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In the footsteps Of Marco Polo Report 2

Samarkand 30th May 2008

We travel not for trafficking alone

By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned

For lust of knowing what should not be known

We take the Golden Road to Samarkand

Whilst it does not seem like it, it was six weeks ago we were in Venice. The ferry to Igoumenista was excellent and having disembarked at 1am and there being no port formalities, not even a passport check, we were quickly on our way to Kalambaka and Meteora. Two days later we past Mount Olympus, shrugged in cloud, and continued past Thessalonika to Asprovalta and finally Alexandroupolis near the Turkish border.

Just three hours beyond the border was Istanbul where we stayed for 4 days in a parking area right in the centre next to the bus station. A tour of the Blue Mosque, Topkapi and the bazaar, where Judith had to buy appropriate clothes for Iran, plus necessary shopping ensued. We left Europe via the Sultan Emit toll bridge and continued to Ankara and onwards to eastern Anatole. Before entering Iran we camped for 2 nights under Mt Ararat and ventured out in a dolmus to see some of the special sites.

Iran was slow to enter with most of the day spent at the border. But once we were there it was totally different to what we had expected. People were very friendly and keen to talk, many speaking excellent English, and even on the roads passing traffic would slow down and wave enthusiastically. Our first stop was at Tabriz and you quickly notice that most cars are old Hillman Hunters in fact that one model of car is said to be responsible for 40% of Iran’s pollution. On the good side a tank full of diesel cost less than 1 euro or 80p but it takes an hour to get to the front of the queue. We continued to Tehran where we camped in a park above the city with great panoramic views. Having visited all the sites we continued south to Esfahan, where many of Iran’s greatest treasures are to be found. From there we headed north across the great salt desert towards the Turkmenistan border.

Entry into this former soviet dictatorship was painfully slow and took most of the day. Bribes had to be paid to various officials to ensure you got the appropriate stamp to move on to the next stage this was of course in addition to the entry fee, diesel tax, compulsory insurance and disinfection charges that had to be paid in US dollars. A lengthy argument took place because some of the group refused to pay the 15$ bribe to the customs officials but they gave in when is time to close the border. Ashgabat must be one of the strangest capitals in the world, more akin to Disneyland with its large marble buildings and gold statues which initially look quite impressive until you get close and see the poor construction and maintenance. It is clearly a country of a few very rich and many very poor. Having driven north to Mary and Merv we stayed an extra day because of visa problems. The Chinese had issued the necessary visas for the entire group but had subsequently decided that we could not enter Tibet Province nor could we travel along the road which was due to carry the Olympic torch. So we now could not enter China until June 30th which meant we needed extended visas for Uzbekistan and Krygkzstan so more bureaucracy and fees.

Compared with our two earlier border crossing it was a pleasure to enter Uzbekistan despite the delays and need for more bribes before we could leave Turkmenistan. We are part way through a 3 week stay in this our second former soviet republic. We had a great stay in Buchara and are now in Samarkand which must be one of the real highlights of our trip. Yesterday among other things we visited the site of grave of Daniel which of course had an adjacent Lion’s den; this is a very moderate Muslim country with pork and alcohol widely available.

This posting is short because of problems finding an internet connection that works; a more detailed account will be available later. So for now we continue to swelter in the 35 degrees heat of Samarkand.

A bientot.