Getting Central Asian Visas

The first step in any extended overland trip in Central Asia is visa planning. There are five “stans” that were part of the former Soviet Union, all requiring visas for U.S. citizens, and entering and exiting the region overland requires further visas (Russia, Iran and/or China, most likely). Worst of all, each visa process has slight quirks that require careful attention, especially in planning your itinerary. We are not going to Kazakhstan, and so this discussion covers the four other “stans”–Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. [For Iran visas, cf. my post of 4.11. We received multiple entry China visas while in Hong Kong (as residents of Hong Kong, this was possible), but Chinese visa policy has since changed (in connection with the Olympics) and we have heard that overlanders are now having some difficulty securing visas for China.] In order of difficulty:

Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan’s is by far the trickiest Central Asian visa. The notoriously eccentric republic does not favor tourist visits, and the only way to get a tourist visa is by booking a fully escorted tour, which costs somewhere around $100/day per person. From what I understand, the tour does not allow any independent wandering, except within the city of Ashgabat. Most overlanders, not wanting the expense or the strings, opt instead for a transit visa, which allows independent travel along a specified route through Turkmenistan for a period of usually five days (with the exact dates specified on the visa). We planned on applying for our transit visa based on our Iran and Uzbekistan visas, the overland route between the two countries requiring transit through Turkmenistan. We first inquired with the Turkmen Embassy in Washington, which told us that we could only apply for transit visas in countries bordering Turkmenistan. We’re pretty sure this isn’t true, but securing a transit visa in Iran ended up being quite straightforward. When we arrived in Iran, we had our tour company deliver to the Turkmen Embassy in Tehran a copy of our passport photo page and Uzbek visa, which the embassy sent to Ashgabat for approval. After ten or so days, we called to confirm that approval for the transit visa had been granted by Ashgabat, and we were told that we could complete the application for and pick up our visas when we were in Tehran. Our first day in Tehran, we went to the Turkmen Embassy with more passport copies, color photographs and U.S. dollars in hand, and were able to pick up our five-day transit visas later the very same day. The only unpleasant surprise was that the Turkmen Embassy in Tehran only gives transit visas with entry at Sarakhs and exit at Farap–fine if you are traveling between Mashhad and Bukhara, with a stop at Mary/Merv, but not permitting travel to Ashgabat, Nisa or Konye-Urgench. We did meet some tourists on the same transit visas who were allowed to detour to Ashgabat by telling the border officials that they needed to go to a bank in the capital.

Tajikistan. Tajikistan used to offer visas on arrival for U.S. citizens at Dushanbe airport, but no longer does. We applied for our Tajik visas and GBAO permits (for travel to the Pamir region) with the Tajik Embassy in Washington, by mail. Service was very prompt and the officer who answered the phone was very helpful and responsive. Despite some reports to the contrary, no letter of invitation was required and paperwork generally was minimal. The unfortunate part, however, was that the visa granted to us is only good for a two-week window (we have to enter and exit Tajikistan within that period), which has required careful planning and put serious constraints on our overall Central Asian route-planning flexibility.

Uzbekistan. Uzbek visas used to be somewhat easier for American citizens when the U.S. and Uzbekistan had better relations (before the Andijon incident). Still, however, we were able to get a tourist visa for Uzbekistan without any letter of invitation. The process was considerably more difficult than the Tajik visa, however, mainly because of the slow speed and lack of responsiveness of the Uzbek New York consulate. The visas ended up taking almost five weeks to process, it was extremely difficult to get someone on the phone, and in the end they required additional payment because the fee went up (to $131, matching U.S. visa fees) after we had applied (but before the visas were issued). Nonetheless, they did grant us a dual-entry, 30-day visa. If you are arriving in Tashkent by air, it’s also possible to arrange a visa on arrival with an invitation. STANtours (website, email), is a reliable travel agency with which to arrange any of your Central Asian visa or travel needs.

Kyrgyzstan. We were unable to secure our Kyrgyz visa in the U.S., because the Uzbek process ran out our clock, but we wanted it in hand before arriving in Central Asia, and so applied while we were in Dubai. The officer at the Kyrgyz Consulate in Dubai was incredibly helpful, answering emails promptly and even processing our visa outside of regular hours. Same day service was fairly steep at around $150, but paperwork was minimal, with no invitation requirement and visa validity of a full month.

Assassins

This is intended as a revision of my post of 4.12.

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One of our goals on this trip is to connect related places in different countries, and so we visited the Assassin castles of Misyaf in Syria and Alamut in Iran.

Misyaf Castle, near Hama, Syria

Alamut Castle, near Qazvin, Iran

In order to understand the origin of the Assassins, it is helpful to go back to the beginning of Islam. After the death of Mohammed in 632 AD, there arose a dispute as to who should succeed his role as the (religious and political) head of the Islamic world. One faction supported Ali, cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed, while others supported Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr was elected the first caliph (or successor to Mohammed), followed in relatively quick succession by Umar, Uthman, and then finally Ali. Showing the contentiousness of the power struggles at the time, Umar, Uthman and Ali each met his end by murder. Some blamed the death of Uthman on the Ali faction (now known as Shiites), while the Shiites blamed the death of Ali on the others (now known as Sunnis). Following the death of Ali, the Sunni Umayyad dynasty, based in Damascus, took over the caliphate. During this period, the conflict between the majority Sunnis and the minority Shiites deepened, especially after the Umayyads killed Ali’s son Hussein, much of his family and many of his followers, in a battle near Karbala in now Iraq.

While the Shiites have been out of the majority and power in most of the Islamic world since, there have been significant times and areas when they came into control. One of the most important areas was and remains Iran, where (Twelver) Shiites form a majority. [Cf. my post of 5.20 for an introduction to Iranian Shia Islam.] Another was the Cairo-based (Sevener Shia or Ismaili) Fatimid caliphate, named after Fatima, daughter of Mohammed and wife of Ali, which ruled much of North Africa, Egypt and nearby lands from 910-1171. [The Twelver and Sevener Shias had split earlier due to a dispute on the identity of the seventh Imam–post on Sevener Shias likely to come.]

Around 1090, the Fatimids suffered from their own succession problem. The losing faction refused to accept the new Fatimid ruler in Cairo and formed a somewhat radical rebel group in now Iran, known to us as the Assassins. The founder of the Assassins, Hassan Sabbah, established a base at Alamut in northern Iran and led his group into repeated conflict with the prevailing Sunni Muslim hierarchy. A second group of Assassins became established in now Syria, and was particularly active under the leadership of Rashid al-Din Sinan, who based himself at Misyaf Castle starting in 1140. It is believed that there may have been a third group of Assassins in now Iraq.

As you may know, the word “assassin,” which we use now to describe professional killers, derives from the Assassins, who are called Assassins because it was rumored that they took hashish before embarking on their missions. And much like the contemporary English meaning of the word and its derivative, assassination, the missions of the Assassins, their method of operation, was murder: the strategic killing or attempted killing of Sunni Muslim leaders, including those of the Seljuk Turks of Anatolia and Crusader-foe Saladin. The Assassins would work by embedding an operative, sometimes over the course of years, in order to murder, or assassinate, a prominent leader or otherwise powerful or influential person.

Saladin’s greatest success, prior to his defeat of the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin in 1187, was the conquest of Egypt from the Fatimid caliphate in 1171. After terminating Fatimid rule, Saladin wanted to consolidate his (Sunni) control over the region, including by wiping out the Assassins in now Syria. In 1176, Saladin sieged the castle of Misyaf. According to legend, Saladin woke up one morning during the siege to find on his bed a dagger or poisoned cakes and a threatening note, depending on the story you believe, making clear that the Assassins had infiltrated his camp and could murder him at their will. The siege was called off.

The Assassins of now Iran met their end in 1256, when Hulagu, Genghiz Khan’s grandson, sucessfully sieged Alamut [cf. post of 5.27 on Hulagu and the Ilkhanids]. The Syrian branch would persist until 1273, when it was defeated by the Mamlukes.

Ruins of Alamut

Column capital at Misyaf, evidence of earlier fortifications at the site

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Excerpt from Marco Polo on the Hassan Sabbah and the Fortress of Alamut:

The Old Man was called in their language ALOADIN. He had caused a certain valley between two mountains to be enclosed, and had turned it into a garden, the largest and most beautiful that ever was seen, filled with every variety of fruit. In it were erected pavilions and palaces the most elegant that can be imagined, all covered with gilding and exquisite painting. And there were runnels too, flowing freely with wine and milk and honey and water; and numbers of ladies and of the most beautiful damsels in the world, who could play on all manner of instruments, and sung most sweetly, and danced in a manner that it was charming to behold. For the Old Man desired to make his people believe that this was actually Paradise. So he had fashioned it after the description that Mahommet gave of his Paradise, to wit, that it should be a beautiful garden running with conduits of wine and milk and honey and water, and full of lovely women for the delectation of all its inmates. And sure enough the Saracens of those parts believed that it _was_ Paradise!

Now no man was allowed to enter the Garden save those whom he intended to be his ASHISHIN. There was a Fortress at the entrance to the Garden, strong enough to resist all the world, and there was no other way to get in. He kept at his Court a number of the youths of the country, from 12 to 20 years of age, such as had a taste for soldiering, and to these he used to tell tales about Paradise, just as Mahommet had been wont to do, and they believed in him just as the Saracens believe in Mahommet. Then he would introduce them into his garden, some four, or six, or ten at a time, having first made them drink a certain potion which cast them into a deep sleep, and then causing them to be lifted and carried in. So when they awoke, they found themselves in the Garden.

When therefore they awoke, and found themselves in a place so charming, they deemed that it was Paradise in very truth. And the ladies and damsels dallied with them to their hearts’ content, so that they had what young men would have; and with their own good will they never would have quitted the place.

Now this Prince whom we call the Old One kept his Court in grand and noble style, and made those simple hill-folks about him believe firmly that he was a great Prophet. And when he wanted one of his _Ashishin_ to send on any mission, he would cause that potion whereof I spoke to be given to one of the youths in the garden, and then had him carried into his Palace. So
when the young man awoke, he found himself in the Castle, and no longer in that Paradise; whereat he was not over well pleased. He was then conducted to the Old Man’s presence, and bowed before him with great veneration as believing himself to be in the presence of a true Prophet. The Prince would then ask whence he came, and he would reply that he came from Paradise! and that it was exactly such as Mahommet had described it in the Law. This of course gave the others who stood by, and who had not been admitted, the greatest desire to enter therein.

So when the Old Man would have any Prince slain, he would say to such a youth: “Go thou and slay So and So; and when thou returnest my Angels shall bear thee into Paradise. And shouldst thou die, natheless even so will I send my Angels to carry thee back into Paradise.” So he caused them to believe; and thus there was no order of his that they would not affront any peril to execute, for the great desire they had to get back into that Paradise of his. And in this manner the Old One got his people to murder any one whom he desired to get rid of. Thus, too, the great dread that he inspired all Princes withal, made them become his tributaries in order that he might abide at peace and amity with them.

History of Iran: Mongols and Il Khanid

This is part of a series of an overview of Iranian history–please refer to my posts of 5.10, 5.11 and 5.19.

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After unifying the various Mongol and Turkic forces in Central Asia, Genghiz Khan conquered much of Asia in the 13th century. The destruction in some areas was unprecedented (the destruction of Merv is still considered to be the deadliest ever conquest of a city), but also with the Mongol Empire came a regional stability that allowed a flowering of trade routes, including the ones followed by Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta (imagine, only one visa required!). In Iran, Genghiz Khan’s grandson Hulagu Khan founded the Ilkhanate dynasty. The disintegration of the Ilkhanate kingdom in the mid-14th century brought with it a series of minor rulers over now Iran, until the conquests of Tamerlane from now Uzbekistan in the 15th century. Tamerlane’s dynasty was even more fleeting, largely over by the reign of his grandson.

When one thinks of Mongols one may think of barbarians on horses, nomadic people whose thirst for violence and pillaging was greater than any appetite for civilization or culture. However, by the time of the establishment of Ilkhanid control over now Iran, the Mongols had adopted much of the civilization of the areas they had conquered, commissioning great Islamic art as well as spreading Chinese art forms in western Asia.

In Iran it is possible to see many relics of the Mongol and Ilkhanid periods, including two true wonders, both commissioned by Sultan Oljeitu (1280-1316), the great-grandson of Hulagu Khan. The Ilkhanid Sultan from 1304-1316, Oljeitu was first baptized a Christian, but later converted to Buddhism, Sunni Islam and then Shiite Islam, showing the great diversity of religious belief in the Mongol domains and the difficulties that the Mongols had in choosing which religion to adopt.

One Oljeitu-reign masterpiece is the prayer hall that he commissioned for the Friday Mosque of Esfahan, now called the Oljeitu chamber.

The most memorable part of the chamber, and one of the single most impressive art works in all of Iran, is the stucco mihrab.

Another Oljeitu masterwork is his tomb (by some accounts originally built for the bodies of the earliest Shiite Imams, which he wanted to bring from Iraq), a stupendously large domed mausoleum in the Ilkhanid capital of Soltaniyeh, now a few hours west of Tehran. The building, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, remains the largest brick dome in the world and one of the earliest examples of a double dome, prefiguring such buildings as the Taj Mahal.

Upstairs gallery of the Oljeitu Mausoleum. The patterns on the back wall are said to resemble Mongolian textiles.

Perhaps most immediately evoking the Asian-ness of the Mongols is their pottery. Clearly handed down from a Chinese tradition, pottery of the era, though presumably made in now Iran, feature faces that are clearly east Asian.

Food in Iran

We had fairly high expectations of Iranian food going into the trip, and to some extent our expectations were met–most things we had were quite delicious. However, sadly, food for tourists in Iran suffers from two serious problems.

The first is the same issue that I spoke of in my Syrian food entry (4.27)–the food that is generally served in restaurants is only a small subset of the cuisine as a whole, and to try other dishes essentially requires an invitation to a home-cooked meal. Just as in Syria or Turkey, restaurant food is largely kebabs, in various forms. This problem is more severe in Iran because the restaurants do not have the mezze/salad culture of Syria or Turkey, but alleviated by the fact that even fairly basic Iranian kebabis often will serve, in addition to kebab, dizi or a stew (see below for both). At home, we are told, people eat less kebabs, and more stews and rice dishes (polo).

This distinction between home food and restaurant food is common throughout the Middle East, and my two best guesses so far is that it exists either because of gender roles or history. The first theory is that there is a difference between food traditionally cooked by men and food traditionally cooked by women, with only the former being served in restaurants, where only men work. Just as men barbecue in America, grilling kebabs seems to be a man’s job, and I do not recall seeing one woman working as a waitress or a cook in a proper restaurant in the Middle East. [On the other hand, there’s nothing about being male that would prevent you from learning to cook other dishes and serving them in restaurants.] It’s also possible that kebabs represent more masculine food (cooked around a campfire in ancestral days?), and that the customers at restaurants were, primarily, men (since women were more likely to be at home for meals).

The historical theory, I would pose, is that kebabs (due to their meatiness) somehow represented higher class food, or at least food that would be served in a premium (restaurant) setting. Grilled meat is something of a status food in other countries as well (e.g., steakhouses), and the idea of going out to eat may have been equated with eating special food that you couldn’t eat at home every day. Of course, as average wealth has gone up, this is to a certain extent no longer true (many people now can afford to eat meat regularly at home, even if they do not choose to), but this “ranking” of food may persist in what restaurants serve.

Anyway, on to the food.

Let’s start with the kebabs. The most common by far is a minced/pressed meat kebab called kubideh (what a Turk would call köfte). It is fairly highly seasoned in Iran, and delicious almost anywhere (although very fatty in lower class joints). It is the single most common food, here served with grilled tomatoes and onions.

Most simply, kebab can be eaten with bread, which is provided for free in Iranian restaurants, but most people order it with rice, which costs some money. The rice in Iran is long grain, similar to Indian rice, and is often served with some saffron-tinted rice and a few barberries on top. The rice is almost always cooked perfectly, light and delicious, especially with the often provided pat of butter. Here, chicken kebab with rice.

Often called “the national dish,” dizi or abgusht is one of the most homey, basic foods of Iran, of northwestern/Azeri-Turkish origin we read once, and is served in restaurants as well as basic teahouses.

Dizi has quite a complicated eating process. First you drink the soup, which is a meaty tomato broth, usually by pouring it into a separate metal bowl and adding a whole lot of torn-up bread. Here, we did it in the dizi pot.

Once you have consumed all of the liquid, you mash up the solid ingredients (meat, potatoes, vegetables) with the provided masher, add some onions, mint or whatever else is provided for additional seasoning and spoon it up, perhaps with bread.

As I mentioned, many restaurants have at least one stew on hand, which is always served with rice. Two particular stews are by far the most common. The first is khoresht ghaimeh, which is a red stew made with split peas and meat. Here, pictured with yogurt, which is offered with all Iranian meals.

The second is khoresht ghormeh sabzi, which is (and tastes) green. It’s a matter of personal preference and mood, I think, which of these two stews one would prefer at a given time.

Many Iranians told us that their favorite Iranian dish is fesenjun, which is meat served in a thick green sauce of walnuts and pomegranate juice. The flavor is complex and slightly tangy, to me a bit reminiscent of Mexican mole, although not quite as dark and rich. Here, it was served with chicken, as is usual, although we also saw it with lamb. Fesenjun is delicious and fairly hard to come by in a restaurant, and so we ordered it whenever possible.

Tachin. It looks almost like a quiche in this picture, and that is because it is made with a lot of egg (we think just yolk). The substance of the “pie” is rice, crusted on top, and there is a large piece of chicken buried within (visible in the lower right). Oddly, it is served on yet more rice. I found the dish a bit too egg yolk-y, for my taste, but Derek loved it. In addition to appearing on tachin, crusty rice from the side of the pot is eaten as a snack in Iran, just as in parts of East Asia.

A common “appetizer” is kashk-e bademjun, a mixture of eggplant and whey. We used it as a sort of dip for bread.

One special food in Esfahan is beriani. Although it has the same name as Indian biryani it is totally unrelated, as you can see (cf. post of 5.12). A patty of seasoned meat hides within some bread. Not too exciting.

In order to avoid eating kebabs two meals a day, we found ourselves resorting to “fast food,” which in Iran generally means hamburgers and pizzas. Fast food restaurants, mostly one-off restaurants and not chains, and serving food fairly quickly but no more so than kebabis, are more common than any other kind of restaurant. The pizza in Iran is not so good (often packed with fairly bad pork-less meat products) but the hamburgers excellent (made with patties that are a combination of meat and soy). This food was from the Hamedan branch of a national chain called Atish, filled with very hip, middle-class Iranians.

I am not sure whether an Iranian would call firni breakfast food or dessert, but it was first introduced to me in Turkey (in baked form) as a dessert. Here served with sweet date sauce (without the sauce it was fairly bland).

The most common Iranian sweet, at least of those served on the street and not counting soft serve ice cream: faludeh. The light, thin short strips (made with wheat or rice, I believe, depending on where you get it), more similar to pasta than anything else, are frozen and gently flavored with rose water. Here, served with lemon sherbet on left.

The most common drink in Iran is tea, but we found these very interesting beverages on the street in many cities. I believe both are made with flowers, but know only the name of the orange one–khak-e shir. The most unique thing about these drinks, hopefully visible in the photo, is that there are countless “floaties” that slowly settle and then become suspended in the liquid again at a gentle shake. The floaties have a pleasant texture as you suck them through your straw. I was told that the drink is also supposed to have therapeutic qualities.

Natural Beauty of Iran

We knew two things for certain about Iran before coming. The first was that there would be a tremendous amount to see, in terms of historical monuments. Iran is of course a center of world culture, and we knew that from Persepolis to Iran’s tiled mosques, there would be much to admire and learn. The second was that people would be warm and friendly, especially to us as Americans. Our Iranian-American friend had told us this repeatedly, and so we knew that we would have a good experience as far as human interaction was concerned.

What we did not know was that Iran would have truly spectacular landscapes and scenery. Were it not for the historical sites and the gracious and hospitable people, Iran would be a worthy destination for nature alone–as it is, the landscapes usually provide mere backdrops or scenery to drive through, which is almost a shame. We’d love to come back to Iran for an outdoors or trekking trip, either in the desert or in the mountains. Unfortunately, since our trip was not aimed at this, the pictures we have are limited, but we thought that the natural beauty of Iran certainly deserved a mention on the blog.

I’m not sure what your impression of the Iranian landscape is, but I imagine many of you would think that there is a lot of desert–and in truth there is, actually far more than I imagined. The whole eastern half of the country is a series of deserts and many of Iran’s greatest cities lie on the desert’s fringes.

Of course, the desert can be a beautiful place. We took one specifically scenery-oriented day trip in the desert, to the Kaluts just north of Kerman in southeastern Iran. Most easily comparable to Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border of the American Southwest, the Kaluts were a hot but beautiful area to hike around as the sun set. Outdoor tourism here is fairly well developed, with some operators offering overnight camel and camping trips.



Painted desert, near Kerman

Joopar Mountains, near Kerman, offering in the desert the refreshing sight of snow. Springs from such mountains have historically been central to the Iranian water supply. [picture to come]

More desert mountains, near Kashan in central Iran

Northern and eastern Iran is lined with taller mountain ranges. These include both high peaks (Mt. Damavand at over 5600 meters) and relatively lower ones.

Mountains southwest of Shiraz, near the ruins of Firuzabad and Bishapur [pictures to come]

Near the Assassin castle of Alamut west of Tehran [post on Assassins of Iran to come]

Tehran itself lies at the foot of the Alborz range, which had traces of snow this early June. We were told that the previous winter had seen relatively light snowfall–but people were still skiing in spring. Northern Tehran is set on the very lowest slopes, and cool trails with mountain streams lie within city limits. Just on the other side of the Alborz mountains, a few hours drive away, is the Caspian coast, which we are told has a range of almost subtropical scenery that we did not get to see.

Not included in this post are the beautiful gardens of Iran, which I hope to include in a post on Iranian architecture to come.