Episode 2 - Tehran - Samarkand (Sept 25 – Oct 10, 12)
From the vibrant Persian metropolis to Uzbekistan in Central Asia. The once most important trade route in the world is still visible: The Silk Trail that had already connected Asia and Europe hundreds of years ago.
Tuesday, September 25, 2012 - Tehran is a big city jungle with about 12 million people. And all are on the road at once. Jammed streets. Honking horns. Smog. Yet the city somehow functions day after day. The Ministry of Education has booked rooms for us at the Hotel Laleh, a big conference hotel with a real-socialist charm to it.
We go out to shoot some impressions of the city in the morning. Thomas is filming a big group of men in front of the bazaar. They are haggling and waving bank notes. It is black market for currency. Here, you can trade the almost worthless Iranian bank notes to dollars or Euros. The fall of the Iranian currency is dramatic; the official cash flow has practically come to a halt due to sanctions of Western countries.
In the afternoon we can literally take a deep breath on the rooftop of a high rise in the North of Tehran where we are invited to film a photo shooting. Naghmeh Kiumarsi is a young fashion designer. The secret of her success: She combines high quality fabric and forms with Islamic dress codes. She literally cuts the edge to what the strict morality guides allow. The two models pose elegantly. The photographer tells us that they are almost the only two models they were able to book in Tehran.
After more than three weeks of countries with Islamic culture, we enjoy watching the two beauties. In the cityscape we only see veiled women. The following Islam proverb offers only little comfort: Veil and garment are to protect the beauty of the women, as a shell its pearl.
PHOTO: 102 Photo shooting of a young Iranian fashion designer September 25, 2012
September 27, 2012 - A day off from filming. We meet for lunch with an Iranian colleague reporting from Tehran who works for a foreign television station. He is very pessimistic what the future is concerned. For him, war is inevitable.
Both the West on the one side and Iran on the other side have reached a dead-end street. It only needs a straw to break the camel’s back. And, even though nobody really wants the war, the constant sable-rattling with Israel will inevitably lead to confrontation.
Another highlight in the evening: The team expressed the wish to go see a football match in Tehran. Our wish is the command for the Ministry. We are invited to see a premier league game: Persepolis Tehran against Aluminium Hormozgan. There is only one catch: The match is played in the large stadium of Tehran without any audience! Normally, it can seat up to 100,000 people!
But because of rioting fans, Persepolis is being punished and has to play its home game in front of empty seats. Empty – apart from a few substitute players, the chairmen of the clubs, a few soldiers and security people, and the rbb-team. A very memorable match for us. Persepolis wins 1:0.
After the match we are even allowed to talk to the powerful chairman of the state club. We give him a farEAST t-shirt. Our escort from the Ministry is obviously delighted. Thanks to him, we have had a very entertaining evening. Football brings people and cultures together.
October 1, 2012 - We had an overnight stop in Mashhad. In the morning we drive to Nishabur, about 150 kilometres away, to the famous turquoise mines. The best turquoise has always come from Persia. Already 3000 years ago, the blue-green stones have come from the mines near Nishabur.
The jeweller Mohammad Reza Mozaffarian from Tehran spontaneously joins us. He would love to visit the place he only has heard of in stories from his grandfather. During the Shah’s reign, the court jeweller leased the mining rights of Nishabur. But during the Islamic Revolution, his family was expropriated. Many relatives left the country. “I decided to stay, because I love my country”, says Mohammad.
The mine is hidden near the village Firooze in the mountains. Together with the foreman we enter the tunnel system, which took the mine workers centuries to dig into the mountain. In small caves and vaults, the men blast away boulders and search for sparkling gemstones in the rocks. The most precious turquoise in the world is from Nishabur. In other countries they are re-coloured, here, they naturally shine blue-green.
October 3, 2012 - Our last day in Iran. Bathaei, our Iranian escort from the Ministry of Education, is very relieved that he has accompanied us through the country without any major incidents.
Last night the jeweller Mohammad Reza from Tehran invited us to dinner. There, I had the first opportunity to talk to Bathaei a bit longer. I asked him if we were able to get a good impression of Iran. The Ministry official answers diplomatically: Most Western journalists usually only talk to wealthy and well-educated intellectuals and business men.
Their convictions are mostly anti-governmental. But the average citizens are very religious and acknowledge the change the Islamic Revolution has brought with it. Despite the economical crisis, most people are better off than they were before.
We leave Mashhad, the town of the eighth Imam, heading towards the Turkmen border.
October 4, 2012 - In the morning, we reach the border town of Sarakhs. Sergej, our Russian television colleague and friend, is waiting for us on the Turkmen side. We have already worked together on many productions. He had started two weeks ago in Moscow and reversely drove our planned route through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kirgizstan, a total of 7,500 kilometres.
The general public knows little of this former Soviet Republic. After its independence, the country was ruled by a very peculiar dictator who wrote a kind of Bible and declared himself a prophet. In terms of freedom of the press, the country was third to last for a long time, only followed by Eritrea and North Korea. No good omen, so it seems.
The Iranian emigration formalities take forever. The border guard tells us that the information in our official invitation does not comply with that in our passports. Thus, migration is not possible. At first we feel perplex, then helpless, then hopeless in the end. We cannot re-enter Iran, because our visas have been stamped invalid.
Luckily, Sergej can speak Russian. Hour after hour filled with explanations, negotiations and telephone calls. The source of trouble: The German embassy mixed up the data of our passports. After 10 hours we can finally enter.
Sergej is accompanied by a colleague from turkmen television who helped vigorously with our emigration. We suspect that he is actually working for the secret service, just like several other very friendly gentlemen who keep accompanying us inconspicuously.
After hours of driving on catastrophically bad roads with a countless number of bumps and potholes, we arrive at 3 o’clock in the morning in the province capitol of Mary. The hotel seems to be a remainder of soviet times and obviously hasn’t been renovated since that time.
October 7, 2012 - Our stay in Turkmenistan is becoming more and more grotesque. The new secret service agent who has been keeping an eye on us ever since we arrived will not let us film anymore.
Photo: 146 President
October 8, 2012 - Photo: 167 at the border of Uzbekistan
Leaving Turkmenabad. We cannot wait to leave this country, which seems only to consist of secret agents. After leaving the town we must first master a trail of checkpoints. First the bridge toll, then checking the documents, etc.
After an hour’s drive we arrive at the border. Our farewell to our escorts is short and frigid. The clearance is postponed, because the Turkmen toll personnel are on lunch break. So we have time for a picnic on the lawn and a little game of football with one of the border guards. As mentioned before: Football brings people and cultures together.
Luckily, the check-out and check-in is without any further complications.
Larissa, our future escort who has been appointed to us from the Uzbekistan travel agency, awaits us on the other side of the border. Filming without supervision is undesired here, as well.
But the country welcomes us in a friendly manner. We arrive in Bukhara after dark; Larissa and her driver take us to an unimposing house on the outskirt of the old town. A gate opens and we see a light and friendly courtyard with trees, a gallery and oriental windows.
The hosts greet us warmly. We are convinced that we will feel comfortable in the guest house of Hassan and his wife.
October 9, 2012 - Bukhara is a true haven where we can have a rest. The team has a whole day off. Hassan and his wife prepare a delicious breakfast with real coffee (no instant!). After that Sergej and I take off to explore the city and to search for some interesting stories.
We stroll along the old fortress with its thick walls over to the old town. The view is beautiful: An oriental city as picturesque as a movie still. Slim minarets, magnificent mosques, vibrant blue liwans, bazaars covered with cupolas, old caravanserais and mighty medreses. During the heyday of the Silk Road town, 200 Koran schools were to be found here.
In the centre of the old town, in a former caravanserai, artists and craftspeople have opened their small shops. One of them is Davlad Savarov. He is known as the best painter and calligrapher in town. We admire his small watercolour pictures and his drawings with historical Oriental motives and agree to meet the following day.
You can buy many beautiful things and souvenirs in the countless number of shops: Pieces of embroidery, bags, silk cloth, fur hats, wrought-iron work, as well as gold and silver jewellery. Bukhara has discovered tourism a long time ago and seems to be doing quite well with it.
October 10, 2012 - In the old town, we visit the painter Davlad Savarov in the small caravanserai that is now a court for arts and crafts. He shows us his illustrated stories from 1001 nights.
He invites us to his house for dinner in the evening. But this causes a great uproar. Larissa, our official Uzbekistan escort, intervenes. The dinner has not been approved by authorities. The Ministry would find the shoot to be an unfriendly act. After some consideration we decide to accept the invitation, however without the camera. It turns out to be a highly interesting evening.
October 11, 2012 - Farewell to Buchara, the most beautiful city of our journey so far. But the conflict with Larissa has left its trace. What will be allowed to film at all on our journey through this country? The visas and the accreditation had been approved by the Uzbekistan foreign ministry under the condition that we have an escort and concentrate more on tourist attractions.
What that means in practical terms, we see while driving through the country. We are not allowed to film the many people picking cotton on the side of the road, nor may we show the long queues of cars at the petrol stations. Diesel and petrol are strictly rationalized. Petrol is desperately needed for the harvest vehicles.
We are finally allowed to film at the wells of Nurota, founded by Alexander the Great. The wells are said to have healing powers. The locals come with great canisters to cover their supply for drinking water. We also take the opportunity to restock our water supply.
After that we head to the desert north of Nurota. The dried up, slightly billowy steppeland offers us no surprises at first glance. But then, beyond a range of hills, we can hardly believe our sight: glittering water to the horizon.
This is no mirage, but the Aydarkul Lake, a giant body of water right in the middle of the desert. It owes its existence to bad planning. During the Soviet era, the giant Chardarya Reservoir in today’s Kazakhstan couldn’t hold the floods of the Syr Darya River. Tremendous masses of water were channelled into the desert. This is the origin of the lake.
We spend the night in a yurt camp near the Aydarkul Lake in the middle of the steppe. The sky is crystal clear.
October 14, 2012 - I didn’t sleep well at all that night. As the alarm clock rings at 5.30 a.m., I realize why. My gastrointestinal tract is exploding. The other colleagues are also not well, suffering from either a bad cold, stomach problems, or both.
At dawn Larissa and her driver take me to the airport of Samarkand. Our Uzbekistan escort is angry, because she had warned us explicitly not to go to that restaurant. Half of a French travel group suffered from food poisoning there a while ago….
The others are still asleep and will be on their way to Tashkent later on. There, they will meet Christian Klemke, one of our most experienced directors, for the third stage. Our group must take an entirely new route. Chinese authorities do not allow us to pass through Tibet to Nepal. Our complete route must be reorganized. Visas, film permits, flights, overnight stays, and fuel costs... you need nerves of steel to travel through Asia.