Trailblazer guidebooks provide practical information on specific routes in less accessible parts of the world.
 — Wanderlust

The Silk Roads

The Silk Roads

The Middle East - practical information for the visitor

Contents list | Introduction | Planning your trip | The Middle East - practical information for the visitor | The Silk Road route maps | Sample city guide: Samarkand



The options for following the Silk Road in the Middle East are endless. This book starts in Istanbul before moving on to explore the various Silk Roads in Anatolia and the Syrian Desert, though any number of ancient Mediterranean ports would have been just as appropriate starting points for your trip. The important part is that you physically touch the Mediterranean Sea at some stage before heading east and thus allow yourself the opportunity to cross Asia ‘coast to coast’.
    Ideally, the best route from a historical point of view would take you from Syria to Iran via Baghdad, which was so important to the Silk Road for so long, travelling along the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers (similarly prominent Silk Road landmarks). Unfortunately, this is of course currently impossible. Our main route, therefore, crosses Turkey diagonally, loops through Syria and then heads north-east to the Iranian border, but there are a number of alternatives and we have tried to include as many as we can.
    From Mount Ararat, the journey across the north of Iran is quite straightforward. When you reach Tehran, you can cut north through the Elborz Mountains (through a pass known as the Caspian Gates, see box p85) to the shores of the Caspian Sea, or carry on straight for the holy city of Mashad. Note, however, that not all Silk Road routes stuck to the north. In particular, a number of cities in central Iran became important trading centres and these are also included in our guide.
    If you want to miss out Central Asia altogether, you can make your way to Pakistan from Shiraz (taking a route south of Afghanistan) and rejoin this guide at Islamabad (see p182).
    From Mashad, one branch of the Silk Road carried on east through Afghanistan (see box pp10-11) but the political situation there and the country’s roads (or lack of them) made this impractical if not impossible at the time of writing. Our route, therefore, takes you into the heart of Central Asia, which was just as popular a choice for Silk Road traders, and in Turkmenistan merchants would meet up with others who had come from Tehran via the Caspian.


See pp15-20 for details about visa requirements. Overland visitors are neither Syria’s nor Iran’s favourite type of tourist but the rules and regulations are quite straightforward once you have entered each country. In Syria you will be given an entry card – keep this as you will need it for visa extensions and also when leaving the country.
    Some hotels might take your passport when you check-in to save waking you if there are any police checks but don’t forget to pick it up in the morning! The Middle East is where you will make your biggest savings if you have a student card, as it will halve nearly every entrance fee.

Customs declaration form
The old rules, which meant you had to enter and leave these countries via the same airport or border crossing, have been scrapped. Passing through customs is now a simple procedure, although you may be asked if you have bought any large handicrafts (particularly rugs) when leaving Iran. If an item is very expensive they will tax you for it but otherwise don’t let them bully you as it is legal to take out two rugs and 150g of gold.
    It is, however, illegal to export antiques from any of these countries without government permission. It is also illegal to take alcohol into Iran. You may need to fill in a declaration form or a disembarkation form when entering Iran and Syria, in which case, keep it until you leave.


All three countries are very hot and dry through the summer; indeed, just how dry is a cause for concern because global warming seems to be having a particularly acute effect. Many dams have been built in eastern Turkey as part of a programme to revitalise farming in this region but this has led to increasing aridity downstream, particularly in Syria and Iraq. Eastern Turkey and northern Iran have the advantage of being at a higher altitude, which lessens the ferocity of the heat. In the winter, these same altitudes mean considerable wind, rain and snow (skiing is on the increase here!). Autumn and spring are both very pleasant all over but the Caspian and Black Sea regions can be pretty wet.


What with the numerous bombings in Turkey, war/attacks in the Caucasus, and kidnappings in Kurdish areas, you might be forgiven for worrying whilst visiting the region. The kidnapping of a group of German mountaineers trying to climb Mount Ararat in 2008 is perhaps most significant but most travellers continue to have an incident-free trip. Government travel advice websites (eg in the UK : tend to blanket cover the region and be over cautious, so they are of little help.


Turkey has got by far the most sophisticated network of hotels of these three countries but don’t expect as many options in the east as you will find in Istanbul or the tourist resorts on the coast.
    At the bottom end there are cheap and friendly backpacker hostels in most places (breakfast and free internet are sometimes included and are worth haggling for) and camping is often an option (see box opposite). Some towns also have ogretmenevi, ‘teacher hostels’, where non-teachers are allowed to stay but you will probably need to speak some Turkish to find out where they are and negotiate permission to stay. Things can get really busy in summer so you might want to book ahead (especially in Istanbul). The mid-range is in short supply but what there is gets good reports. The top-flight is really catered for only in the tourist resorts and the capital. If you do want to stay in this type of accommodation it is worth booking beforehand through a travel agent back home or one of the various internet agents – they always get better deals than individuals and sometimes the savings can be substantial, particularly out of season. Type ‘cheap hotels’ alongside the city name into any search engine and all the main players should come up.

Syria has increasingly good accommodation; all budgets are catered for, although camping is not really an option. Prices have sky-rocketed in recent years, but that is mostly because of inflation so in real terms places to stay are still good value.
    The budget end is cheap and cheerful and reminiscent of Egypt’s budget options although, be warned, there are not as many of them here so you may find you need to book a day or two in advance. Single travellers should find plenty of dorm-bed options to keep their costs down. The mid-range is probably the weakest area, so you may well find yourself in the most expensive budget option or the cheapest upper-range. At the top end you might be surprised to learn that Syria has its own four- and five-star chain, the Cham Palaces, which covers all the main cities and sights. While they may not compare to many Hyatts and Sheratons around the world, they are a better choice than their Western-owned rivals here.


Hotel prices in Iran are set by the government and have gone up quite dramatically in the last few years. Despite a drop in the number of foreign visitors recently, this trend shows no sign of abating. Nevertheless, you still couldn’t call the accommodation on offer expensive.
    Like eastern Turkey, Iran’s budget options, particularly dormitories, are aimed at the local market rather than backpackers (and often refuse foreigners because of this) but this is slowly changing. The mid-range tends to be dominated by hotels that were once top of the range but since the Revolution have deteriorated rapidly. The new high-class hotels springing up, however, are impressive and (outside Tehran) not too pricey.
    One thing you might encounter in your hotel room is a large cloth wrapped around a small, round soapstone. The cloth is in fact a prayer mat and Shi’ites place the small stone on the ground in front of them whilst praying so that their forehead will not touch the potentially ‘unclean’ ground. There will often be a mihrab (see box p68) signalling the direction of Mecca.

The road networks in all these countries are impressive, even if the driving skills aren’t, and you will find yourself almost entirely reliant on four wheels to travel from one stop to the next. Bus services between towns and cities are regular and cheap and you shouldn’t find yourself with too many problems. The quality of buses varies: in Turkey all are modern and efficient (with air-conditioning), while in Syria and Iran such buses exist but you must pay a premium. Bus stations (‘otogars’ in Turkey) can be some way out of town but most provide a shuttle bus, ‘servis’, to the centre, ‘centrum’. Finding the right local bus, ‘dolmus’, to take you around town can be difficult.
    In Syria, minibuses and microbuses run alongside most bus routes and can often be quicker and cheaper (if less comfortable).

Taxis and share-taxis
Taxis are cheap in all these countries and although most towns are small enough to walk around you will probably prefer to take a taxi rather than a local bus for the longer hikes. Share-taxis (savaris in Iran) are cars or, occasionally, minibuses which race around/between towns and cities, often duplicating the bus service routes and charging only a little extra.

Cars and motorbikes
Car hire is not a problem in these countries: Hertz is represented by the Cham Palace group in Syria, Turkey has many of the European networks and Tehran has a couple of outlets. Few will want to use this mode of travel, however, because it is expensive and you usually have to return to your start point to drop the car off. Driving your own vehicle (see box below) is possible but can be difficult: once off the beaten track, especially in the desert areas, you would be struggling without a four-wheel drive. Hitching is not very common in the Middle East (see ‘Hitching the Silk Road’, p214).

Theoretically you could do much of this section of the trip by train (see ‘Silk Road by Rail’, box pp8-9) but in reality trains are now used mainly for goods transportation so the passenger service has become so slow and unreliable. For example, the train from Istanbul to Lake Van takes almost two days whereas the bus takes only 24 hours. Nevertheless, the express train between Istanbul and Ankara is excellent and in Iran the line between Tehran and Sari is an engineering marvel. There are also direct trains from Istanbul to Damascus, while the whole Syrian network has been given an upgrade in recent years: it is still not as convenient as the bus system, however.

The distances between stops in Syria and Turkey are so small that they make air travel as unnecessary as they are undesirable for this land-based trip but in Iran, especially if you are taking the side trips to Esfahan and Shiraz, you should seriously consider flying (at least one way). Iran Air has a cheap and efficient internal service linking all its major cities, although it must be said its recent safety record is not great. Bookings can be made at any of the travel agencies we have listed.

Turkey has lots of independent tours and tour guides and your hotel should have plenty of brochures and details. Out of season, though, things do dry up, especially in the east. Travel agencies in Syria and Iran tend to be similar to package-holiday agents in the West and they are usually of little use to independent travellers. They can be invaluable in helping with your visa requirements, though, so we have included some of the better ones in the Damascus and Tehran ‘Orientation and services’ sections. Tourist information offices are not always very helpful (Tehran hasn’t even got one!) but the situation is improving.


Mains electricity supply in these countries is 220V and virtually all sockets take the round two-pin plugs.

Syria and Turkey are two hours ahead of GMT and Iran is an unusual 31/2 hours ahead of GMT. Each country operates the daylight saving system.

In Syria and Iran you will witness the annoying habit of dual-pricing goods and entrance fees with one rate for locals, the other for foreign visitors. There is little you can do except haggle for your life, which can become very tiring and doesn’t always have the desired effect.

Financially, you can treat Turkey like any other European country. It has all the facilities you’ll need. You can change money and travellers’ cheques in any bank and most credit/debit cards work in most ATMs. The black market is therefore redundant and Turkey is pretty cheap.
    The major development to note is that 2005 saw the old Turkish lira (TL) replaced with the new Turkish lira (YTL). This brought much-needed stability to the currency, so much so that it is now referred to as the Turkish lira again and the ‘new’ tag is being dropped, along with the ‘Y’ in YTL.
    There are 1YTL coins; notes come in denominations of 5, 10, 25, 50, 100 and 500. US dollars can be withdrawn from many ATMs, particularly those at Istanbul’s airports or in tourist centres. Prices for hotels and other places to stay are often quoted in Euros rather than US dollars.

Syrian pound notes (S£) come in denominations of 5, 10, 25, 50, 100 and 500. Syria is no longer a difficult country in financial terms, because the Commercial Bank of Syria (CBS) now has links with the outside world and ATMs abound. The only problem is they accept Visa, Cirrus and Maestro but not MasterCard (expect this to be rectified quite soon).
    The US dollar and euro are by far the most accepted foreign currencies and there are plenty of private and CBS exchanges in most towns. Many hotels and tour companies advertise prices in euros and dollars and accept them as payment. Inside Syria it is very difficult to exchange Syrian pounds for any foreign currency.
    Credit cards are increasingly welcome but travellers’ cheques are becoming harder to cash – try CBS branches and in top hotels. The black market is not worth the hassle as it offers only the same as the official exchanges.

Iran’s currency is the Iranian rial but many Iranians work in tomans which is slang for 10rials. There are coins for the small values but you will mainly deal in 100, 200, 500, 1000, 5000 and 10,000 rial notes. Cash advances are unavailable on credit/debit cards as Visa and MasterCard are not accepted in Iran. Travellers’ cheques can be changed at the main Bank Melli branches but you’re unlikely to get a favourable exchange rate.
    It is, therefore, best to have a large supply of US dollar bills but be careful to check your exchange rate. The banks’ official exchange rates are slightly lower than those available from the money exchange kiosks in the street.
    Finally, remember to have enough US dollars in cash to last your entire stay in Iran!

Demanding a tip (baksheesh) is like a religion in Syria but Iran and Turkey are relatively easygoing and you should tip as you would back home.


Where this region is particularly divided is in its communications.

Most of Turkey cannot wait to catch up with the future and even in the more conservative eastern provinces the internet has had a massive impact with internet cafés springing up in every town. Internet access/wi-fi is provided by the majority of hotels.
    The post and telephone networks in Turkey are as good as most European countries and privatisation should bring the exorbitant cost of international calls down (internet cafés often offer cheaper international rates). Most international GSM networks have coverage in Turkey and mobiles are everywhere – if you buy a Turkish SIM-card for your phone, however, beware: they are only compatible with non-Turkish phones for about a month and then go dead (this is an attempt by the providers to make long-term visitors buy a locally sold model).

In Syria, by contrast, the internet was frowned upon until the arrival of Bashir Assad in 2000. That year saw the country finally open its doors to cyberspace and now locals can log on just like everybody else. Well, not quite: internet cafés are more commonplace but downloading is still slow and access is heavily monitored/censored.
    The postal service is notoriously slow but the introduction of phonecards (available at most shops) has helped the telephone network enormously. Mobile phones are on the increase and most international GSM networks have coverage in the big cities. It is easy to buy a SIM card from Syriatel while you are here.
    Syria has a daily English-language newspaper, the Syria Times, but like its Arabic counterparts it is heavily censored.

Iran has taken a similar, if less draconian, approach to that of Syria. The internet is legal but as many cafés seem to close down as open up, mainly because many religious clerics see the whole network as American propaganda and put pressure on the government to prevent access becoming too widespread. Having said that, you should find at least one outlet in each town.
    Iran has a good postal service and a much improved telephone system. Mobile phones are extremely popular but international GSM networks don’t yet cover Iran. International calls are relatively cheap (particularly from an internet café) and domestic calls cost almost nothing.


The main holidays in this region are the Islamic festivals (see box p13) but there are national holidays too. Finding a room at these times can be tough, expensive or both.
    Turkey: The Kurban Bayrami festival lasts for a week in February/March, April 23 is National Sovereignty Day, August 30 is Victory Day, October 29 is Republic Day, November 10 commemorates Atatürk’s death (see box p75) and December 10-17 is the Mevlana Festival.
    Syria: ‘Commemoration of the Revolution’ (March 8), Commemoration of Independence’ (April 17) and Martyrs’ Day (May 6) are the main secular holidays. There is a Silk Road Festival held every year in late September, when Damascus, Aleppo and Palmyra host events along with other cities.
    Iran: February 11 is the anniversary of Khomeini’s rise to power, March 20 is Oil Nationalization Day, April 1 is Islamic Republic Day, June 4 is the anniversary of Emam Khomeini’s death and September 8 is the Day of the Martyrs of the Revolution. There are also various other Shi’ite festivals which move around the calendar and Iran has its own Persian calendar with its own festivals, most notably No Ruz (New Year), which begins on the spring equinox.

Turkey is very open and you will receive a warm welcome wherever you go, although eastern Turkey is home to some of the strongest fundamentalist voices in the country and you should act accordingly. Many there call for the law to be changed to bring back the veil and certainly if you come here in Ramadan (see box p13) you will notice a much stricter observance of Islamic law than in the rest of the country. As a visitor passing through at any other time, however, the only difference you are likely to notice is that here more women wear headscarves (though foreign visitors are not expected to).

English is widely spoken and Western pop music adored (the naffer the better). German is also increasingly spoken because of the number of economic migrants who seek work here. Men should swot up on their football as it will occupy ninety per cent of all their conversations with locals. Women are usually ignored in football conversations and, unfortunately, this is indicative of many Turkish men’s attitude to women. You may also be propositioned or harassed in some of the more touristy areas. Finally, don’t forget you are passing close to the Kurdish heartland of south-east Turkey and if that situation does turn violent once again, beware, as foreign visitors have been prime hostage targets in the past.
    As for Syria, while the Syrian government may not be very popular with its Western counterparts at the moment, the Syrians themselves (like their Lebanese neighbours) have always been considered the friendliest and most welcoming of the Arab nations. Through centuries of extensive trade and travel they have developed a broad understanding of the rest of the world and you will rarely feel ill at ease in this country. There is a massive military presence, however, which can take a bit of getting used to. English is quite widely spoken as is French, although an understanding of Arabic, of course, will help.
    Iran, like Syria, has a very bad reputation in the West but, again like Syria, the Iranian people have always been known for their friendliness and generosity. Most Iranians are well educated (chess is the national pastime) and the high level of sophistication amongst the middle class under the late Shah has largely survived the Revolution (although hundreds of thousands of wealthier Iranians have nonetheless chosen to emigrate). The fundamentalists still hold much of the power and the army takes a firm anti-Western stance but you will not experience any open hostility as long as you operate within the expectations of an Islamic society, especially regarding their dress code (see box p21), and steer clear of any ‘political’ events or gatherings. Women will find Iran quite hassle-free, apart from the obvious clothing restrictions and the fact that women are not expected to make eye contact with men; if you do, you may well find them all staring at you.
    Despite the total ban on alcohol, many Iranians drink and in the big cities a clandestine network allows locals to order beer as we would pizza (the Armenians brew a rough vodka for domestic consumption but most drinks are smuggled into the country from Turkey and Central Asia). Visitors will have little opportunity, however, and anyone caught drinking can get into serious trouble. Recreational and hardcore drugs are an increasingly virulent problem with the vast majority of Iran’s estimated one million addicts living in the capital.
    Many of the Iranians you meet will speak English and nearly all of them go out of their way to help you and be friendly.


These three countries have some of the best and most famous food in the Middle East and few people, even vegetarians, come away hungry, although you will have to spend a bit more money than you might expect if you are to sample the full range of dishes on offer. Almost all the food you eat will be locally produced; Turkey is one of only seven countries in the world that is entirely self-sufficient.
    Street food is everywhere and, as often as not, it centres around kebabs (also called shwarmas), meatballs (kofte) and grilled meats, although the meat in these countries can range from the sublime to the fatty ridiculous. Falafel (balls of fried, spicy, mashed chickpeas) are also popular. Pizza (pide) is also very popular, particularly in Iran.
    The restaurant favourite is meze, which can be a starter or a banquet depending on how many snack-type dishes you order in your ‘mix’. Staple dishes include houmous, tabbouleh, mini cheese-and-spinach pasties (borek), fried chicken livers, olives, stuffed vegetables (dolme) such as aubergines or peppers, shinklish (a devastating cheese), pancakes (golzeme) and lots of fresh salad. Most people fall for meze in a big way as there is something for everyone.
    Most bread is flat bread, freshly baked that day. Along with the fresh fruit and vegetables it usually tastes far superior to your local supermarket’s offerings at home. In Turkey a particularly popular type of bread is the simit; this looks a bit like a bagel but is bigger and covered in sesame seeds. Breakfast usually consists of bread, cheese and honey.
    In eastern Turkey and western Iran there are a lot of stews and hotpots (especially outside the hottest summer months), which make a welcome change, and as you get further into Iran the food changes again. You might not be able to afford the caviar (see box p95) but fish should play a big part in your diet, as will rice and soup.
    The Middle East caters for some of the sweetest teeth in the world and the choice of pastries, biscuits and sugared delicacies has ruined many a good figure and quite a few sets of molars over the years. The choice is endless; simply go to a sweet shop or stall (they are all over the place and are almost sacred) and have a taste of a few of the treats on offer before you buy.


Non-alcoholic drinks
Turks may have introduced coffee to Europe, trading beans from Yemen and Ethiopia, but ‘Turkish Coffee’ is not in fact the national drink. Instead, tea (see p354) is king as Atatürk was keen to promote foodstuffs grown in Turkey in his drive to become self-sufficient (tea is grown in abundance in the Black Sea region). Nevertheless, strong-coffee lovers can easily find a good ‘fix’ when they need one. Almost everybody takes sugar; many place a sugar cube or wafer in their mouth first and then sip. Each country has pleasant variations of flavoured coffees (cardamom is very popular), so enjoy. As well as black tea, green and flavoured tea is increasingly available, many water down their tea as it can be very strong.
    Decent fruit juices are available and will often be freshly squeezed but check before you order. Milkshakes can be equally delicious. All the soft drinks you can think of are here (mostly local brands although international brands are represented too) and once you have tried Iran’s non-alcoholic beer you will be glad to return to them.

Alcoholic drinks

You won’t experience many hangovers in Iran (see p85) but beer and spirits are available in Syria and Turkey. There are quite a few breweries in the region but the dominant brand is the Turkish Efes (twist-off cap). You will come across local wine in Turkey, too, which isn’t that bad (Sarafin is a brand worth looking out for) and, surprisingly, you could even be offered a secretive glass around Shiraz in Iran where the art of wine-making is not quite dead (Shiraz vines are thought to have been first taken to France during the Crusades).
    Local Armenians brew illicit vodka in Iran and Efes beer is regularly smuggled into the country from Turkey but both are best avoided as the risks/punishments involved are too great.

The Silk Roads