Camping with Passu’s famous apricot man.

I hitched hiked to Passu and it was a piece of cáca. I didn’t even have to put my hand out when a kind chubby man offered me a lift. He was en route home for a wedding (which I also got a nod to). Mid way we stopped off for some chai and bonded over our love of apricots. My mind was blown when I saw him pour salt into his tea (apparently this is a v popular custom in Northern Pakistan). He then proceeded by adding instant coffee into his salted tea. I did the same minus the salt adding. It was naturally minging but I was literally dying for a coffee that it more than did the job.

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The KKH and also sometimes known as killer road

The chap was a hotel manager so conveniently had some contacts and sorted me out with a safe camping spot in a nice hotel with a jackpot view of the Passu cones.

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I took this photo from the window of the car
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My first glimpses of the Passu Cones

So Passu is a tiny village known for its striking scenery of these cones shaped rocks which reach over 6000 m high and are just spectacular. It is probably the most photographed road in Pakistan.

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Views from the road

I set up camp amongst a load of Pakistani families (terrible idea). They all thought I was a freak and people over here just cannot comprehend a woman travelling alone. When they see the tent they further freak out. I was serenaded with screaming children for the night but all was compensated for the ridiculously good and free view.

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View from my tent

I was feeling  pretty bad in Passu and was not sure was it caused by altitude, loneliness or just general exhaustion (in hindsight it was likely a combo). I was also trying to recover from dirty water incident. What travelers sometimes underestimate is the energy it takes to plan a solo trip and sometimes it is exhausting waking up every day with absolutely no idea how to get anywhere. The added bonus in Pakistan you have no idea of what obstacles await you. The next am I made my way to Passu’s most famous café called Glacier Breeze which probably has the best view in the world. My travel book author proclaims that Passu is his favourite places in the world. I can totally see why.

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The view from the cafe… There are no words to describe this place
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The Passu Cathedral range  has to be seen in real life to appreciate its magnitude

The café is famous for its view but mostly known for its moist apricot cake which is an attraction in itself. I dumped my backpack and took front row seat. I was drenched in sweat from the walk but couldn’t believe my luck when I saw a foreign couple!!! I  am not going to lie Pakistan has delivered on so many levels but it has not been easy and one of the hardest things has been the loneliness. Day to day you will rarely meet a female and foreign travelers have become a thing of the past. At least when things are shit and you are with someone you can just laugh it out, but alone it it just misery. I was desperate to find people to trek with or chat with. Anyone looking to open a hostel? Go to Pakistan they need one!!

This couple were inspiring. They were travelling as a family with their 2 and 3 year old boys in a converted van. They were on the road over a year and Pakistan has been one of their favourite countries to date. Not an easy gig but seriously inspiring stuff. I quickly coped out of my feel sorry for myself mood took in the marvelous views and ate 2 slices of badly needed cake. I was even treated to a decent cup of coffee. Just what the doctor ordered.

Two Pakistani lads rocked up and hilariously knew my name (I hadn’t  a breeze who they were if you will pardon the pun). They said they recognised my shirt!! Who hasn’t? I wear it every day. They remembered me from Hopper Glacier. I briefly met as they were en route back from a 4 day trek to Rush Lake. I offered to carry their bags up the last hill as I totally related and felt sorry for them (having been in that situation way too many times). They said that would be unheard off for a girl to offer like that and that’s how they remembered me!

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Motorbiking through Passu with this legend Shaheryar

We all bonded over more apricot cake, hunza water and apricot juice.  I eventually realised hotel man had abandoned me  (he promised to collect me from the cafe and drive me to a campsite). It was just as well he stood me up he felt like a funny fish from the get go.  I asked apricot man could I pitch my tent in the café grounds. He didn’t hesitate and I even organised to go trekking with him the following am to the surrounding glaciers. Myself, Cherry and Zohaib my new MATES piled onto Cherry’s Honda and made our way to Husseini’s famous suspension bridge.

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Husseini up close and personal
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Husseini’s bridge

The Husseini Bridge is known as one of the most dangerous in the world. Mainly because of the massive gaps between the planks , +/- missing planks and the vicious winds causing it to rock. The raging river beneath really settles the nerves. Local authorities have now banned tourists from crossing the bridge. Everyone was being turned away. It also didn’t help that I was a woman. Luck was on my side when Cherry sweet talked the guard into letting me cross. It was an Oscar worthy performance as he stated I came all the way from Ireland just to cross the bridge. After lengthy discussions I was issued a visa for the bridge which meant I had to to myself. I think he thought I was a VIP and part of the embassy. Obviously said nada. An incredible scary but thrilling experience.

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The locals crossing over into the next village

We rewarded ourselves with fresh apricot juice afterwards (famous in the areas) and Cherry dropped me back home (aka apricot café) where I was camping for the night. An amazing experience and I got a short taste on how amazing it is travelling the KKH on motorbike.

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At long last MATES! Pakistani legends;  Shaheryar  and Zohaib

That evening I was camping solo in one of my most randomist locations to date. It was stunning but to be quit honest it was sad. It was just this small tent in the midst of these sky scrapper rocks. A few random men put up my tent for me and treated me to my third slice of apricot cake. The famed apricot cake is being baked all night long so the smell wafts through the area.

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Apricot Man told me never has to buy aprictots they are all picked locally. He picks enough in summer, drys them in the sun and uses them for winter. Hunza is an apricot lovers dream. The place is covered in them

I went inside to avail of the rare wifi signal in North Hunza. Feeling slightly homesick, overwhelmed and quite honestly lonely I started balling  my eyes out. I think nothing screams more loneliness than one pitched tent in the wilderness. Travelling to places un touched by tourism is authentic, exciting but quite honestly can be difficult and really lonely. This type of scenery is so incredible that it is nice to share. Apricot man was a little confused and did the perfect thing by giving me a blankie and an awkward tap on the shoulder. An interesting fact about the apricot making business is that the people of Hunza are so sound that no other restaurant or café attempt to make the same cake. It is there thing and people respect that. I think this is the nicest gesture ever. There is another cafe that is famous for walnut cake and you won’t find it anywhere else except Cafe de Hunza. This is something you don’t see in Europe.

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Accommodation Pakistani style

The next day after a complementary coffee myself and Tenveer set off early to explore the nearby glaciers. This was stunning we were lucky enough to meet a Shepard en route who was on the verge of a mental breakdown as he hadn’t had human contact in days (I feel you mate).

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Shepard loosing his marbles in the mountains; also having a v similar hair day to myself
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This Shepard successfully made signal out of clothes hanger. Impressive stuff
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He invited me to stay with him on the mountain for a full week!!!! Tempting but no
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Chai compliments of the Shepard; it is never too far away

We encountered some difficulties when part of the trek was missing caused by a massive  landslide. After a dangerous scramble over a cliff edge we both made it and continued on the gorgeous trek where we were trekking around two different glaciers.

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The start of the trek
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Tenveer is an amazing mountaineer and literally sprinted up the entire mountain
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Me and the Passu cones
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Passu Galcier
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Batura Glacier is the seventh longest non-polar glacier in the world at 56 kilometres
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I loved this mountain
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Passu Glacier

That evening I decided I wanted to try my luck at going back to Hopper and to attempt the strenuous trek to Rush Lake. I successfully hitch hiked with some army officers. Cherry  convinced me it was worth it and one of the most beautiful treks in Pakistan. He found out there was a group of students from Lahore attempting the trek and that I could tag alone ( he was determined to find me some mates).

Hitchhiking on the KKH is a dream as it is one road and everyone is so friendly the longest I waited was 5 minutes verus 6 hours in Argentina!  There was pure and utter confusion when I rocked up to Hopper. I was told to go find a man called Sherbaz. A few random  men frantically grabbed my bags and escorted me into a hotel. I ended up getting my own guide because he said the group from Lahore were so slow and hated exercise so I would be better off alone.

After setting up camp for the night I was fed an array of foods; Korean noodle soup with potatoes, fresh cherries, some local pastry covered in apricot oil filed with a sweet wheat filling (this was kind of minging but obviously licked the plate). The food kept on coming and I had dahl and chapati to finish off.  I rolled into my tent. I was told for Rush Lake you need a guide as you have to cross multiple glaciers which are filled with crevasses so its no easy gig. I insisted on carrying most of my food and camping equipment (most people hire a cook for the trek but I obviously wanted to make life more difficult).

7 am was kick off the following morning and I was in for a rough but beautiful ride……

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Leaving Passu behind me via the KKH

 

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Hitchhiking my way through Northern Pakistan. Hunza & Hopper Valley

The Police in Naran kindly hitchhiked on my behalf desperate to help me and within in 2 minutes we hit the jackpot when a family stopped. Their driver initially didn’t want to take me afraid of issues that accompanied a foreigner at boarder controls. The kind family persisted on taking a very dirty Ró in and insisted on helping me. I felt like crying I was so happy.

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My adopted family
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Babusar Pass is the of the highest mountain crossing (by car) in the world at 4,173 m

The parents of my new family were both doctors and their family were all visiting Hunza for the first time. They wisely hired a private driver to take the stress out of Northern Pakistan. They all spoke excellent English (having worked in London for years). We immediately hit it off. Despite all of the Pakistani complications I have experienced  the incredible hospitality of the people. It will always prevail. The family insisted I was their guest and I was not be allowed to pay for anything. During the windy 10 hour drive we made regular pit stops to appreciate the stunning scenery. It really is unparall to anywhere else in the world I have seen.

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Some of the pit stops en route to Hunza
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Me and Natasha on the balcony at Eagles Nest 

Mid way through the journey I was violently unwell and the police station byriani was repeating on me. I successfully managed to hold myself together until we pulled into eagles nest one of the most exclusive hotels in the Hunza Valley. Tourists come here just to see the amazing view point. When we arrived it was late and he had just been informed there had been an avalanche which was causing gael force winds. It was literally impossible to camp. The family didn’t even hesitate and smuggled me into their family room where they had without a doubt the best view of Hunza’s iconic mountain lady finger.

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The view of Lady Finger from the balcony
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The spectacular Karakorom mountain range

The Hunza valley is just heaven.  It is surrounded by some of the tallest mountains on earth. It still feels authentic with locals living in little stone huts selling their craft. It is famous for its cherry orchids, apple trees, walnuts and dried apricots. The air is fresh, clean and everyone is drinking glacial water. A much needed break from the dust, pollution and noise of Lahore. This is why I became obsessed with Pakistan in the first place and it certainly delivered.

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When I was there the Hunza Valley was covered in the most divine fresh cherries
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The Hunza Valley

It is touristy (only with Pakistanis) but is totally worth it and I was excited to chill here for a couple of days. Lahore physically and mentally drained me.  I opted out of dinner that night nursing a v bad tummy. I instantly knew what was making me sick. While I was camping with the nomads one of the children filled up my water bottle for me. It was only afterwards when I had almost polished it off I realised there was gravel, muck and some other green substance in the water. I knew it tasted funky but ignored it. This brought me instantly back to Argentina where  I was violently sick for 6 weeks having stupidly contracted a virus from drinking water from a stream. Anyway, luck was on my side and I only was sick for 1 week.

The following morning  my self and my new adopted family headed off to Lake Attabad. Sadly in 2010 there was a horrific landslide which buried the entire village of Attabad killing 20 people and blocking the valley. This resulted in the lake having a stunning turquoise colour (prior to this it was grey). It is pretty horrific when you consider what is beneath the lake. It is a established tourist attraction in Pakistan where people can hire boats and jet skis. It also claims to be the bluest lake in the world not sure how they decide this accolade. I can confirm it is very blue and beautiful.

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Lake Attabad
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In they Pakistan they absolutely love colour one of the many boats on Lake Attabad
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Depending on the time of the day it changes colour

Next on the agenda of the day was a pit stop to see some of Hunza’s famous forts. After a delicious lunch of the usual Pakistani fare we headed back to the lake for a picnic of mangos.  Pakistani mangos are the best in the world. I has such connection with Natasha and some great conversations. She explained to me a little about Pakistan’s sad and cruel history and how they are still suffering based on the image created by the media. Their  family are from Peshawer which is one of the areas that was badly affected during the war. Natasha said during 2014 they would regularly hear bombs in their village. Their family had to change the entire windows of their house on 6 different occasions! They lived in fear. Behind their house, was a school where 132 children were murdered. This country has experienced unimaginable suffering and tragedy. Natasha explained now  that Peshawer is perfectly safe and that they are trying to re build their lives and their image but the media is destroying any possibility of this. Most people I have met have thanked me for coming to their country and pleading with me to spread the positive word and to come back.

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It’s all about the people
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And Pakistan has some of the best

Travelling is not always comfortable, fun or safe but there is always something amazing around the corner whether it be a nice meal, an encounter with a stranger, a laugh with someone new or a stunning view. Travelling is all about embracing the good, the bad and the ugly. The police incident in the mountains was definitely a low point but you just need to cop your self on and keep going towards that peak and Pakistan certainly has several hundreds (or thousands of them!).

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Beauty in every corner

 

My adopted family only had a short holiday so had to go home. I couldn’t afford the fancy hotel so instead went searching for a campsite. There are buckets of them in Hunza. I found a lovely one with panoramic views of the snow capped mountains. I wanted to go trekking around the valley so I inquired about routes and tried to figure out could I manage it alone. Before I knew it I was being accompanied by these two  Pakistani teenagers. This was a toughie  due to the altitude in Hunza. It was surprisingly roasting during my time in the North (I packed the woolies afraid of freezing my arse off).

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The start of the trek
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My new teenage lovers
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The valley is covered in these gorgeous flowers
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I have never been so happy to find a stream. I was so close to dehydration
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Ró and the boys
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My favourite mountain in Pakistan was Lady Finger

The hike was absolutely stunning and we had it all to ourselves. I thought I was going to die at one point as the boys were sprinting up the mountain. I ran out of water. They didn’t seem to think water was that important.  I pleaded with them that I needed to find a stream asap. They were way too chilled for my liking. After about an hour we found the most glorious stream and peace was restored. Without the boys there was no way I would have been able to do the trek. Afterwards we all watched the sunset together it was very romantic. One of the teenagers proclaimed he loved me.  I still to this day receive regular calls off him.  He invited me to stay with him in Pakistan!!! I politely declined the offer. He was so cute in the camp site he kept gifting me with sweets, biscuits and mangos. My parting gift was a hideous black beaded Chinese necklace. I gave him an equally shit present of a blanket I robbed from Oman Air!!

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A view of the Karakoram Highway from the top of the mountain also known as the KKH
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The famous Karakorum Highway. It is a 1,300 km road that connects China to Pakistan and is the highest in the world. It is stunning and passes through glaciers, lakes and mountains. Naturally it is very dangerous

The campsite was a great spot for befriending randomers. One day I was just chilling and this young guy came over saying he heard I was a doctor and would I help me. I  tell people over here I am a food doctor it’s the easiest explanation. Anyway I really wasn’t in the mood for chats and wanted to be alone but politely told him I couldn’t help. Anyway he persevered and was itching for a convo. He invited me for dinner with his family so I agreed. I couldn’t have been more wrong it turns out he was an absolute legend with a very special family. Sometimes there are occasions when we want to keep to ourselves but you have to commend people who just strike up conversations with strangers. We don’t do it enough and it could be the start of some thing beautiful.

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My new crew

There group consisted of 22 year old Usman, his father, his cousin, his uncle and the uncles mate. I liked them a lot from the get go. They said that now I was their sister and they would do everything they could to help me because they were so grateful for me for coming to their country.  While bonding over chapati they ended up extending their stay and said they wanted to bring me to a place called Hopper glacier. Usman proclaimed it was the nicest place he had seen in his life. Quite the statement. The Dad had just bought a plot of land there and planned on building a hotel/camping site.  He wanted me to go to give my opinion. I happily obliged always delighted to get off the beaten track with some randomers. The quaint little village of Hopper immediately stole my heart. Simply stunning and not half as built up as Hunza. The site for the hotel is ridiculous, like out of this world and if done rights could make a spectacular hotel.

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On top of that hill is the new hotel site!
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Yes I approve
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Hoper Glacier
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This glacier was absolutely massive and had so many crevasses.
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Glacier for miles and miles
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My favourite place in Pakistan to date

In the afternoon we trekked to a new spot which according to Usman’s Dad has possibly the best view in all of Hunza and he was also considering investing in some land there. We befriended more Pakistani men and at one point there was just me surrounded by 30 men (the women once again were in hibernation). A shame for them as this place was heavenly. Lush, green, snow capped mountains and colourful flowers were everywhere. The crew got tired so a jeep came to take us up the rest of the way. It was a bumpy, hilarious and an extremely dangerous drive.

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I think this would make a fairy decent camp site
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I think of worse places to camp
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Laying a few rocks where there were holes in the road. Pakistani efficiency at its best
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We witnessed this crazy avalanche while having breakfast

En route home we stocked up on local cherries which Zubair, the dad kindly gifted me with. They dropped me off at my campsite that evening and gave yet again another present but this time it was for Dom! I was given a gorgeous cream shawl and was strictly told this was for my Father. Don’t know what Dom has done to win over the Pakistanis but you are in the good books. I was also gifted with a gorgeous grey shawl. Generosity and kindness beyond belief and this is something sadly the media does NOT portray.

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The media doesn’t portray this
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or this…
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or this 
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In fairness not too bad view from my tent

I spent a fab morning napping, listening to music and doing some writing. My new lover boy was regularly supplying me with mangos, biscuits and chai. He told me loved me and was planning to move to Ireland. Let’s just hope that will never happen otherwise Nils has some stiff competition.

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The moon being stubborn during the most glorious sunrise

Hotel owner was also a legend and insisted on driving me and big backpack down the mountain on his motorbike. It was a painful but beautiful ride. Half way down we took a pit stop in his family house for some tea and hunza bread. So nice and authentic seeing how the locals live. Their family home was covered in apricot and cherry trees. Next on the agenda was to try and make my way to Passu. This was ridiculously easy I briefly researched and tried to figure out how to get public transport but realised there was none…Hitch hiking the KKH was my only option!

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Standard views in Hunza

Heading North and my first encounter with the Pakistani Police Force; Naran

Next stop was Northern Pakistan, this is the place that captured my eye and convinced me to tackle this country alone. It is known as the jewel of the country and is home to 9 of the tallest mountains in the world and just like everywhere in Pakistan at the moment is untouched by tourism. The journey started off as v pleasant until lunch decided to make an appearance. I was violently sick for the journey and was given complementary puke bags (thank god). I survived the 6 grueling hours and was even gifted with some trendy beat ‘like’ earphones by the kind bus man.

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A welcomed relief from the fumes of Lahore, Naran.

Whilst in Islamabad I I freaked out about being hungry in the North and did a massive food shop.  Everyone had me warned I was entering the wilderness where there would be absolutely no signal, facilities or shops (a slight exaggeration). My once light back was back to its former South American weight of 20 plus kg. I was gifted a massive rubber mattress from Shavaz which weighed a ton so added nicely to my load.

Once I crawled off the bus I tried to gather myself and figure out where the hell I was going. The town of Naran is brilliant, it is high up in the mountains and was buzzing at 7 am. There were loads of random men on the streets ironing clothes, selling (fake) honey and walnuts. A chaotic que of jeep cars were waiting to take people to the nearby lakes.

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A ridiculous amount of jeeps means this stunning lake is overly touristy (domestic) and sadly filled with rubbish

I had a successful morning where I managed to buy a new pot for my cooking sessions. I stocked up on some fruit and veg and persuaded the restaurant owner to fill up an old coke bottle with some salt. Delira with my negotiation skills I set off on an adventure.

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Walking means you capture views like this and have them completely to yourself
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View from the local huts
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Scenes on the way up I would have missed if I had of taken the jeep

So the main attraction in Naran is to go visit Lake Salif Moluk. You have the option to take a jeep for €2 up the steep incline or you can obviously hike the 10 km. I choose the later. I knew I was being stupid but I was really in the mood to exercise and needed a challenge and this certainly ticked all of the boxes. After about 5 minutes I started questioning my sanity as the jeeps frantically honked begging me to hop on board. Whenever I told people I was contemplating walking they would just look at me in dis belief and say it was not possible. This obviously made me even more stubborn and I persevered. The hike turned out to be stunning and I took regular pit stops. One of which where I met some local children who lived in the mountain and they invited me in for chai. It was incredible seeing the hut the massive family lived in. They just said stared at me in constant fits of giggles. I must have looked rough.

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The happiest little children delighted to spot a rare tourist

The most amazing thing happened as I said my good byes. One of the 10-year olds grabbed by 20 kg backpack and wouldn’t give it back to me her younger sibling then grabbed my camera bag and started to walk. I was a little confused but soon figured out they were helping me and refused to hand them over. We walk over glaciers, fields and river crossings. The two girls were as strong as oxes and put me to shame. Such incredible people looking for nothing in return.

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We spotted lots of glaciers which are sadly melting (very fast)
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Breath taking  views en route to the Lake

After about an hour the girls returned home and I wasn’t alone for long until these three random Pakistani lads offered to carry my bags (I did not refuse as I was dying at this stage).

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Good job kids literally taking all of my bags. God sents
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Legend

The only drawback  to the lake was it was flooded with Pakistani families and tourists and was way over developed for my liking with loads of food stalls, horse riding and even the chance to get your photo with an eagle. As a whole I’ve noticed Pakistanis don’t like walking so mostly everyone had reached via jeep.

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This 16 year old girl and her family rescued me from the droves

I was hounded by tourists looking for selfies. I generally don’t mind these but this was a joke. At one point I counted and there was a que of 20 people looking for their photo.  I was luckily whisked away by a 15-year-old girl who took me to meet her family and we went boating around the lake. Having dragged up my new pot, mattress and camping gear I was adamant to camp. Security informed me it was illegal.  Instead I inquired with the one and only hotel on the lake  and they greedily said it would be 5000 rupees to pitch my tent so I obviously said no to the absurd offer. A kind stranger suggested I check with the local nomads living on the side of the mountain and assured me it couldn’t be safer.

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Blessed amongst men!!! and you will find plenty of them in Pakistan

I attempted to explain to the nomads my situation by showing them a photo of a tent. They must of thought I had come straight from mars but agreed to have me nonetheless. Anyway the afternoon passed nicely with the whole family putting up my tent for me. The children were amazed and spent their time just staring. That evening I was given a cookery lesson on how to make chipati. It was authentic, humbling and a memorable experience seeing how these people survive in these isolated mountains with smiles on their faces.

From this moment on things really went downhill. I heard a scream outside and was greeted by a group of police men on horses pointing their rifles at the house. I knew instantly they were there because of me. They started screaming at me saying I was in danger and that I must leave immediately. I got the fright of my life but then was just generally confused as I couldn’t have felt safer. Completely overwhelmed I started to cry. This made the police men even angrier and they instructed me to stop. Not to be dramatic or anything but I was sobbing hysterically and there was no possibility of me stopping. I was forced to take the tent down with a police squad and about 20 nomad people staring at me in utter confusion. It was actually so difficult trying to fit my monstrosity into the bag under this type of pressure. Can’t say I’ve done it before.

I thanked the family and said sorry for all the drama in my urdu attempts. I whole heartedly knew they were good people and that police were on a power trip or they were extremely bored. Why does one peaceful lake need 7 armed police? Any way before I knew it I was mounted onto a horse while bawling my eyes  out and carried through the mountains.  At this stage I didn’t even know were they really the police. It is all a total blur right now.

I was brought to a field where the police said I could pitch my tent. Despite the trauma of it all the view was incredible. After about an hour police numero uno was back saying I was still in danger and it would be better if I slept in a room with the 7 police men!!!! (that sounded ‘really safe’). I refused instantly we all came to a compromise and agreed I would pitch my tent outside their room.

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This is why I love camping you  have this completely to yourself until the madness arrives. It perfectly describes the calm before the storm. This shot was taken from the police head quarters.

In the middle of the night a bird crashed into my tent and I thought it was one of the men. Not one wink of sleep was had following bird incident. Any way the next morning I was determined to carry on and go explore. There was a lake a couple of km’s away up a mountain which sounded amazing. When I told the police I was going he said it wasn’t safe as a girl because it was 6 hours of walking and that I wouldn’t be able to cope with the low oxygen levels. He then went on to say how un safe all of Pakistan was for a girl and that really I should just go to Kashmir (at that time there were horrendous and dangers floods in Kashmir so once again a great suggestion from police man). From a security point of view Pakistan feels really safe and I’ve only seen peace in the country so far. The discrimination against women is a different level and has been the most challenging aspect of travelling here.

They just cannot comprehend why any woman would travel alone, walk alone or even eat alone. They are ridiculously protective over you but not in a good or helpful way. I know there are cultural differences that I must respect but the daily struggle of phones being put in your face requesting selfies (without even talking to you), the staring, the following. It gets tiresome. As a couple or group I don’t think you would not have half of these issues (or they would be less).

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Still able to appreciate this beauty

The first thing Berlin told me when we met was the psychological damage she experienced in Pakistan. The constant disbelief from people when you tell them you are alone, the constant messages of it’s so dangerous and you can’t do that. If you were to listen to half the people you would just sit in a hotel room for the 5 weeks. As appealing as that sounds, I am taking my chances on the real world.

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Scenery surrounding Lake Safil Maluk

I told the police I would just explore a ‘little’. 6 hours later I was knee deep in insane scenery of glaciers, snow-capped mountains and lush green fields. On the way I picked up a heart broken Pakistani lad (now living in Malaysia) who just broke up with his gf. I was delira with the company as living in Malaysia for a couple of years meant that Malaysia didn’t look at me like I had three heads. Unfortunately we didn’t make the lake as I was conscious of pissing off the police and figured I should defo be back before dark.

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Malaysia contemplating life
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Just amazing

Myself and Malaysia opted to take the jeep down the mountain as it was getting dark. After about 10 minutes of stuffy hell we got stuck in a traffic jam there was a landslide on the mountain causing pure and utter chaos. I think this is a regular occurrence. The drive from Naran up to the Lake is nothing short of treacherous it can only be done on jeep and is certainly rough to put it mildly. I couldn’t hack sitting in a jeep so left ALL of my stuff with Malaysia. Whilst walking down the mountain I prayed he was trust  worthy as he now was a proud owner of my laptop, camera and passport. Turns out he was one of the good ones and I met him in the town of Naran.

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Traffic jams
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Landslides are a daily occurrence here and cause mayhem
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Waiting out the landslide in style

My plans for the north were completely up in the air. I tried to research but unsuccessfully. It was next to impossible to find any sort of transport the infrastructure just isn’t there especially for a solo traveller. The roads are in obscene condition. That is why most people wisely take a tour. I allowed myself about 3 weeks to discover this region so figured I had plenty of time to tackle it independently. This is no Patagonia and a different gig altogether. I had no idea what awaited me.

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That feeling when you eventually got off the mountain intact

Travelling solo around the North of Pakistan is a marathon challenge. Malaysia’s mates had left with his car and drove the 8 hours home (in fairness he has been MIA for about 8 hours but still very un sound from the mates.) So Malaysia was trying to convince me to take the 8 hour bus back to Islamabad and he said from there I would find some more transport links (whilst doubling the journey time). I was exhausted, overwhelmed and confused (and slightly traumatised). I will be perfectly honest on this day I hated Pakistan and wanted to be home straight away (and genuinely considered it). I felt stupid and a little bit ashamed of myself to think I could just tackle this country solo with little to no research. This works in Vietnam but Pakistan is in a league of its own. After 3 cups of sugary chai and a pack of biscuits I decided to sleep in Naran and hoped the next day I would be able to tackle Pakistan once more.

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Myself and Malaysia both defeated by Lake Salif Maluk

The next challenge was to find accommodation for that night. Guess where I ended up? At another Pakistani Police station. In fact this time they were so kind and helpful and I voluntary went to them desperately asking for help. I asked them could I camp in the station. They agreed but after lots of heated discussions they offered me my own private room (I think the room was used as storage for handcuffs, really relaxing). I was so exhausted I didn’t care. I have no idea what they do all day but at least this provided them with some drama. Throughout the evening random police officers came into the room to have a goo at the foreigner. They even made me a big bowl of byriani. The best thing they did was assure they would get me to Hunza (10 hours north).

Getting drunk on Halong bay is fun, sleeping in a Pakistani police station is not fun. Authentic yes, but not fun. I swore to myself I will eventually laugh about all of this. That night in the police I did something I would usually never do. I admitted to myself I was way too ambitious and that actually I couldn’t physically or mentally cope with 2 months in this country. I changed my flight to come home 2 weeks early. It probably helped that I was a little delirious and sleep derived at the time. Money comes and goes and in this case it was the best money I ever spent. I had a new leash of energy and finally got excited about Pakistan and braced myself for the journey of a life time.

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Despite it all, I manage to appreciate the stunning views
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Not a sinner in sight

 

A Rough Ride to Pakistan; My first few days exploring Lahore.

The journey to Pakistan was as rough as they come. It was hell but I suppose that comes with the territory when you book a a cheap flight to Pakistan. Every 3 of the connecting flights were ideally delayed one a mere 8 hours so this gave me a lot of thinking/ reflection time as to why the feck I was coming to Pakistan on my own….??

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Saying goodybe to Nils in Amsterdam, I made a little detour tour to go visit him in between Iran and Pakistan 

I think after about 30 hours I arrived into Lahore’s airport and got totally overwhelmed. I couldn’t stop crying while waiting for my bag in the tiny airport.  I was a basket case  to put it mildly. All of the armed guards looked utterly confused. I’m blaming watching a star is born on the plane for the flood works. I was bundled into a taxi from what I recall with a nice chubby man. He wanted money for his ‘assistance’ it was probably his lucky day as I have no idea what I gave him but he seemed exstatic. The taxi  journey was almost as turbulent as the flight over. Supposedly there is a road tourists aren’t allowed to pass through, taxis must take a different route which is significantly longer. Obviously my chap did not do this. I got held up at a police check point as a result where every second person had a massive rifle. Passport went MIA for 30 minutes but we eventually got the all clear and were back on the road. I was dropped off at Lahore’s one and only hostel (which honestly is fairly grim at best).

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And chill…….

I slept for a record 12 hours and decided to check out the Pakistani couchsurfing scene not loving the ‘hostel vibes’. I know I complained about the Iranian heat but Jaysus Pakistan is giving it a run for its money.

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Getting lost in Lahore; this red head look is v popular in Lahore

Uber is big over here and you can choose from car, moto or tuk tuk which is great and your not dealing with cash which is always a bonus unless your me and you forget the fare comes straight from your account and you pay them all cash anyway!!!

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Tuk Tuk

So when I arrived to Mr Jami’s house I thought I was lost as I rocked into a Tax Consultancy Building.  Anyway his staff soon welcomed me and escorted me into the fabulous building. Mr Jami was actually travelling in New Zealand at the time but is well known in Lahore for his generosity towards tourists and has an array of staff to look after the guests. I was extremely lucky as I was welcomed into my own room with AC. I was given a fabulous lunch spread and some chai before hitting the leaba.  I couldn’t believe my luck.

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Making friends

Later in the night a German traveler ; Ivi arrived. A 20 year old Berliner who is travelling the world for one year and is finishing her trip in Pakistan.  We talked all night and it brought me back to my sleep over days.

Ivi was so interesting and ridiculously well traveled for her age. Meeting her was a god saint and brought me back to earth. She explained her challenges as a solo female travelling in these strict Islamic countries and how the discrimination has been so hard (mostly psychological in her case). She also traveled solo in Iran and said it was a walk in the park compared to Pakistan. But she was completely on the same page as me and a sucker for a challenge so I got some life saving tips off Berlin.

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Lahore is HOT it completely drains you hence why every second person on the street was asleep
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This lad had a v good sleep set up
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Happy Out

Ivi, being from Berlin was ridiculously cool so the following morning we got our uber tuk tuk to go check out a second hand market. Ivi, doesn’t buy anything new and had a v good eye for thrift shopping. I felt like a helpless hippo following this cool 20-year-old around the place. First purchase of the day was an ex-army backpack with urdu written on it. Ivi got extremely excited when she spotted this. I thought it was so ugly (and dirty) but Ivi convinced me it was ‘cool’ and way ahead of Berlin’s time and that I would be a fool not to buy it. So now I am also the the proud owner of the next best thing!!!! (who know’s maybe this is a stepping stone to me becoming an influencer). It cost €1 so I shan’t complain. * As I write this in hindsight I can confirm army bag was NOT worth it. It destroyed a brand new shirt I bought as I got caught in the rain. All of the dye started leaking. It has since been handed down to Dom who is chuffed.*

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Berlin’s next new thing (Presumably minus the sweat). This gives you a disgusting idea about how hot Lahore is
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Chai and chains at the metal bazaar

The first street we walked down was a metal bazar where locals where making all sorts of contraptions from car parts, to dumb bells. This was incredible and I have never seen anything like it and they had never seen anything like us!

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If you want to get your own dumbbells made this is where you need to go
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I surprisingly loved the metal bazaar
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So far the people in Pakistan love getting their photo taken

The people all seemed really friendly but equally surprised to see two foreign girls in a metal market. Generally speaking women over here don’t walk the streets, especially alone. We took regular pit stops for chai and chats. This hot drink somehow kind of helps with the heat (apparently).

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Stopping for Chai; I loved the cheeky grin on this lads face
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Taking a chai break from all the chapati making
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Starting them young
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The beautiful daily routine of making chapati from scratch
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This market caught my eye; absolutely love all the random details. It’s a work of art.

That night we were both invited to a couchsurfing meet up dinner. This is organised by Pakistanis who are trying to promote tourism in the area and unite foreign travelers in the city (as there are so few of us).  It was so nice and we had a delicious spread of roti, naan, rice, raita, salad, and a massive spread of different barbequed meats. They are constantly trying to make tourists feel welcomed and will absolutely not let you pay. It was great to connect with other travlers. The polish couple were travelling for 4 years in a converted ambulance which they bought in Poland. Inspiring stuff. These were the first and last travelers I was going to meet for the next 5 weeks……

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Mission Positive Pakistan. What an amazing way to meet the very few backpackers who are travelling through Pakistan

The next day, after being pampered by the staff in Mr Jami’s we set off to go explore the walled city and do some more thrift shopping (Ivi’s gig not mine).  The walled city is mental and in ever corner there is something more bizarre than the next. It’s hot, chaotic and dirty but it’s excellent. I love getting lost in these kind of places and the people were constantly greeting us with intrigued smiles and invitations for chai (that being said of course there was the odd creep lurking around). It kind of reminded me of the less touristy streets of Kathmandu except a little bit more mental.

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We could have had our choice of man
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Friendly strangers asking to get their photo taken

We checked out a beautiful hidden Masjid Wazir Khan. The Mosques here are completely different to that of Iran, not as well kept but have their own old world charm and are stunning.

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This place is so stunning

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Some more thrift shopping in the afternoon consisted of shirt shopping with Ivi. Each costing 70c and on the right person definitely looked ‘cool’ whatever the feck ‘cool’ means now a days.  I bagged myself a green silk number and at the time I thought I hit the jack pot. It was only when I came back and did the fashion shoot with Ivi that I resembled a hideous, demented clown. The green shirt was gifted to the cleaner who seemed a little confused and amused by the gesture.

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Ivi and her new army bag leading the way for some Pakistani thrift shopping

Meeting Ivi gave me the motivation I badly needed. I was completely overwhelmed and a little bit disillusioned with Pakistan at the beginning but I figured if a 20 year old girl could hack it so could I. This young girl is inspirational and is going to move to the Netherlands to study politics. Good luck my friend you are destined for amazing things.

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The stunning Mosque of Lahore; this place is a work of art but a danger zone for selfie requests. It got so bad at one point I had to be escorted out by one of the body guards
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This was the beginning of the photo request things quickly escalated from here……

At one point I thought I was going to have to be hospitilised because of the heat. I don’t know how the locals keep eating these hot curries and chapatis in the stifling heat. Next on the agenda was Islamabd where I was couchsuring with a funny chap called Faz (an extremely devout Muslim). We got off to a flying start when we presented me with some Nutella and a strong espresso he studies in Italy (hence the coffee). Things soon went down hill from here when he started asking me what the purpose of my existence was, what my mission in life was and you pretty much get the gist of it. I spent the night with an Irish lad called Chris who is working in Islamabad for 6 months (thanks Meave for the connection). Having spent the entire afternoon with this  extremely devote Muslim it was refreshing to hear an Irish accent and a welcomed break from the small talk, broken urdu and the selfie requests. We gorged ourselves on the most divine Pakistani food. I took an uber back to funny Faz’s house where he very conveniently had his phone switched off and I very stupidly forgot the house so I was locked out for over 30 minutes in a fairly sticky looking neighborhood. Anyway the next morning I didn’t dilly dally and said my goodbyes.

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In case anyone is looking for some wooden insoles for their shoes Pakistan has got you covered

My short introduction to Pakistan so far has been a series of random strangers trying to help me. The hospitality in this country is parallel to Iran and really is remarkable. What I would say is sometimes it is a little overwhelming as you don’t have a second to breathe as there are ques of people inviting you for chai, dinner, to stay with him or travel with them. I hate saying no to people but also you have to have you wits about you. If you want to come to Pakistan for some alone time forget about it!

Anyway my good friend Em was renting an apartment with a Pakistani girl called Gulma  in Paris and Gulma put me in contact with her cousin who lives in Islamabad (v distance connection). Since my arrival in Pakistan this man was ringing me multiple times a day and sending me extremely concerned messages. Checking was I hungry, too hot and what he could do to help. I think the people here are genuinely in dis belief when they see a girl travelling alone as it is completely against their culture. All very nice but way OTT.

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A rare sighting of a woman doing the shopping alone in the market

It got to the stage where the Shavaz had invited himself on my trip up north to the mountains for 2 weeks. Put on the spot, I’ll agree to anything and then usually I fecking regret it instantly. I once signed up to a 10 day solo trek in Peru with an aggressive ex army Israeli lad I met in a hostel. I spent days worrying about how I would get out of it so my new rule of thumb is you have to be cruel to be kind. I told Shavaz I would meet for coffee but it was too soon for a 2 week camping expedition with a strange man. It did the trick. Anyway Shavaz turned out to be very kind albeit very conservative and concerned.

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Some pretty blue street signs
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The stunning walled city of Lahore

Next stop was Northern Pakistan the main reason for the trip was always the mountains. It is known as the jewel of Pakistan and home to 9 of the tallest mountains in the world and just like everywhere in Pakistan at the moment is untouched by tourism. The journey started off as v pleasant until lunch decided to make an appearance. I was violently sick for the journey and was given complementary puke bags (thank god). I survived the 6 grueling hours and was even gifted with some trendy beat ‘like’ earphones by the kind bus man. I had absolutely no idea about what was awaiting me in Northern Pakistan….A scary adventure of a lifetime

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Supposedly Pakistan produce the best mangos in the world and I can confirm they are ridiculously tasty

 

A Persian Birthday, getting lost in Allamut and a final farewell to Iran

The 3 hour taxi ride to Allamut was a sweaty one which wasn’t helped by my chronic french complainers. There was a heated discussion going on for the duration of the ride about 1 euro. The taxi man ‘overcharged’ us. Jesus, if I ever turn into that person please slap me on the face. This couple are backpacking for one year  so they have lots of rip off taxis rides to look forward too. I wonder will they ever survive?

When we arrive we were greeted by a friendly muleh who ‘attempted’ to help us. I thought Allamut was going to be v touristy and straight forward to navigate.  Like everything else in Iran it was not…… We arrived into a gorgeous little village called Garmarud. This is where the lonely planet recommend staying but it was as if the place had never seen a tourist. There was a spectacle of attempts of communicating in a mix of french, farsi and english. We weren’t getting very far and all we could grasp was the people warning us about the dangers of bears in Allamut and that we could not go alone.

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Muleh and Frenchie; each more confused than the other
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Really easy to nagivate especially when Iran has its own alphabet!!!!

At least the frenchies were on the same buzz as me and didn’t want to take a tour so we decided to brave the valley and prayed the bears would keep their distance. I completely underestimated the Allamut and had no idea of how vast it was and that  buses/taxis and hitch hiking were absolutely necessary unless you had a couple of weeks to trek.

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Views from the bus en route to Piche Bon
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Trying to find the ‘track’ in Allamut

We luckily found the one and only local bus to bring us to a village on top of the mountains called Piche Bon. Frenchies were bulling they had to pay 50c for the scenic ride (we got charged extra because our bags were so big so that went down v well!!).  We arrived to snow capped mountains and the greenest fields. It was glorious and for a few minutes even frenchies appreciated the scenes.

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Frenchie stocking up on fresh mint and chives for the dinner later that night

We trekked for a couple of hours in search of a waterfall and more importantly water!! We were painfully lost but after some more heated discussions we eventually found our way.

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Cooling down at this hidden gem of  a waterfall
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Stunning colours in the Allamut Valley

The following day was my birthday so I was v excited to camp in one of the most remote parts of valley. I left the frenchies to navigate and fight amongst themselves. I kept a peaceful distance from them. After reaching/bathing in the waterfall we tried to find a ‘track’ to reach some kind of a campable place. What we found was so much better;  a nomadic bee keeper who invited us into his tent for chai and freshly picked cherries.

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Getting lost in the glorious Allamut Valley

This man lived in the mountains with his adorable dog Gorgy. He had bee hives, a well, chickens and was completely self sufficient, he even churned his own butter. Even though we could barely speak to one another I instantly liked him. Frenchies on the other hand were not so keen and with light closing in said they wanted to find camp elsewhere. The bee keeper was so kind and  you could tell he was delighted to see people in these remote parts of the mountain. I happily pitched my tent and the frenchies begrudgingly did the same. If anyone was in danger it was me…. the grumpy pair  had each other…..

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Sunset massages with Gorgy the legendary dog
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The gang at breakie

I slept like a baby and woke up and spent the early hours of my birthday eating honey fresh from the comb and talking jibberish to the kind man. Frenchies inevitably warmed to him and realised he wasn’t dangerous. They requested to buy some honey off the man. It was amazing we saw him pick the honey  straight from the bee hives with his bare hands!!! It was extremely awkward when the scabby French refused to pay afterwards as it was too expensive for their budget. A rule of thumb especially in Iran always ask for the price first especially before the man has to put his bare hands into a bee hive. He took it so well in fairness to him and we said our good byes. It was a memorable experience and I couldn’t have asked for a more special birthday.

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Using his bare hands to collect the honey
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Honey the way it should be eaten
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Weighing the honey the traditional way

We started to make our way down the valley as we wanted to check out Allamut Castle and the surrounding canyons. We once again had issues with negotiating taxi prices, with the Frenchies not willing to budge it was not the easiest gig. In fairness to the locals there are hardly any tourists here and they live in the mountains so business is v hard to come by so if they rip us off a little I think it’s totally understandable.

Once we arrived at Allamut castle after a grueling up hill climb (with backpack) I was fit to collapse and decided I wasn’t able to make it to the top. I minded Frenchie’s backpacks while they climbed. I was secretly delira to have a break from the complaining pair. I found a bar of chocolate that had burst/melted in my bag from the heat. I chilled underneath a cherry tree and ate chocolate covered cherries and drank chai from a local old woman while waiting for the duo. I washed my feet in a small waterfall and had some shut eye. It was bliss.

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Happy as a pig in shit

The Frenchies arrived back (more) pissed off because the castle was covered in scaffolding and they still had to pay the entrance fee!!! I was chuffed with my smart decision.

We hitchhiked to a nearby canyon where the drive was almost more spectacular as we witnessed it during golden hour. We were laiden down with kg’s of fresh cherries that we picked off the side of the street so that was dinner sorted (they are famous in this area). It really doesn’t get much better than that. The lake was stunning and surrounded by mountains I found the perfect spot to camp. While on the search for water I bumped into a giggling Iranian family who fed me with watermelon and chai.

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Allamut’s Canyon
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Lovely golden hour

The view from my tent was stunning all that was missing was a glass of bubbles to celebrate by 27th birthday. Last year I celebrated with Nils in Colombia so I definitely missed him but am excited to see what my 28th will hold.

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Tent views on my birthday
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Camping here was pretty spectacular. Lake Oven, Allamut Valley
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The colours of the lake were so stunning

The next morning we did a trek to try to get back onto the main road.  The Frenchie’s arguing really escalated here as one wanted to walk via a river and the other via a mountain. I really didn’t give a rats which way I went as long as it meant I got back to the city.

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Ovan Lake, Allamut
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Stumbling across cute graveyards on the way

While the frenchies were in heated discussions I managed to flag down a van transporting chemicals? he said he would take us to  Qazvin for 2 dollars an absolute steal. The only hitch he would only take 2 people. He recruited a mate to take the Frenchies  who refused to split up so I was forced to go alone in the chemical van. The driver had no teeth not that that’s relevant but it certainly added to my discomfort. My lad turned out to be harmless and fed me with tea and seeds for the journey until we broke down…….

After a long and tedious ride I got back to the city of  Qazvin. I went back to Maryam’s luxury apartment looking significantly more violent than before. I was fed and watered with my fav saffron ice cream and watermelon while prep was fully underway for my birthday party. She informed me her husband Peyman took the afternoon off work so that he would be able to make me a birthday cake!! All of Peyman’s family came to the party and even brought me gifts!! I had only known this family for one day. Kindness beyond belief and I cannot thank them enough for the most memorable night.

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A Man making a cake for you in Iran= Progress! Peyman thank you so much it was hosh masay!
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Birthday dinner cooked by the amazing Maryam
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My amazing couch surfing family in Qazvin with my new pink stripy trousers present

It was so unique also learning about life of Iran through the perspective of teenagers and how much they hate wearing the hijab. It must make it so much harder for them as they can see through through social media what their western counterparts are entitled to do. Maryam’s children even treated to me to live traditional music which was outstanding. I was given a much needed birthday present of brand new clothes. I am now the proud new owner of  a man’s shirt and a pink hijab. Feel like a new woman. The  children informed me my current outfits wouldn’t be appropriate for the glam capital of Tehran.

The next morning I set off early to make my way back to Tehran where I was spending my last two days in the suburbs with Sarah and Ali  my first couch surfing hosts of Iran. It was amazing meeting Sarah’s family and once again I continue to learn about the long list of rules in Iran. It is not allowed for conservative men to shake a women’s  hands, a rule I have been continuously breaking.  I had a hilarious encounter with her cute family especially her hilarious Uncle. They almost kidnapped me so that I would stay for dinner  it seems like they are all in competition to impress you.

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Saffron Ice Cream= Reason enough to go to Iran
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Meeting Sarah’s gorgeous family

After our  escape we made our way back to Sarah’s cousins house for Persian Party number 2. This was a special one as I was treated to a cooking lesson on how to make one of Iran’s most iconic dishes Dolme, this is labour intensive and only made for special occasions. It involves stuffing the vine leaves from grape with infused saffron rice and meat and dried fruit and wrapping them and steaming them in pomegranate juice. It is eaten with salad shiraz. A show stopper of a dish. Thank you Fatima for all of your time and effort.

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Dolme the most amazing Iranian dish
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The birthday crew
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It wouldn’t be an Iranian party without a Shisha and child in hand (simultaneously)

The night was concluded with some perisan music, cake, red wine and even an irish dancing lesson. The next morning after a delicious breakfast spread this is where the fun commenced.  I  experienced an Iranian waxing treatment. It turned into a family affair with screaming children coming in/out during the horror scenes. A painful but necessary experience.

After a bowl of saffron ice cream to cool/calm me down we were en route back to Tehran for me to catch my flight back to Amsterdam. En route to the airport we made a pit stop to a house party. When I hear the words house and party in Iran I just imagine sipping on chai but this was actually a rave with electronic music. I certainly wasn’t dressed for the occasion. Incredible seeing an illegal Iranian party in full swing. Everyone who enters the door is greeted with a standing ovation. Sarah says its a sign of respect for everyone who has given up their time to come. The host also provides snacks of fresh fruit,vegetables, sweets and (non alcoholic beverages) even though I did see a little wine and whiskey floating. As I thought the party was coming to an ended I saw multiple chickens being bbq’ed for a full spread. Unbelievable hosting skills. We escaped as the Persian cake dancing with the knife was in full swing and Ali and Sarah brought me to the airport. We said our sad goodbyes. 0807-2019-112035219627500462843.jpeg

Couldn’t have asked for a better birthday. Thanks Ali and Sarah for making it so special for me

Iran has blown me away in every possible way.  It hasn’t always been the easiest country to travel in as a solo female but the kind people, the culture, the food and the insane scenery has completely compensated for that. This country 40 years ago before the revolution would have been completely different with alcohol, bars, clubs being illegal also it was not compulsory for women to wear a hijab. So Iran today for its people is completely different and more difficult for them to live in a country full of rules. That being said do not let it deter you the people will always greet you with a smile and a sense of intrigue as to why come to Iran?

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On my brief encounter with this woman she managed to communicate to me that he invites the whole country of Ireland to Iran and she will cook for them! What are you all waiting for?

I hope I have inspired at least one person to book that scary flight. Get yourself a hijab, an extra stomach, a few rials, a bit of farsi (it might save your life) and get ready for the trip of a life time.

Next Stop??? PAKISTAN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Road Tripping across from the Azerbaijain Boarder

I started off the week travelling further North to a place called Jolfa.  I had read that the scenery in this part of Iran was not to be missed. This place is really interesting as it boarders Azerbaijan.  It rarely sees tourists and because of the boarder there is no public transport and I was warned about hitch hiking and taking photos as the area is known to be quite dangerous. I took a quick detour to visit a monastery up in the mountains. I spent longer than expected up here partly because it was seriously stunning but secondly because we found a wild mulberry tree so we stocked up on the most delicious fruit.

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San Stefanos Church, Jolfa
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The UNESCO World Heritage Site; San Stefano
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Scenery en route to Jolfa

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The drive from Jolfa to Kalybar passes through the Aras River and is a sight for sore eyes. Simply stunning. Myself and Hussain (my driver) immediately hit it off which was lucky as I spent 8 hours with him. We took regular pit stops during the day for ice cream, kebabs and some more mulberry picking.

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On the other side of the river is Azerbaijan. We could see it for the entire 6 hour journey from Jolfa to Kalybar
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My driver insisted on making chai during this windy cliff side drive. Really Safe
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The drive is so diverse we even saw  rice fields
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This couple invited use in to eat some Mulberries from their garden
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The mulberry picking gang
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She told me she was too self conscious to get her photo taken. I think she is gorgeous
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Who needs teeth anyway
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Hussain, my kind driver

The 6 hour drive featured insane scenery from start to finish.  We eventually made our end destination to Kalybar a small little village perched in the mountains. I got collected by Babak my couch surfing host who lived in the most idyllic house on the side of a mountain.  They too had walnut, mulberry, cherry and apricot trees. They made alcohol out of drying mulberries in the sun which is a v common custom over here. His family owned a bakery and ice cream shop so I questioned would I ever be able to leave this quaint little village. The main attraction in Kalybar is a trek to the top of the mountain to view the famous Babak Castle.

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En route to Babak Castle
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My couch surfing host Babak on the way to the castle
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There is still one  man living at Babak Castle and he uses this Donkey as his means of transport to get food from the village
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Climbing to the top of Babak Castle in Kalybar

On my first evening I was invited for dinner with Babak’s family. I was instantly greeted with kisses and hugs and pure joy from his mother. Again despite the language barrier we immediately hit it off and I was treated to the most stunning array of  Iranian food. That night I opted to sleep outside on the garden terrace in due to its perfect climate. Despite the frogs and ants it was idyllic.

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Kofta Tabriz eaten with Lavish and all the Iranian trimmings in Kalybar
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Up there with one of my favourite spots in Iran

After Kalybar, I wanted to check out the Caspian sea craving a swim. I ended up doing couch surfing with the intense Mohammad. As a rule I have only been couch surfing with girls or families but on this occasion his reviews were excellent so I gave him a chance. I arrived into steaming Ramsar in the middle of the night and Mohammad kindly collected me in a taxi

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Saying goodbye to cool Kalybar and hello to hot Ramsar
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Freshly baked barbary bread in Ramsar
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This bread is made daily and it the best when eaten hot out of the oven

The next day we went swimming in the Caspian sea which is surrounded by the jungle a little bit similar to Tyrona in Colombia. It is such a shame it has such potential to be beautiful but in reality is was very dirty. It was a sad sight seeing all the men swimming in the sea and the women just watching from the shore. I inquired was I allowed to swim and was told yes but that I must go in all of my clothes. I didn’t even have to consider this and was in like a light bulb (this shocked Mohammad). After a while there was a guard screaming at me frantically I was worried as I had lost my hijab in the sea and was afraid there could be some problems. In fact he was warning us that swimming in this area is really dangerous due to water holes and that sadly three people died there only last week. We made a quick and lucky exit. It was only then I figured Mohammad was a funny fish (to be fair to Iran there haven’t been many compared to SA). He really wanted to brush my hair, massage my fingers and take my photo so I knew I wouldn’t be hanging out with his chap too long…..

I made an escape and decided to go camping in a cool village in the mountains called Javardeh. The weather up here was cool, cloudy and all in all pretty perfect. I instantly befriended a family who fed me with fresh chicken kebabs. It is a really authentic village experience with lots of families venturing up the mountain to escape the heat. But, there is absolutely nothing to do up here except eat and I was a little skeptical about camping as I would have been completely alone. I opted to hitch hike off the mountain with a kind couple and make my way to the big city of Qasvin.

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It’s all about the people! This family invited me to have lunch with them
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A family affair of making chicken kebabs (love how they use flatbread as heat protection)
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The gang mid munch (look how cute the older woman is)
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The shopping scene at Javaredeh

Back in Ramsar I bonded with a few men over some Islamic beer and sesame seeds. We eventually shared a taxi to Qazvin. This city is generally used as a good base to go explore the Allamut Valley. At this stage I was looking disheveled, rough and dirty and my couchsurfing hosts happened to be living in a luxury apartment in Qazvin so I definitely was not their typical clientele.

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Proud as punch of her freshly baked barbary done on the side of the street (Javardeh)
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The competitor in the Iranian bread market= Lavash. This is a lot thinner and used mainly for kebabs as it soaks up all of the meat juices perfectly

I was greeted by the gorgeous couple Maryam and Peyman who treated me like  a queen. The next day after an incredible breakie spread I went exploring and shopping with the glamorous Maryam.  A large majority of the day was spent browsing for diamonds and teapots (anyone looking for real diamonds come to Iran they are ridiculously cheap!!!). We tasted the local sweet delicacy of baklava flavoured with pistachio and saffron a divine combination. This is excellent with a coffee.

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Baclava Qazvin style; this stuff is sooo good
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Shopping here= Amazing

In the afternoon we cooled down with some saffron ice cream, this is the best I’ve tasted so far which had frozen chunks of cream mixed through it. I even got to crash a movie at an Iranian cinema. Interestingly, in Iran they are only allowed to display Iranian movies in the cinema, Western ones are strictly forbidden. I was also treated to the  famous  dish of Qazvin;  Gheymeh Nesar. It contains rice with meat, saffron, barberries, orange zest with almonds and pistachios. I forgot to take a picture it was that delish.

Next on the agenda was a 3 day trek to the Allamut Valley for my birthday with a French couple I met in Tabriz. Maryam equipped me with some home made saffron juice, and lots of delish snacks so I was good to go. As expected  the Frenchies were an hour late  but I’ve learned not to sweat the big stuff and I was just so delira to eventually find  some travel buddies for the up coming adventure (generally speaking tourists have been non-existent here)

 

My Favourite Place in Iran; Tabriz

Next on the agenda was the glorious city of Shiraz. Another night bus was unfortunately on the cards, desperate to save on time. I am overwhelmed with Iran and what it has to offer. 1 month is simply not enough. My couchsuring in Shiraz lived near the ancient city of Persepolis so I was told to get off in a random town (I didn’t read the fine print when they said they lived 60 km outside of the city centre). Getting off early on a bus always causes extreme confusion and generally results in the entire bus getting involved. They  love the drama.

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The ancient city of Persepolis

Out of the blue I was thrown out on a motor way in the middle of the night so not great. There wasn’t a sinner in sight except one small Iranian man looking equally confused, but he had a car which was hopeful. I needed to travel a further 12 km to make it to the house and there wasn’t a sniff of a taxi. I managed to figure out that he was waiting on a bag of flour (?) and once it arrived he would happily bring me to my destination.  We exchanged some stale food with one another and he seemed more than content with the gesture. Eventually the human sized bags of flour arrived and we were en route. To my dismay after only 5 minutes I found myself once again dumped on the side of the street.  The pits….

Not  a taxi in sight so I starting hitch hiking. I am really conscious that hitchhiking isn’t exactly the done thing over here. It is also further complicated when you put out your finger. The standard hitchhiking finger in Iran actually means ‘fuck off’ so not ideal (I only found this out afterwards, hindsight is a wonderful thing). Every day I am learning new rules in this country.  Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long  until a lovely chap bundled me into his car and away we went.  I paid him with fresh dates. Google maps dropped me off at a random house and after a few wrong knock on the doors and several invitations for chai I eventually found Najme and her family home. I collapsed onto the floor and the pair of us slept for 3 blissful hours.

I was treated to a divine breakfast spread of  flat breads, cream, sesame seed puree (AMAZING),  honey and cheese. Najme’s mother and father hadn’t a word of English but I instantly liked them, sometimes you can just tell. They couldn’t have done enough for me.  Once again, I know I must sound like a broken record but the we could all learn a thing or two about Iranian hospitality. Difficult to describe the kindness of these people who are living in a county with extremely difficult circumstances. They happily welcome privileged foreign strangers into their homes.

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Cream, honey and hot flatbread= heavenly

Naijme explained that her family were extremely traditional and that their biggest hobby was eating so I was warned. This is a common theme in Iran. I am a massive foodie and can put away a serious amount of grub but even I cannot keep up with the Iranians.  The minute breakie is finished lunch prep is in full swing and they are constantly worried you are hungry.

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Rice for one

First on the itinerary was a trip to the historical place of Persepolis. The ruins are now a World Heritage Site. At one of the tombs we met a bunch of giddy Iranian men who were celebrating the first day of their holiday. They were extremely merry and I soon found out why. They were nursing a bottle of Arak. Arak is a horribly strong liquor made of aniseed and grape. It was almost at boiling point from the sun. Obviously intrigued by it and also the fact all alcohol is illegal in Iran I happily sampled the stuff. They informed me of how they sneak the drink in especially to historic sites they pretend it’s water easy! Lots of Iranians make their own alcohol it’s far cheaper than buying it on the black market.

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Stunning tombs at Perspolis
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Boozing in Perspolis; definitely wasn’t expecting this
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Pretending we were freezing in Persepolis; in fact I think this is the hottest I have ever been in my life. It was almost 50 degrees!!!!!!!

After the trip we came back to Najme’s family home for more shut eye and one of my best Iranian feeds to date. Her mother is constantly cooking with some of the dishes taking up to 5 hours to make. We were treated to the sensational salad shiraz (typical to this area), Kalam Pollo (saffron infused chicken).

Preparations were in full swing for Mai hak’s 2nd birthday (Naijme’s adorable niece). The family invited myself and another Ukrainian couch surfer, Basil to the party  which was in their holiday home near the mountains . Because bars, discos and clubs are all illegal in Iran there is a massive emphasis on family gatherings and celebrations in their homes it is one of their cultural practices that I love. This was no exception and they pulled out all of the stops.

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Cutest overload with this beautiful little girl

A hilarious Iranian tradition is where before cutting the cake the family dance Persian with the knife and the knife is passed on for ages until eventually it is cut. This hilarious ritual could go on for ages before anyone gets a sniff of cake.

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Persian Party Style
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Another legendary Iranian Family
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The benefits of only drinking chai? Non existant hangovers!

That night myself and most of the family decided to sleep outside. Their garden was also full of apricot, peach, walnut, apple, cherry and pomegranate trees.The following morning the Granny was in the height of preparing a breakfast spread on par with the dinner productions. She was adement we stay for lunch but not able to budge I declined the tempting offer and myself, Basil and Najme made our way back to Shiraz city to check it out.

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Hafed’s Tomb in Shiraz. Exploring by night to avoid the blistering heat.

The next day we camped out in Naijme’s mates house eating sugary confections and copious amounts  of tea.  During my time in Shiraz I visited the in famous Pink Mosque (Masjed-e-Nasir-al-Molk). It is one of Iran’s most iconic Mosques. It was constructed in a way that when the sun rises the entire room reflects pink through the stain glass. Unfortunately the light is at its strongest during Winter and Spring so I didn’t see it at its full potential.  It was stunning nonetheless (until the hoards of Chinese erupted with their selfie sticks).

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Catching a peaceful moment before the tours arrive
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The stunning Pink Mosque in one of the most famous in Iran
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Morning light through the stain glass
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There is a constant pink hue to the room caused by the stain glass

Next on the agenda was a much-needed cup of coffee. I be friended a Dutch tourist (generally speaking I haven’t seen any tourists). I was adopted by his couch surfer host who showed the pair of us around for the day. It’s a stunning city with an equally stunning bazaar.

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Don’t even know the name of this place but loved it
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The courtyard at the Pink Mosque
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Court yards in Shiraz
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Somewhere beautiful in Shiraz

I cooled off in the afternoon with some faloodeh shirazi. This is a much try dish while in Shiraz where it originates. I was v disappointed as it’s actually rotten but the Iranians are obsessed with it. Its noodles frozen in a sugar syrup served with lemon juice. I gave it to a homeless man.

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Morning light at the Pink Mosque
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Iranian Rooftop tiles

That evening for sunset myself and Naijme went to visit lake Maharloo. This is a Pink Salt Lake. Strangely depending on when you visit it isn’t always pink but we were in luck. We practically had it to ourselves. The intensity of pink is strongest at sunrise and sunset (it’s not too dissimilar to Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia except it’s pink and empty!!).

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The amazing pink salt lake
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The stunning Naijme rocking her hijab and hairy eyes!
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This place didn’t feel real
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Lake Maharloo is only half an hour from Shiraz and well worth the detour
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Soaking up the last of the sun before heading to the airport

Naijme had enough time to get to know me and insisted on escorting me to the airport foreseeing some difficulties. She wasn’t wrong.  I ended up loosing my boarding pass in the toilet. Luckily I was the only tourist in the airport so it was quickly retraced back to me. As a tourist it’s impossible to to buy things online in Iran so my amazing CS hosts from a flight to Tehran bought for me.  I eventually negotiated my way onto the correct flight and I befriend a cute old woman on the plane. She held me hand for the entire journey it was v romantic.

I then took a night bus to Tabriz. I rocked up to Tabriz feeling relatively fresh considering the hellish journey. I instantly fell in love with the city and at last it wasn’t HOT (maybe that’s why I loved it so much).  It is also famous for having some of the countries friendliest people and I instantly knew why.

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This woman looked terrifying at first and when I asked to take her picture she just started giggling

I started my day off in one of its famous cafes for dairy. All this café serves is raw milk, cream, cheese and fresh honey comb served with barbary (a freshly baked Iranian flatbread). It was crammed with locals and I  instantly loved it. Seriously good stuff (I went 3 days in a row). Tabriz is particularly renowned for its amazing food especially dairy products.

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The only place to have breakfast in Tabriz
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Hand churned butter, honey straight from the honey comb served with warm barbary
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This gent used to sell me my walnuts

The Bazaar in Tabriz is one of the most famous in the world and is the oldest in the middle east and the largest covered bazaar in the world.  It was declared a UNESCO Heritage site. It stretches for more than 7 km. I spent the day talking to randomers (one of my favourite hobbies). Randomer one of the day was Ali who like pretty much every business man in Iran sells carpets. We sipped on chai and talked nonsense for an hour and then of course this followed with a tour of the bizarre finishing in his carpet shop for  more chai. They don’t get pissed off when you don’t buy it’s so refreshing. They are so pleasant, not pushy and generally just proud of what they do.

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Ali; drinking tea like the locals from a saucer
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This cutie almost had me convinced me to buy a Persian Rug
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Standard chill time on the rugs in Tabriz
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This lad insisted on me photographing the un known chap in the pic

Once I said  my good byes to Ali I met randomer number 2; Mohammad who invited for chai and chocolate. This was the gist of the day. I even lost my phone for a few hours I left it in a teapot shop! The kind Iranians ensured it was returned to me. V lucky.

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Dying material to make carpets.
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Typical scenes in Tabriz’s Bazaar

That evening I took the metro to go visit Park Elgoli, just on the out skirts of the city. Whilst chilling having some rose water ice cream I was almost attacked by an excited group of Iranians. Turns out they were all doing a phd in Maths and were at a conference. After our photo shoot they kidnapped me and insisted on treating me for dinner and chai.

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Getting hijacked by the friendliest Iranians
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This man insisted on having his own private photoshoot

The next day was spent negotiating the price of Iran’s tea scene. I think the bazaar in Tabriz is like nothing I have ever seen. I could have easily spent a week here and the pictures don’t even justify this place. Later in the day I got picked up by an 18 year old eager to improve his English  so we went for coffee together. He explained that his Grandfather is 80 years old and has been selling carpets all of his life and still hasn’t discovered all of the bazaar. There are over 5,500 stalls here with parts of the bizaar dedicated to certain products such as cigarettes, shisa, spices, tea the list goes on and on. It’s beautifully overwhelming.  One man in the market even presented me with a rose and a typed up letter welcoming me to Iran and his contact information in case I needed any help. Way too ott but a ridiculously nice gesture all the same. The rest of the day was spent getting free food and drink samples from every corner of the market.

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Dreamy combinations of cheese, honey and rose
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The only way to eat honey; fresh from the comb
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Dates coming out of your ears. The Iranians regularly eat these with chai

I took a day trip to  Kandovan from Tabriz. It is the most enchanting place and often compared to Cappdoccia in Turkey.  It is a tiny village with man made cliff dwellings in the shape of cones which are made out of volcanic material. This place looks like a movie set.  The only difference is the inhabitants still live here and it is not touristy.  There are still around 600 people living here. It is surrounded by gorgeous mountains. We explored and spoke to the locals living there. The conditions here in Winter are vicious.

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600 people still live in the small cliff side village
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Every house is constructed into the cliff side
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Exploring the surrounding mountains in Kandovan
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The cutest little Iranian Family
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I love the pride in his face. He specifically asked me to include his rings in the photograph
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Local child selling his families crafts

I wish I had more time in Tabriz. An FYI there are direct flights from Hamburg to Tabriz and it only takes 5 hours. Don’t hesitate just book that flight to the dreamiest place in Iran.

 

Yazd; The Most Ancient Settlement on Earth

My experience in Iran to date has been a series of kidnappings from the kindest Iranians. Hospitality like I have never experienced. Randomers are constantly coming up to you on the street simply thanking you for coming to their country, there have been endless invitations for chai and families are constantly asking to host me. Next up was Mostafa, a kind stranger who helped me in a bus station as I was trying (very badly) to try and buy an Iranian sim card. This is some ordeal. Nothing really is straightforward in Iran but that is part of its charm and challenge. I figured it would be a buy over the counter job but no…..  Mostafa took me in a taxi and brought me to an official office. They requested my passport, signatures, finger prints and a witness. After a lot of hula balu I managed to get one, you would swear I was applying for Iranian citizenship! Turns out the sim card didn’t even work so all in all a good days work!

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The media has portrayed Iran as being extremely dangerous. Yet day after day I am welcomed by the the kindest people you could possibly imagine
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This family were really dangerous!!!

That night, I was booked onto the night bus to Yazd so I had one more day to explore the famous Mosque’s in Esfahan. They are completely out of this world and difficult to comprehend how they were built  over 400 hundred years ago. Myself and Mostafa decided to hit the sites together. First up was the empty Majed Jameh Mosque which I fell in love with.

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Majed Jameh Mosque, Esfahan
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Majed Jameh Mosque, Esfahan

We then sampled the signature dish of Esfahan; byriani which is flat bread stuffed with minced mutton and offal served with the typical chunks of onion, fresh herbs and of course  duk (this salty milk drink in definitely growing on me and Motsafa proclaimed it was the best he has ever tasted!).

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Byriani; the most iconic dish of Esfahan

The bazaar surrounds Naqsh-e Jahan Square and was named a UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. I could easily spend days browsing in bazaars. You are constantly getting invited into bakeries, carpet and craft shops. The people aren’t pushy at all and are genuinely intrigued by you and so excited to see tourists in Iran. Shopping is therefore so pleasant. One act of genuine trust that amazed me was when Mostafa handed the taxi driver his credit card and gave him his pin number and asked him to go to the atm and with draw the taxi fare! Just crazy how trust worthy everyone is here.

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It’s no Phibsborough shopping centre but I suppose it will do the job. Esfahan’s Unesco Heritage Bazaar
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Strolling through Esfshan’s stunning Bazaar
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Artists at work in Esfahan
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The bazaar has an entire section dedicated to copper
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The home of stunning Persian rugs

The bazaar was empty as it was siesta time. We almost had the place to ourselves. Esfahan is famous for its copper, artwork, carpets and delicious gaz; a nougat stuffed with pistachio nuts and flavored with honey and rose water. The Iranians are sugar obsessed and it wouldn’t be untypical for them to consume 4 to 5 sugar cubes per cup of tea. Tea consumption here is on a next level with some of them having up to 20 cups per day. Luckily in Esfahan I managed to track down a much needed cup of coffee which is no easy task in tea obsessed Iran.

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Esfahan’s Mosque
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Still utterly blown away by this archway I had to include it again!

I camped out at the bus station waiting  from my night bus to Yazd. It is impossible to be alone in Iran there is constantly  droves of people wanting to speak, stare or photograph you.  Once again the kindness of Iranian strangers featured where a young boy in the hotel treated me to 5 cups of tea (in the loo all night!!), cucumbers, apricots and an empanada!!!(in Iran!!) an unusual but very welcomed combination. For a split second it brought me back to Argentina.

I didn’t sleep a wink on the night bus despite the buses being quite comfy there is the compulsory blaring of Iranian music at 4 am and the odd fuzzy film playing in the background. I arrived at 5 am, and as per usual felt rough.  A random skinny man with no teeth appeared out of the blue and grabbed my backpack and started to run away with it so naturally I followed him. He threw it into the boot of his car and said he was a taxi man, with no energy to argue we agreed 150,000 rial to take me to my couchsurfing host. Seconds later skinny man starts screaming at me in Farsi or Arabic (or both) because we were  lost, neither of us had an iota where we were except that we were on a long and tedious motor way. I eventually managed to get google maps up and we obtained relative peace until 5 seconds later he was screaming again. I was then thrown a phone and someone with some broken English was also screaming down the phone at me. The journey was subsequently upped to 600,000 rial.  The flood-works were inevitable  and at this stage out he freaked out and through me out of the car (without my backpack!). Seconds later skinny crazy man was back and ushering me into the car once again. After pure and utter chaos we eventually made it to the house….. We left on okay terms (relatively speaking). An aggressive start to the morning but I was glad to have made it to Yazd.

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Yazd, the most ancient settlement on earth

Aryan my new couchsurfer gave me a room in his Mam’s house  as he was working. So after some  quick shut eye I ventured into the amazing city of Yazd. I  have never seen anything like this place. The old city is one of the most ancient settlements on earth.  It features windy lanes and all of the buildings in the historic town are made entirely from mud and straw. The city is wedged between two deserts and like everywhere else in Iran at the moment it is piping hot. So regular pit stops were required for saffron ice cream and rose water tea (an Iranian delicacy that is out of this world).

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My pit stop for breakfast was at the glorious Art’s centre
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Breakfast with a view in Yazd
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Art works in Yazd

I think Yazd was definitely the hottest of the cities to date. The hijab was literally glued to my head as I pottered around drenched in sweat for the day. The only benefit to the heat was no one else was brave enough to venture out so I practically had the city to myself.  Yazd is the perfect place to get lost in. The mud brick alleys are stunning and so enchanting. It is also famous for Baklava and other sweet confectionery. I got a few free samples which I obviously inhaled but they are sickly sweet and not my gig. The city consists of mostly rooftop cafes and restaurants with some serious views of the ancient city.

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Some sturdy mud infrastructure
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Getting lost
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Standards doors in Yazd

Mid way through the day I was about to collapse from the heat so I opted to give the museums a miss and head back to the apartment to take a siesta pre dinner. What I failed to remember was the address of the house. After another confused taxi ride I rocked up to what I thought was the house and after banging the door down I got the fright of my life when a Muleh answered the door. These are the scary priests who are ruling Iran at the moment. I immediately knew this wasn’t the right gaf. I tried to asked the Muleh did he know Aryan  but then realised this was risky business as couch surfing is illegal in Iran (along with an extremely long list of other things). Anyway the Muleh just looked pissed off and shut the door in my face. I knocked on a few other random houses and no one knew who Aryon was (of course they didn’t…. I was on the wrong street!!). Anyway after lot of hula balu some random man on the street lead me down a lane and ushered me into a house which happened to be Aryan’s. I almost kissed the man as I was v close to fainting from the heat (It was almost 50 degrees). Luckily I didn’t as I had a sneaky feeling Muleh was on the lookout. Anyway a minor blip in the day that ended well. I took 3 cold showers, ate some ice and felt some what human again.

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I fell in love with the ancient alleys in Yazd
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Every corner of the city features intrinsic pieces of art
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These walls are entirely made out of mud

The next day I was booked into Ecolodge Nartitee in a random little village located outside Yazd called Taft. The lodge was paradise personified. It is a historic building made out of mud just like everything else in the area. The place was filled with cool people, mulberry, almond, walnut, apricot, apple and loads of pomegranate trees. I was fed and watered with the freshest organic and homemade food for  2 days.

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Breakfast for one…
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Baby pomegranate and its flower
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The house is decorated with dried pomegranates. They are really famous in this area
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Afternoon activities in the Ecolodge
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Traditional way of drinking water

On my second day, I got up at the craic of dawn to go explore the area on bicycle trying to escape the vicious heat.

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8am in Taft

Later in the day I chilled with the Grannies of the house where we spent the afternoon picking apricots and singing in Farsi.  Anyone visiting Yazd you need to check out this place. It is good for the soul and gave the batteries a much needed re-charge.

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Sleeping outside on the roof in Nartitee Ecolodge, Taft
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Delbar picking her apricots in Taft
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This was the owners mother who spent the whole day singing and smiling. A beautiful Woman
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The amazing memory wall in Naritee Ecolodge (you can spot the Irish flag hiding!)

 

 

 

An Epic Train Journey in Iran

The train from Andimesk to Dorud is rated by different travel bloggers as one of the most scenic journeys in the world.  Lots of Iranians don’t even know it exists (or tourists) for that reason it still costs 50c and is not easy to get to. I grabbed a bus from Kermanshah and in the middle of the night was dropped off in random Andimesk.

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Apparently one of these lads was the train driver! Doesn’t instil much confidence…

This place would rarely see a tourist pass through so when I arrived at the train station I stood out like a sore thumb. The reason this train is so fascinating is that it passes through valleys, peaks and dozens of tunnels while winding through the Zagros mountains. When the train staff saw me they immediately invited me for breakfast of flat breads, chai and rice pudding. It prepped me nicely for the stunning journey ahead. I was absolutely beefed following the sleepless night bus but after a while the tiredness faded as I was glued to the window completely in awe of the scenery.

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Sunrise as the train sets to leave Andimesk station

Most people take this 6-7 hour journey at night and I had read it gets pretty chaotic with locals having to stand for the entire journey. It was reported to be like an endurance test I was obviously oblivious to this in my carriage. Naturally I was intrigued by this ‘endurance test’ so I went to exploring and saw people sleeping in storage containers  and on the floor etc. Before I knew it I was whisked away by an Iranian bearded man with no English. All I gathered was he was pleading with me to go visit his mother. So naturally I obliged. I met his mother and the whole family who looked stunned to be witnessing such a sight (me in a hijab!!!!). Anyway seconds later the train conductor was down and escorted me back telling me it was too dangerous to be down there. Back to the throne for some more chai and biscuits feeling somewhat guilty and sad for the division and the reasons why I wasn’t allowed mingle with the locals.

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Typical scenes on the train journey
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There was killings with me and an Iranian Man as I had the windows open for the whole journey. The locals didn’t seem bothered by the view and he grumpily kept repeating he was cold! (it was over 40 degrees…….)

I cannot recommend the train experience enough. It is a pain in the arse to get to it but well worth the effort and so far a definite Iranian highlight. You will have all to your self and be fully immersed in the genuine amazing Iranian hospitality.

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A football pitch with a view!

Once I got off the train I was treated to some blistering heat so I decided to camp out for a while to try and figure out my options. Dorud’s main appeal is the train and the surrounding mountains and not wanting to waste time I opted to make my way towards Esfahan that night (or try!). Within 5 minutes the obsessed Iranian family were back over pleading with me to go to their house (well that’s what I think, it was in Farsi). I tried to explain I wanted to go to Esfahan, 7 hours away. I grasped that they wanted the honor to feed me and then they would bring me to the bus station afterwards.  I figured the old man and women made the creepy man seem a little bit more legit. I was aware that the train staff told me they were dangerous so I insisted on saying no at the beginning. With very little will power, little other options and no energy to brave the heat I took them up on their tempting offer. I know most people would cleverly run a mile but on this occasion my gut feeling was telling me they were decent people and to give them a chance. Before I knew it I was bundled into a taxi and away we went for a mysterious lunch. They were a family of 8 all of the men were called Mohammad except one who was called Homid v easy to remember. In Iran, if they are not called Mohammaed a safe bet is always Ali.

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No time wasting and all the stops were brought out including their pride and joy; Shisa

The language barrier is killing me and reminds  me of my early South American days except it’s worse here because there is absolutely no one else to help you even google is pretty useless as they don’t use our alphabet.

Their home was one big room where they all ate and slept. The old woman got straight to work wishing for me to experience a traditional kebab. She started violently tearing up a chicken carcass so I knew it was the real deal.  This particular family said they only have kebabs for special occasions so I was extremely privileged.  I was in two minds about Hamid the main organizer of the kidnapping.  He started to pray while we were all eating which made me a little un easy.  His family on the other-hand had completely  won me over and were fab.  They also wanted me to take a traditional Turkish bath ( a step too far even for me).

The lunch was an experience in itself and typical to most Iranian houses was eaten off the floor with. I love the whole culture of eating off the floor it is extremely sociable and most families I’ve stayed with don’t even own a table. I have realised I have an extremely sharp and protruding bum bone which is actually causing serious issues when trying to eat. It’s a pain in the arse (if you will pardon the pun!). Tables are a thing of the past so I better get used to it.

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The hair dryer working it’s magic!

The mother made her own yogurt and flat breads. The chicken kebab with rice was a sensation. They also have a thing about feeding you up and are so enthusiastic they don’t want you to stop eating.  I was constantly getting mounds of food thrown onto my plate with beaming smiles staring at me as I inhaled the feast. At one point they started taking food from their own plates to add to my pile. So excessive but they genuinely get offended if you don’t finish your plate.

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The crew from the train

After the grub I was keen to make my getaway eager to make it to Esfahan that night but Homid and his brother  had other plans. They were adement in taking me to a random location ‘to take photos of nature’. One thing about Iranians they don’t involve you in the decision making and bundle you into car and away you go (their intentions are usually good). 40 degree heat meant photos of nature were v low on my list of priorities. Dorud is a bit of a ghost town so with no taxis I relayed on the lift. Before I knew it I was in ‘nature’ and not a bus station in sight. It is cute how proud they are of their country and how they all want you to have the best memory of it but I was still a little wary of the brothers. Mohammad starting speaking about blood thirsty Arabs, ISIS and religion in the car and I absolutely knew this was my que to leave.

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‘Loving’ my nature photo shoot!

Luckily after our nature photos we made it to the bus station but not so lucky was the lack of transport. There were no more buses or taxis to Esfahan that night….. Mohammad and co immediately offered to drive me to Esfahan a mere 7 hours in one direction. With the ridiculous offer I naturally declined but again he just starting driving towards Esfahan!!! I insisted on getting out of the car  and mid driving I just opened the door (generally speaking I’m delighted with the easy option of a lift but on this occasion I definitely didn’t want to spend another 7 hours with the pair).

I made the executive decision that hitch hiking would be far more desirable and safer option. They reluctantly pulled over and the three of us hitch hiked. In fairness to the pair they explained to drivers that I needed to go to Esfahan. Having their Farsi was useful as Iranian’s wouldn’t be that accustomed to hitchhikers but because they are such kind people most of them stopped to make sure I was okay anyway.

I was lucky enough after only 5 minutes a gorgeous family who were headed in the direction of Esfahan kindly stopped. Needless to say not a word of English was spoken but I immediately hit it off with them as the Dad danced some Persian while simultaneously speeding down the motorway. Not dangerous at all. Things escalated quickly and before I knew it I was being bundled into their house and was being pampered by a about 20 giddy Iranians. I agreed to stay the night as I hadn’t a clue where I was but knew I was in good hands. The children insisted on fanning me, it was way too much but deep down I was loving it.  They genuinely treated me like royalty.  Iranian’s are feeders to put it mildy and I was presented with dish after dish as they kept taking photos of me while I was eating. An extremely uncomfortable yet amusing situation.

The night consisted of photo shoots with each individual family member. About 10 of them crushed into one room so that I would have my own private room. Kindness beyond words. I wasn’t even allowed to carry my backpack, they got offended if I did. I even got a tutorial on how to correctly wear the hijab there is an art to this that I have yet to master.

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These moments where you wonder how the hell did I end up here?

The next morning after a delish breakfast of flatbreads, cream, sour grape jam, eggs and cheese I was once again bundled into a car en route to an unknown destination. If you go to Iran you need to be completely happy with going with the flow. It’s the only way you will survive.

The destination is probably the randomist to date….Before I knew it I was in an Iranian hospital visiting one of the family members who was just out of surgery. This was a ludicrous situation where I was in a room full of women getting nose jobs done They all wanted their photo taken with me. I eventually managed to escape the ridiculous hospital situation and managed to go explore beautiful Esfahan with the Dad and their gorgeous 14 year old daughter. Like I said before nose jobs are ridiculously common over here I have never seen anything like it.

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Shah Mosque’s entrance, Esfahan
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The most stunning archway in Esfahan; Shah Mosque

In the afternoon we said our goodbyes and I made my way to my couch surfing family. That night after a traditional Iranian feast of ghorme Sabzi we drove into the city to visit Som e Pol which is really popular with the locals at night to have chai and chill.

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Som-e-Pol; One of Esfahan’s famous bridges where the locals gather in their droves the enjoy the sunset
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Really nice memories of this gorgeous couple who welcomed me into their home in Esfahan

Camping near the Iraqi Boarder

The tomato farm where I was camping was at the height of activity during the night. Sleep was difficult with the sound of hundreds of frogs serenading me. I got the fright of my life when I saw the inside of my tent move and to my delight I was joined by three frogs. One inside the tent and two underneath! SICK but a preferable alternative to a stifling hot room of smelly snoring men. I’ll take the frogs any day of the week. Afraid of crushing the frogs I bundled myself into a corner for a rough nights sleep. It also wouldn’t be camping unless you were joined by  a creature of some description.

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View from the tomato farm in Kermanshah

During our time on  the farm we were invited to an authentic Persian birthday party. A bizarre first experience of the division between men and women. Before the party all the women gathered together in a room to dance Persian. The men were not allowed in and had their own separate room. We re-grouped later and mingled over a fire with once again more chai. In more religious  towns it wouldn’t be allowed to have a social gathering with men and women late at night. The rules were a little more lax here because we were on the farm. Things quickly escalated after the first cup of chai and everyone was up on the floor dancing to traditional Persian music. It was an incredible scene and not too dissimilar to a early morning sing song after a heavy night in Dublin. Difference here? Not a dribble of alcohol but lots of happy heads nevertheless. It was amazing. There has to be something magial in chai?

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Golden hour couldn’t have been more golden
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The glam Iranians
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Suns sets in Kermanshah

Breakfast was the real deal of flat breads eaten off the floor with yogurt, cheese (similar to feta), cucumber and of course tomatoes served with chai. Myself, Sarah and Ali went to visit Bisotun which is a famous area for its inscriptions on these caves. Just my luck they were covered in scaffolding but the entire place is pretty incredible all the same. Because it was a public holiday the place was mobbed with Iranians. An experience in itself. With heat over 40 degrees my self and Hijab were having some vocal disagreements. For me it’s been the hardest part about travelling here. June and July are painfully hot months to visit Iran, that’s why no one comes here then except for me of course. You can’t even benefit from the sun because your covered within an inch of your life (not that I’m partial to tanning but you never know). 

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Raging!! The women weren’t allowed swim here.
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Absolutely baked at Bisotun

We made some pit stops to a nearby hotel for some much needed non-alcoholic Islamic beer it’s yum.  This hotel was a joke it had the most insane views of the towering mountains and most importantly aircon!!!! It costs 30 dollars a night to stay here.We had a traditional lunch in the hotel of khal a delicious dish of lamb, in a fragrant tomato sauce with almonds served with saffron rice. For me, I miss the heat of Mexican food and feel a little picante would take it to the next level and not forgetting the magic of salsas. Not that I needed anymore  picante in my life as I ended up getting sunstroke that evening. Overall though, the food is excellent here. Back at the farm I spent the afternoon eating ice cubes and watermelon in an attempt to cool down.

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Hotel with a view!

That evening, we went into the city of Kermanshah to check out the beautiful Islamic Shrine. Our main reason for hitting the city was to go shopping. Sarah is quite the fashionista and wanted to give my wardrobe a little re vamp. My bum has been making the odd sneaky appearance and it’s strictly forbidden. The cheap shirts I bought in H/M aren’t making the cut. So just want I needed to help with my sun stroke was a long jacket to cover my boobs and bum. We settled on a yellow and blue number and mosied around the bizarre sampling some free deserts. Raging I had to forego the red wine and shisa that night, I retired to my tent to try and nurse my pounding headache.

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Islamic Shrine in Kermanshah
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Glam Sarah in Kermanshah nailing the pose!
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Insider tips from Ali and Sarah: Mosque’s have the best WC’s so we are all big fans

I have been nick named WC by Sarah and Ali because they are amazed at how many times I need the loo. I’m bad on a normal day but this is next level stuff I should be taking out shares in Iranian ‘toilets’ or holes in the ground as I seem to spend most of my time in them. Unfortunately peeing on the side of roads/ in bushes in not the done thing which would usually be my venue of choice. I’m  perfectly ok with the drop toilets the only issue with them is loosing things inside. My hairy eyes sunglasses were the first casualty . Don’t worry they were salvaged and given a deep clean and are as good as new.

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One shrine better than the next

Thankfully the 8 litres of water from the day before sorted out the head and I was like a new woman so myself Sarah, Ali and Ali (farm owner) set off for a road trip to Kuridstan towards the small cliff side town of Palangan. Unfortunately we didn’t make it as far as there as with the Iranian holiday in full swing families were out in their droves with their chai, tents and bbq’s so the traffic was horrendous. It was a stunning drive as we viewed lots of different hill side towns.

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Sarah!
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Beautiful stacked villages in Paveh. Located in a region called Hawraman.
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Paveh, the largest hillside village in Iran

We made a pit stop en route home to taste some homemade kebabs. I was given an introduction on how to make them. They are usually served with the typical flat breads, roasted tomato, barbequed meat, yogurt (if requested) and quarters of raw onion. Drinks generally include either Duk or Islamic beer. Duk is rotten stuff but the Iranian’s go wild for it. It is natural yogurt mixed with water and salt. Not my gig.

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This little cutie teaching me the Iranian art of Kebab making
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Traditional lamb kebab eaten off a Persian rug (on plastic 😦  ) with  flat breads, homemade yogurt , roasted tomato and chunks of onion. To be eaten only with your hands. Divine

That afternoon we went to a cave mobbed with Iranian families so again not my gig but an experience in itself screaming children and families trying to get selfies with me in  a narrow cave wasn’t exactly my ideal but the Iranian’s are so charming you can’t but smile and go along with the charade. They continually thank you for coming to their country. Since day one the photograph requests have been coming in their droves. Even on sunstroke day they insisted I was beautiful!

We had such a laugh and Sarah and Ali introduced to me to the world of Iranian music (love It). My Farsi is also slowly coming along.  Our sing song was rudely interrupted with the random appearances of a police. This resulted  in a frantic dash to throw on the hijab and act ‘normal’.  We had time before my night bus to sample some rose water ice cream (it’s divine) and a shisa accompanied with some chai.

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Local Iranian breads

The night bus was almost missed because of the shisa but dangerous Iranian driving and a delayed bus ensured I made it. My random bus partner  offered to share her blanket with me and insisted on buying me food and drink for the bus. This girl was en route home having just gotten a nose job done. Nose jobs are ridiculously common here in Iran. I have never seen anything like it. Every second person seems to have one done. They will set you back a mere $100 if anyone is interested?

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The view from my tent just after the sun had risen. Idyllic camping location.