Tuesday, 29 April 2014

440 ÷ 5 = 88

welcome to Central Asia, hold your breath
Day Four  We're at the border bright-tailed and bushy-eyed well before it opens.  This is not too difficult as the Iranian officials have as much enthusiasm for starting work as we normally do.  Plenty of time for us to have breakfast, clean teeth, some last-minute shopping and overhaul all five bicycles, repack the panniers, count the days left to Christmas, recreate the famous 1966 World Cup final "was it a goal?" moment and plan the rest of our journey to Japan.  It was well worth waking early.  After some cursory customs checks and passport analysis we are stamped through.  The Turkmenistan border is another thing.  It's over twenty years since they shook off that Soviet yoke but still the beast that is Bureacracy roams free and wild in these parts.  Gayle and I have been here before in 2008 and not a single thing has changed.  There's first a check with the doctor.  "How are you? Feel okay? Chelsea?"  "Well doctor, I have this pain in my sides at night and I wondered if....." Gayle yanks me out of my seat.  Then there's the immigration booth. Empty.  We wait a while and some more.  A man takes our passports into a backroom.  Lots of passport details are being handwritten into old form books to be filed away into a dusty forgotten storeroom.  Once we get the passports stamped an hour or two later we have to complete a customs declaration and then unload our bikes and put everything through the x-ray machine.  Followed by a random bag inspection.  "Is that a random bag?" "Yes it is."  "Are these dirty clothes?" "Yes they are" "Chelsea!"
ships of the desert

We are quite pissed off when we emerge into the sunlight at 11.30.  We have a 5 day transit visa and 440km to cover, and almost half a day has been wasted.  There's nothing for it but to head into the town and have an early lunch.  We then spend the rest of the day cycling on an appalling back road that shaves 80km off the main road route. We have to cycle on average about 88km each day if our calculations are correct. 

before the road gets bad
It is hot, flat and a bit drab. And hard.  We are constantly trying to dodge potholes and washed-out sections of the road.  Washed-out? In a desert?  Ultimately it is like a terrible computer game where we try and stay on the few remaining strands of tarmac.  As your speed increases so do the size and frequency of the potholes.  It comes as a terrible shock to me - of all the accounts of cycling across Turkmenistan I hadn't realised tat the greatest obstacle was the poor state of the roads.  Unprepared, I feel quite demoralised.  A camel is the highlight of the afternoon.  Later on much of the land is being irrigated/ inundated so finding a place to camp looks a bit tricky, but as the sun sets we find a little corner of a far off field that will forever be Turkmenistan. The clouds of mosquitoes remind us we are close to a lake.

chewing tubes to relieve the frustration
Day Five   A slow start.  There's a bit of waiting around for Gabor but he is getting quicker at packing up.  As he justly observes, we can share the tasks that he must complete on his own.  However, he certainly does like to do things in just the right way, whereas Jona and Franzi and Gayle and I just get on with it.  
.....creates work for the team mechanic
Ultimately it is unfair on him - but it's always handy to have a scapegoat should things go awry.  After more pot-holed and washed-out road we arrive at a shop and teahouse where we can change money and buy fresh supplies. Buoyed up with some treats (that warm beer in my pannier sure looks inviting) we continue along the main road to Mary.  Mary isn't someone we know - just one of the two towns we will pass through on the crossing. It is built beside the ancient oasis of Merv.  At the end of the day we find a camping spot under trees bordering farmland.  The land by the roadside has been fairly green today - plenty of irrigation channels keeping everything growing.
mutton samsas - fuel for cycling
Day Six  Franzi has promised a 6am workshop on cycling, to be continued throughout the day.  She is full of whimsy, she is.  Jona is full of beans - always quick on his bike.  Gayle has been happy to ride out at the front ahead of us all.  The men have been carrying extra water for camping each day - 4 more kilos is a fair handicap I suppose.  We ride into Mary, stock up at a shop and Gabor buys us all ice-cream.  Bonus.  We need to get a big day in today to keep on schedule.  None of us are particularly happy about this, but we should be clocking up plenty of kilometres to make sure we reach the northern border in three days' time.  It's a scorching hot day and we are happy to find shade for lunch.  How much water can you drink before your stomach swells and you can drink no more?  We test the theory.  On this day we enter the real desert.  No more farming.  Very few settlements.  A lot of barren dusty sandscapes.  Tortoises risk everything crossing a road that is frequented by Turkish HGVs and rattling old Russian trucks.  The road is still patchy but we clock up over a 100km before happily camping amongst some scrubby bushes away from the road.

late afternoon 'knackered' time-out
Day Seven  We set off in good time but with the prospect of another long day in the desert.  However, after one hour's riding morale has sunk.  We have an awful headwind that has slowed us to an average speed of 10km per hour.  At this rate we will need to cycle for 10 hours.  After another half hour we accept defeat.  We will have to try and hitch a ride with a truck.  But there are five of us.  We decide to return to a village where there's a petrol station where trucks will fill up but we soon discover that no-one wants to take us.  The problem, it seems, is police check points.  But maybe our number is too high.  Over in the village is a train station on the railway to Turkmenabad so we go and investigate.  At first things seem promising - there's a train at 8pm.  But once we look serious about taking it we are told that there is a problem. The train stops for only 2 minutes.  And we need baggage tickets.  And none can be issued here. We should continue to the next station.  We feel like we are getting the bum's rush, but ultimately we have no choice.  We have delayed and had lunch in a cafe, but it's only another 20km so off we go.  The headwind continues to blow so at least we feel justified in taking the train.  In the village of Uch-Aly we ride up to the deserted train station and give the staff a surprise. Five foreigners on fully-loaded bikes looking for a train to Turkmenabad.  They seem fine about us, so we optimistically cook tea and wait for the train.  Closer to the time we ask about tickets.  None of us speak Russian but with some very limited Turkish we can deduce that here too we will only have 2 minutes to load our bikes and baggage and get on board.  What a joke.  Another train arrives and we are alarmed to discover that the platform is way too short.  This is starting to look a bit hairy.  Finally, at 8.58pm in rolls our train.  We load everything easily and quickly and ride with the staff in the baggage wagons.  After a brief chat about who we are and where we are going we agree a price for all of us and then fall asleep with relief.  The day has been tense, but at least we are back on schedule.  Arriving in Turkmenabad at midnight we alight and pitch camp in the station garden, beside the platforms. Very cheeky but what else to do? Sleep.
not the quietest spot, but very convenient
Day Eight  Awoken by a disgruntled station security man who probably feels embarrassed to find five cycle tourists taking liberties on his shift, we quickly pack up and set off along the winding road towards the border.  We stop outside the town for breakfast by a queue of trucks.  Two Turkish drivers kindly brew up for us and bring us coffee.  We then cycle across the most decrepit pontoon bridge which traverses the legendary Amu Darya river - the Oxus - the biggest river in Central Asia which rises in Afghanistan and used to feed the Aral Sea until some bright Russian spark decided to divert it to grow cotton in the desert of Uzbekistan.  (The Aral Sea is now almost gone.)  After a few more kilometres through lush green farmland irrigated from this river, the road peters out into a no-man's land of desert.  We have reached the border with Uzbekistan in time.  Relief.  

Sunday, 27 April 2014

3 + 2 = 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1

enough bread?
Day One The hard shoulder is narrow, virtually non-existent, the traffic is lively - too many trucks - and the landscape is, frankly, dull. Not a great start. We have set off later than hoped because Gabor took ages to pack and load up his bike in the morning.  Jona and Franzi are off to the Turkmenistan consul again today and if they are successful they will chase us down.  But should they fail, then they will follow us by bus.  We have three days to cover 180km.  All in all there is no need to rush but we soon discover that 'rush' is not a word in Gabor's extensive English vocabulary in any case.  It's funny to be cycling in company again.  
Gabor has perfected his cooking technique
At first we stick together as we cycle along, but Gayle, possibly feeling the pressure of Gabor's presence (another tall bloke), pedals with some vim in the afternoon, leaving the two tall blokes in her trail.  We camp in a crease in the land out of sight of the road but within hearing distance of shepherds with their flock.

a biblical scene

Day Two  Already there are signs of a split in the team.  We have breakfasted and packed up while Gabor is still pootling about.  Gayle is keen to start so that she isn't expected to rush later on.  We discern that Gabor is rather particular about everything he does.  He is a quiet man at times and when he speaks it is with the air of someone who has reflected and considered what he is about to say first.  He also appreciates a laugh and ironic humour. We abandon him and push off.  At the roadside I notice a flat tyre.  I am sure Gabor is chuckling at the irony of it.  We change the tube and set off - still no sign of Gabor.  Later on, altogether again, we stop in a small and scruffy village to look for food in the small and scruffy shops.  There is no bread.  We ask in one shop and a customer asks us how many we need.  Two.  She walks out of the shop and returns with two discs of bread for us, refusing payment. Remarkable in any other country - in Iran this kind of hospitality seems commonplace.  It's what makes travel here so special.
a wonderful wild camp

In the afternoon we approach a ridge of hills.  After a cloudy cool morning the sun is out in full force.  The road turns 90 degrees and heads directly into the hills.  We pause for water and ice cream at a shop/mosque combo before hitting the steep road into the hills. At the top it starts to rain.  A policeman is flagging down trucks.  He wants to know where I am from.  Gayle appears, wearing only her helmet.  Well, no, she has all her clothes on too but she is not bothering with any hejab.  The policeman is a bit confused.  He points at her and asks me "Woman?"  The descent is joyous - winding down through grass covered valleys with rolling hills.  We pause for breath and Gabor checks his messages.  Jona and Franzi have just got off the bus and are cycling down from the top.  We are reunited at a fabulous wild camp spot in a green side valley away from the road.  After another shower the setting sun appears, followed by a rainbow.  Now we are five.

waiting for Gabor

Day Three  The road continues to descend out of the green hills and emerges into another dry and dusty landscape.  We collect water at a red crescent station and dutifully pose for photos.  Our cycling group is rather ragged - we all cycle at different rhythms - and towards the end of the afternoon we arrive in the border town of Sarakhs just ahead of a big rainstorm.  A policeman at a roundabout points us towards a hotel.  We ignore him and ride on to find a shop.  Then another policeman in a car waves us over and asks us where we will stay tonight.  Do we have a tent?  Yes, we do.  We must follow him.  But first we must shop and it's about to chuck it down.  We shelter for a while until the rain eases off and then pop in and out of various small shops to stock up.  Just as we are ready to leave the police car returns.  Looks like we're nicked.  We dutifully follow the police through the town and back the way we came.  They lead us to a building just off the main road - it's another red crescent station.  We are shown inside where we can put our bikes, our wet clothes, and a carpeted prayer room to sleep.  There's a kitchen and bathroom. A result.  
c is for cyclists

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

catching cold

Mashhad is Iran's holiest city.  The shrine of Imam Reza, one of Shia Islam's twelve imams, lies in the heart of the city.  It is a place of pilgrimage for the devout and a popular spot for young honeymooners who come for good luck.  So when we arrive at Sonny and Maryam's place we are pleasantly surprised when they immediately propose to go for a swim and sauna.  We've visited the shrine complex previously and it left us feeling a little, hmm, ho-hum I suppose.  But the thought of having a swim is great.  We are joined by a friend Mo, and pile down to the local sports complex, which looks rather plush.  Is it open to the public? Yes. And is it run by the municipality? No. It's run by the Shrine.  In fact, the Shrine runs Mashhad, it seems.  It's a big business venture.  The swim and sauna are great, good facilities and not too busy.  The visit is marred by only one small faux pas on my part - getting changed in the open changing room is not the done thing here.  Sonny calls across "Put some clothes on!" before laughing.

We are treated by Mo to juices afterwards.  I opt for the local speciality - a milkshake made with cream, pistachio, honey and bananas.  It's hard on the arteries.  Mo is now living in New Zealand having emigrated there after meeting his American-Iranian partner through Couch Surfing.  He likes the slow pace of things there.  He is back to visit his family and we are invited over for tea.  Later we get a chance to ask Maryam and Sonny about their cycle-touring experience in Turkey.  They took off on a trip after being inspired by a young cycling couple who stayed with them.   They are a young modern Iranian couple, vegetarians, and we wonder what life holds for them here.  Sonny is frivolous and constantly joking - telling us that Ahmadinejad was a British agent sent to destroy the Iranian economy.  Things are that bad - it has to be the fault of the British.  Our stay here is brief and marred slightly by an unidentified illness that befalls me on the first night.  I awake with intense pain just below my rib cage. In the morning Sonny kindly takes me to a local hospital where I am grilled first by a nurse and then a doctor.  Organs are prodded to no effect.  The doctor dismisses it as a 'cold on the stomach'.  I am feeling better an not in any great pain now and feeling rather foolish.  But a cold on the stomach?  Perhaps this is a euphemism for 'time-waster'.  Unfortunately the 'cold' lasts for the next week - keeping me awake at night but leaving me feeling fine in the day.

At a popular guesthouse we meet up with Gabor, Franzi and Jona who we last saw in Tehran.  Franzi and Jona are still waiting to collect their Turkmen visa but Gabor already has his so we arrange to depart with him the next morning.  Franzi and Jona hope to catch us up on the way to the border.  After such a long time in Iran we are finally contemplating some serious cycling: the ride to the border followed by a five day dash across Turkmenistan and on to Bukhara in Uzbekistan, one of the greatest cities of the Silk Road.  All in all it will be ten day's straight cycling.  We go in search of food for the journey and are sadly disappointed with our findings.  When we say goodbye to Maryam and Sonny he mentions something about 'positive energy'.  We are thinking about the ride ahead and I am wondering about my internal organs.  I hope we have enough positive energy to spare.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

the goodbye blues

We have a few more days with Gertrude in Yazd.  It gives us a chance to recover from the journey to Bam and start concentrating on our onward journey.  Happily Gertrude also enjoys the ambience of the old city here.  On the edges of the bazaar there are covered lanes of abandoned shops.  Shutters are down, dust covers everything.  Only one or two workshops are still being used by carpenters. Then you come to the sections still busy with clothes, housewares and gold jewellery.  Hans - sunken courtyard areas surrounded by shops - are either modernised bright affairs selling cloth or crumbling abandoned buildings left to turn slowly to dust.  Is it possible that the Iranians do not really know what a wonderful treasure they have with these old bazaars?

there is still a small community of Jews living in Yazd
In all the major cities there are are at least one or two great old mosques or buildings from earlier times in Iran's rich history.  We cannot tire of looking around the Friday Mosque in Yazd.  There are endless details that you only discover after another visit.

Finally it is time for us to leave.  We are taking the night bus across the desert to Mashhad in the north east.  Gertrude will be continuing on to some of the other cities in central Iran.  Ali, the manager at the Silk Road Hotel, has been incredibly kind to us and we are not sure how to thank him.  Even worse, when we are ready to leave, he is fast asleep and we dare not wake him.  He rarely seems to stop.  We say our goodbyes to Khoroush and Roxanna and Gertrude and cycle off, quite literally, into the sunset.  Is there a tear in the eye?

Thursday, 17 April 2014

jewel of the dessert

it's a Brooks
Returning to the Silk Road Hotel feels almost like coming home.  Ali the manager is as busy as ever now the Easter holidays have brought more European tourists.  We still cannot understand how he manages such a good place with such lousy staff.  There isn't a single man in the place, aside from himself, who understands the basics of customer service.  The female staff work in the kitchen and do the cleaning.  Undoubtedly he needs more women to serve the punters. Unfortunately there is no room at the inn for Gertrude but Ali kindly finds her one in in another traditional courtyard house hotel and then suggests she comes to his hotel for breakfast with us.  I am embarrassed by his generosity towards us because he also discounts the food we order.
what to wear under the chador in Yazd
We spend a couple of days wandering around the old city and the bazaar with Gertrude and are happy to see she is enjoying it.  Maybe we are spoiling her because this is quite a special place.  We only hope she will enjoy the other places she visits later.  Yazd is described as a jewel in the desert, but it also ranks highly for having the jewel of desserts: pomegranate juice with ice cream floater.  Pomegranates out of season?  Try blood oranges instead.  And if all else fails there is the immortal date shake at the Silk Road Hotel, made with fresh dates from Bam.

quality tilework at the Masjed-e Jameh
But it's not for dates that we take the tortuous bus journey south eastwards to Bam.  The ancient citadel, the largest adobe structure on earth, was destroyed in an earthquake in 2003 that also killed over 25,000 inhabitants.  Since then work has started to reconstruct the buildings using the original construction techniques.  It is a slow process.  Nearly as slow as the buses that take us there.  Our second bus stinks of diesel and shortly after setting off from Kerman we fill up at a petrol station with a queue of trucks.  This is a common sight.  Eventually we are heading in the right direction and making good time.  About an hour before Bam the bus pulls off the road outside a mechanic's shack.  It's a long stop.  At first it seems we are filling up again, but then we realise that they are pumping the diesel out of the bus.  Fuel smuggling.  The fuel will be taken over the border into Pakistan.

This part of Iran is Baluchistan, a region that spans the border with Pakistan.  The men are wearing shalwar kameez.  Bam looks a bit poor and a bit rough but considering it was flattened only ten yers ago, it's not so bad.  Date palms dot the city in clusters.  The main palmeraie lies off in the distance.  Crystal clear water runs through the channels beside the road, irrigating the trees.  Our hotel is basic and over-priced so we decide to visit the Argh-e Bam in the morning and then cut and dash back to Yazd.  Walking to the edge of the new town we see the crenellated mud walls of the fort on the hill in the centre of the citadel. 

As we get nearer we begin to understand the scale of the old city and the amount of work involved in trying to restore it.  The site is perhaps not as large as Pompei, but the mud structures date back about 2000 years.  Photographs taken before the earthquake show many of the grander buildings that are now mostly fallen down.  However, wandering around on our own, the place deserted except for the workers, we can still get a good feel for the place.  The outer walls are being rebuilt and there's plenty of scaffolding propping structures up.  By midday it's blazing hot in the sun and we head back to Yazd, happy for having made the long trek out to this oasis. 

Sunday, 13 April 2014

back in the big smoke

We missed our friend Cyrus when we passed through Tehran at No Ruz so we decide to leave the bikes in Yazd and return to the capital.  The first task for us is to collect our Turkmenistan visa.  This is done quite painlessly, although we have to hang around at the embassy for over two hours while we complete the paperwork and the visa is issued.  It rains on our walk through the northern suburbs of the city.  This is a bit of a surprise after coming from the desert where the weather has begun to warm up.  Tehran is bustling again after the holidays and traffic is heavy.  It's a huge relief to get the visa - it's the last piece in our Central Asian visa jigsaw.  While we were in Yazd we had extended our Iranian visa without a hitch - 24 more days will be enough to see us to the border.  We have heard from the two English cyclists, Dan & Ollie, who are here in Tehran sorting out their onward visas.  Unfortunately for them the Uzbek embassy asked for a letter of recommendation from their embassy - no good in Iran since the British embassy has been closed for three years.  Their fall back is to head across to Kazakhstan and cycle all the way around Uzbekistan.  This looks like a phenomenal challenge - the distance is huge, roads are few, and it's all desert.  Our stay in Baku with Pam & Joe was a real blessing.

Cyrus invites us to his workplace - a private kindergarten where the teachers teach in English some of the time.  He is employed as a consultant to advise the teachers.  It's striking that most of the staff, all female, do not wear their headscarves in the class room.  It's as if we've just arrived in a different country.  Somehow this simple effect makes the women seem quite different - a visual trick that gives them personalities and individuality.  Of course this is nonsense - or is it?  The headscarf is like a uniform.  Later we talk about the potential effect of a day of protest where women decide to discard the headscarf.  I think I prefer the idea that on one day men also wear it.  See how they like it.

Cyrus lives with his wife, Shahla, in a bright apartment just out of the city centre.  Although, nowadays, there isn't really a city centre anymore.  We joke with Cyrus that he could pass himself off as a tourist and as we walk homewards he is accosted by a passerby who doesn't realise he's Iranian. He takes us past a shop where four young men are fiddling with instruments - guitars and bass - before bursting into a funky riff.  Buskers.  Somehow the singing and music looks like an act of rebellion.

At home Shahla and Cyrus could be in Europe. The sensation is increased because Shahla prefers to speak French, which she knows better than English. They have organised a party in honour of our coming - a nice treat for us - on Thursday night, which is the equivalent of a Saturday night in Iran. A few friends and friends of friends come, including some ex-pat workers.  Shahla has prepared plenty of good food and a few bottles of arak appear.  It's a very chilled out evening and we're glad that most of the conversation is in English and French.

The next day we head south to our favoured hostel in the city where we have reserved two rooms.  This is because tonight our friend Gertrude is flying in from Nepal, on her way home to Germany.  She has a three week visa and we plan to spend the first week with her.  The flight is in the evening and we go to meet her at the airport.  It's way out of the city but the journey gives us time to catch up before we show her inside our little prison.  We are delighted to find amongst the inmates Raimon, Gabor, Franzi and Jona - all here to collect visas for cycling across the Stans and we cook and eat together in the scruffy kitchen on the roof.  Raimon has been here a while and has suffered his own visa woes.  Having cycled all the way from Barcelona he was stumped to find that his embassy wouldn't provide the letter of recommendation for his Uzbek visa.  After two visits, much pleading and coming to the decision that he would have to give up on his intention to cycle around the world and take an onward flight, things suddenly changed with the Spanish finally acquiescing.  

Tehranis out on the town

The next day is spent introducing Gertrude to the joys of Iran (motorcycles on the pavements, one-way streets with three-way traffic, omelette and chai, rials and tomans , park life, sabzi ghoresht with rice and banana milkshakes) before catching the evening train southwards back to Yazd. 

take-away dinner in the park with Gabor, Raimon and Gertrude

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

things change, things stay the same

We are so keen to return to Yazd that our ride from Esfahan is completed a day earlier than planned.  The city seems bigger than before.  We cycle 10 kilometres from the outskirts to reach the Silk Road Hotel next to the fabulous old Friday Mosque in the old city.  We stayed quite a while here last time so we know the owner, Ali, and have another friend, Khoroush, to look up.  Ali very generously offers us a free bed in the dormitory, but we really want a private room.  Unfortunately high season has just begun and the place is busy.  Does he have that old room on the roof at his sister hotel, the Orient?  Are we being cheeky?  Ali is a consummate hotelier, and will always try to please his guests, even freeloading ones.  He gives us a very nice room for the night and in the morning he arranges for an out-of-use room on the roof to be spruced up for us.  It's very basic - but we want nothing more.  He is as generous and kind as we remember him.

10,000 miles - let's have a beer!!!! Okay, let's have a nice cup of tea then

One question we are often asked in Iran is which is our favourite place.  When we reply Yazd, most Iranians look surprised.  The city has been in existence for over 4000 years, and the old city is a half-preserved warren of adobe courtyard houses.  Much has been renovated and much is crumbling to dust.  Most Iranians live in the new part of the low-rise city, while Afghan and Iraqi refugee families settled in the old part in the 1980's.  The Silk Road Hotel is just one of several renovated old houses converted into hotels.  There is nothing quite like them outside of central Iran.  We love the old city and bazaar and the city feels relaxed and peaceful by Iranian standards.  There are some wonderful old buildings, one or two good ice cream shops, and if you can close your eyes and ears to the tour groups that troll through each day you can pretend you have stepped into a time warp.  It's not untypical to meet a visitor who has planned to stay only one night here deciding to stay on a few more days.  

air-conditioning the old-fashioned way
There's always a danger returning to somewhere you have great memories of.  Will it still be as special?  One thing we remembered was meeting lots of great overland travellers on their way to Pakistan and India.  Nowadays you can only get a Pakistan visa at home, so we're not expecting this.  But a nice surprise is finding three other cyclists here.  Gabor is from Hungary and Franzi and Jona are from Germany.  We are especially happy to learn that we are all heading to the Stans.  In Tehran we had met cyclist Raimon from Barcelona and somewhere else in Iran is Dan and Ollie, the young English guys we met in Istanbul.  The 'Tour de Central Asia' peloton is growing fast.  
we'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when

Another thing we remember about Yazd is how time here plays tricks with you. Blink and another day has passed.  Ali's buffet breakfasts seem endless.   The afternoon siesta lasts all day.  The sun sets and the moon rises in seconds.  We arrived yesterday but we've been here five days already.  Tourists lounge in the hotel patio checking smartphones for e-mails.  Step out into the twisting narrow lanes of the old bazaar and watch old men sawing wood in a workshop, baking bread, sewing shirts whilst women in black chadors waddle past with their shopping.

This city is one of the most conservative in Iran.  We have already been told that it's not possible to Couch Surf here, because the local authorities frown  on fraternising with foreigners.  We didn't realise this was such a big issue last time we came here, but when we meet Khoroush and he takes us out for dinner with his fiance, he tells us that he has texted the local police to notify them of our dinner date.  He's had problems in the past with the police, so we can't blame him.  But it certainly spooks us, and we wonder are we compromising him by wanting to see him again.  Happily he is preoccupied with his business, slightly stressed about new openings and stock flow and showing all the signs of a young entrepeneur about to take a risk with a new venture.  He looks very happy with his girlfriend Roxanna.  When we first met he was a young guy who wasn't really settled - we felt worried for his future.  Now he looks like a man with a plan.

usual story: one man working and two giving encouragement

Last time we visited Yazd in 2008 we left our hearts here.  This time I leave a molar. I've just enjoyed my nth chicken curry and the tooth next to the one that's just had root canal work feels sore.  The ache becomes pronounced.  There's nothing for it but a trip to the dentist.  An hour later the dentist is showing me the decayed tooth on an x-ray.  Too bad for root canal treatment.  It wobbles when he pokes it.  I get an injection and then he puts something resembling a pedal spanner in my mouth and after a tug left and right pulls out the poor molar.  I am relieved that the pain is over.  Gayle is relieved that the cost is low.  But how will I be able to chew all that mutton that beckons in The Stans???
fancy tilework at the Friday Mosque

Monday, 7 April 2014


Cycling along the hard shoulder of the main road a young guy on a motorbike idles alongside us.  After our recent experience I warily wonder if he wants to rob us, although there is enough traffic around for us to feel safe.  He smiles but then he reaches into his jacket pocket.  I look for the tell-tale flash of glinting steel as the knife appears.  He reaches out and thrusts it towards me.  It is round and orange and he pushes it into my hand before catching up to Gayle and repeating the gesture.  With a rev of the engine he rides off.  We stop immediately to consume his gift.

that's an awful lot of guano
The road out of Esfahan is not too busy.  Along the way we are deafened by tooting horns and waves and shouts from Iranians on holiday, roofs laden with suitcases.  We pass one of the huge old pigeon towers, built to house the thousands of birds that once provided the fields with fertiliser.  The road and the landscape are fairly flat.  We pass through a line of low hills and on into the sun-baked expanses, going at a fair old lick.  Around midday as our bodies heat up and our energy is dipping we are waved to a stop by a few men at a red crescent station beside the road.  They have a huge cooler full of orange juice.  We drink a couple of litres, accept the offer of biscuits and continue on with renewed vigour.  At the entrance to a small town there's a shady park with grass, pine trees, toilets and sinks with taps.  People have stopped for picnics and we join them.  After the sun, the shade is deliciously cold. We continue on in the late afternoon towards the village of Toudeshk where we know there's a homestay.  Of course, after a day of flat road, it ends with a long slow climb.  When we arrive we are happily tired - 100 kms is a long day after a break off the bike.

desert road
The next morning we continue up the road to a pass in the mountains which we know is the high point of our ride to Yazd.  Mohammed at the homestay has assured us it's all downhill from here.  Mohmammed doesn't cycle much so we're doubtful of this information.  He also has suggested we could complete the ride in two more days, although it's over 220 kms. Half an hour later we have descended a lovely long road and reached Na'in where we stock up on fruit and veg.  It's Nature Day in Iran - the 13th day of the New Year when everyone takes to the great outdoors.  Most shops are closed and the streets are busy with holidaymakers on their way home and daytrippers out for a jolly.  We are accosted by several people who want to talk and take our photos.  We are a bit dusty and sweaty - why on earth does anyone want to photograph us? Riding on we hit a headwind that slows us to a wobbly crawl.  For lunch we seek shelter in a tunnel under the road.  We have to waive the first few we look in as someone has paid a visit before us.  The highway here is out in the wide open desert.  There's nowhere else to hide if you need a toilet break.  Perhaps today is really Call Of Nature Day.

After lunch we decide to ride with music - the road has quietened, the hard shoulder is wide, and there's now a tailwind pushing us along.  It rains.  In the desert?  It rains.  We race along.  At a roadside restaurant we stop to collect water and two Baluchi men approach to chat.  Their three female companions are in full burkas and quickly disappear inside.  The men ask us if we are married.  We have no witty response to this tiresome question, and just lie.  Afterwards I wonder if they wanted to make me an offer for Gayle, to add to their collection.  Towards the end of the day we stop at some trees to see about wild camping.  The trees surround the roads leading to an iron and steel mill.   We um and ahh about camping near to an industrial plant - British spies captured in espionage mission! - before continuing up the road.  The highway is split in two directions by about three hundred metres of no-man's land.  Just as we're despairing finding any cover for the night we come to an abandoned building with walls bang in the middle of this no-man's land.  It's a crumbling abandoned ancient caravanserai.  Magical.  We tip off the road and push our bikes through a gap in the walls and into one of the gardens.  In front of the main building is a pool and ornamental garden.  The walls protect the outer fields from the wind.  There are furrowed plots and dessicated fig trees.  The underground water channel that once fed this oasis with mountain water has collapsed.  The adobe out-buildings are barely standing, but as we pitch our tent and put our bikes out to graze, we can pretend we are travellers in time on the old Silk Road from India.  Gazing up at the stars we reflect with satisfaction on our longest cycling day to date.

home sweet home in the caravanserai garden

Thursday, 3 April 2014


wonderful bridges over a dry river
This city is Iran's main draw card.  We came here in 2008 and we're happy to return, despite our little hiccup.   The city is busy with national tourists - the No Ruz holidays continue - so there's a buzz about the place.  The main square, built back in the 1600's when the city was Shah Abbas' capital, is a great architectural sight, with a grand mosque at one end, a fancy portal into the bazaar at the other, and an arcade all the way around.  To one side is a crumbling palace terrace and facing it, the smaller, but perfectly formed Sheik Lotfollah mosque.  The place is packed with people in holiday mood.  While I nurse my toothache Gayle revisits the Shah's Mosque (now rechristened renamed the Imam Khomeini Mosque).  She is gone for a while.  I watch as the bored drivers of the pony and traps carrying tourists around the square start to race each other.  Finally she emerges with a man at her elbow.  I understand now.  I wondered what would happen if Gayle walked around without me and now I know.  The first opportunity and some bloke starts chatting her up.  And he has no shame, still turning on the charm even as they get nearer.  And he's disguised as a mullah.  Crafty bugger.  They are speaking Spanish together.  He introduces himself and claims he wants to practice his Spanish. I give him the old "no entiendo amigo!" and try to walk off in a huff but he insists on a photo together.

mullah my arse

We wander through the bazaar, beyond the busy lanes and deeper into the quieter parts where the old shops are shuttered up and abandoned. Out the other side we emerge onto a busy shopping street.  This is where most of the trade is these days - in ordinary shops where locals can park outside, or double-park, without traipsing through the dusty old pedestrianised bazaar.  The car is bringing an end to traditional shopping.

mixed spice

Sitting in another big square we are surrounded by Iranian families who poke and prod us to see what we're made of, figuratively speaking that is.  A young child is pushed forwards to ask us where we are from, what are our names, the usual questions.  Before it gets tiresome, a film crew appear and the female director asks us to say what we think about Esfahan into the camera.  Our thirty-second platitude-filled effort is sure to be deleted. Walking up to the Friday Mosque the shopping intensity increases.  And then entering the huge open courtyard of the mosque all is peace and tranquility again.  We take our time examining the tilework inside and around the four large portals that overlook the courtyard.  A man with a feather duster remonstrates with women who are not wearing a chador - and directs them to the box of spares kept handy for visitors.  Gayle joins the trendy young Iranian women in skinny jeans and tight jackets who are being dusted into submission and dons the extra bit of material.  Meanwhile a chatty young boy shows off his good English to me.  He wonders whether we've had any problems cycling in Iran, especially Gayle, as it's illegal in Iran for women to ride bikes.  His English is good, but he clearly lacks criticial skills.  We explain that it is not illegal for women to ride bicycles in Iran.  Mohammed might not have gone to the mountain on a mountain bike, but nor is there anything in the Quran about it being forbidden to females.  A lightning bolt flashes down at my feet from the heavens.

mmm, would it work in our bathroom?
One evening, as we walk through one of the tree-filled parks, a young man starts chatting to us.  Before long he mentions a carpet shop.  We decline politely.  He urges us to come for a tea in any case.  We say we don't need a carpet.  He flashes back with a smile "You might not need a carpet, but I need your money".