Monday, March 26, 2001

Iran: Beyond the cotton fields and unruly goats

Iran: Beyond the cotton fields and unruly goats

Jeremy Atiyah takes a taxi along the river Euphrates in Syria to the Iraq border

Published: 26 March 2001

How do you find a cab driver willing to take you down the Euphrates? Easy. Go to the Baron Hotel in Aleppo. Hang around next to the wall-map entitled "Antiquités de Syrie". Pay attention to the drawing of the Valley of the Euphrates marked in bold black ink with diagrams of Hittite lions and Roman temples. Then wait to be ambushed by a globular hotel attendant called Abdu.

It worked for me, anyway. "I'm a taxi driver on my days off," was Abdu's gambit. "I've got an icebox in my car." He could recite the names of the sites along the river with such confidence that I accepted without hesitation his proposal to drive me to the Iraqi border for $200 (£140).

Setting off the next morning, Abdu was irrepressible. "Great to get out among the real Bedouin again," he kept exclaiming. "No tourists here!" In an hour we had exchanged the travel agents and lingerie shops of Aleppo for flat desert with houses the colour of dirt and a sun so hot that even the dry mud gleamed. The only things around were sheep and melons. "There you are," said Abdu as we drove past a great crowd of parked scooters and bundled up sheep. "Good people, simple people."
But when we stopped, he soon began calling them cheats and con artists. "And you call these melons ripe!" he was huffing. I suggested that they had raised their prices for the benefit of the foreigner. "My friend," Abdu explained disdainfully, "I am the one they want to cheat. I come from the city, it is plain for all to see."

As the sun climbed we came to the chalky, turquoise waters of Lake Assad, where the Arab citadel of Qalaa'at Al-Jabba sits alone on an outcrop. "You go up," urged Abdu. "I'll mind the car." And he insisted on staying below under a shady vine drinking ice-cold water while I dutifully picked about the hot stones by myself.

There was to be a lot more of that. The next stop, rearing up in the middle of a bare desert, was Rasafah, the ruins of a summer palace once belonging to the Omayyad caliph Hisham. Abdu made a big issue of dropping me at one end of the site, declaring his intention to pick me up later at the other end. "How long do you want? Three hours? Four hours?"

After I had negotiated Abdu down to one hour, I watched him drive off with sudden enthusiasm to a remote tent in the desert, for what I later understood to be some rest and relaxation with the Bedouin girls: leaving me, a speck of living flesh, to survive the white-hot stones of Rasafah alone. When I emerged, frazzled, an hour later, I noticed a small white Peugeot rolling up. A tourist got out. "Hello, I'm Jeremy," I said dourly. An unsmiling man in dark glasses walked forward and shook my hand. "I'm French," he said, and walked off.

Abdu eventually reappeared, and on we drove: on past the irrigated cotton fields, the dead dogs, the unruly goats, the dust clouds, the men sitting in shadows, the brown children splashing in brown canals. And past all the Bedouin hitch-hikers.

The rules concerning hitch-hikers are as follows. If it's a man, accelerate past with annoyance. If a woman, screech to a halt and reverse at great speed to pick her up. "We're from the city," Abdu would boast into the rear-view mirror, gesturing between himself and the foreigner. And the women would laugh coyly as they rearranged their veils.

Later, at the site of the ancient fortress of Halabiyya, built by Queen Zenobia, who once ruled Palmyra, we stopped for tea with a Bedouin family right on the river front, with the sun disappearing behind craggy hills to the west. Women squatted about, wringing out clothes, kneading dough and brewing tea, while Abdu lounged regally on a mat, making pronouncements about cars and money and big-city affairs. It transpired afterwards that he had been discussing ­ for purely academic purposes ­ the price for a Bedouin girl's hand in marriage: $4,000.

Away from the family, Halabiyya was a sinister place. Boulders with long angular shadows leered down on the river front; two fortified walls climbed up in giant steps to a desolate citadel at the top of the hill. I was scrabbling my way up the rocky slope when what should I behold down below but a white Peugeot. I scrabbled faster. The shy Frenchman, having caught sight of our car, drove off at speed.

At dusk we finally arrived at Deir es Zur. Minuscule donkeys trotted past in fast motion, some disguised as huge panniers of mint on legs, others loaded with large ladies in purple cotton, riding side-saddle. When we arrived at the very dark little town centre, there seemed to be only one hotel and one restaurant, both of which the Frenchman had already bagged.

The next morning it was on to the Iraqi frontier. We forked away from the irrigated area, and found ourselves in a featureless desert. But there, on a cliff-top, overlooking the river, was the vast site of Doura Europus, now guarded by one gloomy Bedouin with a motor-scooter and a shotgun. As Abdu noted with piteous contempt, the ancient shotgun looked as though it had been discarded by Lawrence of Arabia.

Behind me was crumbling desert; before me, 90ft below, were blue sparkly waters, green islands, sand banks, wheeling birds and grasses rippling in the breeze. Only one noise could have distracted me from the beautiful Euphrates at that moment: the whirr of an approaching white Peugeot. When I heard it, I nodded to Abdu. It was time to get moving again. Next stop: the Iraqi border.

Tuesday, March 13, 2001

Winter's tale

Winter's tale

It's cold enough to make your eyes water - and then freeze the teardrops on your face. So what made Jeremy Atiyah swap a London flat for an apartment in Siberia?

Jeremy Atiyah
The Guardian,            Tuesday 13 March 2001

Twenty people have so far frozen to death," the BBC World reporter was explaining, in a cloud of white steam, "and hospitals in Irkutsk, Siberia, are performing 60 amputations a week on frostbite victims." That was in January, and I only took notice because, funnily enough, I was just off there myself - to Siberia, that is - for some peace and quiet to write a book. What was more, I had chosen the little town of Irkutsk on the grounds that nothing from the real world could possibly disturb me out there. And now here it was, two days before my departure, in the news.

I wasn't going to Siberia to get a tan. But writing a book in a cosy flat when it was cold outside was one thing. Writing a book in a cosy flat when it was -45C and people were dying of frostbite outside was quite another. Not that I was going to change my plans. Cold snap or not, I had picked Irkutsk because of its remoteness. Even Moscow was five time zones and 5,000km away. The nearest major city was Ulan Bator in Outer Mongolia. I wanted to live in a place that was too insignificant for anyone even to care whether it counted as Europe or Asia.
Or so I tried to reassure myself, boarding my Tupolev in Moscow, bound for one of the coldest places on earth. In fact, I was dressed in an outfit that might have saved Scott of the Antarctic. But disembarking five hours later, I discovered that the temperature had risen to -30. In my long johns, ski-trousers, down jacket and rabbit-skin hat, I found this rather comfortable. Only the instantaneous freezing of the moisture in my nostrils and on my eyelashes was unpleasant (it is a feeling I have since grown used to).
Off I drove over impacted snow, passing men with their ear-flaps pulled down, in search of my very own Siberian apartment. I had already arranged this by email, through someone I met on holiday ("Is it heated?" I remember asking, anxiously. "Of course it is," had come the terse reply). To live here for a year would cost the same as to rent out my flat in London for a month.
Furthermore, all Russian apartment blocks are communally heated: no one worries here about gas bills. They do worry that the heating might break down when the temperature is -40.
I confess that my block, when I got there, did not look much like my block back home. To open the outer door, force was needed to break ice on the hinges. Up a dark and stinking stairwell, I found old ladies peering fearfully from doorways. Unseen dogs barked. My flat turned out to have a solid steel door with eight locks on it, which, I am assured, is very fortunate for me.
Apartments right across the former Soviet Union tend to share certain endearing features such as cosy kitchens and crockery labelled "Made in the GDR". But the best aspect of my new flat, I soon found, were the radiators, which blasted heat into every room 24 hours a day (and would continue to do so for seven or eight months of the year). By now, I had seen enough television pictures of people in the Yakutia and Primorsky regions, to the north and east of Irkutsk, shivering in flats with cold radiators.
Admittedly, the insides of my windows were coated with ice-sheets so thick that I could see nothing out of them at all. I recall celebrating my arrival by quietly opening a bottle of something called Russian champagne, which then exploded all over the walls and ceiling, leaving barely a thimbleful in the bottom of the bottle.
Out in the streets, though, I found a certain pleasure in the extreme cold. Every passer-by wore a vast hat and went about enveloped in a personal cloud of steam. Exotic tapestries of frost hung from trees, walls and balconies. As for the Siberian pavement ice, I fancied that it had a mineral permanence to it: when chipped with pickaxes, it had the appearance of marble, millions of years old.
Siberian children, too, I was soon pleased to see, got their kicks from sliding on ice and attacking each other with snowballs. In the centre of town, I found an ice-chute: the children (alongside their elegant mothers in long fur coats with waists and pleats and Duchess of Windsor hats) spent their Saturdays hurtling down it on their bums with their feet in the air.
A fortnight after my arrival, we were informed on the news about the imminent invasion of more outlandish temperatures. Minus 40 and below loomed. "Have you heard?" people kept asking me, in excitement. "Are you ready for it?" Now when I went to market I found women with their faces wrapped to the eyeballs, standing behind piles of congealed fish, bent and frozen stiff. Ice-cream was sold in unpackaged, naked blobs. For a few days we went around with hats and collars covered in hoar frost.
In these bitterest days, I heard no word in the tram-stations or the bus-stops, just the sound of crunching snow and silence. For a Siberian to admit to feeling cold is as difficult as for an Italian man to admit that he is no good with women. "What?" they would shout. "If you're cold, drink more vodka!"
But we all knew that Irkutsk, unlike Vladivostok, was not suffering from energy shortages. "If our flats are warm and we can make ourselves cups of tea," one woman said, "what do we have to worry about?"
Some people did worry. In the local theatre, I heard of a troupe having to practise their dance movements in giant felt boots. Buses drove about in pairs, in readiness for the extreme likelihood of one of them breaking down during the day. Schools closed. But one teacher told me she liked the cold: "It keeps the delinquents off the streets."
Otherwise, suffering went on in silence. Walking home through the town centre one night with the temperature at -38, I came across a cluster of old women attempting to sell sunflower seeds from little paper cups. They had built a fire from cardboard boxes, which had attracted a few squabbling down-and-outs. Some of these people could not have had a life expectancy of more than a few hours.
But stories of alcoholics found frozen to death on public benches arouse little sympathy in Russia. Daily survival here in wintertime is joyless. If the peace and quiet that I came to find in Siberia was turning out (for a few winos) to be the quiet of the grave, it was hard to find people who cared. I remember wandering home that same evening in my down jacket and ski trousers, admiring the glitter of the snow under brilliant stars.
And now? Here we are already well into March. Daytime temperatures sometimes reach zero degrees and the ice on my windows is gone. Outside, long fur coats are being replaced by short ones. The pavement snow is slowly turning grey and reverting to stones and grit, and I'm still sitting here writing my book. For those who have made it, another Siberian winter seems to be almost over.

Sunday, March 11, 2001

St Petersburg: Russia's imperial city that time forgot

St Petersburg: Russia's imperial city that time forgot

Jeremy Atiyah explores St Petersburg and discovers that little has changed there since the days of the empire

Published: 11 March 2001

St Petersburg is stuck in the past. Eighty-four years after it ceased to be the capital of the Russian empire, it seems unchanged from the city of Rasputin and Tsar Nicholas II. Russia's window on Europe? The show-off, showcase city? The palatial capital to rival Versailles? It is still all of those things. Great news for the tourist - if not for a resident.

Why go?
Even better news is that for the reasonably affluent, St Petersburg is as easy to visit as ever. Continued visa restrictions means day-trippers, backpackers and coach-loads of foreign teenagers are kept at bay. So, if you make it, you will not be forced to share (with millions) your views over frozen canals to neo-classical facades redolent of Pushkin and Eugene Onegin, or to glorious old military barracks, with bile-yellow stucco and white columns, suggesting handsome uniformed officers in one mood and Dostoevsky's nightmare vision in another.

Why now?
As a city of architectural and cultural riches the seasons need not impinge on your trip. That said, winter - when vistas of snow and ice lend character to your photos - is a popular time to visit. Another is the 20 days following 21 June, known locally as the "white nights", when St Petersburg scarcely sees darkness thanks to its northerly latitude, and its residents lose themselves in 24-hour bacchanalian celebrations for days on end.

The mission
To go to Dvortsovaya Square. It is hard to imagine a more historic space in Russia. For here it was, on 25 October 1917, that the "storming" of the Winter Palace by Lenin's Bolsheviks took place (in fact, almost no opposition was encountered). Little, if anything, has changed since then: Alexander's column still towers over all, and the baroque palace continues to dominate the north-west side.
Inside the old palace is the Hermitage Museum. Based on Catherine the Great's private collection, it is one of the great art institutions of the world, and a reason in itself to visit St Petersburg. Even if you don't like paintings, you can appreciate the palace's interior.

Then go to the Russia Museum - somewhat more manageable than the Hermitage - which is confined to the work of locals and probably contains the finest collection of Russian art in the world.

Remember this
Traditionally, all tourists to Russia go to the ballet, and although some will argue that performance standards have dropped, the Mariinsky Theatre (in Soviet times known as the Kirov) still offers a fabulous venue. Unfortunately, tickets for foreigners are no longer outrageously cheap: you'll spend £35 on a half-decent seat. Book a couple of days in advance, or preferably before you leave home. Serious enthusiasts might try Travel for the Arts (tel: 020-7483 4466;

Where to stay
There are various options, from five-star luxury to cosy private home-stays.
Starting at the top, the historic Grand Hotel Europe on Mikhailovskaya ul (tel: 00 7 812 329 6000; has entertained guests including Rasputin and Bill Clinton and is the place to stay if money is no problem.

A few hundred metres down the road - and at the other end of the scale - is the dilapidated but not dirty Oktabrskaya Filial at Ligovsky Prospect 10 (tel: 00 7 812 277 6330). The Filial is, in fact, attached to the slightly more expensive (but good value) Oktabrskaya Hotel.

Ost-West Kontaktservice (tel: 00 7 812 279 7045) can arrange b&b "home stays" in private apartments with local families from about £20 per night: a highly recommended option. A British operator, such as The Russia Experience (tel: 020-8566 8846;, can also set up home-stay accommodation in St Petersburg.

What to buy
Pirated music CDs and computer software - at your own risk; matryoshka dolls; floral-patterned babushka scarves; and loads of cheap vodka.

Eating out
It has to be said that Russia, in general, is not a place you visit for the food. You face a choice between extreme luxury in top hotels, or cheap snack bars serving greasy chicken Kiev for under a dollar. The only sure way of dining well is to stay full board with a family, where you will be overwhelmed by the excellence of local cooking; above all zakuski, small snacks such as salted fish, gherkins, cold meats, salads and caviar, can be washed down with chilled vodka.

But if you insist on going out, options include the Idiot Café at nab Reki Moyki 82 (tel: 315 1675), which serves vegetarian dishes (unusual in Russia), and the dingy but atmospheric Georgian restaurant Tbilisi at Sytninskaya ul 10 (tel: 232 9391), with a menu including khachipuri (cheese-flavoured bread) and tsatsivi (cold chicken in walnut sauce). One of the best-known restaurants is 1913 god at Vosnesenskiy pr 13 (tel: 315 5148), which is not cheap but does serve excellent traditional dishes such as potato pancakes and cabbage soup.

Winter Garden in the Astoria Hotel, Bolshaya Morskaya ul 39 (tel: 210 5906) is very old world and elegant as you would expect from a restaurant in a five-star hotel. The food's not bad either.

Getting about
The St Petersburg metro, like that of Moscow, is one of the most efficient things in Russia. You rarely wait more than three minutes for a train. Buy jettons for single journeys (or multi-ride passes) in the stations. All rides cost a flat-rate equivalent to a few pence. Taxis have become cheaper and safer in recent years. A taxi, in Russia, means any passing vehicle. Stick a thumb out, and one will stop for you. They do not run on meters, but then neither do so-called licensed cabs; make sure you agree a price in advance.

Getting there
Flights from the UK to St Petersburg cost somewhere between £200 and £300. British Airways (tel: 0845 7733377) flies direct. Austrian Airlines (tel: 0845 601 0948), specialises in convenient connections to Russia and often offers the cheapest fares. If you are on a very tight budget, fly with the low-cost airline Buzz ( to Helsinki, and then take an overnight train to St Petersburg. The return train fare is about £70 and it takes about seven hours. For a specialist operator, try Interchange (tel: 020-8681 3612). Three nights start from £441 per person, including return flights, transfers and b&b accommodation, based on two sharing.

Further information
There is no such thing as a friendly Russian tourist board offering information for free. But useful reading includes The Rough Guide to St Petersburg (£9.99).

All visitors to Russia require a visa. If booking a package through an operator, you are advised to leave visa formalities to them. If travelling independently, you will need to buy something called "visa support" from an organisation inside Russia first; many hotels can do this for you, as well as travel companies. After they have telexed the "visa support" to the embassy in London, you can apply to the Russian Consulate, 5 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QS (tel: 020-7229 8027). Two photos, a completed application form and a further £30 is required for five-day processing.

Jeremy Atiyah stayed as a guest of the Grand Hotel Europe, and flew to St Petersburg as a guest of Austrian Airlines.