Having recently blogged about Syria, I thought I’d dig out some of my photos of my trip to Iran in 2008.

I know it’s a terrible travel cliche to talk about “the friendly locals” but, as anyone who’s been there will tell you, the Iranian people – we’re not including the paranoid bunch who run the place or their goons in the police or army who prop them up – are incredibly hospitable towards foreigners in a way you really don’t find in many other places, and certainly in a way that’s never reported on the news.

It’s partly, I think, tradition, partly the fact they don’t get many tourists and partly that they are acutely aware of what “the West” thinks about them so go out of their way to show it’s not true.

Here’s my article from the Times that ran in 2009 with a few photos.

If ever you want to go Magic Carpet Travel, based in Ascot, will get you there and assist with visas. And it is worth going, largely as it’s such a joy to meet ordinary Iranians who just want to get on with their lives as much as we do, and partly to realise there’s a lot more to a place than what you see on the news.

Tehran

The metal door to the synagogue swung open and a small boy skipped across the courtyard. He looked puzzled at the three people who stood before him, two of whom were clearly not Iranian. He led us up some steps to the temple, where I slipped a skullcap on to my head. A lady came towards us, smiling. “Are you Jewish?” she asked.

“No,” I replied. “Sorry.”

My friend Annette and I went inside anyway, past a table of food laid out for Passover, and sat at the back as an elderly man read from the Torah in front of eight others.

I’d never have guessed that my first time inside a synagogue would be in Tehran, but Iran is full of surprises. It has a fundamentalist leadership that many in the West believe to be as nutty as a box of pistachios. But it also has a population of 65 million, most born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution (which culminated in the return from exile of Ayatollah Khomeini 30 years ago this month), and far removed from the dour and menacing stereotype often portrayed on the 10 o’clock news. The ordinary Iranian people are by far the friendliest and most welcoming I’ve met in more than 20 years of travelling.

Mr Sassan, centre-middle, in natty white jacket and shades. The others were from elsewhere in Central Asia, not Iran.

Some friendly students we met while touring a mosque. As you can see one half of society has an easier dress code in the heat than the other.

Our ten-day trip took us from traffic-snarled Tehran 600km (370 miles) south across the Zagros Mountains to Shiraz and the magnificent ruins at Persepolis, started by Darius I in 515BC and destroyed by Alexander the Great in 330BC. (I have never been to a historical site where the past felt so approachable.)

Then we headed back north to the capital via Esfahan and the holy city of Qom, passing near the controversial nuclear facility at Natanz, which looked more like a car assembly plant. I assume, though, that most car factories aren’t protected by banks of anti-aircraft guns.

Our guide for the journey was the ever-smiling Mr Sassan, a font of knowledge and always ready with a new story. At the start of the trip I believed all he told me, but as the week got longer his tales got decidedly taller.


We learnt that it paid to sit down when he started to talk, for with Mr Sassan there was no such thing as a quick skip through 3,000 years of history and the conspiratorial goings-on as empires rose and fell, invaders came and went.

“Now this is a sad one,” he’d say before recounting a tale of humble beginnings, love, jealousy, power, betrayal, exile and death. And when we seemed incredulous he’d look slightly hurt. “No, it’s true, I’m telling you,” he’d reply. He was also adept at scooping handfuls of nuts and fruit for us from displays in open-fronted shops, walking away waving his cane shouting “Free samples, they don’t mind,” as we scurried off. He was also a Mr Fixit.

Persepolis

In Shiraz, after guiding us to the tombs of the classical poets Sa’di and Hafez – as Shakespeare is to us, so are these to Iranians – he tracked down the best local faludeh, a wonderful frozen dessert flavoured with rose water.

The Mausoleum of Shah-e Cheragh has supposedly been closed to non-Muslims for the past three years, since a mullah objected to the revealing outfits of some Spaniards, so we headed through a winding, covered bazaar to its back entrance for a peek through the gates.

Yet, rather than shooing us away, a young caretaker welcomed us inside on the proviso that Annette put on a chador (an enormous cloth that covered her from top to toe) and that we didn’t go inside the main shrine.

The large courtyard was busy with worshippers paying their respects to the remains of Sayyed Mir Ahmad, who died in the city in AD835. The caretaker asked where we were from. Inglistan? “Ah, welcome to Iran,” he beamed. Could he, though, ask us a few questions? What is the difference between England and Britain, he wondered, and whereabouts was Charles Dickens buried?

Another gracious encounter was with Mr Abbas and his wife in the dusty, backwater village of Imamzadeh Bazm.

We had planned to camp for two nights with Qashqai nomads, but a drought had delayed their 500km migration from the Gulf. Instead of 1,700 families on the grassy plain, we found just one; the women making crisp, thin bread over a stove, the men smoking opium in a tent next door and then coming back to fiddle, glassy-eyed, with a gun that they use to scare away wolves.

Back in the village, Mr Abbas’s B&B was basic but clean and comfortable, and his wife’s cooking was the hit of the holiday: aubergines mixed with yoghurt and mint; mushroom and barley soup; pickles; lettuce dipped in vinegar; and, for breakfast, tea and fruit followed by cheese with chopped walnuts.

Girls and boys aren't supposed to mix. These lads were not so subtly flirting with the girls going past in the park, though.

Students on a day out - we had to force them to smile; moody and mysterious is generally the way to pose in Iranian pictures. Annette shows how it's done.

But, above all, it was the people we met who made this trip for us. Groups of teenage lads – many in trendy T-shirts and elaborately gelled (and, in theory, illegal) hairstyles – always offered us big smiles and a “Salaam” (Hello). After establishing our nationality, there would be an invitation to pose for a photo with someone’s mobile phone. Annette and I would beam away while everyone else adopted an authoritative stare into the lens.

“How-are-you-I’m-fine?” was the standard opener from laughing students. What did we think of Iranians, they all asked. Did we think Iran was dirty? What about the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad? Was it right that Iran shouldn’t be allowed nuclear power? (No mention of nuclear weapons.)

And what about America? “They think we’re all terrorists,” said a laughing, leather-skinned loo-brush seller from his kiosk outside Tehran’s main bazaar. He waved several of his products towards us: “Look! Weapons of mass destruction!”

Juice seller in Tehran

Their simple acts of hospitality were a continual delight – women offering tea as they tended a relative’s grave by a mosque, a man inviting us for dinner after we asked to photograph him on a bridge, several people giving us their phone numbers in case we ever needed translation help.

The women didn’t shy away from us. Far from it. Yes, they wore drab, shapeless overcoats and headscarves, the latter often pushed back to show plenty of hair.

And tourists must cover up too, although Italian tour groups we encountered had their own fashionista definition of what was acceptable. Annette found wearing a headscarf in 35C heat thoroughly annoying and couldn’t wait to remove it the moment she stepped on the London-bound plane.

Think it'll be a while before Starbucks opens in Tehran. And anyway, Iranians would generally prefer a cup of tea.

Our experience in the Tehran synagogue came on our last day in the country. Annette and I said goodbye to the tiny congregation, then returned outside to Simi Alley and bought sweet lemons from a fruit shop. We went to the swankier north of the city for pizza and carrot juice, then explored the Shah’s former palaces alongside dozens of picnicking families.

“Stop and have some tea with us,” we were asked more than once. “Please take some almonds. Tell people in Britain how we really are.” I promised I would.  (COPYRIGHT WILL HIDE, 2008).

David Beckham gets everywhere

It’s rather embarrassing to admit, but if I want to know where all the cool new bars and cafes are in London, I ask someone who’s based 12,000 miles away in Melbourne. That someone is Michelle Matthews.

Michelle is the force behind Deck of Secrets and spectacularly well-connected on all continents.

Michelle Matthews

Recently back from Bali, I picked her brains on her favourite discoveries there from this trip:

Where should I be eating right now?

Up in lush, green Ubud the place to dine is Bridges. Spectacularly located overlooking a deep, narrow canyon and the bridges that cross it. Fine dining, but like most places in Bali, still relaxed.

Down south in the beach area I’m enjoying the very casual, healthy cafes. My favourite is Green Ginger for vegetarian curries, noodles and salads. They also offer free Bahasa Indonesia language classes on Wednesday evenings and a great brunch on Sundays.

Where should I be drinking right now?

The so-hot-right-now place is Mama San. Dining downstairs and bar and lounge upstairs. It’s slick modern Chinese fit-out inspires but doesn’t necessitate dressing up. Book for dinner to enjoy accomplished dishes from across Asia and then head upstairs to the bar for more cocktails. Friday night is best to mingle with the hip local crew and in the know visitors.

For a chilled end to the weekend finish at Single Fin for sunset views and their Sunday Session live music set. Aim to arrive by 5.30. Single Fin is perched high above the sea with sweeping views of the famous Uluwatu surf break and surf village below. Look for signs to Blue Point.

Favourite chill-out spot?

Ignore the silly name, you’ll fall for Potato Heads amazing entry façade of thousands of wooden shutters towering high or the breezy 1950’s beach house styling inside. Located right on the beach, come for the day if you can nab a lounge by the pool, stay for cocktails (great cocktails) and watch the sunset and then settle in for dinner.

Did you find any great new places to stay on this trip?

I used AirBnB for most of my accommodation in Bali which was great but since I was doing the location independent thing and spending most of my time working from cafes and living simply I think the next trip I’d live a little more and stay at these places:

Desa Seni: An eco village and arguably the best place to come for yoga (even if you don’t stay in-house).

Cicada, Seminyak: I stayed here a few years ago and loved it. Great location, stunning villas.

Uma Sapna: These villas are incredibly well located in Seminyak although not close to the beach yet they are incredibly quiet and private with decent sized private pools and a leading contemporary art gallery Kendra on the property. Time your stay for one of their opening nights.

Favourite new discovery this time?

For the first time I’ve taken notice of the shops in Bali. The main streets in Seminyak are full of boutiques. Most sell ordinary or overly bejeweled resort wear but some places sell international and local designer wear that is made locally, priced competitively and will be treasured and envied.

Karma Koma: French design, classic simple separates and leather accessories.

Biasa: Contemporary, jet-set worthy designs in natural fabrics.

Enfants du Paradis – stunning new brand of skincare and accessories. Grab their travel-size hand sanitizer. A stylish travel essential.

Best place for a caffeine hit?

Regular cafes are starting to open up but just because a place is western and hip is no guarantee that the coffee will be drinkable. Drop in Seminyak is great for a shopping pit-stop while Butter is an air-conditioned haven for lovers of cake and coffee. Meanwhile Sea Circus aims to set the coffee standard using that fine Perth coffee brand, 5 Senses, who source and roast coffee grown locally in Kintamani. The new coffee window makes this the spot for a quick, quality takeaway coffee.

Anything else?

Transport: The Bali experience is either about staying in a Nusa Dua resort far from the action or staying in villas and hotels and exploring the diverse hospitality scene of cafes, restaurants, fine dining, beach clubs and sunset bars. To explore these you need a vehicle. Scooters are super popular and cheap but check your travel insurance to see if you’ll be covered if you don’t already carry a motorbike or scooter license. The traffic is pretty mental. Plus it is hot and the footpaths, where they exist, are narrow and full of large gaping holes.

Taxis are the cheapest and most plentiful option in the Seminyak area;  so so much cheaper than the opportunistic drivers who will try on any price with new arrivals. In Ubud every second Balinese person is a driver (not official taxi) and they will call out to you every few minutes to try and get work. They’re fine to use but ask around the check the standard rate to and from your accommodation and standard places like Monkey Forrest. A handy phrase is ada sudah sopir or just ada sudah “I have a driver already” or the implied and sufficient “have already”.

For longer journeys it is worth hiring a driver for a day or half day or multiple days if you want to explore more distant parts of the island. They will stay locally nearby so they are on hand for the onward journey. Whenever I come to Bali I use the driving services of Nengah Mudarta. His vehicle seats six passengers. Email him on nengahmudarta@yahoo.com or phone on +62 812 462 9647.

Terima kasih, Michelle!

 

 

 

“And England are out of the World Cup. West Germany are through to the final on penalty kicks.”

July 4th 1990. Where were you when Gazza cried and we were sent packing from Turin? (Anyone answering “I wasn’t born yet” just leave now, please. Seriously, go).

Hard to believe that 22 years ago (22 years ago?!?!??!) I was in a bar in Kuta, Bali watching that match live from Italy with my mate John. Sorry, did I mention – 22 years ago?!?!??!

It was a great trip and many other memories stand out, not least crashing my moped in front of a whole village who thought it was extremely hilarious (as did John).

And then there was the food. Having backpacked all the way from Jakarta we were a bit rice’d out by the time we arrived on Bali and the first place we dived into was a Burger King.

I digress.

I look to my Melbourne-based friend Michelle Matthews* as a harbinger of all things cool and about to be cool. She was in Bali recently and found these foodie spots, which certainly look well-worth checking out if you’re aiming to be slightly less culturally insensitive as to order a Whopper and onion rings deluxe.

(* = oh, did I mention I just wrote a handy guide to Breakfast and Brunch in London for her; the prefect stocking filler at only £4.99!)

Sea Circus

Naughty Nuri's Warung

Butter Cake

Butter Cake

Embun Organic Restaurant

Green Ginger

Round Bar

All Bali photos taken by & copyright of Michelle Matthews – no usage without her permission. www.deckosecrets.com

Damascus

Two years ago I visited Syria to catch up with friends who worked in an embassy there.

Fantastic place and, of course, so sad to see what has happened to the country now.

As in Iran, there’s a nutty government but warm, friendly, welcoming ordinary people who love showing off their country to foreigners.

When it’s possible to go there again, I hope people flock back. Damascus has heaps of character. There are lovely boutique hotels and fantastic restaurants which must currently be devoid of tourists.

If and when the situation changes for the better, go.

In the meantime, here’s the article I wrote for the Times about my trip there, and the journey south to Jordan afterwards. This article never appeared chez Murdoch and now never will.

Damascus

The muezzin’s words danced around the headstones. From his minaret they pierced Damascus’ dusty backstreets, following me into the immaculately-kept Commonwealth War Cemetery that I had found by accident.

I was trying to get back to my friends’ apartment, but had taken a wrong turn after lunch. The guard in his booth seemed unconcerned by my arrival. I mimed “is it OK for me to go in?” and he in return entered into the spirit of charades, and motioned for me to push the gate open.

1,165 soldiers lie here. Lance Corporal R.J. Norris, for example, died on March 30 1918, aged 21. 23 years and another world war later trooper H G McCormick of the Royal Scots Greys had been killed aged 22 on June 15 1941. Row after row of young men who’d probably left Blighty whistling a jaunty tune to cover up their nerves, only to end up for eternity next to an arid field filled with prickly pears.

Pausing for coffee in Damascus

In these “must plan ahead” double-u double-u double-u days, when even a B&B in Burkina Faso can be reserved over the internet in seconds, Damascus was a reminder to me that a bit of flexibility in a holiday itinerary can reap huge rewards. Take finding the cemetery for example. Or seeing children happily being tolerated skateboarding in the courtyard of the grand Umayyad mosque. So too the unplanned stop at the ultra-modern Julia Dumna café which wouldn’t have looked out of place in Miami Beach, where I couldn’t help but stare at a group of young Syrian “ladies who lunch” nibbling on sushi and smoking hookah pipes, all hidden behind voluminous, designer sunglasses – not really the mental picture of Damascus I’d had before I arrived.

Lunchtime in Damascus

And then there was my train ride to Amman in Jordan. The plan had been to ride a portion of the same railway that had been famously attacked by Lawrence of Arabia (2010 was the 75th anniversary of his death) and which once ran all the way south to Medina. I’d read romantic tales of a rickety old train with antique carriages that wobbled along the route.

In England I was told it went twice a week to the Jordanian capital, but when enquiring through contacts in Syria this was revised in true Inshallah (“God willing”) style to “well, it certainly used to run” and “we think it might still be going, but from Der’a”  to “it’s still going but freight only” and eventually “perhaps it’s better if you get the bus?”

The old Hejaz railway station in Damascus

I arrived with my backpack at the Hejaz station, completed in 1917, around which horn-blaring yellow taxis buzzed like disturbed wasps. If only I had read my Lonely Planet guide which talked of its proposed redevelopment into a shopping centre, because the old 1908 steam loco parked outside was the only train I could find. The empty ticket hall had no passengers, only an exhibition of film posters under its ornate roof and behind that was a door with an Arabic sign which probably said “no entry”. I pushed past anyway. Where once a platform and tracks stood there was now a huge crater.

Back inside by the First Class window a headscarfed lady sat underneath a portrait of President Assad. Could I buy a ticket, I enquired in French, my Arabic not really having got further than “good morning” and “thank you”. She replied I could – but only to Aleppo, and even then that didn’t go from this station.  So, no train to Amman? She laughed and gave me directions to the bus station.

Damascus

I hailed a taxi, driven by a jolly, rotund man with black teeth who seemed genuinely excited to have a foreigner in his cab. I tapped the meter – more charades – motioning for him to turn it on and trying to look stern. He shrugged and laughed and honked his horn as we pulled out into the rush hour traffic. He chatted in Arabic, ignoring my shrugs of non-comprehension, as we ploughed on through drab suburbs for 15 minutes, until we stopped outside a garage with a sign for the Challenge VIP bus company. I was slapped on the back and my new friend rubbed his chin before deciding 150 Pounds (GBP£2) seemed like a fair amount.

Backstreets of Damascus

The last of my Syrian pounds went on my GBP£7 ticket to Amman, which was scheduled to take about five hours for the 180km journey. The bus was full as we pulled out on the dot of 4.30pm, with Arab pop playing quietly on the speaker system, past grubby 80s apartment blocks festooned with rusting satellite dishes and out into the scrubby Syrian countryside on the road south. A young man in a fading Manchester United t-shirt sat next to me, engrossed in a book, while an elderly Bedouin and his wife sat across the aisle.

We reached the border at Nasib in darkness after an hour and 20 minutes. Everyone trooped off so I followed. I couldn’t work out why some people were handing over cash at a booth until I saw the words “departure tax”.

Departure tax? On a bus? No one told me I was leaving from the Michael O’Leary school of border crossings. Yes, I was told, 500 Syrian Pounds (GBP£7) and no they wouldn’t take dollars or euro. The look of genuine panic that spread rapidly across my face must have been obvious to all and this time it wasn’t charades. I was too preoccupied  worrying if I’d at least get a blanket in the border police’s holding cell  to notice my companion in the Manchester United t-shirt organising a whip round. Whether out of genuine compassion or just not wanting to get delayed by an A1 cashless English numpty, notes and coins were bundled together and in a minute I had my precious receipt. I thanked him and pressed some dollars into his hand.

It was a further two and a half hours before we left for Amman – exit stamps inspected, bags searched, visas inserted, duty free perused (bottle of holy water anyone?) and topped off with the somewhat surreal experience of a Jordanian customs official throwing sweets around the bus like a pantomime dame at Christmas. Trundling south into the Jordanian night gave me time to reflect on the benefits of accepting the unexpected and, Inshallah, scheduling the unschedulable into any future travels. The snores of my fellow travellers suggested I was perhaps the only person on the bus to have yet fully grasped this concept. END

Damascus

Palmyra

Relaxing in a cafe on the road from Palmyra to Damascus

Border with the Golan Heights. The Israeli army post is in the background

Golan Heights in the background, Assad in the foreground

All photos & text @ Will Hide

Just back from a week in Tokyo and, to be honest, a little shell shocked. In a good way. Maybe it’s the jet lag but I’m still trying to piece it all together.

I know I should be led out behind the mess hut, blindfolded, wrists bound, and shot by firing squad for saying “it’s a clash of cultures” but blimey, it’s quite a clash of cultures.

My number one tip for Tokyo: take a deep breath and dive in. You’re going to get lost. You’re not going to know what you’re eating half the time – see above. (Actually, make that 90% of the time. That’s eel on a stick in the photo by the way and a bargain at less than a pound). Communication is going to be difficult (pretty much no speaks English and Japanese isn’t easy) – but it’s going to be amazing.

First things first – do a bit of planning. If you’re going to be travelling around the country get a Japan Rail pass, available only to foreigners, which will definitely save you money if you’re doing anything more than just a Tokyo-Kyoto return. And before you use the Tokyo metro for the first time pick up the tourist board’s English language leaflet when you’re at the airport on how to buy a ticket – first time it’s terrifying, second time onwards you’ll wonder what the fuss was about.  Outside of rush hour it’s really not cramped at all. And it’s spotless. No one drops litter, no one talks loudly on their mobile, no one turns their iPods up so you can hear what’s blaring out of some spotty youth’s headphones from three carriages away. Trains arrive on time. So all in all just like London then.

Oh and get used to people wearing masks. Seems weird at first, but when you’re home some and some herbert sneezes all over you, you’ll look back wistfully at your time in Japan.

Accept that some things are too weird to accept. Yes, you could go to Starbucks (and they are liberally sprinkled all over Tokyo) or you could shake a banana milk shake and sing a little song in a squeaky high pitched voice in a maid cafe.

And there can’t be too many capital cities in the world where you can be buried in hot sand and poach in natural hot springs a 20-minute metro ride from downtown.

And where else can you change into the same cult-like brown pyjamas as all fellow guests for a night, and sleep in a poorly-ventilated, oversized coffin for the princely sum of around £30 per night? (You may be picking up a bit of cynicism here, but seriously, capsule hotels seem like a fun idea when you’re planning a trip to Japan. The reality is a bit more down to earth when you’re lying in one wide awake with jet lag at 3am. I don’t think you’d find many tourists who’d willingly do two nights).

But there again, it’s pretty cool to be wandering down the road and bump into blokes like this.

And to eat sushi and have a view like this out of the window – sushi, which by the way, is so good it will make you cry the next time you buy packaged supermarket rubbish back in the UK.

And OK, the Big One may be on the way – if the ground starts to shake, make like the cat in this poster and dive under a table; number 2 thing to do, turn the gas off; number 3 thing to do once it’s all stopped wobbling, prop open a door with a chair – but that’s just another thing that makes Tokyo what it is.  Pretty bloody amazing.