Iran Uncensored

When I first said I was going to Iran some friends were horrified. Not only was it seen as being extremely dangerous (being situated next to both Iraq AND Afghanistan), surely you would have no freedom, and you could not drink alcohol and would have to dress modestly. Why would I want to go there?

Top 10 things to do in Yazd

Yazd, a city right in the middle of two Iran's harshest deserts, the Dasht-e Kavir and the Kavir-e Lut. This isolation has led to it avoiding many of the wars and battles which destroyed many of Iran's other cities and has left a beautifully preserved ancient city. Genghis Khan never made it here, but Marco Polo did and he wrote extensively about it. I found it a great place to visit, ideal for walking and exploring, and it is the home of the best Baklava in Iran.

Isfahan. So much more to see than Nuclear enrichment facilities.

Evening prayer at the Jameh Mosque
Isfahan, also spelt Esfahan, is one of the great cities of the world. Once the capital of Persia, it was compared to Rome and Athens by the writer Robert Byron in the classic Silk Road travelogue 'The Road to Oxiana'. Today it is in the news for having the site of Iran's nuclear research facility nearby, and causing the resulting global sanctions against the country (which are now being lifted), but is really should be known for its stunning treasures.

The mountain tombs of Naghsh-e Rostam

The ancient Royal tombs carved into the mountain side at Naghsh-e Rostam are not as well known as the abandoned city of Persepolis, a little over ten kilometres away, but they are very much as impressive, if not more so, because of their state of preservation.

A Palace in the Desert. Persepolis

In an arid desert area, thirty minutes from the southern Iranian city of Shiraz, lies the ruins of Persepolis, once one of the greatest cities on earth. Founded by King Darius I in 518 BC it was the capital of the Persian empire and inspired awe from those who visited it. The ancient Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, described it as "...the richest city under the sun". And so it remained until Alexander the Great looted and burnt it down two hundred years later as revenge for the Persian sacking of Athens.

Where the streets play political games

In most cities, Embassies are the hosts to long lines of patient visa hunters in the day time, and cocktail parties at night. Usually ostentatious, always in the most expensive part of the city, and often, to be honest, boring. Not in Tehran. Embassies have been the focal point for protest, political games, occupation, death and destruction since 1829.

Top 10 Things to do in Tehran

Tehran will not win any prizes as the most beautiful city in the world. Pollution often hangs over the city blotting out what would be the wonderful backdrop of Mt Tochal, and with 14 million people its roads are clogged with traffic, and its subway trains are worse than Tokyo at rush hour. Yet it is unmissable, has great food, parks and museums, and is the vibrant hub of Iran.

Here are my top ten things to do in Tehran.

A Picnic with the Dead. Behest-e Zara

Going to any war cemetery can be a depressing experience. There are always huge numbers of graves of young men who never got to experience life much beyond their childhood. The Behest-e Zara war cemetery on Tehran's southernmost city limits is no exception.

Art and Revolution. The US Embassy in Tehran

The storming of the USA Embassy on the 4th November 1979 remains a pivotal memory for Americans and, along with the ongoing hostage crisis, led to a distrust of Iran which continues to the present day. For the Iranians, the 'Conquest of the American Spy Den', was equally an important part of their revolutionary history. The CIA had meddled in Iran's affairs before, and there were fears that they would do so again to try an overthrow the newly installed revolutionary government.

Top 10 things to do in Baku

Baku is an oil city. The black gold has turned what was once a small sleepy port into a modern city vying with Dubai for excess in modern architecture. The hotel prices are crazy, and accompanied with an archaic visa system (now slowly changing), there is little encouragement for tourists to visit. Yet Baku is well worth the effort, and expense, to visit and explore.

A mountain on Fire. Yanar Dag

A mountain that is continually on fire near Baku, Azerbaijan? That sounds a bit like the 'Gate to Hell' at Darvaza in Turkmenistan, one of the most amazing sites I have experienced. I set off to see how one of the major attractions in the country compared with that of its near neighbour.

Rock art, Paleolithic Style

Hidden away in the hills, less than an hour from Baku, is Gobustan (pronounced Qobustan by the locals) an astounding site of ancient human art. Whereas other prehistoric sites such as Lascaux in France are closed to the public, with museums built nearby with reproduced copies of the art for tourists to see, Gobustan is an open air museum with few visitors and easy to walk around.

The Mud Volcanoes of Gobustan

If you are a regular reader of Far Flung Places you will know I have a penchant for volcanoes, particularly active ones. Travelling through Azerbaijan I had heard about their local version, the Mud Volcano, although getting to see one was not going to be so easy. 

A Graveyard for Caterpillars. Bougainville

It is a sad fact that some of the most beautiful spots on earth have some of the most sought after commodities underground, such as the uranium under Kakadu national park in Australia. The island of Bougainville, east of Papua New Guinea is another such place. There are great coral reefs for diving, long sandy beaches, and a lush green interior dominated by smoking volcanoes. It is the very picture of a tropical paradise. Except that in the middle of the island there is a huge open cast mine polluting all around it.

Playing with Bows and Arrows. Lae, PNG.

I tried to to like Lae, I really did. But I could not wait to leave. It is the second city of PNG, with just over a 100,000 population, located on the Huon Gulf, with palm trees, beaches, and a great position overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It could be a tropical island village in Hawaii, but the reality was more like Kabul.

Getting away from the crowds in Madang

Madang is one of the best places to visit in the South Pacific that you may never have heard of. Being part of Papua New Guinea puts off most tourists, they fear crime and gangs and all the bad aspects of Port Moresby. It is also expensive, it costs another $U350 to get a return flight from the capital to the north coast town. Yet it is beautiful, having great diving (with lots of WWII Japanese ships and planes close to shore in shallow water), long sandy beaches nearby, great seafood and a picturesque colonial centre.

Confusion at the Stadium. A Football Cup Final in Port Vila

Note: This was written before Cyclone Pam ripped through Port Vila and the other islands of Vanuatu. It is to be hoped that all players and those involved in Vanuatu Football survived without injury, although as the images show the destruction was terrifying. The stadium will be closed for some time while repairs take place on the damaged stand, and debris removed from the pitch.  

A Saturday afternoon in Port Vila and what to do. Picking up the Vanuatu Daily I read that the TVL Football Cup Final is on at Port Vila Stadium. That sounds like a must see, so I grab my camera and walk towards the stadium. The first thing I notice is how many people have gained vantage points on the hill outside of the ground to watch the action for free. Admittedly binoculars would make it easier to see, but through the branches you can glimpse two thirds of the ground.

The Master Wood Carvers of Ambrym

Ambrym is one of the most fascinating islands I have traveled to in Vanuatu. It is dominated by the active Volcanoes of Marum and Benbow, in the centre (so active that there is an eruption in progress at the moment) surrounded by a huge ash plain and caldera where nothing lives, with the population inhabiting the coastal fringes. The island is steeped in ancient beliefs and Black Magic, and has a very distinct culture apart from the other islands of Vanuatu.

The skilled x-ray art of Kiki Kuautonga

I was in Port Vila for the opening of the annual Nawita Contemporary art exhibition, showing off the best works by young Vanuatu artists. The opening night was held in the Alliance Francaise gallery on Rue Mercet and was packed with dignitaries including the Prime Minister, respective diplomatic representatives, and all the artists. With typical French flair extremely tasty, and highly alcoholic, punch was served, alongside the ubiquitous massive tub of Kava to the crowds admiring the work of Vanuatu's top artists.

Bartering by SMS in the Jungle. Life in Rural Papua New Guinea

Looking down on the rainforest canopy
I had been in Port Moresby for a few days. I had enjoyed visiting The National Museum and seeing some wonderful masks, carvings and bark paintings, and eating lunch at the expat hangout of the Yacht club, but safety reasons meant I could not leave the compound I was staying in to walk around and explore. I had to get out. I needed to travel and see more of this rarely visited country.

Sealand. From Pirate Radio to Pirate Bay in the North Sea.

Sealand at sunset
Sealand is a rather unique Far Flung Place. It is possibly the smallest nation in the world, (although, this is disputed, not least by the UK who still claim ownership), it does not accept tourists, and I have not been there, yet. However there are plans afoot to issue tourist visas later in 2015 and Sealand could become one of the more sought after remote and exotic places to travel to this year. You read it here first...

A place of convicts, pine trees and bee stings. Norfolk Island

Another tiny dot in the Pacific Ocean is Norfolk Island, 1670 Kilometres from Sydney and officially part of Australia, although mostly self governed. Geographically it is actually closer to Vanuatu than Australia. And it is small, with only just over 2000 people. All of which makes for a very expensive flight, it is cheaper to fly from Sydney to Indonesia or Japan than to Norfolk Island.