Thursday, 28 October 2010

Express to Esfahan

Saveh – Esfahan

The following day we had a short day into Saveh, where we got adopted by a local on a motorbike, Ali, who helped us find a hotel. On the way, some other young guys on motorbikes started following us, and wanted to take some pictures of us. One of the men, surprised to see a foreigner, gave Guy a hug and planted a big fat kiss on his cheek, much to Guy’s surprise. We guess he didn’t realise that Guy hadn’t showered for a couple of days… Ali invited us to come to his house. He asked us several times, but as we wanted to shower and rest first, we suggested to meet him in the evening instead. We picked up a box of cakes as a present, but unfortunately Ali never showed up. We sometimes wonder if the Government stance on not interacting with foreigners makes some people nervous and reconsider. On the positive side we now had a big box of cakes all to ourselves. ||

Our plan from Saveh was to cycle to Qom and then Kashan before we made our way to Esfahan. We didn’t really want to go to Qom, which is the most conservative city in Iran and home to the ruling cleric, but it was on the way to Kashan, which we wanted to visit. Unfortunately, we found out that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, was visiting Qom for the first time in a decade. We saw a lot of footage on TV of thousands of people attending his speeches in Qom. Most were members of the Basij, the hardline volunteer militia known for brutally beating down the protests after the last elections, who looked pretty scary. We thought this was not a good vibe for two foreign cycle tourers passing through, and also it would have been impossible to get a hotel room. That meant we had a long day ahead as we had to actually pass through Qom and camp somewhere on the other side.

The day started badly when we left an hour later than planned as breakfast was delayed. This was the first hotel in Iran we stayed at that had breakfast included, so we were quite excited about it. It wasn’t worth the wait… All we got was some cardboard style bread and a bit of cream cheese. Embarrassingly, we actually got out our own supplies to supplement it. When we left town, the road again was so narrow that we could not cycle on it – we were back on gravel for the first 20km. This slowed us down so much that there was no way we would make it through Qom. By the time we got to the turnoff, we both had a bad feeling about going to Qom and made a last minute decision to skip it and keep going straight towards Esfahan. We thought we could still visit Kashan by staying at the small town of Delijan, leaving the bikes there and taking a bus as a side trip to Kashan before returning to Delijan and resuming our cycling.

The road improved and became dual lane with a hard shoulder. We were going steadily uphill, passing many pomegranate farms along the way. Pomegranates are the new melons – many people give us pomegranates, and often they insist on giving us way more than we can carry. One guy gave us seven, despite our protestations!

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In the evening we camped behind a disused quarry in the desert. It wasn’t as remote as we had first thought though, with a railway line nearby and a busy road not far away. Despite this, we still managed a good night’s sleep and left early for what we thought would be a fairly short day to Delijan, 70km away. 

We arrived in Delijan by lunchtime and made the bad decision to try to get a lift to Kashan in a pickup truck, taking the bikes along. That way we could get to Kashan the same day rather than staying in Delijan, and we could just return with the bikes a couple of days later to keep on cycling. After asking various locals for directions to the turnoff for Kashan, we found ourselves leaving the town on the road to Esfahan. Everyone we asked confirmed that the turnoff was on this road. Eventually we asked a guy on a motorbike, wearing aviator glasses, maroon leather jacket and a finely trimmed moustache, looking very porno. He held up four fingers to convey the distance whilst chewing his gum in a slow deliberate fashion and keeping his eyes fixed on the horizon.

“So the turnoff is 4km away?” we confirmed.

“Ahh huh” came the cool response in between gum chews.

Hmm, it looked a little closer on our map, but the map hadn’t always been accurate, so we kept going. Annoyingly Porno kept slowly riding next to us. A while later the turnoff was nowhere to be seen. Looking at our map, we realised that he must have meant another turnoff, which was 42km away! By now we were 12km south of the town, and we really couldn’t be bothered going back, so we decided to push on. Porno had finally left us and we had a nice tailwind, but we were also going uphill so when we finally got to the turnoff it was getting dark. We had done 111km – not really the short day we had been hoping for.

At the turnoff we met another guy waiting for a lift, but things weren’t looking good: there were almost no cars going towards Kashan. Most vehicles went only part of the way, and there weren’t any pickups or trucks that could have taken the bikes. After waiting around for a while we decided we’d had enough. It was dark by now – not the ideal time to find a camp spot. However, there was a fuel station and restaurant at the turnoff, and we started chatting to the restaurant manager who invited us for a tea. We indicated that we had to go and find a place for our tent. “Aaah”, he said, “you can go down there.” He pointed, but we didn’t understand, so he sent his assistant to show us the way. We went around the building and the man pointed to a small room laid out with carpets. We realised that this was the prayer room, but he insisted that we could sleep there.

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Not wanting to prevent people from praying, we went to the restaurant first, to have dinner and relax for a while. Around 9pm we got so tired that we decided to move into the prayer room for the night. We put our bags inside, while the bikes were parked in the fuel station attendant’s room. Once we had laid out our sleeping mats, we took up more than half of the space in the small prayer room.

We need not have worried: people still needed to pray, and some smelly cyclists sleeping in the prayer room were certainly not going to deter them. Several people entered the room and prayed right next to us while we were sitting there with our sleeping bags and all of our panniers. Luckily it quietened off about 10pm and we actually had quite a good sleep until 5:30am, when truck drivers came in their droves to do their morning prayers. It was very odd to be lying there whilst one foot away the devout were praying. After pretending to be asleep for a while, we spotted a gap and quickly got up before the next lot arrived.

We had tea with the fuel station attendant and pushed on to the next town, Meymeh, only 30km away, where there would be another turnoff to Kashan. Both of us were pretty tired by now as this was day 7 of continuous cycling and we were suffering from a bit of sleep deprivation. When we got to the turnoff, we waited around again, but it was the same situation as before and we did not manage to get a lift due to a lack of traffic.

The next plan was to stay in the town, leave the bikes and get a bus to Kashan. This was smashed when we were informed that there were no buses to Kashan from this town. Somehow we are just not destined to go to Kashan. Maybe we will have another chance to get a bus from Esfahan, but otherwise we will just have to let go of this idea.

In Meymeh we had a nightmare trying to find the hotel and spent a lot of time going up and down the main drag much to the amusement of the shop owners. In the end, we clocked up over 50km, instead of the 30km it should have taken us to get to the town. The hotel was actually under a bank, completely unmarked, how silly of us for not checking under the bank. Whilst we waited for the hotel manger to appear the bank staff very kindly invited us in for tea and sweets.

In the morning, we went full steam to Esfahan, with a lovely tail wind for half the day, clocking in at an average of 32km/hr. We had to make it to Esfahan as early as possible in order to change some money as we were flat broke. The banks in the small towns we had passed through were not able to do this for us. It was now Thursday afternoon, which means shops (and money changers) close early and stay shut on Friday (the Islamic weekend).

After eight days of cycling through dry arid landscapes, Esfahan felt like a real desert oasis. The tree lined streets, parks and water fountains were a feast for the eyes after days of emptiness. It felt tranquil and almost European in parts.

On the way to the money changers, we were stopped by a young guy in some sort of police or army uniform. He said something in Farsi to Guy, but kept pointing at Freddie. We only understood the words “bicycle”, “Iran”, and “no”. He was quite insistent, and after a little while we deducted that he was probably saying that women aren’t allowed to cycle in Iran. Obviously we knew this was a load of camel poo as we would not have made it through the border let alone to Esfahan. We played dumb and kept asking him for directions to Imam Square. Eventually he got frustrated with our non-existent Farsi skills and walked off, making some gesture that looked like we should wait there for him. Not keen on waiting for an outcome that was unlikely to be favourable for us we decided it was best to push on, so we cycled off as quickly as possible and dived down a side street.

So imagine our horror when we arrived at the money changers just before 3pm and it was already closed! Guy spotted some movement inside and nuzzled up to the window, prompting one of the guys to come to the door and offer us a last minute transaction. He even offered Guy a slice of his tender chicken breast lunch which Guy devoured perhaps a little too hastily, as judging by the money changer’s look he was not expecting Guy to be quite so indulgent.

All cashed up, we cycled down to Si-O-Seh bridge to take a picture before finding a hotel nearby. Esfahan was a bit of a milestone for us, reaching the heart of the Islamic world seemed a ridiculously impossible destination some 5 months ago when we wobbled out of suburban London. We will spend several days in Esfahan, sightseeing, sorting out a visa extension and making one last attempt to get to Kashan by bus.

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