Solo Adventure; Travelling to Algeria

With the recent surge in negativity towards tourism in cities like Venice and Barcelona, how about visiting a place that’s pretty much never been on the tourist map, where you’ll be one of only a handful of English-speaking tourists in the entire country. Not only that, but the biggest one in Africa!

Algeria has struggled for many years to diversify and attract tourists, varying factors have resulted in lacklustre results but the Government now appears to be focussed solely on promoting itself as a “must-see destination”. Unlike neighbouring Morocco, Algeria receives only 20% of their tourist figures, so there’s quite a long way to go. Having now visited both countries I think you can guess which is the easiest to get to, travel around and do business in; yes you guessed it – Morocco.

After Sudan broke in two, this country is now the largest in Africa and the 10th biggest in the world so I had my work cut out trying to figure out where to visit on my very short five day trip. Located only a short hop away from Spain, Malta and Italy, yet very few international tourists actually step foot on this side of the Mediterranean. Although the last decade has been marred by terrorism and revolutions, Algeria is now relatively stable but sadly finds itself surrounded by conflicts on all sides. With Libya and Tunisia to the east, Niger and Mali to the south and Mauritania and Morocco to the west the Government certainly have their work cut out to remain stable.

Situated in North Africa, 80% of this country is actually occupied by the largest hot desert in the world; the Sahara. A place that has always fascinated me and was top of my must-see list, thankfully I got to explore the unique desert oasis cities of Timimoun and Ghardaia. Although Algeria is striving to be individual, many aspects of life seem to have continued and not dropped out of fashion since the time when France was the Colonial power. This includes things like eating bread or a baguette with every meal, trying delicate and beautiful cakes similar to a Parisian patisserie or even taking the Metro – which to me felt like a replica of the Paris metro. It’s not surprising though, between 1830 to 1962 this country was under French rule and up to 20% of the population was European.

Beautiful French architecture with an Algerian twist makes Algiers a travellers paradise.

My Travels in Algeria

Firstly let me start by saying this is not an easy country to travel around alone, if you don’t speak French or Arabic you will need a guide or someone to travel with who’s a bit more . Sadly for me, languages were never my strong point at school but the benefit of this is you do get to meet some new friends around the world whilst travelling who are willing to help you out. My friend Mohammed; a Yemeni national who currently lives in Algeria was kind enough to invite me to travel with him, thankfully for me he can speak both of the native languages. Phew!

Before I started researching I didn’t have a clue what to see or where to go, many of the must-see places aren’t that famous and there was also some off-limits places to contend with. After browsing various adventure travel company itineraries I put together a couple of ideas, I really wanted to explore Tamanrasset and the south of the country but this proved tricky and expensive so I set my sights on the centre and the mighty Sahara.

Algiers Airport followed by the delightful food offering by Air Algerie

Upon arriving in to Algiers, the nerves kicked in and I wasn’t sure whether I would even be allowed in with my visa. I flew from London with Air Algerie, as airlines go they weren’t bad but definitely won’t feature on any award-winning airline listings any time soon. Algiers International Airport is currently being redeveloped and is being extended, until this happens don’t expect European standards, I wasn’t very impressed with the welcome from the passport and immigration people. Upon arrival you’ll be greeted by two different lines, one for Algerian passport holders and the other for, well, Other passport holders (as is written on signs). Well this turned into chaos as people starting queuing thinking they were in the right place only to be shouted at to get in to the Algerian passport holder line. Confused? Absolutely, anyway I ended up at the back of the line and it took almost an hour to get through – ridiculous!

Thankfully all along the Algerian Mediterranean coastline there’s several cities that I could have flown into including Oran and Constantine, it just so happened that I picked Algiers – a.k.a The White City. Sadly the Metro doesn’t yet stretch as far as the airport, but I believe this is in development so hopefully it should rectify the rather horrendous taxi ride that you have to take into the city. If a taxi driver notices that you are foreign or can’t speak French/Arabic they will try to overcharge, quoting prices like 2,000 – 3,000 dinar whereas the real price should be more like 900 – 1,500 dinar maximum.

Algiers appears to be going through a renovation period as almost every building in the Casbah area had scaffolding up, I visited just before Eid so many families were out and about buying from the local markets. It is quite an assault on your senses as people will come at you from every angle whilst you’re trying to guide yourself and looking out for your possessions meant it was more of a quick visit to the Casbah area. Hopefully next time I’ll plan it better and then I can discover more of the incredible architecture. Algiers felt like a fairly safe city, it reminded me a lot of Beirut with its eagerness to modernise and adapt to a more European style.

The beautiful Mediterranean coastline which most tourists never get to see from Algiers

After spending a rather sleepless night in Algiers I ventured back to the airport early to catch a domestic flight with Air Algerie to Timimoun. It isn’t a place that’s widely known in the travelling community, but it seriously should be – this place is like stepping back in time. I don’t use those words lightly, but it is one of the most beautiful oasis towns in the Sahara. Remember when you were a child and you were shown some worn out, black and white photos of explorers dying of thirst and looking a little rough, well this place is what I imagine they found.

Similar to Timbuktu, these water wells can be found dotted around the Saharan Oasis town of Timimoun

Sadly for me the first thing that happened when I stepped off the plane was the local gendarmerie wanted to know who I was, why I was there and where I had been previously. After being escorted from the airport to the central police headquarters in the city I waited for two hours before the chief dealt with me. He spoke a little English but mostly communicated via my friend Mohammed, his main questions were, what is my job, why am I here and unfortunately the biggest question – why did you visit several countries. My current passport is full and I need to renew it, this means I have visas from various countries that certain places don’t like, sadly I didn’t realise Algeria would make such a fuss over my Iranian and Russian visas. The police chief could not understand why I would have visited either of these countries as a tourist, but he had no choice but to let us walk free as he had no reason to keep us at the police station.

After our brush with the law, it was time to try and find somewhere to stay for the evening. As this trip was done on a budget I resisted staying in the typical luxury tourist hotel and opted for a traditional local one that was a former caravan site in the centre of the city. I did however decide to visit the other hotel, just for the view…

I could easily have sat here all day looking at this incredible view…

Sadly there isn’t much of a tourist industry here, it is a shame as there’s quite a lot to see and I was taken back by how much this reminded me of other famous places. It is a unique spot to visit and is featured in the song Timbuktu to Timimoun, funnily enough the architecture is almost identical when it comes to the traditional water wells. As you venture towards the edge of the city you are faced with an incredible sight – the Sahara desert! It’s almost like the city gives way for this incredible mass of sand.

As you can imagine, this place is in the middle of the Sahara, so don’t expect any fine dining restaurants but you can expect several local take away places. I went to somewhere that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since 1974, but thankfully they made pizza from scratch and it cost less than £1. BARGAIN!

The true adventurer in me comes out when I venture into the wilderness. This is my Sahara…

Also don’t expect any local transport, Timimoun isn’t visited by many tourists so most people, including me, must hire a taxi. Ensure you look around and try to bargain with them for the best deal, sadly for me I ended up paying $100 and although I visited some great places I don’t think it was the best option, I’d say if I’d arranged it through my hotel then it would have been a better experience.

Sadly my time in Timimoun was short and sweet, it was time to take an 8 hour bus journey across the Sahara to another desert outpost. Ghardaia and the M’Zab Valley is a fascinating UNESCO World Heritage site, founded by the Mozabites it is located on the Sahara’s northern fringe at a strategic point along the Trans-Saharan Highway. To get from Timimoun you’ll need to either drive yourself or take the long bus journey, which I unfortunately endured. Although it was safe enough, I definitely wouldn’t recommend it at night. My bus was completely full with around 40 men, all of whom if only they’d known the truth about me would have probably murdered me there and then, thankfully for me though I don’t wear my gayness on my sleeve (so to speak).

Waiting for public transport you never know who you’ll meet, this lovely man was very interested to hear where I was from. Sadly the dude on the left failed to join the party!?!

Upon arriving in Ghardaia I discovered that only recently there had been a revolution and fierce fighting between the rival Berber Mozabites and Chaamba Arabs tribes. The source of the conflict stemmed from arguments surrounding jobs, land and housing and unfortunately due to the sheer number of police I saw on almost every street corner this situation doesn’t look like it is going to disappear anytime soon. It made me feel pretty uncomfortable, I didn’t see any other tourists and I think if I’d have researched properly before I got here I wouldn’t have visited.

Thankfully though, I did and I saw some fascinating things including many of the historic buildings that are painted in a distinctive white, pink or red colour. A must-see place is the settlement called Beni Isguen, an UNESCO World Heritage site that’s a fortified city originally constructed in the 10th century. It is a very religious place that previously only muslims were allowed to enter, thankfully now tourists can venture but they aren’t allowed to take photos of locals, smoke or wear revealing clothing (including shorts).

It hasn’t rained here for over 4 years, I’ve no idea how the locals cope as it was pushing 40 degrees when I visited. Be sure to hire a guide when you visit, it’s only 300 Dinar (£1.50) for 1-3 people, although unfortunately it’s only in French. One unique and rather fascinating fact about this place is that the women, unlike in other Islamic parts of the world, wear white to symbolise peace and they are only allowed to have one eye uncovered from head to toe. I’ve no idea how they manage to walk around, but they are incredible and a sight to be seen.

Beni Isguen – an UNESCO World Heritage site that’s a fortified city with a strict Muslim only residents rule. Fascinating insight into a place that hasn’t changed for hundreds of years.

Clearly some people who ended up in Ghardaia aren’t from here originally as I saw a lot of begging and homeless people, something that is forbidden in Islam. Located at a crossroads, many people have made it here from other parts of Africa and are heading north to the Mediterranean, it was really sad to see and is just one more problem for this unique Saharan oasis city to tackle.

Sadly it was time for me to leave Algeria, after thankfully flying back from Ghardaia to Algiers it was time to face the dreaded immigration/passport control people once more at the airport. I really thought us Brits were meant to be good at queuing but after seemingly being in the wrong line again and being shouted at again, after more than an hour I finally made it through to departures. I was so happy to discover Algerian wine being sold. I didn’t see it anywhere else, although to be fair I didn’t look very hard but I’ve heard it’s pretty good quality so I’ll let you know once I’ve opened the bottle.

Ghardaia – a bustling oasis town in the middle of the Sahara

There were literally hundreds more places I could have visited that would have all been just as stunning, something that I learned quite quickly is that if you embrace the country, the country will embrace you back. It reminded me a lot of pre-war Syria, as if something is about to kick off and it made me feel a bit uncomfortable at times; although most of the people I met were friendly and welcoming I think I’ll leave it a few years and see whether my feelings on the situation have changed.

Travelling around Algeria

Well, it was certainly an experience to say the least. It isn’t easy due to a high police presence, however they are more there to protect you rather than anything else. This can often been seen as a good, or a bad thing. For me personally I found it quite threatening at first but when you realise they are just looking after your safety and not just being a pain then I felt a bit more comfortable, however I’ll let you make your mind own up.

Air Algerie – the national airline

Air Algérie is the national airline of Algeria and is pretty much your only option if you wish to get around the country quickly. They have regular flights to various far-flung places, I travelled on several internal flights to Timimoun and Ghardaia with them on a rather scary ATR 72-500. Seriously these planes should be scrapped and put in a museum, they are old, they are falling apart but at least they do give you some service on board (unlike British Airways!). Although they aren’t the best, they are also by far from being the worst too, one amusing thing to note is that if your flight isn’t full they may attempt to leave early!

Algerian Visa

Often the most complicated part of visiting a country is applying for the visa, thankfully I’ve put an easy guide together for how to apply if you have a British passport. Click here to check it out. Algeria is one country that seriously needs to loosen the strings on its visa restrictions as it’s definitely affecting the number of people visiting, you must be in possession of a visa before arriving!

Further Information?

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

All images copyrighted, if you wish to use any images produced in this blog article please contact me.

Algeria – How To Get A Visa?

Let’s face it, getting a visa can sometimes be a long and drawn out process with some countries taking the biscuit and going to the absolute extreme with their demands. Even though neighbouring Morocco receives more than 10 million visitors, Algeria has yet to welcome even 20% of that figure.

This is a crying shame considering how many incredible places there are to see in this North African beauty. Algeria’s Mediterranean coastline is one of the most undeveloped and beautiful along the African continent whilst inland the striking desert landscapes of the vast Sahara make up more than 80% of Africa’s largest country.

Question is, how do you get a visa? Well, in the case of a British passport holder you must either know someone that lives there or join a tour group (if you can find one). In a country that’s hoping to diversify their economy and open up to visitors, they sure know how to make it hard just to even visit.

If you wish to apply for a tourist visa you will need the following;

  1. Two (02) application forms duly completed, dated and signed by the applicant
  2. Two (02) recent passport size photographs to be affixed on each application form
  3. The original passport valid for at least 6 months + 2 sets of copies of all the pages (even the blank ones)
  4. Original + copy of the accommodation certificate duly certified by the local authorities (town hall) in Algeria (certificat d’hébergement légalisé par l’A.P.C.) including the name of the person inviting you, their relationship to you and the address where you will be staying during your visit to Algeria or, when applicable, a confirmation of a hotel booking or an official invitation with itinerary from a travel agency in Algeria
  5. Letter of employment or evidence of activity
  6. A prepaid self-addressed special delivery envelope for nationals residing in the UK if the application is sent by post
  7. £85.00 – Fees must be paid in GB Pound only, either by cash or postal order (write your name on the back) made payable to the Consulate of Algeria if the application is sent by mail. Do not send cash by post.

Applications can be submitted in person at the Consulate in London or by post. I was relieved this option was available as I was unable to travel to London and wait for the visa to be processed. It is oddly not in the typical location of Kensington, Westminster or Soho as most other Consulate/Embassies and is surprisingly located in North Acton. The address for the Consulate of Algeria is; 5 Portal Way, London, W3 6RT.

Location of the Consulate of Algeria in London

Location of the Consulate of Algeria in London

When I applied for my visa by post in July 2017 I made sure to leave plenty of time as I was aware that any slight mistake and your visa will either be rejected or sent back to be amended. Sadly this was the case for me, I hadn’t sent number 4 on the list above but thankfully they didn’t charge me and I was able to send everything back for a second submission.

My advice – check, double check and even treble check that you have everything and have even completed all sections on the application form correctly, maybe get a friend or partner to do this for you. During busy periods I was made aware that processing can take up to three weeks but thankfully for me I received mine within just one. I think the visa fees are pretty steep for just a tourist visa, it definitely puts a lot of people off but hopefully as the country continues to open up this may be reduced or scrapped altogether.

You might be wondering, just where do people come from who visit Algeria? Well unsurprisingly neighbouring countries rank highly, as does former colonial master, France;

  1. Tunisia (50.4%)
  2. France (12.9%)
  3. Morocco
  4. Spain
  5. China
  6. Turkey
  7. Italy
  8. Germany
  9. Portugal

Overall Algeria holds clear potential as a tourist destination but it certainly faces some infrastructure, political and visa issues amongst others before it can start to build a reputation as a place to visit.

Come back soon and check out exactly where I visited in Algeria during my trip in August 2017!

Please note that this information may change, it was correct at time of writing in August 2017. For the most up to date details you can visit the website for the Algerian Consulate in London.

Further Information?

If you’d like to discover more information about this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

Budget Tour To Socotra Island – Visit A Lost World And One of The Most Unique Places In The World

The Lost World. Alien Island. The Pearl of the Indian Ocean.

These are just some of the phrases often used to describe Socotra Island, often seen as a highly prized travel destination to visit in most adventurers eyes. Sadly for the past few years it has virtually been off the map due to the awful civil war in Yemen, although thankfully it has never been part of it and remains stable and secure.

Although we were originally due to use the new direct flights from Abu Dhabi sadly Rotana Jet are only selling tickets to Emirati and Yemeni citizens, therefore we’ve decided to charter a ferry from Oman to Socotra which will have armed guards for added security meaning one of the most remote places in the world will be more accessible but most importantly – safely!

My first ever group tour will be run in partnership with Lupine Travel and we’ve now announced our first tour that will be running to the island, the first is in April 2018. We are almost close to the tour being full, numbers will be restricted due to the limited infrastructure on Socotra.

Itinerary

Day 1: Wednesday 4th April

Upon arrival in Socotra, you will be transferred to the Hadibo eco-lodge to acclimatize and have lunch. After lunch, we will head to Ayhaft Canyon National Park. In the canyon we will visit large fresh water-pools where you can swim and relax. All around can be seen a huge variety of endemic plants such as Dessert Rose, Tamarind trees, Cucumber trees and a wide variety of birds such as Socotra Sparrow, Socotra Sunbird and both Socotri and Somali Starlings.

After swimming, we will drive to Delisha beach which is is packed with pristine white sands full of crabs. We will relax while swimming both in the sea and in a freshwater lagoon. Afterwards we will climb a huge sand dune overseeing the beach. There is also a possibility of watching a beautiful sunset from Delisha.

Dinner and overnight stay at the hotel in Hadibo.

Day 2: Thursday 5th April

After breakfast, we will drive to the island’s north-east coast to explore a snorkeling site in Dihammri. Once in Dihammri, you can swim, snorkel and dive in the Marine Protected Area of Dihammri, home to one of the richest coral reefs on the archipelago. Dihammri is blessed with more than 200 fish species and 4 of the 5 coral species that inhabit to the island. This shallow reef will allow even the most inexperienced snorkeler to enjoy its beauty. The many marine creatures to be seen whilst swimming and snorkeling include; parrotfish, Moray eel, Rays, turtles and much more. Diving and snorkeling gear can be hired from Dihammri Diving Center. In the afternoon, we drive to natural zoon of Homhil which is home to many sorts of endemic plant like Dragon’s Blood Tree, Frankincense Tree and Desert Rose. Once in Homhil, we will walk along a selection of trails, on one of which takes us to a viewpoint where there is a natural swimming pool and a view of villages below on the plain and of the Arabian Sea.

Dinner and overnight camp at Homhil campsite.

Day 3: Friday 6th April

After an early breakfast, we will drive to Terbak village where Hoq Cave is located. We will then hike up for 1.5 hours until we reach the entrance of the cave, before spending an hour inside. Hoq is the largest cave in the island. Over three km deep, the cave holds a wealth of Socotri history full of archaeological findings such as pieces of pottery, paintings and wooden tables with inscription in Aramaic language dating back to 258 AD. The cave offers an overwhelming beauty and variety of crystal decorations, like stalagmites, stalactites and calcite floors. We then drive to Ras Erisel which is located at the eastern end of the island where the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean meet. Afterwards we depart to the Arher area, which is a meeting point of fresh water from the mountain and salt water from the sea. Arher is also home to another magnificent sand dune. If you are feeling especially fit, you can climb the dunes for a view that is really worth the effort.

Dinner and overnight camp at Arher campsite.

Day 4: Saturday 7th April

Today we drive to the southern coast of the Island, through the unique Defarhu Valley. We will see traditional villages, natural water pools at the bottom of the canyon and the unusual Desert Rose tree growing on the canyon walls. The vegetation here is lush green and the area is full of birds. After lunch, we drive to Hayf and Zahek village to witness the massive sand dunes which have been pushed up against the mountainside by the seasonal winds of Socotra. We then make our way to the very expansive beach of Omak in the Indian Ocean. After swimming, sunbathing and relaxing in the clear water of the Indian Ocean in Omak, we depart to Digub cave, which overlooks a scattering of traditional villages below. There are many stalactites, stalagmites and pools of water in the cave that have seeped through the rock over time.

Dinner and overnight camp at Omak campsite.

Day 5: Sunday 8th April

Today, we make our way to Dixam plateau (700m above sea level) and Shebahon viewpoint. This area is home to many of the Socotri endemic plants such as Dragon’s Blood Tree. The Shebahon viewpoint gives a fabulous vista overlooking Daerhu canyon where we will see breathtaking sceneries and unusual, beautiful rock formations. We then make our way down to the Wadi in the canyon for lunch and swim in the freshwater pools. The afternoon is spent exploring the canyon.

Dinner and overnight camp at Wadi Dirhur campsite.

Day 6: Monday 9th April

Today we explore the Western part of the island. Our first stop will be Qalansiya; a small traditional fishing town. From there we will hop on a boat and head to the remote beach of Shuaab. We are very likely to see Spinner Dolphins and other sea life during the boat ride. Once in Shuaab, we can swim, relax and enjoy the pristine beach as well as have a look at nearby mangroves. After exploring the mangroves in the areas we head back to Qalansiya in time to explore the Detwah lagoon which is a marine protected area renowned for its magical landscape. This area has some of the best views on the island. We end our day by making the long drive back to Hadibo.

Dinner and overnight camp at Detwah Lagoon Protected area. ‎

Day 7: Tuesday 10th April

A free day relaxing around the Detwah Lagoon area.

Day 8: Wednesday 11th April

After an early breakfast we transfer back to the port ready for our ferry back to Oman.

Trip Information

The cost of the tour is £850 per person.

The price includes:

  • Visa support documents
  • All ground transport in 4x4s
  • Accommodation and camping equipment
  • Tours, entry fees, permits and English speaking guides
  • Breakfast, lunch and dinner each day
  • Bottled water and soft drinks
  • Lupine tour leader

The price does not include:

  • Visa fee
  • Ferry fee (currently £450 return)
  • International Flights
  • Tips

BOOK NOW

Further Information?

If you’d like to have a chat about the tour or if you have any questions, concerns or suggestions please feel free to ask me by emailing me here.

You can also visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

All images used have been sourced from Google and quoted to highlight ownership.

Baku – An Exciting, Exotic and Mysterious Caucasus Capital

Azerbaijan – A relatively unknown country outside of the adventure travel market, but for how much longer? With the country already hosting huge events such as Eurovision, Formula 1 and recently the 4th Islamic Solidarity Games is it only a matter of time before people realise how wonderful this Caucasus country is?

My trip to Azerbaijan preceded Armenia and Georgia so it was an easy decision to tag it on to my journey, however why would you visit Baku for a city break? Well, a lot of people looked rather confused why I would even visit the country, presumably as they didn’t know where it was or the delights that await. Thankfully being an adventurer and wanting to seek out new opportunities, see exciting sights and discover local culture meant that I was in for a treat.

Where is Azerbaijan?

Often referred to as the “Land of Fire”, if you haven’t heard of it before the easiest way to describe its location is being situated in the South Caucasus region, similar to Turkey, Azerbaijan is sandwiched between Europe and Asia and sits on the banks of the Caspian Sea. Surrounded by Georgia, Russia, Iran and Armenia, this oil-rich nation is gearing itself up to become an established player in the International tourism market.

Baku – City of Lights

When people ask you where you are going on your next mini break, I highly doubt they expect you to say you’ll be heading to Baku. However, this is a crying shame and the city definitely deserves far more recognition. Something that made the city stand out compared to all the others I’ve been to was how clean, well maintained and functioning it was, they’ve even managed to maintain the old medieval part of the city, even with all of the huge new developments popping up around the city it hasn’t taken away the historic charm.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect before I arrived, but it certainly wasn’t the glamorous, modern yet traditional capital city that I discovered.

Some of the highlights from my trip to Baku

What to see?

If you only have a couple of days you’ll have plenty to fill your days with, my best advice is to simply wander aimlessly, you’ll be amazed at some of the new developments and getting lost down the narrow back streets of the Old Town.

Here’s a list of things that I wanted to see during my time;

  • Bayraq Meydani (3rd tallest flag pole in the world)
  • Azerbaijan Carpet Museum
  • Palace of The Shirvanshahs
  • Maiden’s Tower
  • Old Town (İçərişəhər)
  • Baku Eye
  • Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre

Also don’t forget to take the metro somewhere, it’s a throwback to Soviet times! It gets incredibly crowded but is very efficient, I’d read reports that people have been arrested before for taking photographs but I found the station staff to be very friendly and excited to be given the chance to speak English when asked questions.

Baku Metro – a fascinating insight into the city’s Soviet past

During my time visiting Baku in May 2017, I was lucky enough to attend a wrestling match at the 4th Islamic Solidarity Games that were being held in the city. It was fantastic to watch and I even got see the Vice-President of Azerbaijan, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, just a typical day mixing with the rich and famous don’t you know!

Vice-President of Azerbaijan First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva presenting an award to one of the Azeri wrestlers at the 4th Islamic Games.

Optional excursions

Although you’ll be kept busy in the city, don’t forget to do a day trip to visit some of Azerbaijan’s most famous tourist sites including the famous Mud Volcanoes, flaming rocks of Yanar Dag and the burning fire temple of Ateshgah. I don’t think I really believed that Azerbaijan had mud volcanoes, I seriously thought it was some sort of myth, but when I got there and I’m standing there staring at the bubbling mud on top of a volcano it was a surreal, Mars-like experience.

These incredible sites can all be visited on a day trip, a local company called TES tour offer a trip for 50AZN per person.

Don’t forget the name Azerbaijan, you’ll be hearing it a lot more in the coming years, believe me!

Let’s be honest, did you know Azerbaijan had mud volcanoes, flaming rocks and ancient rock art?

How to get here?

My route to Azerbaijan took me via Turkey, this isn’t the easiest route due to connection times but it is the most cost-effective. If I’d had more time to plan my trip I could have flown Lufthansa via Frankfurt, Air Baltic via Riga or WizzAir via Budapest.

Previously applying for a visa for Azerbaijan was rather complicated and simply put people off due to the expense and red-tape involved. You can now thankfully apply online for an e-visa and pay $20 plus $3 processing fee and you’ll receive your confirmation email within a couple of days. Make sure you print this off and keep it throughout your trip as you’ll also need it to leave the country. My only negative comment about the process is that they ask your HIV status, I know several other countries do this but I find this incredibly intrusive and a bit unnecessary in this day and age!

The national airline, Azerbaijan Airlines (AZAL) fly direct to many major capital cities including London, Paris, Rome, Dubai to name only a few. They’ve heavily invested in their fleet, when I flew from Baku to Istanbul with them there was plenty of leg room but sadly the entertainment system left a lot to be desired.

Heydar Aliyev International Airport and the national flag carrier Azerbaijan Airlines

Where to stay?

Baku is not short of luxury accommodation, one of the most unique places is the Fairmont Hotel located in one of the famous Flame Towers. I was lucky enough to stay here as a treat to myself, usually I opt for a homestay or budget hotel but I’d already seen the view from other people’s photos and I knew that I had to experience it for myself.

After being lucky enough to get upgraded to an incredible Caspian Sea view I couldn’t take my eyes off the beauty of Baku, forget Dubai, this place is absolutely awe-inspiring!

Fancy visiting yourself? I highly recommend staying here, to book your stay go to Booking.com and search for Fairmont Hotel, Baku. Click here using this link!

Fairmont Hotel, Flame Towers

Further Information?

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

All images copyrighted, if you wish to use any images produced in this blog article please contact me.

The Ultimate Guide To Visiting Iran

iran

Tipped as one of the must-see destinations of 2016, it’s no surprise that the Iranian tourist industry is booming right now. With record numbers due to visit over the next five years is it time to let go of the pre-conceptions?

Interesting facts about Iran

  • Iran has one of the only condom factories in the Middle East (like you didn’t already know?!)
  • Iran is one of the few places where you can get married temporarily, even for just a few hours
  • Google has been described by a police chief as a spying tool (sounds pretty accurate to me!)
  • Iran has conducted more sex change operations than anywhere else in the world, second only to Thailand.

My Iranian Adventure

Persia (Iran) has always intrigued me, ever since I first saw Aladdin with its magic carpets and exotic spices, but did it live up to expectations? After visiting recently this is my ultimate guide to visiting Iran.

When Westerners think of Iran they often think of people burning flags, sanctions and nuclear programs. There are very few positive stories in the Western media depicting daily life here. However opinions couldn’t be more wrong, Westerners generally fascinate Iranians and they are keen to find out more about you. “Where are you from” and “Welcome to Iran, you are welcome” are two things you will hear from almost every friendly local you come into contact with.

Something that was evident to me is how naturally beautiful the people are. Both men and women take great care of their appearance and always dress smartly. A famous fact about Iranian people is that many people have corrective surgery on their noses. Don’t be surprised if you see people with huge plasters or bandages covering their nose, it’s like a status symbol.

All over Iran you'll see absolutely stunning mosques, both inside and out equally as beautiful.

All over Iran you’ll see absolutely stunning mosques, both inside and out equally as beautiful.

My journey to Iran took a rather strange route; I flew from London to Istanbul then to Doha and eventually arriving into Tehran 24 hours later. This wasn’t ideal as I arrived completely tired and needing rest but sadly no rest for the wicked, I left Tehran as soon as I arrived and was driven to Kashan.

Across most of Central Asia, the Middle East and even some European countries the time around Easter is their time to celebrate the Nowruz festival (Spring time). Currently in the media being a Muslim can often be depicted as many different things, unfortunately what is rarely shown is actually how kind and generous the people are. During this period Iranians offer free tea, coffee, juice, sweets and other items to random people in the street as their way of celebrating. This is most certainly not how most people would assume an Iranian would be to a British person, which to me proves just how controlled we are by the media.

My first stop on the tour was to Kashan, a place famous for its merchant houses and beautiful old city, sadly many tourists often miss out this place in favour of travelling straight to Esfahan.

Sadly due to being sleep-deprived I don’t remember a huge amount about this place except for the unique accommodation. A mix-up meant I ended up sleeping in a local homestay where the bathroom was outside in a courtyard and I woke up to the sound of a chicken crowing. It was certainly a great way to start my Iranian adventure.

One of the must-see places in Kashan is the Khaneh Abbasian, an enormous complex that was completed in 1893 and was designed by a former tea dealer to provide accommodation for his daughter.

Royal Square, Esfahan

Royal Square, Esfahan

Esfahan is the third biggest city in Iran; it’s promoted as a Cultural Capital and has some of the most famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This sadly also makes it one of the busiest places in terms of tourist numbers.

Although Esfahan was initially Jewish, it quickly established itself as a majority Muslim city. Known for its impressive Maydan-e Imam square, one of the biggest in the world, this was a place I absolutely loved getting lost in. Every turn in the Bazaar meant a new discovery, whether it’s a new souvenir or a sweet pastry that had to be sampled, I simply fell in love with this place.

Whilst visiting Se-o-Se Pol Bridge, I was stopped so many times. Not by the police, but by locals wanting photos with me! For me personally, this is why I love to visit places that aren’t necessarily known for being tourist-friendly, simply to prove people wrong. If only I was able to walk around freely and alone without my guide I’d probably end up with thousands of photos of me with Iranians.

Everywhere in Iran you'll meet friendly locals eager to learn English and welcome you to their country.

Everywhere in Iran you’ll meet friendly locals eager to learn English and welcome you to their country.

You can’t beat watching a bunch of men get a bit hot and sweaty for a good hour or so; in Esfahan (and in fact all across Iran) men use gymnasiums to practise and train for wrestling. Thankfully these days tourists can even go and watch, after seeing a group of eight men (including one who looked like Super Mario) warming up and using what looked like skittles they were then subsequently replaced by younger versions. These guys used a variety of equipment whilst during the whole time someone sat singing Iranian poems and banging a drum. A unique insight into an ancient tradition that still lives on to this very day.

One of my favourite memories of Esfahan that I will always remember is how children were able to play freely in the street.  One of my fellow tourists even played football with several who then politely proceeded to ask if their mum could video them interviewing him in English on their mobile phones so he could show his teacher at school. Such a sweet experience and one that you’ll rarely encounter anywhere else in the modern world.

Absolutely adorable, I hope this kid goes far in his life as he was so friendly and loved having his photo taken :)

Absolutely adorable, I hope this kid goes far in his life as he was so friendly and loved having his photo taken 🙂

Yazd used to be a desert city, although these days it’s a bustling place that’s often described as one of the most tourist-friendly cities in Iran.  After discovering the old city I realised that it is the second most preserved city after Venice, pretty incredible given how many times Iran has been invaded.

I arrived in Yazd on not only International Women’s Day but also Independence Day; this is when Iranians celebrate the day of the Islamic revolution. This was a huge turning point in Iran’s history, however even with Western sanctions the country has flourished and continues to attract tourists from all over the world intrigued to get a glimpse into the magic carpet world of Persia.

As I’m not religious I’d never heard of Zoroastrianism, however Yazd is famous for once having a thriving community here. Zoroastrianism predates Judaism, Christianity and Islam and focussed on the uncreated god, Ahura Mazda, creator of all things. Sadly after the Islamic revolution the Zoroastrian population is now less than 10%.

Yazd Old Town

Yazd Old Town

Persepolis – the jewel in Iran’s tourism crown and probably the most famous site in the whole country. Tourists thankfully don’t know about this place yet, but adventurous travellers have been venturing here for ages to discover a unique side of Iran that’s still relatively unknown in the mainstream travel industry.

With 2016 due to be a bumper year for Iran’s tourism industry, I’m in no doubt that this place won’t stay hidden for long. Currently French, German and other European tourists dominate whilst Brits, Americans and Canadians make up a relatively low number, more than likely due to the visa restrictions.

If you plan to visit Persepolis, definitely aim to get there early as once the crowds gather it’s difficult to get the perfect shots and can get extremely hot in the summer.

Persepolis - The jewel in Iran's tourism crown

Persepolis – The jewel in Iran’s tourism crown

Naqsh-e-Rostam is only a few minutes drive away and was only discovered thanks to carvings in the rocks at Persepolis.  This fascinating ancient burial place was once the final resting place for Iranian kings who would be placed inside the open tomb and left for nature to take its path.

This place really reminded me so much of Petra in Jordan, it’s incredibly well preserved and should definitely feature highly on your list of places to see if you decide to visit Iran.

Shiraz is the third biggest city in Iran; situated in the south of the country I had been prepared for this place to be warmer but thankfully this made exploring all the more comfortable. There’s so much to see here, including my favourite place in Iran – the Pink mosque. It’s probably the most famous image you’ll see of the country but most people wouldn’t guess it’s located here. I happily spent a good hour there just absorbing the wonderful colours.

At the Qu’ran Gate I met a very lovely local who was super excited to meet me, although I was restricted by time she wanted to know where I was from, when I was leaving and whether I could come and have dinner with her and her mum. So sweet! Sadly I didn’t get the opportunity but if I head back to Iran I’ll be sure to take her up on that offer.

Two of the lovely ladies I met in Iran who were so friendly, welcoming and generally just intrigued to chat. Love it!

Two of the lovely ladies I met in Iran who were so friendly, welcoming and generally just intrigued to chat. Love it!

If like me you can’t survive a week without your Facebook fix then you’re going to need to use a VPN in Iran.  This way you can bypass the Government restrictions that are currently in place, and have been for the past 7 years. Facebook/Twitter and most Western media is not accessible without a VPN, if you try to access it you’ll be confronted by a rather angry looking screen, all in Persian – naturally.

After spending eight days in Iran I can easily say this is one of the safest countries in the Middle East. Being sandwiched between Iraq and Afghanistan can certainly cause its fair share of problems, but none that you’ll likely encounter if you decide to visit.

Visit Iran

Fancy following in my footsteps? I travelled with UK based travel agency Lupine Travel who offer tours to unique destinations including Eritrea, Turkmenistan and North Korea.

Further Information

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.