Monthly Archives: September 2011

mubarakeh

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celebrating the top of a pass after mubarakeh

The pass didn’t prove too hard, I think we must have gradually been going up all day yesterday, nonetheless we celebrated at the top, thinking as it was the only pass marked on the map, perhaps the worst of the hills were over(!). The wind hadn’t really let up, and there were big cyclones of dust sweeping across the plain, one came right past us – yuck! Stopping for coffee in a little abandoned hut, Joel mentioned something that a guy had told him back in Burujen, the villagers up in the mountains here had a tendency of throwing stones… Oh no, not at us, he’d insisted; not tourists! Umm, who, I wonder, do they throw them at then… Gory pictures from a film (The stoning of Soraya M) we’d watched at home before setting off came to mind, and I tried to push them away. It had, I thought, been set in a mountain village… We tried to reason that most people warn us of something in the next town/province/country and they’ve never appeared to be true, so this was likely the same. Nevertheless I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

The mountains were really stunning, and we enjoyed lengthy downhills. But of course this always leads to one thing; this time, a ridiculously steep climb, lined with trucks groaning and clunking and kicking out filthy black smoke. Up we went, cough cough cough. We were by this point thinking about camping, but just at the prime moment, a friendly, self-proclaimed “responsible” man, who works for an oil firm (I couldn’t help but question him on how these two things went together: Responsible? Oil-firm?…), appeared and asked us our life story. He then told us most definitely NOT to camp where we were about to. Very danger! Umm, what kind of danger, we mimed… I made some animal sounds, and established that there might be dogs and big cats, but no bears. Hmm, that was the second time we’d been warned of big cats, maybe we should take heed. The choices were limited, right in the middle of the mountains however. My favourite was to hitch to the next town, but as I began to wave down a truck, our responsible friend almost had kittens; very danger, very danger!!!

“Well, what, I beg you, do you want us to? We don’t have a lot of choice here!” I snapped, feeling exhausted, on my last little drop of energy. He came up with nothing. We decided to make it over the hill and decide from there. This proved to push me to breaking, and I heaved up the steep incline, with tears, gasping. At the top we assessed our options. Camp, make a fire to ward off any potential kitty cats; hitch; or carry on through the dwindling light to the next town. I voted to hitch, and just as I did so, a blue van pulled over. Phew! The guy was massively friendly, and laughed all the way to his house, where he insisted we stay! A fantastic event ensued, involving, gradually, the whole village coming to take a look. The women whisked me off to dress me in traditional bridal garb and full garish make-up, and then made me dance in front of everyone, much to their enjoyment. Joel was entertained by the blokes, who spent the time marvelling over our technology and asking how much things cost. Some confusion arose, leading us to believe that the two younger women were second and third wives, but in the morning it was revealed that they were his daughters. Phew! (But they were sitting back, out of conversation all the same, and definitely not down to dinner, but instead serving everyone.)

Unfortunately the morning came and revealed some damage done to Arthur, presumably in the rough truck ride. His front derailleur had sheared. Luckily this village, although short on most things, didn’t lack the good old let’s-fix-it Asian mentality, so fix it we did. This involved a trip to a mechanic, a family member, who laughed when we suggested taking the chain off, instead sawing straight through the derailleur – then a trip to a welder; another family member – who fixed the sawn bit; all probably in less time than it would’ve taken to take the chain off and get it on again. Perfect! -well almost… The chain rubs substantially on the welded wound, so a new one will need to be sought out in Dubai. But a good short-term solution, and caused no real issues the rest of the way through the mountains to Yasuj.

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25th September

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The following day was equally hard-going, with head wind and gradual incline. After plodding on for a few hours, feeling glum, a guy pulled over in his car. We don’t have the energy for this, not now, we thought… He came over and offered us a small apple each. We smiled and thanked him, and felt bad for having had the negativity in the first place. We ate the apples soon after he drove off, but, lacking energy, continued to stand there, contemplating the upcoming hill and headwind. Before we set off again, the same guy was back; this time bearing a huge plastic bag full of biscuits and drinks and sweets! Without wanting to bother us with conversation, he quickly wrote down his number and told us to get in contact if we needed anything. What a kind man. We took a pic with him, and the second he was out of sight, stuffed our faces with biccies! I love the way that our needs are provided for the second we let go and stop worrying; this happens so regularly on bike tours, i’m now a firm believer in going with the flow! Trust in the kindness of others (and of course act through loving kindness ourselves).

We struggled up the hill a short while longer, and then stopped for some respite from the wind, and had a nap. Later we flagged down a small blue truck (ridiculously common in Iran, every other person has one!), for a ride up the mountain to the town of Burujen, where we collapsed in a tourist hotel. That headwind had taken it out of us, fingers crossed for tomorrow when we’d be going over the pass at about 2600m.

 

23rd September – meeting Elyas

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friday feast with elyas and family in mubarakeh

Leaving Esfahan was almost as much of a challenge as getting in had been, involving riding on the motorway ring road, on which Joel got our first puncture of the trip, but luckily spotted immediately the culprit; a staple, and marking the point of entry with a marker, to ensure a quick fix. The entire valley was full of smog, and cycling through it was truly unpleasant. We imagined how beautifully clear it must’ve been before the invention of the motorcar. Added to this difficulty, we had a laughably strong head wind, and an ongoing slight gradient, which looked deceptively flat, and thus confusing (we thought we were just weak!).

By the wayside, we saw a smiley looking couple who waved excitedly at us. We continued past and waved back. Soon they overtook us in their car, and motioned for us to pull in. They wanted to take a picture with us. Ok, we weren’t feeling too energised, but Abbas and Fariba’s smiley-ness was infectious, so we obliged. They asked where we were going, and told us they were going to Mubarakeh, a town about 30km away. They invited us for dinner, but not offering any contact details, we thanked them but carried on imagining that nothing would come of it.

At the top of the next hill, lo and behold there they were again; this time asking us to speak on the phone to their son, Elyas, who spoke very good English. It was arranged! We told them it should take us a couple of hours to get there, but promised to call on arrival.

They came to meet us and we followed them through the town to their house. Elyas was full of energy and so excited to have some English speaking buddies. He was very entertaining, telling us of his future plans, and his love of America! He amazed us by telling us that at just age 17, he’d already written two books. Published! We wondered about the content…

After a day’s ride, we were struggling to keep the energy levels up. It transpired that this was the grandparents house, and as it was Friday (like our Sunday) the whole family was gathering for a meal. When they said whole family, we didn’t expect 20 of them! It didn’t take two many cups of tea, for our energy to return. The house was full of laughter, and kids playing. The spread was impressive, and pretty tasty! The non-alcoholic beer was flowing, and Joel entertained the masses with his contact juggling skills. Even Grandad had a go!

elyas' grandfather trying to emulate joel's circus skills, in vain! lots of laughter. (just before i taught them the card game Noses - hilarious!)

We ended up staying an extra day, as they were so sad and begging us not to go. We were taken up a mountain and then to see the uncles’ shop; handmade leather goods, and photo printing services. From the shop we saw a passing parade, mourning the death of an imam, one of the 12 (can’t remember which, sorry) religious men, that are revered in Iran. The men in the parade were whipping their backs rhythmically as they passed. Very odd. Elyas says this is a very sad day and everybody shows their sadness openly, but you wouldn’t believe it from the peals of womens’ laughter coming from the kitchen later on (as they surrounded me armed with tweezers, attempting to reign in my unkempt eyebrows.) A wonderful experience to be guests in such a happy family home, unforgettable! (if, sadly, a little indoctrinated by the regime – unfortunately Elyas asked me how i’d like to live in Iran, and being one for honesty, I tried diplomatically to explain our views on freedom, i.e. against the death penalty, especially for being gay or renouncing Islam(!), amongst other things largely to do with women’s rights. He had been translating for his family, but when I explained about a member of my family coming out, he translated something else for them.I found it fascinating that such a pro-America-and-the-West youth could maintain such starkly contrasting viewpoints! i.e. in favour of this madness.)

17th September Iran

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dinner in a traditional restaurant in esfahan, where the neighbouring ladies apologised for lack of water in the river! (thanks to big dam)

 

Refreshed after a night in Aggy, unimpeded by a hot sun wake-up call thanks to the cliff-face, we hit the road, now laughing and singing “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?” and making up silly verses beginning “Oh Allah,”. We had learnt our lesson, so it seemed; don’t try and look for a lift; just go with the flow and all will be good. The scenery was spectacular. We stopped to enjoy a melon bought from an old man with blackened hands. As we ate, another old man came over and presented us (with equally blackened swollen hands – from working the land) with a handful of little cucumbers. We tucked them in a pannier for later and rolled on down the valley; where another old chap rushed over to us with the old favourite bike-tourer gift of two melons. Ha! One would be plenty, we attempted to mime that the bikes were heavy enough already; but thank you very much for your kind offer. We took the smaller one, and just as we set off again, a truck pulled in in front of us beckoning wildly for us to pull over. He was offering us a lift. Well would you Adam’n’Eve it, after all that wasted time trying to find one yesterday! Joel and Ali heave-ho’d the bikes into the back of the proudly Mercedes (manifested nicely after our Janis Joplin renditions?) truck, alongside two tractors on their way to Qom, religious capital of Iran. (Not that they were noticeably religious, these tractors, they bore no ostentatious signs at least, suffice to say they were ‘Made in China’, so perhaps they follow that new religion increasing in popularity everywhere – consumerism…)

We rode in the front all the way to Saveh, finally enjoying the opportunity to admire the view, out of wind, making conversation with Ali, the favourite kind of which was naming vehicle makes and their countries. He was a wonderful host – he pumped out the Iranian tunes and kept the chay flowing freely. We arrived late into Saveh, where a not-too-friendly-looking-sort on a motorbike warned us against pitching Aggy in the middle of a roundabout, as if we would anyway, and led us to a park, full of Iranians camping out overnight on their way home from their holidays. The guy lingered for a while, whilst we erected the tent and then made a yummy greek salad, asking to feel the sharpness of our knives, and motioning that there might be thieves about; slightly unnerving, but without common language, you never know if you’re talking to a respectable person, or a complete madman, so we hoped for the best and, after locking the bikes up super-good, avoided the locals’ stares by getting an early night. If only we’d brought a pop-up tent, we thought, we’d blend right in!

Leaving Saveh, we found a shop that sold meths! Finally, we were free to cook our own dinner once more, and have a coffee! The road was long and uphill, and after a good hard slog, we stopped to do just that. We whipped out the melon from the farmer yesterday, we attempted to give pieces away to the surrounding truckers. They weren’t having any of it, instead, one went to his cab and presented us with another, no doubt in his opinion tastier, specimen. The eternal melon! Will we ever be without one? And what’s wrong with peaches, or maybe even plums – far more compact and lightweight! How funny…

As we searched for a camp-spot again that evening, lo-and-behold, another offer of a lift materialises, this time to the jewel of ancient Persia – Esfahan… T’would be a good few days ride away still, so, tired from a day’s ride, we accepted; thinking only of the prospect of a hotel at the other end. As the sun was already setting, we knew it would be late when we arrived. I was already exhausted and getting hungry, so tried to sleep.

We were dropped on the outskirts, and navigating our way through the polluted suburbs turned out to be extremely hard work. The air was filthy and eventually I was riding with tears in my eyes, headscarf precariously wrapped around my face so as to cover my mouth, to act as an air-filter. It was horrible. The city is really sprawling, and we must’ve ridden for a good hour before hitting the centre. After much ado, we came to the Amir Kabir Hostel – accidentally – the LP’s best bet for meeting fellow travellers. It was full, but we were offered to pitch our tent in the inner courtyard. Perfect.

The Lonely Planet had been right, the place was chock-a-block full of interesting traveller sorts, including an Aussie cycle-tourist and two guys who’d been at Ozora – the festival in Hungary we stopped at en route. It was really exciting; meeting people, speaking English, and swapping tales. We checked into a room the next day, delighted to have found such a little community. We ended up staying 4 more nights, enjoying the buzz of the pretty city, which felt more liberal than any we’d visited yet. We hadn’t intended staying so long, but Joely hurt his shoulders; ironically after 5000km-ish riding; by reading in the park.

As Iran has had sanctions put in place by the rest of the world, it isn’t possible to withdraw money from any ATMs, nor is it possible to pay by visa. It’s cash only for foreigners. Having come from Turkey, we had mainly Lira, and approx £220 worth of sterling and euros. In total, that made about £500’s worth of currency. It was starting to look like this wouldn’t be enough, having been ripped off many a time in little shops with unmarked prices. We need to keep aside $100 each for the ferry to Dubai. For some reason, the bazaar exchange rates are better than those in the banks. In Esfahan, we decided to try and sell Joel’s iphone, thinking this might fetch a fair bit, given that Apple products aren’t readily available locally. One shop offered £150ish for it, but that was too low. In a cafe, with a nice American-educated manager, I raised the idea to seek some advice; he said his wife might be interested (he already had a fancy new one) but we should first make our way to the Apple (!) store to find out it’s value. How honest of him, we thought, and followed his directions. The shop was obviously not an Apple store like the swanky ones we have in the UK, the sign was glued on wonkily, and the shop sold other brand products like Samsung! The chap we spoke to inside was concerned about our reasons for selling this sought-after bit of kit. We need the cash, we explained.

He was obviously fairly distraught at the idea of parting with one’s phone, and came up with an alternative solution. He had a bank account offshore, meaning we could transfer him some money; and he would simply hand over the cash – then and there! I tried to do so in the shop, using my online banking, but had left the chip and pin card reader in the hotel. No problem, he assured me; here’s the cash – transfer it later, no problem, tomorrow – no problem…

What an absolute legend! We left the shop with the cash in our pocket, and for now, cash in our bank account (I transferred it later that eve). Moments like this really restore my faith in the kindness of humanity. Thank you Majid. We owe ya one! We gave him our details and told him if he ever needed anything we could help him with, to contact us and ask.

On the way back to the hostel we bought a big box of the local sweet speciality, gaz, to share with the other guests to celebrate!

Tabriz 13th September

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After having spent considerable time and money sorting out the bureaucracy involved in obtaining an Iranian visa, and then cutting short our time in Turkey to get here on time, it was with heavy hearts and dull resignation that we processed this next piece of news from our hotel manager in Tabriz:

“Visa finish, look!”

We looked. Visa expiration date: 13th September, today.

Hang on a minute, didn’t we expect this was going to happen? I even emailed the embassy to clear up whether the expiry date shown was the last possible date we had to be in the country by, or whether that was when the visa expired. It didn’t seem clear back home, so I emailed them, didn’t I?

I check my email from the kindle. Yep, I had had this reply from them: “You can enter Iran until the expiry date of your visa. If you need more validity, you can refer to an Iranian consulate.” The guy was adamant though, that we needed to extend it. He phoned the tourist office, but it was closed til tomorrow. Nothing we could do but wait. We really didn’t fancy having any affairs with the police so held our breath and crossed our fingers until the morning, when a short walk to the tourist office cleared things up. The chaps inside spoke no English, and in fact were just standing in while the main man was on a tourist visit elsewhere, but they put Joel on the phone to him, and he assured us there was no problem, that this was a common misunderstanding, we have 30 days from the date of entry, which must be, and was, inside the validity period. Phew! That sorted we had a quick juice and packed up ready to hit the road again. Tabriz didn’t seem to have much to offer, unless you’re into polyester and nylon and crowded bazaars, in which case job’s a good-un.

Leaving the city was almost as painful as arriving, where the roads had been filthy thanks to three lanes of smoking trucks, and a cement factory. Leaving was all uphill, and seemingly motorway.  Only one thing can sort you out in times like these; and that’s eating! Out came a cake, which we were devouring hungrily when we saw something wonderful heading our way…. A cycle-tourist!!! Bloomin’ ‘eck, it’d been a while. We offered him some cake and did the old Cilla Black on Blind Date: What’s yer name, where’d yer come from? It’s our Henry from Germany! Applause. And where’s he ridden from? Scandinavia, and alone! Wowzers, he’s hard-core we thought. He told us he’s a music teacher, and always rode with his headphones in. Hmm, that was pretty appealing considering the relentless traffic noise. We rode on together, and stopped for a break at the top of a big hill where a truck driver offered us chay and a puff on his opium pipe, whilst Henry told us of his plans to write a book of his adventure. Yes I did say opium pipe, we did, of course, politely decline, even though he motioned to Joel it might make him go faster… The penalty for using any kind of drug in Iran is death. Which brought us on to the public executions in the stadium in Tehran… I have always taken for granted that people from the West would share my opinion on such a topic. Henry proved to be a little different, telling us he’d like to go and spectate at such an event… I almost choked on my chay, and tentatively asked the reasons for such an interest in public execution. He said it would make a good story for his book, he wants to go and watch the faces of the other spectators. I had no time for further probing, as we were soon whizzing down the hill, fast enough without any opium. We stopped in the little town at the bottom, where the boys had a kebab in a truck stop and I checked out the alternatives in the next restaurant, armed with one phrase in Farsi from the phrase book on my kindle: Giyahar hastam, I’m vegetarian. I went in and told the guy this, and he beckoned me into the kitchen where he had a black-eyed-pea stew on the hob, perfect! A little misunderstanding with the money made me think I was being ripped off and I attempted to haggle him down; at which the guy grabbed my arm and tried to push me a bit. So I paid him and took my food to the next restaurant to join Joel and Henry. The crowd that gathered around us were all quite sweet, and after dinner I asked them if they could recommend a camping spot nearby. The kebab-shop-owner motioned that we should sleep in the shop on one of the day-beds. The prospect of running water, a toilet and not putting a tent up in the dark was an appealing one, so we graciously accepted, giggling at the thought. We’d be sharing the space with a smiley old boy, who would spend the evening making kebabs for tomorrow and bringing us chay. The owner would go home and be back in the morning. One of the accumulated crowd cottoned on to the fact we were heading East and offered us a ride to Tehran. Tempted, we declined on the grounds that it was slightly off our route, and also not wanting to lose face in front of new-found cycle-companion, who was obviously not going to be up for ‘cheating’. When Henry returned from the bathroom however, to our astonishment, he leapt at the chance! He hastily said his goodbyes and off they set into the night; 500km+ to Tehran! We were so amazed we chuckled about it all evening. We started to wish we’d gone with him however, when I was woken in the night by the old man leaning over Joel and stroking my hair, which had been revealed by my headscarf slipping as I slept. A little freaked out, I woke Joel and we spoke in whispers of what to do; I didn’t sleep much after that, trying to establish in my mind his motives for doing such a thing. In Iran, I knew that touching another man’s wife would be a serious crime; but reasoning from my own set of morals and not by that of the Qu’ran, I came to feel sorry for the old guy, imagining that he had likely had no female contact for many years, and believing that it might have been more paternal than sexual. This added to my fury with the strictness of the regime.

We left at daybreak, without even looking him in the eye, which was a shame because he’d been so sweet and hospitable the previous evening. We rode out of the town, and stopped to eat fresh flat bread and honey, where we discussed the night’s happenings, a little disenchanted to say the least…

We soldiered on but at lunch time (after i’d forced down a hamburger, nothing else on offer for veggies!) we rolled along a queue of trucks waiting for diesel, asking if anyone had space for us. Lonely Planet had warned us that hitching a ride in Iran was fairly unheard of, and might turn out more expensive than a bus, this seemed to be true, so begrudgingly we turned our backs on them and continued along the highway, coughing and cursing. After that little town, the roads took a turn for the better, and if it hadn’t been for the extreme headwind almost blowing us back up the hill, we might have had an easy day of it. Nevertheless, the traffic was less frequent, and the scenery was beautiful. We pushed on down the valley and found ourselves a lovely little spot to camp, hidden sufficiently from sight to allow us some much-needed breathing space, at the bottom of a cliff on a dwindling river-bed. This space was exactly what we needed, and after a dinner of rice and chick peas with soy sauce, we relished the long-awaited opportunity for some quality shut-eye.

9th September Iran

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Iran has been an incredible experience for us, already unlike any other. It is, as the cliché goes, a land of contrasts. We began by crossing the relatively recently opened border crossing at Kapikoy, Turkey as I wrote about in the last post, rode down a spectacular valley alongside a pretty-much dried up river. We were greeted by everyone, waving and shouting “Ha-llo, Ha-llo”, always a salutation each, or sometimes an enquiry; “Welcome to Iran, your country?” We even passed a couple of military jeeps, loaded with machine guns and kids in camo, “Welcome!” they yell as they wave frantically. Slightly surreal..

We’ve always known not to believe everything you read, but I have to admit that, on some level, i’d been put a little on edge by all our nearest and dearest’s warnings to be careful in Iran. However, the nerves were soon put to rest by the hospitable nature and overall welcoming tone of the locals, it’s clear that the average Iranian loves tourists! Zooming down the valley, one family stood by their picnic spread (a favourite pass-time) and handed us each a nectarine as we whizzed past! Yum!

The first city we came to was Khoy, after an easy and beautiful introductory ride into the country, and we were greeted by a crowd, one of whom was M (don’t want to write his name; for reasons which will become clear), a student mastering in English literature at the university in Tabriz. He was so excited to be with us, he walked us to the tourist hotel; telling us it would be much more appropriate for people like us (?!) than the dirty one we had been checking out, which, he continued, was for Iranian tourists. Too tired to argue, and hoping for the prospect of wifi (no chance!) in the slightly more upmarket one, we followed him and checked in. M was very sad about the unfortunate timing of our visit; he had to catch the bus to Tehran for his cousin’s wedding at 10pm that night, and promised us that, on a different day, he wouldn’t have allowed us to give our money to a hotel and instead we’d be staying in his house! What a sweetie.

We explained that we were tired and dirty; so he gave us time to freshen up before meeting him later. M took us to visit the tomb of Shams Tabriz; the teacher of the poet Rumi, famous in the West, and on the way wowed us with his incredible, if a little archaic, English, I giggled a few times with the words he came out with, straight outta Dickens. He didn’t mind one bit, and welcomed my little lessons on which phrases might sound out-dated. Meeting M was a really great introduction to Iran for us, over pizza he explained a little about the current political situation and the oppression of the people – he was incredibly liberal-minded, there was talk of the arab spring and whether it might spread here, he hoped so.

After hearing about how the regime had banned everything from alcohol to satellite TV, and how,  an unrelated boy and girl who are caught out in public together can be forced to marry on that same day, I let slip some phrase with the word ‘dictator’ in it, M froze and then glanced around the room to check no-one had heard, and then firmly told me; “It is better that you drink your juice”. (i.e. we may all know that a spade’s a spade, but here we simply must smile and call it a rabbit.)

After this slip-up we left the juice bar and M walked us around various shops trying to sort out various things for us (an Iranian sim-card, internet cafe…) before apologising and hurriedly saying goodbye before rushing off to catch his bus.

What an eye-opener of a conversation; hearing first-hand about the weighty oppression of the people. To quote M; “Never mix religion and politics”; “This country’s stuck in the dark ages”.