Monday, October 21, 2019

Maa Iran Doostim (We are friends of Iran)

     A couple weeks ago, we left Iran after our third visit in the last 2 years.  This time we invited 6 of our friends to go with us and it seems like there are now 6 more fans of Iran that will go back to the United States and tell people what the true face of Iran is.  The group consisted of both old friends and some new ones and ended up being a great mix of people.  Like our first time, this trip was a combination of mountains and nature mixed with culture and sightseeing.  
8 Americans in Iran                          

     The first couple of days were a little nerve wracking with the news.  As we flew into Tehran is when the oil refineries blew up in Saudia Arabia.  Our cell phones were full of news as Trump threatened that America was “locked and loaded!”  While we were worried it didn’t seem to phase the Iranians a bit.  There was no rushing to the stores to stock up on supplies and no one really seemed to care.  Over the last 40 years they have seen this sort of thing multiple times and actually went through a horrific war with Iraq in the 80s so they just took it all in stride.  Most Iranians think that Trump is a paper tiger who speaks loudly but carries a small stick.  After a week or so the news mellowed out after it became apparent that neither the US or Saudia Arabia was going to risk a full-blown war.  
Normal shopping day at the bazaar

    We spent the first week hiking in the Alborz mountains.  Tochal is a ski area that is on the mountain just on the north edge of Tehran and is 13,005’ high so we spent the first 2 days climbing this peak to acclimate.  There are shelters/hotels on the mountain so we did not have to camp or really rough it in any way.  That first night we had a perfect view looking over the lights of Tehran.  
Lights of Tehran at sunset              
In the spring the hillside is green and covered in flowers but this time of year all the vegetation was dry and brown.  In the winter there is a ski area with the 2nd longest gondola in the world (over 4 ½ miles long).  People are surprised to find out that there are 25 ski areas in Iran.  
Tochal ski area gondola                 
The first day had some steep rocky sections as the trail went up a canyon past some waterfalls and the second day was just high-altitude hillside.  
Steep rocky trail                                             
and waterfalls                                                 
           Dry upper Tochal mountain                     There was a weird moment at the start of the hike where everyone’s GPS went haywire and started telling us we were going a mile every 2 minutes or so.  It didn’t matter what kind of GPS it was (2 different brands of GPS watch and a hand held GPS).  We wondered if there was some sort of electronic warfare going on.  By the end of the day many of us were feeling pretty sun baked and dehydrated.  On the summit of Tochal we met the champion Iranian SkyRunner Iman Koushki who holds the speed record up Damavand (2 hr 41min), the highest volcano in Asia at 18,403’ which was our next project.  Iman had some of his coaching clients with him that included a young guy and 2 girls.  Turned out Kathleen and her had the same running shoes (Hoka Speedgoats) so they got excited about that.  
Iman Koushki on left                

     After a rest day between mountains we then spent the next 2 days getting up and down Damavand.  Kathleen and I had attempted a ski descent of this mountain on our first trip but the weather did not cooperate.  This time the weather was perfect.  Gorgeous sunny days and even though at that altitude it is always below freezing the lack of wind and sun made it very pleasant days to climb.  The mayor of the town at the base of the mountain (Rineh) came to see us off and wish us luck.  
Mayor of Rineh                      
Slow and steady was the name of the game that day and it allowed everyone to get to the summit.  Some of us felt the altitude more than others but it turned out that out of a dozen attempts by Iran Doostan groups (our tour company) that year we were the only team to get everyone to the summit.  It was the weekend so there were a lot of Iranians but we only saw one other foreigner, a Dutch guy.   We made many more friends on the summit and Kathleen and I even had a friend (Babak) we met on our first trip drive out from Tehran and then run up the mountain to find us.  
Mount Damavand (18,403')          
Halfway up with a pile of Iranians
Sulphur covered summit cone       
On summit with our friend Babak

     We all went to the Caspian Sea after this.  Kathleen and I had been there on our first trip and thought it worthwhile to visit but that time we went there from Dizin which was closer.  From Damavand the quickest way was back to Tehran and around the mountains from the south.  This ended up being more driving and traffic which in hindsight might not have been the best use of time.
Stormy Caspian Sea                   
We got to see an ancient castle/fortress called Rudkhan which was cool and the highlight of this area.
Rudkhan Castle                         

We also visited a village, Masouleh, that people have lived in for over 1000 years.  It is a stepped village where one persons porch is the roof of the house in front of it.  This is in an area of heavily forested hills and provided a stark contrast to the desert we would soon be in.  
Masouleh Stepped Village        
In the valley below there were rice paddies, tea plantations and multiple rivers.  This area was on the rainy side of the Alborz mountains, much like Seattle is with the Cascades.  
Iran is more than desert           
One of the cultural highlights happened while we were here.  We went to a restaurant that was next to our hotel for dinner and it turned out there was an Iranian birthday party going on.  They were a group of retired teachers from Shiraz on vacation. We were invited to join and made many new friends that night and learned some interesting things about Iran.  Anyone who had a September birthday (Kathleen, Amanda, Rich) was included in their celebration. 
Iranian/American joint birthday

     After the Caspian Sea we all flew south to Shiraz and the classic tourist route of Shiraz, Persopolis, Yazd, Esfahan, and Kashan.  This ends up being a lot of mosques, fancy houses, palaces, and gardens.  
Naranjestan Qavan, Shiraz          
Naqsh-e Rostam Tombs              
Tomb of Cyrus, Persargadae       
Wind catchers, Yazd                    
Towers of Silence, Yazd              
Zorastorian flame from 470A.D.
Si-o-seh Pol (bridge), Esfahan    
Naqsh-e Jahan Square, Esfahan  

By the end of 6 days of cramming a lot of sights in they all start to blur together.  Everyone was pretty mosqued out, especially Kathleen and I who had seen most of these before.  Yazd was a new city for us which is a cool ancient town.  The old city seems like it is from a different world at times.  Also seeing this many towns in this short of period meant a lot of time being driven in our bus.  Iran is the 16th largest country in the world so there are large stretches of road between the cities.  At least our bus was comfortable.  am
Excellent driver Amin                
Depending on the town and how conservative it was, people would get up in the morning and go for a jog.  In the parks there would be Iranians working out also – jogging, exercise classes, calisthenics, volleyball, and speed walking.  The women still have to be covered so long pants, sleeves, and head covering are mandatory.  One of our group would wear shorts and didn’t have any problems but one time when Kathleen was running, she was stopped by the Morality Police.  There is a special police force in Iran that enforces the Islamic rules.  Despite having her hair covered and long pants/sleeves she apparently had too much of her neck exposed.  We were stopped and politely told that this was inappropriate and that it needed to be fixed.  
Coed Iranian running club      
Another fascinating incident saw that says a lot about Iran was an attempted purse snatching while in Shiraz.  Iran is listed as one of the safest countries to travel (except by the US government) and is considered to be safer than Europe.  The biggest risk actually is riding in a car or crossing the street.   Purse snatching or pickpocketing is the biggest threat.  While in Shiraz from a restaurant window we witnessed an attempted purse snatching.  The lady held on to her bag and yelled.  Within 30 seconds a dozen Iranian men had tackled the guy.  By the time the police arrived the crowd had grown to about 50 people and they had beat him up a bit.  The cops had to rescue the guy.  We had been told that if you ever have a problem just to yell and make noise and people will come help and this very much turned out to be true.

     After 16 days everyone flew home.  Kathleen and I stayed an extra 1 ½ weeks to explore a new part of Iran that we hadn’t seen.  We flew to Kashan in southeast Iran.  We explored there and the city of Bam where there is a huge citadel though much of the city and ruins was destroyed in a massive earthquake in 2003 that killed over 26,000 people in the town.  
Bam Citadel                    
Ruins of Bam                  
We then spent two days exploring the Lut desert.  There is an area called the Kalouts where the sandstone has been eroded by wind and water into fantastic formations.  It reminded us of parts of Utah or Arizona but was also unique in its own right.  We were able to run in the desert in the morning.  By mid-morning it became incredibly hot there with temperatures well over 100F.  In the middle of the desert the surface of the sand has been measured at 159F in the summer.  It is the hottest place on earth.  The owner of the ecolodge we stayed at told us that he has cooked eggs by just leaving them in the sun but that next summer he wants to try cooking an entire chicken.  Early morning, late afternoon, and night time was when you could do something.  In the afternoon we would siesta and hide out in the air conditioning. 
Kalouts, Lut Desert                  
Lut PanBorama                         
Breakfast with a view               
Remnants of last springs floods

    Our last days were in Mashhad which is the holiest city for Shia Islam outside Mecca/Medina in Saudi Arabia.  There is a huge shrine there and the Islamic Republic government has put a lot of money into this city so it was very modern with a lot of construction going on.  We also spent a night in another ancient village called Kang where people have lived for over 2000 years. 
Kang reminded us of Nepal in ways

     Once again, we were met with 100% hospitality and generosity on this trip.  The Iranian people are fascinated to meet Americans and we have never come across any hostility even when talking to police, army men, clerics, and religious men.  Everyone is glad we are visiting their country and welcomes us.  While many people do not support the American government, it is one of the most pro-American countries we have ever visited.  If you get a chance to visit Iran we highly recommend it.  It is a fascinating and confusing country that proves that government and the people often have nothing to do with each other.


Thursday, September 12, 2019

Camel Surfing in Jordan

     After more than a year my PTSD has decreased enough that it is time to tell the tale of our trip to Jordan.  Ever since Kathleen and I met we have talked about doing a long distance desert crossing by camel.  The original dream was to cross the Sahara but currently there is not a safe way to cross North to South that does not involve crossing Al Qaeda territory at some point.  Our Plan B was to do a crossing of the Taklamakan (Sea of Death) Desert in western China but that is currently where all the Uighur “reeducation camps” are located so the Chinese government will not allow Westerners in that area.  Our dream hasn’t died however so we decided that we would go to Jordan to learn everything we could about long distance camel trekking – how to ride, feed, saddle, handle, and take care of them in general.  We did some research on the internet and contacted a guy named Mohammed in the Wadi Rum Desert of Jordan who had bred racing camels in the past and was willing to create a “Camel School” to teach us the skills we needed.  We would dub this “Camel Camp”.   

     Once we started planning dates for the trip it turned out that our friend Rich White wanted to join us including coming to Camel Camp.  He had never had an urge to ride camels before this but it sounded fun to him and he had the time off.  It also worked out that we would overlap for part of the time with our Canadian friends Kristin and Ryan.  The first half of the trip would be more typical tourist with us visiting the most important cultural sights of Jordan and then the second half of the trip would be Camel Camp.

     Kristin and Ryan had arrived the day before the rest of us so they met us at the airport with a rented SUV.  Jordanian driving was typical Middle East or Italian style driving.  Lanes don’t mean anything and the first car there wins.  We drove to the Dead Sea first and stayed at the Crown Plaza.  This hotel was much more high end than Kathleen and I normally do and it was obvious that it was a fancy enough hotel to be a terrorist target.  Concrete barriers rose up and down out of the ground at the gate, guards searched under the cars with mirrors for bombs, and there were metal detectors and X-ray machines to get into the lobby.  The nice thing about this hotel was that it has direct access to the Dead Sea.  The mud there is purported to have healing properties and the water is so saline that you float with no effort.  From this hotel there was also easy access to Mt. Nebo which is where Moses first caught sight of the Promised Land.  There are also a lot of old mosaics in the area worth seeing.  The following days were spent exploring old Crusader castles, hiking in the mountainous Dana Biosphere Reserve, and spending 2 days exploring most of the ancient city of Petra.  On our hike at the Dana Biosphere a shepherd and our guide stopped, built a fire, and made tea for everyone.  That was followed by milking one of the goats and giving us a sample (after boiling it) with sugar added.  It was like a hot chocolate without the chocolate.  A very sweet and tasty desert drink.  In Petra we met a man named Faris who has a home in the town but prefers to live in the cave houses within Petra like his ancestors did.  We were invited to and had dinner one of the nights in his cave. These caves were small square rooms with cushions, pillows, and rugs, a small kitchen with a hot plate and small sink, and a solar powered TV with a satellite dish on the top of the rock.  It was one of the best meals of the trip and one of the cooler cultural experiences we had.  Afterwards we were able to sneak around the Petra site after dark though the guards we ran into were not happy about it.  

     Eventually we made our way to Wadi Rum (also known as the Valley of the Moon).  Kristin and Ryan joined us for the first day and then the rest of us spent another 6 days riding through the desert exploring most of the Wadi Rum Protected Area and beyond in a big circle along the Saudi Arabian border.  The landscape there looks like Mars and this is where many of the exterior shots for the movie, The Martian were filmed.  Wide open expanses of red sand with sheer faced sandstone mountains jutting up all around.  With the erosion the mountains had the appearance of melting and if a person were on hallucinogens they might freak out with all the faces and skulls that appeared even when you were sober.  Brilliant blue sky, yellow mountains, slot canyons, and red sand made for a visual feast for the eyes.  
Starting off out of Wadi Rum Village          
The only trees seen at Lawrence's Spring     
Patiently waiting                                           
Enjoying the sunrise                                     
Eroded rocks                                                
Views everywhere                                       
Kathleen riding the tracks Day 3            
Big Rock Bridge                                   
Right from the beginning our 18 year old guide Mutlek showed us how to saddle the camels up.  Lots of blankets and padding is the key.  The girth strap needs to be pulled pretty tight but the belly band behind it not so much.  The camels tend to grumple and flutter their soft palettes (dulaa) which appears like a fleshy balloon out of the side of the males mouths, especially when they are not happy.
Mutlek checking saddles                 
Watering the camels                        

Mutlek also taught us the basic verbal commands – clicking your tongue to get them to go faster (like a horse), “Ichhhhh” to get them to kneel down, and “Haj” if you really wanted them to go faster.  

It turned out that we were Mutlek’s first guiding experience but Mohammed had picked him because he had a better rapport and understanding with the camels then most other people.  We also had a support truck driven by Salem who was our cook and was a well known local musician who would play his Oud (a lute type instrument) each night.  
Salem and Mutlek playing music   
Lunchtime jam session                   

Mutlek struggled with our names so soon gave us Arabic names:  I was Nasar, Kathleen was Hederra, and Rich became Saleh.  We struggled with the Arabic names for the camels so we named them:  Seth Rasta Rum, Francis Wadi Walla, and Louis Maudeline Jordan.  Mutlek’s camel was dubbed Krissy because it was the fastest and liked to run away. Despite their names all the camels were boys.  
Seth Rasta Rum                               
Maudie and Krissy                          

The first night we glamped in fancy tents with a Syrian refuge family cooking for us.  The rest of the nights we slept under the stars except for one night about a mile from the Saudi border where we slept with a Bedouin shepherd and his son in their tent.  
Desert camp on Day 4                     
Day 4 Camp                                    
Sunset on Day 4                              
Day 5 Desert Camp                         
Sunrise from camp 5                       
Morning at Desert Camp #6           

The Bedouin are allowed to cross the border but we were told that despite being wilderness that it is closely monitored by cameras and that if we tried to cross we would be rapidly apprehended.  Our path went past the high point of Jordan, Um Ad Dami so we scrambled up that one of the mornings with distant views of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, and the Red Sea.  
View on the way up Um Ad Dami 
Summit of  Um Ad Dami               

Camels can be ornery and stubborn when they don’t want to do things.  One morning I woke up to watch the sunrise just in time to see Mutlek’s camel Krissy walking off and disappearing over the ridge about a mile away.  Luckily I was not the one that had hobbled them the night before.  The camel wanted to go home and was headed back in the direction of the village.  Mutlek and Salem jumped in the truck and took off after it.  I was holding onto Maudie’s rope when he decided with Mutlek gone that he could start acting up.  All of a sudden he tried to run off.  I held onto the rope but he wanted no part of me.  I tried to get him to Kush (kneel down) but he bared his teeth and continued to dance around.  After a minute or two of watching this Rich says, “Let me give it a try”.  The next thing we know Maudie put her head down, bared her teeth, and charged Rich.  Kathleen and I still have an image of Rich’s legs being a blur in his flip flops as he ran away tripping over bushes with Maudie going after his ass.  No one got hurt so it ended up being pretty funny.  We gave up trying to control him and just held onto the rope until Mutlek got back and he instantly calmed down again.  We rode every day for a week and fell into a routine that felt like it could go on forever.  Ride in the morning until lunch, take a siesta during the hottest part of the day, and then ride in the late afternoon/early evening until shortly before dusk.  
We would ride until dusk                  
Entering one of the many canyons    
Our view each day                             
It wasn't all sand                                
Erosion does crazy things                  
Our camel crew                                  
Could be Mars except for the camels 
Sunrise with beginning of sand storm
Start of sandstorm                              

By the end of the week Mutlek was comfortable enough with our skills that he let us do all the feeding, saddling, and hobbling.  I would have him check the saddles after putting them on since if they slipped they could cause pressure sores and injure the animals but otherwise he trusted us and I think he liked that he was getting paid and that we were doing all the work. 

     It was a grand adventure until the last 15 minutes of the trip as we were riding back into Wadi Rum.  Before we started Mohammed had told us that as a Bedouin it is very shameful to fall off of your camel, but if you do fall off of your camel, “Fall onto soft sand, not hard sand.”  The sand around Wadi Rum village has been driven over by multiple trucks so it was compacted down and might as well have been concrete.  Mutlek has been riding camels since he was in diapers.  All week he would periodically stand up on the back of his moving camel and salute us as it walked along.  
The inspiration 

In those last minutes of the trip I decided that if I was ever going to try this it was now or never.  No thoughts of the consequences or what I would do if the attempt failed.  (Dumb!)  As I got to my knees in the saddle the voice in the back of my head was screaming “Maybe that’s far enough!  Maybe that’s far enough!”  while the voice in the front of my head just said “Shut up back there, I’ve got this!”.  I didn’t even come close.  As soon as I stood up I basically pitched over backwards from the top of the camel, probably 8+ feet off of the ground.  If I had rotated another 15 degrees or so I would have landed on my neck or head.  I don’t really remember falling.  One second I was standing up, the next I was on my back in the dirt with a lot of pain.  At first I thought I had just taken a heavy blow.  I jumped up, put both arms over my head (the last time I would do that for months) and said “I’m OK!”.  However, after a few steps I had to kneel down to gather my wits.  I reached over to my right shoulder and felt a bony deformity underneath my skin.  Basically my collar bone had dislocated from the shoulder and was sticking up at the base of my neck.  As soon as I felt this I knew I was really hurt.  I collapsed to the ground and said “I feel faint.”  By that time Rich (who is a paramedic) had launched off of his camel and was by my side as I passed out.  When I woke up I was laying in the dirt with Rich blocking the sun from me and putting a wet bandana on my forehead.  We were close enough to the village that they had a truck out there within 15 minutes which then took me to the local clinic.  This was out of their league so they called an ambulance to take me to the city of Aqaba about 45 minutes away.  A shot of hydromorphone took the pain away and 3 radiographs showed it to be a Grade 5 clavicular location (the highest grade).  The doctors tried to reduce my shoulder in a vain attempt to put it back in place.  It didn’t hurt because of the pain killers but my body didn’t like what they were doing and I almost passed out again.  At that point they started talking surgery and since a delay of a few days would not matter I elected to wait until I got home to Seattle.  When you are admitted to the hospital there your passport is taken.  You get it back when you pay the bill.  They also informed me that they only take cash and that there was an ATM in the lobby.  I was worried about being able to pay until I got the bill.  All of the medical care and ambulance ride came up to a grand total of the Jordanian equivalent of $40 US.  I was able to pay that out of the cash in my wallet.  We then spent the next 2 days sitting by a pool in Aqaba and a day wandering around the capital of Amman waiting for our flight to leave.  The shoulder ached but with pain killers and muscle relaxants it was bearable for those days and the flight home.  2 surgeries and 4 months of rehab later I was back at work.