A Solitary Man in Saudi – Stories From a Single Traveller

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I am travelling alone in Saudi Arabia, aside from Khalid, my driver and guide. We had dinner in one of the best known fast food establishments yesterday evening. An entrance and dining area for ladies, an entrance and dining area for families, no men allowed unless accompanied by a woman or girl older than about 12 years old, and an entrance for men. This is where I had to go being the solitary man.

I revisited the UNESCO World Heritage site of Madain Saleh in Al Ula. I walked the site investigating the old mud brick farm buildings with their deep stone lined wells, looked inside the carved fronted caves, many with tombs cut into the floors or walls and climbed the huge rock mountains, again many with tombs cut into their plateau tops. For the majority, the highlight of a visit here is Al Fareed (The Unique). It is a towering carved rock facade surrounding a cave in gigantic isolated ball shaped sandstone. I had the place to myself. The only sound was the ringing in my own ears. A solitary place for a solitary man.

I went to the bazaar today in Tabuk. Not your usual bazaar. There were many shops selling ground Arabic coffee beans and the spices that accompany it, mainly cardoman. Others selling everything a local Bedouin or a casual desert jaunt out of town would require. How about a feather lure to catch a falcon and when caught, a hood to cover its head. There were curved sticks, rather like Western walking sticks, for cajoling camels or just to carry and look smart. A satellite TV in a box, a snip at SAR2200 (USD590) to keep up to speed with the latest soap opera. A glorified picnic basket, with cutting knives, a large metal plate, a gas stove, coffee pot, plastic container jars and metal dishes to name but a few. Water containers of all shapes and sizes. There was even a pannier that fits over the ridge between the two front passenger seats with a hole for the gear stick, two if you have another stick in your four by four, with zipped pockets. All essential items it appears.

To travel in Saudi Arabia for anything other than a business trip is a rarity. I have seen no other Western tourists at any of sites I have been to. Yes, it is Ramadan but even then, outside this period figures are in single numbers – perfect for a pioneering solitary man.

Oman – A fabulous family destination

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Oman was never really on my radar as somewhere I’d take my family on holiday. It just didn’t occur to me for many reasons, perhaps because I was under the impression that it was a rather dry (and yes, I mean alcohol) and stark environment to take a very active family, always in search of fun and adventure.

However, following my recent recce trip for Steppes Travel, I am utterly converted and totally convinced that this is a fantastic holiday destination for my energetic and spirited young family.

After a very easy and comfortable seven-hour flight direct from London Heathrow, we arrived at Muscat International Airport. Out of the plane window we could see the runway shimmering and wobbling in the heat, the sand coloured earth cracked and dry, crying out for a drink, leading to the rise of enormous, dark craggy mountains in the distance.

Disembarking the plane, an incredibly smiley Omani welcomed us, immaculately dressed in a crisp, white cotton, floor length gown, holding a sign with our names on it. After the flight, it was a lovely way to begin the trip and we were steered away from long customs and visa queues to a smart, cool, airport lounge.

What strikes me immediately is the calm. Omani families and groups go about their business in a gentle, quiet manner. There’s no barrage of noise or someone jostling you and there’s certainly no staring. The obvious indications of note when arriving in an Arabic country are the huge pictures of their King – Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, (something I’d see regularly all over Oman) and men and women dressed in the national dress. Almost all Omani men wear a dishdashi, a floor length robe and a cap or head cloth wound into a turban. Omani women wear black (generally) floor length ‘abayasare’ over their home clothes, made of thin silky material. Some also wear a veil or mask to cover their faces with only their heavily painted eyes on show. A group of veiled women sitting near us laugh and chat happily amongst themselves, occasionally glancing over with smiling, glittering eyes, full of mischief.

Muscat city is immaculate. Clean, wide open avenues and roads with the latest motor vehicles, designed and manufactured specially for the Omani market, to the highest spec. Our guide informs us that people come to Oman specifically to buy the cars. Observing health and safety standards is clearly a high priority and this is demonstrated in their driving skill! These guys can actually drive, and properly. There are rules here that are adhered to. I feel safe and in very capable hands.

Looking around me, I can see a country on the rise. Development and investment is apparent everywhere, with The Sultan driving forward, pouring huge amounts of money into his people and the infrastructure. Not that long ago this was a stark, barren land where life was hard and unforgiving. The terrain is not conducive to easy living, with vast, formidable mountain ranges and huge swathes of desert covering most of the country. However, discovering incredibly valuable resources such as oil, gas and gold has propelled this country into first world living within a very short space of time. The people here call it the ‘bomb’ when in the early 70’s Shell discovered massive oil resources, large gold deposits were mined and King Sultan Qaboos overthrew his father, thereby forming a new vision for the people of Oman. We quizzed our guide about social care, the health service, the education system, employment, politics – it all sounded too good to be true but wherever we went and whoever we met seemed extremely happy with King and country.

Muscat city is a fun, safe place to explore. We visited the bustling souk, fish market and the magnificent Grand Mosque and Opera House. Combined with a selection of superb beach hotels you could spend a week just based here. For the water baby there is warm, clear, gentle water to snorkel and dive in and the opportunity to hire jet skis, speed boats or yachts.

From Muscat, we headed into the Jebel Akhdar, part of the mighty Hajar Mountains, a huge mountain range that rises to the highest point, Jebel Shams at 3000 metres. We drove for a few hours along exceptionally good, wide, empty roads, that snake gently through the range, slowly climbing and becoming windier, to reach the ancient fort town of Nizwa. The scenery is stark but dramatic, with green oasis, moist enough to allow the growth of shrubs, trees, and support agriculture. This area is famous for its rose water, pomegranates, walnuts, apricots, grapes, and peaches. The little water that does fall is harvested by ingenious ‘afalj’ irrigation systems, designed by mountain dwellers who have lived in the mountains for hundreds of years. Walking through these small, ancient villages (mostly derelict and empty) is fascinating, learning about a tough life in an unforgiving environment.

Nizwa used to the be the capital of Oman and is one of its oldest cities. Once the centre of trade, religion, education, and art, it is now a prosperous, buzzing city with a superb souk at its heart. Visit on a Friday for the full Nizwa experience where traders from all over the region come to trade in livestock, fish, and vegetables. Even if you can’t make it on a Friday there is still plenty to see with shops full of pottery, old rifles, other weaponry, jewellery, silver, and spices all on show. Also, take a visit to the Nizwa Fort, a prominent structure with a circular gunnery, expansive courtyards, and ominous murder holes for potential invaders. Climbing to the top is well worth the effort to admire the view and grasp the scale of the surrounding plantations.

The Jebel Akdar mountains are full of lagoons so once we’d exhausted ourselves walking through villages, visiting plantations, and climbing forts, we continued into the deep wadis to cool off in the clear blue rock pools. Bani Wadi Khalid is one of the better-known wadis attracting locals and tourist for a picnic and refreshing dip. This is brilliant fun and even more of an adventure if you walk deeper into the ravine, following the river and pools to the many waterfalls that feature further up. You also get away from the crowds in peak season.

Leaving the mountains behind us, we drove for a few hours back towards the coastline, diverting into the Omani Desert known as Wahiba Sands. You could spend days in this region, it is exceptionally beautiful, surrounded by silence and star filled skies. It is worth the effort to drive a bit deeper into the sands to stay at a private tented camp, hidden amongst the dunes. We visited a few established fixed camps, which offered all the comforts of luxury camping, however noise and light pollution were a concern. For the adventurous, take a jeep across untouched dunes and past herds of wild camels. Riding a camel is an unforgettable experience particularly if you go at sunset. We climbed to the top of the highest dunes to watch the sunrise and then jumped on a sand board to make our way back down again. Thrilling. As dark descended, the crackling campfire, candlelit atmosphere, star filled sky and delicious Arabian BBQ sounded the end to an epic day.

Returning to the coast we stayed at some utterly blissful beach hotels (and Oman has these in spades). If you are looking for a really good value option then the Shangri La Al Waha would keep my boys entertained for a week. Located on a long white, sandy beach, the water is calm, warm and safe to swim, teeming with tropical fish. Turtles nest in numbers matched by no other country on the planet and whales and dolphins are a common sight. As an alternative, it’s got to be the Anantara Salalah (a short flight from Muscat, south to the Dhofar region). This hotel makes you feel welcome and special the minute you arrive with exceptional staff and service, food to die for and the most epic swimming pool leading to a massive expanse of beach. For children, it’s perfect, with a whole club set up to entertain them daily.

We left Oman feeling refreshed, uplifted, and invigorated. Optimistic about life and happy to be alive. Now that is what we all want from a holiday, isn’t it?

 

Saudi Arabia: Breaking free from the stereotypes

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“Khalid has just created a Twitter storm,” was not something that I expected to hear in Saudi Arabia. But then again there was much that I did not expect, there were many images contrary to my expectations of Saudi Arabia. From the lack of investment and shabbiness in the extremities to the colour of some of the houses, from fabulous funerary façades to one of the most topographically stunning regions that I have seen anywhere in the world. There was much that I was to learn and discover.

Saudi Arabia is a complex country. Peter Harrigan, our tour expert, described it as being “like an iceberg”. Perhaps an odd analogy for a desert nation but one that is so apposite given that there is so much more to the nation and country than meets the eye.

The stereotype of Saudi Arabia is of an arid sand desert in a cultural wilderness. Socially one of the many stereotypes endured by Saudis is that they are austere and lacking in humour. In the mountains of the Abha, a mountain range that separates the Arabian heartland from the coast, I saw colour and art very much as part of the tradition. In Al Ula, I remember the light-hearted birdsong under the picturesque and refreshingly cool roof of palm fronds overhead. How can I forget the ribald laughter of Abdul Mohammed. My overriding impression is one of hospitality and smiles.

Yet only a handful of tourists visit the country. Yes, millions visit Saudi every year either on the Haj or Umrah, minor pilgrimage, but non-religious tourists are scarce, indeed we did not see any other foreign tourists. What a rare pleasure and privilege.

In the west, Saudi Arabia is tainted by stereotypes which include oil wealth (‘The land of black gold’ for any Tintin fans), fundamentalism and terrorism. Yet the reality is that the average monthly salary is 6,000 Rials which equates to an annual salary of £16,000 which is about two-thirds of that in the UK. But then living costs are cheaper or at least petrol is – 25 US cents per litre. Whilst sounding incredibly cheap it has doubled since last year.

To many, the fear of travelling to Saudi might be terrorism but as with the world over you are far more likely to die in a road traffic accident. Saudi Arabia has dramatically improved its road safety but it still remains number 23 in the world for road fatalities which account for 5% of deaths (compared to 1% in the UK). There are nine million road traffic violations a year – all of them committed by men. This is due to the fact that women cannot drive – a huge problem in some areas, especially away from the cities, where it is beholden upon the eldest son to drive his mother and sisters around – something he might start doing as young as twelve in spite of the fact that the driving age is seventeen.

Undoubtedly there are constraints to travel in Saudi Arabia but they are not as restrictive as one would assume. Men simply have to cover their legs and arms and do not, as Khalid told us, have to wear the thoob (robe) and ghotrah (headdress) as a group of Japanese tourists insisted on doing. The Japanese in their robes elicited much laughter from the Saudis – it was unclear as to whether they were laughing with or at the Japanese – and frustration for Khalid, our guide, who was continually being asked to rearrange their headdresses.

Women have to wear the abaya (black gown) all the time but do not have to cover their heads unless entering a mosque. For their Saudi counterparts, it is considerably more limiting in that they must wear the burqah throughout and on the whole men and women are separated.

But it has not always been like this. Khalid remembers his youth and there being no separation of male and female except at weddings. With the attack of the mosque in Mecca in 1979 began a religious clampdown that Ali in Abha refers to as the ‘Square Mile’ and saw the religious police in the ascendancy with a much stricter observance of traditional and social norms with, for example, the closure of cinemas and the banning of birthday celebrations.

But times are changing and the influence of the religious police is waning. Khalid said that seeing a man and a woman eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant with us, a group of tourists, was a first for him. Surprisingly, women can divorce men but it is much harder for them to do so. A man can tell his wife but a woman cannot – she is seen to be too emotional and thus it is up the courts to decide. Divorce is on the increase.

But change is not straightforward, unravelling the layers is not a simple matter. After a week in New York, Ali, a liberal thinker, asked his wife Fatima how she felt being liberated from her burqah. “No one looks me in the eyes,” was her considered response. Saudi remains a complex country.

Notwithstanding such convolution, society is transforming and two things have led to this change in attitude. Firstly, the rise of al Qaeda and secondly the rise of the cult of Daish. Both, especially the latter, are a wake-up call to Saudis who are now trying to show that they do not subscribe to this madness. Times are a changing. A major driver of Saudi’s international acclaim is the King Abdullah Scholarship programme with 145,000 young Saudis studying in more than 30 countries. Over a third of those enjoying scholarships abroad are women. More than half of Saudi graduates are female and the number of women actively participating in the Saudi workplace is rising fast.

Social media is a huge force for change. Witness the “twitter storm” caused by our guide Khalid. He and other Saudis were constantly filming us, continually posting. Khalid took a photo of a young calligrapher at work and immediately posted it in on Facebook. We are being videoed throughout especially as one of the group signs the visitors’ book, intrigued by her writing and the Latin script.

Modernity, religion, conservatism and tradition all come together in the air in a fascinating source of social conflict. OK things have moved on since the first flights from Riyadh to San’aa when the passengers would leave their slippers at the top of the steps before entering the plane. Still today, there are prayers for the traveller at take-off, women don’t like sitting next to men and vice versa, there are anecdotes of men taking the coffee from female flight attendants – it is the man’s place and prerogative to pour coffee – and of course the airborne prayer area on international flights at the back of the aircraft. Segregation on the ground but not in the air.

Such are the intricacies that exist in Saudi Arabia. The layers of complexity are perhaps best illustrated in the complications of the insurance industry. Insurance is haram, namely that it is forbidden as it is seen as a form of gambling in that it is betting against fate, against the will of god. There exists a ‘welfare system’ within the tribes into which individuals and families pay into. At the same time, the government has recently been trying to encourage individuals to buy insurance from insurance companies. Parallel systems, more layers.

The Western press oversimplifies this beguiling country, paints it as one. Yet Arabia is made up of fiefdoms. Dynastic families emerged out of tribal families. The unification of Arabia contradicts with the feuding fiefdoms. The families are still all powerful.

Above all, Saudi Arabia is a huge country. Mention the Arab world and people think of Dubai but the mental map we have of Dubai is out of all proportion with its size. It is a city state of several hundred thousand Emiratis. Meanwhile the sprawl and shambles of Jeddah is host to four and half million and the glittering capital, Riyadh, to eight million. Between the two cities they account for a third of the population of Saudi Arabia, a country that is 2.1 million square kilometres, almost ten times the size of the UK.

To dispel another label, Saudi Arabia is not all desert, nor has it been. Rock art of hippos suggests a much wetter climate which is known as Green Arabia and disappeared in a remarkable example of climate change.

That is not all the rock art reveals. It is a library of Palaeolithic civilisation to the modern day as we discovered clambering over the rocks of Jubbah. Lady Anne Blunt, the granddaughter of Byron, described Jubbah as “one of the most curious places in the world, and to my mind one of the most beautiful.” This was in no small part due to the “simple designs” that she found carved or pecked into the rock. Simple they might be but they show so much from the domestication of camel to the use of dogs in hunting. Fascinating depictions of gazelle, antelope, dogs, camels, human figures hunting and a lion.

In the region of Jubbah are some 10,000 petroglyphs but they do not get a mention in the 1998 Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, indeed its map of prehistoric art shows the whole of the Arabian Peninsula as a blank. That is the problem with so much in Saudi Arabia – little is known of it in the country let alone outside. Like many things, this is beginning to change – in 2015 it was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site – and hopefully Saudi will soon be recognised as one of the four richest areas for rock art, along with Australia, India and South Africa.

If anything, Saudi Arabia should be known for Al Ula. You have no doubt heard of Monument Valley in the USA and Wadi Rum in Jordan, hopefully of Siwa oasis in Egypt and possibly Ennedi in Chad. I am not sure you will have heard of Al Ula but you need to take note of this name and travel to one of the most spectacular desert landscapes. As a topographical feature it stands tall, timeless, captivating and enthralling.

Al Ula means the ‘uprising’ and describes the gigantic sandstone towers and monoliths that turn the eye in every direction. Worn and weathered, punctuated with pockmarks, they are a myriad of shapes and sizes.  Giant statues that have shades of a natural Colossus of Memnon, pyramids, cones, knuckles, digits, towers and even an elephant.

It is in this impressive backdrop, the black lava on the top of the sandstone plateau like a thin layer of chocolate icing on a cake, the green of the palm oasis, that a number of tombs can be found in the face of the sandstone mountains. The earliest tombs we explored were at Al Khuraiba, which means the lions tombs and used to describe the Lihyanic tombs dating from the 4th to the 2nd century BC. The tombs adorned by lions designate royalty. The only remains are these end-of-life structures. There would have been markets, there would have been signs of life. These are most certainly buried under the palm groves, which no doubt hide remarkable treasures. Only 1% of Saudi archaeology is known or has been worked on.

In part this is due to religious restrictions. Pre-Islamic civilisations have been frowned upon. Statues and even depictions of animals have been frowned upon. Religious police ordered fishmongers to take fish off their shop signs. Road signs warning of camels showed a camel separate from its head. Statues that have been unearthed are in the National Museum but they are not on display so as not to upset religious sensibilities. But times are changing. Young Saudi students from university are now excavating here.

The Lihyanites were superseded by the Nabataeans, who, originally nomadic, tent-dwelling Arab pastoralists and traders, began to settle more than 2,300 years ago. Over the following eight centuries – the first four as an autonomous kingdom and the latter under Roman rule – Nabataean settlements and their trading routes flourished.

Of the historic Nabataean centres, the largest is their capital Beqem, now known as Petra in Jordan. There more than 600 tombs, paved streets, temples, markets, theatre and hydraulic installations have made it one of the best-known historic monuments in the Middle East. Such was its status that after imperial Rome annexed Nabataea in 106, the Romans accorded Petra the honorific title of metropolis.

Archaeologists have determined the maximum extent of the Nabataean kingdom largely through finds of distinctive pottery at 2,000 sites. At its zenith, Nabataea extended from what is now southern Jordan, Syria and he Negev and south into north-western Arabia. It was from Hegra, the kingdom’s southernmost settlement, emporium and entrepot that long-distance camel caravans set out for the far reaches of the Arabian Peninsula in search of aromatics, spices and other rare commodities, some of which came from India and even China.

It was a predominantly land-based trade – although increasing evidence is surfacing of the sea-faring trade of the Nabateans – due to the prevailing winds north of Jeddah. Their caravans ranged from southern Arabia to Mesopotamia. Modern transport – we took two plane flights and a three-hundred-kilometre road journey from the edge of southern Arabia to Al Ula to achieve half the distance they would have travelled – diminishes the scale of such processions. Their caravans would extend from 1,000 to 3,000 camels – the ancient equivalent of the oil tanker – each carrying 250kg of frankincense which was more valuable than gold. They had great wealth.

The manifestation of this wealth today is seen in their tombs. They were master carvers of funerary facades of the afterlife. They borrowed from the Persians (petals) and the Greeks. They were wonderful borrowers of style. Renowned as carvers of iconic rock-cut necropolises, they have been regarded only passingly, if at all, as builders. The quarries of Hegra are evidence that the Nabataeans were capable of more.

They also tantalisingly suggest there is more. There is no evidence of spoil heaps from these quarries which leads archaeologists to believe that the stone was used for buildings.  The answers lie unseen and underground, buried beneath layers of sediment borne over centuries by wind and water.

The jewel in the Arabian – more precisely Nabataean – crown is Mada’in Saleh, which literally means the ruins of (the prophet) Saleh. This prosaic description belies the beauty of the site that drew early explorers such as Charles Doughty who became the first westerner to visit the site in modern times, recording his observations in Travels in Arabia Deserta.

Mada’in Saleh holds 94 tombs with decorated facades, 35 plain funerary chambers and more than 1,000 non-monumental graves and other stone-lined tombs. Unlike Petra, where only one tomb has a dated inscription, one third of the monumental tomb facades at Mada’in Saleh have them and all range from AD 1 to AD 75. However, a new inscription found at Hegra dates the site to AD 175, at least a century longer than previously thought.

In the late afternoon sun, Mada’in Saleh glows from golden yellow to a dusky pink to a warm orange and in the final minutes of light a burnt straw. The edges of the tombs carefully proportioned cornices contrast with the rough, eroded surface of the sandstone from which it was hewn.

What is most remarkable is that in this crowded world, we had the site all to ourselves. As the sun slipped behind the Hajez mountains the clouds were tinged with pink and the sky a range of blue from the shyness of azure to the darkness of indigo. Silence reigned.

All of these remains and sites reveal that Saudi Arabia was not a closed peninsula: it was intricately connected to the rest of the ancient world.

This remains the crucial point today. Young Saudis are hyper-connected through social media. The country’s mobile penetration rates are astonishing. A higher proportion of Saudis use Twitter and YouTube than almost any other nation on earth. Saudi’s majority young generation are shaping its future and show that Saudi is vitally connected.

Steppes Big 5: Reasons to travel to Oman

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Pavilions Muttrah Muscat Oman

What do you want from your next holiday? If you want something a little adventurous, exotic, unusual, historic and geographically beautiful, Oman probably offers the holy grail in ‘soul-satisfying’ holiday destinations.

Without a doubt there is plenty that this small, gentle, laid-back country offers but here are Steppes’s Big 5 reasons to go to Oman.

1. Nizwa’s Friday Cattle Market

Nizwa town is a few hour’s drive from Muscat into the interior of Oman. It was once the capital of Oman between the 7th and 8th century. Surrounded by immense palm oases, Nizwa is famous for its fort and its gold and silver handicrafts. A visit to Nizwa is a must, particularly on a Friday when their weekly cattle market takes place. Between 7 am and 10 am there is a livestock market where traditionally attired men, many with a khanjar (traditional omani knife) in their belts, a cane to hand and possibly a rifle slung over their back, bid for goats, sheep and cattle. The market is an exceptional insight into traditional life in Oman.

Accommodation Pick: Alila Jabal Akhdar

2. The World of Karak Chai

On your journey around Oman you will see numerous local eateries and ‘hole-in-the-wall’ cafés. These establishments are treasure troves of flavour and should not be missed.  Spend some time savouring the exceptional taste of ‘Karak Chai’ combined with Rakhel, a crepe like snack. There are more than 10 different types of tea, made with tea leaves and flavouring of your choice for example Saffron, mint, ginger, cardamom. The combination of Karak Chai with a Rakhel is utterly irresistible.

Accommodation Pick: The Chedi Muscat

3. Turtles in Ras Al Jinz

Do not miss a visit to Ras Al Hadd Turtle Reserve. Ras al Jinz, a fishing village located within the Ras Al Hadd Turtle Reserve is an important turtle-nesting site. With over 20,000 green turtles returning annually to the beach to lay their eggs, this area is rich in marine biodiversity. It is possible to stay very close to the beach to see the turtles on the beach. The guides are excellent and only take small, intimate groups. Sightings of the giant turtles laying their eggs take place at night. You wait for a while in the dark with the amazing desert sky full of billions of stars and only the sound of the waves crashing on the beach. It is an incredibly moving experience to watch these prehistoric type creatures struggling up the beach in order to lay their eggs in safety. Slowly the eggs hatch and baby turtles make their scramble towards the ocean. The survival rate is tiny which makes the experience that much more emotional. You find yourself caught in a moment, a privileged experience that you will always remember.

4. Salalah

Salalah is the capital city of southern Oman’s Dhofar province. It’s known for its banana plantations, Arabian Sea beaches and waters teeming with sea life. The Khareef, an annual monsoon, transforms the desert terrain into a lush, green landscape and creates seasonal waterfalls. The Frankincense Land Museum, part of the Al Balid Archaeological Site, recounts the city’s maritime history and role in the spice trade. The ruins of the fabled city of Ubar, chronicled in classical works as the “Atlantis of the sands” are among a series of archaeologists excavations currently underway along the route. In the Rub-Al Khali (The empty quarter) area, it is possible to experience dune driving for an exhilarating end to a fascinating stay.

Accommodation Pick: Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara

5. Walking in the Jebel Akhtar Mountains

Meaning ‘Green Mountain,’ the Jebel Akhdar refers to the mountain range that stretches across a large swathe of central Oman. Dominated by the 3,038-metre-high Jebel Shams, this iconic region is home to some of the country’s most attractive scenery.

Dotted with villages and crisscrossed by numerous wadis, the Jebel Akhdar is a fascinating place to explore by bicycle, on foot or by 4×4. Irrigated by ancient ‘falaj’ water channels, the area is known for its desert roses, walnuts and pomegranates.

Accommodation Pick: Alila Jebel Akhdar for the ultimate stay in this impressive mountain range.

If you want to arrange a tailor made holiday to Oman, please call one of our Oman experts on 01285 880980.

A close encounter with an Imam in Isfahan, Iran

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Shah Moque, Isfahan, Iran, NSH (2)

The Imam mosque, also known as the Shah mosque in the Royal Square in Isfahan is an absolute treasure to behold. It was featured on Around the World in 80 Treasures, presented by the architecture historian Dan Cruickshank, and rightly so. The towering turquoise minarets are stunning in themselves but it is certainly worth the wander beyond to marvel within. Triple twisted columns, a dome with a cascade of stalactites and beautiful calligraphy within the inscriptions of the arch await you.

Interestingly the mosque itself, commissioned personally by Shah Abbas in 1611 is not built in line with the gateway to the square. As the mihrab needs to point towards Mecca, a 45 degree angle has been created between the gate and north ivan. There are many theories as to why the mosque and square was constructed this way, particularly as symmetry plays such an important role in Islam and its architecture. Though nothing is verified one of my favourite theories is that the slightly askew angle indicates a more winding path to find God.

The tiles of dome of the mosque are repaired each century, a painstaking process whereby one sixteenth of the dome is repaired at a time, all by hand, taking approximately eleven years to complete. It can be argued that in this day and age a more industrious practice can be adopted to speed up the repair. Despite making commercial sense I’m pleased that this tradition has continued, after all beauty needn’t be rushed?

It was within the madrassah of the mosque that I came across the most beautiful sight of my trip, and no it’s not listed in the guide books. In an alcove of one of the walls overlooking the garden sat a clergy man facing a group of tourists; behind him a poster stating ‘’Free friendly discussion with the clergies. With mutual respect without prejudice’’.

A pair of Dutch tourists sat closely to the Imam; ‘’We regard you as the other and are not willing to understand you and you, likewise, do not like to introduce yourself. So what happens?’’

In reply the Imam spoke of religious tolerance and encouraged people to visit Iran to create an open and free dialogue.‘’Our duty is to show you the beauty of Islam and its teachings, if you choose to follow, great’’ he said with a cheeky grin ‘’ but we must respect people’s choice whether monotheistic or polytheistic. Let’s talk and get to know each other beyond what the media tells us to believe’’. I couldn’t have said it better myself. In an age where our differences seem to divide us and religion is prostituted as a means to progress political agendas his words carried significant weight.

Listening to him, it was difficult to not feel his warmth. He spoke eloquently, and effortlessly commanded the attention of those around him despite his hushed tones. His words were in stark contrast to the billboard set before the tomb of Cyrus the Great in Shiraz – a great example of Khomeini’s anti west rhetoric but not indicative of the modern day Iranian, by any means.

Imam Khomeini: ”The whole world should know that all of the problems of the Iranian nation and other nations are caused by the foreigners: by Americans. Muslim nations hate the foreigners in general and America in particular.”

The Imam’s plurality was akin with the attitude of the Great Shah Abbas. He too had encouraged religious tolerance. He endeavoured to see Isfahan and the dynasty thrive, just as this Imam seems to wish for the whole of Iran. Now, more than ever, with the fallout from BREXIT and the outpouring of racially motivated attacks in the UK and the continued reprehensible acts of so called IS across Turkey, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia, our differences must be understood, respected and welcomed. There can no longer be an ‘other’. In a country that has long been seen as exactly that, this initiative of open dialogue and inclusivity is what I see the future of Iran to be.

Get in touch to learn more about how to discover the best of Iran with Steppes. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

Discovering Iran: Isfahan is half the world

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Isfahan is half the world, they say. You’ll notice the people of Isfahan are full of exaggerations. So I too will say that I am the best guide in Isfahan” proclaimed our local guide Ehsan proudly.

Neither was in fact an exaggeration. Both he and the city are incredible.

An ancient metropolis lying across timeless trade routes, Isfahan became the Great Shah Abbas’s glittering Safavid capital during the 16th century and it was during this period that a well-known saying was coined. ‘’Isfahan nesf- e- jahan’’ – Isfahan is half the world –  for if you have seen Isfahan you have see half of the world’s beauty. Decadent use of hyperbole yes, however, after my recent time there I’d be inclined to agree.

You can see all the sites of Iran – Persepolis, Pasargad and all of its palaces but no visit to Iran is complete without experiencing the beauty of Isfahan. A glorious city rich in art, cultural wonders, and architecture lives on to this day. Below I’ve attempted to curate the must see’s of Isfahan, and no, they are not all mosques.

Where to stay in Isfahan – Abbasi Hotel

There is only one place that is worth staying at whilst in Isfahan – the grand Abbasi Hotel. Built around 300 years ago and once a caravanserai, now a palatial low-rise building around a beautiful garden courtyard with water courses, cypress trees and flowers, this is an opportunity for you to stay in a piece of historical grandeur.

The central courtyard garden provides a magnificent setting for dining al- fresco, drinking chai or enjoying gelato whilst being serenaded by the local musicians playing the santour and setar. The garden wasn’t just a place for tourists, domestic and international staying at the hotel, but a popular place for the locals to come and socialise too.

Welcomed by the most majestic of chandeliers in the lobby (a feature I have become accustomed to whilst in Iran) and a delicate array of glass and tile work be sure to stay in the majestic suites of the old part of the hotel. The ‘new’ extension which is more a throwback to the 1970s than Safavid glamour is less impressive – all frills and no knickers as they say.

It’s location on the Chaharbagh-e-Abbasi Avenue, the most famous in all of Iran, lends itself to provide you easy access to all the main sites including the Naqsh-e Jahan Square, bazaars and Siosepol bridge.

The Armenian Quarter

Journey south of the Zayandeh river to the Armenian and Christian quarter of Jolfa; established in 1603 it quickly rose to be an affluent area as result of the trade from the passing caravans.  Shah Abbas had granted complete religious freedom for the Armenians living there as well as administrative autonomy.

The best introduction to the area and its heritage is achieved by visiting the Cathedral of the Holy Saviour – Keli –saye Vank.  Though the cathedral is domed, much like the mosques, the interior is very different. Glazed tiles – not of the same kind as the usual tranquil coloured geometric designs of the mosques – and huge paintings of European inspiration depicting the life of Jesus, representations of Heaven, Earth and Hell as well as scenes of martyrdom from the Ottoman War (1603-18) can be seen.

A museum of Armenian culture just next door is also worth a visit. Not only does it house several edicts from Shah Abbas I giving the area its renowned status and freedoms but also remembers the victims of the 1915 Armenian genocide in Turkey.

A short stroll down Kelisa Street is Arca restaurant. Resembling a boujis bar of London’s Knightsbridge from the outside, with the token and unnecessary heavy set bouncer at the door, it provides a great atmosphere for dinner in the evening. Within its courtyard setting you’ll find an imaginative take on Isfahani and Armenian food and local young elites photographing their food and taking selfies for their Instagram accounts – not quite rich kids of Tehran but close enough.

Jameh Mosque
The Jameh Mosque in Isfahan is one of the oldest in Iran. Despite its dome of undecorated brick and somewhat plain vaulted halls, it is far from unimpressive.

Such a backdrop, in fact, allows one to appreciate all the more the intricacy of the tile work and the decoration of each of the four iwans. We walked in awe around the sunlit courtyard sheltering in each of the halls as birds fluttered around the marble fountain in the centre. As we entered the west iwan and our eyes adjusted to the darkness of the hall we set our gaze upon an exquisitely carved mihrab and mimbar of Mongol sultan Uljaitu. Built in 1310 and fantastically preserved they showcased beautiful floral motifs and stunning calligraphy in carved stucco.

Take some time to wander the vaulted rooms with intersecting arches; despite being built entirely of brick they could never be guilty of being dull or monotonous.

Khaju Bridge

Khaju, a functioning bridge and dam, is like no other piece of architecture in Iran and our arrival to see it was timely. Water, coloured turquoise in parts from the algae below, flowed for the last time today before they were about to close the dam and divert much needed water to the desert towns of Yazd.

Crossing a bridge in Iran is not just a passage from A to B. It is an experience. In Tehran, 26 year old Leila Araghian had been highly commended for her design of the Tabiat (nature) bridge. Connecting two parks with shops and cafes between she created what seems like never-ending journey due to it’s curved shape and the inability to see where it lead you to. Khaju in Isfahan – a beauty of the 17th century is similarly impressive in its purpose. It once hosted tea houses and still today is a space for public meetings and poetry readings.

A continual row of twenty four arches over two levels and tunnels between, set the scene for all kinds of activity. Families perch on the edge of the steps dipping their toes in the cooling water, school children gossip and group around their phones on the upper tier, old men sing songs about the old city of Isfahan and old women in chadors congregate in the shade of the tunnels. Seek solace from the heat and join the locals for the afternoon.

Chehel Sotun Palace

Literally meaning “forty columns” in Persian, the palace which was built by Shah Abbas II for entertaining dignitaries was inspired by the twenty narrow wooden columns supporting the entrance pavilion. When reflected in the waters of the long pool and fountain, forty columns appear.

It was here that Ehsan, our guide bought paintings of the Palace pavilion alive. He described details that otherwise would have gone unnoticed, from the eroticism of the private court to the humanity of the depictions of battle scenes and the portrayal of the victories of Nader Shah. Marvel at the moustache exhibition – great source of inspiration for Hoxton hipsters, the ornate honeycomb stalactites set with mirrors on the ceiling and relax in the manicured gardens of the palace.

Naqsh-e Jahan Square – lose yourself for a day.

Immerse yourself in the symbolic centre of the Safavid dynasty and its empire. What once was used for polo matches is now the stage for the coming together local artisans, antique sellers in the bazaars, street entertainers, locals with their picnic mats and flasks of chai with the soundtrack of the bells from the hooves of the horse and carriages circumnavigating and the laughter of the children running through the fountains. Just idyllic.

Ali Qapu Palace in the east

Ascend to the very top – the Music Hall – via a winding staircase and en route get a great view of the skyscape of Isfahan and in particular its encircling mountains.

The hall is a masterpiece which serves both aesthetic and acoustic purposes. Complete with fretwork panelling on the walls and vaults carved into niches shaped like vases it is lit by the daylight from the windows just below. Positioned high above, rulers would watch the polo matches and assess the troops in the square from the talar on the first floor of the palace.

Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah in the west

Directly opposite the palace, on the other side of the fountain is a mosque named after a famous theologian of the 17th century.  The tile work is a masterpiece; blue and black flowers accompanied with arabesques and yellow floral motifs. After entering a long heavily decorated corridor you are taken in to a stunning chamber. Stand at the doorway to this chamber and look up to see a play of light through the windows create a peacock shape on the ceiling of the dome. Though small in size, the arches and squinches and inscriptions of this mosque will keep you mesmerised for some time.

Imperial Bazaar in the north

The bazaar continues all the way around the Royal Square selling everything from clothes, gaz or nougat, silverware, pottery, miniatures, Persian rugs and jewellery. It’s the perfect place to buy gifts and to talk to locals. The standard bazaar etiquette applies of course; shop around and barter hard. Venture further down through the gateway to the Great Bazaar on the north side to be led into the old town and to the Hakim Mosque.

Imam Mosque in the south

Now if you’re ‘all mosque’d out’ you can bow out gracefully and continue reading our other Steppes blogs from around the world. However, if you’re just a little intrigued as to why this was such a special place click here to read about it. Visiting here and meeting the people that work to maintain it and protect it was a great privilege and served to round up my time in Iran quite beautifully.

Get in touch to learn more about how to discover the best of Iran with Steppes. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

10 reasons to travel to Iran

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Nowruz, the Persian New Year began last weekend and has been celebrated in Greater Iran for over 3,000 years. It marks the first day of spring and a new beginning. So it is fitting that with restrictions now being lifted we shine a light on a country we have been championing for over 18 years. Also British Airways re-launch their direct service from London Heathrow (seventy years after being the first to offer scheduled flights into Tehran), so it really is a fantastic time to visit.

You can expect unparalleled Islamic architecture, romantic poets and a rich history but it is the warmth of the Persian people’s charming nature which will melt any preconceptions and your heart.


1. It is safe to travel to Iran

Iran has been demonised for decades, but nearly all people who travel there come home with their stereotypes completely changed, replaced by fond memories of gracious hosts and beautiful scenery. The British government has amended its FCO advice and considers the vast majority of the country safe for travellers

2. Hot for 2016

It’s hitting the news all over the world – go soon before the crowds get too big.

3. Hospitality

In Iran, the government is more conservative and religious but the people are very open. The key to understanding Iran is to meet and talk to local people – and that is easier than in most Middle Eastern countries. In any bazaar, at any cafe, people will be keen to talk to you. Walking through the bazaar allows you to see everyday life as families go about their business.

4. A fascinating history

The National Museum in Tehran is the ideal introduction to Iran’s long history. There’s pottery dating back to 7000 BC and an extraordinary range of ceramics, painted, and sometimes carved, with scorpions, snakes and fish. Around the corner, on a Sumerian tablet from the fourth millennium BC, there’s some of the oldest writing in the world. And around another one, there’s one of the oldest wheels in the world.

5. Architecture

Persepolis which dates from 515 BC is one of the world’s finest examples of ancient architecture and was declare a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. There is also unrivalled Islamic architecture in the cities of Isfahan and Shiraz.

6. Handicrafts

Given the heavy sanctions on the country for many years’ imports were rare and so huge emphasis remains on handicraft skills. Of particular note are those produced through weaving, metal and woodwork and exceptional stone and mosaics.

7. Food

Persian cuisine is delicious, with a huge variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. For those who enjoy their food, you will not be disappointed. From tasty, fresh street food to excellent local restaurants.

8. Affordable

A holiday to Iran is still reasonably priced however due to the increasing demand this won’t last long.

9. An authentic experience

Due to years of sanctions and low tourism numbers, Iran has not been affected by excessive tourism or commercialisation. What you see is truly what you get.

10. Relaxed Atmosphere

Despite the propaganda in the west Iran can’t be pigeon-holed. It has a wonderful atmosphere and exotic blend of paradox and contradiction.  In the west we are blinded by stereotypes and view Iran as monochrome and fundamental. Yes there is a degree of segregation but there is more freedom than you think. Young couples sitting together in coffee houses and restaurants, women driving, women travelling alone in taxis with male drivers. People are more than happy to pose for a photo and most homes have satellite TV available to them.

Get in touch with us for more information on your Iran holiday, call us 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

10 reasons to travel to Oman

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Empty-quarter,-Oman

Providing a fantastic choice for adults and children alike, a holiday to Oman offers huge diversity from relaxing beaches to adventures into the mountains and desert. Here are our top ten reasons to travel to Oman. 

  1. It’s safe

    FCO advise it’s safe to travel and British nationals don’t need to get a visa before travelling to Oman. You can get a visa on arrival at any land, sea or air entry port in the country.

  2. Freedom to explore

    Wadi Shab is a picturesque canyon of caves, waterfalls and pools just off the Muscat-Sur coastal highway. A little farther north lies the Bimmah Sinkhole, a stunning bathing spot.

  3. Shopping in Muscat

    For the most authentic shopping experience, visit the old souk at Muttrah, just outside the town.

  4. World Heritage Sites

    An hour or two south-west of Muscat lies Nizwa, home to the enormous 17th century Nizwa Fort – the most visited monument in Oman. A little farther west you’ll find Bahla Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to the 13th century.

  5. Hiking

    The dramatic Al Hajar range divides Muscat and Nizwa, and with peaks rising to almost 3,000 metres it is becoming more and more popular with hikers and bikers.

  6. Khalouf Beach

    The wide sands of Khalouf are a perfect place to enjoy the warm seas of Oman’s Indian Ocean. A five hour drive south of Muscat, it is a remote part of the country with sand dunes, fishermen and their huts and a vibrant bird population which includes flamingos and eagles.

  7. Star gazing

    Sleep out amid the vast dunes of Wahiba Sands, under a sky full of stars.

  8. Cruise the coastline & sail in Oman

    Some of Oman’s most glorious coastline can be found around the Musandam peninsula, where you’ll find pretty inlets with great diving and snorkelling possibilities. Keep an eye out for pods of frolicking dolphins. Luxury yachts are readily available from Muscat with day trips and overnight charters growing in popularity.

  9. Beyond the ordinary

    The Empty Quarter is the largest sand desert in the world. Options include camel treks and “dune bashing” – racing through the otherworldly landscape on quad bikes.

  10. World class golf

    Include a round of golf during your stay in Muscat at the Almouj Golf 18 hole golf course.

Talk to our Oman Travel Experts to start your privately guided tour of Oman, call us on 01285 601 753  or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

What to expect on your holiday to Oman

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I’m about halfway through my visit to Oman and I feel pretty comfortable with the outfits I have packed. A couple of large scarves, loose harem pants, knee length skirts, t-shirts that cover my shoulders and a pair of pumps. I have only needed to wear a headscarf once on the trip so far and that was for a visit to the Grand Mosque in Muscat.

The Omani people I have met seem incredibly relaxed and respectful. I don’t feel pressured to cover myself from head to toe. That’s not to say that I haven’t been mindful of what I’m wearing, the last thing I want to do is offend. During my visit I’m staying in the Chedi and Shangri La resorts where dress isn’t an issue – as long as I have a swimming costume and something pretty to wear in the evening I have nothing to worry about. My trips into the desert and swimming in the wadis (water bodies) haven’t posed a problem either. Wadi Bani Khalid is well equipped with toilets to change in and a cafe for those that don’t want to swim. My driver/ guide Haithan, stayed in the cafe area and looked after my bags. I managed to jump into the water before anyone else arrived and I had the whole wadi to myself, which was magical. It gets really busy in the afternoon so my top tip is to get there early before the families and self-drivers arrive.

I’ve met lots of people that are driving themselves, in fact if I was travelling with someone that could have shared the driving, I might have opted for a hire car too. Having said that I can’t imagine how I would have discovered all the treats Haithan and I have shared enroute. We’ve enjoyed gallons of Karak tea (syrupy milk tea) smothered in bright saffron and snacked on thin crispy pancake rolls with honey and egg. I’m sure these are the staple diet of all the drivers so if I was on my own I might not have tried them.

It’s reassuring that motorway toilets are clean too, food is cooked properly and roads are free of pot holes. There seems to be a really good quality of life here. I think this stems from a strong faith in Sultans Qaboo’s decisions. The history is complicated but in short before he came to the throne few Omani people had electricity and there were no roads or proper schools.

Retaining culture is also important for the Sultan. During my visit to the Opera House in Muscat it was obvious to see that local craftsmanship is being nurtured. The attention to detail, stone/ wood carving and use of technology is awe inspiring. With this level of investment in culture, I’m excited to see what might be built next. I hear that the new Grand Mosque in Salalah rivals Muscat’s – I’m not sure how that could be possible, so I’m already planning return trip to discover if it’s true.

Talk to our Oman Travel Experts to start your privately guided tour of Oman, call us on 01285 880 980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

Oman, the perfect introduction to the Middle East

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Given the current tensions in the Middle East, Oman often gets pigeonholed with its neighbouring Arab countries. As a result travellers are reluctant to even consider Oman as their next holiday destination. Given that Oman is politically stable it is a shame that more travellers are not experiencing this charming country which has retained the beauty of the traditional Arab societies. In fact Oman’s people are some of the warmest and most hospitable of any country I have been lucky enough to visit.

So why go there? For me, it is all about the diverse scenery and dipping your toes in the local culture. Muscat, the capital, is a sprawling city that is rapidly expanding, yet still holds on to its charm and historical past as an important trading port between the East and the West. The highlights, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, which houses the world’s second largest hand stitched carpet, the Muttrah souk which retains the chaotic atmosphere of a traditional Arab market and the impressive architecture of the Royal Opera House.

Just a short drive from the city, are the glorious Al Hajar Mountain ranges. The Jebel Akhdar, or Green mountain as it is also referred, is one of Oman’s most spectacular areas and also the most frequented. From high mountain peaks with deep crevassed canyons to lowland wadis scattered with date palms and small farming villages that cling to the mountain sides, it is a true oasis.

There is no better way of exploring, than on foot with a local mountain guide who will guide you through the flora and fauna. May is a great time to hike through the terraces as the roses are in full bloom which are subsequently farmed for the fragrant rose oil that is produced there. October is also the best month to see the pomegranates ripen, a valuable fruit in this region. Nearby, is the capital of the interior, Nizwa ,where much of the local produce is sold. A great place to soak up local life, as it has been for hundreds of years. Every Friday the local people from all of over the mountains, come to Nizwa wearing their traditional dress, to trade their goats and cattle in a frenzy of bartering.

From the mountains, a visit to Oman is not complete without some dune bashing over the rolling sands of the Wahiba desert. The sand is a brilliant orange and the sunsets are to die for! Camping is the norm here, and the choice is endless. From luxury camps, with all the mod cons to goat hair tents and bucket showers. Driving back to Muscat, the coastal road is the best route to take, for yet another contrast in scenery. Along the stretch from Ras Al Jinz, where green turtles come to lay and hatch, the coastline is spectacular and the beaches often deserted. The perfect place to stop for a picnic and swim. This is only a snap shot of what you can see in Oman, not forgetting the spectacular fjords of Musandam in the north and the fragrant frankincense trees of Salalah in the south.

Get in touch with me for more information on your Oman holiday with Steppes, call me on 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com for more advice.

An Iran Holiday – A Different Story

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The American chef Anthony Bourdain recently travelled to Iran to shoot an episode for his CNN travel show “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown”. The Islamic Republic surprised him in every way, and he describes the country as “extraordinary, heartbreaking, confusing, inspiring and very, very different than the Iran I expected. Iran is different, and Bourdain’s was my reaction too when I first visited about 8 years ago. And I now know that it is just about everyone’s reaction.

The one thing that keeps surprising travellers on an Iran holiday is the people. Wherever you go, Iranians are friendly, welcoming, educated and really happy to talk about everything. Even mullahs in mosques may want to know how you find Iran, or ask if they can help in making your stay easier. Taarof, a very Iranian form of civility for politeness and mutual respect, is still an important part of the culture.

I was and remain astonished to figure that so many things have come from Persia or Iran: the wind mill, the water wheel, the etymological origin of the word ‘paradise, the first banker’s cheque, the first international charter of human rights, the first postal service, Persian cats, the tulip, the three Magi, the algorithm, the idea of heaven and hell…to name but a few.

However most of all, it is the wealth of architecture, the perfection of proportions of the pre-Islamic and Islamic buildings, the patterned brickwork, the floral motifs or persianesques, and the variety of stunning calligraphy,that catches my eye and steals my heart. Iran ranks seventh in the world in terms of possessing historical and cultural monuments, and it is recognized by UNESCO as being one of the cradles of civilization. From 5000BC to the present, from garden pavilions and mosques to “some of the most majestic structures the world has ever seen, Iranian architecture has achieved a very individual style: a distinct feeling for simple form and grand scale; a structural inventiveness in vault and dome construction, and a genius for decoration.

Pasargadae set the standard for the grand style in which the Achaemenids built their garden cities, but it is in Persepolis that we get a true feel for Darius the Great’s ambitions. This was to be an earthly version of the ancient mythic City of Heaven. The Friday Mosque in Isfahan is no doubt one of the greatest buildings in the world, revealing more than 900 years of Persian Islamic architecture. Equally the Friday Mosque in Yazd, although Mongol Ilkhanid and built over a Sassanian fire temple, reveals all the Persian elements from the luscious mosaic decoration to the taut iwan. A grandeur of architecture that reflects Iran’s majestic landscapes. The culmination of it all is Safavid Isfahan, with the great Maydan (square) called Naqsh-i-Jahan (Reflection of the World). This wonderful square, unique in the world, contains a galaxy of splendid buildings: The Masjid-i-Shah (now Imam Mosque), the Shaykh Lutf’ Allah mosque, and the Ali Qapu Palace, one more superlative than the other. It is in the Lutf’ Allah Mosque that even Robert Byron in his Road to Oxiana, who was clearly not easily pleased, has to admit: “ I have never encountered splendor of this kind before. Other interiors came into my mind as I stood there, to compare it with: Versailles, or the porcelain rooms at Schönbrunn, or the Doge’s Palace, or St Peter’s. All are rich; but none so rich.”

Get in touch with us for more information on your Iran holiday, call us 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

Written by Sylvie Franquet
Steppes Travel Expert Tour Leader

Unexpected Iran

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“Only one thing is predictable on an Iran holiday – and that is that nothing is predictable,” quipped my guide. It was an offhand remark but one that was to ring true throughout my short stay in this wonderful land of the unexpected.

Nothing was to be as straightforward as it seemed. Given the natural resources of the country, I presumed petrol would be cheap; it was rationed. I had thought that Ayahtollah Khomeini’s mausoleum would be a place of hushed respect and reverence; it was a vast unsightly edifice with mobile phones ringing and children running around. There is a widespread notion that the late shah had established an active Western-style democracy in Iran before he was ousted; it was patina and veneer: his rule was autocratic.

Whilst I could not access the BBC website from my hotel room my guide reassured me that many at home would have filters to give them access to such sites and that furthermore they had satellite dishes at home granting them access and exposure to a multitude of TV channels. At lunch my guide ordered a Pepsi which surprised me given the US embargo (In Shiraz I watched proud parents trying to coax their little boy to smile for a photograph not with “smile” or “cheese” but “Pepsi”). Sanctions are inconvenient but not insurmountable, not least with UN Council members such as Russia and China having the veto and willing to do business with Iran. In spite of heavy import duties the number of foreign cars has increased hugely in the last few years; further evidence of change albeit little by little.

What doesn’t change is congestion. Tehran is much like any capital city: technology is mobile but the traffic is not. The gridlock of cars gives way to cavalier opportunism namely that when drivers get the slightest sniff of open space ahead of them they accelerate away with alarming alacrity.

At first I found myself wincing at near miss after near miss but quickly realised that Iranian drivers have a spacial awareness second to none. So much so that during my stay, I only saw one accident, which happened to be the only time that I saw tempers raised. Maybe the woman involved was having a bad hair day – I couldn’t tell.

This is one of the dilemmas of Iran in that it is difficult to take things at face value. Iran is not a country that despite the propaganda in the west can be easily pigeon-holed. It is instead a wonderful atmospheric and exotic blend of paradox and contradiction.

In the west we are blinded by stereotypes and view Iran as monochrome and fundamental. Yes there is a certain amount of segregation – men sit at the front of buses, women at the back – but there is much more freedom than I had thought. Young couples sitting together in coffee houses and restaurants, women driving, women travelling alone in taxis with male drivers. Segregation dissolves into thin air in the air.

Women in chardors are a stereotypical image of Iran. I saw these stereotypes gossiping with each other outside shop windows weighing up the respective merits of revealing dresses that they can wear in the security of their own homes. The outfits women wear on the street are different but underneath they bare the same as they have always been. This duality presents no problem to Iranian women, whose natures easily encompass the two seemingly opposed desires – to party and to pray. “We used to do our praying in private and our partying in public” said our guide, “but now it’s the other way round”.

The other curiosity is a Vulcan-like fascination with eyebrows and fashioning them into shapes that Spock would be proud of.Perhaps most surprising of all was seeing women with plasters on their noses – the badges of cosmetic surgery which is blooming. Thousands of Iranians have nose jobs. Some of the people sporting bandages hadn’t even had them. A nose job was a status symbol, and a bandage was better than nothing. I was beginning to get the message. This is a complicated culture in which all is not as it seems.

It is not the present that one travels to Iran for – it is one of the serendipities of travel – but rather its history. The National Museum in Tehran is the ideal introduction to Iran’s long history. Here you get a dizzying sense of the layers of civilisation and history that make most countries in the world feel like gawky adolescents. There’s pottery dating back to 7000 BC and an extraordinary range of ceramics, painted, and sometimes carved, with scorpions, snakes and fish.

Around the corner, on a Sumerian tablet from the fourth millennium BC, there’s some of the oldest writing in the world. And around another one, there’s one of the oldest wheels in the world. This litany of cultural milestones almost gets boring, but then, among the luxuriant beards on the stone statues from the first Persian empire, you stumble upon a mass of curly, real hair. A real beard, on a real head, with real eyebrows. This is Saltman, discovered by Iranian miners in 1993 and apparently 1,700 years old.

Although it does not possess the royal monuments of Persepolis, Isfahan and Shiraz, Yazd is fascinating for the history and unique use of some of its buildings – the bagdirs, wind towers, in particular.

The dokhmas (Towers of Silence) are stark reminder of the way in which Zoroastrians used to deal with their dead. Due to their sanctity of earth, fire, air and water the Zoroastrians exposed their dead to the elements (and vultures) on these towers not unlike Tibetan sky burials. Like the dokhmas, the Zoroastrain fire temple is worth a brief visit but does little to give you any better understanding of this once great religion.

The fourteenth century mosque of Masjid-i-Jami is impressive for its disproportionately high minarets but it is perhaps the splendid ceramic patterning in the main prayer hall that is most eye-catching. From here, I walked through the narrow streets and alleys of the old town catching glimpses of everyday life whether it be a small bakery or people going about their daily chores. Wonderfully warped old wooden doors with different knockers – one for men and the other for women – so that residents know the sex of the person calling on them. At every turn seeing the bagdirs, wind towers, that were so fundamental to giving the people of Yazd a quality of life.

As the sun sets the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. An everyday occurrence in a Muslim country but what is not so commonplace is that for a fit few an hour long gym session follows evening prayers. This is no ordinary gym session – in a circular depression to the beat of drums and the plaintive singing of old poetry men in paisley pyjama bottoms do press-up thrusts, gyrate, twirl weights and whirl themselves around the small ring. Nothing is predictable in Iran.

Persepolis is impressive in its scale and grandeur however it lacks a knock out punch. Whilst Lord Curzon is unfair to have commented so wearily, “It is all the same, and the same again, and yet again…there is no variation in their steady, ceremonious tramp.” I can understand his jaded response. The late afternoon light softened and made up for some of the frustrations of the protective glass and canopy which cast infuriating shadows just over where you would like to photograph. Perhaps I am being unfair to a site which is over 2,500 years old, was destroyed by Alexander –according to Plutarch 10,000 mules and 5,000 camels were used to carry away the looted booty.

Shiraz is nowadays best known as a base from which to visit Persepolis, however, the city of roses and nightingales has much to boast of in its own right. Mazar Ali ibn Hamzeh, known for its extensive Qajar mirrorwork on its interior walls and vaults, is a short but interesting visit. The interior of the small building of the Park Museum is exquisite in its paintings and decor. The artefacts on display match the interior – this is a small but real treat of a museum.

The garden of Bagh-i-Eram, named after one of the four gardens of paradise described in the Koran, is tranquil and reflective and a great place to wander around. Shiraz is the antithesis of Yazd. There is a far more modern and positive buzz to this liberal city. Its relaxed atmosphere is reflected in the absence of chadors instead replaced by coiffured hair Isfahan is truly one of the must-see cities of the world. A bold statement but one more than backed up by the incredible wealth of its buildings and the charming nature of its people.

It is perhaps famed for its bridges – Shahrestan, Khajou and Sio-se-pol – but whilst interesting they are overshadowed by Maydan Imam undoubtedly one of the world’s grandest squares. It is not just its size that impresses but that it contains some incredible buildings in its perimeter most notably Masjid-i Imam and Masjid-i Shaykh Lotfallah. Tiananmen might me the biggest square in the world, St Mark’s the most famous but Maydan Imam is the greatest. When you’re in it, you can see why someone might once have suggested that “Isfahan is half the world”.

Not far from the square and not to be missed is Chehel Sotun Palace, built by Shah Abbas II in the 17th century is famed for its wooden columns reflected in the surface of the pool and hence its name ‘The Palace of Forty Columns’. However it is the paintings inside that are truly exquisite, even breathtaking.

Majid-i Jami is a large mosque that is most impressive for its domes. The Nizam al-Muulik (south dome) was built at the end of the eleventh century and is 17 metres in diameter. Compare this with St Paul’s Cathedral, which is 600 hundred years later and its dome is conical. As one architectural historian put it: “The Seljuks solved the difficulties which Sir Christopher Wren avoided.”

Yes there are some impressive buildings, sites and places in Iran but it is the interaction with people that you must take away. Throughout my travels in Iran, I was welcomed by the polite curiosity of strangers. It’s one of the many ironies of this complicated country that a nation with an international reputation for hostility should be inhabited by a people of such rare, and hospitable, charm.

In Iran, the government is more conservative and religious but the people are very open. The key to understanding Iran is to meet and talk to local people – and that is easier than in most Middle Eastern countries. In any bazaar, at any cafe, people will be keen to talk to you. Walking through the bazaar allows you to see everyday life as families go about their business. Doorways lead into open courtyards that once were caravanserai now inhabited by modern traders and their shops or stand derelict, bereft of their former industry. But bazaars reinforce a stereotype of the ancient of the exotic, an image conferred on the country by its exonym of Persia.

In today’s Iran, glossy shopping malls are de rigueur. The girls and boys who stroll contentedly along are world’s apart from my impressions of Iran. They are young, beautiful and fashionable – their hair coiffed and styled as if on a fashion shoot. This society is young and modern so different from the images that look down from billboards of men dressed in robes and turbans, their beards white, their eyes disinterested in what is going on around them. It is difficult to reconcile the two. The regime seems out of step with society, of a youth that has evolved far beyond the strictures of law. Iran has the youngest population in the world – 75% of its 70 million population is under 30 years old – which is storing up problems in the future in terms of housing and unemployment.

There will be change. When and in what format I do not know. But at the very least I hope to have changes, or at the very least made you rethink, your views on Iran.

Get in touch with us for more information on a holiday to Iran, call us 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

The Jewels of Ancient Persia

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All I needed was half an hour. Think vast, whole families, sets – not lonely individual items. Dazzling to the eye, cool to touch, flawless. A stunning collection, each piece with its own individual story to tell. Priceless. There remained but one important question; how to quietly switch the alarms off. A visit to the sensational National Jewels Museum in Tehran is an absolute eye watering must and sets the standard for further exploration in Iran.

Travelling south through the arid desert we continued to Kerman in the foothills of the Hezar mountains before reaching Shiraz. This is the place to learn the language of poets, in a region once also famous for wine.  Today, you will be offered a refreshing “near beer” but nothing more alcoholic than this.

Our onward journey took us some 70km north east of Shiraz to the ancient ruined UNESCO city of Persepolis. Here we were transported back to the rise – and eventual fall – of the highly successful Archaeminid Empire with exquisite reliefs and fine examples of their stunning architecture. This was once the ceremonial capital of the Archaeminid Empire. The landscape has changed over thousands of years and where Royals once hunted in forests protected from invaders by mountains, now there is desert. Be prepared for the heat.

Although black chadors are still the preferred dress for some, the modern women of Iran are chic and colourful. They have a keen eye for fashion, which they adapt where necessary; often pushing the boundaries of the required dress code.

Ancient Persia was one of the great powers of years gone by. With the cultural revolution of 1979 The Islamic Republic of Iran was born and their doors were effectively shut to visitors. There followed many years when Iran was largely cut off from tourism and closed to westerners.  This is changing – the door to Iran and its great wealth of culture is temptingly ajar.  Plan well in advance and you will be warmly welcomed.

The bustle of Nizwa

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For me the excitement of travelling kicks in at the airport where everyday life can ( largely) be left behind. In this instance, next stop Oman!

I was fortunate to have timed my landing to the country to coincide with lunch, a perfect opportunity to tuck straight into the delectable Omani delights. The very fresh Omani fish and seafood are always recommended, and this was my first chance to try their lobster.  All you need to accompany such a treat is a squeeze of lemon, a glass of wine and a friend.

For those interested yes, I did eat the whole lobster, but only out of professional curiosity to make sure it tasted as good at the end as the beginning…

Exploring Nizwa, we paid a visit to the Friday cattle market and daily souq. The cattle market is a crazy place full of colour, noise – and a multitude of smells.

Prospective purchasers gather in the centre of a circle and the animals are generally led ( or in some cases lead their irate owners) around, with an outer circle surrounding the proceedings and acting as a vague kind of fence.

Bids are noisily called and accepted or rejected and the circle continues until the animals are sold, and are then replaced by more livestock.

Farmers wanting to sell or buy, local people meeting friends and enjoying the spectacle and tourists all jostle for the best positions for their needs.  You need to be up early to catch and enjoy this wonderful theatre.

By contrast the souq is possibly more refrained as prices are fixed and therefore no haggling takes place.  However certain areas such as the fish market are hard to miss!

Oman – A perfect Introduction

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Oman is the perfect introduction to the Middle East, with great hotels in Muscat and now some luxury camping options in the desert and smaller hotels dotted around, it offers a relaxed and comfortable holiday.

With an immaculate driver/guide and an even more immaculate vehicle (fines are awarded to those with dirty cars), you’ll be driven to Nizwa to visit its UNESCO fort and ancient souq, onto Wahiba to experience the thrills of this sand sea and then to the coast. Here stay up late to watch the Green turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. However there is still something for the adventurous; camp in the Empty Quarter, stay at the Onyx sanctuary or sleep on deck of a private dhow, all offer a wonderful insight to this friendly nation.

Uncomplicated, Oman holidays have remained a firm favourite of our clients for many years.

Sand, Sea & Souqs

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“Omani Ninja” quipped Fareed.

I glanced to my left to see three heavily veiled women, only their eyes visible, undergoing the scrutiny of an immigration official who was trying vainly to see whether the veils matched the faces in the passports.

Dressed in traditional dishdashah (a long garment that covers the body from the base of the neck to the ankles, with long sleeves), I had not expected Fareed, my Omani guide, to make such a comment. But then appearances can often be deceptive. This is certainly true of Oman, especially if you, like me, thought that a Gulf state is desert interspersed with oil wells.

As recently as the Sixties, the gates of Muscat, the capital, were locked at dusk. There were only three schools in the whole country, no newspapers, no radio, no TV and only one hospital. In 1970 when Sultan Qaboos came to power in a bloodless coup, Oman was an inward-looking backwater. However, Qaboos’s ascension coincided with the growth of the Omani oil industry whose petro-dollars have helped to transform Oman into a country with an impressive road system, public electricity and water even in the more remote areas, schools and hospitals throughout the country. Thus today Oman is a smart, clean and safe destination with all the usual infrastructure of a modern state.

You may not be surprised to learn that Oman’s modernisation has not brought universal benefits. Nizwa has long been known as Oman’s cultural and historic city but due to some over-zealous renovation, the epithet is now out-dated. In a heavy-handed attempt to preserve the old fort, all its character and atmosphere has been plastered over. Where once stood a charming fort made of centuries old mud bricks now stands a poor modern day imitation. And to make matters worse a display of ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs lauds the achievement of the renovation.

Sadly it is not just the fort that has been the unfortunate victim of the twentieth century builder’s plasterboard. The souq has suffered a similar fate though thankfully it has one redeeming feature – it’s people. Whereas tourists populated the fort, the souq was vibrant and still very much a part of Omani every day life. Omani men browsed the souq looking smart in their light blue or white dishdashah and their ornately embroidered caps called kuma. Normally the men also wore khanja, the highly decorated curved dagger worn on silver belts, and sometimes they even carried muskets, but neither were in evidence in the market – these had to be handed in case the bargaining became too heated.

There was a definite art to the bargaining of Nizwa souq and judging by the number of young boys I saw walking dutifully behind their fathers it was a skill that had to be learnt young. The young boys, brought to the market to be instructed in the art of bargaining, patiently watched Dad’s every movement, trying to take it all in, trying to concentrate on the job in hand. However it was clear from the sideways glances towards the hubbub of the animal market that they were more enthralled by the cacophony of noise, crowds and strong smells emanating from the cattle, goat and camel market.

It was this market that really brought the town to life and more than made up for the disappointment of the fort. It was awash with people (mainly men) and animals, space being at such a premium that children were shinning up palm trees to get better vantage points. Buyers haggled frantically, hands gesticulated wildly, heads nodded approvingly, and voices shouted their interest as the livestock was paraded around a ring. Perhaps ‘paraded’ is the wrong word as it implies some sort of order to the chaos and confusion that reigned. Obstinate camels roared their unhappiness and strained against the urging clicks of their owners, excited bullocks dragged their struggling handlers into the crowds and goats stood by bleating in disgust.

I was absorbed by the frenzied scenes in front of me, overwhelmed by the sensory assault, and would have loved to stay longer but, unfortunately, we had to move on. Thus we, or to be exact Fareed, drove south-west along route 33, which like all the roads in Oman was immaculate and wonderfully free of traffic. At the small oasis village of Al Mintrib we turned off the road and Fareed got out of the 4WD to deflate the tyres – reducing the tyre pressure makes it easier to drive in the soft sand – before we headed out into the Wahiba Sands.

The best place to really appreciate the desert is the unparalleled Empty Quarter, brought dramatically to life by Wilfred Thesiger in his book ‘Arabian Sands’. For me the Empty Quarter is the very epitome of desert but it was several hundred miles south of where we were and given the constraints of time and distance, the Wahiba Sands had to suffice. Sadly I was somewhat disappointed with the Wahiba Sands, though not with the Sands themselves, which shimmered impressively in the afternoon heat, but with the Bedu that we saw en route. The life of the Bedu used to be one of thirst and hunger, and great journeys to find water. They were proud and noble nomads who lived by a code of honour, or at least that is how I perceived them to be. The Bedu that I saw were constrained by the confines of borders and reduced to living in tin shacks, which looked like flotsam on the sea.

Having put some pressure back into the tyres, we left Wahiba and carried on to the town of Sur, stopping off at Wadi Bani Khalid on the way. The cool, inviting waters of the wadi were a welcome break from the car’s air-conditioning and the palm trees and dramatic mountain scenery provided a good opportunity to use some film – Wadi Bani Khalid is perfect picture postcard material. When we arrived in Sur several hours later, I found it to be equally photogenic. With its white washed walls, Sur was a pleasant fishing village where each morning crowds gathered on the beach to barter over the night’s catch and where wooden dhows were still built in the dockyard, albeit with rivets and bolts holding them together rather than rope as was traditional.

But I remember Sur not for the photos that I took but more for the ones that I did not take: it was dark and flash photography was prohibited. I am referring to my experience on the spectacular Ras Al Hadd peninsular, an area of coastline that is one of the world’s largest green turtle nesting grounds and has an area of protected beach set aside for their conservation. In the black of the night I floundered across the beach, just able to make out turtle tracks that looked disturbingly like tank tracks. As I stumbled into a large hole, the park guide warned me “Beware of the holes.” The beach was littered with such holes, dug by the turtles laying their eggs, which to continue the war metaphor were more akin to craters on a battlefield.

For what seemed like hours we watched the shadows of turtles crawling up the beach. Their dark silhouettes were barely visible and we were forced to rely on sound rather than sight, straining to hear the scraping of sand and exhausted sighs of the turtles. I was finding it difficult to contain my disappointment at not being able to get closer to the turtles when the guide said, “Ok we go.” Go? Go where? We had come all this way just to see some shadows!

What I did not realise was that when the turtles are laying their eggs it is possible to approach from behind without disturbing them. Thus we walked up behind a large female and got close enough to see one egg after another drop into a large egg chamber that she had dug out of the sand. Each egg was perfectly round and somewhat smaller than a chicken egg. I found the whole experience to be profoundly moving, especially as the turtles were so clearly exhausted from their efforts, and felt privileged to be able to witness such scenes. That was until my guide began an inane chime of “Bing bong” as each egg emerged. As each turtle lays over one hundred eggs in a clutch, his chiming soon became unbearable and sadly I was forced to leave.

There is so much more that I would like to have done and seen in Oman, from Bullfighting (a contest of strength between two bulls that does not result in death unlike the Spanish version) to whale watching. I would have loved the chance to experience the vastness of the Empty Quarter on a camel or the stunning fjords of the Musandam peninsula on a dhow. I will be back, inshallah, at the very least to see Fareed’s family, whom I had the pleasure of meeting.

Arriving at the house I took my shoes off at the front door and was ushered into a family room that was bare except for a threadbare carpet and some cushions around the wall. It was a functional room that lacked warmth, which could not be said for the welcome I received from Fareed’s family. The whole family greeted me with warm smiles and embarrassing generosity, even the shy cousins and nieces who were a little overwhelmed by the whole affair. I empathised with them.

Inevitably I was asked many questions about life in England, where I lived and whether or not I was married. When Fareed’s sister discovered that I was engaged to be married, I was inundated with questions about English weddings. Having answered as best I could – my fiancée would have been much better suited to this line of questioning – I asked about Omani weddings. I was surprised to learn that the groom not only has to pay for the reception but also has to give his bride 2,000 Riels, approximately £4,000, for dresses and clothes. But before any female readers get carried away by this invitation to retail therapy, it is forbidden for Omanis to marry foreigners.

Dinner itself was a sociable affair, as we all knelt on the floor dipping into an array of dishes that ranged from curried chicken to sweet cakes and the omnipresent date. We ate with our hands, or rather Fareed’s family did and I merely tried not to make too much of a mess. Despite the fact that everyone was starving because Fareed and I had arrived later than expected, nobody would start a dish until I had tried it – part of the traditional Omani politeness and hospitality towards guests that Wilfred Thesiger refers to in ‘Arabian Sands’.

After coffee, which was black and bitter – the English word coffee is said to be derived from the Arabic word kahwah, meaning bitter – Fareed’s brother Mohammed joined us. With square beard and shaven upper lip, Mohammed had a humourless air about him and I was not surprised to learn that he was a mullah, a Moslem priest. However, I was surprised to hear that in his spare time he was a driving instructor – a daunting prospect for any learner driver. We started talking about his family and he told me that his father had twenty-two children.

“He must be strong?”

“He eat dates. Dates make strong. No need for viagra,” Mohammed replied, grinning wickedly. Once again my stereotypes had been confounded.

Just before I was about to leave, Fareed’s sister entered the room, carrying a tray laden with perfumes and a small incense burner. I knew that it was customary for both men and women to burn frankincense, passing their clothes through the smoke to perfume themselves, but I had not expected to be included in such a ceremony. At first I declined but Mohammed made such a song and dance about standing over the incense burner and letting the frankincense waft up his dishdashah that I could hardly refuse. So I was duly doused with perfume and left Fareed’s house smelling of roses, both metaphorically and literally.

Travel to Kurdistan. Leave your preconceptions at home

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The phrase “the people were really friendly” can be a cliché. Here in Kurdistan I truly felt it was meant.

I travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan with our first Traveller group lead by lecturer Rebecca Bradshaw.

Kurdistan is not like anywhere I have been before.

I arrived a day before the group and ventured out into Erbil from my hotel. Wanting to get the “lay of the land” I left my camera and any obvious tourist trappings in the hotel. I like to walk so as to get a feel for the place, get my bearings and generally observe. I walked for an hour down the main Kirkuk Road to the centre, passing a small local football stadium thronging with fans adjacent to a busy shopping mall, where the Citadel is located, 30 metres above the surrounding city it is the longest continuously inhabited city on earth.

A number of public areas have been created around the base with fountains and men smoking hookahs. Inside the Citadel massive renovation work is going on to preserve to 18th century Ottoman houses and stabilise the Citadel’s boundary walls. The Textile Museum is being renovated and a small gift shop (the only one of any note in the country) and the small “Kurdistan Textile Centre” has been established.

From Erbil we made an excursion to Dwin Castle to see its remains and an interesting, and so far unexplained, cemetery with headstones carved with words, evidence of its origins dating back to the crusades. Set in beautiful mountain countryside, sheep wandered up the hillside and spilled on to the deserted road ahead of us.

From Erbil we went north to the town of Dohuk visiting a number of sites on the way including the 3rd century St Matthews Monastery located in the buffer zone between mainland Kurdistan and mainland Iraq. High on the mountain slope with fabulous views across the surrounding plain one can, on a clear day, see Mosul which experiences turmoil on a daily basis – metaphorically a million miles away from our peaceful surroundings.

We descended the mountain and continued to a flat hilltop nearby and were treated to lecture by Harry Schute, an historian, on the battle of Gaugamela where Alexander the Great defeated Darius III in one of world history’s most important battles that brought the Persian Empire to an end.

Using Dohuk as a base we travelled to Al Qush, a small mountain village inhabited by Christians. Al Qush is charming. Narrow streets and alleys wind their way between the houses made of rocks, giving an almost Mediterranean feel to the place. Home to the tomb of the prophet Nahum, who predicted the destruction of Ninevah, this in an area hugely complex in religious history.

We continued to a hidden, enclosed valley and located half way up this sheer rock cliff is the Monastery of Rabban Hormizd, once home to 600 cave-dwelling monks. Today, some of those caves survive on the periphery of the modern monastic buildings.

On leaving Dohuk for Rawanduz we hugged the contours of the mountains that gradually get higher as they enter Iran itself. There were wonderful views and hairpin bends to negotiate on the roads. This was just spectacular scenery. We stopped at the small ruined Qubahan Madrassa in a wooded valley before reaching the hilltop fortress town of Amadiya best seen from a distance to fully appreciate its position.

The memorial of Mullah Mustafa was next, Mullah Mustafa is regarded as the father of modern Kurdistan and a huge centre is being constructed at the site to honour him, before continuing to the Shanidar Cave. In 1951 nine Neanderthal skeletons were found dating back 18,000 years. The walk, up some 270 plus steps, to the cave is pleasant and it is located in a pretty, hilly location although your imagination is needed once one gets there as there is just the depression where the skeletons were found and the huge cave opening itself.

Rawanduz was the next stop, with its spectacular gorge setting, several hundred metres deep with very sheer sides. After breakfast we departed to see more of the gorge and to walk along the Hamilton Road, a feat of great road building engineering completed by the British to link Iran and Erbil in the early 20th century. Parts of the road are literally carved in the rock forming a three sided tunnel in effect.

Suleimaneyah was similar in size to Duhok, again with much building in progress. This was one of the things that puzzled me, the lack of visual evidence of any of the 1,000′s of villages destroyed by Saddam Hussein during his Anfal campaign to eradicate the Kurds. There are, it seems, such places but they are not easily accessible by tourist bus.

I was told that Suleimaneyah was a city of culture. It had a certain buzz about it, it was where artists and musicians lived and the wonderful bazaar was full of life. All manner of birds were for sale from live turkeys being sold out of the boots of cars, song birds, pigeons, fighting cocks and multi-coloured dyed chicks along with fruit, nuts, sweets and vegetables. We spent time in the Sha’ab chaikana (tea house), a meeting place for men to discuss politics and play backgammon.

Suleimaneyeh is also the base from which to venture out to Halabja. A chilling visit where in 1991 Saddam Hussein gassed 5,000 Kurds including women and children. Today, there is a museum and monument to the atrocities. Nearby, one can visit the nearby cemetery where three of the mass graves are located marked by a long white marble wall and an Kurdish flag to mark each spot. In town, and Saddam is in evidence again. We visited the Red House Prison, a former torture centre now pockmarked with bullet holes from the same uprising in 1991. You can walk through the cell blocks and a short video shows Kurds escaping to Turkey across the mountains only to be turned back or beaten by Turkish soldiers.

Before leaving Suleimaneyah we visited the Museum, regarded as the second largest in Iraq, although it did not give that impression. There were extremely interesting pieces dating from pre-history to modern times. The museum is being helped financially to rebuild itself and to become a modern up to date example museum and offer educational programmes.

We arrived in Erbil as the sun set to spend a last night in our hotel before a wander in the bazaar the following morning. What a wonderful area.
I am so pleased to have seen it now as it is emerging. It will change but at the moment it is a real gem of a destination. For many Iraq brings
preconceptions to mind, but I never felt unsafe in any way, leave you preconceptions behind and travel now.

For more information about travelling in Kurdistand or for expert advice about planning a holiday to Kurdistan please contact Paul on 01285 880 980.

Thoughts on Israel

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There is much to see in Israel from the impressive Crusader city of Akko to Herod’s Massad. But if time is against you then centre your stay around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The contrast is symbolic of Israel as a whole.

Jerusalem remains a mish-mash of cultures and creeds. Although the city has its respective quarters – Jewish, Arab etc – there is more intermingling than I had imagined or rather than a polemic press would have me believe.

At the tomb of St David I got my first real sense of religion, of history as Hassidic Jews rocked and chanted prayers. Even the Western Wall did not have the solemnity I had presumed. There was less wailing but more railing as parties of men and young boys chanted and chorused their celebration of one of their party’s Bar Mitzvah.

Cardo is a visual illustration of the historical decline of Jerusalem. Looking along the tunnel I marvelled at the width and grandeur of Rome, narrows in Crusader times and shrinks visibly under the Ottomans. Also see sense of accumulated history, wherever you go you look down, down and back into the remains of generations and civilisations.

Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries the practice of the Way of the Cross spread far and wide throughout Europe to the extent that fourteen designated stations were formally declared, starting with the point where Christ was given the cross to the stone on which his body was laid to rest. It is a site of pilgrimage but not one immune Interspersed between the various stations and stalls with tourist tat, t-shirts emblazoned with “Guns n’ Moses” and “Don’t worry be Jewish”

The irreverence of those in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was striking. A melee, a heaving, shoving mass as pressing pilgrims struggled to get a view of, kiss or touch the stone on which Christ’s body lay, or worse still stand in front with a beaming beatific grin. Little respect and dignity, but then that is little wonder given pilgrims of the past – graffiti from previous centuries was scrawled on walls and staircases – and the fact that the denominations of the church cannot agree on its running – so much so that the key to the church is held by a Muslim couple. A wonderful irony.

In contrast the peace on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre was deafening in its silence. Here with the bubbling chirping of the birds and the soft chirping of the Ethiopian Orthodox monks I found a peace and serenity that had eluded me through much of the Holy City.

By comparison Tel Aviv is a secular and cosmopolitan city, where, the sun and sea set the rhythms of life: the beaches swarm with people from dawn to dusk, happily bearing out the saying that while Haifa works and Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv plays.

Of course, Tel Aviv cannot entirely avoid the daily toil – the city by the Med is, after all, the country’s financial centre. Founded just over a century ago, today, Tel Aviv is the biggest Jewish city in the world and it is still expanding. It hums with energy and excitement and the Israelis do not hesitate to compare it with New York and Paris, pointing out that it is ninth on the list of the world’s most expensive places to live. But behind the buzz of business deals, round-the-clock construction and traffic jams, the cheerful hedonism shines through.

Throughout the city, but especially districts such as Shenkin, there is a café culture where the hip sip cappuccinos, wear sunglasses and sit in the sun soaking up the rays and admiring glances. As my guide told me, “Tel Aviv people like to sit drink and enjoy. The weather is good. Why not?” Why not indeed.

At night the dynamic energy of Israeli youth brings the streets alive. The door policy at celebrity bars is just as ruthless as anything you’ll find in Soho or Manhattan. The same goes for clubs where Israeli bouncers prefer to be known as “crowd designers”, while one of the scantily clad young women advertising escort services introduces herself as an “entertainment coordinator”.

Like the rest of Israel, the Tel Aviv of old used to be a gastronomic desert. Not any more, though. A new generation of chefs is teaching Israelis that there is more to eating out than bolting down falafel, humus and matzo balls from the innumerable, and generally reliable, street stalls.

A metaphor for the whole country, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are contrasting, surprising and well worth discovering.

Blessings of Jordan

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‘’Assalamu alaikum (peace be upon you) Miss Burnell.’’
I felt humbled to be received with such a warm greeting; a courteous handshake and soft placement of the right hand on his heart followed.
Age old traditions and religious customs are always evidently enveloped in warm welcomes in Jordan.

This was my second trip to the Middle East and I really have fallen in love with this area of the world. Along with an amazing ancient history it’s the people who make these countries so special.

I am not always a fan of ancient sites but Petra really did enthral me. The Nabataeans couldn’t have chosen a more spectacular spot to carve their intricate temples and tombs. Known as the Rose City, the natural colours and shapes of the rocks really are quite striking. However, beyond the carvings, it is through the distinctive Bedouin people that Petra really comes alive. Having lived in the caves here for many years and still earning their living selling souvenirs and providing ‘air conditioned’ taxi rides on their donkeys or camels you get a sense of how they’ve habituated to the land.

Isolated yet welcoming, nights in the company of the Bedouins of Wadi Rum were as tranquil as they comforting. Beneath a swathe of stars, encompassed by desert and warmed with freshly made mint tea, these were by far my most favourite nights of my stay in Jordan. By day we’d take to the 4×4 and rally the orange sands, decorated by ancient rock carvings with black goat hair tents dotting the otherwise uninterrupted landscape. Upon my return I’d always be pleased to hear: ‘’More tea?’’
Well how could I refuse? As in many cultures, tea is an integral part of the welcoming of guests and hospitality in Jordan.

Leaving the south of Jordan, I journeyed back northwards on the Kings Highway to the most revered site in Jordan, Mt Nebo. Believed to be where Moses was buried by God himself, it holds differing significance to people of the Abrahamic faiths. Having reached there in the early morning, eluding the crowds, I was able to really experience how grounding the atmosphere at the Mt Nebo summit could be. My guide Zainab stood next to me and pointed out to the horizon ahead; ‘’you are stood before the Dead Sea and beyond that the Holy Land’’ she said. Looking out from a vantage point 700m above the Jordan Valley we were blessed with spectacular panoramic views, dissimilar to that which Moses would have seen 3,000 years before me. That being said this mountain is not just for those who are led with a belief in a particular faith.

As I neared the end of my stay in Jordan I could feel the Dead Sea beckoning. A serene landscape of tranquillity amongst the shoreline of salt crystals floating in the buoyant waters was indeed an ideal way to end my time exploring the country.
Rejuvenated, restored, renewed. I am ready for my next adventure.

Syria re-visited

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Anyone who has visited Syria will say how friendly the people are. They are extremely proud of their country and offer a warm welcome to foreign visitors. After visiting the dramatic Crusader castle of Saladin I was invited to sit with my driver and his friends for a cup of tea.

These three men were keen to ensure that my view of them and the Syrian people was not what they felt was portrayed by the media. We are all people before we are anything else they told me. They went on to tell me of a friend who owns a small, modest shop and who during Eid this year (the festival signaling the end of Ramadan, the fasting month), had filled a truck with sugar and rice and handed the food out to local people more needy then he. As I left and thanked them for the tea I was greeted by a chorus of ‘you are most welcome’, a greeting I heard many times during my travels.

Having already visited the classic sites of the country on previous trips, this visit was a chance to explore those less visited spots such as the ancient sites of Dura Europas & Mari. Located on the Euphrates river & close to the border with Iraq, this area of the country is a test for the best of drivers with truck loads of Arab families crossing borders, convoys of wedding vehicles hooting horns and spilling over with families as well as others celebrating a family members return from the Haj pilgrimage. Along the road lie small villages, their resident families working the land with the women of this area colourfully dressed with beautifully made up faces.

My trip was at the end of November and I was blessed with unusually warm weather. Another advantage of this off season period is the chance to visit sites with few other tourists – exploring the walled desert city of Rasafe with only a local family and 2 other tourists was certainly one of my highlights. It is so much easier to lose yourself in a site when you are alone with only the silence of the desert.

I spent a wonderful day in Damascus with my local agent and friend Bashar visiting numerous new boutique hotels which have sprung up since my last visit. There is now a great choice of beautiful character hotels in both Aleppo and Damascus with rooms set around a pretty central countryard.

Whenever I am in the Middle East I always try to spend some time in one of the Mosques – I am not a religious person myself but sitting in the courtyard area of the Umayyad mosque with its elegant domed architecture and beautiful mosaics while men and women wash and prepare to pray is a special experience. Women robed in black chat while children run around playing and the overwhelming sensation is one of calm and peace.

My recent visit to Syria has only served to re-enforce my passion for this wonderful country. If it is not on your list of places to visit in the near future….it should be.

Find out more about Syria