Monday, 25 October 2010

From Persian carpets to highway underpasses

Zanjan – Saveh

About 35km East of Zanjan is the small town of Soltaniyeh, which was built by the Mongols as their capital after they had conquered Persia under the leadership of Ghengis Khan. It was largely destroyed in 1384, but some of the monuments survive. We visited the Oljeitu Mausoleum, which was built by a Mongol sultan and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. It has a beautiful blue dome; at 48m high it’s the world’s highest brick dome. The building was more impressive from the outside, as there is a lot of scaffolding on the inside, but considering our $0.30 entrance fee we did not complain!||

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In the evening, we asked to camp behind a restaurant and ended up being invited to stay with the family in their flat above the restaurant. Read more about our first home stay in Iran.

The following morning, we were excited as we hadn’t enjoyed most of the cycling so far because of the constant traffic, and we were about to finally turn off the main road for a while. We could already see the smog from Teheran, a mere 200km away, and were glad to finally turn south and away from this metropolis. We were in for a big disappointment. The “minor road” we turned on to was much, much worse than the main road. There were even more trucks than on the main road, and there was only a single lane for the traffic going in each direction. There was no hard shoulder, and the road was just wide enough for two trucks to squeeze past each other. Cycling on this was suicidal. We hoped it would improve, but ended up cycling either on the gravel next to the road, or on a parallel dirt track, for the next 75km. We had planned to get to the next bigger town 100km away that day, but by late afternoon it was clear we would not make it, as we had been slowed down so much.

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Just before dusk we ended up in a small town called Ebrahimabad. There was no hotel, but a restaurant owner offered for us to camp on a patch of grass near his restaurant. Unfortunately it was a small patch of grass surrounded by the highway, a main road  and a car park. It was the equivalent of camping on a city roundabout. Iranians will camp anywhere and don’t understand our wish for a quiet spot and some privacy. They all insist it is safe to camp anywhere, which might be the case, but we attract so much more attention than they would. As it was getting dark, we did not have much choice though, so we found a slightly better patch of grass next to the highway. There was a Police caravan next to it, and the Police man was very nice, so we felt reasonably safe there, even though it was very public. Kayvan, the Police man, bought us some beers (non-alcoholic of course), and sure enough, a few minutes later we were surrounded by about 10 young men on motorbikes wanting to chat.

They were quite friendly, and one of the guys ended up inviting us to his house. He had a nice smile, friendly eyes and a calm manner, and the thought of a home stay as opposed to a camp next to a dual lane highway was rather enticing. If we felt uncomfortable we could always come back to sleep next to our beloved highway… Ahmad led us to his family’s home, which was essentially a courtyard with several flats for the various family members leading off it (this seems to be a typical Iranian home setup).

We were invited into the flat Ahmad shared with his wife. They had been married 10 months ago and were both quite young, with Ahmad being 24 and his wife only 18. Soon, his two brothers and his mother joined us and we had tea. One of the brothers spoke a little English, and with the help of our phrase book we were able to communicate. It turned out that Ahmad and one of his brothers had a shoemaking business. They designed and manufactured women’s shoes downstairs. Over the course of the evening Freddie was asked to try on a few different pairs of shoes, and questioned about her size and her favourite design. Inevitably, in the end she was presented with a beautiful pair of hand made shoes, and there was no way they would let her decline the gift.

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After dinner, we tried to give them a bag with mixed nuts, but this prompted them to get out more food, including some fruit and our dreaded enemy: the unshelled sunflower seed. These are very popular here, and everyone seems to have perfected the technique of cracking them with the front teeth and at the same time extracting the seed. We find it quite tricky and always end up with the shell in our mouth, so we crack them by hand, and we are very slow. This prompted a lot of laughing and the whole family was poking fun at us, until they decided to help us by cracking the seeds for us. They found it very funny that back home we just buy the shelled seeds – they think we are very lazy.

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We were also shown a video of Ahmad’s wedding – we watched about 90 minutes of it, of different parts of the day. It was very strange as the bride was nowhere to be seen. In fact, it was an all-male party, where the men were dancing and eating without any women being present. As we learned later, the women have a separate party where they can celebrate in a more relaxed environment as they don’t need to wear the hejab.

When bed time came, we were given Ahmad’s room while he and his wife moved into a different part of the house. For the second night in a row, we had a comfortable night sleeping on a Persian carpet. The next morning they prepared breakfast – warm milk, tea, flat bread, omelette, jam, butter and cheese - and were rather shocked when we then announced that we had to leave. They tried all possible tricks to make us stay longer. We explained about the time restriction on our visas, upon which they suggested we take a bus instead of cycling, so we could stay longer.

We did manage to extract ourselves eventually and cycled past the police caravan to say goodbye to Kayvan. He invited us for tea, so we sat in the caravan chatting away, as Kayvan speaks excellent English. He was studying for a Master of Engineering and was doing his military service in the police force. While we were there, a police car pulled up and two police men came into the caravan. They were both very smiley and one of them asked Freddie: “Miss Frederike, I would like to ask you a special question: How do you find wearing the head scarf?” Freddie answered that it was ok, but not so comfortable when it is very warm outside. The other police man, with a cheeky smile, promised that she would go straight to heaven if she kept wearing it.

Just as we were saying goodbye to Kayvan, the police boss arrived. He immediately decided that it was too dangerous for us to cycle on these roads and flagged down a pickup truck to take us 25km down the road to the next town, from where the road would become wider again. There was no discussion, and he did not listen to our explanation that we were actually cycling next to the road, not on it. Unfortunately the pickup truck was a bit too short, so we could not close the trailer gate and our bikes were in danger of rolling off. We were ordered to go in the back with the bikes and off we went. The drive was quite scary, as the driver still decided to overtake other vehicles and was going quite fast. The bikes were fine though, and after a little while we made it to the town, Bu’in Zarah. This was the first time on our trip that we have skipped a section, but we had no choice in the matter, and secretly we were happy about this outcome as we were not looking forward to cycling on the gravel again.

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By now it was already lunchtime, and we only made it about half way to Saveh before night fell. The road was much better, with a wide hard shoulder. The traffic was 90% trucks, and it seems to be the main thoroughfare between the North West of Iran and the South, even though it was marked as a minor road on our map.

At dusk, we were in the middle of a desert, which was completely flat and featureless. This meant there was nowhere to hide our tent. We could either camp in full view, which might result in some unwanted visitors, or we could wait until it was dark and then walk out into the desert and camp there. There was, however, a third option. Below the road there were some small underpasses. We decided to go into one of the underpasses to cook dinner, and then look for a camp spot once it got dark. However, while we were in there, we got quite comfortable and managed to pitch the tent in the underpass.

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It just fit, so we made a cup of tea and got our books out to have a read. The noise was not too bad below the road considering how close the traffic was above us. The traffic rumbled on all night, but we had a reasonable night’s sleep. There was even a hook for our toiletries bags, so we really made it our home for the night! It was quite a slide going from the top of the hospitality ladder, sleeping on Persian rugs, down to the bottom: sleeping under a highway.

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