A Travellerspoint blog

December 2006

Hormoz Island


Hogmanay was a holiday in Bandar but not for the same reason. Though surprisingly a subdued affair in Iran so I was told, it was the festival known as Eid-al-Azha, commemorating Abraham's threat to sacrifice his son Ishmael according to Allah's will so he thought. Allah intervened at the last moment though and commanded that a ram be slaughtered instead, and so this was traditionally the done thing for those who could afford it. The streets were renowned to run red with blood on this occasion but I saw not a single incidence of it in Bandar. The only discernible difference to me was that the shops in the main were shut for a third day running and that included the post office. It was the fourth city where I had tried to get rid of a parcel home without success, what a ridiculous state of affairs.

I had planned a day trip out into the Gulf to Hormoz Island and fortunately the boats at least were still running, a thrilling ride in a high speed open top speedboat got me there in half an hour at what must have been at least 30 knots. With not a cloud in the sky and down to upturned shirt sleeves from the 3 layers required for Kerman, it was a beautiful balmy day with the sun glistening off the deep blue of the Persian Gulf. As the name suggests, this was actually the strategic Straits of Hormuz, crucial link for world oil supplies and it was remarkable to think that Oman and the UAE were only a stones throw away over the horizon. It seemed crazy to be passing by Dubai only 60 bucks away, but then it would invalidate my single entry Iranian visa so I didnt have much choice. Hormoz Island wasnt long in appearing either, a jaggy disc of sun scorched rock with a circumference of perhaps 15 miles, ringed by a single road but ostensibly no cars. Though the silence was broken by tearaway kids on motorbikes the streets were lined with boats instead, some of which acted as sunshades for wandering goats. The boat dropped me at the sole village on the island, naturally enough called Hormoz, a quiet boxy affair straddled around the northern tip. Most fantastically, like a cherry on the cake, a ruined Portugese castle claimed the most northerly point, it was quite a place. Built by Lusitanian big cheese Alfonso da Albequerque after his conquest here in 1507, it was one of a string of fortresses he eventually established in order to sew up trade with the Orient, other notable ones being Goa in India and Malacca on the Malay peninsula. In gratitude the Portugese royals promptly gave him the sack. Though heavily weathered its walls are still largely intact and the landward facing side is still very high with the remains of a tower on either corner. Its 2 very small arched entrances had been built in enclosed nooks so that they were defendable from 3 sides. It was just before entering on the seaward side that I saw a weasel like creature remarkably close, I guessed it had to be a sea otter but its face was not of that ilk. Partial renovation had secured what used to be the prison, and one of the many arched chambers which ringed the interior of the defensive wall might have been the church. Unexpectedly impressive though and perfectly preserved was the underground reservoir, a very large basin with immense columns supporting a vaulted ceiling. It would have originally held enough water to see out the seering summers and scupper any siege that might arise. More discernible here than at any other point was also the unusual building material of mainly coral, cemented together with red ochre mortar. Even at the top of the highest tower I made a souvenir of a seashell I found, the beach must have been used as ready made aggregate. So it wasnt just 2007 around the corner, it was the 500th anniversary of this place and with it the first acts of a new global strategy which would pave the way towards colonialism and globalisation. What an adventure it all must have been for them in 1507. A few cannons still lay around but sadly too corroded to reveal any markings, also a couple of engraved stones in a chamber over-ambitiously dubbed a museum, still easily readable as Portugese.

It was here that I met Houman, an ethnic Persian civil engineer who had lived the past 25 years in Vienna and who had hoped to spend the night on the island. The place was so laid back though that the few small shops were barely discernible from the houses, and in asking around no-one had the acumen required to make a few easy bucks by letting out a room. There would have been many takers, it was a very nice spot. Hassled by barefoot raggamuffin kids, we made our way back to the jetty where very large traditional Dhows sat tied up, they were waiting their turn to offload at Bandar and were reputedly worth 300,000 Euros each. The local owner had 3 of them and yet still lived a very humble life on the island. We later took the boat back together, the same one I had come across on as it happened, and with the wind up and the sea noticeably choppier it was a real bone-jarring ride back to Bandar. Sat in the middle where the high bow met the water, we both looked at our feet, sure that the fibre glass hull would split under the punishment. We were both glad it was only a half hour trip and upon arrival back at Bandar with the sun now just starting to go, I suggested tea and qalyan on the waterfront to settle our nerves. Originally from Tehran, Houman had come there to visit family but wanted warm weather too, and at this time of year that could mean only Bandar.

Pretty soon it was time to grab my bags and head out to the terminal for the apparently 1 daily bus to Bam. Upon arrival though one of the ever quick off the mark touts dropped the bombshell "farda" (tommorrow). I had queried the time upon arrival at Bandar and could only guess that the boys English had let me down when he said 7 in the afternoon, he must have meant morning. Whilst it wasnt exactly ideal anyhow, I had wanted to travel daytime for once to catch some desert scenery and 7pm would have got me into Bam at around 2.30am, it meant that I was stuck in Bandar with apparently no better option. If the hotel I had stayed at had been better I might have settled for another night in Bandar, but in hindsight it had been one of the few places I should have downright declined so bad was it, and the taxi fare back into town wasnt cheap either. The touts had given up on me and the bus company desks were distinctly unhelpful too, until possibly the last one remaining told me to stick around. I couldnt be sure why, and it seemed they werent sure either. With clearly nothing going to Bam that night, a quick look at the map told me the only other option was to head back to Kerman, it was only 2 and a half hours from Bam after all. Incredibly, I found myself on a coach to Kerman within half an hour, it was as though they hadnt been sure of its operation but a big orange coach left with me on it nigh on full. With Hogmanay passing by unnoticed here, they had a different calendar after all, midnight came and went quietly, as did half past 3 when everyone back home would have been shaking hands and chinking glasses. I spent the New Year slumbering on a bus, cramped and baked alive, and I really wanted to be back home with my pals. Off the bus half an hour later, all I could do was get out my wee compass and raise a tin of Tuborg alco-free "Near Beer" directed North West towards them. I must be aff my heid.

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Bandar Abbas


Bandar Abbas. Iran's largest port with a reputation for smuggling activity, it was the most South I had been to date if not quite the furthest East, and with the Gulf States just a short hop away across the Straits of Hormuz the population was an eclectic mix of Persian, Arab, Indian and local Baluchis too. Waiting for the sun to come up over tea and ommelette, I spotted the first public display of prayer at 20 past 5 in the morning, a whole 4 weeks into Iran. The area is also synonymous with the Burqa and sure enough, 2 of the first women I saw were wearing this most unusual and slightly unnerving face mask with slits for eyes. It was normally complimented by tight leggings in very bright colours and black stripes, and they were undoubtedly the most striking people I had witnessed to date. Surprisingly the Burqa has no religious connotation and is thought to be a throwback to the Portugese who wore it as a fashion accessory. I could also guess that it had to have been adopted as a sun shield in part. Perhaps the melting pot was to be expected in a port town but there were hints of the subcontinent to come in the variety of dress, with some women notably devoid of the Chador in bright see-through saris and more people in open sandals. Melons and corn on the cob were now also on the menu. After checking that the post office was indeed closed there wasnt much to do except check out the fish market, with Burqa covered women proferring tuna, snapper and 6 foot long flying fish. Next, a walk along the waterfront and the pier where many small motor boats offloaded travellers laden with I guessed duty free goods from nearby Qeshm Island. The waterfront also offered al fresco tea and qalyan, and as the tide came in and the sun went down I tried lemon flavour for a change. The evening promenade then ensued and in response the seafront became a street market with snacks, cheap smuggled cigarettes and all the finest tack that China could offer (sic). Ships sat out at sea lit like Christmas lights but others also unexpectedly materialised, just visible as pinpricks. It had to be the islands of Qeshm and/or Hormoz which had lain undetected on the horizon in the full glare of day. Even at night women wore the Burqa so my newly formed sun shade theory was already struggling, many also carried heavy looking sacks or boxes on their heads in a style more akin to Africa, another first.

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It was always a problem finding something to occupy myself with on a Friday in Iran, and Kerman was no exception. I could see very tempting desert mountainscapes just out of town and with another overnight trip pending I thought I would do a day trip to the nearby town of Mahan for the scenery if nothing else. Even the taxi stand was lifeless though so I had to give up on that idea and just wander the streets in vain, it was the first time I had felt trully warm since Cyprus. The day was salvaged in part however with a 2nd visit to the bazaar, very quiet this time which allowed a better appreciation of the architecture. A central dome where the main alleyways crossed was unusually oblate and finished in a mud exterior. Inside it was even more remarkable with black and white piping and a ring of obviously very ancient portrait frescos still discernible. Nearby, the bazaar opened out to one side onto the Ganj Ali Courtyard, grounds which complimented a sizeable mosque and a large and very pretty badgir similar to to those in Yazd, though this one had been unusually prettified. Directly opposite within the bazaar, an excellent relief painted doorway led into the fantastic Hamam-e Ganj Ali Khan, an ancient bathhouse now turned into a museum presentation. Its main chamber is on an octagonal plan, each radial sector being reserved for a different profession so that for example all the craftsmen might congregate together in one area, the mullahs in another. In a second chamber pools now populated by goldfish had been used originally for bathing, there was also the practice of "cupping", whereby the attendants would suck bathers skin through a tube in order to draw blood to the surface. It was finished very nicely in bright tiling and white arched ceilings and I could not recall seeing a nicer one. Then the bawbag security guy wanted to check my photos, I could only imagine because he thought that I had been taking pictures of the few Iranian girls also visiting. Yeah, like women invisible behind black cloaks really do it for me, the bigot. I subsequently snapped one of them just to spite him. Later on I went back to see the giggly burger girl, and then found a net cafe open at last, hallelujah.

At the bus terminal I got more shite service, they were happy to ignore you unless you just shouted out what you wanted, which for me wasnt easy in Farsi, and even then they needed prompting later. It was their livelihood and it wasnt difficult, what a carry on. For good measure they indulged in the usual clerting about with water all over the floor, and I realised too late that they had soaked my bags into the bargain. In trying to rescue my gear from the wet they started playing with my one tin of Tuborg and promptly dropped it, fuckwits the lot. It was here that I met 2 Korean guys, not from the North they joked, the first travellers I'd met coming from Pakistan. They were quick to praise the place and almost as quick to slag off Iran, it had had that effect on them already and was music to my ears! After my debacle in Bushehr there was a touch of trepidation in going back to the Gulf that night, and the ragtag bunch of conscripts on the bus didnt help.

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Mashad to Kerman


My priority this morning was to get my by now sizeable collection of surplus gear, mainly books and photo CDs, sent home. The guidebook let me down again though since the post office prescribed by them was no longer the main one and only there would they accept it, what a ridiculous affair. A boy there gave me directions to the other one but it was too late, I had a flight to catch in a couple of hours and couldnt risk missing it. I'd sacrificed my favourite and difficult to find tea and ommelette for nothing, such small things had come to mean a lot. Thankfully I had more success with the habitually dodgy airport bus service, a friendly female in full Chador took it upon herself to make sure I got it, she probably let her own bus go by twice or more as a consequence. Maybe it was islamic charity that had been imbued in her but it was nice to see her personality had not been subdued into the bargain. Not even allowed to shake her hand, I thanked her with chocolate I had been saving for just such an occasion.

Though mine was an overland trip it was actually much more than a traverse, it was trying to take in as much as possible within the constraints of time and visa, and I was going to give Iran the full treatment. Considering the difficulty of the aforementioned visa fiasco, I might never be back. It sometimes made sense then to take a repositioning flight and considering Mashad was remote, cut off by desert from the rest of Iran and close to dodgy Afghan border smuggler country, my flight to Kerman would put me back on track in good time and in safety. The fantastic rip off of 7000 Toman for chelo kebab (about 5 quid) at the airport was outrageous, and was more than I paid for a bed that night. Boarding the MD-83 of Mahan Air, the flight briefing was introduced with the eternal "in the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful", boy this country really did have it bad. Even more surprsing than the dual Farsi and English briefing was that the captain only ever spoke English and may have been Irish. Allah didnt favour me that day though. Either side of clear blue sky days, my panorama of the desert was blotted out by a lot of cloud and I only managed to catch snapshots of rugged snow laden mountains which contrasted starkly with the lower golden desert plains. In true Asian fashion I had boarded to find 2 kids in my seat and I just had to take one opposite, it wouldnt happen on the Heathrow shuttle. Landing at Kerman I endured a taxi shark determined to get a hotel commission out of me too but at 3 quid a room it didnt matter. I pursued a perverse pleasure in bullshit again, this time I was a French engineer and I could see him quickly totting up with the bean counter in his head to see how much he reckoned I was worth. Predictably he took me to a palace but it played right into my hands, he couldnt have guessed that my den of choice was the cheap joint virtually next door. With most of the day gone I sought out the post office as a priority, but it was Thursday afternoon and the weekend had already started. Bollocks.

The bazaar, though not the largest, was quite a nice one and in search of one of several renowned teahouses in the vicinity I found one closed, another untraceable and a third where I did not expect to find it. Its approach lay down a steep atmospheric passageway of stairs made too large for daily use. At the bottom a short moat had to be negotiated on stepping stones and with a swish back of the curtained doorway I found myself in a very high vaulted chamber which had once been the city's reservoir. Nicely decked out with the usual cushioned benches and wall-hung carpets, the spell was broken by the cheap disposable plastic cup I had to drink my tea out of. Couldnt they see that such a thing would stop repeat custom? It certainly stopped me from going back. It was too late to visit the ancient bathhouse so I found a burger joint with a wee sweetheart who giggled incessantly at the hairy alien, then I expressed my loneliness on the net.

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With no ommelette or even tea to be had, an inedible sludge was all there was on offer for brekkie in Mashad, porridge with vague strings of chicken in it, god awful. You could sweeten it to your taste but that just made it sweet inedible sludge. Served with flat bread, I later learned it to be a barley porridge called Ash, that certainly sounded about right. The locals tucked into it as though they enjoyed it. I gave the young boy 10,000 Rials and received no change, so either it was very dear sludge or there was a culture of squeezing the pockets of passing pilgrims for all they could get. Mashad's story is an unusual one. Meaning "Place of Martyrdom", man thats just so damned Iranian, its whole existence is due to the fact that the 8th Shi-ite Imam, Emam Reza died here in the year 817, poisoned allegedly. Back then it was just the small village of Sanabad. It now covers 27,000 square kilometres with a population of 2.3 million and receives 15 million visitors annually. Though his shrine has been destroyed and rebuilt time and again over the centuries it remains the focal point and sole raison d'etre of the city, Iran's most sacred place and one of the world's largest pilgrimage sites, steeped in religion. With no industrial base, its said that any other city would struggle to sustain itself but in Mashad, this being Islamic Iran, religion was quite enough to keep it ticking over. Certainly it was apparent. All the women without exception wore the Chador, souvenir shops proferred tacky touristy tosh, and every TV I saw seemed to be showing either prayers or pictures of the Haj.


The complex was enormous and entering one of the many gates I found myself in the Razani Great Courtyard, big enough in itself to build a football stadium in. Surprisingly the whole place seemed to be under heavy reconstruction and 6 new very tall minarets were still nothing but framework. This is how the mullahs squandered all those petrodollars. Further on, the smaller Qods Courtyard was in much better condition with 3 large portals and the north facing Great Mosque. The ritual ablutions fountain in the centre was especially fine, topped with a golden dome. A ubiquitous blue onion dome and twin minarets denoted the shrine entrance, and the actual shrine was supposed to be strictly off limits to non-muslims. I chanced my arm and went in.

If the guardians with feather dusters saw me at all they would have just imagined one more hairy muslim and I mirrored the motions of all the other devotees of holding hand to heart and stroking door pillars for good measure. I had been reading the Koran lately and had it with me, so thought I might as well go through the motions like everyone else and play the part, lest anyone was paying particular attention. Later I had my camera momentarily confiscated but I wasnt the only one taking snaps, that was plain. With that I thought it was time to quit while I was ahead and so back out into the courtyard I searched out the "Reception for Foreign Pilgrims" where I should have reported in the first place, I thought I might as well continue the gag. You could help yourself to literature here and I bagged an interesting booklet explaining how to pray in the prescribed islamic manner, as well as 2 works by big chief Khomeini. Strangely, again I was not aware of seeing a single other westerner here and yet this is where they should all be coming, it was the only show in town. Upon their suggestion, I sought out the museum within the complex which has a surprisingly large and varied collection considering its venue. Unfortunately at this point my pencil ran out of lead and so I was unable to take notes. The display started with relics of the shrine complex which had been replaced, such as very ornate carved wooden doorways, a previous cage and shroud which had covered the tomb, tilework which had been renovated, and windows which had been damaged in a 1994 bombing which killed 27. Following that was a series of paintings including predictably overwrought religious themes but curiously also a landscape of Surrey. There were sea shells and some marine animals, a collection of sporting accolades including the medals of a famous Iranian wrestler who had won 2 Olympic silvers, he was bumped off by the Shah's secret police, the notorious Savak when he was only 38. There were clocks, telescopes, navigational instruments and orories. Most interesting was a thermocouple, a device which let you run a radio off the heat of a paraffin lamp. The basement enclosed a comprehensive and fine display of world stamps and banknotes. With that, I celebrated my impromptu pilgrimage with tea and qalyan in a small but very nicely decked out chaykhuneh, before checking out another smaller but excellent shrine marooned on a busy roundabout. Mashad had been very easy to deal with, with a preponderance of all the services I needed for once obvious for the taking. Though devoid of interest apart form the shrine, it was a relaxing spot for such a large city and I left it with more than just memories. Having made the pilgrimage I now had a title to go with them. I was now Mashti Andy!


Shi'ite means party, the Party of Ali. Mohammed had nominated his son-in-law Ali to become his successor, but opposition to a dynastic process by some created the Sunni/Shia divide within Islam immediately upon Mohammed's death. The Sunni's ensured that Ali was passed over 3 times before eventually becoming Caliph, and his son Hussein is also revered for his martyrdom at Karbala in Iraq in defence of the faith. Other notables in Shia Islam are the Muharram, the ritual procession which involves self flagelation, a display of anguish at that sacrifice. The Aga Khan is the leader of ther Ismaili sect of Shi'ites.

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