the heavy snowfalls make the horses invaluable. They were also cutting hay by scythe and the trucks we saw were 1960s beasts. Getting produce to market seems like an epic undertaking in this context. And it was in one of these blink and you'll miss it hamlets, that we saw this statue which seems to be one of the last remaining of Stalin


My expectations of Georgia were largely centred around it being a former Soviet state, I hadn't considered the longer history. I still don't know very much of Georgian history but I think today helped put some of it in perspective. Our drive back to Tbilisi took us through Gori which is the town where Stalin was born and then Upstiltske where there was an abandoned cave village.

The Stalin museum in Gori had actually been under construction when he died. The first thing you see is a large almost Mausoleum structure which is a shelter for the house Stalin was born in. They brought it here and reconstructed it. It's small, it was shared with the landlord, Stalin's parents rented the front room and his father had space in the basement for his cobbling business.

The museum also houses Stalin's train carriage as well as a host of paintings, photographs, documentation and State gifts sent to Stalin from other countries. An English guide was needed as none of the signs include English. It's an odd atmosphere - the showcasing of State gifts seems like an attempt for validation or legitimacy. And yet there's also an attempt to balance the old propaganda (or maybe that was an attempt by an English speaking guide).

^young Stalin, you handsome devil

^I'm sure there's a photo series 'Selfies with Stalin'

Walking around the small bit of Gori that we did revealed the usual Soviet apartment blocks but these quickly gave way to a beautifully restored Old Town.

We had planned on stopping in Mtskhete but decided to make a slight detour to Upstiltske which turned out to be an unexpected surprise. Unfortunately there was no English information, and so I can't pretend to be intelligent and offer much explanation. It was a village carved into the rock with evidence of wine cellars, temple and kitchens. There is a chapel that has been built on the site but the real pleasure was in the freedom we had just to roam. With no fences or cordoned off areas, we could just clamber over the rocks as we wanted. I'm aware this comes with a cost to the site, but it was amazing having that freedom.

^a more recent abandoned village in the flood plain

In the end, we drove back to Tbilisi rather than stopping in Mtskhete for more monasteries... Heathens that we are


Lada Gaga's last day allowed us to add a bonus expedition to our itinerary - a drive up the Georgian Military Highway to the Kazbegi area.

The drive is beautiful, following the river and lakes north towards the Russian border. We ended up again surrounded by peaks over 5000m though fewer glaciers from what we could see. We ended up going out to Trusso Valley, seeing how far Lada Gaga could go on terrible roads and, as usual, she took us to the end - a tiny border post with Russia overlooked by yet another ruined fort.

The Trusso Valley seems to have three things to check out - (abandoned) villages, geysers and mountains. The geyser and springs left beautiful salt patterns on the ground, the mountains surrounding the valley are lushly green and there is still a hamlet or two and what looked like a monastery or convent being built. Oh, and the cows... who were still to be found filling highways and roads.

The highlight of Trusso Valley was something we'd heard another traveller talking about but then hadn't been able to find on maps or in guidebooks. We did find a stock image though... and that proved the key! We'd been told about a 'soda pool', a naturally carbonated spring in the valley. When we stopped to see the geyser at the wrong location (thanks maps.me) we saw a small pond across the river that I thought looked like the stock image we'd found. On our way back through the valley, we found a foot bridge which let us cross the river before scrambling along the (very) steep hillside to get to the pool.