From South to North – Ella to Trincomalee

After traveling by train up to now, we rent a chauffeured van. Our driver, Viraj, picks us up in Ella. Then it’s back to Kandy, this time by road.

We stop for lunch in Nuwara Eliya, also known as ‘Little England’.

The weather certainly resembles the UK

With the rain of the past few days, the rivers are swollen. We pass several dramatic waterfalls.

From high above, the river steadily plunges…’ – Li Po

Back in Kandy for a single night. Next morning, we set out for Sirigiya.

Kandy Lake from above

Most signs in Sri Lanka are in Sinhalese, Tamil, and English.

We visit a spice garden. This is what nutmeg looks like before it’s ground up and sold in a little bottle.

Alien parasite?

Lunch means stopping for Sri Lankan fast food.

Our destination is the cave temple of Dambulla. Bare legs are not allowed, so Pete and I don some makeshift sarongs.

In search of Right Mindfulness

This temple complex dates back to the first century BC.

I make friends with the temple cat. Buddha taught that all sentient beings, including those in the animal realm, possess Buddha nature and therefore can attain enlightenment.

Provide just protection and security for … beasts and birds.‘ – from ‘The Noble Duties of a Wheel-Turning Monarch’, Cakkavattisīhanāda-sutta (DN.26)

There is a calm tranquility about this place. Maybe because it’s not peak tourist season.

Floating floral offering in a pleasant arrangement

The caves contain amazing murals on the walls and ceilings.

We spend the night at the Nature Park Villas near Sigiriya. It’s nice.

Green Party

First thing the next morning, we drive to Sigiriya.

A sign reminds would-be vandals and looters what awaits them in graphic detail.

You have been warned

There is no escalator. Just lots and lots of steps.

The halfway point

You get a great view from the top.

We try to spot our van in the parking lot far below.

Eventually, we make our way down.

The dandu lena, or grizzled giant squirrel, is considered by many Sinhalese to be the national animal of Sri Lanka. But it’s not official.

Lunch time
This dandu lena contemplates his Buddha nature while eating a potato chip.

The next stop is Anuradhapura. This was the capital city of the first established kingdom in ancient Sri Lanka, founded in the fourth century BC.

The sights in Anuradhapura are quite widespread. Good thing we have Viraj to chauffeur us around. First we go to the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi temple.

This contains a tree supposedly grown from a cutting of the tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment.

This temple has an intricately-carved ‘moonstone’, or sandakada pahana.

From a different angle.


Many people bring offerings.

There are many langurs around. Judith sees a young one sneak up to a sleeping dog and pull its ears before racing away, proud of its mischief.

A langur hogs the water fountain

Maria takes a surreptitious photo of some praying ladies…

…while I bore Judith with some pedantic blather

The massive stupa of Ruwanwelisaya is undergoing restoration.

Gargantuan scaffolding project

A monk walks away from the enormous Jethawanaramaya stupa. It’s surrounded by a red sash because a part of a sash or belt tied by the Buddha is believed to be the relic that is enshrined here.

While wandering around, we are fortunate to see two hornbills land in a tree.

An example of early water management.

Kuttam Pokuna

A mystery – we come across a pair of concrete blocks, each containing 20 squat-type toilets. The toilets are uncomfortably close together, even by Asian standards. Whatever can it all mean?

Looks like an installation from the Tate Modern

Sight or Insight of the Day

Now and then, we see electric fencing by the roadside, meant to keep elephants off the road. We imagine how great it would be to see some. (Elephants, that is.)

Sure enough, as we drive towards Trincomalee at dusk, we see a few vehicles pulled over. Out in the field, two elephants leisurely graze.

Pachyderms in the pasture

Seeing wild elephants is always like being present at the dawn of time.

Ella Means ‘Waterfall’

We take the train from Kandy to Ella. We almost don’t make it – we are issued tickets for the wrong date. In the end, Maria saves the day.

Ride on the Peace Train…’

It’s a five or six hour journey.

Schoolgirls on the tracks

The cars are comfortable enough.

Second-class passenger

We journey through Sri Lanka’s hilly tea country.

Tea-pickers at work

Sri Lanka Railways has been serving the country since 1864.

Ghost of an old train

It’s a rainy day in these hills.

We arrive in Ella. Our hotel looks out on the mountains.

Afternoon coffee

A short hike brings us to the Nine Arch Bridge.

Not all those who wander are lost‘ – J. R. R. Tolkien

The bridge soon comes into view.

We look down into the valley.

This bridge attracts all types of locals and visitors.

A motley crew

Maria does her ‘Damsel in Distress’ imitation.

From the days of silent film

A coconut vendor offers refreshment.

I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts…’

Next we hike to Little Adam’s Peak.

Also surrounded by tea estates.

More tea-pickers at work.

Tea bags

Sight or Insight of the Day

Maria, Pete, and Judith attend a Sri Lankan cooking class in town.

Potato curry in the making

The raw ingredients.

The instructor promises to reveal a useful website for further Sri Lankan recipes. They’re all ears. ‘Now take this down – w-w-w-dot-g-o-o-g-l…’

He has a sense of humour.

The alumni, Class of 10-23-2019

Kandy Part II

Our first dinner in Kandy. We sample kuttu roti, a mixture of roti (flatbread) pieces cooked on a flat iron skillet with chopped veggies and meat, seasoned with spices, ginger, garlic, and soy sauce.

Cutlery is optional

It’s delicious.

Next morning, we take a bus down Kandy’s main thoroughfare, Peradeniya Road.

Bus fare is 14 cents Canadian

One of Kandy’s star attractions – the Botanical Gardens – is at the end of this road.

Our Time in Eden

I test the strength of some conveniently hanging vines

Swing time

There are thousands of flying foxes in the trees. They chatter and quarrel and flap their wings. Some fly from tree to tree. Pretty active for nocturnal creatures.

Strange fruit

This is a giant Queensland Kauri.

Agathis robusta, homo sapiens

All kinds of interesting flora and arbusta.

A tree without roots is just a piece of wood.‘ – Marco Pierre White

A red-faced monkey steals Maria’s package of biscuits while she takes a photo in the other direction.

Macaque attack

Maria’s outage is softened when we see that the monkey has a little one.

Sight or Insight of the Day

In the afternoon, it’s time for a visit to a tea plantation. Geragama tea estate is just a tuk-tuk ride away.

Pete and Judith examine the goods

This estate was founded in 1903. There are plenty of teas to choose from.

The variety is tea-rrific

Ceylon, Serendip, Sri Lanka

It’s all the same place. We fly from Delhi to Colombo, Sri Lanka.

The next day, our friends Pete and Judith arrive, after a grueling flight from Canada via London.

Welcome to Sri Lanka!

We stay in Negombo, a beach town that is closer to the airport than Colombo and a good place to recover.

Negombo Beach

Negombo is pretty low-key in comparison to the average urban tropical beach.

Except for the odd trinket-vendor, and the odd stray dog, the beach is pretty empty at this time of the year.

We watch the sun go down over the Arabian Sea

We have not seen each other in a long time.

Shiny, Happy People

Kandy is our first destination. It was the last capital of Sri Lankan royalty.

Kandy, Kandy, Kandy, I can’t let you go…’

There are still a few colonial structures around. Like the Queen’s Hotel.

Queen’s Hotel, Kandy

After arriving on the train, we make our way to our hotel.

Maria and Judith share a tuk-tuk

First stop is the Temple of the Tooth.

Also known as Sri Dalada Maligawa

At the entrance, floral offerings are sold.

Say it with flowers

The actual tooth is in here. According to Wikipedia:

The tooth relic is encased in seven golden caskets, which are engraved with precious gemstones.’

We don’t actually see the tooth

We watch the acrobatic monkeys leap from fence to tree.


The floral offerings on sale at the entrance? They end up here, at the upper level of the temple.

The afternoon monsoon rain drives us inside, where we rest on the marble floor.

It’s hip to be square

People light butterlamps, a Buddhist tradition.

Looks like my last birthday cake

Sight or Insight of the Day

We take a train from Colombo to Kandy.

We begin traveling into the hills.

We look forward to a longer train trip from Kandy to Ella.

Mashad to Tehran

From Isfahan, we fly to Mashad on a McDonnell Douglas aircraft that was built in 1994. I can’t remember the last time I saw an MD civilian aircraft.

Mashad contains the Shrine of the Eighth Imam. Once again, Maria has to go full chador to enter.

Is it hot in here, or is it just me?

In nearby Tus, we visit the tomb of Ferdowsi.

Ferdowsi’s work means a lot to Iranians. At a time when Arabic was in the ascendant, he’s seen as a major bulwark in the preservation of the Persian language.

Saeed and I admire the artwork inside

As is usual here, the tomb is surrounded by beautiful, well-kept gardens.

Tourist and poet
I’ve downloaded this onto my IPhone

Next we visit Nishapur. This was one of the greatest cities of the middle ages before the Mongols slaughtered everyone in town in 1221.

They came to a bad end

Part of the old town is being excavated.

Our little band of travelers watch the sun go down at the edge of the Chahjam Desert.

Denis, Maria, Saeed, Justin

A herd of camels crosses our path.

Midnight at the oasis, send your camel to bed

After a night in Shahrud, we visit the shrine of Bayazid Bastami, another Sufi mystic.

The Bayazid Bastami tomb

People come here to pray.

Sheep wandering on the road are an occasional hazard.

All we, like sheep, have gone astray…’

Another nearby shrine is that of Abul Hassan Kharaqani, another Sufi master. Must be something in the water around here.

The tomb is surrounded by beautiful carpets and plants.

A four-wheel-drive vehicles takes us to the Abr Forest. We’re more impressed with the rocky hills than the forest.

Note the shepherd’s hut down the hill

Our 4WD driver insists on a group photo. We acquiesce.

Apparently, this is where saffron comes from. (I can’t vouch for the truth of this.) Iran is the largest producer of saffron in the world. (This is true.)

There are many oaks up here, stunted by the wind.

The next day dawns cold, windy, and rainy. We take a small motorboat out to an island in the Caspian Sea. On the island is a factory that processes caviar and sturgeon.

Bit of a change from yesterday

We fly from Gorgan back to Tehran. Next morning, our first stop is the superb Carpet Museum of Iran.

Doormat for a Shah

We are struck dumb by the beauty and skill of these carpets. Some of them must contain a million individual knots.

This may look like I’m practicing my bent-old-man-with-a-walking-stick look, but I am in fact examining details of this replica of the Pazyryk Rug.

The original is now in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg

Our last stop before the airport is the Azadi Tower, Tehran’s chief landmark.

The architect, Hossein Amanat, is a Bahá’í and now lives in Canada after fleeing the new regime under threat of death.

From the top, we take our last look at Tehran.

Eventually, it’s time to drive out to the airport.

Sight or Insight of the Day

We bid a sad goodbye to Saeed and Justin at Imam Khomeini Airport.

Three weeks goes by very fast. We have had a very special time here, exploring the country together.

Iran reminds me a lot of Chile in the 1980’s: Chileans are probably the friendliest, best-educated people in South America, yet they suffered under a brutal military dictatorship. I wondered at the time where they found the people to staff their torture cells: most people were so nice.

Iran is similar – a civilized, generous people being ruled by a handful of monstrous theocratic despots and their protectors, the Iranian equivalent of the SS: the Revolutionary Guard. Ruled by people who don’t care if the entire country suffers under sanctions, Hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons at any cost, for God-knows-what purpose. And don’t get us started on the crime-against-humanity that is the subjection of women under this unholy regime.

To counter the image that Iran has abroad, as a nation of terrorist-supporting maniacs, it’s a good thing to come here and experience the rich history and beautiful landscape and startling honesty of the Iranian people. (In contrast, in our first day back in Delhi when out running some short errands, Maria is cheated, short-changed, and overcharged five times in the space of one hour.)

And this is despite the grotesque propaganda that is the sole offering on most Iranian media. Foreigners are often portrayed as – at the very least – ‘evil’ (and Israelis as positively Satanic). We have the best of wishes for the future of the Iranian people. Thanks for your warm hospitality.

‘Isfahan is Half of the World’

After a few days driving in Saeed’s car, we come to Isfahan.

There’s a Persian pun and proverb that says ‘اصفهان نیمی از جهان است’, that is, ‘Esfahān nesf-e- jahān ast‘: ‘Isfahan is half of the world’.

It may very well have been a few centuries ago, when Isfahan was one of the largest cities in the world.

Isfahan’s main attraction is the astounding Naqsh-e Jahan Square in the middle of town. The anchor of this square is the spectacular Shah Mosque.

If the Taj Mahal is the Taj Mahal of mausoleums, this must be the Taj Mahal of mosques. It’s so grand and overwhelming that we can’t capture it in a single photograph.

‘Shah mosque’ translates to ‘Royal Mosque’

The exterior and interior are richly decorated with thousands of brilliantly-coloured tiles and calligraphy.

The inner courtyard

You could pack 10,000 worshipers in here.

The mihrab points to the direction of Mecca.

The scale of the complex, with its couple of madrasas and a winter mosque (whatever that is), is mind-blowing.

We recover from having our minds blown

Around the square are many shops for souvenir-hunters.

‘How much is that narghil in the window?’

An Isfahan specialty is qalamkar (spelling varies in English). Cotton cloth is decorated with wooden block prints, like in Rajastan. The finished product is very beautiful and colourful.

This is the view of square from the Ali Qapu palace, the dwelling of Shah Abbas I.

Naqsh-e Jahan Square described…

Across the square is the Shah’s private mosque.

The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque

The supporting columns of the palace verandah roof are single timbers of cedar from Lebanon.

There are Western-style paintings for the enjoyment of Western visitors to Shah Abbas.

We cross the square to see the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, the private mosque of Shah Abbas I.

Just a small mosque for family and friends…

Again, there are many representative-type paintings of human figures. Not strictly Islamic, but OK in the royal view, safe from the pious masses.

We’re going to – party, karamu, fiesta, forever…

Sight or Insight of the Day

The Khaju Bridge is where we spend the end of the afternoon. It spans the Zāyanderud, which means ‘life-giving river’.

It’s a real ‘people place’. Families and young people hang out, have picnics, sing and dance. Away from the disapproving eyes of the Mullahs.

Some just relax in the coolness of the arches

One family insists we participate in their family photo.

We take advantage of our celebrity status

Then it’s time to drive out to the airport and catch our flight to Mashad.

The Road to Isfahan

From Kerman, we continue up the road. In the village of Fahraj is one of the oldest mosques in Iran.

Jameh mosque – around 1,400 years old

It has that plainness of most early-period religious buildings, before they turn into palaces.

Maria takes a load off

Next stop is Meymand village, where people live in caves.

Meymand village

There is an underground mosque.

The women’s section is on the other side of the hanging sheet

Reminds us of Matmata in Tunisia.

Bedrock East

We have been traveling in Saeed’s car since Shiraz. Back on the road, we greet a truck full of friendly field workers.

Daily we are pleasantly surprised by the friendliness and welcoming attitude of Iranians. Good thing we have Saeed with us: everyone is curious about how we find Iran, but few people speak English.

Arriving at the Zeinodinn caravanserai, where we spend the night. Caravanserais were inns – located about 30 KMs apart – where travelers would spend the night.

Holiday Inn

It’s on the old Silk Road.

We are told merchants would keep their goods on the central platform

This is the corridor lined with rooms.

The camel stables are elsewhere

Next day, we arrive in the desert city of Yazd.

Another Jameh Mosque

Like many desert places, it’s pretty conservative.

Two Mullahs went into a bar…

Zoroastrianism has a visible presence in Yazd. Zoroastrianism was the religion of all classical Persia before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century.

Yazd fire temple

Inside is a fire said to have been burning since 470 AD. It was first lit in the time of the Sassanian Empire.

An old flame

Close to town are two Towers of Silence, where Zoroastrians used to expose their dead.

Also known as a Dakhma

From the top, you get a good view of Yazd.

We attend a session of zoorkhaneh, which is part sport, part exercise, part theatre, part religious ceremony.

Mens sana in corpore sano

Maria dons an obligatory chador when we visit the Shazdeh Fazel shrine.

We visit the water museum. Of course, water has always been a concern in the arid parts of Iran.

Down to the well

In the heat of the afternoon, the Dowlat Abad Gardens beckon.

The tower is a windcatcher. Many buildings in Yazd have them.

Next day, we stop in the town of Varzaneh to see the old bridge.

Varzaneh Bridge

There’s also an ancient pigeon tower.

The interior is remarkable.

In days of yore, the dung was collected and used on the fields.

Sight or Insight of the Day

Across the street from our hotel in Yazd is a girl’s school.

The self-effacement begins early

It’s difficult to understand the motive for the startling difference between what men can wear (virtually anything) and what women and girls can wear (the more concealing, the better).

This is taken from an Iranian talk show on the TV in our room.


You can barely hear the poor woman’s mumbled responses.

Desert Places

After a day visiting Persepolis and Pasargadae, we stay in a small local place (the Ojagh e Seyyed Karim Inn) in the village of Saadat Shahr. It’s run by a family of friendly women.

Room and board

We’re treated to an impromptu concert from Saeed and a fellow guide.

The next day, we drive to the Lut Desert.

On the way, we pass through Rafsanjan. Rafsanjan is a major centre for the production of pistachios.

Pistachios fresh off the bush for sale

We see some nomads along the road.

Born to be wild

On arrival, we stay in an oasis.

Date palms at sunset

The accommodation is in tents, but they’re pretty snazzy. And fully air-conditioned: this is one of the hottest places on Earth.


The village of Shahdad is the last village before the desert. We stop to check out its arg. This may sound like pirate-speak, but an arg is a fortress-like structure. There are many in Iran.

There are women selling crafts at the entrance. We purchase a beautifully-embroidered Tree of Life.

Maria and the maker

We continue into the desert and see these formations called kaluts.

We come across a pair of camels waiting patiently. No sign of their caretaker.

We love deserts. We can barely contain our enthusiasm.


Lots of wide open spaces as we drive to Kerman.

In Mahan, we go to the shrine of Shah Nematollah Vali, a 14th-century Sufi mystic.

Beautiful gardens

People in Iran are so honest. When we are unsure of what things cost, we hand over our wallet and the merchant delicately extracts the exact amount and hands the wallet back. This is very different from India.

(Money can be confusing here: besides a lot of zeros, costs are sometimes in rials and sometimes in tomans.)

‘Welcome to Iran!’

We have lunch at the lush and lovely Shazdeh Garden.

Desert? What desert?

We make another stop in Reyan to explore the fortress there.

Notice my new hat – the fourth for this trip so far. I left my latest one on the plane to Calcutta.

Kid with a new lid

The city is at least 1,000 years old. People were living in it up to 150 years ago.

Looks like a biblical city

It’s a great place to simply wander around.

Denis, Maria, Justin, and Saeed
View from the walls

Near Kerman, we pass through some very Australian-looking scenery.

Sight or Insight of the Day

We see this unlikely sight in the village of Shahdad.

Maria clowns around the mystery jet

Near the oasis that we stay at is this BAE jet aircraft incongruously parked – well, in the middle of nowhere. It looks like it just landed, but there are no runways around that we can see. We try to wrangle an explanation from locals. One says it was ‘landed here by a crazy pilot’.

Shiraz & Persepolis

In Tehran, Justin from New Zealand joins our little group. We take an overnight train to Shiraz.

Tehran train station

The train is one of the most comfortable we’ve been on in a long time.

On track
Persian sunset

Early next morning, we arrive in Shiraz.

Saeed is happy because Shiraz is his home town – he gets to see his family.

We enjoy a breakfast of local bread and ‘ash‘ (pronounced ‘osh’ as in ‘OshKosh B’gosh’.

Saeed calls this Shirazi comfort food

First stop is the Nasir-ol-molk mosque.

Nasir-ol-molk mosque

It’s famous for its stained-glass windows, which tourists love to photograph.

Nasir-ol-molk mosque, secular side

The unlit side is where the serious praying gets done

Nasir-ol-molk mosque, pious side

The streets are alive with commerce.

Pots shot

The Qavam House has a beautiful garden. Gardens are a Persian specialty.

The alleys provide shelter from the sun.

Ye Shoppe of Old Photographs

We go for a stroll in the the UNESCO-listed Eram Garden.

Shiraz is the home of our tour company, Pars Tourist Agency. We drop in to meet the people Maria has been in regular email contact with for two months.

Denis, Maria, the wonderful Aliye, our traveling companion Justin, and Roya

We come across the Vakil Mosque.

The courtyard is burning hot.

Carpets drying in the courtyard

But it’s refreshingly cool inside.

Most Iranian mosques are covered in colourful tiles. Easy to see where the carpet patterns come from. Or maybe it’s the other way around?

Tree of Life

We visit the mausoleum of the poet Hafez, one of Shiraz’s most famous sons.

O Beloved, upon this river of wine, launch our boat-shaped cup…’ – Hafez, Ghazal No. 377

He would be disappointed by the absence of wine in modern-day Shiraz.

Sight or Insight of the Day

I’ve had a lifelong interest in visiting Persepolis. I can now cross that off my bucket list.

Approaching Persepolis

It’s constructed from house-trailer-sized blocks of stone.

Alexander the Great is supposed to have burnt it down in 330 BC. What remains brings to mind the poem Ozymandias.

‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ – Percy Bysshe Shelley

The main gate has fascinating graffiti from the past.

Early 19th century graffiti
Remains of doorways
Tomb in the cliffside

Up the road at Pasargadae is the tomb of Cyrus the Great.

‘… the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm…’ – Ezra 1.1

This pillar from his palace reminds us of the monolith in ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey‘.

Three lullabies in an ancient tongue for the Court of the Crimson King

Inscribed on the pillar is ‘I am Cyrus the king, an Achaemenid’ in Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian.

Welcome to Tehran – به تهران خوش آمدید

We board our Oman Air flight in Delhi for Tehran, via Muscat.

This is what Oman looks like from the air.

Man, Oman

We are greeted by the jovial Saeed, our guide for the next three weeks. On the way into town from Imam Khomeini Airport, we pass the mausoleum and shrine of the great man himself.

Final resting place of the the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

Tehran looks like Manhattan in comparison to the post-nuclear apocalypse appearance of Indian cities.

There are street signs and clean sidewalks, well-kept boulevards, plentiful trees and parks. And lots of carpets.

What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists?’ ‘In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.‘ – Woody Allen

Our hotel is near Ferdowsi Square. Ferdowsi is the Persian poet and author of the Shahnameh.

Mural of an episode from the Shahnameh

People in Iran are very welcoming and generous. While strolling through Laleh Park, we meet this friendly couple who offer us tea and sweets.

Tea with Ali and Ghazal

We discover that many people are like this here. Iranian honesty and openness is a refreshing change from the daily harassment and hustling we experience in the last few months.

We visit the National Museum of Iran.

Frieze of a shah
Bull capital from Persepolis

This gold cup is interesting. Decorated with three lions in single file, the heads are riveted onto the body for a 3D effect. It’s from the Necropolis of Kalardasht, near the Caspian Sea.

Approximately 3,000 years old

We also drop in on Golestan Palace.

Tehran is an interesting blend of old and new.

Bright lights, big city

There are many inspirational billboards throughout Tehran.

We go up the Milad Tower for a panoramic view of the city.

So that’s it – a quick roundup of our arrival in Iran.

Sight or Insight of the Day

We visit the former American embassy, now a museum since its liberation by Iranian students.

Nest of spies

It’s interesting to see historical events from a different perspective.

Broken-into secure filing cabinet containing heinous documents

And to think we once thought of Ken Taylor and his exploits as heroic!

The souvenir shop is full of improving literature.