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It’s easy to visit and it’s also possible to sleep in hotels built into the rocky towers which are everywhere and make up large parts of the villages in the area.
Several million years ago there was a big volcano in the area which one day suddenly exploded, sending billions of tonnes of ash and millions of hard rocks shooting up into the air. All this stuff eventually landed and created a flat landscape of ash littered with smaller hard rocks. Eventually the ash hardened to make a rock called Tufa.
Ever since then the rain and the wind have been washing away the tufa wherever there aren’t any hard rocks sitting on the top protecting it, leaving tall towers.
People from the outside called the towers ‘Fairy Chimneys’ because they thought that fairies lived in them.
For hundreds of years people have lived inside the towers, carving rooms and tunnels that go right to the very top. They had rooms where pigeons lived in little holes in the walls and the people collected the pigeon poo to use as fertiliser on their gardens, where they grew grapes and fruit.
About 1000 years ago all the Christians in the area were threatened by Muslim invaders and they even built underground cities that they hid in while the armies marched over the top looking for them. Instead of having normal churches they built their churches into the cliffs or underground where no-one could find them and destroy them.
Here’s some more pictures of some of the fairy chimneys and the valleys in the area, the best bit about it is that you can just explore and climb around inside the chimneys looking for tunnels and undiscovered rooms:
Having completed the first of our Nemrut Dag summit challenges, we headed West towards the second Nemrut Dag, the 2150m high summit near Karadut village.
This summit is much more famous and more often visited by tourists, as it is an absolutely spectacular sight. Perched on the top of the mountain is a 2000 year old pyramid and on two sides there are flattened terraces covered in giant statues looking out over the rising and setting suns. The whole summit complex wasn’t ‘discovered’ until 1881 when a German engineer employed by the Ottomans to study transport routes found the summit. It wasn’t even excavated until 1953.
The pyramid, terraces and statues were ‘created’ by Antiochus I Epiphanes in about 60-40BC as a tribute to his god and as a way of ensuring that he would join with ‘Ahura Masda’ in the afterlife. Ahura Masda was the name given to the ‘One God’ of the Zoroastians, the first Monotheistic religion, from which all the other Monotheisms have their roots. There are inscriptions on some of the rocks that suggest that Antiochus is buried under the pyramidal mound on the summit but no one has ever found the burial chamber.
For our route Westwards, we wanted to head up to the summit on the Southern road and then head down from the North to Malatya 100km away, and had read in the Lonely Planet that it was possible to cross from one side to the other. This proved no to be the case so we ended up carrying our bicycles and bags up to the summit from the road 700m away and then dropped down to the Northern road.
By the time we got our bikes there at 7am the whole summit was deserted as all the tourists had got cold and gone down. We had the whole place to ourselves and our bicycles. It was absolutely spectacular!
Here’s a brief slideshow:
If you really like a challenge, a 110km section with nearly 3000m of ascent and descent between Karadut and Malatya.
It can be done over 3 days although it would be more pleasurable and probably healthier to do it over 4 or 5 days and this would give you more time to soak up the amazing scenery of this part of South Eastern Anatolia.
The Nemrut Dag summit is a highlight although with no road over the summit you will have to carry your bike and panniers for about 1km from one side of the mountain to the other.
Anyway if you fancy a go, here’s a route profile:
The present Nemrut Dag mountain (2950m) was 1500m taller, and about 6000 years ago exploded creating the lake and a huge crater inside the volcano.
There are now several crater lakes and a whole microclimate in the crater and interestingly for crazy cyclists there’s a 13km road that takes you all the way to the rim, climbing about 1000m from the main road.
Despite the warnings that the road was closed because of snow, we decided to have a go at camping on the rim. It was a bit hairy getting up to there and we did have to carry our bikes and bags up the final 100m to get to the actual rim because of landslides and a huge icey slope blocking the way. Once we were there it was definitely worth it.
We even attempted to get down to the crater although there was really too much snow to make the journey safe enough to do on our bikes, as we discovered later.
We now head off to another Nemrut Dag, about 500km West, with a pyramid on the top and loads of carved heads…hence the ‘Nemrut Dag Squared’ title
Here’s a slideshow:
If you want more information there is a route profile here: Route Profile
If you want to cycle the 385km between Van and Diyarbakir then download and print out the following documents:
If you fancy a side trip up the splendid Nemrut Dag volcano (13km one way) then you might also want the route profile as well, although it would come in useful for the Van-Diyarbakir route as well:
We’ve even met some Iraqi tourists coming to visit their Northern neighbour now their is relative peace in their country (see picture on right)
We stayed in the city of Van for a few days and explored the crazy ‘Rock of Van’ castle before heading around the lake, a huge inland salty sea created when a huge volcano exploded and blocked a valley’s outflow only about 6000 years ago.
The scenery here is astonishingly beautiful and it is only over the last few years that the area has been safe for tourists as the Kurdish people that live here have been fighting an insurgency against the Turkish government. Everywhere you can see the heavy hand of the Turkish military, from huge Turkish flags, statues of Ataturk, military bases and tanks cruising the roads.
We’ve been loving shouting ‘Charni Barshi’ (hello in Kurdish) to the local people who love it too, as their language has been banned for the last 15 years until recently it has been allowed again…what civilised society bans a language in the 21st century? We’ve also discovered that Kurdish is similar to Farsi (Iran) so we know quite a few words already which leaves us looking quite clever. We just have to remember not to shout ‘Charni Barshi’ at the Turkish soldiers stationed every few km along the roads.
The whole area feels as though it is suddenly thriving thanks to the advent of peace, I just hope more tourists start to go there and help the economy improve for everyone’s sake. To their credit the government are building some amazing roads through the mountains to help improve the economy of the area (and maybe so the tanks can come back more easily!)
Here’s a short slideshow of the area:
There are lots of army checkpoints with occasional tanks rolling along the quiet roads followed by troop carriers or machine guns mounted on jeeps.
People stop you and warn you not to leave the road to the East (near the Iranian border) and you’re never sure if they’re being kind or threatening. Police men offer to escort you to your ‘hotel’ and are amazed when you say you are just camping. Locals mime men carrying knives and guns and ask you to stay with them….
Yet despite all this it’s a beautiful place, the mountains in May and June are stunning, the road's always interesting and despite the warnings it’s relatively easy to find secluded camping places, especially near the mountain passes and you’re more likely to meet a shepherd with his goats than a smuggler.
Here’s a route profile and a full route description. There’s about 3500m of climbing in the three days it should take you, but it is generally well graded and never boring:
We have constantly been overawed by the things people have done for us, from the shopkeeper refusing payment for an ice-cream, to the family who give up a bed in their home for us to sleep in, despite the fact that four of them then have to share a bed.
It has been almost impossible to pay for anything when in the company of any Iranian. However hard we try, we always end up giving up, as people just seem to be insulted if we try. This attitude resulted in us once watching an old lady fighting her son in law who was trying to pay her bus fare while a policeman held her back so that he could pay.
We would like to thank everyone that has helped us in Iran and if only we could all make such selfless sacrifices for guests in our own countries. the world would be so much nicer a place. Iranians seem to relish being kind to others and despite the oppression of their government over the last 20 years, they are still so proud of their country, it’s history, their lifestyle and their families. They want all guests to see the very best of Iran and while constantly telling us how idiotic their rulers are, they are still so proud.
Here is a slideshow of some of the people we have met. If you click on any of the pictures you will see a brief description of how they helped us. Thanks to them all!!
One of our biggest regrets was not having met Mohammed, a wonderful Iranian cycle tourist who helped us in Mashhad, Neyshabur and Esfahan. We kept missing him as he flitted about across Iran.
He has his own website – We Need Trees, and is in the middle of a long cycle ride of his own. If you ever meet an Iranian cyclist called Mohammed trying to plant trees in your part of the world, please give him some help and support him!!! We hope to catch up with him one day in some part of the world.
Unlike Pakistan and even Eastern Turkey there are women everywhere, working equally with the men as doctors, lawyers, engineers etc ….the women must be the most educated women in the world yet they all live in fear that a little too much of their hair will show, or too much of their skin will be visible, and the men will all get too aroused….’Iranian men are dangerous’ we heard from many women, despite the fact that they also admitted that they didn’t actually know any men who would behave badly towards women.
Many women we spoke to said that they continued to wear the chador (the black tent which is now not compulsory) because it had become a habit and they knew they would never get any trouble if they did so (we could never really find out who would actually give them trouble).
The chador itself is the ultimate repression, a black sheet worn over the whole body that must be held with one hand and restricts movement, the ability to carry things and in the early evening or at night is positively dangerous in traffic. People also have another problem with the chador, if they lose a friend in a crowd, they can never find them again because they all look the same and no one can take their chador off so that they can be found!!
We heard many justifications for the chador and the head scarf, although only from a few young people still fresh from the imprint of religious indoctrination…
’Women must be covered to prevent men becoming sinful, it is for their own protection!’Women we asked just said that they would take it off tomorrow if they were allowed and moaned about how hot it was to always wear something on your head.
‘Women are so beautiful, they must be covered to keep their beauty precious’….
What misogynist nonsense!!! No surprise in a country run by repressed religious men! If everyone had free choice it would be fine, but here it’s law!! Girls must cover their hair from age 7 at school, and from age 9 in all public spaces, while boys wear what they want and young men squeeze themselves into tight little shirts and jeans!!
Even funnier are the ridiculous lengths that the authorities go to, to protect women doing exercise. Above is a picture of the extended walls around a women’s exercise area (to prevent men watching!) There are security guards with guns outside swimming pools who check that women are covered up properly when they leave.
Here’s a couple of other pictures that illustrate other issues that the government obviously has, one is a sign on a park wall which seems to be a little bit hypocritical
and the other was near the border with Turkey:
It’s a shame that they just don’t grow up and get on with life. For probably the most highly educated country in the world it’s so sad that such nonsense is allowed to even affect anyone’s life.
Esfahan is an absolute masterpiece, described by many as one of the finest cities in the Islamic world. It has beautiful bridges across the large river that bisects the city, exquisitely tiled domes on it’s many religious buildings, a wonderful public space in the Naqsh E Jahan Square, amazing bazaars, beautiful Armenian churches, restored bath-houses and wonderful tree lined avenues everywhere.
The traffic isn’t terrible either and the people are wonderfully friendly and helpful when they’re not shouting at us for calling Naqsh E Jahan by it’s new official name of Imam Square – they hate the Imam’s who rule the place so much that most people refuse to even say the new name for the square, we enjoyed winding them up at any opportunity…taxi drivers were the best!
We just soaked the place up for a few days while staying with the lovely Reza, Mahla and Kiana and being helped by Alireza, Vahid, Mohammed, Faroud, Marnauz and all their friends. Thanks to them all. Esfahan also has some interesting food which we sampled regularly - Biryani, Bademjan and their own version of Feloudah (a kind of ice-cream) and Ghaz – a sweet nougat like snack.
Here’s a very brief slideshow of some of our highlights:
The rules are designed to protect women from men, and to help prevent men from having sinful thoughts when they see the shapely body of a woman.
To this end, women’s clothing should be shapeless and most of the body should be covered. Iranian women in the countryside generally wear a black sheet called a Chador (Farsi for Tent) whenever they are outside the house.
Most younger women wear a headscarf and a shorter more fashionable black top called a ‘Manteau’ which covers their bottom and thighs. Inside the home most people wear ‘western’ clothing although in the countryside the women may well keep their head scarf on while guest men are in the home.
The woman in the Chador is the often shown image of women in Iran, but in the cities this style of dress is fading out fast as young women everywhere push the boundaries of what is allowed, by wearing shirts or stylish dresses over trousers, which are most commonly jeans, and wearing coloured manteaus with belts around their waist, and head scarves with patterned designs of every colour.
Heads are still covered but the percentage of hair covered reduces to a token scarf hanging on the back of the head in cities like Tehran or Shiraz and the more affluent areas of most towns and cities in Iran. Women still cover their heads but great pains are taken to have the most fantastic hairstyles showing but still covered in a way that will not get them into trouble.
Tourists are given a lot more leeway and to be honest most tourists just wear trousers, shirt and a head scarf so that they are still respecting the local rules.
It is easy to buy a manteau and many of them are made of light material and look really good.
We saw women with maybe 10% of the hair covered, half length sleeves and 3/4 length trousers, and many young couples holding hands as they walked down the street in Shiraz. We met one Irani woman who posed as a tourist in Yazd so that she could wear a shirt rather than a manteau. She said it was great but she still felt like she was taking a risk.
In the religious cities such as Esfahan, Mashhad and Qom, clothing is a bit more conservative in some areas, although if you Couch Surf, most people live in areas where clothing is indistinguishable from Tehran and Shiraz.
Some advice from Isabelle for cycling / travelling:
A black manteau is ridiculously hot in sunny weather and it is also difficult to organise yourself as the temperature changes throughout the day. On hot days it’s impossible to remove a lower layer so most Irani women just have to suffer if a restaurant is too hot.
I would recommend a man’s shirt or top that would allow you to wear only a bra underneath it when it is too hot. No-one seems to mind about the colour of this top so make it light coloured to keep you cool when cycling on really sunny days. I have a $1 shirt made in India and it works perfectly.
The head scarf can also become unbearable, so try to get a natural fibre one, or one with loads of holes in it, easily available in the bazaars of every city (ignore the Lonely Planet warnings..things have changed)
For cycling you would be much better with a bandana or a ‘buff', a tube of material which can be used in many different ways, from relaxed and groovy to positively pious (good for mosques) – see the pictures.
You will need photographs for your visa (2) or visa extension (2) with all your hair covered.
Some tourists also said that it was really hard to find hair clips to hold your head scarf on, so bring plenty of them from home
Wear exactly what you feel like while cycling, t-shirt and shorts are fine. Iran’s dress code is great for men.
I’ve stayed nice and cool throughout the desert, I don’t know what all the fuss is about.
Iran’s a great country to travel in and I’ve had no problem regulating my temperature.
Wind-stopper cycling leggings can be useful in very rural areas…just pull them up and women will be able to take their eyes of your legs.
We both thoroughly applaud the attempts of the government to help prevent men having sinful thoughts by covering up so much of a woman’s body, but both of us really worry about the poor women who can see men everywhere wearing body-hugging little t-shirts and tight jeans yet get no help avoiding those same sinful thoughts.
There’s only one solution….all men should wear a Chador as well, then everyone could remain pure.
Here’s some ideas using a shirt or light cotton manteau and a ‘buff’ tube of cotton:
He was an 18 year old student who just wanted to practice his English and in the early evening we went to his twice weekly English class to see his class and because we so miss being in the classroom.
Again it was a great experience so we thought we’d post some of the pictures for the classes to see. Next time we want to visit an all girls class. Thanks to Ali we had a much easier day than expected and some great discussions.
All the students were really nice and had interesting things to say even if sometimes it wasn’t easy to explain ourselves. Isabelle will never be convinced by anyone that wearing a head scarf is a good idea to help protect her virtue, but apart from that the conversations were all good and the teachers really helpful.
I’d just forgotten how much fun being in the classroom can be.
We camped right by the entrance protected by some friendly security guards and were able to enter at 8am before the tourist coaches arrived.
The city is about 2500 years old and is on a massive scale. It was hidden by sand until the 1930’s when it was ‘rediscovered’ and extensively excavated. The bas reliefs are absolutely amazing and from the hill above the city you get a real feel for it’s enormous scale.
Here’s a short slideshow:
Read more on Wikipedia
His name is Sasan and his family have a large farm where he grows, apricots, plums, grapes, pomegranate and wheat. He also has free range chickens and a few goats and sheep.
His father was one of the Shah’s secret police but unfortunately died only 4 weeks ago so despite hearing lots about him on the internet and from other cyclists we didn’t get a chance to meet him.
Sasan’s nieces are all hairdressers and were visiting for the day so Isabelle was taken away for a makeover which was done full Iranian style with all the subtlety of a punch in the face.
They were lovely but had some very funny ideas about Europe and the States thinking that compared to Iran everywhere else was like living in paradise and that no-one ever has any problems and that everyone has all the plastic surgery they could ever dream of. We’d like to thank Sasan and his family for the lovely food and the great hospitality that they showed us, everyone was so friendly and his 16 year old son’s English will be fantastic if he keeps getting practice with tourists. Sasan is a wonderful character and most of his views are unprintable which makes for some entertaining conversations.
As for Isabelle, doesn’t she look lovely, so natural!!
Please comment if you have any opinions or would like me to send you copies.