Captions: Shah-i-Zinda, Uzbekistan

At the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, a local lady walks between mausoleums before disappearing around a corner – Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
At the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, a local lady walks between mausoleums before disappearing around a corner – Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

The stunning blue tiles of ancient warlord ruler Tamerlane’s capital, are still made from clay and by hand to this day. His empire once stretched all the way from Turkey right down to North India. Marveling at such beauty, it’s easy to forget that in the process of spreading his empire, he is said to have killed seventeen million people.

Photograph copyright © Ben McKechnie 2014

Petra’s Kings (an article I wrote for TRVL magazine)

Brilliant, coral colored flames leap chaotically from an open fire in the middle of nowhere, attempting to lick the faces of anyone foolish enough to sit too close. There are a few. A feeling of acute isolation ebbs away with the intimate embrace of Bedouin hospitality. Khaled – the King of Petra, if nicknames are anything to go by – takes a lingering swig of gin straight from the bottle, before passing it to me.

The town of Wadi Musa, or Valley of Moses, stands as guardian of Petra. It is so named because Moses is purported to have passed though the valley with his followers. Their cracked lips and cries of thirst struck a chord in his altruistic soul and, without the need for dowsing of any kind, he struck the ground and out flowed fresh water. More than a thousand years later, the Nabataeans, the ancient people of Northern Arabia who built Petra as their capital, channeled water from this well to their city. These days, it’s a tourist town. I alight from the somewhat decrepit 250 kilometer bus service from Amman. The sound of Islamic chanting from aging speakers rings in my ears as I call Khaled to inform him of my arrival. I walk along dusty streets to reach the meeting point I’ve been instructed to go to, feeling the mild chill of a late evening in December as I walk past khaki colored buildings and shop fronts with familiar signage mixed with Arabic script. A flashy Orange cell phone store with the latest Samsung smartphone in the window stands three doors down from a fading yellow shop sign advertising Kodak 35mm film. Technology at least a decade apart, from obsolete to ultra modern, in the space of a few buildings. How quickly times change. Arriving at the roundabout in the center of town, I wait.

As it is in so many Middle-Eastern countries, the people of Petra and its surroundings come to you. Whether it’s sitting on the grass in Esfahan’s Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Iran, sitting in a tea shop smoking shisha in the Kurdish city of Van in Turkey’s far South-East, or frittering away time by the side of a road here in Wadi Musa; all you need do is wait. Well-preserved ancient ruins and natural beauty aside, it’s the people that keep you coming back to this part of the world. Around every corner is a selfless invitation to a family home, an offer of tea and a surprisingly frank discussion about almost any topic of conversation that you choose to pursue.

Loitering under a bright red and blue advertisement for Pepsi, I have my first encounter with one of Petra’s Bedouins. He saunters up with a swagger, wearing an army green shirt adorned with pin badges that hangs open four buttons to reveal a white vest. Covering his lower half are baggy, jet black Thai fisherman pants. On his head is a kuffiyeh, a traditional head cloth in the Jordanian style with a red and white hound’s tooth pattern. He introduces himself as Zay – a moniker – but a moniker which has stuck so hard he refuses to reveal his true name. Zay doesn’t take the local tradition of outlining one’s eyes with rims of charcoal lightly. It appears as if a neat yet overly zealous toddler has traced his eyelids with a beefy, black crayon. “Western women really love it”, remarks Zay with a knowing smile. I tell him that’s because he looks exceptionally like a well-known pirate from contemporary pop culture. “My friend, you know too much.” Deeply tanned skin and hair bordering on dreadlocks seal the deal. After the exchange of pleasantries, we broach deeper subjects. He’s one of the first Jordanians in a week that has lasted five minutes without hinting at how the Dinar bills in my wallet can become theirs. He acknowledges this with a look that is half regret, half pride. “We are different from city people”. Why? “Because of the mosque. We do not pray in them. We pray in our homes or outside in the desert. Money and mosque go hand in hand. It’s not our obsession. I make enough honest money from tourists with my job in Petra. If I come to you on the streets of Wadi Musa, then it’s because I feel like talking to you.” I bid Zay farewell with a handshake, just as a bright, Barbie pink Daihatsu jeep screeches drunkenly onto the roundabout. It’s not the regal sort of automobile Khaled the King would be seen in, that’s for sure.

Leaving Wadi Musa behind, South Korean manufactured pick-up trucks and brightly colored, Japanese miniature jeeps drive along curving desert roads, baking in lack of shade. Such vehicles must occasionally dodge a stray sheep or small child that has drifted into the road from a nearby Bedouin camp. In a land not blessed with fecund soil, the two main camps visible along this eight kilometer drive are built around the bases of the only two trees in sight. With tiny settlements radiating away from their trunks, the trees become symbols of fertility to be worshiped amidst their barren but beautiful surroundings.

Siq al-Barid, or Little Petra, is situated eight kilometers from the main archaeological behemoth of Petra. I discover that questions requiring facts as answers are met obliquely around here. How wide is this passageway? “As wide as a camel with medium fat. No more, no less”, comes the riposte. It serves me right for asking something so obtuse. All Khaled and his family need to know is whether or not they can shove a camel up here without lubrication. Emerging from the narrow shaft, you find yourself in an ancient suburb of Petra that was used as a trade and supply post. A petite, rock-hewn temple can be seen midway up a canyon wall, surrounded by formations resembling baked potatoes stacked atop one another. Giant hands have seemingly had fun kneading these over-sized tubers and have molded deep, concave thumbprints into their surfaces. Sights aren’t as grandiose as big brother’s down the road, but what Little Petra lacks in spectacle, it makes up for in intimacy.

Petra plays host to a thousand colorful characters, but if you were to meet just three then you could do a lot worse than Khaled the King, Ghassab al-Bedouine and Priscilla al-Daihatsu. An unholy trinity – two parts man, one part machine. I secretly christen my Bedouin hosts’ Barbie-pink mini jeep Priscilla, because I can’t decide on its gender. Unquestionably, it’s a queen of the desert, but is it all woman or more flamboyant man in drag? Either way, it oozes personality and only a small amount of engine oil; the kind of unfaltering beast, that even after 170,000 miles on the clock, can still take a daily thrashing without even so much as a whimper of complaint. The ride is fun for everyone. Priscilla’s backseat passengers must scramble and squeeze behind a driver’s seat that has given up on sliding forwards. They must then spend the duration of the journey using an arm to hold up the ceiling of the car, or instead be forced to sit leaning forwards at a spine-deforming one hundred and thirty degree angle. The car upholstery is pink throughout. The chassis is emblazoned with stickers and underneath the exhaust is partially held on with layers of duct tape. Once seated uncomfortably, Ghassab starts the engine. The jeep’s one working headlight flickers on, before roaring into the night.

Khaled is nicknamed the King either because his father is the chief of the entire Bedouin tribe, or because he owns one of the highest shops inside Petra, situated fifty steps before the top of the long climb up to the monastery. He is thirty-four, divorced and likes gin. Ghassab is Khaled’s cousin – one of hundreds – and is the owner of a giant boulder in the middle of nowhere. He is forty-two, divorced and likes chocolate. Ghassab was twenty-four when, in 1993, he met a beautiful girl from Germany. He courted her using all the tricks in the proverbial book and a week-long, whirlwind love affair ensued. Nights spent talking and laughing in secret mountain caves, huddled up under camelhair blankets, lying next to an open fire – thousands of years of which has left entering many of Petra’s caves feel like climbing inside of a lifelong smoker’s lungs, their ceilings inches thick with sticky black residue – but Ghassab forgot the golden rule of holiday romance – do not fall in love. She reciprocated however, and on a whim he flew to Germany with her where they married and lived for almost eighteen years. They divorced in 2011 and Ghassab returned to Jordan with dreadlocks, a love for Bob Marley, and a fair idea of how he wanted to live out the remainder of his life, here in the place of his birth. “I was born in a cave in Petra. I’ll die in one too”, he says, sucking on a Marlboro Red.

Their joint decision to turn a giant, hollowed-out boulder – roughly fifteen kilometers into the desert from Petra – into a livable home, was a reaction against the increasing modernization of the lives of Petra’s Bedouin tribe. In the last ten years, they have witnessed their families being moved out of camps and into ‘Bedouin villages’ – tiny towns of brick and cement houses, with a paved road and running water in the courtyards. Khaled’s English is stilted and slow as he tells me about the traditional life of his tribe. “We are used to living simply with nature. We only need the basic essentials of life. Food, water, a roof over our heads, and good company, which God provides for us in the desert”. This is juxtaposed against a back-story of roofs over heads provided by the Jordanian government. Moving into houses made of bricks must have been a sad day for Khaled and his family.

What they have achieved with their cave in the space of a few years is already impressive, but they aren’t done yet. The resourceful pair have plans for self-sufficiency; solar panels and composting toilets being at the top of the list. They try to never turn away a traveler in need of a place to stay. Neither do they charge a single dollar, despite knowing people would pay good money for this experience. “It has always been the way. Hospitality is rooted in our religion and charity is one of the five pillars. We were couch surfing before the Couchsurfing website was invented. Now we call it cave surfing”. It’s an adventurous eco-traveler’s dream, reachable only by 4×4, and only then if you know its exact location. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, swings a right turn off the main road and then for twenty minutes traverses challenging terrain; dangerously steep inclines and vicious bumps that are absorbed by spines in place of the vehicle’s knackered suspension. Arriving at night, there isn’t any way of telling how magnificent your environs are. Through the cave’s doors you’re met with aromas of cooking, chain-smoked cigarettes and clothes that haven’t been washed in a week. But it is unarguably a home. Outside in the morning, you are met with a vision of paradise. The cave sits with palatial elevation overlooking an expanse of ochre land, while all around are fifty meter cliffs. Intense colors flood retinas and you’re bathed in complete silence. Ghassab breaks it with a shout. “Go free, my friend! Nature is your toilet!”

If there were any doubts about Khaled’s claim to being local royalty, a trip with him inside ancient Petra quickly disperses the last seeds. Other Bedouins are in deference to him. His guests are spared the hard-sell tactics of men with donkeys looking to take them for a ride. Even when Khaled isn’t leading me around, somehow it feels as though every Bedouin I meet still knows I’m his guest. Climbing a mountain, a Bedouin girl invites a friend and I to sit. Her name is Noora and she’s thirteen years old. She doesn’t attend school anymore. Her eyes are defined with thick rims of charcoal and around her head she wears a tight black headscarf. Noora calls to her younger brother and sister who,grinning cheekily, carry over a large silver tray holding lunch. “Please, eat with us”. Fried potatoes and tomatoes seasoned with herbs and salt are scooped up using flat-bread, all washed down with sweet tea infused with mint. Noora decorates my companion Sara’s eyes, before giving us some small plants called a-his-lan. Not a penny is asked for and their three grinning faces wave to us as we continue the climb.

Nobody can agree on the exact number of steps up to the High Place of Sacrifice, but they do agree that it’s at least eight hundred. Puffing and panting in the afternoon heat, climbing past altars once used for the bleeding and burning of animals – and possibly humans – the reward is a head-spinning three hundred and sixty degree view. To the south-east is the treasury, invisible up here, but to the north-west is the rest of Petra. To the east is Wadi Musa, its streets like creeper vines growing up the hill, making you feel very small indeed.

The year 2012 marked the two hundredth anniversary of Petra’s rediscovery by the explorer Johann Burckhardt, but from my high vantage point I prefer to consider its future. Whereas much of the Middle-East continues to experience uncertainty, Jordan is often seen as a beacon of stability, surrounded by politically volatile neighbors. So despite there being a civil war on next door, dont be put off visiting Petra and the rest of this intoxicating country.

Back at the Bedouin cave, I climb the outdoor stairs carved into the rock. Together with a Swede named Gustav, we stand on top and survey the moonlit scene. The cliffs form a natural auditorium and it feels as though we are the Pope and his entourage, looking out across Saint Peter’s Square. “What would you preach if there were one million people down there right now, waiting to hear you speak?”, I ask him.He thinks about it for a minute. “I’d remind them that we’re all infinite”. Deep, man. But Gustav can’t help being an idealistic, twenty year old hipster. Tonight there’s almost some meaning in those words. Maybe in the deserts of Petra, moonlight and perfect silence make philosophers of us all. 

Hopping the Joob

The darkness brings a chill as nighttime falls in the Iranian city of Kerman. The battered, silver Iran Khodro saloon in which I’m a passenger advances down an avenue lined with Sycamore trees. I roll down the window to let my hand ride the wind outside. It undulates rhythmically along an invisible x-axis, as though it were a magic carpet riding the updraft.

Mentioning that you’re travelling to Kerman, particularly if going alone, draws mixed reactions from Iranians. Iran is the largest producer of pistachio nuts in the world and they’re all grown here in Kerman province. Its annual yield is over twice that of the world’s second largest producer – the USA – which, as you might imagine, is fine fuel for national pride. Contrarily, its proximity to the border with Afghanistan’s Kandahar province means the area has a darker association. Drugs. From what I gather, I’ll eat exceptionally well before expiring at the sweaty hands of an addict. Everyone’s got to go somehow.

Iranians have turned stereotyping into an art form. The inhabitants of each of the country’s major cities are attributed, lightheartedly you might hope, with specific characteristics by the inhabitants of others. Behind closed doors, people from Shiraz – Shirazis – are said to be booze-guzzling party animals. Esfahani merchants are ruthless, penny-pinching scam artists who wouldn’t give a discount to their own grandmothers, let alone to a guidebook wielding tourist. The men of Qazvin, whether fairly or not, are demonised as predatory homosexuals in front of whom it would be unwise to bend over, even – or perhaps especially – in the middle of a crowded bazaar. Kermanis, according to Tehranis at least, are mostly muggers and junkies who would steal the flip-flops off your feet while you walk in order to buy a few crumbs of pure Afghan opium. Either that, or they’re dribbling, incoherent nut farmers with brains the size of a single unit of their crop. True or not, Afghan opium and Persian pistachios are almost certainly the best in the world, so at least one positive stereotype can be said of Kermanis. They have exceptionally high standards.

There’s a manmade stream called a Joob flowing along the sides of each street and tree-lined boulevard in Iran. Reckless driving, of which there is plenty, is met with a cautionary cry from passersby.“That maniac is going to end up in the joob!” Indeed, after only twenty-four hours in Iran I saw a rusty, soon-to-be-rustier Peugeot that had backed into a joob in Tehran. Its front tyres were a metre up in the air. A small crowd gathered, some to gawk and others to help the driver clamber down from the door. Plenty of others merely strolled past. Seen it all before, their rolled eyes seemed to say.

My accomplice Reza and I hop the joob and enter a small grocery store. The man behind the counter is young, early thirties, but has skin that’s graying beneath a tan and a brown comb-over from right to left. He wears a light blue polo shirt and a smell of stale sweat lingers, but from him or the last customer I can’t tell. Reza, seriously lacking in English, uses his best gesturing to get across the message that I should make myself busy looking around the shop. It seems a deal is going down that I’m not to bear witness to.

Exotic to my eye, the grocery store’s shelves hold a marvelous array of products. Multicolored tins and shapely jars are stacked to the ceiling, holding a dazzling variety of fish, olives, vegetables and meats. A rickety wooden ladder stands by to access the higher levels. There are no imported Western brands here that I can see. In the fridge, however, my eyes come to rest on some familiar colours and logos; Coca Cola and Pepsi. Despite the strict Western sanctions against Iran, these companies have clearly found a way around them. Their products are not imported either. Astoundingly, they have factories in Iran, and continue to battle it out for market share along with the local Iranian Zam Zam cola.

A woman severely dressed in a chador, a full-length swathe of black cloth designed to cloak everything but the face from view, stands next to me. Her young son clutches at her hand and the fabric of her chador while staring up at me with watery eyes. She gives me a stern, disapproving look up and down, but our eyes only make contact for a fraction of a second. When they do, it seems to be the reason why she shoots her gaze towards the floor tiles, before dragging her boy briskly from the shop and into the night. I go to the door and watch the long material of her orthodox outfit trail behind in the late evening breeze. At last the shop floor is empty except for Reza and I. The owner emerges from the back and is introduced to me as Ali Reza. He hands Reza a black plastic bag. There’s a two-litre plastic bottle inside. Ali Reza winks and promises to meet us later. We hop the joob and drive.

Reza parks up on a dark lane. He passes me the plastic bottle, fetches two paper cups from the glove box, and signals for me to fill ‘em up. We knock them back in one. It’s moonshine; fiery-strong and burns a trail down into my stomach. His fingers indicate that I should keep them coming. Two, three, four cups bring tears to my eyes and laughter for no other reason than to laugh. Reza shakes his head like a horse and let’s out a Persian yaahooaa! I think I already know the answer, but I mime Islamic prayer to ask whether he practices the state religion. Laughter and ‘No, no, no’ is his reply. I feel the booze in my legs, arms and rapidly loosening tongue. The language barrier poses no problem anymore. I pour each of us a fifth.

On the ramshackle wall across the lane from our car is a poster of an old, grandfatherly face, torn across so no jaw remains. As incongruous as it seems, the ghostly dead eyes of Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Revolution of ’79, observe and judge while we drink. As a sixth cup reaches my lip, a deafening yell tries its best to perforate my ear drums.

Allahu Akbar / God is the Greatest

The call to prayer rings out on the other side of the wall. It’s time to move before we’re discovered by people flocking to evening prayer. Unlike the car, Reza is well oiled and keeps a heavy foot on the gas pedal as we cruise out of the city. My hand finds its way to the open window and floats outside, riding the wind once more. I give in to the drink, allowing my eyes to get lost in the constellations of an unpolluted desert sky. 

A Sliver Of Sunlight

A sliver of sunlight penetrates the compartment as, disorientated, I find my bearings. I’d been expecting 3am to come. A sharp prod in the ribs and another icy waiting room. My fingers were secretly crossed for a back room interrogation from a bearded fundamentalist, seething with anti-western rhetoric. Confusingly though, they let us sleep. For all the time and money that it took to procure a visa, I’m now being propelled east across Iran’s West Azerbaijan province with documents unchecked.

I jump down from the top bunk and wrench open the curtains for my first view of the pariah state. The landscape floods my retinas. My knees are rendered weak. I steady myself against the window frame and drink in the view. Rippling, ochre hills studded with green line the track looking south. A miniature canyon carves its way through the valley floor between ridges. Such a scene gives way to a rolling plain that reaches out for miles towards a black mountain in the distance. A grey haired shepherd dressed in an old, grimy woolen jacket tends to a flock two hundred strong. Some of the sheep look up when they hear the sound of the approaching train, but quickly return to the more pressing matter of munching plants.

Next door in the dining car, I sit to drink tea with Maisam and his entourage. He explains why we were left to sleep.

“Border checks are to be made once we arrive at Tabriz. Just know that when we get there, soldiers will board the train and doors will be locked. They’ll empty your backpacks and search every inch for banned items, so have one last check before we get there.”

Prohibited items include alcohol, pork products, material critical of the regime, and any music, film or book that has been banned by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. I’m quite sure I left my copy of The Satanic Verses in Singapore, but there’s the small chance I dreamt it.

“Look out the window. The shores of Lake Orumiyeh!”

A permanent, hypersaline lake more than five times the area of the Dead Sea; Lake Orumiyeh is drying up. Not far from the train window, I can see where the water’s edge used to be. Now, mirages shimmer upon vast beds of crystalised salt. Rippling, pink apparitions on the horizon could be a colony of flamingos. An illusion or a reality? I strain my eyes across the blinding expanse of salt and focus on the shapes. I’m about to succumb to the urge to shut my eyes tight when one of the salmon coloured blemishes spreads its wings and takes flight. The bird soars until little more than a dot, a pinprick, a fleck of dust upon my glasses.

The train veers away from the salt flats of Lake Orumiyeh and sets course for Tabriz.

In the dining car: Brothers from Tehran