So an Aussie Walked into a Ba(zaa)r

Day 138 (26th of July, 2016) – Bangkok, Thailand

Hello, hello! Welcome back to the travel blog.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been having the most superb visit back home. Whilst seeing everyone felt brief, and sometimes a bit rushed, it was the perfect amount of time to charge my batteries for the next six months of travel.

The highlight of my trip back home (other than seeing everyone, of course) was Splendour In The Grass. The music festival which is held at the North Byron Parklands was genuinely the most fun I’ve had in a very long time. The set up was phenomenal with great food, great music, great people and a great atmosphere. I’ll definitely be back again next year (and this time, I’ll buy my tickets properly).

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It was also nice to sit down with the family for dinner last night. The next time I’ll see Bianca will be in Paris on the 14th of January 2017, and the others at a mystery location a few days after.

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I boarded my flight at 12:30pm today to Bangkok via Singapore. The airline, ‘Scoot’, seemed pretty dodgy to say the least. It has become very evident to me this year that budget airlines make a lot of their money through the horde of add-ons which they offer you in the booking process. I successfully said no to all of them, including a $60 service of checking through my luggage to the connecting flight.

The flight was the bore I expected it to be. My brief layover in Singapore was spent re-checking my luggage and on the phone to Westpac trying to work out why I couldn’t withdraw money.

Eventually, I arrived in Bangkok at around 11:30pm. My poor planning brought me to the metro station just after midnight only to find out that services had stopped, so I hailed a taxi for the trip to my hostel.

I could hardly see the road through all of the Buddhist postcards and amulets stuck on the windscreen.

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Finding the Saphaipae Hostel was a hassle. I’d forgotten the pains of travelling in a country where you can’t speak the language.

When I finally found my way there, I was greeted with characteristically icy-cold Thai air conditioning. I could have closed my eyes and said for certain which country I was in just by the feeling and smell of the air. It’s funny the small things which you remember about some places.

Lying in bed, I began to get the fire in my gut to wake up early tomorrow and begin exploring this place.

Day 139 (27th of July, 2016) – Bangkok, Thailand

This morning began with a walk to Sathorn Pier with breakfast on the way. The first thing which I noticed when exiting the hostel was the typical electricity wiring of Thai streets.

While strolling, I could almost feel the white blood cells in my stomach attacking the intruders which I’d let in with a clumsy few gulps of the tap water the night prior.

The uneasy stomach was actually helped very much by a simple Pad Thai at a local restaurant.

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The rest of the walk to the main river was very colourful. I passed through bustling streets which reminded me of a hotter, stinkier version of Hong Kong.

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Physical map in hand, I boarded a ferry going North on the river to Tha Tien, the closest wharf to Bangkok’s famous sites of Wat Pho and the Grand Palace.

Bangkok’s waterfront looks remarkably different to Sydney’s.

Exiting the wharf and passing by all the shops selling souvenirs, I was reminded of just how central tourism is to the Thai economy. Everyone surrounding me was speaking Russian or French, and you could tell that everything which was being sold was geared towards tourists.

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Eventually I made it to Wat Pho. Wat Pho is Thailand’s most famous Buddhist temple complex which was founded during the 16th century. Interestingly, it is also the birthplace of the traditional Thai Massage. Wat Pho’s most famous feature is the 46m-long ‘Reclining Buddha’.

The group of the buildings in the complex is quite beautiful in that they are surrounded by quaint gardens and ponds.

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The chedis (stupas) poke above the walls of Wat Pho, making it visible from the furthest reaches of the city.

Wat Pho retains a lot of authenticity as a functioning place of worship. Thai monks were walking around, and many others were praying in front of statues.

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After Wat Pho, I continued walking to the Grand Palace. This palace has been the official residence of the Kings of Siam (and later Thailand) since 1782.

Along the way I must have drank three or four bottles of water. It was 35 degrees (that’s right, in July in the Southern Hemisphere), and incredibly humid.

After finally arriving at the Palace’s entrance, I was refused entry because I was wearing shorts. I had to take a few photos from the outside instead.

Here’s a photo from Google of what I would have seen.

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Just outside the Palace, I sat and watched busses speed past. They wouldn’t even come to a halt at the bus stop. People just jumped on while the vehicle was still in motion.

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I hailed a Tuk Tuk to head to Khao San Road -the ‘Backpacking Capital of the World’.

The road was a massive congregation of bars selling beer by the bucket and massage parlours.

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I enjoyed spending an hour spanning its length before stopping for a Thai curry.

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After exploring Khao San, I caught a taxi to the Chinatown area on Yaowarat Road.

Here, I mostly enjoyed wandering down the alleyways and looking for some street Chinese food. It all had a Thai edge to it, which I really liked.

I boarded the ‘BTS Skytrain’ to Victory Monument to see the Jim Thompson House, which unfortunately I was not allowed to photograph.

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Jim Thompson was an American spy who was stationed in Thailand during World War II. Following the end of the war, he elected to continue living in Bangkok. He gained a fascination for Thai architecture and art, and so he began a mission to collect Thailand’s most authentic houses and artworks. His house, which is now heritage listed, became a collection of all of these things. I was able to take a barefoot tour through the house and see the range of Thai artefacts which he collected.

By the time the tour ended it was evening and a heavy storm had rolled in. I made my way to the ‘Saxophone Pub’, a jazz club popular amongst expats, and settled in to watch some live music.

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I sat there for a few hours watching, and it was probably the most rewarding part of the day. It’s the times like this when I am left alone to think that I feel like I grow the most.

Later in the evening, I wandered out to see the Victory Monument of Bangkok and find some dinner.

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The roundabout looked more chaotic than the one beneath the Arc de Triomphe.

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I ate some famous Bangkok Boat Noodles, which were incredibly fishy but very delicious.

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I’ll definitely be having some more of these tomorrow.

Day 140 (28th of July, 2016) – Bangkok, Thailand

This morning I woke up feeling particularly sick with a sore throat and head cold. To make things worse, I woke up on the result of a few blood noses during the night. I guiltily covered it up with my pillow and prayed that I wouldn’t get charged for the sheets.

My first stop was the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute (snake farm). The snake farm was a much more thrilling experience than I had expected. I’ve never had a particular phobia of snakes, but I must say that many of the creatures here really sent shivers up my spine. The first snake I spotted was this behemoth.

I knew that snakes could be as thick as your thighs, but you never really realise that until you see one in the flesh.

At the next snake pit, I stood and watched these guys slither around for about half an hour. They were very active and I genuinely didn’t get bored the whole time.

Perhaps the scariest part of the whole day was when this guy started getting awfully close to climbing out the edge of the pit. He just needed to climb a few centimetres further and he would have made it.

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Even scarier is when the snake is climbing directly towards you.

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The farm had hundreds of different species of snakes. They came in all different colours and sizes.

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I found the most impressive to be the King Cobra. It looks so ancient and stone-like. I have no trouble fathoming that these animals have been around for such a long chunk of history.

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In the museum attached to the farm there was a range of interesting specimens. One was the embryo of a cobra.

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This is the skin of a Burmese python.

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They even sliced one open and preserved it for everyone to look at.

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Following my trip to the snake farm, I boarded the skytrain to the red light district of Nana from which I walked to the famous Sukhumvit Soi 11. This street is a hub of expat activity, but to avoid the tourist haunts I made my way into a back alley for some more boat noodles. There were no tables left, so they put me in the storeroom where there was about half a dozen cats roaming under my table.

After a brief pit stop back at the hostel, I caught the ferry to the northern part of Bangkok. The boat was ridiculously overfilled, and I was genuinely concerned as to the seaworthiness of the thing.

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The three kilometre walk to Rajadamnern Stadium was not without its highlights.

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At Rajadamnern, I bought tickets to the evening’s Muay Thai boxing championship. Despite the huge amount of money that even the worst seats in the stadium set me back, the evening was genuinely a thriller.

I found a spot behind the cage in the pit of Thai men all ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ at each blow.

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Between each round, people would hold up their hands to offer bets to each other, similar to two-up in Australia.

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I put 100 baht ($4) on blue, and lost it (never bet on something you don’t understand).

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Not only did I lose, my fighter actually got KO’ed and was stretchered out of the ring.

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After staying for an hour or so of boxing, I walked back to Khao San Road to find some dinner. I quickly realised that this was club central. I wasn’t about to make another Hangover movie out of my trip to Bangkok, so I departed before too long.

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Day 141 (29th of July, 2016) – Tehran, Iran

This morning I found out that I have been shortlisted for a scholarship which I have been aspiring to for some time, and that I must do an interview over the internet to complete the application process. After a morning of hastily booking a hotel which has guaranteed fast internet in Amman, Jordan, I set off to Don Mueang Airport for my flight to Tehran.

In an effort to save a few dollars, I caught the skytrain and bus instead of a taxi. That proved to be more difficult than I expected, but luckily a few locals who recognised that I was trying to get to the airport directed me to the correct bus.

Eventually, I arrived at the airport with three hours to spare before my flight. I’m glad I did, because just boarding the plane turned out to be a logistical nightmare. Before I was allowed to be issued a boarding pass, I had to prove that I had enough money to buy my visa on arrival in Iran. Not having any Iranian Rials at the time, I was told to go to the currency exchanges to buy some before I could check in. However, none of the currency exchanges in the whole airport stocked any Rials. After an hour of confusion and stress, I was eventually told that I could also pay in Euros, and so I purchased enough that would get me through immigration in Iran before I could buy some currency over there.

I received a warning about obeying Islamic Law upon my arrival in Iran and checked to see if my clothing was appropriate before I could board.

Finally, I was allowed onto the plane for the seven hour journey. During the flight, I became acquainted with an Iranian teacher from Tehran who had just been to Thailand on a holiday. He gave me a lot of insight into what life is like as an Iranian.

“How do you live without alcohol?” I quipped.

He chuckled. “You really think we live without it? We are some of the biggest drinkers on the planet, it’s just all behind closed doors.”

This was the first time I was introduced to the Iranian concept of ‘layers’. As the locals themselves say, this is a country of many conflicting regulations. You have the political layer, the religious layer and the cultural layer all intertwined to dictate what can and can’t be done by the Iranian people.

“What brought you to Thailand?” I asked.

“Sex tourism” he said, bluntly.

I laughed, shivering underneath.

“And the alcohol. It’s liberating to be able to drink out in the open,” he added.

I was beginning to get the sense that this guy was in a pretty miserable state at having to return to Iran.

“Where are you going after Iran?” he asked.

I began the usual routine of listing my destinations. “Jordan, Israel, Finl—”

“What?” he interrupted.

It hit me. It was as if I’d referred directly to ‘He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’ – Israel.

The man opened his passport and pointed to a line on the front page which read “The holder of this passport is not entitled to travel to occupied Palestine”.

Without delay, he launched into an hour-long history lesson about the Israeli’s unfair claim to Palestine and its oppression of the Palestinian people. I was inclined to agree with his views, but I don’t really know enough about the issue to make a comment.

Regardless, the one thing which I learned from the exchange was not to mention to people over here that I’m going to Israel.

Descending into Iran, the skies looked eerily familiar. The smog was as thick as that of China.

The air hostesses came around and checked our clothing again. All of the women put on their Hijabs to cover their hair.

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This prompted another question from me to my new friend. Since he’d already told me that he wasn’t very religious, I decided to ask him if he felt that there were women who felt oppressed by their clothing regulations.

“Yes, I do.” he said. “It’s 45 degrees out there right now. I get to wear a short sleeved T-shirt while women have to put on a black Hijab. Do you really think they would all do that by choice?”

Noticing that the Hijabs in Iran weren’t anywhere near as concealing as other Islamic clothing (such as the Burqa in Afghanistan), I asked him whether he thought that Iranian regulations were relatively liberal.

“Definitely,” he said, “lots of women here show some of their hair.”

He nudged me and pointed to a woman sitting not far from us.

“She’s got nice hair, hey?” he suggested.

“Uhh, yeah. Yeah she does. Do you find it attractive when women show some of their hair?” I asked.

“Of course I do. Think of it like showing cleavage in a Western country. Anything which is forbidden becomes attractive.”

Whilst I thought it was a pretty wacky analogy, I could see the truth behind it.

About ten seconds after the wheels of the plane smashed into the tarmac, I was scared out of my skin by an Iranian man on the other side of the plane screaming some words in Farsi at a deafening pitch.

My heart was beating out of my chest, especially since I was already cautious being in a country with a history of instability.

But everyone around me laughed. I asked the man next to me what he had said, and apparently it was: “Nice landing!”

After touching down, we followed a flight which had landed from Baghdad in Iraq to our gate. The sun was beautiful. Apparently on a day without pollution, there are mountains reaching 5600m tall in the backdrop.

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While waiting to get off the plane, someone from behind me tapped my shoulder.

“Are you Australian?” croaked a familiar Aussie accent.

It turns out that I was sitting in front of the Migration Officer from the Australian Embassy in Iran. We had a great chat and his story of isolation sounded very similar to mine in China.

He has been posted for three years in Tehran, and most of the people he hangs out with are those from the Australian and German Embassies. The U.S. doesn’t have an Embassy here, and the U.K. only does diplomatic work in a much more restricted capacity after attacks on their Consulate by extremists.

I asked him how many Australians were living in Iran and working in other industries, and he said that during the election around 200 people came in to vote. He said that most of them had Iranian heritage, and that there were very few people with fully Australian heritage living in the country.

Most interestingly, he told me the story of one Australian girl who he during the election.

“She came in to vote and she had the thickest bogan accent I’d ever heard in my life. I assumed that she was here on holidays, but it turns out that she lives with a nomadic tribe here. She met a guy during her gap year and never returned home after about a decade. She now raises goats for a living.”

I was a little gobsmacked, to say the least. Maybe there is a possibility that the nomads will draw me in with their lure too…

After saying goodbye to my friends, I suffered for two hours in the line to go through customs. Just like China, it turns out that queue etiquette doesn’t exist here. My visa cost 145, twice as much as the foreigners surrounding me. Maybe Australia’s relationship with this country isn’t as good as I thought…

I walked out into the arrivals hall and was met by a driver from the tour company as promised. I paid my money for the tour, and we made our way to Hotel Mehr.

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Along the way, I was introduced to the basic facts of Iran. Iran is a country of almost 80 million people, making it the 18th largest country in the world by population. It is also the 18th largest by landmass.

I was able to get a dinner of chicken, chips and two whole tomatoes from the hotel restaurant.

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No one’s English at the hotel was good enough to understand my questions of what time the tour was starting the next day. They kept on repeating “2pm”, but I was sure that they were mistaking my question for the check-out time. After being told that I should exchange money at the hotel instead of the airport, I was also greeted with the most atrocious exchange rate and a receptionist who didn’t believe that my Australian bank notes were real.

“They’re plastic, they’re fake.” he repeated.

I gave up and went back to my room (which was a pretty miserable one at that, though I can’t expect much more for the price I paid).

Day 142 (30th of July, 2016) – Tehran, Iran

The next morning at 9:30am, I get a knock on my door from my tour guide to ask where I’ve been.

“The tour was supposed to start at 9am!”

I knew this would happen.

Luckily it didn’t matter. I’m the only one on the tour anyway, so there’s a lot of flexibility.

Outside in the lobby I was very surprised to meet two other Australians. Both were from Melbourne and were part way through the Mongol Rally. For those who don’t know, this is a month-long rally which goes from London to Ulan Ude in Russia. Teams pass through countries such as the Czech Republic, Turkey, Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia and Russia. To take from Wikipedia, the rally only has three rules:

  1. The car must be small and rubbish
  2. Teams are totally unsupported
  3. Teams need to raise at least £1000 for charity

As my guide and I were about to set off, they told us that they had been robbed of over 500 just yesterday outside of Tehran. A family had indicated for them to pull over so that they could sign the bonnet like many other locals. While chatting to them, the Iranians asked if they could see their passports. Apparently this is a common question since many people they pass have never seen a passport in their lives. As one of the men pulled out his wallet to get his passport, one of the Iranians snatched all of the money and ran to their car to drive off.

The Australians were asking my tour guide if he could help be a translator for them while they made a police report. My guide wilfully accepted.

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There’s no denying that many parts of this place look like a Call of Duty map, to put it bluntly.

Unfortunately, the whole police incident ended up taking most of my day away. We didn’t get on the road to see the sights of Tehran until 1pm.

The event came with a silver lining, though. Today is the anniversary of the martyrdom of the 6th Imam Jafar-e-Sadegh, which is a national holiday. Just outside the police station was Baharestan Square where they were holding memorials.

I sat there for a number of hours and was genuinely overwhelmed by the hospitality and welcoming nature of the Iranian people around me. They gave me all of their food and made sure that I was never too hot by fanning me and giving me cold drinks.

The whole event was very surreal. Towering over the square was an eerie black flag, and clerics were singing holy messages into the microphones.

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The clerics would often cut their singing and start crying – it was evident at how engrained religion was in their very being. I could never imagine actually crying over the death of someone centuries ago.

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Groups of people would march through the square led by banners which proclaimed the greatness of the Imam.

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I genuinely felt very bad for the women dressed in complete black in the 40 degree heat.

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After the Australians got their police report, we parted ways and my guide and I went on to the Grand Bazaar.

Unfortunately the Bazaar was mostly closed due to it being a public holiday, but a good restaurant nearby was still open. We ate lamb shank, olives, and yoghurt. The meal came with a traditional sour yoghurt drink. The lunch cost $1,000,000 Iranian Rials…

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Once again, the people in the restaurant were all flocking around me and being overly nice. They were all so happy when I told them the observations I had of Iran. A few of them expressed to me that they were sad at the perception of Iran by Western tourists. He said that if Iran was still called ‘Persia’ or if the name wasn’t so similar to ‘Iraq’, maybe less people would be scared off what is a very safe country.

I had to agree with him. When I tell people that I’m travelling to ‘Persia’, they seem far less concerned than when I say ‘Iran’ (in reality they’re exactly the same thing).

We even got talking about people’s perceptions of the U.S. After one person asked me for my opinion on the American-Iranian nuclear deal, to which I replied that I had too little knowledge to comment, people began talking about whether the assumption that Iranians hated the U.S. was actually true. Most of them commented that they greatly respected America’s aim to advance world peace in areas outside of just their own country. If anything, the only negative sentiments were ones of suspicion.

But, there was one common opinion held amongst everyone in the conversation. No-one thought that America’s decision to invade Iraq was a smart one. They believe that it is the root cause of much of the instability in the Middle East today, including the rise of ISIS.

That isn’t exactly an opinion unique to Iranians. Even the other day, the much publicised Chilcot Report was released in the UK which made a few verdicts about the the Iraq War:

  • Saddam Hussein did not pose an urgent threat to British interests
  • intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction was presented with unwarranted certainty
  • peaceful alternatives to war had not been exhausted
  • the United Kingdom and United States had undermined the authority of the United Nations Security Council
  • the process of identifying the legal basis of the war was “far from satisfactory”
  • a war in 2003 was unnecessary

With the overwhelmingly supportive response to that report in much of the U.S., U.K. and Australia, it seems that most of the Western World holds a similar view these days.

If anything, what’s surprised me so far about Iran is the remarkably similar views held by people on the ground despite such differences on a government level. It’s a little bit sad to see, really.

Next stop was the Azadi Tower. The Azadi Tower is the icon of Iran and what many people think of when they hear the country’s name. It marks the Western entrance to Tehran, and is a conglomeration of both pre-Islamic and post-Islamic Iranian architecture.

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After the Azadi Tower, the guide and I drove to Darband.

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Tehran is surrounded by many mountains including Mount Tochal, all of which look incredibly picturesque poking above the cityscape. The suburb at the base of Tochal is called Darband, and it completely blew my expectations. It was stunningly colourful.

We sat down for some ice cream and like the rest of the locals around us, settled in for a short nap on the pond.

When leaving the base of the mountain, I commented on the odd placing of a piece of bread on the street.

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My guide said that this symbolised a bakery, and we went inside to take a look.

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Some locals were delighted to see a foreigner in Tehran, and they asked if I would take a picture of them and show my family to prove that Iranians are good people. I happily obliged.

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The feeling you really get here is that the people are genuinely concerned for the image that their country has offshore. One of the most sad things I’ve found when I’ve travelled the world this year is that there are a lot of countries (China included) where the people are embarrassed by the image their government gives them.

For the next few hours, my guide and I took a stroll and chatted about the country. The guide, Shaya, was one of the nicest people I have ever met. He had an impeccable British accent which he practiced every day. He told me some very funny stories of censorship in Iran. Like China (I’m starting to realise how similar this country is to China, actually), the Iranian government blocks most social networks, pornography, violent material and anti-government criticism. The only difference is that ‘pornography’ in this part of the world is defined as when you can see any part of the female body other than the face and hands. For males, it’s defined as being able to see any part of the body other than the fact, hands and arms.

Shaya told me that this became particularly frustrating when watching Western movies on TV. He said that he once watched a two-hour long horror movie which only went for ten minutes, because the rest was cut out for censorship.

He harboured a particular resentment for Iran’s censorship of parts of football matches. As an avid football fan, he detested how every time the camera panned over the crowd, it would play the same few seconds of crowd material which happened to not include any inappropriately dressed people.

He recalled a particular time last year when he was watching a big football game with a group of friends, and Ronaldo was lining up for a penalty shootout goal which would decide the game. They were all on the edge of their seats, waiting to see if the goal would go in. It did, and they all went ballistic. People were jumping up on the tables and hugging each other. Then, Ronaldo approached the corner post and took his shirt off. The TV suddenly went blank and played a static noise. He said that it completely killed the excitement, and it ended with everyone swearing at the TV and criticising the Iranian government. I thought that was pretty funny.

At midnight, my guide put me on an overnight bus to Isfahan. I was told that I would be meeting another guide in that city. The bus was very comfortable and luxurious, but as expected, I was in for a horrible sleep.

Day 143 (31st of July, 2016) – Isfahan, Iran

At 5am upon my arrival in Isfahan, my worst fear came true. My guide wasn’t there to meet me. I was left without a functioning phone (Telstra doesn’t have a partner in Iran, and no SIM cards were for sale yesterday), no Iranian Rials (currency exchange shops weren’t open yesterday), and no functioning credit card (Mastercard doesn’t work in Iran, and Westpac has no partner banks here). After half an hour of waiting around, I asked some locals if I could borrow their phones to call my tour guide from Tehran.

Shaya profusely apologised and told me to catch a taxi to my hotel where my guide would meet me after they had worked out where everything went wrong.

After arriving at the hotel, I spent the morning completing some administrative things on my computer.

At 9:30am, my guide arrived and proceeded to blame the almost 5 hour tardiness on my Tehran guide for not texting him about my arrival time until after midnight. I wasn’t really in the mood to hear a bunch of infighting at the tour company over whose fault it was that I was left stranded, and so I told him that directly. You could tell that he was desperate to shift the blame off of his chest, so I put up with hearing his complaints  for the next half an hour while we set off to the Isfahan Royal Square.

Other than the first incident, the guide was actually very professional. He very clearly knew all of his facts about Isfahan, and was very passionate about the city.

Isfahan is the third biggest city in Iran. It is famous for its Persian–Islamic architecture, with many beautiful boulevards, covered bridges, palaces, mosques, and minarets.

Arriving in the second biggest square in the world (to Tiananmen in Beijing) was quite incredible.

An Afghan (on the left) asked for a photo with my guide (on the right) and I.

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The entrance to the was Imam mosque was very grand.

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The bulk of the structure was mosaics made out of small centimetre-long tiles all pieced together perfectly.

Heading inside, the scale of the structure reminded me very much of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

In the courtyard of the mosque, foreigners were offered the opportunity to debate with a Shia cleric. I kindly declined, but watched a group of Italians try their best.

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My guide handed me a Sharbat drink while I watched the argument go down.

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Over the top of the square, you could see the rest of the city as it sprawled out towards the mountains.

From this viewpoint you could also see the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque in all its beauty. You can see how it is twisted on an angle so that it faces the south-west towards Mecca.

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I was able to tour the Ali Qapu palace of past Kings and through the many intelligently designed ‘echo chambers’, I discovered how much these centuries-old Iranians had truly mastered the art of sound reflection.

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After noticing how fatigued I was getting, my guide took me back to the hotel so that I could take a nap. After settling in for bed at midday, I didn’t wake up until 8am the next day (this is where I am now publishing the blog).

Unfortunately I still feel very lethargic and quite sick, but hopefully it will fade over the coming days.

I hope you enjoyed the return to the blog. Hopefully timezone differences don’t hamper many of your routines!

Until next time,
Xavier.

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