Wednesday, 20 October 2010

High on fumes

Tabriz – Zanjan

On the way out of Tabriz, there was – as always in Iran - constant traffic and many trucks and buses. About 40% of the cars are Paykans. These were designed in the 1960s and were almost the only cars on the roads in Iran for a very long time. They only come in white, and they burn 12-15l of leaded petrol per 100km. They don’t have catalytic converters, so the fumes are just terrible. The trucks often spew out big clouds of black smoke too, and it was no wonder that after a little while, our eyes and noses were hurting, and we both had a headache from the fumes.

The driving in Iran is pretty bad. When someone wants to overtake, they just do it. No matter if there is oncoming traffic, a blind corner, or two cyclists in the way. Many times we looked up to see a bus hurtling towards us at high speed on the wrong side of the road. We are not surprised that Iran has one of the highest rates of road accidents in the world. Unfortunately, the country is known for having some of the best roads and the worst drivers. They even seem to be aware of it, as we see quite a lot of cars and trucks that have a triangular sign with an exclamation mark on the back – some of them even have the word “danger” written on them!

Our view was like this most of the time:

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For the first time on our trip, we seriously considered hitching a lift or even completely giving up on cycling in Iran. We reached a real low point. We had hoped that the traffic would be lighter after Tabriz, as there was a parallel Freeway, but somehow everyone still seemed to use the old road. When cycling all day, you normally get into a relaxed state of mind, a zone where your legs are pumping but your mind just rests. But when there is so much traffic and you have to be constantly checking what is happening all around you, you don’t have a chance to get into the zone, and just get more and more irritated and unhappy. The scenery was depressing too, with lots of industrial sites, power stations and abandoned factories lining the road. However, we decided to stick it out for that day, and hopefully the traffic would be better the next day, otherwise we would catch a lift.

We slept in a hotel in Bostanabad, our window facing out onto the busy road we had been on all day. When we opened the window, the fumes came in, exacerbating our headaches. We were really fed up, and the only reason we kept cycling was because we had seen a parallel minor road on our map, which started about 20km out of Bostanabad, and which we were going to try out. In the end, we never found the turnoff for that road, but just around that time the traffic suddenly became much lighter. There were still trucks and buses, and many cars, but there were a lot less than before, and we were able to get back into our happy zone and enjoy the cycling. The scenery also became nicer, with the factories being replaced by a small river. There was also finally some agriculture, which made the villages a bit less depressing. The cycling itself was easy, apart from the constant traffic. The roads here are much better than in Turkey, with a nice smooth surface and very gentle gradients.

We cycled the 100km to Mianeh quite quickly and arrived by 3pm. On our way into town, we noticed a tea house with comfortable carpeted platforms out the front, so we claimed one and slammed down some Iranian beers. Of course alcohol is banned in Iran, so the beer is alcohol free. The local beers often have Belgian or German sounding names like Delster or Bavaria, and they come in different flavours including lemon, pear and peach. It tastes like a combination of beer and lemonade and is quite refreshing.

Usually we rely on the locals to help us find a hotel, but they often won’t tell us about the cheapest places unless we really insist. This time we were lucky: we met an English teacher, Nader, who recommended that we stay in the local Teacher’s Accommodation. Apparently this was the cheapest place in town, and they would be happy to rent us a room. Our room was lovely, the best we have had so far in Iran, and it even came with an en-suite bathroom! Nader decided to adopt us for the evening and said he would meet us at 7pm.

He brought his 12 year old son, Salar, and showed us around the town. We met many of his family members and friends, had ice cream and talked all evening. Read more about our evening with Nader here.

From Mianeh, it was 140km to Zanjan, our next destination. There was nothing much in between, and the distance was just out of range for us, as it was a bit further than we could comfortably cycle in a day, particularly as it gets dark early these days. Freddie’s bike also had its first puncture since we left home, after 6,700km, a shaft of glass went through her tire. Not a bad record we think, as so far we had only had one puncture on this trip, on Guy’s bike. The scenery improved and we even had a short but quite spectacular mountainous stretch, where the main road went through a tunnel and we had a secondary road to ourselves – for 10 minutes.

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Regular readers may recall our experiences during the melon season in Turkey, where we were sometimes given huge melons up to 8kg in weight. We thought melons were out of season now, but were taught a lesson when we were given four melons within half an hour! First, a young guy stopped us and gave us a small watermelon, which we ate by the side of the road. Two of his friends arrived on motorbikes, and insisted on giving us another watermelon. Shortly after we left, a couple of guys in a pickup truck stopped us and invited us to eat with them. We declined, abiding by the rules of Ta’arof, and they gave us two honeydew melons instead. Luckily the melons were not so big, so we were actually able to transport them.

Some of the young guys in this area are a bit aggressive, especially guys on motorbikes. They often yell when passing us, and one guy travelling in the opposite direction thought it was very funny to come over to our side, ride straight towards us and then pass by with inches to spare. At one point, two guy on motorbikes came up from behind us, and one of them started yelling something at Freddie in Farsi. He rode next to her, coming closer and closer and completely ignoring Guy (which is very inappropriate in Iran). He came so close he almost pushed Freddie off the road, and eventually she yelled at him and he gave her a hard slap on the shoulder before turning and speeding off.

We were annoyed and decided to have lunch away from other people, so we pulled off into a small area with some trees, which was sheltered from the road. As soon as we arrived, two men on motorbikes pulled up. Here we go, we thought, but it was just Nasser and his dad Ali, who owned the piece of land we were sitting on. They were very friendly and a little shy, and eventually they sat down near us and accepted some dates from us. Nasser spoke some English, and he invited us to have some rice at their house. We declined, and later he asked again. We thought the invitation was probably genuine, but we are never quite sure because of Ta’arof, and we discussed it for a while before we decided to accept – if he asked again. Unfortunately by then they probably thought we didn’t want to come, so they said goodbye and we left. This is really complicated in Iran, and we think that we might sometimes miss out on some nice hospitality – but sometimes we also have invitations that are definitely just Ta’arof, and slowly we are beginning to be able to tell the difference.

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In the afternoon, we started looking for a wild camping spot. It was not so easy, as most of the land was agricultural and there were many people around. On the right hand side, some hills came up, and suddenly we spotted a lovely dried out riverbed. Guy investigated and we quickly pulled into the river bed and around the corner to be out of sight of the road. It was a lovely spot, fairly hidden and with nice views. However, in this part of the world it is very difficult to find a “shepherd-proof” spot, and sure enough, suddenly we saw a dog appearing. This is never a good sign, and shortly afterwards the shepherd appeared. He was driving his herd of sheep through the riverbed, and he just greeted us and moved on. At this time of year, it gets dark at 6pm and stays that way until 6am. There is not much to do as we usually don’t want to put our torches on to read because we are not keen on being discovered at night for safety reasons, so we just talk for a while and try to sleep as much as possible. In summer we had the opposite problem – sleep deprivation – as it only got dark at 10pm and light again at 4am, and we were often in farm areas where we had to leave by dawn.

The camping was great to relax our minds from the constant onslaught of impressions that Iran is throwing at us. We cherished the peace and quiet of being in nature, and the simplicity of just putting up our tent without dealing with city traffic and having to find a hotel. Camping is actually fairly common in Iran as many people camp out in the city parks in summer to escape the heat.

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In the morning, however, we had pretty much run out of breakfast foods. We only had a little piece of bread left, so we ate that and left. We have found it quite tricky to find basic foods like bread and vegetables in Iran. Many shops along the road only sell snacks, and bakeries often only sell cakes, muffins and cookies, but no bread. We sometimes spend a lot of time hunting around for basic foods, and also there are not many shops in between towns so it’s difficult to resupply. Despite the sanctions it is still quite easy to find some Western brands like Coca Cola and Nutella though.

This morning we were in luck. We noticed a little cafe with a terrace by the side of the road and pulled in to investigate. The owner greeted us, and we communicated with sign language that we were after something to eat. He motioned for us to sit down on one of the carpeted platforms in the garden and proceeded to yell at someone across the road. Soon enough the chef arrived from a nearby field. He was wearing a combination of what looked like pyjamas and work clothes, his collar turned up, with big hair and a smile to match it. He was carrying a dried head of sunflower (sunflower seeds are a popular snack here and are often sold as whole sunflower heads). We had no idea what we had ordered, so we were delighted when the chef arrived with two omelettes, bread and tea.

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When we arrived in Zanjan around lunchtime, we had, as always, trouble finding a hotel. As we were looking at our map, a man came up to us and immediately invited us to come to his house now, almost without any introduction. We politely declined, as all we wanted was a shower and some food, and he helped us find our hotel. Here, we spent two nights relaxing and exploring the city, as well as stocking up on food for the next leg of our trip. We are planning to head to Qom and then Kashan, before we make our way to Esfahan.

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