Thursday, 24 June 2010

Esfahan to Yazd and Back to Tehran - Three Sleeps 'till India

I hope the photos told some of the story in the last post and made up for the lack of words. Iran is a tough country for the blogger, but not for the reasons you might think. There is simply just too much happening each day to record, and faced with so many quickly fading memories of different sights or encounters the pressure to do them all justice and get them down for posterity overwhelms and I end up writing nothing. Even just to pick out highlights seems unfair and, really, they are all highlights.

However, in list-form, the time had passed like this:

Woken from midday slumber on roundabout to spend the rest of the day and night with another bunch of students in Natanz. More great hospitality from an endlessly kind and interesting bunch of young Iranians. The complexities of girlfriend trouble, the looming prospect of military service, the complete lack of freedom to travel outside of the country.

The criminalizing of everyday acts. In the UK I'm not the most confident of guys when it comes to approaching women, but there was one - nameless and uncontactable and forever resigned to being a memory - who exhibited such sheer beauty that I had to do something. After an hour of sneaking glances and smiles I left my comrade answering the usual questions with an over friendly fat man and made my move. Over the following hour of phrasebook conversation I thought on a number of occasions I was going to get into trouble. A number of people approached the girls (now 4 of them) in an unfriendly manner and got feisty responses - despite my constant searching for reassurance (and the reassurance offered due to the worried look on my face) I got the impression that these 4 young women shouldn't be talking with us 2 young foreign men, or us unrelated men full stop. After their twentieth meerkat-esque look at passing motorbikes and potentially uniformed men we bid hasty and distant farewells. I can console myself with the fact that my atheism would have prevented the relationship progressing any farther anyway. She remains on my mind though.

Endless intrigue. Simply sitting and reading a book is not an option in Iran. Many times I've woken up from a doze in a park or lowered my book to see 5 or 6 people standing over me eager to chat. Walking 20 yards from a teahouse to another park spot saw me stopped at 3 or 4 times for photos. Often it is the same few questions asked - where are you from, where are you going, what is your job - but almost always it is followed up with 'what do you think of Iran'? I think they are the most self-conscious nation, and understandably so.

Endless kindness. As I mentioned before, the minefield of Taarof can be tricky to negotiate, but within or aside from that the level of generosity shown to foreigners, and 2 smelly, dirty cycling ones at that, is astounding. Riding through the desert, rather bizarrely in a rain-, thunder- and sand-storm, we stopped for water at a petrol (actually CNG) station. Within minutes a young lady approached proffering a plate of cherries and plums. Not to be outdone, a truck driver followed with 2 bunches of grapes. Clearly feeling left out, the station attendant returned with a cantaloupe. Nope, not enough. 30 seconds later half a watermelon was added to the pile. We briefly considered opening up a stall but decided to scoff what we could and have the rest for pudding. Sitting in the desert, pitch black, topping off a hearty tagliatelle with a still-cool melon was like heaven for us.

Whilst I was stopped to record my passing of the 5000 mile mark a car pulled up and handed us cake and juice. We rarely leave after a midday rest without having been bought ice cream or handed something from a family's picnic basket (and the Iranian picnic basket is surely the world's best - they take it seriously, though not a sausage roll in sight...).

Approaching the 60 mile mark around midday after a 0530 wake-up to beat the heat of the day, which has so far topped out at 47 C, we noticed we were being followed by a man on a motorbike. I found this a bit annoying as his spluttering engine was spoiling the small amount of peace that the desert was temporarily providing (peace is very rare on the roads here). Eventually he passed and made the universal gesture for food and to follow him. We did, I reluctantly; I'd gotten through the riding with thoughts of relaxing under a tree with a new book - my life has simplified that much - and the thought of having to work hard at conversation over lunch didn't appeal this time. However, 20 hours later when we were leaving our new friend's house the following morning I was so happy to have gone along with Adam's insistence. Our new friend lived in a tiny village in the middle of the desert, surrounded by very big guns. He and his wife are bakers and work out of their garage. They had 3 lovely children - 4, 9 and 16, and many, many friends and family who passed through the house in that time. There is no way I can cover everything that went on or thank them enough for their kindness. We ate one of their chickens (killed in front of us), we drank their sheep's milk, we put away gallons of their tea along with a few lbs of sugar (you drink it with the sugar cube in your mouth here). We were the subject of intrigue but also treated as equals. We were fussed over but also left alone. We slept under the stars among cushions and blankets in their courtyard. It was hard to leave these lovely people, but I hope they realised how great a time we had.

We have just arrived back in Tehran after 3 days in the desert city of Yazd. I could have spent a few weeks at the Silk Road Hotel. Pure, relaxing luxury for only $7 a night! Admittedly I didn't see as much of the city as I should have - a downside of the fatigue of having pedaled 5000 miles to get somewhere and staying at a place with day beds surrounding a shady courtyard inhabited by lots of interesting people - but the narrow mud-brick lanes of the old city dating back 7000 years and the sun setting behind the 'Towers of Silence', the place where the Zoroastrians would place their dead to be picked clean by vultures, were quite special.

The trip has now officially been broken by the 10 hour bus ride, though not yet in a easterly direction. Indian visas are secured - 60 days and 2 entries, perfect - so all that remains is to arrange for the bikes to be packed up and hope that we have enough rials left for excess baggage. Talk of more bombings and shootings in Pakistan, as well as the 65 degree C temperatures on the way and the uncooperative police and military escorts are preventing me from being too upset about the enforced airborne stage, but talk of the ever burgeoning traffic in India and the coming of the monsoon rains, as well as knowing from experience what a crazy, attention grabbing place India is, are still keeping my mind active over what lies ahead.

As hard and tiresome as this trip can get sometimes, the idea that from waking up in the morning almost anything has the potential to happen is quite thrilling and I'm sure will keep me going. 

The next stops on the way are Amritsar, where we land on Monday, then the home of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, down to Delhi, along to Varanasi and up to Kathmandu in Nepal, where yet more geopolitical uncertainties will determine the onward route - Tibet, China, Bangladesh?

(Photos to follow).

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Tehran to Esfahan - Hot, Tough and Beautiful

Imam Square in Esfahan - 'Half of the World'

Tea Under Si-o-Se Pol Bridge

More Tea and Qeylan Overlooking the Square

Chadors in Jameh Mosque

Chilling Out at the River - So Much Attention

Our Tour Guide and Photographer

Mr. Ayatollah

Ali, The Man

Tobacco-Free, Honest

Desert Camping

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Iranian Hospitality - Words Can't Describe

Iranian Symbols - Khomeini and Blue Zamyad

Orchard Camp

Company for Lunch

For my Mum!

Company Again...

Fed, watered, tead


Pastries passed from a moving car!

Afshin and the Engineers - The Best Hosts

Most people say that their conceptions of Iran are completely blown apart after visiting it. Unfortunately I spoilt the surprise by reading so many reports back in the UK that I knew exactly what to expect, and forthcoming it most certainly was.

There was a beautiful contrast - riding the road through Kurdistan from the last town in Turkey to the Iranian border we were savagely ambushed by, well, some 8-12 year old shepherds. Now that may not sound too scary but when they have sticks with nails in, big scary dogs and no one to discipline them within 10 miles it's not an ideal situation. Following stick/bike contact my Aussie counterpart chose the direct approach and chased after then with a quite terrifying volley of swear words and suddenly they were just scared children. Another guy who rode the same road and faced the same encounter nailed them with pepper spray, hah!
Compare that with the first 50 miles in Iran where we were instead forced to fend off offers of tea and picnics that would have seen us stopping every 20 minutes, and over enthusiastic drivers eager to chat whilst negotiating roundabouts, and you can see why I'm happy to be here.

At the border the Iranian contrast began - I was led away by police to be fingerprinted (twice), a special treat just for the British, after having been offered a place to stay with the very first Iranian we spoke to. The government and the people are such separate entities in the most part, but unfortunately our views are shaped by the news that reflects on the government and not the people. I will limit my mention of the G word now until I'm safely across the border. You never know...

We've been here for almost 2 weeks now with non-stop riding from Turkey to Tehran. The capital city is madness and our trips to the British, Australian, Pakistani and Indian embassies have been both exhilarating and terrifying. It's not much better on the back of a motorbike or even in a taxi. Crossing the road is a real life game of Frogger with only one life.

Iran will be where the continuity of the bike ride ends for me. Having pedaled every inch from The Netherlands to Iran I've been refused a visa for Pakistan - the vital link overland to India - so will be getting as far east as Yazd or Bam in Iran before returning to Tehran to catch a plane to the west of India at Amritsar. Owing to time, equipment, knowledge and visas the northern Turkmenistan/Uzbekistan/Tajikistan route is not much of an option so will be saved for another time.

Owing to the visa here we only have about 17 days left and owing to the embargo preventing foreigners from withdrawing money we are watching every 1000 rials as once it's gone, it's gone!

I've unfortunately lost track of all the kindness we've experienced in this short time, but we've been bought numerous ice creams and cold drinks, offered tea, cooked food, handed cakes - generally been assisted no end and treated like celebrities. Being British this is all very embarrassing for me and I don't know how to convey my thanks enough, but for the Iranians this is just how things are done - it's part of a social minefield called Taarof which I'm still trying to master.

The final photo above is of our now very good friends in Takestan. Hijacked by one of them as I was hypoglaecimically trying to buy lunch and ordered to go to his house I eventually gave in and we followed him to his student pad where he and a bunch of childhood friends all live while they study mechanical engineering. We were treated like kings and had one of the best, most relaxing nights of the trip so far - thank you all!

There is so much more to tell but, as ever, so little time. Off to see what the rest of Iran has to offer and then into the even hotter, even madder world of India...