Friday, 31 December 2010

Mumbai Madness

When we arrived at the airport in Dubai, we were told that Emirates had recently tightened their baggage restrictions and were now extremely strict, charging for each additional kg. It is frustrating that most airlines allow people to carry golf clubs free of charge, whereas there are no allowances made for bicycles. With a weight allowance of 30kg and our boxed bikes already weighing 21kg each, it was clear we would be over our weight allowance. We had 10kg too much, and were advised by the friendly check-in staff to buy an additional hand bag at a duty free shop to cram more weight into our hand luggage, which was unlikely to be checked. In the end, we got away with paying excess baggage charges for only 4kg, and we were glad that our bikes were accepted with no further fuss.||

Arriving in Mumbai a few hours later, we anxiously waited for our bikes to show up on the carousel, as there was no counter for oversized luggage. Eventually the luggage handlers proudly brought the bike boxes out, holding them upside down, despite the fact that we had marked the boxes with arrows and “this side up” signs. Clearly we were expected to pay a tip for their “help”.

We did, however, get special treatment at customs: whilst waiting in a long queue with everyone else for our bags to be x-rayed, a customs official questioned the contents of our bike boxes. “Are you on an expedition or something?”, he asked. “Kind of”, we said, upon which he waved us through, past everyone else, directly to the exit. There, we met a young guy from Pune who was a cyclist himself and very interested in our trip. A lovely welcome to India.

We had arranged an airport pickup through our hotel, as we were a little concerned about how to get the bikes into the city. This proved to be unnecessary, as many of the local taxis have roof racks that we could have put the bike boxes on.

Driving through Mumbai, a city with a population density of 29,000 per square km, there were too many impressions to take in at once: scores of 1950’s black and yellow taxis sharing the road with modern cars, the occasional cow, and cyclists carrying large tin containers that dangled from their racks. Groups of men drinking milky tea from road side stalls, with half naked children playing in the dusty street. A little stand selling fresh juice made from sugar canes, the smell of burning sandalwood keeping flies away. Shacks made of corrugated iron stacked three levels high, leaning precariously against a railway bridge. Behind the railway line, the edge of Asia’s largest slum, the Dharavi slum, housing over 1 million people. A shoeless boy panning the muddy drain water to anything of value. Mobile phone advertisements and cinemas showing Bollywood’s latest blockbusters. Finally, the relative calm of our hotel.

Mumbai taxi driver Street near hotel 

We spent most of the day catching up on sleep and enjoying the food at the nearby restaurants, as well as exploring the local market area. The food was amazing and although we had indulged in many Indian dishes back in London, it took our taste buds to places we had never imagined. At a Thali place, we were served 7 different types of vegetarian curries, dhals and pickles, with rice, different types of bread and sauces. There was an art to combining the various foods that were on offer, as the staff explained to us: the firmer curries were eaten with bread, the watery dhal with rice, the thick dhal with a yoghurt based sauce, the crispy bread with a mango dip, etc. Their eyes widened in horror when Guy ended up experimenting by wildly combining the various dishes, following no rules whatsoever.

The food is very cheap, and for around $4 we can get a huge meal for the two of us. We had been worried about the food in India being too spicy for us, but so far we have been fine. As some Indians told us, there are only certain regions where the food is very spicy (even too spicy for them!).

Despite being very busy, the area we were staying in was not that touristy, and therefore there were no touts to deal with. We must admit, we had been a little apprehensive about coming to India. Guy had travelled in northern India 8 years ago and had been entertaining Freddie with horror stories of pushy touts and grumpy people. Much to our delight, we have found the people quite friendly and helpful so far. When some curious men making flower garlands for a local temple presented Freddie with a flower, and a man selling pressure gauges invited us into his shop for a chat about philosophy, Freddie shot Guy an incredulous look. “I swear it wasn’t like this,” he said, “this never happened to me last time!” We conclude that either India has changed, Guy has changed, or the people in Mumbai are simply a friendlier lot than their cousins up north. 

The colonial heritage is still very present in Mumbai, and many buildings look as if they could be located in London or Oxford, except for the palm and banana trees lining them. The climate at the moment is near perfect – dry and sunny, but not too hot. We enjoyed wandering around the city, visiting the Gateway of India and its surrounding area, which teemed with tourists and accompanying touts, as well as plenty of police men due to a recent terror warning. We payed our respects to the place Mahatma Gandhi had lived and worked in, an airy house in a quiet leafy street hosting an impressive collection of photographs, exhibits and letters.

Gandhi on bike Gandhis house

As expected, Indians are mad about cricket, and we have seen many impromptu cricket games, be it in the back streets of the slums, an alley behind our hotel, or the lovely cricket ground near the university. The players are as diverse as the locations and range from street kids to bank managers.

Office man playing cricket Mumbai cricket pitch

After being unceremoniously kicked out of a garden which was apparently reserved for senior citizens only, we enjoyed strolling around Chowpatty beach in the center of Mumbai with other families who were eating ice cream and watching the sunset. One family was holding a wedding and had hired a whole sports stadium for the occasion – apparently it is not uncommon for weddings to cost upwards of $150,000. Entertaining hundreds of guests over several days does not come cheap!

Chowpatty beach Chowpatty beach 2

India at the moment is a place of great promise: the world is coming to India to begin the fight over its huge market of over 1 billion people. With a strong economy and good education, there is now a burgeoning middle class who shops, dines and travels like their counterparts in the West. We got a glimpse of this world when we met up with Abhishek and his wife Priya. Freddie had been friends with Abhishek at university 10 years ago, and Abhishek then moved to the US to do his MBA before getting married and working in Dubai. He has now moved back to Mumbai to work in his father’s textile business. They picked us up for dinner one night, and whisked us away to a shopping mall. We felt like we had been transported back to Dubai; all the designer brands were there, along with the usual coffee shops and trendy restaurants. We even spotted our first Bollywood star! (Don’t ask us what his name was!).

A few days later, we also met up with Amol, a colleague of Freddie’s dad who lives in Pune and had made the 4 hour journey to Mumbai to see us, as he is very interested in travelling and enjoys trekking and cycling. He and his extremely cute four year old son were decked out in matching red T-shirts and baseball caps and took us out for a lovely long lunch. Amol works as an IT project manager and travels a lot for work. He shared some great insights about the Indian culture with us and gave us some useful tips regarding places to visit in the south of India. We really enjoyed their company.

Amol and son  David Sassoon Library

We have found Mumbai to be a place of extremes, and have needed a strong stomach at times. While the middle and upper classes enjoy affluence and a modern lifestyle, 55% of the Mumbai population live in slums or other improvised accommodation. At night, many people sleep on the footpath in front of our hotel. During the day, they sell things on the streets or transport goods with their rickety wooden two-wheelers. Sometimes we see women with small children sleeping on pieces of cardboard on the street, and once we could not help staring when we spotted a young woman washing a newborn baby (umbilical cord still present) in the gutter outside a train station. Quite often, we see people missing limbs or being handicapped in some other way, living on the street.

On our last day, we joined an eye opening walking tour of the Dharavi slum. We think the experience deserves its own blog post, so more on this later!

Our plan was to take a train down to Goa, from where we will start cycling again. We went down to the historical railway station, another relic of colonial times, which was teeming with travellers, beggars, and chihuahua sized rats. To organise our train ticket, we joined an orderly queue at a special counter for foreigners. We are lucky that the Indian railway system usually holds a quota of tickets for foreigners; Indians have to plan ahead as the trains are often booked out for months in advance. Ticket in hand, we enquired about the process of getting the bikes on the train. We received several different answers from different employees, ranging from “just get there an hour before the train leaves, and you can take them for free”, to “you need to hand them over a day in advance and pay a fee”.

As our train left early in the morning, we decided to take the bikes to the luggage office the previous afternoon. We had strapped them on the roof rack of a taxi, and as soon as we arrived at the station, some guys approached us offering help. Apparently the luggage office was closed on Sundays, so they were calling someone to take the bikes for us. This seemed very iffy to us, and when Freddie started walking in the direction of the luggage office to investigate, the story suddenly changed to “your luggage will sit there for hours, better give them to us”. Of course the luggage office was open, and the touts left disappointed.

Our boxes were weighed and we were told they were inappropriately packed for railway travel, and we had to get them professionally packed. However, the packaging wallah disagreed and said they were fine. We added to the confusion by asking the luggage clerk if it was possible to get insurance for the bikes, and were eventually told we should wait for his boss to arrive.

When we came back half an hour later, we were told we had to pay 700 rupees each. “Is that for the insurance?”, Freddie enquired, and the luggage clerk proceeded to perform the legendary Indian head waggle. It means neither yes nor no, is entirely non-committal and utterly frustrating for the traveller. After waggling his head for a minute or so he disappeared. For a while, the boss ignored us, but then our forms were filled in and we were asked for a fee of 400 rupees. We were still in the dark about the insurance but finally read their behaviour as “well, there is maybe some kind of insurance, but we don’t really know how to deal with it.”

The following morning, when the train arrived at the station, there was no sign of our boxes. Guy went back to the luggage office and found them there, still untouched. It was promising we had located our bikes, but unfortunately the luggage handlers were refusing to put them on the train. A bribe was obviously expected, and after we paid our 150 rupees, the bikes were finally loaded. We were on our way!

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Abu Dhabi and the Western Region

Hanging out in Dubai for 3 weeks is an expensive undertaking, particularly on a tight cycle tourer’s budget. We hadn’t had much luck with finding free accommodation through Couchsurfing or Warmshowers, so we were staying in a hotel. That’s why we were quite excited when Chris contacted us from South Africa via Twitter and suggested we could stay with his daughter Melanie, who lives in Abu Dhabi. ||

A few days later we gathered our belongings, leaving the boxed bicycles in our hotel in Dubai. There is a regular bus service between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and we arrived at Abu Dhabi bus station in the late afternoon. Somehow we hadn’t arranged an exact time with Melanie beforehand, so when we called her, we found out that she was actually in Dubai for the day. We had a few hours to kill before she came back, but with 25kg of luggage each, wrapped up in two plastic beach bags, we were not very mobile. There was a mall nearby, and we eventually solved our dilemma by loading all of our belongings into a shopping trolley. Tramp look complete, we shuffled to the flashy shopping mall, trudging past the designer stores and fancy cafes to kill some time.

Eventually Melanie came to our rescue and picked us up in her 4WD Pajero. Her flat was a bit out of town as she wanted the space for her two little doggies to run around, Daisy and Jackie. We felt instantly at ease with bubbly Melanie who works for the national health service implementing an IT system. She has been living in Saudi Arabia and the UAE for 9 years, so she was able to give us some fantastic insights into Emirati life and culture.

Melanie had to work during the week, and we spent a few days taking Daisy and Jackie out for walks, hanging out at the coffee shops in the local mall, and trudging back and forth between Abu Dhabi and Dubai to sort out our Indian visas.

Though working all day Melanie was kind enough to drive us around Abu Dhabi. One of the highlights is the stunning Emirates Palace. This is a luxurious grand hotel which was recently built and is apparently a replica of the Sheikh’s palace. In the hotel foyer they have erected a 13m high Christmas tree decorated with glistening jewels. The Christmas tree actually broke the Guiness World Record for the most expensively decorated tree, as it is embellished with jewels worth over US $11 million! We also amused ourselves with a gold vending machine, which looks like a drinks machine and spits out gold necklaces and trinkets, some worth as much as US $3,000. Unfortunately we ran out of change around the $2 mark. The most interesting part of the hotel is an exhibition about the future of Abu Dhabi, as they are planning to build some amazing new art galleries. The architecture for the planned Guggenheim museum, a branch of the Louvre and the Maritime museum is breathtakingly futuristic.

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On the weekend, Melanie took us for a drive to Liwa oasis in the Western Region of the UAE, near the Saudi border. On the way we visited the Emirates National Auto Museum, which was officially closed, though we managed to convince the attendant to open it for us in exchange for a tip. The museum is the private collection of the “Rainbow Sheikh”, so named because he once bought a selection of 7 Mercedes 500 SEL painted in different colours – one for each day of the week. These are exhibited in the museum, along with about 250 other antique and modern cars. The most impressive display is a monster Dodge Power Wagon, build to a scale of 64:1. Other cars fit comfortably underneath, and the wheels are about 3m high. This is used to pull a giant motor home containing 8 bedrooms, complete with balconies, in which the Sheikh used to go “camping”. Quite a contrast to our little Boris.

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We did see some other rich Emiratis on a camping trip in the desert later that day. We were having lunch on some sand dunes enjoying the desert silence when a bright red Hummer roared past. The driver and passengers were dressed in the traditional Emirati dress, with a white floor length gown, Arab scarf covering their head, and the obligatory designer sunglasses. They were all cheerfully waving to us, and were followed by two pickup trucks carrying all their camping equipment – carpet, tables, chairs etc! Melanie said that this was quite common, and she was once invited to a camping trip where everyone laughed at her when she brought her little tent along, as the camp had already been luxuriously set up for all guests by a number of servants.

Even though they may live in the cities and hold high-powered corporate or government jobs, many rich Emiratis also have a camel or date farm in the desert where they like to spend their weekends. This includes the royal families of Abu Dhabi and Dubai who originally hail from the Liwa area. At heart, they are still nomadic desert people and feel at home in these vast expanses of sand dunes.

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We spent the day admiring the undulating golden dune landscape, venturing off the tarmac here and there, and in the evening happened upon the Dhafra Festival, which is one of the highlights in the UAE’s cultural calendar and promotes desert life and heritage. People come from all over the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman to attend the festival. First, we visited the camel race track, where we watched camels being trained for the race. Races usually take place in the morning, and there was big prize money of half a million US$ on offer for the winner! We then visited the traditional Souk with its numerous market stalls selling Emirati food, camping equipment, camel saddles and, above all, many sparkly camel accessories which are used to decorate the camels for a Camel Beauty Pageant! Rather than walking around to browse the stalls, many locals never got out of their flashy white Landcruisers, driving past the stalls and lowering the window to place an order when something took their fancy.

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Melanie speaks some Arabic and was able to communicate with most of the ladies at the market stalls. At one stall, we ordered some milky tea and were promptly invited to sit down inside by a bubbly 10 year old girl. Her mum, clad in a black floor length Abbeya and a head scarf covering her face, refused our money and gave us a box of dates from her farm. The family owned a date and camel farm and they were very keen for us to visit them if we were ever in the area.

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The colourful festival offered a fantastic insight into traditional Emirati life and culture. There really is a lot more to the UAE than just the modern skyscrapers and shopping malls of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

We had another great experience the following morning. Melanie had offered to drive us back to Dubai, via the oasis city of Al Ain. On our way, we came past a camel race course where a race was just about to begin. The race was broadcast live on TV, and the proud camel owners were more than happy for us to have a stroll around the compound where camels were being prepared.

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The track is 10km long, and the camel owners drive alongside the camels in their 4WDs to shout encouragement. The outside of the track is reserved for spectators. Entry is free, and we simply drove onto the dirt track and followed the racing camels along the track. The camels race at 35-40 kph. There are no jockeys, but each camel has an electronic, voice activated whip attached to their rears. The more the owner shouts into his microphone, the faster the whip hits his camel. It sounds horrible, but in reality the whips look quite weak and most of them don’t work very well.

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Al Ain was a lovely green desert oasis city. Melanie had to drop off a key with one of her colleagues there, a young Palestinian guy. He showed us a restaurant where we could buy some lunch to take for a picnic, and in a true display of Middle Eastern hospitality, insisted on paying for it. Outside of Al Ain, we found a lovely picnic spot near some hot springs, and drove up to the highest mountain of the UAE afterwards, from where we had a view all the way to Oman.

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After a fantastic week with Melanie, it was time for us to return to Dubai for some last minute shopping to prepare ourselves for India. We are glad that we had the opportunity to see a different side of the UAE, rather than just limiting ourselves to Dubai’s glittery malls and skyscrapers.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas from sunny Mumbai! May peace, health and happiness be with you.

Today, we were invited by a local woman to attend Christmas carols in a cathedral in the south of Mumbai, but as most people in Mumbai are Hindus or Muslims, we don’t see too much Christmas activity in the streets. ||

As usual we will celebrate twice: first comes the German Christmas, which is celebrated on the 24th, and then the Australian Christmas on the 25th. Freddie’s family in Hamburg is enjoying a white Christmas with plenty of snow for the first time in many years, while Guy’s family is planning a hopefully warm and sunny Christmas lunch in Melbourne. Meanwhile, we will celebrate Indian style at our favourite local restaurant in Mumbai!

Next time you are umming and aahing about the cost of your Christmas decoration, think about the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi who dished out US $11 million to decorate the world’s most expensive tree (see photo)…

Merry Christmas

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Dubai: Air Conditioned Perfection

Walking into our glitzy hotel foyer it felt as if we had entered another world. Polished floors, a glistening chandelier, a serene ambience. Everyone looked so well fed, so well groomed. Catching our reflection in the lift mirrors as we went up to our room we couldn’t help but laugh: we were grubby, our clothes faded and grease stained, hair ruffled, it was clear we were in need of a good wash if we were ever going to cut it in this town. ||

Scrubbed and trimmed we ventured outside in search of a grocery store to buy a few provisions. Looking around it became clear that Dubai is not a place for street shopping. Everything was encased in big malls, not a small shop in sight. 8 and 10 lane highways twisted around the towering skyscrapers, and as pedestrians we felt vulnerable and insignificant. The roads are built like Formula One tracks and the flashy cars zipping around treat them like it.

For those of you that don’t know us we are more tree huggers than urbanites so we tend to avoid malls, but walking into the entrance of the Deira City Center, feeling the blast of air conditioning strip away the searing heat we could have sworn we were walking through the pearly gates of heaven. We had forgotten about all the delightful little luxuries we had missed out on in the last few months. Posters in shop front windows screamed at us to BUY, BUY, BUY. Everything we wanted and needed was there, all under one glorious roof. We headed for the nearest cafe, sat down, looked at the prices, stood up, then skipped off to the supermarket. It was clear we would be doing a lot of window shopping for the next few weeks (we ended up spending 3 weeks in Dubai waiting for our Indian visa). Our favourite shopping mall became the Dubai Mall, not only due to its free Wifi service, but also its gigantic aquarium. In the middle of the shopping mall, a huge vinyl window allows for hours of free entertainment, watching several types of sharks, stingrays and dozens of other types of fish floating through the aquarium with up to six divers joining them at any time.

The following morning Freddie’s father arrived, after flying all the way from Hamburg to visit us. After over indulging in the breakfast buffet we met Jörg, a colleague of Freddie’s father who had been living and working in Dubai for several years. We jumped in his air conditioned 4WD and scooted downtown through the urban forest of Dubai to check out some of the highlights. So many of the buildings are a showcase in modern day architecture and supreme engineering but the grand daddy of them all, the enormous Burj Khalifa, is the real spectacle. The Burj Khalifa was previously known as the Burj Dubai before Abu Dhabi’s president and ruler of UAE Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan propped up Dubai’s flailing economy after the economic bust in 2008 and asked for the building to be renamed. Towering at some 828 meters it is currently the world’s tallest building and an awesome sight with it’s jaggered edges and glistening metallic skin. At sunset there is a fantastic musical fountain that swirls and shoot jets of water up to 150 meters into the air, all perfectly synchronised to thumping Arabic music with the glistening Burj Khalifa towering in the background.

Burj Khalifa, 828m    Burj al Arab hotel

As we drove through the city we soon got an understanding of the rather rigid class system within the UAE. Emiratis lucky enough to be born into one of the royal families are the ones driving the absolute top of the range luxury cars complete with traditional white robes (“dishdashas”) and Ray Bans. They have an air of confidence as they motor at high speed tooting anyone that gets in their way. Next are the nationals that are not of royal blood, though still well off as they are also supported by the Sheikh and encouraged to be active business men through a variety of lucrative grants. No foreign ownership is allowed without partnering with a national so many have found riches through this avenue – their favourite vehicle is the white Landcruiser. Emiratis only make up 20% of the population of Dubai, but they are clearly in control of the country. (Interestingly we later learned that the Emiratis were really quite poor before they discovered oil and used to commonly work in Mumbai carrying loads at the ports and railway stations). Coming in third are the western expats with their lower end 4WDs, followed close behind by skilled professionals from India, the Middle East and Asia.

Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, African and South East Asian workers bring up the rear and have a very different lifestyle than the rest. Most are unskilled labourers on low pay working largely in construction and often in substandard conditions. They’ve come to support their families back home or escape persecution. Their vehicles of choice are pickup trucks, buses and creaky old bicycles.

Jörg took us down to his favourite little beach spot, with gin clear waters and the Dubai skyline shimmering in the background. In true Dubai style the spot had now been converted to a building site as another luxurious hotel was rising from the sands.

Driving through Dubai   Guy with Freddie's dad and Jörg

With minimal drinking in Turkey and Iran the general consensus was to head to the nearest watering hole. Though Dubai is dry, it’s fine to have the odd sherbet at specific venues. Luckily Jörg knew of just the place so we ended up at an Irish pub and soon consumed a Guinness and hearty Chicken pie. We have found the diversity and quality of food in Dubai fantastic, perhaps in part it is related to our 3 month long Kebab diet.

The following day we visited the very compact “historical area” of Dubai which largely surrounds The Creek  - a river which served as a trading hub for pearls divers and spice merchants for centuries. It is still a bustling hub of activity where Dhows are loaded with goods for their long voyage to India or East Africa. The Dubai Museum (squashed in between skyscrapers) is really the one and only place to get an impression of Dubai’s past. It was very informative and mind blowing to think that a sleepy desert city has sprung up to what it is today in such a short time. Interestingly the exhibits of the traditional traders had a very strong resemblance to what we saw in parts of Iran today.

Dhow on The Creek   "Heritage" hotel

Though both are oil rich gulf countries, the difference in standard of living between Iran and the UAE is extreme. In Iran the majority of people seem to be low middle class, where UAE nationals are very well provided for. Where the UAE are starting reforestation projects in an effort to reclaim some of the desert, Iran managed to destroy a large part of their wilderness in just over a decade. In Iran funding for the arts is severely drying up whilst the UAE invest heavily as they plan to build a branch of the Louvre, an opera house and Guggenheim museum.

Heavily focussed on moving away from their oil dependency which accounted for 75% of the economy in the early 80’s they have now reduced this to 25%. Though oil rich with still massive reserves the UAE are moving ahead with a US $22 billion project to develop the world’s first carbon neutral zero waste city. It’s hard not to be impressed with their vision and determination to progress and take on ambitious projects, it’s an exciting can-do attitude, where dreams really are turned into reality.

The next morning we said a sad farewell to Freddie’s father and loaded him up with kit not required for India and South East Asia, largely our tent and old companion Boris. We were able to convince Boris that a European winter will be more enjoyable than camping it up in India where it is likely he will be taken apart by monkeys. It was a difficult choice as we lose our independence but we also know from other travellers that the chances of camping in India without being disturbed are pretty much nil.

Our stay at the IBIS hotel was a lovely gift from Freddie’s father but now we needed to downgrade to something cheaper and ideally with kitchen facilities and space to work on the bikes. So we packed up our bikes and a little hesitantly cycled across town to our new abode, where the lively and cheeky Philippino manager took delight in calling us Mr and Mrs Bike.

The following day was dedicated to cleaning and boxing the bikes in preparation for India. It tooke us a whole day as it was the first time we had boxed our bicycles. We also managed to finally catch up with Jet and Jen, a British cycling couple who had been closely behind us since Istanbul. In Esfahan, we had missed them by only half a day, so we were glad to finally meet up with them in person. We may see them again in India.

Freddie working on bikes   Guy boxing bikes

Our objective for the next few days was to book our flight to Goa, from where we plan to cycle around the tip of the Indian peninsula to Chennai, a journey of around 2100 km. We ran around to various airlines agencies to ask about their bike policy and found that Emirates and Jet Air seemed to be the best choices. Prices were rising every day as it was getting closer to the busy holiday season, and all direct flights to Goa were either booked out or did not accept bikes. This meant we had to fly via Mumbai or Bengaluru and change to a domestic flight there. Many of the domestic flights are operated with small ATR planes and don’t accept bicycles, plus our weight allowance would drop to 20kg for the domestic segment compared to 30kg for the international flight. In any case we found a cheap flight to Goa via Bengaluru and tried to book it online, but the payment process kept falling over, and when we phoned the airline they were unable to even see the flight on their system.

It was now close to midnight, and in a last minute huff we gave up trying to fly to Goa. It was simply too complicated. We quickly looked for a cheap flight to Mumbai, booked it and went to sleep, deciding to worry about getting to Goa later. Perhaps it was a regrettable decision as we will now have to find a way of transporting our kit to Goa, and we know the Indian train system is chaotic at the best of times. However, one big benefit of going to Mumbai is that we will be able to catch up with some friends there – Abhishek, Freddie’s friend from her university days, and Amol, who we have been in email contact with and who is planning to travel to Mumbai all the way from Pune to meet up with us.

But first, we had some time to kill in the UAE whilst waiting for our visa to come through.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Obtaining an Indian Visa in Dubai

This post is for the benefit of other travellers who are considering their options about obtaining a visa for India. We have met several people in this situation, and as there doesn’t seem to be much information about this on the internet, we decided to post our experiences. This information is current as of December 2010 and obviously only reflects our own experiences. ||

When we planned our bike trip from London to Melbourne, we had hoped to get our Indian visa in Turkey, but this turned out not to be feasible. As of summer 2010, new regulations meant that India was only issuing 3 month visas to people applying outside of their home country. The time starts ticking as soon as you receive the visa, so this was not an option for us as we had to cycle through Turkey and Iran first, before we even reached India.

For us, the best option was to apply in Dubai, as it was on our route and there was an Indian consulate. We were planning to fly from Dubai to India, so we could really make the most of our 3 month visa. We submitted our application at the Central Post Office in the Karama district of Dubai. The office is open Saturday – Thursday from 8am to 8pm. We had to submit the following:

- Visa application form, downloadable from the consulate website

- Two recent passport sized photos

- Original passport and photocopy of the photo page of the passport

- Photocopy of the UAE visa or entry stamp

- Reference form with a clear address in your home country, downloadable from the consulate website. This is used for faxing the Indian representation in your home country to ask if there are any objections to you travelling to India – if they don’t hear anything back within 3 days, they consider this to mean “no objections”

- Copy of a hotel booking confirmation in India (we just booked a hotel for one night and cancelled the booking later)

We had to pay a fee of 140 AED on application. Our passports were checked and handed back to us. We were told that the processing time was 6-7 working days to approve the application, plus 2 more days to place the visa in your passport. The catch is that all non-working days either in the UAE or in your home country don’t count. For us it meant that Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and any public holidays did not count as working days (our nationalities are Australian and German), so the process took around 2 weeks in total.

We were given a barcode and an internet address where we could check the progress of our application. After 5 working days, the application had been approved. This meant that we had to go back to the visa office to submit our passports and pay an additional fee of 150 AED. The passports were then sent to the consulate to place our visa stickers in.

Normally the passports would then be sent back to us by courier, but as we did not have a consistent address or reliable mobile phone number in Dubai, we were told we could go and pick them up ourselves 2 days later. We much preferred this anyway as we did not like the idea of entrusting our passports to the mail system. To pick up our passports, we had to go to a different Empost office near the airport.

When we got there at the appointed time, we were in for a shock: Guy’s passport was not on the system, and we were told it might arrive the next evening. Freddie’s passport had been delivered to some guy called Rudy, address unknown! Eventually the courier was called and explained that he had delivered the passport to a hotel we had previously stayed at, so we went and picked it up there.

The following evening, we called and were told Guy’s passport was still not ready. After kicking up a bit of a fuss, we were told to get in touch with the consulate directly to find out what the reason for the delay was. When we finally got in touch with them, we were told that they “were unable to locate the visa application” – i.e. they had lost it! Luckily they still had the passport, and we were asked to visit the consulate immediately to sort this out.

Arriving at the consulate, the officer asked Guy for a passport photo, an application form, and … his passport! A moment of panic ensued, with Guy almost losing it when he said to the officer: “YOU have my passport!” While we filled in the application form, the officer managed to locate the passport, and finally the visa sticker was put in. We both had received a 3 month visa for India, after 15 days of waiting.

Lessons: Try to provide a reliable address when you first apply, as address changes seem to cause confusion. It also helps to have a reliable mobile phone number. The rest is a question of luck!

Of course this information is subject to change. You can check for up to date information on the website of the Indian Consulate. Click on Services – Visa and scroll down to the section for tourist visas for non-UAE residents.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

10 Tips for Cycling Iran

We spent almost two months in Iran and covered 2,300km by bicycle in the country. We entered Iran from Turkey at Maku and passed through Tabriz, Esfahan and Shiraz before we left by ferry from Bandar Abbas. Here are our top 10 tips for cycling in Iran.

1. Organise your visa in advance. It is currently not possible to get a visa on arrival. Arrange your visa in advance, e.g. through www.iranianvisa.com or www.stantours.com, then pick it up from an Iranian embassy. If you are passing through Turkey, Istanbul is an easy place to pick up your visa if you have arranged a preapproval through one of the above agencies. The end date on the visa is the final date you can enter the country, not the date you need to exit. Generally you get 30 days, but you can extend it while in the country. Esfahan (same day for us) and Shiraz are currently known to be fairly easy places to extend, while Tabriz, Yazd and Tehran get less helpful reports.

2. Cash up before entering the country. Make sure you take enough cash for your entire stay, as there are no ATMs in Iran. US Dollars, Euros and British Pounds are probably the best currencies to take. It can be nerve racking to take large amounts of cash with you, but bear in mind that Iran is a very safe country to travel.

3. Take your high viz gear, helmet and rear view mirror. The main roads in Iran can be very busy and dangerous, with heavy truck traffic especially in the Northwest between the Turkish border and Tehran / Esfahan, and there is not always a shoulder to ride on. The South and East of the country are quieter. Try to stick to smaller more remote roads if possible.

4. Be prepared to carry more food and water. Unlike in Turkey, there are not many water points to fill up in and towns can be few and far between. Summers can get extremely hot, increasing your need for water, and you’ll also need some extra for camping, so make sure you have enough capacity. Grocery shops in Iran are quite basic and may not stock what you need, so make sure you always have enough emergency food with you.

5. Make the most of desert wild camps. The Iranian desert can be a fantastic place to camp, and we’ve had some of our favourite wild camps there, gazing at falling stars and enjoying the tranquillity. Sometimes you might end up on flat plains with nowhere to hide your tent, but if you wait until dusk and then walk out into the desert for a few hundred metres, you will be pretty much invisible from the road. Shepherds roam far and wide so it is possible they will discover you, though we found they had nothing more than a mild curiosity.

6. Camp for free in city parks. You can also camp in most city parks for free, and there might even be a night watchman. Iranians love camping and often picnic and sleep in the city parks during the stifling summer months. Be prepared to be the star attraction.

7. Cover up to follow the local dress code. Iran has strict laws regarding the dress code, particularly for women, and yes – you’ll have to follow it even whilst cycling. This can be challenging, particularly during summer. A head scarf must be worn at all times. Instead of a regular head scarf, Freddie used a Buff (worn balaclava style) under her helmet while cycling, which was much more practical as it doesn’t slip. As a woman, you’ll also need to wear long trousers or leggings, and a long sleeved shirt or coat that goes down to mid-thigh to cover your behind. For guys, shorts is fine, except in more sensitive areas like Mosques.

8. Carry some small gifts and be prepared to entertain. Iranian hospitality is famous, and you’re likely to be invited to stay with some local families during your journey. Come prepared with a small gift, some dates or halva are a good start, or small mementoes from your home country. For invitations with families who don’t speak your language, come prepared with some entertainment materials as Iranians love to interact and are really curious. We passed the time with a Point-It book, a world map, language guide and family photos. Be prepared to be quizzed and even to sing for your supper!

9. Keep your cool if you get questioned by officials. You may be stopped and questioned at some point during your trip. Stay calm and polite, answer the questions and they will probably leave you alone. Also be careful what you say in blogs and when taking photos, especially near military areas and power plants. We posted some of our blog posts once we were out of the country, and our blog was subsequently banned in Iran.

10. Leave your preconceptions at home. Don’t worry too much about what you read in the press. Whilst it’s wise to stay away from protests and large gatherings and not to take photos of sensitive areas, day to day the people are extremely welcoming and very open about their opinion regarding the government. Check foreign office advice for an update on the situation.

Cycling route Iran

Here’s a link to all our Iran blog posts.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Bandar Abbas to Dubai by Ferry

From Bandar Abbas, we were planning to take a ferry to Dubai. As well as the story of our crossing, this post also contains some practical information for other travellers wishing to do the same.||

We visited a travel agency in Bandar Abbas to buy our ferry tickets. There are a couple of agencies on the main street that sell these tickets – we used Bala Parvaz Travel Agency, which is opposite Ghods Hotel.

At time of writing, the tickets cost US $100 each. We had to show our passports and make our payment in Iranian Rials.

As of December 2010, the ferries run every Monday and Wednesday evening at 8pm. However, the ferry schedules are notoriously changeable. We had emailed the guys from www.irantravelingcenter.com in advance to find out the latest schedule and found them quite helpful.

On the day of our ferry crossing, we cycled to the ferry terminal in the afternoon. It is the Bahona Port, which is about 7km west of the city center, near the big roundabout where the main road turns north. Do not take any photos of the terminal! It is considered a government area and the officials can get touchy about it.

We had been told to arrive by 5pm but got there a bit earlier. We were told to lean our bicycles on a counter, and then waited in the sitting area. Around 5pm, everyone queued up to get their boarding cards from a little desk. Make sure you have a spare photocopy of your passport to hand. If you don’t have one, you will have to take a taxi back into town, as there are no photocopying facilities at the terminal.

Once we had our boarding cards, we waited around for a few more hours. People started checking in their luggage, but we were told to wait until everyone else was done. Meanwhile, we were befriended by a “fellow traveller” who spoke good English. Shortly afterwards, he turned up again with some immigration officials who started firing aggressive questions at us, while he translated. He seemed to be quite chummy with them, and we did notice a few other “fellow travellers” loitering around who actually never went on the ferry in the end… The questions we were asked were designed to provoke, but we kept our cool and eventually they disappeared with our passports for a while, before they left to pick on another foreign traveller.

The French father of a family travelling on our ferry was taken away for questioning, which lasted about an hour. The officials asked him about his itinerary, his views on politics and religion, the people he had met while in Iran and what they had talked about etc. They also checked his laptop and went through his photos to verify his story.

Finally we were allowed to go through. The baggage handlers did not seem to be used to people with bicycles. After considering for a while what to do with us, they waved us on, so that we could wheel the bikes on to the ferry ourselves. This suited us fine. Several other cyclists we know had told us that the baggage handlers had asked them for a special fee (read “bribe”) to load their bicycles on to the ferry. One group was asked to pay $50 per bike, and another one to pay $25 per bike. If you are asked, keep refusing, make a fuss and you will probably get away without paying. We had been well prepared: When we bought our tickets, we got the travel agent to call the manager of the terminal to make sure bikes were included in our ticket price. The travel agent also gave us the name and mobile phone number of the manager in case of any trouble. Of course, when you are this well prepared, nothing ever happens!

After the passport check, we had to separate and go into little rooms for our baggage to be checked. As Freddie entered the women’s room, there were two ladies who seemed to be quite surprised to see a bicycle and didn’t really know what to do with it. One lady poked Freddie’s handlebar bag with her finger and then just waved her through.

Guy had no such luck. Ín the men’s room, all of his panniers were thoroughly searched. The purpose of every item was questioned, and they even went through his bag with dirty laundry, much to Guy’s delight! While everyone else was boarding the ferry, Guy’s bike was still being searched until he was finally cleared for travel. We wheeled our bikes on the ferry and made ourselves at home. The ferry was quite empty, so most people had a whole bench to themselves, which was great for sleeping.

We were lucky as the ferry left with only 2 hours delay, whereas we had heard from others that 4-5 hours delay are not uncommon. We got a free dinner, and breakfast the next morning. The whole journey took about 11 hours. The ferry is still considered Iranian territory, so Freddie had to keep her head scarf on until we entered the UAE.

On arrival at the port, some of our bags were checked for undesirables, and we were eventually given a free 30 day visa. The port is actually located in Sharjah, not in Dubai. There is a highway from Sharjah into Dubai, but it is very dangerous to cycle. The traffic moves super fast, hard shoulder is infrequent, they don’t expect cyclists and you sometimes have to cross up to 4 lanes of merging traffic. Therefore we decided not to cycle into Dubai. As the taxis were too small to take our bikes, we went out of the port building to a roundabout and flagged down some pickups to ask if they would take us into Dubai. It took a while, but eventually we found someone who was willing to take us for a fair price, around AED 120.

Arriving in Dubai after the ordeal of clearing Iranian immigration and customs, we felt relief, and Freddie was finally head scarf free after 7 weeks in Iran, hoooraaaay!

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Iran: Filling in the Gaps

While we published some blog posts during our time in Iran, we also wrote quite a few posts that included material which the authorities may have taken offence to. After a couple of encounters with the secret police early in our trip, we decided not to post these blogs whilst in the country.

Over the last week or so we have backdated and published all the “missing” posts, listed below in chronological order.||

We hope you enjoy reading about our adventures, from exploring desert cities and the ancient ruins of Persepolis, to sleeping in highway underpasses, encountering camels and surviving the extreme Iranian hospitality.

Iranian Blues
Maku – Marand

Suleyman The Terrible
Marand - Tabriz

Tabriz: an insight into Iranian lives
Tabriz

High on fumes
Tabriz - Zanjan

From Persian carpets to highway underpasses
Zanjan - Saveh

Express to Esfahan
Saveh - Esfahan

Yazd: A Silk Road City
Yazd

Extreme Hospitality, Desert Camps and Ancient Cities
Esfahan - Shiraz

Downhill to the Persian Gulf
Shiraz – Bandar Abbas

Meanwhile, our photo galleries from Iran are also live. Iran North covers the section from the Turkish border to Esfahan, which has its own separate Esfahan gallery, and the Iran South gallery covers everything south of Esfahan, including Yazd. All photo galleries can be viewed here. A

Monday, 29 November 2010

Downhill to the Persian Gulf

Shiraz – Bandar Abbas

After Shiraz, the scenery changed, and whilst it was still very arid, we often came across small oases featuring a bunch of palm trees and often a well to access the ground water. Farming relied heavily on irrigation, and throughout the desert we saw evidence of qanats, as well as circular cisterns that were used as water reservoirs before the advent of more practical pipes. Date palms became ubiquitous, and dates were now the gift of choice from the locals.||

Water cisterns

Just in time for our first break after leaving Shiraz, we were flagged down by some men working in an ice cream store. They gave us huge portions of ice cream and filmed the whole event on their mobile phones. The hospitality continued at a fuel station which had run out of fuel, so one of the workers siphoned off fuel from his motorbike.

Fun ice cream men  Desert oasis

In the afternoon we were in an agricultural area but managed to find a good camp spot behind an orange grove. All around us we could hear shepherds moving their flocks, but they never came close and we stayed undiscovered.

After a fast morning cycling in the desert, we found a rare rest area with a few shops and a little park, so we pulled in for our lunch break. Hadi, a shop owner, enjoyed practising his English with us and told us he was learning English to be able to talk to tourists. It had been 6 months since the last time a tourist stopped at his shop, so he was overjoyed to see us!

The route between Shiraz and Bandar Abbas is quite remote, with only two sizeable towns during the 600km stretch. We spent a night in Jahrom, which was an interesting little town, though we did feel we got ripped off by the local honey seller who first enticed us to try his honeycomb, gave us some “free” sweets, and then charged us the earth for a small pot of honey.

Coming out of a tunnel the following day, we just avoided becoming witness to a bus accident. The bus driver had been patiently driving behind us in the narrow tunnel, but decided to overtake right at the end, not considering the oncoming traffic… Collision narrowly avoided, we stopped by the side of the road to catch our breath, and just then a car pulled up. Four men got out, one of whom was carrying a rather large picture frame with an image of some colourful goddess, price tags still attached. We were rather puzzled by their intentions, but all became clear (sort of) when the men asked Guy to hold the picture frame, so they could take a photo of him with the frame. Photo shoot complete, they thanked us, grabbed the picture frame, did a U-turn and drove off. Definitely one of our more random encounters…

Lovely mountain road

That afternoon, the two situations we dreaded most occurred at once: running out of water, and not finding a place to camp.

We had been planning to refill our water bottles in the afternoon at a town marked on our map, but it turned out to be just a dusty village off to the side of the road, with no obvious shops or facilities, and no sign announcing its name. By the time we realised that this village had actually been the “town” we were looking for, it was too far to turn back. There weren’t many houses around, and the next town was 65km away. It was already late afternoon, we were approaching a mountainous area and had to find a place to camp, but with only one litre of water between us, that was not an option. Eventually we spotted a concrete building and went down a dirt track to ask for water. A small girl shyly greeted us and ran off to get her mum who made it clear that they had no water at the house. They looked quite poor and obviously had a tough, very basic life out there in the desert. Still waterless, we trotted back to the road and were about to cycle on when we heard a man’s voice calling us back. Dad had just arrived on a motorbike, carrying a large canister of water that he had fetched from some underground source only known to the locals. He gave us a few litres of water and adamantly refused the money we offered him in return. The water tasted very “earthy”, so we were glad we had our water filter to purify it.

With enough water to see us through the night, we started looking for a camp spot. The mountainous stretch turned out not to have any accessible camp spots, and shortly afterwards, we entered an agricultural area. Everywhere, there were farmers driving around on their motorbikes, doing U-turns to get a closer look at us. All of the land was being used, and on dusk we still had not found a camp spot. However, things get easier when it is dark, and we eventually managed to find a sandy area that wasn’t really used for anything and only had some irrigation pipes running through it. We pitched up but had a patchy night’s sleep as we knew that several motorbike tracks ran through the area not far from us. We could have asked for permission to camp, but since our experience with Suleyman the Terrible, we are hesitant to just pull up to a house on dusk without a chance to suss out the owners first. We much prefer asking at restaurants or other more public areas where we can find out a bit more about the land owners before we ask them to camp.

In the morning, we got up very early and left at sunrise. We did not get far though. After filling up our water bottles at an irrigation pipe, we only went 5 minutes down the road before we found a nice spot under some trees to have breakfast. We felt like kings, sitting there on the dusty ground and having a real feast: a fry-up with garlic, onion, tomatoes and eggs, bread, cereal, and milky coffee. Meanwhile, we watched the sunrise and chatted before deciding to make more tea, and suddenly two hours had slipped by. On the road we saw our first sign to the Gulf, spurring us on.

Persian Gulf sign Camel warning sign

The temperature was getting warmer as we dropped in altitude every day. In Shiraz, at over 1,500m altitude, it had been very cold in the shade and at night, but here the temperatures were perfect for camping. An arid moonscape was our setting for the day, and people looked darker and thinner. We had been warned about banditry in the area, and in fact almost everyone we saw looked like a bandit, even families on motorbikes, as they all completely cover their faces with Arab chequered scarves. Only the eyes squint through a small slit in the fabric (sunglasses seem to be non-existent here). Still, everyone happily waved to us and shouted greetings. The bandits would probably be more interested in targeting the locals anyway, as most cars coming from the duty free shopping areas on the coast were loaded up with brand new electronic goods (and, in some cases, alcohol – as one man confessed to us).

The second decent sized town we passed through was Lar, a small town with an Arabic feel. Rock cliffs towered over the town, and we really got a feel for how it used to be in the olden days. There was a circular ice house, some beautiful mosques, and the traffic was reasonably calm so we enjoyed strolling the streets.

As always we were struggling to find decent bread, but today we were in luck: we found a little bakery near our hotel. In Iran, fresh bread can only be purchased in the evening between around 5-6pm when the bakeries are open. Come at any other time, and they will either be closed, or the bread won’t be ready yet, or it will already be sold out. We joined the bread queue and watched the baker form dough balls that were then flattened and placed into a stone oven filled with small pebbles. Each flat bread took only a few minutes to cook and was then passed to an assistant who removed any pebbles that were stuck to it. Everyone in the queue was chatting away and patiently waiting for their bread order to be baked. As some people in front of us ordered as many as 20 flat breads, and they were baked one at a time, we waited for quite a long while. Finally, we placed our order for 3 breads. Even for Iran, this bread was extremely cheap, and we were only charged 5000 Rials ($0.50) for 3 huge flat breads. When our bread had been baked, it was folded up, and the baker placed a 5000 Rial note on top before passing the hot bread to Freddie. Mumbling something about Iranian traditions, he just smiled and walked off when Freddie tried to give the money back to him.

Lar was the real start of our big downhill ride to the Persian Gulf, though the downhill was not as smooth as we had expected. Before we had left Lar, a local taxi driver had warned us that there would not be any water for a long time, and he was right. There were no shops for the next 130km or so, except for one little shack that sold water and some soft drinks. We also managed to get some water at a police checkpoint. In return, Guy offered the officers some dates. Thanking him, one of the soldiers took the whole pack of dates off him and walked off. Well - who are we to argue over a pack of dates with someone who carries an AK-47? Deprived of one of our favourite snacks, we still managed to push out our longest day so far, at 125km.

Between Lar and Bandar Abbas

Due to the lack of habitation or agriculture in the area, it was very easy to find a good camp spot. We found a lovely camp in a wide dried out river valley, where we relaxed for the evening star gazing and reminiscing about our long ride through Europe and the Middle East and how comfortable we felt in Iran. After 6 months on the road and 8,500km of cycling, we knew that this was probably going to be our last camp for a while as we don’t expect to camp much in India and South East Asia.

We were keen to make it to Bandar Abbas the following day. It was going to be a push, but we got up early and were blessed with a tail wind. After seeing camel warning signs, and (unfortunately) camel road kill for so long, we finally spotted a herd of about 20 camels grazing on thorn trees. They were bigger than we had expected, but also seemed quite tame, so Guy got up close to take some photos.

Camel

The other thing we had been looking out for was the Persian Gulf, but we were almost in Bandar Abbas when we finally spotted a small strip of blue on the horizon. We hadn’t seen the ocean since leaving Istanbul three months earlier, and it was great to rest our eyes on the calming ocean blue, such a contrast from the desert regions where we have spent much of our time.

Persian Gulf

Close to Bandar Abbas, the road became very busy with trucks carrying containers to the nearby port. For the last few kilometres, there were trucks everywhere, noise, dirty repair shops, and not much space for bikes. After another long day’s cycling at 123km, we finally made it to Bandar Abbas, exhausted, sad that our cycling adventures in Iran were over, but also happy to have arrived and ready for a new chapter.

We had expected Bandar Abbas to be a bit of a dump, but actually found it okay. Yes, there is a lot of wheeling and dealing going on, and some shifty characters, but there is also a very modern shopping centre, and it has a kind of waterfront. People are as friendly and curious as everywhere else in Iran, and we had one memorable encounter with a fun loving sales lady in a nut shop who spent about half an hour reading out random English words from her dictionary (favourite line: “before I love you”, translates to “do you like beef”), before rummaging around in her hand bag and presenting Freddie with her bottle of perfume!

Our plan is to get the twice-weekly ferry from Bandar Abbas to Dubai, where we will have some logistics to sort out before we tackle India. We have also just had confirmation that Freddie’s dad is making the most of his air miles once again to come and visit us in Dubai, and we are looking forward to some time off the bikes.

It took us 2,300km and 7 weeks to cycle Iran, and at some points we were really close to giving up on cycling due to the intense truck traffic up north. While we would wholeheartedly recommend Iran as a travel destination, we would not recommend cycling the stretch from Maku to Esfahan for pleasure, unless you manage to find a much quieter road than the direct route we took. There are simply too many trucks on the roads. The stretch from Esfahan to Bandar Abbas via Shiraz however is fine for cycling, and we found it quite enjoyable. People everywhere are super friendly and honest, wild camping in Iran is fantastic as there is so much space, and we have always felt very safe. The scenery, whilst not as spectacular as some of the scenery we have seen in Turkey, is interesting, unless arid desert moonscapes are not your cup of tea. For us the real highlights of Iran were the cities and the immensely kind, generous, curious and lovely people we met, the Iranians really do wear their hearts on their sleeves. Don’t be put off by the media. Iran is a very safe country to travel in, and the people will give you a fantastic welcome and memories to cherish for a life time. It has been one of the biggest highlights of our trip so far.

Khoda Hafez Iran.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

8,000km Photo

Leaving Shiraz, we also left cooler climes behind us. Over 6 days and 600km, we dropped over 1,500m in altitude until we ended up back at sea level when we hit the Persian Gulf at Bandar Abbas. For the last three months since leaving Istanbul we had always been at high altitude, never dropping below 1,000m as we cycled on the Anatolian Plateau in Turkey and along the Zagros mountain range in Iran. ||

The photo was taken on our first day out of Shiraz, where the arid land became dotted with date palms, orange groves and cotton plantations. The temperature rose steadily as we lost altitude, until it was in the low 30°C’s on the Gulf.

IMG_8045

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Extreme Hospitality, Desert Camps and Ancient Cities

Esfahan - Shiraz

After two weeks off the bikes, we were keen to get going again. We had a quick breakfast with Mike and Jo, a New Zealand couple cycling from Beijing to Paris, then we were on our way. To our relief, the traffic south of Esfahan was a lot lighter than it had been in the north of Iran, so we actually enjoyed the cycling. Coming out of the city centre we had a steep hill climb. Looking back we noticed three Iranian cyclists approaching. They didn't speak much English but we understood they were part of a cycling club. As we left they took photos of us and gave us some timely sweets which helped power us to the summit.||

Passing a fuel station we decided to swing in as our fuel bottle was empty. Waiting patiently in the queue we attracted the usual curious stares. We can almost hear their thoughts. “Aren't they on bicycles, what do they need fuel for?”

Presenting our fuel bottle to the attendant he happily filled it, 1L came to US $0.10. Ironically petrol is actually rationed, though Iran has one of the biggest reserves in the world. As Guy reached for his wallet the man in the car behind jumped out and insisted on paying. It was a lovely gesture, much appreciated, even though the fuel would have only cost us a few cents.

In the afternoon we arrived in a small town and went to look for a hotel. Everyone pointed us to an expensive looking place near a very busy park. It seemed that many Esfahanis had come down for the weekend and there were hundreds of people camping in the park and having picnics. The hotel was very nice but too expensive for us and also only accessible by climbing many stairs (a nightmare with fully loaded bicycles), so we pushed on to find somewhere else. Asking at a small shop, we got pointed in the direction of a cheap guest house, but just as we were about to leave a young man passed the shop and offered for us to stay in his flat, which was above the shop. We were pretty tired and looking forward to relaxing in a hotel, but the man was really nice and somehow we found ourselves accepting the offer, particularly after his bubbly sister had emerged from the house and waved us in.

Mahmud and his sister, Mahdie, helped us bring the bicycles into the hallway and invited us to the living room, where their mother was already in the kitchen attending to a brew. The family seemed quite modern, watching satellite TV, and, most importantly, they had a little dog! This is very unusual in Iran, as dogs are not allowed inside the house for religious reasons (this little doggie, Barfie, stayed in his own separate room outside the flat). The family did not speak much English, but we were able to communicate as usual with sign language and our language guide book. Soon, Guy was invited to go for a drive with Mahmud and the men left. Freddie stayed behind with the ladies.

As soon as the men were gone, the head scarves came off and the women relaxed. Mahdie was in the middle of dying her sister-in-law’s hair blonde, and some friends came to visit and gossip. Mahdie is an inspiring young woman of 23 years who is studying IT. She is also a goal keeper in the local football team and has won a regional cup. She plays volleyball, does Arabic dancing, is very good at knitting and does the hair dressing for her friends and family. Freddie got a taste of her skills as her hair was expertly blow dried by Mahdie after her shower.

Many other women came to visit, one of which spoke English so that it was easier for Freddie to communicate with the family. Mahdie showed Freddie videos of her engagement party, in which she wore a white wedding dress and received lots of presents. The video was of the women’s party, so all the ladies were wearing evening dresses, no head scarves, and were having a great time dancing and singing together. There was also a professional photo album with photos of Mahdie and her fiancé, and, most impressive of all, a collection of video clips that had been shot in a local studio. The videos were like music clips, with Mahdie and her fiancé being the main protagonists. Mahdie was dressed up Beyonce style (no head scarf) and every video showed a different short love story. It was very professional, and they really seemed to enjoy the acting – Mahdie is very tall and pretty, so the videos, which took a whole week to film, looked the part.

Meanwhile, Guy and Mahmud called in at Mahdie’s fiancé’s printing business and then visited Mahmud’s brother to watch football. When the men came back, there were about 20 people accumulated in the living room, and it was decided that we would all go to a garden and have dinner there. As usual, no explanations were offered and we had no idea where we were going – a park? Or maybe a restaurant? How would they organise dinner for so many people?

At about 9pm, we all gathered outside the flat as various cars emerged to transport the entourage to the mysterious destination. Quite a way out of the city, we took a sudden turnoff down a dirt road, the car headlights struggling to penetrate the thick dust. As we bumped along in the dark we grew ever more curious as to our destination, until we finally stopped at a large set of iron gates. Throwing back the gates revealed a small pomegranate and walnut plantation encircling a rustic farm house. When we entered the mood became even more delirious as the women giggled and sang and the men fussed about the garden gathering firewood for the imminent charcoal BBQ. Carpets were laid out on the floor, and we made ourselves at home.

Freddie with Mahdie and friends

In the garden, a fire was made and the boys got busy barbequing chicken. Inside, there was singing and dancing, and Mahdie did a little performance in Arabic dancing. She then invited Freddie to join her, but unfortunately her dancing performance was quite appalling in comparison with Mahdie. The garden is where the family likes to hang out and have fun, play cards, smoke the water pipe and dance – it is their haven.

BBQ Kids playing

Even though we had been served some snacks since we arrived at the family house at 4pm, we hadn’t eaten anything substantial, and by now we were starving. We usually have dinner at 6 or 7pm, but it took until midnight to cook the chicken. Everyone was laughing about us as we devoured the delicious barbequed chicken with bread, yoghurt and salad at break-neck speed. When we got back home at 1:30am, we were utterly exhausted, but we also felt very lucky to have spent time with this caring and fun family in such a relaxed environment. We were given the bedroom of Mahmud and his wife, and as usual there was no way of refusing, so they slept on the floor in the living room. Mahdie had to leave early the next morning, so she said an emotional goodbye and even gave Freddie a necklace as a memento.

In the morning, we had breakfast with Mahmud’s wife and his mum. His mum works in a bakery and gave us some bread to take with us. They asked us to stay longer, but we managed to convince them that we had to leave. As we said goodbye, several of the other family members and friends came over for a quick visit and to say goodbye. We waved Mahmud goodbye (in the photo he is the one in the middle), while Hossein and Ahmad Reza got on their motorbike and rode through town with us to make sure we found the way. They also warned us to be careful on the roads and not to trust anyone (we have encountered this time and time again on our trip, people often seem to be the most scared of their own neighbours).

 

The boys with their motorbike

It always amazes us how we can have so much fun and somehow communicate with people who we don’t share a common language with, and still there is never an awkward moment. The night we spent with this family is certainly one of our favourite memories of Iran.

As we rode through the town, a man in a car drove slowly alongside us and quizzed Hossein and Ahmad Reza about us. When we stopped to say goodbye to them, the man was there, and as soon as the guys had left, he ran off to buy us some tea and biscuits. We were keen to get going but there was no way to refuse. The man did not speak a word of English, and our Farsi is very limited, but he made a great communication effort to ask us how long it would take us to get to the next village. We were unsure why he needed to know this, but said it would take us one hour. The man looked at his mobile phone to check the time, and then slammed it shut, walked to his car and drove off.

With many people, we can now make immediate decisions on whether to trust them or not, using clues like their eyes, their smile, clothes and behaviour. Mahmud was a typical case where we knew from the first moment that he was a good person. However, we were not really sure about this man and his intentions and couldn’t really tell from the usual clues. All we knew was that he drove an old car and was unusually keen to know the details of our whereabouts. A few alarm bells began to ring as the warnings not to trust anyone where still fresh in our minds.

When we arrived in the village an hour later, we were a little apprehensive, especially when we saw the man already waiting for us on the road. He waved us over and made food gestures, pointing to a restaurant. There’s no harm in having some lunch, we thought, so we went to the restaurant with him. Inside, he asked the restaurant owner to show us some food choices and proceeded to order a mountain of food for us. He asked us to sit down while he discussed the food with the restaurant owner, and soon we were served: There were lamb shanks, stewed aubergines, two types of salad, rice, bread, pickles, yoghurt, and drinks. However, we then realised that only two portions were served, and it looked like the man was not intending to eat with us. After he had made sure the food had arrived and was to our taste, he waved us a quick goodbye and left with just a little bag of bread for himself, before we could even find out his name! The meal was delicious, and even with our healthy appetites it was more than we could eat. It must have cost him a good amount, and he did not look exactly wealthy. Sometimes we feel so humbled by the generosity of the people here that we are almost moved to tears.

Desert camp

That night we camped in the desert at 2,200m altitude, our highest campsite on the trip. We just walked out into the desert when it got dark and set up camp by moonlight. We enjoyed the quiet and solitude of the desert. It got very cold at night – the thermometer on our bike computer showed -3°C when we woke up in the morning. Luckily our sleeping bags are warm, and Freddie converted one of her aluminium water bottles into a hot water bottle.

The cycling was much better here than in the north of Iran, with a wide shoulder, not as much traffic, and a more interesting desert and mountain landscape. Shortly before the town of Abadeh, a man in a white Paykan stopped us and invited us for lunch. He gave us his phone number and address, and when we arrived in town asking for directions, another man escorted us all the way to the family home. Muhammed was a vet, and we were invited to park our bikes in the courtyard and rest in the sitting room. Here, we did our usual act of explaining who we are and what we are doing with a mix of sign language, our language guide book, our map, and photos of our families. We spent a couple of hours here with the men, while the women were busy cooking. Finally lunch was ready. It was worth the wait, as it was a delicious chicken and rice dish. We ate with the men on the floor of the living room, while the women were eating in the kitchen. Unfortunately we were never really introduced to the women, though Freddie did go over afterwards to thank them for the meal, which they seemed to appreciate. The family wanted us to stay for the night, but we were keen to do a bit more distance before nightfall, and so we ended up sleeping in a hotel in the next village.

With Muhammed, the vet Lunch with Muhammeds family

For the whole next morning, we climbed. It was a slow and quite enjoyable climb which took us up to the highest pass of our entire trip, at 2,550m altitude. After a lovely descent and well-deserved kebab lunch, we were suddenly faced with another, smaller pass. We arrived at the top just on nightfall. It gets dark just after 5pm now, and we are sometimes pushed to make our distance during the short daylight hours. It was too late to get down the pass and into warmer climes, so we pitched up near the top, at 2,130m. We had lovely views over a valley and some mountain ranges. It was windy and very cold, but we did sit outside for a little while to look at the stars, and each of us saw a shooting star. Satisfied, we made our wishes and crawled into the tent.

 Hilltop camp View from campsite

A fast descent later, we arrived at the turnoff for Pasargadae, home of Cyrus the Great who became ruler of the Persian Empire when he defeated his own grandfather in battle at the site in 550 BC. Cyrus conquered a huge amount of land, reaching from Turkey and Babylon all the way to what is now Pakistan. During his campaigns he employed some nifty tricks: in one battle, he strategically planted wine so that the opposing army would get drunk. Of course he won the battle, but the queen ruling the opposing side swore revenge and eventually defeated him and dunked his severed head in a tub filled with human blood. He was buried in a mausoleum at Pasargadae, which still stands, along with the remains of some of his palaces.

Cyrus the Great mausoleum Pasargadae ruins

Having completed our sightseeing and an interview with a group of about 30 students, we pushed on to get to Persepolis. On the way, we met some French cycle tourers, the first we have actually met while on the road in Iran. Shortly afterwards, Freddie’s rear tire suddenly burst: there was a slash in the tire, probably from a shaft of glass. Guy expertly repaired the tire with superglue, but by now it was getting late again and we were challenged to get to Persepolis before dark. When we arrived just in time, we stopped at the tourist complex to enquire about the price of a hotel room, but as this was way beyond our budget we ended up camping there instead. This was the first time since Western Europe that Boris had been pitched on soft, fresh grass without thorns, and he loved it.

In the morning, we visited Persepolis. This magnificent city was built by Darius I, who ruled the Persian Empire after Cyrus’s demise. Persepolis was built as the ceremonial and religious hub of the empire, whose primary God was Ahura Mazda, who is also worshipped by the Zoroastrians. Although largely ruined, the remains leave you in no doubt about the grandeur of the Persian empire.

Persepolis gate Persepolis overview

There are monumental staircases, imposing gateways, forests of columns, and above all, many exquisite and well preserved reliefs. The most impressive reliefs, on the Apadana staircase, depict the arrival of delegations from 23 nations to meet the king. Ethiopians, Arabs, Indians, Cappadocians, Elamites and many other nations are depicted in their traditional dress, bearing gifts ranging from two-humped camels to gold dust. Unfortunately, Alexander the Great eventually conquered Persia and spent several months at Persepolis in 330 BC before employing 3000 camels to  carry off the contents of the treasury, and then burning the whole of Persepolis to the ground. Even now we could still see burn marks on some of the columns. Persepolis was covered in dust and sand for centuries, until excavations in the 1930s revealed its splendour once again.

Persepolis reliefs 

In the afternoon, we cycled to Shiraz. As soon as we arrived in town, we were invited for tea by an eager tent shop owner whose son was in the process of getting a visa for Australia. He sent one of his relatives to escort us to our hotel, as we were a little lost, and we checked into a good cheap room in Zand Hotel. Our room is large enough to comfortably cook in, so we stocked up on fruit and veg and decided Shiraz was going be a healthy stay for us. We did some sightseeing and visited the Hafez memorial, one of the most important sites for Iranians who worship the poet. We also wandered around the laid-back bazaar for some more souvenir shopping.

Hafez tomb in Shiraz Flowers near Hafez tomb

Shirazis are very friendly and welcoming, sometimes too much so: we got a real taste for how it is to be a rock star when a couple stalked us one morning. They were hanging around outside of our room to get a picture of us. When Guy ventured out to the bathroom with his morning hair-do in top form, the “paparazzi” cornered him and asked him to get Freddie so that they could take a picture of her. Unfortunately Freddie was busy cooking porridge and didn’t have her head scarf on, so she could not oblige, and the couple eventually left slightly disappointed with a strange picture of a bearded man. On the road, we often get stopped by people asking us to take photos of us, and quite a few times we have even been asked for an autograph!

We are spending a few more days here before our final 600km push to Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf, marking the end of our Iranian adventure. We will take a ferry to Dubai where we will apply for our Indian visa - the next chapter awaits.