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Ukraine, Iraq, Iran, etc

a travel blog by bennedich


I take a one month vacation in order to relax a little before I emigrate to USA. The idea is to head to Iran and visit some friends on the way.
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More of Erbil

Arbil, Iraq


Before breakfast, Mohammed goes out to start his car. He leaves it with the engine running for a good 45 minutes to make sure it's really warmed up when he drives to work. When we get to his office, he asks one of his drivers to take me around to the places in Erbil that might have international ATMs. We try 6 ATMs but none work. I give up that idea and go to the big mosque instead. It's closed to non-muslims, but the imam's brother and uncle live in Sweden so he's nice and lets me in to have a look. Afterwards, I sightsee pretty much all of central Erbil that I didn't see yesterday. It's actually a charming city, in a way.

In the evening, Mohammed takes me to Hawler Restaurant, the most upscale restaurant in town, where we have excellent food, whisky and smoke narghilea. After two hours, we get the main course. The owner of the restaurant, who is a friend of Mohammed, joins us to smoke. He has a deluxe narghilea, bigger and with a much wider tube so he can smoke more. He also has family in Sweden and has been there himself. His brother was the former leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Mohammed knows an insane amount of people. As we get home, Bush has just got attacked by shoes in Baghdad. The Iraqis can't stop laughing about it.

Tomorrow I'll try to enter Iran through the Haji Omaran border. I'm not sure if the border is open for westerners. I've done a lot of research and haven't heard of a westerner that has passed here. I've spoken to one who's tried though, a war correspondent who's been to Iraq 8 times. He tried to cross earlier this year and was not allowed through. But I think I'll make it. I leave tomorrow morning.



permalink written by  bennedich on December 14, 2008 from Arbil, Iraq
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Crossing the Iraq/Iran border

Piranshah, Iran


One of Mohammed's drivers takes me to the "garage" in the morning and helps me arrange a shared taxi to Haji Omaran at the Iranian border. I share the taxi with two Iranians and one Iraqi. The Iraqi carries a handgun that he hides in the seat pocket in front of him. The ride takes 3 hours and is very beautiful, we pass through canyons, over rivers and next to snowy mountains. We're stopped several times at military checkpoints, but there are no problems, we just show our passports, the soldiers usually give me a confused look and ask (in Kurdish) where I'm from, and we're allowed to continue.

The border itself is stunning, really basic, just some shacks and a nice set of gates, but it's set in the highest point of the mountain pass, surrounded by mountains and lots of snow. I pull out my camera to photodocument this moment, but Abobakrmahmode who's sitting next to me freaks out; "No no! Soldiers! Danger danger!". The crossing itself is a breeze, no problems at all. Well, except for a short moment when an immigration officer asks me for my purpose of travel and I have my thoughts elsewhere and respond "terrorism" instead of "tourism". Abobakr quickly jumps in to explain things after which the officer starts laughing. Abobakr laughs too, but looks more nervous.

On the Iranian side, I share a taxi to Piranshahr with Abobakrmahmode and the other Iranian who came with us from Erbil. Abobakr takes me to his brothers store; he creates gravestones. Then he invites me to his house for lunch. It's pretty cool, he lives together with his 3 brothers, 2 sisters, dad, wife, daughter and probably more people. There's a sitting room where we spend all the time. No furniture, just a carpet on the floor and cushions against the walls. Not at one point do I get to see the women, they keep in the kitchen, and when the men need something (tea, fried eggs, soup, etc) they just yell. When it's ready, the youngest brother goes to get it.

Only Abobakrmahmode speaks English, but still not really. He has a phrase book that he keeps flipping through and mixes phrases like "I am twentyeleven year old" and "This was an exquisite meal". The brothers are thrilled to meet a foreigner and they take me around town in their old beat up car, show me the garage where one of the brothers work, their fathers antique shop, etc. I give Abobakr a fluorescent keyboard that I brought from Sweden. He's really happy, even though it's in Swedish and not Farsi. In the evening we have dinner at their house and then they take me to the bus station where I'm getting on a night bus to Tehran. Abobakrmahmode tries to convince me over and over to stay at their house in Piranshahr, but I have to continue. He tells me "You go, I sad" and "Thank you for shiny keyboard", he kisses my cheeks three times and they all wave me goodbye as the bus leaves. I think I'm going to love Iran.



permalink written by  bennedich on December 15, 2008 from Piranshah, Iran
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Tehran

Tehran, Iran


I arrive to Tehran at around 6am. I am completely lost -- no guide book, no map and all signs are in Farsi. I only know I'm supposed to meet my friend Ali at 10am at some street downtown. I meet a guy named Mohse at the bus station, he takes me to the bus that goes to the metro, follows me on the metro, pays for all transportation, buys me breakfast and finally walks me 1 km to my meeting point. The only thing he accepts in return is my friendship. Amazing.

Eventually I meet Ali and we go to his place. They are 5-6 guys living together in downtown Tehran. Just like at Abobakrmahmode's place, there's a sitting room with a carpet where all the action takes place. After lunch, Ali and I do some sightseeing. When I take up my camera to take some pictures of downtown, Ali shakes his head: "You're not gonna take a picture, are you?" Iranians are very afraid of the police, and for a reason. At least three of the guys at Ali's place have been arrested. Ali was arrested and jailed for simply going to a coffeehouse with a girl.

Ali has to work in the evening so he arranges for me to meet with his friend Reysan. She suggests we go to a coffeehouse where we have some coffee and pizza. Outside, the snow is bucketing down, the first snow of the year incidentally! I walk Reysan home and she suggests I come up to her apartment. Thinking about the Iranian police, I tell her I probably shouldn't. I get back to Ali's place around midnight and he says it was very wise since she could have gotten into serious trouble. The day ends in "Iranian style", I brush my teeth with salt and hot tap water and sleep on the carpet on the floor.

I've bought an Iranian SIM card by the way and my number is +989373693430.



permalink written by  bennedich on December 16, 2008 from Tehran, Iran
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The sheep head

Tehran, Iran


I'm woken up abruptly at 7.30am. It's eid, religious holiday, the anniversary of the prophet or something like that. Some of the guys have been up almost all night and prepared something special -- sheep head and coca cola! This is a real feast, only eaten twice a year. The meal consists of two parts, first is the sheep head water which is the fluids that came out of the head as it was cooked. It's mixed with bread and eaten as soup. Second is the sheep head itself, with the brain being most delicious of all. I eat sheep brain, sheep jaw and sheep forehead. Then we drink tea and smoke qalyan (water pipe).

After breakfast we all go out for some sightseeing and visit the national museum. Then we head back home where we just spend the afternoon chatting, drinking tea and playing cards. I learn a lot about Iran today. We have late lunch and I realize it's been 5 days now where I've only paid for food once (in Iraq, cost less than 1 usd), so it might not be a problem after all that I don't have a lot of money.

Not much happens in the evening, we go around the city a bit, buy my bus ticket to Esfahan for tonight and meet with one of Ali's (girl) friends. At one point, Ali and I pass a huge army building. It's lit up and looks very impressive. I can't resist the urge, so as Ali continues walking, I pull up my camera and point it through the fence. Ali turns around and sees what I'm doing; "Max, don't do that!!" he yells. Seconds later, a soldier comes running towards me with a machine gun, shouting in Farsi. He quickly relieves me of my camera. The next 20 minutes are spent arguing whether I'm a spy or not. Then all of a sudden I get the camera back and we're allowed to go. Ali whispers "Go go go, don't look back!" He says we were very lucky; another foreign friend of his was deported after a similar incident.

I leave to Esfahan at midnight and the trip takes 6 hours.




permalink written by  bennedich on December 17, 2008 from Tehran, Iran
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Esfahan

Esfahan, Iran


I arrive early in Esfahan, "the jewel of ancient Persia", and spend the whole day exploring the city, walking, walking and walking. It's a very beautiful city, it's just unfortunate that it's freezing cold all day. I am like a magnet of attention here in Iran; whenever I sit down to read, sip some tea or collect my thoughts, it usually only takes a few minutes before I have company. People asking where I'm from, why I don't have a wife, inviting me for tea, etc. One man carefully looks around him, then leans forward and whispers "Yesterday, I drank wine" (alcohol is illegal in Iran). Sometimes, this attention is a bit annoying. But mostly, I'm just amazed by the friendliness of the people here.

After everything I've seen today, I feel that I don't need another day here so I buy a ticket for the night bus to Shiraz. In the evening I call Shirin, a friend of Mohammed (Iraq) who lives in Tehran. She says she's interested in meeting me when I get back to Tehran. I'm surprised by how open, flirtatious even, Iranian girls are. I had not expected that.



permalink written by  bennedich on December 18, 2008 from Esfahan, Iran
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Persepolis

Shiraz, Iran


I arrive to Shiraz in the early morning, wait for the sun to rise, then take a minibus to Marvdasht and walk around 1 km before I find a shared taxi to Persepolis. (The easy way would have been to just take a private taxi from Shiraz, but there's no challenge in that.) I get to Persepolis at around opening time and climb to the top of a small mountain to have breakfast while savoring the views of this ancient city. Priceless!

Early afternoon, I leave to walk over to another site with some ancient tombs. Three kids on a motorbike drive up next to me and start talking in Farsi. Somehow, I end up on their motorbike, and the kid in front drives like a maniac towards Marvdasht (~12km). Twice we negotiate roundabouts in the wrong direction and I realize that this 20 minute ride probably is much more dangerous than the 4 days I spent in Iraq. Once in Marvdasht, the trio gives me a tour of the city from the motorbike, of which I understand about nothing since it's all in Farsi. Then we drive to a residential area where their friends are hanging out outside a house. They're overexcited to see a westerner. They surround me, touching, dragging, poking. One of them puts a strawberry qalyan (water pipe) in my mouth and another invites me to his house for lunch. Eventually we get back on the motorbike and they take me to the minibus station. I try to pay for the ride, but they only allow me to pay for filling up the gas tank, which amounts to 9000 rials (90 US cents). Great experience!

Back in Shiraz I buy a ticket for a 15 hour nightbus to Tehran and do some sightseeing, but most things are closed since it's Friday (Islam day of prayer). A girl comes up to me on the street and invites me over to her house.. I can't recall ever receiving such an invitation back home (except for the prostitutes in downtown Oslo). I talk to Shirin again and she says she'll show me around town on Sunday. Oh! And she loves skiing and says she could take Monday off work and take me skiing north of Tehran. I love this country!



permalink written by  bennedich on December 19, 2008 from Shiraz, Iran
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The Great Satan

Tehran, Iran


I'm a bit tired after having spent the last three days on night buses, so it feels good to be back in Tehran and with Ali. After a shower, shave and some haleem (Persian wheat breakfast -- great!) I'm ready to hit the town again. Ali's working so I'm on my own. As usual, I get a lot of attention on the street. Two Iranians give me their phone numbers; one offers to take me to his house in northern Iran where we can go water skiing and the other wants to take me on a city tour on his motorcycle.

The Nest of Spies (former US embassy) is the highlight of the day, covered in murals testifying to the evil of the Great Satan (USA) and how it will be defeated. Photography is strictly prohibited here, so I have to hide behind some trees on the opposite side of the street, which explains the bad quality of the photos.

In the evening I reunite with Ali and his friend Arash and we go to a really cool qalyan place, then we have dinner and cruise the city in Arash's car listening to underground Persian pop at maximum volume :) Underground means music influenced by the Great Satan, and/or about illegal topics (which is kind of hard to avoid here).

I also spend some time online trying to figure out what to do with the last week of my vacation. Since I've been freezing every single day of my vacation so far, I'm thinking some place warm, tropical, where I can just relax on the beach with a good book. The choice is obvious: Haiti. I leave on Dec 28.



permalink written by  bennedich on December 20, 2008 from Tehran, Iran
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Shirin

Tehran, Iran


Shirin picks me up with her car in the morning and shows me around northern Tehran (the rich part). I buy a lot of Persian sweets and candy and a few gifts at the bazaar. We visit a small mosque that has an inside more beautiful than any other mosque I've seen -- completely covered in mirror tiles. Unfortunately I'm not allowed to take any pictures :( We have great Persian food and drinks. It's a good day. Before I know it, it's evening. I notice that I don't have any Iranian money left, which I'll need for skiing tomorrow, so I run around the streets downtown looking for a street changer, but they're all gone for the day. I decide to try another strategy and start looking for foreign tourists, which is not very easy either. Finally, close to midnight, I find three Czechs in a hotel who agree to change my remaining 100 euro to rials, and at the best exchange rate I've got so far, great! All set for skiing tomorrow!

permalink written by  bennedich on December 21, 2008 from Tehran, Iran
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No skiing :(

Tehran, Iran


I'm up at 5.45am and use a combination of metro (10 US cents), bus (12.5c) and shared taxi (25c) to get to the Tochal ski complex in northern Tehran where I'm meeting with Shirin and a few of her friends. I'm struck by grief as we're told the Piste is closed today! So much for skiing in Iran. Instead, Shirin and I go downtown. For lunch we go to a restaurant in an art center. They have a special section for "actors and foreigners". In order to get in, Shirin ties her scarf like an Arab (rather than a Persian) and speaks Farsi with an accent, and I do my best to look foreign myself. Inside, we meet famous actor Behzad Farahani ("the Robert De Niro of Iran"). In the evening I meet with Ali as usual, and Reysan joins us out for the "last supper" before I leave Iran. At one point, Reysan's scarf slides down so her hair is visible. It only takes seconds before a guard tells her to cover up. I casually show them the photo of me and Behzad and they're green with envy. Ali joins me to the airport at night where my flight leaves at 4.40am. Tomorrow: Qatar!

permalink written by  bennedich on December 22, 2008 from Tehran, Iran
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The most random thing just happened...

Doha, Qatar


I don't know how to describe it; comical, scary, coincidental. My plane lands at 6 something am in Doha, Qatar. My onward flight to Stockholm is tomorrow at 1am, so I have the whole day in Doha. An Indian guy named Najaf has offered me to come and feel like home in his apartment in central Doha. He leaves for work early, but has left the key under the doormat of the caretakers room. I take a taxi to Najaf's building and pick up the key. It's marked with the flat id so I easily find his apartment, take a shower and have some breakfast before I leave to explore Doha. I keep the key with me since Najaf has a spare. In the afternoon, the following SMS dialog takes place between Najaf and me:

N: I am leaving for my place now see you there
M: Ok, 'm on the bus.. 'll be there in maybe 30min.
[45 minutes later]
N: Where are you
M: At your place, watching tv. Where are u?
N: In my apartment, in which flat are you?
M: Flat c
N: Flat t at fifth floor!!

Yes that's right, I've been making myself at home in the wrong fracking apartment!! I get up to the correct flat, meet with Najaf and have some coffee, chat, etc. After around an hour we leave to go to the souk. Outside the house there's a man in his 50s, not sure from where, I'd guess eastern Europe. He's furious, yakking about having left his key under the doormat this morning for the cleaner to pick it up, but now the key is missing and he's tried to get hold of the cleaner for one hour. In fact, the key is still in my pocket. Najaf and I discretely place the key outside the caretaker's room and tell the man "There's a key on the ground here..." We quickly take off, thinking it's better not to be around when he realizes someone has been to his flat. I keep thinking I'm lucky the man didn't get home while I was showering or watching TV... situation could have been quite bad.

Apart from this incident, I try to see as much as possible of Doha today. In my opinion, it's very similar to other cities in the gulf, e.g. Manama, Abu Dhabi and Muscat, but even more boring. My favorite place is the Islamic Cultural Center where an albino Arab gives me a free personal tour of how ablution and prayer are done. During the siesta (1-4pm) I meet with Tunde, a Hungarian girl living here, and we stroll along the corniche and souk. It's sooo nice here, sunny and 23 C, corniche lined by palm trees.

In the evening, Najaf and I meet up with Dr Ahmed (Egyptian born and raised in Qatar) and Hin Yeong (Singaporean). I haven't had beer for 9 days, so we're determined to get some. There are a few bars here at the international hotels. We're first thrown out of Ramada because Dr Ahmed carries a knife, but at Sheraton we have more luck. It's a nice ending to this first part of my vacation. Around midnight, the trio drives me to the airport in Dr Ahmed's car. I fly to Stockholm at 1.10am.



permalink written by  bennedich on December 23, 2008 from Doha, Qatar
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My name is Max. I like to travel.

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