Iran Trip Report
Trip report North-Iran and Uzbekistan : 4 - 18 September 1997.
After visiting Uzbekistan, some days Kirgizia, one day Tajikistan and one day Turkmenistan in October 1994 as independent birdwatchers (together with my wife Krystyna and friend Bart) , I have been asked by the Belgian/Flemish (Dutch-speaking) tourist organization VTB-VAB (http://www.riv.be/VTB/Lid.htm#reis) to guide a group during 14 days through North Iran and along the famous cities from the Great Silk Road in Uzbekistan.
Maybe a few words to start with. There are many, many interesting species in these two countries. "Unfortunately" the VTB-VAB trip was a cultural trip and not a birding trip. But let me not complain: for guiding and translating the group my trip was total free. And anyway I managed to see some birds !
The VTB-VAB trip was very good organized: a local agency with a guide in Iran and an Uzbek agency with several local guides took us under their wings. All guides were perfectly in French or English language. The Belgian group consisted of 10 people and after a few days I managed to raise their interest for birds, even so much that in Uzbekistan they started to photograph and film the vultures flying over us.
Although this report is - consequently - not a full bird one, I think it's quite interesting, for those who want to visit these countries, to have an idea where to visit what.
On the 4th of September we left Brussels with an Lufthansa flight towards Frankfurt and later on towards Teheran. Being in bed in a very nice room in the Azadi Hotel by 03.30h. couldn't help that the next day I felt quite dizzy. The permanent working airco and the 2.30 hour difference with Brussels were part of the raison. Anyway the next morning with some Hooded Crows C. corone cornix and several European Turtle Dove S. turtur around the hotel the day looked promising. Teheran is a city under construction : due to the war with Iraq and several 'problems' with the US and the EU, foreign investment is rare. Today was just Friday: the holiday for Muslims. Lucky for us, no traffic and all shops closed. We visited the traditional museam: the Archeological , the Carpet and the Glass & Ceramics museum. The last one housed the Egyptian Embassy and is worth to visit.
By the end of the day we took an evening flight from Iran Airways (Airbus) towards Tabriz in the North- West in the province of Azarbayjan-e Sharghi. The arrival was promising : several White Storks C. ciconia and a Little Egret E. garzetta in the river close to the airport made a day, almost without birds, good. Tabriz has a Russian air about it and resembles a Russian provincial town, not so much reminds Iran. The Tabrizis are not known for their hospitality, what we could experience the next day Saturday 6th of September.
After visiting the city with his 15th century bazaar and his Masjed-e Kabud or Blue Mosque we went towards the Turkish border to visit the most interesting and remarkable Christian monument in Iran, the Ghara Kelisa or Church of St. Thaddaeus. A wonderful road, a unique place and the first great birds. Situated in the mountains (some 1000m. high) the church is surrounded with colorful hills. Almost no vegetation and if there are some trees, Lesser Kestrel F. naumanni was sitting in them. Most amazing were that there were still fledglings around the nest. Going back towards Tabriz we made a photo-stop in a Kurdish village: very gentle people and of course the participants made some extraordinary pictures. In the mean time a Imperial/Golden A. heliaca/chrysaetos passed by. The distribution map and the V-flight pattern could suggest a Golden Eagle. With this -no sure- determination we arrived by 21.30h. back in the hotel.
Next day was my longest day ever in a bus : leaving at 06.30h. and arriving at 21.00h. Only a few short stops for a meal and a visit of the shrine of Sheikh Safi-od Din in Ardabil. This 14th-century mausoleum is more than worth to pay a visit. The road towards Ardabil leads over a kind of plateau (which is more humid) and from the bus I could see -this time sure- a Golden Eagle A. chrysaetos and European Bee-eaters M. apiaster. It was very funny because our local guide announced that this area is known for honey. Along the road you can find hundreds of bee-houses and above on roadside wires are the Bee-eaters. As soon as the bees came out they 'attacked'. Good honey, I suppose.
Soon after Ardabil, the Alborzmountains are getting really high and we arrived at a total different Iran. The provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran occupy the coastal belt between the mountains and the Caspian Sea. No-one can claim to have seen Iran without traveling this northern enclave. The two provinces are thickly forested and have a coastal plain (to 100km. wide). From a mountainpass we went down towards the city of Astara (near Azerbaijan) and what was visible (exceptionally green and humid), it started to rain.
Nowadays this coastal area is one of the most densely populated regions in Iran, which resulted in driving slower (and even more longer on the road), but for me quite interesting. Nothing to say to people (they were anyway amazed by the way of driving in Iran), so time for birding from the bus!
Due to the humid climate the main agricultural crop of the region is rice. Rice means water, means birds and yes here they were: Grey Herons A. cinerea, Common Tern S. hirundo, Caspian Tern S. caspia (Jesus, they are big!), and due to not stopping White-winged Black Tern C. leucopterus or Whiskered Tern C. hybrida and also some little plovers. Near the city of Bandar-e Anzali (with a sturgeon/caviar- processing factory, do 'special' gulls like these exclusive products ? ) is the outlet of the Mordab-e Anzali (Anzali Lagoon). A nice inland lake is created. Birds, birds, birds and not allowed to stop. I became so frustrated that I could take any women her chador (the obliged by law full length black dress which covers women's nice "forms" )of. This could cost my sure a year in prison, but then no bus driving in this good birding area.
The arrival of a Night Heron N. nycticorax was for me the sign that there was only another two hours to drive. The grand-luxe class hotel was situated in a palace build by the last shah. He knew where to build: who could blame him for the setting this palace in the thickly wooded hill overlooking Ramsar. Foreigners stopped staying here after the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran ordered to start charging them in dollars (rooms start from 55/60usd).
Next morning, a superb view on the gardens ( a lot of trees and shrubs, could you imagine what's inside them ? ), but we had to go: catching a flight in Teheran at 15.00h.
> From the city of Chalus a mountain-road goes to Teheran. The pass is called Candevhan is about 2200m. high. Close to a few houses several Eurasian Crag Martin H. rupestris have been seen. During this trip the weather changed dramatically : from rain into thick fog. A certain moment about 50 to 60 Common Buzzard B. buteo and Long-legged Buzzard B. rufinus and a few Black Kite M. migrans were trapped by the low hanging clouds. With our bus we were just driving at their height and later higher than them. They had to interrupt their migration and go back towards the Caspian Sea. We not, unfortunately, and arrived on time at Teheran airport. The same evening a plane brought us to Mashad.
Tuesday 9th of September was a day without -almost- birds. This city is used to be known for three things : religion, commerce and tourism. The transit trade with the former USSR and Afghanistan has all but dried up (unless forbidden opium), and tourism has collapsed (thanks to the ayatollah's), the one thing remaining is religion. The city-name means - literally - 'place of martyrdom' with the place of burial of the martyr the eight emam Reza. Very beautiful place, very conservative city, a huge pilgrimage center and no birds. In the evening we left again for Teheran.
The next morning, no breakfast and a flight to Tashkent, started at 04.00h. Leaving in an Tupolev from Iran Airways, we stopped for about an hour in Ashabad (Turkmenistan), to be grilled in a plane from which they stopped the motor, to arrive at Tashkent about 1.0h. local time. After changing from the old to the new airport, a flight with an Iljoesjin (25 passengers) from Uzbekistan Airways we were flying again two hours to Urgench. Time of arrival 18.00h. A day in the air - among birds - but without seeing them ! Lucky near the hotel were several Common Myna (also called Indian Myna, Acridotheres tristis) to spot. And first surprise: they expanded their range dramatically (cfr. Flint in Birds of the USSR). We stayed at the hotel Jaikun, a three star hotel (the best value in town), but it's a common habit to 'throw' with stars in Uzbekistan. Anyway we had, after Iran, all reason to celebrate. The liberation of the women and the possibility of alcohol were only two of them.
Before going the next morning towards Khiva, I made a small walk in the garden of the hotel. An Eurasian Hoopoe U. epops at 4 meter: the day started very well. A bustrip with along the road European Roller C. garrulus and European Bee-eater M. apiaster to the old town of Khiva, what could go wrong today ? Visiting Khiva is stepping right up to the strangest little time-capsule in Central Asia. Although it looks like a medieval town, it's not older than New York. Khiva was in the 18th and 19th centuries the most remote and now the most complete (with Unesco help) of the old Silk Route's oasis cities.
A whole day on foot in a superb old town and this with a French speaking Uzbek guide : a dream after the plane / bus horror. Old towns are in Central Asia the home a several dove species. The Eurasian Collared Dove S. decaocto (which seems to expand also a lot in Central Asia) and the Laughing Dove S. senegalensis are leaving together in the old houses. Surprising was the sound coming from tower of the Pavlan-darvaza (east gate), a resonant ho-bo,ho-bo. After a while appeared a Oriental Turtle Dove S. orientalis, in fact a bird found in various types of forests. Happy about this day, our group went back to the several star hotel for an outstanding try of Uzbek vodka.
On Friday 12th of September we had to take a busride south towards Bukhara. Leaving Urgench a trip through the Kyzyl Kum desert was in front of us. A last stop along the Amour-Dyrja river (the only one who brings a little bit of water to the dying Aral-sea) for a water supply gave me the opportunity to spot some birds: Herring Gull L. argentatus, Lesser Black-Backed Gull L. fuscus and Great Black-Headed Gull L. ichthyaetus were along the river close to some fishermen. Several Barn Swallow H. rustica and House Martin D. urbica migrated southwards. Then into the desert : one road leading towards Bukhara. This road should be better called 'the road of the thousand tyre'. Due to the heat all cars, trucks and buses are loosing their tyre. This is the reason why during summer you should only take this road during the night. After about 2 hours it was our turn: suddenly a lot of noise left in front. No more tyre. Replacing took a good hour. But this was my luck! In 1994 I have been looking -without success- for the Pander's Ground Jay Podoces panderi. This not numerous species is found in desert scrub mostly single. Here thanks to broken tyre I was lucky to see this special bird. Nobody understood that I was unhappy the bus was repaired !
In the afternoon we made a stop at a kind of oases: result several Crested Lark G. cristata, and something like Short-toed Lark C. brachydactyla, although the last one was very quick gone, so I'm not sure of the species. Apart from the Central Asian form of the White Wagtail M. alba, which has a much darker head, a juvenile Bluethroat L. svecica took my attention, instead of drinking water or tea.
The closer we came to Bukhara the more European Bee-eater M. apiaster and sometimes a Blue-Cheeked Bee-eater M. persicus could be seen along roadside wires.
Hotel old-Bukhara, known for not having hot water, is a typically Intourist boring hotel. The hot water was not a problem after the -longer than expected- stay in the desert. Cold water was more than welcome. The restaurant serves good Uzbek salad dishes with meat and cold canned western, in casu Holland beer. The last one you have to pay in USD and two of them is really to much for Holland beer. Try Uzbek wine: for less money better value.
Saturday 13th September: another day on foot in Bukhara. Can you imagine strolling around between a late 9th century mausoleum, a mid-9th century city wall, the in 1127 completed Kalyan minaret and the Mir-a Arab Madrasa (Koran-school, still working today) ? Between all this the already mentioned 'old-town-birds' and as extra the Central Asian form of Great Tit P. major cinereus). The bird is much paler than the one we know. Mark Beaman (Palearctic Birds, a checklist ...) gives the bird also the name Cinereous Tit (rather than Grey Tit removes the need to amend the latter to 'Asian Grey Tit'). Just a day in the life of a guide.
The next day we took the road towards Samarkand, but going by the city of Shahr-e Sabz. Along the road we passed the 5000ha. fenced nature reserve where a reintroduction of the Houbara Bustard C. undulata is going on. In 1994 I had the opportunity to visit this area. Not this time!
On the road towards Shahr-e Sabz several buzzard-like birds migrated. Unfortunately no stop.
At the heat of the day we arrived in Shahr-e Sabz and paid a visit to the so-called White Palace (in fact only the entrance) of Timurlane. Into the left side of the magnificent gate a couple of Common Myna A. tristis is breeding. Their calls are going from maybe ten different whistles over a more scraping cry. The way towards Samarkand brought us along the border with Kirgizia: again the roadside was full with European Bee-eater M. apiaster and more and more Blue-Cheeked Bee-eater M. persicus. Also regular was Eurasian Roller C. garrulus and from time to time a Long-tailed Shrike L. schach. Eurasian Rook C. frugilegus, Brown-necked Raven C. ruficollis and Crested Lark G. cristata were the birds easy to see from a driving bus.
About 18.30h. we arrived in the very good hotel Afrasiab in the center of Samarkand.
Monday 15th of September : visiting Samarkand the city of tales of thousand and one night.
Names like Shak-i Zinda, Bibi Chanim, Gur-e Mir and Nadir Diwan-Begi are making you believing that birds are not important. But being in the evening at Registan, brings you back to the real life. Hundreds of Alpine Swift A. melba are circling around and are looking for a sleeping place in the Chir- Dor medresse. Twice a group from about 30 European Bee-eater M. apiaster passed by on migration. Can you imagine that this was a favorite place for our group, who in the mean time knew that birds are existing.
The next day a visit to Penjikent in Tajikistan was planned. Everything went as planned, our guide waited at the border and after some 5 minutes we were driving into the Independent Republic of Tajikistan. Unfortunately for the people it's no so independent. Due to the civil war and regular some 'influx' from Afghanistan, the country is not so well developed than the other Central Asian neighbor. Already in the streets the missing of daily goods is visible. United Nations is giving them permanent food-help. Although the word 'dollar' found his way also here, and to photograph the ruins of the Pompeii of Central Asia (in the 8th century the Sogdianen founded here a multi-cultural and multi-functional city) it was necessary to pay one dollar (without receipt of course!). In his Kazakhstan/Uzbekistan (25.06-16.07.97) Trip Report, Graham wrote : 'any Westerner is viewed as a potential gold-mine, to be exploited to the maximum extent possible'. Indeed, just keep also in mind that trading and bargaining the habit since centuries is in Central Asia. So, like Uzbeks do for bread (costs 15 zum = 1/6dollar), bargain on your 1 photo dollar. It works! The day was very funny, in the city-park is still a statue from Lenin and a metal wall-plate with Marx, Engels and Lenin on it. When questioning the guide about this, he answered 'we like(d) them'. That's independence. Over our good friends was flying high an eagle, not to be identified. Apart from the Central Asian form of an Azure Tit P. cyanus (seems to be called now Yellow-breasted Tit P. c. flavipectus, I was disappointed: in this nice mountains I hoped for some more birds and sure more time, but back to Samarkand for a free shopping ( ! ! ! ) afternoon.
On Wednesday 17th of September it was already time to think about home: first a bustrip towards the capital Tashkent. Along the road, during several stops some nice bird-surprises: at a place (some higher rocks) called Tamerlan's gate we had a photo-stop. Almost immediately some vultures started soaring. Two Eurasian Griffon Vulture G. fulvus and four Egyptian Vulture N. percnopterus were the top of the day. My tourist non-birders started to film these birds !
Further a female Marsh Harrier C. aeruginosus , a male Pallid Harrier C. macrourus and a Black Kite M. migrans were along the river Syr-Darja. The well known row of White Stork C. ciconia nests near a place called Jizzak. The storks, they left already for even warmer areas. More and more Blue-Cheeked Bee-eater M. persicus were between the European Bee-eater M. apiaster. My cultural lovers started to ask 'what are these greenish birds along the road ?' My task as (bird)guide was fulfilled.
By noontime we arrived at Hotel Uzbekistan in Tashkent and after the x-th time eating plov (an on rice based National dish), we took an in English guided tour of the city. Just this day the prime-minister of Italy was on a visit in Tashkent. Will there be a joint venture between the Uzbek and the Italian Mafia? Anyway I never saw so many police in the streets. After the city-tour we ended our tour with a trip by the beautiful metro. Worth to do and only for 10 zum (1/10 dollar). You can 't even photograph for it !
Back in the hotel, after an evening-meal, the kitchen-staff prepared chicken with pommes frites for the Belgium tourists, (if we do not eat this enough yet in Belgium), everybody could have a rest before leaving somewhere by midnight. Some of the single (men) rooms received strange calls from the floor-lady proposing to see "nice" pictures. You could make a choice and half an hour later the lady (from the picture) can help you to spent the rest of the night. Lucky or maybe unfortunately for some men, we had to leave the hotel by midnight and fly back with Lufthansa towards Frankfurt and later Brussels.
North Iran is worth visiting, especially the Caspian Sea coast. Take your time and some money. Be ready to have regular a police control. I think that the month of May must be the most beautiful in this area. After looking back on my 'bustrip', migration can be very rewarding, I think.
Uzbekistan is cultural a highlight. Between the cities you can find a lot of birds and sure spring is the best moment. Try also the mountain-area near Sachimardan, which we visited in October 1994. On this occasion we saw Little Forktail Enicurus scouleri a species which range is in the Pamir-Altai and the Tien-Shan mountains.
During this cultural trip, Common Myna A. tristis was the only bird who really was very very common in Central Asia, also in the center of the cities. Blue-Cheeked Bee-eater M. persicus and European Bee-eater M. apiaster were the birds by thousands on migration. When I visited Uzbekistan in the first half of October '94, we only saw 10 Blue-Cheeked Bee-eater. What a difference.
As Graham wrote before : " this region offers outstanding cultural attractions together with larger areas of natural beauty ".
Here birding will be in the lift for the future, it will be far from easy but worth the effort.
Good luck to any and all who are prepared to make the effort.