switzerland - iran overland 2010


From April to July 2010 I spent three months traveling by train and bus from Switzerland to Iran. The main focus of the trip were the following countries: Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and Iran.

Deutsche Version (about the German version)

Aufgrund einer erhoeten Nachfrage nach Englischen Texten, werde ich diesen Reisebericht nur in Englischer Sprache verfassen. Es gibt mittlerweile eine ganze Anzahl Programme welche Texte automatisch uebersetzen. Das Resultat ist manchmal noch ganz lustig... Also wer eine deutsche Version moechte, kann meinen englischen Text kopieren und zum Beispiel hier uebersetzen lassen: translate.google

1. Leg: Zuerich - Graz - Maribor

I left Ormalingen on Friday 16. April. In Zuerich I had to get my photo-book repaired and afterwards had some lunch in my favorite Indian Snack bar called Friends Corner. After having had a beer in the BQM, I went to the train station to board the over-night train to Graz (Austria). The journey was quiet and I arrived in Graz the following morning around 7 o'clock. I droped my bag at the hostel and enjoyed the sunny day walking through the old town, up to the Schlossberg and through the Stadtpark. For lunch I had traditional Austrian food called Knoedel. Due to the upcoming elections in the region, there are propaganda speeches everywhere in town. To one of them I listened for around 20 minutes it was hilarious and at the same time quite worrisome - the speaker was Barbara Rosenkranz - a very conservative women...
In the evening I was invited for dinner by Zrinka and Matthias, the former I had met in the train to Graz, in their flat-share. The appartement was great! Rooms up to 4 meters in height, wonderful wooden floors and delicious food - thanks guys! Afterwords we went out to a concert in the Eschenlaube, a nice little bar. The band called the Rosetti Sisters played an interesting mixture of rock, blues and reggae. On Sunday morning I left Graz on the train to Maribor (Slowenia). The trip was only 1 hour. In Maribor I checked into the Lollipop Guesthouse. It looks like it will rain shortly so I decided to write some text and to spend the rest of the day reading!
Actually the weather cleared up so I walked through the little city center. On Sundays it seems very quiet here but there are nice things to look at - some old buildings, churches and the oldest vine in the world. It is more than 400 years old and still produces grapes. Monday morning I took a path to a little hill called the pyramid, from up there there is a great view across whole Maribor and the surrounding vineyards. In the nearby lakes, many turtles enjoy the sun that is shining brightly again today!

2. Leg: Belgrade

The train ride from Maribor to Belgrade was not the most comfortable: first of all I took a slow train from Maribor to Zidani Most. There I waited for the express train to Belgrade. During the night we were woken up four times by customs, exiting Slowenia, entering Croatia, exiting Croatia and entering Serbia. Also it was very hot inside the train. In Belgrade I found the Backpackers Lounge, a very nice and welcoming hostel located in the very middle of town.
After having checked in and done some laundry, I went for a walk in the city, had a look at the amazing fortress and some parks and government buildings. Back in the hostel I had dinner with some Aussies. The disco where we wanted to go does not open until midnight, we therefore just go for some beers in a nice bar near the hostel. The next day I have another long walk in the city, this time I visit the second biggest Orthodox church in the world - St Sava Church. They are renovating it so the whole church is full of bulldozers and construction work. In the afternoon I get the train ticket to Thessaloniki (Greece).

3. Leg: Belgrade to Greece

The train for Thessaloniki leaves at 7.50. The countryside outside Belgrade would be lovely but unfortunately there is a lot of rubbish everywhere. However, some of the colored dots turn out to be pheasants! There are many of them. It also seems that there has been much rain recently as all the rivers we pass and cross are heavily flooded. The train is quite comfortable, one annoying thing is that some people do not respect the non-smoking sign... but o.k.
In Skopje, the capital of Macedonia most people leave the train, that's when I change to a compartment with six seats. I meet four Macedonians that tell me some facts about their lifes, and what they do. Driving through Macedonia leaves the impression of a nice country with beautiful landscapes. In some of the villages storks breed upon poles, furthermore there is a lot of wild gorse and lilac that grows along the train tracks, this yellow-purple combination is just stunning! Sometimes the whole train smells of lilac as there is so much growing in the wild here. At 20.00 the train arrives at the border to Greece, it is still 18 degrees warm - seems to become warmer down south! About two and a half hours later I arrive in Thessaloniki. As there is no hostel in this city, I take a hotel near the train station.

4. Leg: Greece

The next morning I take the train to Athens, due to a strike the train is almost fully booked so I have to travel 1st class. However, this proves to be very comfortable! The train ride is very nice passing along the cost, through mountains, through landscapes full of cypresses and olive plantations. By talking to people I have encountered some drastic problems due to Greece's current economic situation - in the train I meet a telecommunication specialist who went bankrupt due to insolvency of some of his clients, so now he works for some other company that is again fighting against the same thing...
In Athens I take the 15 minute walk to the youth hostel - it turns out to be 35 minutes. Once there I am not that happy with the room (some people seem to be living here for months and there are also various fishes in 1.5 liter pet-bottles as aquariums) but due to the temperature outside I do not feel like further walking! The YH lies in a nice suburb in which all the streets are lined with orange, lemon and olive trees.
The next day (meanwhile it is Saturday, 24th April) I want to wander around Athens and visit the main sights like for example the Acropolis. But after having found out that the ferry to Chios is not running and the one to Samos only every second day I have to rethink my plans. On Monday there will be a strike of the ferries, so if I do not take it today, I will have to stay in Athens for 5 more days... I choose to cancel my sightseeing in Athens and book the ferry to Samos on Saturday evening.
The ferry is huge! The trip very smooth and so I arrive in Vathy (Samos) at 5 o'clock in the morning. Samos is the birthplace of some important Greek philosophers and mathematicians, so I decide to take the 18 euro room at Pythagoras Hotel. The room has a balcony from which I can see part of the village and the Mediterranean sea! The closest pebble beach is only 100 meters away so I go to the beach, then stroll through the village, do some washing and relaxing. The next I rent a car to explore the island. First I go to Kokari, then further inland to Mitilinii. In Mitilinii they are rebuilding the main street so the cars have to pass through very narrow streets. Sometimes I just hope to get past the next corner before another car comes the opposite direction... The island is very hilly, full of olive orchards and there are also a lot of vineyards! It is a very beautiful place. It is however quite misty today so the views are not splendid. From Mitilinii I go on to Phytagorio, as the name implies the birthplace of Phytagoras. It is a nice little village where I enjoy once more the Greek bakeries!
After lunch I continue my trip to Psili Ammos (Ammos beach). It is a very nice sandy beach in the southeast of Samos. In my guidebook it says one needs to be there early to find a spot but because the season has not started yet I am the only one on the whole beach. Although the water is still pretty cold, swimming in the sea is just great! Via Karavgi and Paleokastro I drive back to Vathy. In the evening I have dinner in a nice Greek taverna (a traditional restaurant).
On Tuesday (27th April) I take the ferry from Samos to Kusadasi (Turkey).

5. Leg: Turkey Part 1

First of all I would like to say, wow! Turkey is great!!! Since I arrived in Turkey, I really enjoy this trip. It all started when I arrived in Kusadasi, on the boat I met some Turkish guys that lived in Germany and are now holidaying in Kusadasi - in an All-inclusive resort. We were talking the whole trip and that kept me from getting sick on the boat as most of the other tourists! In Kusadasi, a town at the beach, there are many tourists due to big cruise ships that arrive there every day. But I still found a nice hotel located in the middle of the town. The next morning I took the minibus to Selcuk, only one hour away. The reason for going to Selcuk was a historic place called Ephesos. The Greek and Romans built this place some 2000 years ago. In the early morning there arn not many tourists so it is really nice to stroll among the ruins, the theaters and so on. In Selcuk I stayed at Nur Pansion, a family owned business. The first day I went to the local market to buy some vegies to make some sort of salad - I had zucchini flowers filled with goat cheese and tomato-spring onion stew - just great!
The next day I continued my trip to Pamukkale, a place where the water contains very much chalk, this caused a whole mountain slope to become white, forming structures that look like balconies! There was quite a crowd but due to a sudden thunderstorm they suddenly dissapeared! Also the hostel where I stayed was great, very friendly people and good food. From there I continued to Konya, a place rarely appearing on a tourist itinary but from my point of view definitively worth a stay!
Konya is known for its dervishes, these are people belonging to a sort of religion founded by Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi in the 13th century. Every Saturday evening there is a show at the Melana Culture Center, so I went there. There were about 2500 people! There was some Sufi-Music and some dancing of the Dervishes - wonderful how they whirl around and around! Also the mausoleum of Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi is a wonderful building! It lies in the middle of Konya and was just opposite of my hotel.
The next day I take the bus from Konya to Sultanhani Karawanserei. In this village there is an old Karawanserei where in former days the caravans could stay for a few days to strengthen the camels and the traders on their way on the silk road. It is a beautiful building with an amazing architecture and a nice church! I meet a Czech couple that travels by hitchhiking, together we go and have some wonderful pide in a small pide-salun located just next to the Karawanserei.
From Sultanhani I continue to Goereme, a village located in Cappadocia, a region that is well known for its curious rock-formations. Already during the bus ride it is amazing to see all the rock-pillars, valleys, houses in rocks and so on! Also the scenery is quite spectacular with the snow capped extinct volcano Mount Erciyes rising in the background. In Goereme I stay four nights, the first day I go on a minibus tour with 5 other people, we visit Uchisar Castle, a former stronghold of armies located in a mountain, we then continue to the love-valley, the Open Air Museum with many underground churches and at the end of the day we visit a pottery factory. I also try my best to form a nice pot but it is too tricky for me so my pot first gets a horrible shape and then finally breaks - lol. The evening I spend with a friend I met on the tour walking through the amazing scenery trying to get some nice photos at sunset and enjoying a good conversation.
The next day I go on another tour, this time we visit the Underground City, an amazing 8 stories underground complex that is estimated to have been a hideaway for whole armies during time of invasion of foreign occupants! Then we go for a nice hike in the Ilahara Valley and enjoy a good lunch at the lovely river bed. After a visit to Pigeon Valley and a rock-carving shop we return happily to Goereme.
The next day I sleep long and with some people I met randomly I go hiking, we walk for almost 4 hours through the bush and find our way to White Valley. Along the way there are many lovely flowers, we also see some turtles, a fox and a bird called a golden oriole. After the hike we hitchhike back to Goereme and the first car - a pickup - tells us to hop in the back - a nice feeling!
The nicest thing I do while in Cappadocia is the balloon flight the next morning - a truely amazing experience, thanks Estela :-) The balloon hovers across the amazing scenery and it is just marvelous and impressive!

6. Leg: Turkey Part 2

From Goereme I take the bus to Kayseri, a city located at the foot of Mount Erciyes. The afternoon I spend exploring the city and its sights, nice old buildings dating back to the time of the Seldjuks, old Mosques and Karawansereis and also a fortress and some watchtowers. In a park I am served tea and cake by children of a family that are having a family pick nick in the park! The people here are very nice even when communication is getting harder - Kayseri is not really a touristic place... Apart from enjoying the warm weather, the sun and the sights, I also find some time to upload some pictures and to update my travel report :-)
from Kayseri I took the bus to Sivas, a city known for its wonderful buildings from the Seljuk period (13th century) apart from that there was not that much to see.
From Sivas I was intending to take the train to Erzurum but that train only leaves once per day - at 3 o'clock in the morning... so I decided to change my plan and took the bus to a little city called Amasya. On the bus to I met two young men that were studying in Kayseri and were visiting their family in Amasya. They invited me to have a drink in a bar on the river - nice to meet some people again that speak some English. The last few days I sometimes felt a little lonely because I did not meet any other travelers and people here in the northeast of Turkey speak no English.
Amasya is a nice little city with a lot of old mosques and a nice fortress up on the hill. In the afternoon I walked through the city and visited most of the sights, the market and enjoyed walking along the river! Later on I met my new friends again in their bar, it was a funny and nice evening that I enjoyed a lot!
The next day I continued my trip to Giresun. Giresun is a city on the coast of the black sea and famous for its hazelnuts. An amazing 60 percent of the worldwide production of these nuts comes from the area around here! So you can imagine how the bus ride looked like: black sea on the left, hills with hazelnut bushes on the right :-)
Giresun is a busy city with a lot of nice boutiques, steep streets with great views of the sea, nice cafes and good restaurants. Also the hotel I stayed at was located just next to the sea and had very pleasant and quiet rooms. I spent two nights in Giresun, spent the days with walking through the city, to the hill overlooking the bay, writing letters and postcards, walking along the beach at sunset, having a drink in the evening - it was just a nice place to spend some time!
If traveling to Georgia, Trabzon is the place to catch the buses so this was my next stop after Giresun. Trabzon is a very hectic city with a big port from where many goods are transported by truck to the various countries in the Caucasus. So you can imagine, a lot of traffic, many trucks, many people making business and so on - a very busy place! In the afternoon I went for a walk to the Hagia Sophia, a church that was built around 1240. Later on in 1460, the church was converted to a mosque by Mehmed the second. In recent history it served as a hospital and was restored as a museum in the 1960s. It is a wonderful building located on a hill overlooking the city of Trabzon. Inside the building there are wonderful and very colorful frescoes from the 13th century. On the way to the Hagia Sophia I met a man at a tea house that took me there with his car. After I visited the museum he insisted on me visiting his home and his family. It was really nice to be invited to someones home, and although we could not communicate a lot my little Russian was very helpful because he had worked in Russia for many years. His wife, from Azerbaijan, also spoke Russian so I spent the whole afternoon and evening with them, enjoying wonderful food like soup (yes, I can eat coriander now :-)), wine leaves stuffed with rice and grapes, borek, salad and baklava!
After a good nights sleep in a nice hotel room in Trabzon (with view across the city and the black sea) I continued my travel to Georgia. At the bus station I found a bus that went all the way to Batumi (in Georgia) meaning that I did not have to take a bus to the border, do the border crossing and find a bus to Batumi so that was very handy. The bus ride was very nice again - outside of Trabzon the hills were very green, covered in tea plantations. From this region (around a place called Rize) all the Turkish tea originates. The country looked a little bit like in Asia, with the hills full of tea plantations, it was very nice! The border crossing was very easy, everybody had to leave the bus and take all the luggage, walk through the customs and go back on the bus to Batumi. The guard at the border was very nice, after having looked very carefully at my passport and all the visas, she looked at me and said : Hello Martin, welcome to Georgia!

7. Leg: Georgia Part 1

Batumi is a great city! And it will be even nicer in a few years from now. They is a lot of renovation and construction going on, due to this about half of the streets are open and there is a lot of dust and dirt! Along the beach there are various restaurants and hotels that are being built and a lot of the old buildings are being equipped with lights in order to light them at night.
The next day I go to Gonio where I visit an ancient Roman fortress that is in amazing condition! There are many lizzards that like their picture taken and the weather is very hot and humid. Back in Batumi I take the marschroutka (a minivan with defined route, it stops whenever people wave it down at the side of the road and it stops whenever someone wants to get out) to Zugdidi. From there I continue with another marschroutka to Mestia, a town in Svaneti, a mountaineous region of Georgia. The road up to Mestia is in quite bad condition and so we take some 5 hours for the 140 kilometers. On the way we stop once to have some food (Chebureki and Khachapuri, pastry with meat or cheese) and another two stops to have some vodka (including the driver...).
Svaneti is a region in the north of Georgia, and the only region that was never taken by any enemy. This is most likely due to the very hard way to get there. From the north it is protected by the Caucasus mountains that tower up to over 5000 meters and from the South the only way to get there is via a very high pass and very narrow valleys.
In Mestia I go to Nino Ratianis guesthouse, there are also other travellers there and it is a very nice and welcoming place. All visitors have dinner together in the living room of the family. In the next morning I explore the village, there are many of the old Svan towers overlooking the village, these towers were built to observe the valley and to be able to see intruders from a distance, also they were used to live in, to store goods, as churches and as archives for precious religious items that were brought here from the lowlands druing times of invasion. At the end of the valley there are very high mountains, still full of snow, not covered with skilifts or hotels, a wonderful sight! In the afternoon I go hiking to a viewpoint overlooking the valley, on the way up there are many different sorts of flowers and birds and on the top the trail is still covered with about 10cm of snow!
In the evening a bus arrives at our guesthouse. It travels with 22 people from london to darwin, taking 6 months. The next day they have various tours and it happens that the tour to Ushguli has a spare seat that I can hop on. Ushguli is another 45 kilometers from Mestia, it is the last village in the valley and one of the highest inhabited villages in the region (2200 meters above sealevel). Since 1996 Ushguli is part of the UNESCO world heritage due to its nice setting and the many old stone buildings and Svan towers. When walking through the village Darrel and me (Darrel is from England and part of the before mentioned tour) are invited for lunch at some local home. We get fresh homemade yoghurt, cheese, khatchapuri, jam, bread and so on - just great and wonderful!
I spend another two days in Mestia enjoying the wonderful setting, relaxing in the garden of the guesthouse, listening to the birds, writing and just holidaying! From Mestia I then to back to Zugdidi, on the marschroutka I meet Andreas and Thomas from Germany, they are also heading west and they decide to take the overnight train to Tbilissi. I join them and after spending some lovely hours in Cafes and Beergardens in Zugdidi we board the train to Tbilissi around 21 PM. The ten hour journey is not very comfortable, it is very shaky, the train stops every few kilometers and it is very hot in our compartment. So I am happy but also tired when we arrive in Tbilissi at 7 the next morning.
In Tbilissi I stay at the same guesthouse than Andreas and Thomas, Dodos Homestay. The first day I spend walking around the city and doing some washing. In the afternoon I take a taxi to the address of my former penfriend. Lewani lived in Suchumi (Abchazia) with her husband and children when we started writing to eachother, due to the Abchazia conflict they moved to Tbilissi. Since 1996 I had not heard from them. It took some time to find the right building but one of the neighbors recognized the photo I showed around and brought me to a house. Lewani and her family live in Moscow since 10 years but I met the family of her sister Jeanette and her parents. It was somehow touching to sit in a living room in Tbilissi looking at the photoalbum of somebody and finding a picture of me inside! The family was very nice and invited me for dinner, also the next two days I will have dinner with them, typical Georgian hospitality - amazing and very nice!
The next days I spend sightseeing, taking pictures of the beautifully lit buildings at night, visiting a Georgian bath and so on!

8. Leg: Georgia Part 2

From Tbilissi I took the marschroutka to Sighnaghi, a city in the Kacheti region in the east of Georgia. The region here is wellknown for its wine and so the drive was mostly through hills covered with wineyards. The traditional Georgian wine is made in a different way than elsewhere, the fresh grape juice is poured into clay amphores that are burried in the ground. Then they are sealed with clay and left for several months. During this time the grape juice is turned into wine. Also the grape juice is used to make all kinds of sweets, for example walnuts are put on a string and covered with a thik mixture of sugar and grape juice, this is then let to dry and sold as sticks.
Sighnaghi is a very pretty little village set on a hill overlooking the vast Alazany valley. At the other side of the valley the snowcapped moutains of the Caucasus range can be seen - wonderful! I stay at another homestay with the Zandarashvili family, they have a house with a terrasse overlooking the valley, the mother and grandmother prepare wonderful dinner and the rooms have windows overlooking the wineyards! One is waken up by the song of birds and the sun, no cars, no traffic, just great!
From Sighnaghi I continue my trip to Telavi, there I hire a taxi for a day to visit the various monasteries around the city. First I visit Gremi, a castle and church from the 16th century located at the foot of the mountains, next I visit Alaverdi cathedral, Ikhalto, Dzveli Shuamta and Akhali Shuamta monasteries. For lunch the driver stops at a little snach-bar type of restaurant where I can watch the cook prepare fresh Khingalis. These are dumplings filled with a meat/parsley/onion mixture and then cooked in the steam.
Back in Tbilissi I spend some time at Dodos homestay and relaxing at Lake Tbilissi. Then I continue to Borjomi, wellknown for its (very salty and for my taste quite unpleasent) mineral water. In the marschroutka I meet Sergo and Badzi, they are both on their way to their datchas (holiday houses) where they spend the weekend with their families or do some renovation.
Sergo invites me to stay at his datcha and also offers me to show me around Borjomi. In Borjomi we take a taxi to his datcha and have some lunch, then we have a look at the village, the mineral water springs, the water park and wander around in the hills to a nice little monastery. On the way to the monastery we pass a big house in the middle of the forest that is in a horrible condition but inhabited by many people. They are all IDPs (internally displaced persons), that had to leave Abchazia during the Abchasia-Georgia conflict some years ago. Many thousands of them live now in old sowjet-era buildings in the middle of nowhere, without job, clean water and future!
Back at the datcha a truck full of gravel is delivered to Sergo. He wants to renovate the house and make some new walls. Because the truck can not enter the courtyard, the truck drops all the gravel outside on the road... Luckily some neighbors are around to help move the load with shovels and wheelbarrows. After the hard work, all the people that helped are invited for dinner by Sergo, potatoes, chicken, salad, bread, sausages, home made pickeled cucumbers (from his wife) and so on! Of course the 3 liter plastic bottle of home made wine may not lack! It is a very nice evening with lots of typical Georgian toasting (before each glass, a toastmaster proposes a toast to or on something, this can take many minutes as the toasts are very poetic and detailed), a very nice procedure even when I only understand a third or so! After the meal we play backgammon (here known as Nardi), after having lost in the afternoon, now the luck is on my side and I win against all the neighbors.
After a good night's sleep I leave to Tsagveri, the village where Badzi has his datcha. Badzi is professor of informatics and artificial intelligence in Tbilissi and speaks perfect French, this makes communication easier! With Thomas, a friend of his (and former Georgian chess master) and a driver we visit various sights, a nearby monastery where we meet Joannes, a monk. Then we drive to Bakuriani, a wellknown Georgian ski resort high up in the mountains. The drive is very scenic and nice. Bakuriani itself is full of hotels and touris stuff - so not so nice. On the way back to Tsagveri we stop at three mineral water springs, the water here contains tremendous amounts of iron so the whole soil near the well is read. I find it tastes horrible but in summertime one has to wait for several hours to fill the bottles as so many people come here!
Back in Tsagveri we have lunch in the garden of Thomas, he is a retired factory manager and has 50 beehives in his garden. This is how he makes a living! The food prepared by the wife of Badzi is again wonderful! And also the toasts and the poems - unforgetable how kind and how thoughtful they are.
In the afternoon I leave by marschroutka to Borjomi where I catch another marschroutka to Achalziche, a city near the border to Armenia. In Achalziche I stroll through the city but there is not that much to see and do here, so spend the evening at a local restaurant enjoying once again great Georgian food (I order lobiani (a pastry filled with bean-paste) and Acheruli (a bread-like pizza with cheese and egg)). It is great and my way of saying goodbye to Georgia! I had a great time in this wonderful country meeting many lovely and warmhearted people, enjoying great food, nice mountain views, cities, good wine and so on!

9. Leg: Armenia Part 1

The drive from Achalziche to Gyumri in Armenia was very spectacular! First the marschroutka drove along a narrow valley with a nice river, the paddocks were full of red poppy flowers and a purple variety of clover. Together with the yellow dandelion flowers this made a very nice sight! In the narrow valley there were also many old castles that make the countryside very pleasent.
Climbing further up towards the border (it is located about 2000 meters above sealevel), the trees got less and less and the villages smaller and smaller. In the villages up here people use a mixture of straw and com menure to make briks that they dry in the sun. These bricks they use in winter time for heating. Also many old buildings (I think most of them are animal stables) are covered with earth and grass is growing on them, I guess this is a good insulation. Amazingly there are many inhabited stork nests in the villages, I wonder where they find food because there is still some snow lying around.
The border crossing was very easy - so now: welcome to Armenia!

10. Leg: Armenia Part 2

In Gyumri I try to find a guesthouse recommended in my guidebook but the citymap is not that good. So I ask two women sitting in a small container selling bread next to the road. One of them asks me how much I would pay at the guesthouse and then says that she would host me for the same amount! Jeanette seems nice and we walk to here home, she lives with her daughter and 4 beautiful cats (3 Siam and one other). The daughter Nara and a friend of hers show me through the city. There is a nice Cathedral Yot Verk at the main square but most of the old buildings have been destroyed by a horrible earthquake in 1988. In the evening we have dinner at my new home - salad, potatoes, sauerkraut and chicken-onion rissoles. The next day I wander through the city and visit various sights like an old russian army church, an old fortress from where one has a nice view over the city and te statue of Mother Armenia that stands on a nearby hill. Also I find a nic Jazz Cafe whith a nice view over the main square, there I write my diary and enjoy the nice weather.
From Gyumri I take the marschroutka to Yerevan, the drive takes two and a half hours and goes through wonderful landscapes, grassy lowlands and green hills, rivers and small villages. In Yerevan I can stay at the ArBeS Medical Center, they have wonderful guest rooms that they rent mainly to doctors from Switzerland when they do voluntary work in Armenian hospitals. I get the rooms because I know some doctors here in Yerevan, they were studying in Zurich and were working in our group at the Children's Hospital. In the evening I meet Astghik (one of the doctors) and her husband, they show me some of the sights in the city: the Haghtanak Park again with a huge statue of Mother Armenia, from the park one has a great view across the city and in a distance the snow-capped peak of the 5137m high Mt. Ararat can be seen. From there we walk the Cafesjian Cascade and visit the museum where we see wonderful glass-art and to the Jazzve open-air cafe at the Opera Square - a great city! The next day I meet Natella, another doctor, we visit the Sergey Parajanov musuem, a very nice place with many of the paintings, sculptures and film scripts of this very interesting 20th century artist. Later we have dinner with friends of Natella and her husband and some tea at their home, it is again a very nice day with great Armenian hospitality.
On 1st of June, Nadine, a friend from university arrives in Yerevan. Being between jobs, she spontaneously visits me for 10 days. The first days we spend in Yerevan visiting Matenadaran, a library with bibles and religous books dating back some 1400 years, the two Shuka markets, the Armenian History Museum, the Surp Grigor Cathedral that was built in 2001 and many more! In the evenings we explore restaurants, bars and cafes in the center but also in a canyon in the western part of the city. Many of them have live bands and music and we enjoy good Armenian food and wine, besides normal wine they also have very tasty pomegranate wine!
After having explored the city, we do some day trips by public transport and taxi. One day we go to Garni, there is an old hellenistic temple. From there we walk along a canyon with beautiful basalt pillars. The walk leads us to Havuts Tar, a temple ruine from the 12th century. For ornithologists: on our hike we see lakrs, goldfinches and even a hoopoe! After the exhausting hike we visit Geghard, a monastery in a beautiful valley. In one of the cave churches (carved out of the mountain) there are four people singing old Armenian songs, the singing and accustics are amazing!
Another trip leads us to Echmiadzin, the Vatican of Armenia. From there we visit Havannavank monastery in Ohannavan. In the village we are then invited to eat and drink by a big group of people sitting in a garden. It is a funeral dinner (7 days after the death). Someone of the group drives us to Saghmosavank, a monastery at the edge of the Kasakh Canyon. After a few minutes many limousines arrive and we are suddenly in the middle of a wedding!
A third trip, during which we are accompanied by Arthur, a friend we met in Yerevan, leads us from Yerevan to Khor Virap, a monastery dating from the 17th century located at the border to Turkey. In the back one can see clearly the two peaks of Mt. Ararat. Inside the monastery threre is a hole in which Grigor the Illuminator was kept captive for 13 years. As today it was the day when he escaped, there were many clerics and people singing in the hole to which one could get via a steep and long ladder! From Khor Virap we drive to Areni, a place known for its fine wine. So we visit a wine factory where we can taste different Armenian wine, all made from the Areni grape. Along the street there are many stalls selling home-made wine. We also taste there, they have cherry, pomegranate, and plum wine. After the wine tasting we continue to Noravank, a monastery that again is worth every kilometer of getting there. It is located on a grass slope overlooking a valley of red and orange rock cliffs. It dates back to the 13th century and is one of the nicest monasteries in Armenia.

11. Leg: Armenia Part 3

After these three day-trips we leave our nice rooms at the ArBeS center and go on a three-day trip north. The first day we take the marschroutka to Sevan. This village is located at Lake Sevan, with 940 square kilometers one of the biggest mountain lakes in the world. We stay in a hotel on the peninsula and enjoy great barbequed fish for dinner. After dinner there is a big thunderstorm with a lot of wind and rain, but the pictures we get then from the Sevanavank monastery are just great! We continue our trip to Dilijan, the socalled Switzerland of Armenia, and indeed there are some paralleles to the forest covered hills back home! In Dilijan we visit Goshavank and Haghartsin monastery. The former is nice, the latter is being renovated and so there is not much to see except some very nice Khatchkars (old hand-carved cross-stones) in the forest nearby. The afternoon we spend relaxing on the balcony of our lovely homestay (Nina B&B), looking at some birds feeding their offspring. The food in the evening is very nice, Nina prepares the traditional Armenian Dolma for us, this is a mixture of meat, rice and herbs that is wrapped in grape leaves - yummy!
After a good night's sleep we get a lift to Alaverdi by Ulrike and Stefan, a German couple we met at Nina's. They have their own rental car - also a good way of getting around but not always very easy considering the road conditions... On the way we stop in Kobayr and hike to a small church ruin with very nice frescoes. In Alaverdi Nadine and I go to Irina's Guesthouse, that will prove to be a very good pick again! After some lunch we take a taxi to Haghpat monastery, from there we hike for 4 hours through valleys and over fields of flowers to Sanahin monastery. Along the way a heavy thunderstorm approaches but luckily we are near Akner village and are invited for coffee until the storm is over. The hike is great and in Sanahin we get a guided tour through the monastery complex by the caretaker. An old Austrian cable car takes us back down the mountain to Alaverdi where we have dinner at Irina's. Irina and her husband have invited some friends for dinner so there is a huge amount of food on the table - Dolma, Khoravats, green and russian salad, vegetables, grilled eggplant and more! We also get to try some home-made Vodka and wine.
The husband of the visiting couple is a metal-engineer and so we get to visit the local copper production plant in the next morning. It used to be a very big plant during Sowjet times but then closed down. Now it is slowly starting to reopen - good job-wise but when one sees the effluent water and the smoke from the huge chimney, bad for nature...
After these three days on the road we return to Yerevan where we again stay at ArBeS. In Yerevan we are invited to Arthur's place for dinner and after we go out to an Armenian disco with him and some friend of his. The next day we visit the Armenian Genocide museum and the Ararat Brandy factory. In the middle of the night Nadine has her flight back home to Switzerland. I stay for one more day in Yerevan, do some writing, drinking tea at the opera square and the following day I continue my journey towards the South of Armenia.

12. Leg: Armenia Part 4

My journey to southern Armenia starts with a nice marschroutka ride from Yerevan to Yehegnadzor. Most of the drive is identical to the taxi ride we made some days ago when visiting Khor Virap and Noravank monastery. It is nice to pass some of these nice places again from a distance. In Yehegnadzor there is not much to see and it is very hot, so I continue the same day with a taxi to Jermuk. The drive to Jermuk is fantasti. Along the road there are plains full of red poppy flowers, blue cornflowers and purple delphinium. Jermuk is a mountain village situated at 2100 meters above sealevel and well known for its various mineral waters containing various amounts of sulphur and/or iron. The most remarkable buildings in the town are many huge sanatories dating back to the Sowjet era when many patients came here to cure various diseases. Today most of these sanatories are in bad condition or closed due to lack of money and visitors.
I find a nice room in the Life Hotel located in the little but cute mainstreet. In the evening I would like to have some dinner at one of the two restaurants but one is closed and the other has a big party and does not cater for single persons. So I ask around and am offered to eat at one of the old sanatories. I meet the director who gives me a dinner voucher for 1500AMD. Exactly at 6 o'clock dinner is served, salad, soup, bread and cheese and some rice dish with a meat-paddie. As only drink one can get hot thyme-tea prepared with salty Jermuk water :-)
At my table there is an Armenian writer and two women, the writer speaks quite good English and it is interesting to listen to some of his stories. Many of the other people are obviously suffering from various diseases and I hope that they will be cured by the power of the Jermuk water.
In case the restaurants will be closes again the next day, I buy ingredients for a bolognese sauce that I prepare in the common kitchen of my hotel. The next day I look at the village and walk around the area and enjoy my homemade sauce with bread - hmmm!
From Jermuk I take the taxi to Goris, the drive is nice and there are many truck convois on their way to or from Iran. In Goris I find a nice room in Vivas Bed and Breakfast and look at the nice stone houses in the village. Apart from that Goris has also many modern ruins and abandonned houses because the main work-places of Sowjet times - two big industry complexes closed down some years ago. At the market I am invited by two butchers to drink some vodka inbetween cow corpses haning from the ceiling - quite strange place for a drink!!! Later some military officers having dinner at my hostel invite me to eat with them, it is a nice evening!
One of the main sights around Goris is Tatev monastery, a complex dating back to the 9th century and composed of many churches, chapels, dining halls, towers and libraries. It is estimated that in the 17th century some 600 monks lived here.
The bus that leaves Goris for Tatev once per day was packed with people and flowers - due to a funeral in the village of Tatev. So again I take a cab. The road is quite horrid and we pass some deserted villages, a natural bridge and again spectacular landscapes. Tatev monastery is situated on a rock high above a deep canyon and is wonderful! In the evening I am again invited for dinner at the Vivas Hostel - finishing a wonderful day with grilled fish and some drinks.
From Goris I continue via Kapan to Meghri, a little town located near the Iranian border. The drive is again great with windy roads going up and down steep slopes, through forests, along rivers and over passes near snowcapped mountains. The valley in which Meghri lies is very green and full of red-flowering pommegranade bushes, kiwifruit, apple-, plum-, mulberry-, kakhitrees and grapes. The hills are quite barren and brown but is this mixture of brown hills and green valleys that make an interesting mix! In Meghri I am again invited for dinner, this time by the family of the hotel because it is their sons birthday. A good oppurtunity to give away one of my Swiss Army Knifes that I carried all the way with me - he is very happy! It is also here where I am told that Switzerland won against Spain in the football worldcup and later in the evening I get to see the replay of the match - truely amazing - but I guess a lot of luck, too!
The next morning I take a taxi to the iranian border at Agarak. The exit of Armenia is a bit of a hassle, they do not trust my Armenian visa because it had been corrected with liquid paper (by the consul in Switzerland). Also I am asked: why are you smiling on your passport picture? After about 20 minutes of inspection and various people looking at the passport and discussing, they let me walk accross the bridge to Iran. Entry at Iranian customs is very straightforward and easy - welcome to Islamic Republic of Iran!

13. Leg: Iran Part 1

One of the first impressions in Iran was the good conditions of the roads! The taxi from the border to the town of Jolfa, some 70km away took less than one hour! Alongside of the road runns the river Aras, it is the border between Iran and Armenia and Iran and Azerbaijan. At the riverbank there are many families having a picknick - it is Friday whih in Iran is the last day of the weekend. On Saturday the new week starts. Most of the women are covered in black clothes or at least wearing headscarves. In Jolfa I stay at the Hotel Azerbaijan, a rundown place frequented mainly by truckdrivers and businessmen. There are about 10 rooms inhabited by 1 to 3 people each, and one shower and one toilet... It is an experience :-)
From Jolfa I take a taxi to Tabriz, the fourth biggest city in Iran. There I stop for three nights and look at the city, the huge bazaar full of carpets, spices, foods, clothes and everything that you can immagine. The traffic is amazing, 10 liters of petrol cost only one dollar - so there is a tremendous amount of cars and motorbikes. Also there are some nice and interesting sights like the blue mosque, the history museum, the Elgoli park and many more. The first day I am shown around the city by Ali, a student that likes to take foreigners around the city. We spend the evening walking in the park, where I learn a lot about Iranian customs, dos and donts and Iranian life!
The next day I am forced to stay in the hotel again for a whole day as my digestive system is still causing some trouble... After a day of rice and yoghurt I start exploring the city again. Along the way I am invited to visit a firedepartment. I have tea with the firefighters and can look at the city from the roof of the building. After this visit I visit the Kamal tomb and the poets memorial. While going there I am invited again to a material shop for tea - the people here in Tabriz are really very nice and welcoming!
In the evening Ali, an english-speaking friend of Hadi, one of the firefighters, calls me and tells me that Hadi and some of his friends would like to take me to Kandovan the following day. So I get picked up in the morning by four friends and their old small Paykan car. Kandovan is a little village in the mountains. Many of the old buildings are in stone caves, similar to villages in Cappadocia, Turkey. After a walk through the village the four friends and me make tea and a barbeque on a small fire, the marinated chicken kebabs were great - thank you very much!
Back in Tabriz I catch the night-train to Tehran. The train leaves on time and the ride is very nice. The scenery is just amazing - salt lakes, villages, herders with sheep and donkeys, crop fields, a nice sunset and moonrise. After a good meal served to our seats me and the three others in the compartment sleep well until we arrive in Tehran at 7 o'clock the next morning. The taxi ride from the trainstation to my hotel (Firouzeh Hotel) is amazing, already in the morning the amount of traffic is immense and the quality of the air quite bad... there are some 15 million people living in Tehran!
In the afternoon I visit the Kariminejad Genetic Center where I prepare my talk that I will have two days later. It is nice to visit such a center and to see how it is run.

14. Leg: Iran Part 2

In Tehran I meet my parents that are coming to Iran for a two and a half week holiday. The frist two days we visit some of the nice museums in Tehran, then we leave together with Behzad, our driver-guide. On the first day of our tour, it is Saturday 26th June, we drive across the mountains to Anzali, a town located at the Caspian Sea. The drive is spectacular, first we pass the barren land between Tehran and Qazvin, then we cross the Elbrus mountains. On the other side of the mountains the valleys start to turn green, olive and pomme-granade trees, then rice-fields, then the whole mountain slopes are suddenly covered with trees. The climate changes to tropical as we approach the Caspian Sea. The first hotel of our trip was quite a challenge for us, especially if considering the amount of money we paid for it. The beds were not made, there was rubbish on the floor, dead insects in the bath, and the overall apperance of the hotel was also very run down. In the evening we visit the local market where fishermen sell their catch of the day, men drink tea, women buy food and clothes - a very nice atmosphere! In Anzali we also visit the Anzali lagoon, a huge freshwater lagoon that is home to many birds and plants. The main aim of the boat-tour is to visit the flowering lotus. The pink lotus flowers are truly amazing and beautiful. Standing up to one meter out of the water with their wonderful flowers! Frogs are also sitting on some floating leaves and making the typical mating sounds, then there are many birds like herons, swallows, sea gulls, cormorants and I even see a blue-green kingfisher flying by.
One evening we visit an Armenian restaurant in Anzali where we are even offered a small glass of armenian grappa after the wonderful dinner. This is the first and only time we drink alcohol during our stay in Iran, not because we did not like it - it was very nice - but because alcohol is prohibited in the whole country and thus quite rarely served and difficult to find. From Anzali we drive to the mountain village of Masuleh. During our drive we stop in Fuman, a village well known for its cookies. They are made from flour and in the middle they have a filling of nuts, cinnamon and some other spices. In one of the bakeries along the road we can see how the cookies are made and the bakers even let us have a go in making the cookies. From Fuman the road goes into the mountains and through rice- and tea fields to Masuleh. In Masuleh the houses are on a steep slope and so the roof of one house is just the balcony of the house above and so on! From Masuleh we continue back across the Elbrus mountains to Zanjan where we have lunch in a wonderfully restored 400 year old Karavanserei, a place where the caravans used to stop for the night. From there we drive through the Zagros mountains to Takht-e-Soleiman, a 1500 year old fire-temple of the Zoroastrian people. In the middle of the temple there is a huge arthesian spring. The scenery is very nice!
Via Takab and Bijar we drive to Hamedan. Along the way we visit the Ali Sadr caves. These are huge underground water caves with many stalaktites and stalakmites. As there is water in the cave one is driven through it in plastic boats that are connected to a peddalo with a rope. Many of the Iranian tourists are interested in where we come from and what we do here in Iran. It happened to us before and will during the whole trip that we are approached by Iranian tourists asking about our origin and our plans in Iran and if we liked it or not. They always welcome us and are very friendly - a nice experience and also an oppurtunity to talk to some locals. In Hamedan we spend the evening in the hills near Ganjnameh. It seems that half of the city spends the evening here, there are many food stalls, people selling all sort of things like souvenirs, fairy floss, sweet-corn, nuts, toys and so on. We eat dinner in the city and try to find our way home without our guide as we want to stretch our legs a bit after having eaten wonderful food. We get lost and one local man is so kind and drives us back to our hotel - we thought that we would be very close to the hotel but the drive was quite long - so we made some major mistake in orienteering!
The next day we visit the tomb or Esther and Mordecai, and the tomb of Avicenna, a wellknown botanist that described the healing properties of many plants already many centuries ago. Later my father and I go hiking in the mountains near Ganjnameh, therefore we take the calbe car up the hill and walk to a small peak from there. Along the way we meet some Iranian hikers that go camping over the weekend, they offer us some very nice dates and bread, in return we give them some biscuits that we carried with us. From Hamedan we continue our trip to Kashan where we stay in a wonderful hotel. It used to be a local house with a spring in the center, some plants around it and some rooms surrounding the court. From Kashan we drive to Yazd, again the countryside changes from the endless wheatfields to sand and shrubs. The temperature rises up to 48 degrees!

15. Leg: Iran Part 3

Between Kashan and Yazd we stop in Ardestan where we visit a wonderful mosque dating back to the 16th century. The mosque is made of bricks that were made using mud from around the area. Inside the mosque the temperature is quite comfortable, in contrast to outside... In Yazd we stay in a small hotel - again one of these traditional houses. From the roof-top balcony we have a nice view across the old town and the Jameh mosque that is just around the corner. From here one can see all the mud-colored houses and the many mosques mainly covered with beautiful blue and turqouse tiles. Most homes in Yazd are behind tall walls that consist of mudbricks. Due to this one wanders through narrow alleys with high walls to the right and left. Between these walls it gets really really hot - I guess up to 55 degrees, when the sun is heating up the walls. During the day we visit various museums like the Anthropology and Coin museum or the water museum that explains the art of finding water in the desert and transporting it for hundreds of kilometers using underground hand-dug tunnels (Quarnats). Other interesting sites in Yazd include the many old mosques, the Zoroastrian temple and the towers of silence. These huge towers standing on hills in the outskirts of the city were used for many hundreds of years to offer the dead bodies to the voulchers. The Zoroastrians believe that we humans come from nature and should be given back to nature. When the bodies were eaten, the remaining bones were burnt and the ashes given to the soil or the river. This custom was abolished only in the 1930ies when the city grew and people started to live near the hills on which the towers stand.
One afternoon I walk throught the soaring hot alleys and am asked into a private house for some tea. After the tea and some wonderful fresh and tasty melon, the house is offered to me for some 40 thousand dollars... The owner is really disapointed when I turn his offer down but I really do not have any intensions of buying a house! Before leaving Yazd, we visit the Dolat gardens where we can visit a 33m tall wind-tower. These wind-towers and adjacent water reservoirs dominate the picture of the old town center of Yazd. The towers are above the water reservoirs and air moving up (or down, depending on the guide you have) cools down when it hits the water, so these places were and are still used as some sort of airconditioning.
The market in Yazd is also a great place! In narrow alleys many shops sell things and between the shops and on the street, streetvendors with their carts sell even more... vegetables, fresh fruit, fish, meat, clothes, perfumes, spices - everything can be found at the bazar - and how colorful everything is - and then the smells, mostly pleasent, near the meat-market sometimes not so pleasant... Iranian bazars are - like bazars in other parts of the world, too - a great thing and it is easy to spend hours or even days there, all the time one finds interesting and new things!
We would have loved to stay longer in Yazd, even the heat was really forcing us to rest in the hotel room from midday to 5 o clock in the evening but during this time also most of the sights, museums and shops were closed and the streets seemed like nobody lived here!
From Yazd we drive towards Isfahan (Esfahan), on the way we stop in Meybod, a little city well known for its porcelain. So we get to visit a porcelain factory, see how the plates and bowls are formed from the raw material, then heated, then hand-painted and heated again. Quite an interesting factory. Near the factory there is also an old Ice storage. This huge domed-shaped building was used to store ice for many hundreds of years. In winter the ice was colledted and put into the buiding, the ice could be retrieved all summer long until next winter arrived. Coming towards Isfahan, the countryside got greener again. Along the way we pass many old pigeon towers - the pigeons lived there and their meat was used to eat, their menure was used to fertilize the fields and some of the pigeons were used as messengers. Isfahan is a huge city and the traffic is horrible - for a short moment we already miss the quiet and relaxed atmosphere of Yazd. However, Isfahan is also very nice!

16. Leg: Iran Part 4

Isfahan is just great! The huge and most amazing Imam Square located in the middle of the city: at the southern end the huge Imam mosque, at the eastern end the wonderful Lotfallah mosue, at the northern end the huge bazar and in the west, Ali Qapu palace. The size of these buildings and their history ist breathtaking. So in the evenings we spend a lot of timg just walking and sitting around Imam square, many Iranian tourists do the same, and often are we approached by Iranian tourists asking us about our contry and also if they can take pictures of and with us. Many of them also try to take pictures of us secretly, walking past us several times and taking pictures of us with their mobile phones or pocket cameras.
Other things that we visit include the 40 column palace that actually only consists of 20 columns but because there is a lake in front of the palace in which there is a mirror immage of the palace it is called 40 column palace. In the garden of the palace we are approached by a group of schoolgirls that are visiting with their English teacher, they talk to us and practise their English. One of them asks us very eagerly: would you please introduce yourself! A nice way to start a communication and so we talk to eachother for a while. Further we visit the handicraft market and the bird market, the 48 meter tall minaret of Ali mosque and other bazars. In Isfahan there is also a number of Armenian Christians, they were encouraged to move to Isfahan some 400 years ago because their skills in building and decorating were hightly sought. They also built a very nice cathedral that is covered with marvellous paintings!The evenings we spend in nice restaurants overlooking Imam square, one of them is Sofreh Sonati, a wonderful place with great food and a rooftop balcony from where one can overlook the square and sees the nicely lit roof of Lotfallah mosque.
After having bought some traditional produce at the bazar like olives with pommegranade-walnut paste, sweets consisting of safran, cardamon, sugar, eggs, pistacios, milk and flour, special Iranian dates etc. we drive back towards Tehran where Mum and Dad fly back to Switzerland. I stay another three nights in Tehran before also flying back to Switzerland. Originally I was thinking of travelling until mid-August but the temperatures were just too high and travelling in these conditions was not much fun. Also my stomach still kept on giving me some trouble and so it was best to go home. The last three days in Tehran I spent enjoying walking in the park, visiting an aquarium, saying bye bye to the people at the Genetics Center, visiting a hairdresser, doing some more food-shopping, enjoying good food in nice restaurants, talking to other travellers etc.
On monday 12th July 2010 I return back to Switzerland, it was a very nice trip of almost three months, I saw so many nice places, met the most amazing and welcoming people, enjoyed tremendous hospitality, got to know a lot about other cultures and religions - just another great experience I will never forget! And for sure there are some places that I will try to visit again!