Tuesday, 22 July 2014

How Syria's ancient treasures are being smashed

Syria, graced with thousands of historic sites, is seeing its cultural heritage vandalised, looted and destroyed by war - but volunteers are doing what they can to document the damage and save the country's cultural identity from obliteration.
They have taken many of the photographs below.
In March the Syrian air force bombed the world's best preserved Crusader Castle, the 12th Century Krak des Chevaliers (above) in Homs province.
Its strategic location - guarding the only corridor from Syria's interior to the coast as well as the entrance to Lebanon's Bekaa valley - guaranteed that it would be a fiercely contested stronghold in this war, just as it was for the Knights Hospitaller in Crusader times.

The elegant Crusader cloister inside the castle bore an inscription carved in Latin: "Grace, wisdom and beauty you may enjoy but beware pride which alone can tarnish all the rest.

The loggia became a ruined shell after MiG fighter jets were used to dislodge rebel fighters who had based themselves there. The Latin inscription has been blown to smithereens.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Alam Kuh & Mount Damavand

Lake en route to Rudbarak
We drove west from Tehran on Sunday morning having arrived in the very early hours of Sunday morning.  My group consisted of my two brothers, Stephen and Niall and a friend of Niall’s, also called David, “David C” for this trip. We were picked up from our hotel by our mountain guide, Moghadam, our driver (and also a mountain guide) Jafar, and en route in Tehran we picked up our cultural guide, and translator - as Moghadam and Jafar spoke very limited English - Shole.

River fish
We passed through the Central Alborz range on our way to the staging post of Rudbarak in the Western Alborz, stopping for a delicious lunch on the banks of the azure waters of Carag dam reservoir. The drive took about 5 hours, gradually climbing up to about 2200m, the temperature dropping to a more comfortable range after the heat of Tehran. After a tasty dinner of river fish and a selection of meats, vegetable and, of course, rice, as wel as some local specialities we returned to the hiking lodge where we watched one of the duller World Cup finals at the expense of a full night's sleep. The match didn’t really warrant it and our wish of a decisive outcome in ninety minutes was not to be.

The starting point
The next morning after an early breakfast we left behind Jafar’s minibus and were instead collected by a blue pick-up for the bumpy ride up to Tang-e-Galu at about 3200m. The windy road passed through a stunning landscape of lush green - as the early morning mist burned off - revealing a valley strewn with boulders and dotted with azure glacial lakes. As the road climbed the vegetation thinned and the houses grew less frequent until there were no more. Here there were only occasional shepherds with their flocks, goats and sheep. On arrival at Tang-e-Galu, Moghadam and Jafar strapped the camping equipment up to mules and a local farmer ascended with them ahead of us.

Lunch at camp
We started our climb. We crossed gushing rivers that ducked in and under vast glacial sheets, on either side of a stunning valley that wound slowly north. After almost four hours we reached our camping spot, Herascal, at around 3800m, a spectacular sheltered spot surrounded by high mountains on all sides, and set up our tents. Moghadam prepared lunch while we took a short nap in the sun. After lunch we climbed up to Lashgarak Lake, a beautiful glacial lake, just shy of 4000m by way of acclimatisation, negotiating some snow, some tricky scree and a little ice. Niall and David C were feeling the effects of the altitude when we came back to camp and so lay out in the tent for a while. After a wholesome but cosy dinner in the biggest tent (as it was getting pretty cold now) we saw the moon rise above the mountains and light up the whole sky. We retired to our tents to sleep around ten.

View from Alam Kuh summit
The next morning we woke at 5.30 after a somewhat fitful sleep and after breakfast and tea we started up Alam Kuh, Iran's 2nd highest peak after Mount Damavand. David C, who had not been at altitude previously, was still feeling the altitude and decided to sleep it off instead of taking any chances so myself and my brothers set off with Moghadam and Jafar. Shole, who was also feeling the altitude a bit stayed behind with David C. Stephen and Niall suddenly started feeling the altitude at around 4400m and decided to turn back, so Jafar accompanied them back down. For Niall this was far higher than what he had been previously and Stephen had been higher but by vehicle, not on foot. Another day to acclimatise would have been prudent in retrospect.

Me at the summit
I continued on with Moghadam to Alam Kuh peak at 4850m. The 360 degree view from the peak was sublime. A group of three Austrians, the only others we saw climbing Alam Kuh, arrived at the peak just after us and we shared some celebratory snacks. Given the perfect conditions I was surprised there were not more people on the mountain. As we walked down Moghadam was in victorious humour and his smile lasted all the way back to camp. He even showed me various bumps he had sustained on a 20 metre fall he had had climbing when one of his students had not sufficiently secured his rope. He seemed proud nonetheless. Battle scars.

When arrived back, Stephen and David C were doing well but Niall was still suffering a little. We had lunch and rested for a while. Niall was doing a bit better when we were ready to continue back down but we decided to send his bag down with a mule as a precaution and we walked slowly back down to Tang-e-Galu and caught our bumpy blue pick-up back to Rudbarak, where we had an early dinner and turned in.

After a dip in the Caspian
Wednesday was a driving day, heading east along the Caspian coast to the Eastern Alborz. We stopped for a short dip in the Caspian Sea en route. Shole joined us, though she wasn’t supposed to, but in full clothing. She was a bit of an independent spirit and clearly didn’t like playing by the rules of the regime. She was a little like our Iranian mother on this trip and even started calling us “her sons”.  The Caspian water certainly felt like the sea with its waves and salty water and Moghadam and Jafar waved us back to the vehicle after about twenty minutes. I couldn’t make out if their nervousness was of us being in the water or of Shole’s behaviour.

Climbing up to Bolemun caves
We had not had any difficulty due to it being Ramadan, until now, as our guides had been catering for us, but it did take us a while to find somewhere open in the Caspian towns but after a few disappointments we found a place with a courtyard hidden from the street where they were happy to accommodate us. Shortly before Rineh, our stop for the night, we stopped at Bolemun caves, multi-story man-made caves believed to date back to Sasanian times, when they were used as hideouts from various invaders. In Rineh we treated ourselves to ice-creams and Niall and David C, having decided to only climb as far as Bargah-e-Sevom, Damavand's equivalent of a base-camp, picked up a cheap badminton and chess set to amuse themselves with while myself and Stephen attempted the summit. We had a quick look in at the unusual-looking mosque before going back to our lodge for dinner and bed.

Mount Damavand peak (in the distance)
As it was Thursday, the first day of the Iranian weekend, in this particular instance a long 3-day weekend, we decided to start early to ensure we got a dorm bed at Bargah-e-Sevom. A pick-up brought us from Rineh at 2020m to Gusfand, the starting point, at 3020m, in 45 minutes. To be extra sure of beds Jafar set off alone up to the camp, moving significantly faster than he could have with us in tow. We had a lentil dish for breakfast - something people have done here for centuries before going up into the mountains - and set off. The climb was steady, through a rocky terrain punctuated with red poppies, the spectacle of Damavand peak looming above us right from the off. There were lots more people on this route than Alam Kuh but the vibe was very friendly, communal even. I was surprised that it was almost all Iranians. I had expected to see some other foreigners.

The lovely Shole
I chatted to Shole who was in her sixties but looked younger. She told me about her divorce 15 years previously, when her husband had left her for a younger woman, leaving her with nothing. Women under the Islamic Republic are true second class citizens and her story was quite tragic but she was not the type to feel sorry for herself, and preferred to concentrate on the positives. “My migraines vanished from the first day I was free of him” she smiled. I had been reading Shirin Ebadi’s Iran Awakening and much of what she said rang true from what I had read in that book. Ms Ebadi was a judge in pre-revolution Iran and had first supported the revolution as a means to overthrow an unjust Shah but quickly realised what the clerics had in store when she was barred from practicing law, and had spent the rest of her life supporting and defending women’s rights and those of the downtrodden generally. She won the Nobel prize for her efforts and I would strongly recommend her book to anyone with an interest in life in the Islamic Republic. Shole explained the difficulties of finding another man, and when she found someone she was loath to get married again knowing how vulnerable it left her. Anyway men her age wanted younger women, and older men could not handle her energy. She preferred to spend time with her daughters. She taught me the lyrics of some songs they had sung on the streets when Ahmadinejad had been “elected” for the second time.  She asked mountain rescue if she needed to wear the headscarf as we passed them and they said she didn’t as she was Irish. Now she was “our Mammy” we started to call her “Síle”. She loved it.

First snack stop
After about 4 hours we reached Bargah-e-Sevom at 4200m, where Jafar had secured us all beds in a large dorm where snorers were an inevitability but we preferred this to camping. I would recommend earplugs for this place. It turned out Jafar had been the first up, climbing to the camp in only two hours. He was some machine!

After lunch Stephen went with Jafar for an acclimatisation walk to about 4600m. Moghadam decided as I had already reached Alam Kuh peak I could sit this out, which I was happy about as I was tired and had found the last half hour hard enough. I felt my energy levels low - perhaps I hadn't eaten enough. I would be sure to for the summit attempt. We had a fairly early night but, to be honest, didn’t get a lot of sleep.

Moghadam, our mountain guide
After a breakfast of honey, marmalade, bread, tea and calorie-laden helva we started towards the peak just before 6am. Our pace was slow but steady, stopping about every hour for a 5 minute rest and to stuff our faces with nuts, biscuits, fruit, sweets and chocolate. As we had also noticed the previous day the strict Islamic dress was relaxed up here. Headscarves were mostly packed away. The morality police do not patrol Damavand's slopes.

Coming up the snow
As we got higher the views became even more spectacular and our pace slowed but less than most others it seemed as we passed more and more people. The atmosphere was very encouraging, everyone spurring each other on. For some, however, it wasn't to be. Many were forced to turn back. A girl I had spoken with the night before - who had climbed to the summit on 16 previous occasions - nonetheless started feeling heart palpitations and was forced to turn back about 600m off the summit. You can never take Damavand for granted.

At the summit (smiles all around)
We hit the snow in earnest a few hundred metres short of the summit but there was nothing too difficult to contend with other than the altitude. And suddenly we were there. The summit of Damavand. We had made it! The atmosphere was distinctly party-like. Moghadam beamed widely. "I am very heppy". He hadn't expected us both to reach the peak and he was visibly chuffed. Our time getting up there was even good. We were pretty chuffed too. We wandered around the snow-filled crater, drinking in the vibe. A nylon banner remembering some who has lost their lives on the mountain served as a reminder that this was not a mountain to be trifled with. Speaking with Iranians at the top and throughout the trip we had figured out who the two most famous Irishmen in Iran were, and it was certainly not who you expect. First was certainly Bobby Sands, whose death prompted the Iranian president of the time to send his condolences to his family and to rename Winston Churchill Boulevard, where the British Embassy was located (and will be when it reopens again soon) Bobby Sands Street.  The second most common name we heard was Robbie Keane, who they knew as he scored against Iran in a 2002 World Cup qualifying match, and from the Premier League, which is closely followed in Iran. I’m not sure either of those “facts” will ever help in a pub quiz!

After about 40 minutes around the peak and lots of back-clapping we started back down. We were suddenly engulfed in a sulphur cloud which stung our eyes and throat as we scrambled as quickly as we could to escape it. We had something similar to surgical masks which had helped against the drifts of sulphur we experienced on the way up but it was useless against this. When we were at safe distance and had regained our composure we stopped and Moghadam gave us strong, bitter lemon juice to counteract the sulphur. There were no lasting effects but it certainly wasn’t pleasant. We continued back down to Bargah-e-Sevom, had lunch and, after a short rest, we continued down to Gusfand, where we had tea, before being dropped off to Rineh and the ultimate pleasures of a hot shower and a real toilet! We had covered a total of 1400m up and over 2400m down in a single day. We slept well that night!

Back in Tehran
It was Saturday and our schedule was light so we slept in a little, read on the balcony and had breakfast before heading to a hot springs village where we gave our muscles a little TLC. Shole mentioned that she sometimes stayed there with groups. It is a three star hotel she told me before clarifying. “But not like your three star hotels. Our stars are empty!”. We then drove the couple of hours back to a seemingly empty Tehran, it being the final day of the long weekend and the commemoration of the death of Ali, Shia Islam's first prophet. After lunch we said warm goodbyes to Moghadam and Jafar, both great guys who had looked after us so well for the whole week. After resting for a few hours in the hotel we checked out and headed to Shole's for one last dinner, prepared by her daughter, Sarah. Shole and Sarah were supremely gracious, generous and entertaining hosts and we left for the airport a few hours later, fit to burst, but with a warm fuzzy feeling as well.

Iran had won me over some time ago but I could see it had added three more to its growing ranks of admirers.

- David

PS you can watch the short video I put together of the trip here.

Friday, 4 July 2014

World Cup: Things are looking up for Colombia on and off the pitch

Country’s calmer political and economic climate helps the ‘Cafeteros’

Sometimes, a football team just happens to embody a country’s story. That is the case in Colombia right now. Off the field, the country is experiencing its happiest moment in perhaps 50 years; on the field, its happiest ever. Football and real life are intersecting in surprising ways.

The Cafeteros, or coffee growers, have four straight wins going into today’s quarter-final in Fortaleza against hosts Brazil. In all their previous World Cups combined, Colombia won three games in total.

Meanwhile, back home, Colombia’s 50-year-old drug-fuelled civil war appears closer to resolution than ever before, says Matthew Brown, historian at Bristol university in the UK and author of a new history of Latin America, From Frontiers to Football. On June 15, the day after Colombia won their opening game 3-0 against Greece, Juan Manuel Santos was narrowly re-elected president on a ticket of continuing peace talks with Colombia’s guerrilla groups Farc and the ELN. The 3-0 result possibly helped tip the election Santos’s way, says Brown. If Colombia somehow win the World Cup, he adds, it is feasible that in the euphoria all sides would immediately sign a peace deal.

Already Colombia has become safer, and, says Brown, “The legitimate economy is doing as well as it has since the coffee boom ended in the 1950s, 1960s.” Many members of Colombia’s growing middle class are in Brazil supporting their team and singing the anthem like never before.

To read the rest of this article, visit The Financial Times. Interested in visiting? Check out our Colombia tours!

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Iran: tour operators welcome reopening of British embassy in Tehran

Photo: Konstantin Kalishko/AP
Speaking in the House of Commons, the Foreign Secretary said that “the circumstances are right” for the reopening of the embassy, which closed in 2011 after a riot left considerable damage, and diplomatic ties with Iran were severed.
The move is good news for tourists looking to travel to Iran as it means there will be a greater level of support and consular advice on the ground, the lack of which has been one of the key reasons why the Foreign Office currently advises against all but essential travel to the country.
This has made obtaining travel insurance expensive, because insurers are usually unwilling to cover visitors to countries against which the government advises travel.
The reopening, the date of which is yet to be set, is a positive sign that the government will lift these travel restrictions, facilitating travel to Iran and making the purchase of travel insurance easier and cheaper.
David McGuinness, co-founder and director of tour operator Travel The Unknown, and a frequent visitor to Iran, said that contrary to popular belief, the country is one of the safest places tourists can go. He said: “Iran has a wealth of historical sites. Its history goes back well beyond the Persians, and can rightly be thought of as the Cradle of Civilisation."
In May this year, the Tehran Times reported that Hojatoleslam Seyyed Mahmoud Alavi, the Iranian Intelligence Minister, said that development of the tourism industry should be taken seriously as a means of contributing to economic stability in the country.

Read more about the positive outlook for tourism in Iran from The Telegraph or check out Travel The Unknown's Iran tours.

Monday, 16 June 2014

10 Reasons Why You Should Travel To Iran Now - Chasing The Unexpected

You’ve been pondering, mulling over, thinking about it, even planning, yet you still haven’t booked your ticket to Iran. You don’t even know why, maybe holidays for you are synonymous with beach so you head to Thailand, maybe you think spices are only available in India, or maybe you think ancient history can only be experienced in Rome. Whatever has been keeping you from booking that flight, here are my 10 reasons why you should overcome your doubts and travel to Iran as soon as possible.

 1. It’s safe
Whether you travel alone or in a group, whether you are a woman or a man, or whether you arrive day or night time, Iran is a very safe country. I traveled for two weeks with a friend of mine (woman, Iranian), and apart from one flight, we moved from city to city and province to province by night buses, night trains and taxis, and given the large number of women traveling alone I can only gather this is a common practice.

2. It's hitting headlines all over the world

Let’s face it, now is totally Iran's moment. Listed by many publications as one of the most popular travel destinations for 2014, after soaking in massive tourist crowds for two weeks I can only say that this year is only the beginning of what will finally be an era of never-ending tourism flow for this west Asian country.

3. Hospitality

Iran is also the country of hospitality, the kind I’ve only seen in Sardinia so far, and not just because “welcome” is possibly the most popular English word there, but because it’s an essential feature of their culture. From Tehran to Tabriz we took the night train, and one of our cabin mates was a woman from Tabriz who, within the first two minutes of the conversation, has managed not only to invite us to her house, but also to insist. And if you think this degree of hospitality is reserved to foreigners only, you clearly haven’t come across any taarof moment, which is understandably as this is a very “between-Iranians” prerogative. I had the chance to come to grips with taarof because I was traveling with an Iranian, and this is really the only reason why after each and every single ride the taxi drivers suggested we didn’t need to pay. I really doubt with foreigners they would try such a stunt, they probably know we would simply thank and leave, albeit pretty startled.

4. A long history

Hardly in need of any introduction, Persepolis is possibly Iran’s most famous ancient site, even though not the only one. From ancient Persia to modern Iran, from the Achaemenid Empire to the Sasanian era, from the Safavid period to the Qajar dynasty, to finally the Pahlavi family and the Islamic Revolution, Iranian history is as stormy as it gets, and traveling all around you can soak in every period and delve into the nation’s tangled past.

5. Architecture

Be it a mosque, a palace or a bazaar, Iranian buildings are finely decorated and glow with ornamental elegance. Pastel colors gracefully interact with bright hues, tapering minarets and seemingly ubiquitous domes outline the landscape. Whether you are inside or outside a building, Iranian architecture is definitely something to be marveled at.
To read the rest of the 10 reasons why you should visit Iran now, visit Chasing The Unexpected.
Did these reasons inspire you to travel to Iran? Check out Travel The Unknown's Iran tours and see it all for yourself!

Friday, 13 June 2014

Women Travelling in Iran - Personal Experience from Chasing The Unexpected

Chasing The Unexpected
Recently I’ve come across a rather misleading article published on Hostel Bookers website, where the writer, clearly one who has never been to Iran, speaks of the west Asian country in these terms:
“One shock most women will find is that in countries like Iran, women don’t go anywhere alone, and are never seen alone in public, only out with their families or in groups of other women.”
While this is not the only inaccurate, if not downright false, information, it’s what most captured my attention.

Chasing The Unexpected
If you have been following my blog, you know by now that I’ve just come back from a two-week trip to Iran myself, journey I embarked on with a friend of mine, an Iranian woman whose family had no problems in letting her travel around the country alone with another woman. In every city I saw women alone, in groups of women only or with other men, either family or friends, students or professionals, relaxing in parks, shopping, going to work or school, and busy pretty much in all routine activities you can think of.
In the span of two weeks we have visited many cities, and most trips involved buses and trains, both day and night ones. Obviously we were not the only women traveling, in fact, we met and chatted with many women traveling solo on night trains and buses because not only this is a very common practice in Iran, but it’s also very safe. This trend of giving a bad image to Iran without any kind of knowledge is becoming truly boring and tiresome, as well as old and too much of a cliché.

Read more about Angela's experience as a woman travelling in Iran at Chasing The Unexpected.
Visit the amazing history of ancient Persia and discover Iran's mysteries for yourself on one of our three Iran Tours.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Kep & the South Coast

After an early breakfast at my retreat outside Kep I wandered around the pepper plantations. Kampot pepper came to prominence under French rule and was renowned for its rich non-spicy aroma. Under the Khmer Rouge it was discontinued as rice was all anyone was allowed grow but it is starting to be revived again recently. Vet and Meang turned up after breakfast and we headed into the town of Kep and drove past the remnants of its once affluent past. The area was clearly once a play area for the well-heeled but those days are in the past as the shells of a multitude of colonial era villas attest. However there has been some investment in the area and new properties and hotels are starting to spring up. We headed down to Kep’s famous crab market to watch the fishermen, crab sellers and crab chefs right next to the sea. The market was abuzz with sounds, colours and smells. 

A feast for the senses. Our next stop was Rabbit Island which meant a boat ride across the sea. We got on the boat as the winds got up and the rain started to come down heavily. The ride across was rough, the boat moving from side to side and the waves spraying across it but the rain stopped before long. Rabbit Island itself was a bit of a disappointment, a backpacker hangout with lots of simple lodges and café-bars along the Southern coast to cater to them. And a pleasant beach but little in the way of culture or interest. The boat ride back was choppier still and despite having fairly decent sea legs generally I did start to feel a little green and was pretty much soaked through as well though I managed to keep my camera dry. I won’t be including Rabbit Island on any Travel The Unknown itineraries.

From Rabbit Island we headed into Kampot for lunch in the Epic Arts café. Kampot itself is very much on the Cambodian tourist trail but the visit to the Arts café was worthwhile I felt. The café supports disabled local children through arts project and work in the café. Visitors can buy t-shirts, bags, jewellery or art pieces or just stop in for coffee, sandwiches or a chocolate brownie. After lunch we headed out to see some salt fields where salt is mined the old fashioned way. Being wet season there was little to see but I had seen a video of it in the dry season and it looked fascinating. So in a way Kampot is the seasoning capital with both famous salt and pepper. Next we visited a cave called Phnom Chhnork which Lonely Planet described as “magical”. After wading through a muddy field and up two hundred odd steps we were met with a “stalactite elephant” and a second “rock elephant” on the wall. Perhaps I was “caved out” having seen quite a few more interesting and spectacular than this but the elephant likeness were fairly tenous and the cave itself rather humdrum I felt. Vet also explained that the local kids had taken to shooting slingshots at the bats whose numbers were fast dwindling.

On the way back to Kep but just on the outskirts of Kampot I had Vet stop at a Muslim fishing village. The fishermen were getting ready to head out to sea for the night, preparing the nets and chatting to each other. We walked along to the mosque that was starting to fill up as the call to prayer rang out and we wandered through to looks of disbelief. We wandered through to the edge of the village to where the rice fields started and chatted with some older ladies about their families, what they were having for dinner, and anything else I was nosey enough to ask about. They seemed to enjoy it and asked a few questions of their own, mostly about my marital status and why I didn’t have any children. Not the first time! Children, dressed in Chelsea, AC Milan and Barcelona shirts played marbles in front of the house as one of their mothers arrived with a live chicken that was to be dinner. We were invited to stay but I knew Vet had plans as his family were in Kampot so we headed on to Kep, and then Vet headed on to Kampot to spend the evening with his family there. In the evening I headed down to the crab market for some delicious crab in one of the many simple crab restaurants along the seafront. 

- David