I’m just back from six weeks backpacking solo through Morocco, the Middle East and the Caucasus. The aim of this blog is to give some hints and information to facilitate making a trip in the region. It’s a very similar blog to https://tropicalexpat.wordpress.com/2016/10/20/balkans-backpacking-blog/ which I used as a template, as I prepared and travelled the same way.
So as so to do, I will state the aims of my trip:
- To visit at least seven countries
- To swim in at least one of the seas in the area if possible, although it’s winter
- To walk every day for exercise
- To travel on trains where at all possible, unless impractical
- To be spontaneous and do what I want at the time
- To try to visit three towns, cities or sites in each country
- To try to see or do three places or things in each place
- To make notes on what I do and see
- To photograph interesting things
- To minimise expenses without compromising enjoyment
- To eat the local food
- To get into nature a bit
- To get a few photos of me in each country
- To talk to people, both locals and travellers
- Cycle a bit when safe
- To hike a bit
- And the plan to travel in winter, when hotels and transport are not fully booked, and prices are lower.
- To read books when I have time
Apart from reading, as mostly I didn’t have time, and cycling, because it was too dangerous, I achieved all of the above to varying extents, with those higher in the above list achieved to a greater extent than those below.
PLANNING AND PREPARATION
- I read the Lonely Planet Morocco, Middle East and Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan guidebooks, which covered all the countries I visited. A compendium has less detail than a book covering just one country, and this suited me just fine, as it saved reading time. Google Play Books is my favourite eReader, and I uploaded the ePub version on there – the PDF version of books can’t be highlighted. Even so, sometimes you have to play with the app on the mobile and computer to get highlighting to work. Once you start reading it, it downloads also to your device, so you don’t have to be online to read it. Thus I highlighted the important points on each country to save time when I perused it while travelling.
- As my aim was to travel by train when possible I read the Seat 61 entries on the countries I was planning to visit.
- And I downloaded the countries I was planning to visit from Triposo on my device, and browsed through them too.
- And also a look through Wikivoyage
- I read the UK Foreign Office advisories, which more or less said to beware of terrorism in every country.
- And a glance at blogs on travelling in the region
- And the plan to travel in winter into early spring, when the temperature is hopefully warming, hotels and transport are not fully booked, and prices are lower. But to be out of Iran well before their new year, which starts on the equinox, and when all modes of travel are full. And to generally start in countries in the south that are likely to be warmer, and move north as countries warm.
- Checked couchsurfing for hosts and events
- Checked countries train web sites for some train routes
- Then I made a rough route plan
- And got air tickets to suit this plan
- Set up my mobile with the appropriate apps and put on the appropriate information
- Got some Euro cash and USD as Iran is not connected to the world’s financial system so foreigners must use only cash, and enough Ringgit for eventualities in Malaysia
- Notified banks that I may use the ATM / credit cards in the countries I would be visiting
- Copied all documents twice – once to leave at home, and once to keep separate from documents but carry with me
- Washed all clothes that I hadn’t recently washed that I was taking
The route depended on flight availability on the day and due to flight availability it turned out to be:
KUL – IST – CMN – IST – BEY – AMM – IST – IKA – IST – TBS – IST – KUL – PEN
KUL – KL (Kuala Lumpur),
IST – Istanbul
CMN – Casablanca
BEY – Beirut
AMM – Amman, Jordan
IKA – Tehran
TBS – Tbilisi, Georgia
PEN – Penang
MISTAKES I MADE
- Not changing the leftover local money before entering security at the airport. At some airports they don’t even accept their own currency airside. They only take Euros. Particularly Morocco.
- Not having a recently tested Microsoft account backup. Microsoft kindly suspended my account when I logged on from various different countries. I hadn’t checked the backup for years, and it took me days to be able to use Onedrive, Onenote, and Excel again, by trying various different workarounds until I finally succeeded.
- I didn’t adequately research which company to use to get the permission to get a visa for Iran. Consequently the one I used was inefficient, unfriendly and caused my plans to be delayed
- I received permission from the Abkhazian ministry to enter the country and apply for a visa. But they made an error on the form which caused me problems at the border. It was in Russian, and the error they made was my birthdate, but it was such a big error i thought it was probably something else. I should have put the entire thing into Google Translate and checked properly.
- Arriving in Abkhazia on the weekend. The consulate is only open Monday to Friday so you have to stay until at least Monday as you won’t be able to leave without a visa. Also, it seems impossible to change money on the weekend.
- Not ensuring I had changed enough money into Iranian rials by Wednesday as you can’t change money on Thursday and Friday except perhaps at a bad rate at your hotel.
MISTAKES IN PACKING
- I took too many zip lock bags. Not such a big problem as they don’t weigh much.
- I had major battery problems on all devices and power banks. I threw one of the power banks away to save weight. But back in Malaysia the devices are working a bit better. Maybe the power bank I disposed of would have worked again.
- The socks I took were too hard to dry after washing. Lighter socks would have made life easier.
PROBLEMS and their SOLUTIONS
- I found that the phone battery would last less than 20 minutes of use! The phone is almost two years old now, but still, that is ridiculous. Some trains have power points, and you can usually find power points in coffee shops. Plus I had two power banks, so I found I always had enough power available. One power bank and a charged phone at the beginning of the day was enough for intensive use of the phone, normally. But then the power banks started to fail. I switched to my tablet, which also has a SIM slot.
- Related to the above is that if the phone got down to 20% charge, in a minute or two it would reduce to zero, and then it would require being connected to power for at least five minutes before it would start again. If I really need the phone at that time, for example to check on the map (Maps.me app) to see if we’d arrived at my destination, it was very inconvenient. I turned off the phone and charged it 100%, and only turned it on when I really needed it.
- Often there was no tourist information at or near the terminal, and no maps, either on a signboard or printed ones you can get. I used the Maps.me app on my phone, where I downloaded the country maps in advance so that I didn’t need an Internet connection. It simply uses GPS. Sometimes it is not so accurate, or takes a little time to show where you are, so you have to use your judgement, and perhaps ask people to confirm. Although people are not necessarily correct, either. The guidebook maps were not detailed enough and couldn’t be magnified enough, and weren’t searchable like Maps.me.
- Street signs were either non-existent, hiding where you can’t see them, written in a script I couldn’t read, or all of the above. I could sometimes compare the script with script on a map if it had it. I just had to use landmarks, and walk a little and see what was happening on the Maps.me display to work out if I was going in the right direction. Annoyingly Maps.me sometimes used different spellings for street or town names than the guidebook, so searches found nothing. If I had an Internet connection I could use Google Maps for a search and find it better, sometimes.
- No Internet when you need it. WiFi and power to charge their phones is what tourists want, and most coffee shops and hotels provide them. I used to ask before I ordered my coffee, but after a while I didn’t bother, and just asked for the WiFi password, as they all had WiFi. What you want from a coffee shop is those two, and a less disgusting toilet than found on the train, or in terminals. Some buses and trains have WiFi.
- When catching a train there was always a toilet on board, but with rare exceptions they were disgusting. The terminals tended to be better, but still not necessarily very nice. So the idea is to use the hotel’s, then the terminal if the alternative in the near future will be the train’s, and the train’s as a last resort. Also, I am a big water drinker. I would drink a lot in the evening, but drink very little during the morning or until I finished travelling for the day, to minimise the need to use such facilities. And I would keep warm on transport, but cooler if not.
- Back to the Internet. At present I use Celcom, which will charge RM38 (USD$9) per day for roaming, with a small data allowance, that is so small in some countries as to be laughable. In some countries, about 6 Euros and a small charge for a SIM will give you 5GB of data, and phone calls and texts for a month with Vodaphone or a local company, and with good coverage. I would buy a SIM if I was going to be in a country for at least three days. Then I wouldn’t particularly need WiFi. In the airport in Turkey they were selling SIM’s for about USD$50, and in Beirut airport $75. So the latter was the only time I used Celcom. It was really helpful having mobile Internet as Maps.me was more accurate with it, and everything else would also be to hand. e.g Google Translate.
- In many countries they don’t like you taking photos of their infrastructure, soldiers, police facilities etc. So it’s hard to take train and station photos. There are ways, but it’s better to work then out for yourself.
WHAT I DID RIGHT
- I had power banks for the phone. They weigh 200g each for mine.
- I had spare SD cards to put in the camera when the first became full
- I backed up my photos every night to Google Photos
- I had all the right bits and pieces for the phone and camera for charging in different circumstances – triple adapters, SD reader, OTG cable etc.
- I could do my planning on the trip to the next destination, having already read and highlighted the guidebook, so that when I arrived I could find WiFi and call a hotel, or use mobile Internet if I had it. Or just walk there if it was nearby to see if I wanted to stay there. The guidebook was pretty accurate in its assessments of hotels and their prices for the season I was there. In the end I just trusted it and didn’t mind calling and booking while on the way, rather than looking at it first. Mostly. In Tangier I decided to look first and was glad I did as the second hotel was far better.
- I used an ATM card to withdraw money, except if I only needed a little, where I could. In Iran you have to take and use cash.
- I had some roubles before crossing the border for Abkhazia, and they were useful as you couldn’t change money on the weekend there – and I arrived on a Saturday. I had some dram (AMD is the Armenian currency) before arriving in Yerevan by train, which was fortunate as all ATM’s and money changers were closed at the time we arrived, in fact, everything was.
FORTUNE RATHER THAN GOOD PLANNING
I had so much good fortune in the people I met and the great weather I enjoyed almost all the time. Not to mention the travel connections I planned for, more or less working. Which is something in itself.
- Apart from one day in Morocco, one day in Iran, and the last few days of the trip it was sunny and warm almost all the time. Meaning I got all the advantages of low season without the inclement cold weather.
- In Morocco I met some lovely Chinese girls I hung out with for a couple of days. I also saw a really nice guy who had couchsurfed with me in Berlin three years ago. And I couchsurfed myself in Rabat with a great guy who took time out to show me around and introdued me to some friends – and to go to a Hamman – a Turkish bath.
- In Tehran my Iranian friend’s parents were kind enough to show me around the city and to help me with travel arrangements. In Yadz, Iran, a Tehran couple and their friend drove me around the sights and introduced me a bit to life in their country. In Shiraz I met a Danish girl who lives in London and spent much of the tour of Persepolis talking with her.
- In Georgia the guesthouse host was really helpful and introduced me to an English couple who recommended a homestay in Yerevan, Armenia. I spent a great day in Tbilisi with a Russian guy I’d met on the train and with whom I got on really well.
- In Yerevan, Armenia, the host family at the homestay was lovely and kept on feeding me whenever I came back from my outings. We hung around and looked at Facebook photos of their and my travels on their computer. I also spent a great first day in Yerevan with an American girl I met on the night train. She speaks Russian, which made it easy to get around as the locals do, too.
- Plus there were many other shorter interactions with locals and travellers that enhanced the trip.
APPS – What I used the phone (and later tablet) for:
- Unsurprisingly, as a phone and for texts
- GPS – to see where we are now on a map and if the train is about to arrive
- As a map – Maps.me, Google maps
- eBook reader – Google Play Books or xozo
- Exchange rate checker – Xe
- Web – Dolphin
- Check flights – web, sky scanner, kayak etc.
- Communicate via data – Skype and Viber with video, and Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp
- Making notes – OneNote
- Podcasts-downloading and listening Pocketcasts
- Camera a little – generic camera app
- Email – default app
- Reading news- BBC, Daily Mail apps
- Translation – Google Translate
- Music- ES file explorer, VLC
- File management – ES file explorer
- Photo editing – Photo Editor
- Guidebook – Lonely Planet on Google Play Books, Triposo
- Hotels- Triposo, Trip Advisor
- Blogger- WordPress
- Scanner- Office Lens
- Photo backup – Google Photos
- Alarm – default clock
- Entertainment – YouTube
- Watch – phone display
- Record keeping of expenses – Excel
AND DID I ACHIEVE MY AIMS FOR THE TRIP? AND OTHER HINTS
- I visited 8 countries. Seven of which were new to me. Of course, reasonably superficially, but it was fun
- I almost swam in the Black Sea, but I did swim in the Atlantic in Morocco, and also bathe in the Dead Sea in Jordan.
- It would have been practical to travel using just the mobile. But as it failed it would have been a problem had I not also my tablet.
- I walked every day – usually quite a lot. I only caught a taxi when really necessary.
- I travelled on trains where at all possible, but caught a bus from Shiraz to Esfahan as there is no train service.
- I was spontaneous and did what I wanted at the time
- I made notes on what I did and saw
- I minimised expenses without compromising enjoyment.
- I ate the local food when I could find it. Which was almost always.
- I managed to walk a little in the country
- I got a few photos of me in each country
- I did talk to locals and other travellers a little, but not as many as I’d to have. But I did meet and travel with some great people. I couchsurfed once.
- I didn’t cycle as it was too dangerous everywhere.
- I consulted the guidebook a lot, but didn’t have time to read much. Just a couple of light novels to have a break from thinking about the practicalities of travel.
If I think of anything else that might be useful to travellers I will add it later.
PHOTOS OF THESE:
Walking in parks and countryside