Day 464: Persepolis

09.04.10:

Last night’s taxi took me to the coach station and within minutes, I was hurtling down through the good night towards Shiraz near the Gulf. When I arrived in the morning, I knew that there were defo no boats to Kuwait, but I was having trouble working out from the ferry company website when the boat did actually leave. It took me a couple of hours and a few phone calls to find out that the boat left from a place on the Shat-al-Arab waterway called Khorammshahr tomorrow morning.

I booked a ticket for the overnight bus to Khorammshahr and elected to spend my afternoon wisely by visiting the nearby ancient Zoroastrian site of Persepolis.

Zoroastrianism was the religion of Persia before the Arabs turned up and ruined everything (much in the way the Italians and spoilt all our Pagan-y fun in Blighty). The Zoroastrian god was (still is!) Ahura Mazda, and as such remains the only deity to have a car manufacturer named after him.

Now you’ve seen 300, right? This is Sparta and all that jazz? Good. Well you know that freaky guy who looked (and sounded) like Purple Acky and had all that metal in his face? That was Xerxes, son of Darius of X-Factor fame. Persepolis was their capital until it was mercilessly vandalised by the Greeks under a certain Alexander The Great. The great big nancy.

The site is awesome – even though much of it has been destroyed, what remains is enough to keep you occupied for hours. For a history buff like me, it doesn’t get any better than this: ancient ruins, intricately carved murals, mysterious engravings (cuneiform!), mighty tombs carved out of a rockface… it’s like the best of Greece, Egypt, Armenia and Petra all rolled into one.

After getting my fill of touristy-goodness, I headed back to Shiraz to hop on that bus for Khorammshahr. On the way I met a guy from Belgium named Maxim. He had been in Iran for a month, travelling about, and had fallen in love with the place. He wasn’t CouchSurfing, but over the last 30 nights, he had only spent one of them in a hotel. The Persians are that friendly that pretty much every night he had been here he had been invited to stay with a family.

Persia, man – I take my hat off to you. You are the friendliest bunch on the planet (and I should know!). Once I finish The Odyssey, I’ll be back here in a FLASH.

Days 466-472: A Dead End

11.04.10 – 17.04.10:

So there’s always plan B, right? Well, it all seemed simple enough. According to the Lonely Planet I could get a transit visa for Saudi as long as I had a Bahraini visa and a valid ticket from the bus station. So first thing I was up and at ‘em heading over to the Bahrain embassy. The weekend here runs Friday and Saturday, so it was open and pretty soon I had my visa and was heading over to the Saudi visa agents to try and get that transit visa. I was a bit worried it would take a few days, but the awful truth was that it wouldn’t take any time at all – they only give out transit visas for residents. As I’m not a resident, I can’t get one.

I had painted myself into a corner.

The next day I tried at the Iranian embassy to get a transit visa (plan C – head back to Iran, take ferry to Bahrain from Bushehr), but again there was no chance. In fact, the guy in the embassy was so rude that I considered dropping Iran a few places in my League of Nations, but that would have been petty.

Plan D was to get on a cargo boat, but nobody would take me without some kind of certificate of seamanship. Plan E was to take an oil tanker, but it was deemed to dangerous. Plan F was to hire a boat but it would cost £12,000. Plan G was to go with a bunch of fishermen, but that didn’t work out so well last time, plus they didn’t want to take me anyway. Plan H was to get a lift with somebody going to the Bahrain boat show next week, but nobody was going and so my last throw of the die – Plan I – was put into operation: get a full, multiple entry Saudi visa.

A transit would be no good, even if it came from London it would only get me as far as Bahrain before I had to send my passport back to London for another transit visa to get me to Qatar and then ANOTHER transit visa to the UAE. And the chances where they wouldn’t even issue the transit visa in London on the grounds that, well, why didn’t I just fly?

It would take a minimum of two, maybe three weeks. I had charged full-pelt through the amazing Central Asia and now I would be stuck in Kuwait for the best part of a month. The driest spot on Earth. No booze, no bacon, no bars, no pubs, no clubs, no dancing, no kissing, no holding hands, no old buildings, no live music, no bohemia and certainly no cavaliers.

Hugh’s dad’s company in Liverpool agreed to sponsor my visa application (there are no real tourist visas, it’s a business visa or nothing) and so I knew I’d have at least a fortnight of twiddling my thumbs until my letter of invitation came through.

But as always it was CouchSurfing to the rescue. Through Michael, my CouchSurfing host, I met the admiral Heitham (from Kuwait but living in Preston) and Josie (from California), and then through them I met the Kuwaiti CSers – a German guy called Dominic (whose place I moved to after a few days at Michael’s so as to not outstay my welcome), a Dutch girl called Jannie (whose place I moved into after Dominic’s) and a top guy from the Philippines called Ruban who was also staying with Jannie.

But first things first, I had to sort my computer out. No sooner had I bought myself a new hard-drive (anxious to rid myself of these troublesome tapes that keep getting me into trouble) than my computer went the way of the Norwegian Blue Parrot – it was in desperate need of one of those wipe-everything-and-install-everything-again malarkey moments. Well, what do you expect after 16 months on the road slutting it about with whatever naughty little wi-fi connection was swanning around at the side of the road?

On hand to resuscitate old Dell-Boy was a guy who spotted me looking lost with a computer under my arm and invited me into his workshop. His name was Abbas and he ran Tip-Top computers in the IT district of town. A Tip-Top chap too – he not only bought me lunch and dropped me at the Aquarium while my computer was being fixed, he also waved the fix-it fee and loaded my laptop up with all my favourite programmes. Hats off to ya, Abbas!!

Meanwhile, Heitham (the coolest Kuwaiti in the world) and I hung out over the week. He busted a gut trying to get me onto some kind of maritime transport to Bahrain, but without success. On the Friday he invited all of us CouchSurfers up to his family farm near the border with Iraq. We all piled into a convoy of 4x4s and headed out onto the large but deserted highway north of Kuwait City, stopping on the way to mess about in the sand-dunes and to take this picture:

Once we got to Heitham’s farm, we broke out the barbecue and I had myself a cracking night with my new CouchSurfing buddies from all over the world. See? Even in a place as dull as Kuwait you can still have a good good crazy time if you know where to look.

Days 494-500: No Dice

09.05.10-15.05.10:

Well then, it should all be over, shouldn’t it?  First thing Sunday morning I hurried down to the copy place to pick up my shiny happy visa, only for the guy to pull it out of the drawer with a despondent look on his face.

You need to get the visa in London.

I took a deep breath, nodded, smiled, exited and screamed an obscenity to the sky that would have woken Rip Van Winkle.

No visa.  No dice.  What now?

I rang Eric who has become my unofficial Kuwaiti Yoda, he said he could get my passport DHLed back in the UK for just a fiver through his company.  Thus began my week of visa madness.

On the Monday morning I was invited back to the British Embassy to see if they could musta some ‘wusta’, the word for influence around these parts (and my collective noun for Kuwaitis).  They tried their best, but as the guy in the Embassy said, he could help me get me a visa for anywhere in the world – except Saudi.  They are more awkward than a spoilt child designed by Apple.

So Andrea picked me up (THANK YOU!!) and took me over to Eric’s workplace.  The passport was dispatched to London.  I sent it to my friend Lindsey for her to give to my dad.  So the frickin’ Saudis essentially forced my 73 year old father to go all the way down to London because my letter of invitation had ‘London’ written on it – in Arabic I might add.

The answer is no, now what’s the question?

But even all that did not suffice, in London they wanted the passport to be submitted by an agency, not a individual.  So my gallant father had to come all the way back to Liverpool, gather even more forms and crap and nonsense and then return to London the next day.  And would it take three days (as advertised on the Saudi website) for the visa to come through?  Would it buggery.  It would take a week, now sod off we tire of you.

I sat in Kassie’s flat, incapacitated with a firmament of fury towards the bureaucrats of the world.  I hate you all, why don’t you climb aboard the B-Ark and go torment somebody somebody else’s planet?  At this rate, I’ll be in Kuwait longer than anywhere else so far on The Odyssey – even Cape Verde.

What’s In Your Bag, Graham?

I often get asked what’s in my bag.  I’ve already done a blog on what (not) to take backpacking, but I didn’t really get into the technical stuff, so here goes:

CAMERA: I use an old 2006 Sony HVR-A1(E) HDV camera. It takes mini-DV tapes, which are surprisingly easy to get anywhere on the road. The hand-held successors in this product line were mostly hard-drive cameras, which are fantastic, but in environments where things can go missing, humidity can affect drive heads and stuff is likely to suffer from knocks, tapes are a better idea than hard drives.

When I first started I used the top-mounted XLR mic plugged into the hot-shoe on the A1, but after a couple of weeks I ditched it – at arm’s length the A1’s inbuilt mic was just as good and in stereo.

I use a cheap Chinese-made 37mm wide-angle lens so my mug doesn’t take up too much of the screen when I’m holding the camera at arm’s length. The official Sony wide-angle one costs three times the amount and weighs three times as much, so I opted for the lighter, cheaper version. Works just as well.

Keeping things cheap, light and low-fi, I don’t carry an XLR mic, tripod, boom, clapperboard, track or even a dolly.

LAPTOP: I carry a (now very battered) Dell Latitude X1, which I bought off ebay for 200 quid. It’s one of the last 11.1” notebooks to include a 4-pin firewire input – essential for backing up my tapes off the A1. I then courier the tapes – the raw footage – to the production company. And, so far, I haven’t lost a tape (or deleted anything I wouldn’t want to be on television)!

I shoot everything in HDV, aka ‘half HD’ – 1440×1080 pixels per frame with rectangular pixels (full HD is 1920×1080 with square pixels). The TV show is edited in SD, don’t really know why. I edit my YouTube clips in SD, on my Dell laptop. I use a legal copy of Adobe Premiere, although to be honest I’m not really stretching the program much: you could probably get away with doing the same kind of thing on Windows Movie Maker.

BACKPACK: I use a Lowe-Alpine “Pax25” bag which I bought back in 2001. This bag has travelled to over 250 countries in that time and still hasn’t let me down. You can’t buy them any more. Ahh… they don’t make ’em like they used to!!

 

GPS: I use a little Sony GPS-CS1. It’s hardy as hell (it survived a dip in the Persian Gulf!) and does the job magnificently. Although it doesn’t like trains. It takes a single AA battery. I use rechargables and have a little gizmo for charging them via the USB on my laptop.

PHONE: I use the simplest cheapest Nokia I can find and I carry two of them, just in case. They’re fairly indestructible, the batteries last all year and Everyone’s got a Nokia charger and there’s a torch in the top!! Stick it, iPhone!!

 

IPOD: Talking of Rotten Apples, Lonely Planet kindly bought me an iPod Touch for Christmas. Yippee, I thought: I could put all my Lonely Planet books on it and easily read them as I go. A nightmare experience of trying to navigate the map of Baku, Azerbaijan at 5am when it was minus 5 put paid to that idea: the time it takes to refresh a pdf screen is painfully slow… we’re talking up to a minute just for one step (zoom or move) on a map. I stick with the real books and just use the iPod for music.

STILL CAMERA: I kind of regret not taking a better still camera, but my little Sony Cybershot does an adequate job of holiday snaps. A digital SLR would weigh too much and just be one more thing to worry about.

CABLES ETC: A 4-pin to 4-pin firewire, a couple of USB cables, a third-party all-in-one charge block for my still and video camera batteries, laptop power cable and a DC/DC converter for charging my laptop from the ciggie lighter of a car. Great for long bush-taxi rides!

 

SLEEPING BAG: I have a tiny Karrimor Global 700 Traveller Lite which packs down to the size of a small loaf of bread. Hardly ever use it, except when I’m on a bus and the air-conditioning is freezing my face off.

Right, that’s it. Apart from my Swiss Army Knife, a rather sparse first aid kit and mosquito net, I don’t use any other specialised kit, except for my fishing vest which I bought in Herat, Afghanistan. It’s got about 20 pockets and can hold two full bottles of whiskey in the lining. Lovely!!