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.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Yazd: A Silk Road City

Between all our sightseeing and souvenir shopping, we had one important task to accomplish in Esfahan: to renew our Iranian visa. This was more straightforward than we had expected, and our application, much to our surprise, was processed on the spot. Thinking it was in the bag we were suddenly summoned to Room 3. Entering the room with some trepidation we were quickly put at ease when we uncovered their motivation for seeing us: they wanted at least five Australian idioms as one of the officers was a lover of Australian sayings. Unfortunately the police officers had so much fun practising sayings such as “no worries”, “she’ll be a stinker” and “see you round like a rissole” that they forgot to stamp our passports! When we returned to our hotel, we were told the police had called and we needed to return the following morning to collect the missing stamp. ||

With an extra 30 days granted, we now had plenty of time to do some more sightseeing, so we decided to go to the desert for a few days to visit Yazd. Leaving the bikes at our hotel in Esfahan, we caught a bus to Yazd, four hours away. We left the mountains behind and travelled along the edge of a vast desert which covers most of the eastern half of Iran, passing plenty of camel warning signs along the road, as well as a truck full of camels that were hopefully not destined for the camel butchery we saw in Yazd proudly displaying a camels severed heard at the entrance.

Having been inhabited for about 7000 years, Yazd is one of the oldest cities on earth. Yazd has been knows for its silks since before Marco Polo passed through in the 13th century. Its old town has a relaxed feel and is created of mud brick walls, topped by a forest of wind towers (badgirs).

IMG_7675  IMG_7694

We stayed at the Silk Road Hotel, a traditional hotel with a cosy courtyard setting and excellent food. Finally we had a break from kebabs, with lovely aubergine stews and chicken curries (resisting the camel burger that was also on offer). The Silk Road Hotel is a popular meeting place for travellers, and we enjoyed chatting to the other guests – backpackers, a couple of cyclists, and several people driving vans or motorbikes from Europe to India and teaming up for the difficult stretch through Pakistan that lay ahead.

Being in a desert region, the inhabitants of Yazd have devised some clever ways of making life more comfortable. Mud bricks offer fantastic insulation, so much so that the Persians used them to build circular ice houses that enabled them to store ice for the whole summer. The temperatures can climb up to 50°C in summer, so air conditioning is a life saver: this was provided by the wind tower or badgirs. These look a bit like large chimneys and are designed to catch even the smallest breeze, channelling it down into the rooms below. Often there is a pool of water below the point where the air enters, which cools the air down further. Meanwhile, warm air is channelled upwards and out of the shaft. The Bagh-e Dolat Abad pavilion in Yazd features the highest badgir in Iran, standing over 33m high. The room below is distinctly colder than the rest of the building, so we can attest to the effectiveness of the system.

IMG_7716 IMG_7717

The other great system, which has been in use for over 2000 years, is the qanat system. The qanats are tunnels designed to channel water from an underground water source to a town, village or agricultural area. It is estimated that Iran still has more than 50,000 qanats, and some cities such as Kashan and Bam still rely on them for their water supply. The Water Museum in Yazd was a great place for us to find out more about the construction of qanats, which can be a dangerous business that is undertaken by highly skilled workers dressed in a white garment that also serves as a shroud in case of an accident underground…

Our hotel was also a popular place for local Iranians to come and practice their English with the tourists. One evening, we met a young man who spoke very good English and wanted to chat. He told us that he was born in Iran but of Afghan nationality, as his parents were refugees from Afghanistan who had come to live in Yazd in the 1970s.

We spent the following morning with him, exploring Yazd, drinking tea and talking a lot. He was the sweetest guy who even insisted on paying for our bus tickets and showed us some of the highlights of Yazd, such as a historic hammam, a mosque filled with mirrored tiles and the central Amir Chakhmagh centre.

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We had met several people in a similar situation already – people who were born in Iran but are of Afghan or Iraqi nationality. There is apparently no way for them to obtain Iranian nationality. This means they have very few rights, for example they are not allowed to work, drive cars, attend certain university courses, or travel outside of their home town – even though they were born in Iran! Of course they still need money to live, so they have to work, but it has to be done undercover and in fear of being caught and sent “back” (to a country they have never even been to). Of course most young people in this situation dream of being able to emigrate.

We enjoyed the garden setting of a posh hotel where we had lunch, and found out that there happened to be a UNICEF meeting taking place at the same hotel, so we watched the delegates pull up in their huge white Landcruisers. The topic: The situation of Afghan refugees in Yazd.

During our explorations of Yazd our friend was a little worried about the police, as he said he would get in trouble if they saw him with us. Once again we were asked to pretend he was just showing us the way in case anyone asked. This is also why we decided not to mention his name or post his picture in this blog.

After three days, we left Yazd deeply touched by our encounters to head back to Esfahan and dust off our bicycles for the ride down to Shiraz.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Kashan: Historial Houses and Beautiful Beards

We took a bus to Kashan, a small town north of Esfahan on the edge of the Dasht-e Kavir desert, which is famous for its restored traditional houses and relaxed atmosphere – something we haven’t had much of during our time in Iran. We tentatively left the bikes behind in our hotel in Esfahan, hoping they would still be intact on our return a couple of days later. ||

It felt rather novel to take the bus (or the “Super Classic Saloon”) for a three hour jaunt through the desert, a trip that would have taken us three days on the bikes. Unceremoniously dumped on the outskirts of town we were soon approached by touts offering to take us to the city centre. Swarmed, we were quickly reminded why we appreciate the independence we have with bike travel. We negotiated a fare that seemed reasonable and went to our hotel of choice, which was unfortunately closed down, whilst the hotel next door had no showers due to renovations.

With few accommodation options to hand we decided to enquire at a more upmarket establishment that was set in a restored traditional house (Qajar era), centred around a courtyard flanked by pomegranate trees. It was beautiful and had a really relaxed atmosphere but it was a little more than what we wanted to pay. We ended up justifying the cost (as one does when confronted by such temptation) as the owner runs an NGO that is part funded from the accommodation, so in theory we are supporting the Iranian art scene - that and they had WIFI.

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Once we had settled in we went out to explore a little of the town. Thinking it must have been a public holiday, as most of the shops were closed we were informed by a local that it was “too cold to trade”, it was well below 15 degrees after all. Did we mention Iranians feel the cold?

We strolled off and were pleasantly surprised to find the Agha Bozorg Mosque. We were the only visitors and the locals took little interest as we wandered around, it was such a nice change from hectic Esfahan.

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Back at the hotel we met Ali, an American Iranian who was returning to Iran after 40 years living in America. Though America was good to him, he felt the calling of his home country, so now that the kids had grown up he decided to pack in his American life and come back to establish himself in Tehran. We asked him what he had missed in America. He had missed the warmth of the Iranian people, the strong traditions and, interestingly, the freedom of spirit.

Next day we headed to the beautifully restored historical homes of Kashan, which were once grand 19th century establishments inhabited by the Iranian elite. The oldest and arguably the most striking is Khan-e Ameriha, built by Agha Ameri who decided his father’s home needed a little extension and converted it to the largest home in all of Persia, totalling 9000 sq metres, just enough for one man and his family.

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In need of a chai we headed bazaar bound. En route we stumbled across an Iranian bathhouse built over 450 years ago that had been lovingly restored to its lavish past. The original plaster made from milk, egg white, soy flour and lime is said to be even stronger than cement. Ingeniously it had been converted to a tearoom but it has since been closed down, so we continued our march towards the bazaar.

Compared to most of the bazaars in Iran it was small in scale with one main thoroughfare, which made it easy to navigate but took away the fun of getting lost in the labyrinth of laneways which is the true bazaar experience.

Sipping chai at the bazaar teahouse we noticed the only other patrons were a young couple who had the same camera as us. Guy couldn’t help looking over as he was suffering from serious beard envy. Eventually we introduced ourselves and joined tables. Ali and his girlfriend were from Tehran, both architects and visiting Kashan on a day trip to admire the historical homes. They were so lovely and fun, we ended up spending the afternoon with them. Ali has a wicked sense of humour and told us that we can tell our friends that we have had our photo taken with Osama bin Laden. On departing, Ali whipped out a hair brush to brush his beard, making Guy feel very unworthy. They offered us a stay in Tehran anytime, which was very tempting but we have to keep heading south so we hope to see them again on a future visit to Iran.

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The next day we bussed it back to Esfahan to find the bikes almost in tact. Unfortunately someone had helped themselves to our little trinkets that we had clipped onto out handlebars, a gift from our fellow cycling companion in Eastern Europe, Di. Annoying as it was more sentimental than anything - ah well, farewell little trinkets.

P.S. This blog has been back-dated as we are now already in Shiraz

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Esfahan: Half the World

In Esfahan we found a hotel not far from the Si-O-Seh Bridge. We quickly unpacked, showered and went in search of a restaurant with servings to match the immense hunger which we had accumulated from days on the road with depleting food supplies. Esfahan, a Unesco World Heritage site, challenges the likes of Rome and Athens on a cultural level but when it comes to culinary experience, well it’s up there with Bruce’s Midnight Burgers. We stocked up on the usual chicken and rice but were blown away to have the extra indulgence of a fresh green salad.
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Dizzy from all the vitamins racing through our bodies we walked the main drag soaking up the diversity of predominantly Middle Eastern visitors enjoying the buzz of the city. The most popular “joints” were the fast food places proudly showcasing food as diverse as fried chicken and beef burger.

It was clear that the locals had an eye for tourists as we could not walk 5 meters without a “hello” or “where you from”. We also seemed to be the source of much amusement (Freddie thinks it’s got something to do with Guy’s orange beard) as groups of passing young people would shoot a last minute “hello” then giggle with nervous excitement before running off. In the following days we soon found out the locals’ interest was sometimes deeper than their giddy greetings indicated.
The next day we headed down to the river to explore the magnificent bridges that Esfahan is famous for. We soon realised that some of the most beautiful bridges were further down stream, so we walked the lovely garden paths that extend for most of the inner city.

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En route a smiley old man in a wonky grey suit with a walking cane came up to us and exchanged pleasantries. He soon prompted us for a photo and we happily obliged. But as Guy went back to take a photo of the man with Freddie, he put his arm around her a little too tight. Ok, the locals are super friendly here, but then the penny dropped: the hand was wandering! Freddie was shocked and abruptly shoved him with her elbow. It seemed the photo was a mere excuse for a little canoodling. It was at this point that we realised Iran was not as sweet and innocent as we had once thought, perhaps it’s the impact of tourism on a big city. Later we were told from some Teheranis that Esfahan has a reputation for such schemes, and we did experience several more of these “over friendly” encounters.

Thankfully we also met some locals who were friendly to us for the right reasons. A GP on a “Cannon Dell” mountain bike was interested in our impressions about Esfahan, an Afghan arts student was keen to practise his English, and some energetic female science students quizzed us on all manner of subjects. We enjoyed meeting and chatting, it was more casual than some of our previous experiences where a chat often turned into a full day event. One common theme with most of the women we meet in public is that about 5 minutes into the conversation a timer seems to go off in their heads and and they start fidgeting before they quickly make their excuses and leave.

On our way back to our room we ran into Amin, a member of staff at the hostel. As he was local we asked him if he knew of anywhere we could get some laundry done.

“Sure, follow me”, declared Amin.

So we followed him for about 1 kilometre down a side street before arriving at a small suburban laundry. We gratefully handed over our bags of dirty laundry before walking back to the hotel with Amin. Later Guy went back to pick up the load but a small surprise awaited him. The bill came to 280,000 Rials - $28! What a shock, this was almost a day’s budget, down the drain. We hadn’t bothered to check the price as we assumed that it would be reasonable, especially as we were with Amin. Guy was outraged and reluctantly handed over the cash, one bill at a time, hoping they would show some mercy and announce that it was enough, but no, they demanded the full amount.

Back in the room we tried to understand how it could be so expensive. Dumping the clean clothes on the bed revealed the answer; they had been dry cleaned. The lot: Underwear, socks, cycling gloves, all our old tatty clothes had been lovingly dry cleaned. It all made perfect sense now - the bemused look on the proprietor’s faces as we handed over our crappy laundry and why they didn’t know what to do with the washing powder we gave them. Worst of all Guy felt rather humiliated after arguing about the price when they had just dry cleaned his undies, probably by hand. To make up for this extravagance, we decided to downgrade from the second cheapest hotel in town to the cheapest.

Having moved hotels, we walked around with our dry cleaned underwear on. We felt on top of the world so we decided to tackle the star attractions of Esfahan. There aren’t that many sites that we can say honestly make your jaw drop but walking into Imam square (formerly and more popularly known the locals as Naqsh-e Jahan square - pattern of the world) for the first time is a truly memorable experience. It’s over half a kilometre long, making it the second largest square in the world after Tiananmen Square in Beijing. 400 years ago it was regularly used for polo matches, and the goal posts are still standing. The perfectly domed mosques and towering mosaic facades at the southern end are the real centre pieces and are so beautiful to look at it’s almost impossible to turn away. One of the first things you notice is the alignment of Imam mosque is not flush with the side of the square, as it is facing Mecca.

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After coughing up $0.30 to enter the Mosque, Freddie was given a Chador to wear as all women must be covered up from head to toe before entering the holy site. As it was the first time she had to don such an outfit, she was a little unsure as to the correct procedure and ended up looking like a laundry bag with eyes, much to Guy’s amusement.

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Regarded as one of the most beautiful mosques in the world, it’s impossible to do it justice through photography. Standing from a distance the grandeur and architectural symmetry is mesmerizing. Close up the exquisite detail of the rich blue tiled mosaics comes to life with fine floral designs and intricate geometrical shapes laced with flowing Persian calligraphy.

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Standing under the 30m high dome (aptly named the flower basket) and looking up we were nearly lifted off our feet as we tried to comprehend the immensity of the dome and how it can be supported. We never noticed it but apparently there is a slight mismatch in symmetry as to reflect the architect’s humility towards Allah. Stamp your feet and the sound resonates throughout the mosque. Up to 46 echoes have been recorded, only 7 of which are audible to the human ear. We can only imagine how intense an experience it must be during a sermon.

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Walking back out from the dome we noticed a rather large group of female high school students approaching us. We knew from past experience that even a small group can be overwhelming, especially as there seems to be some fascination with Guy, we think it’s the beard. Anyway they moved in, flanking us on both sides. We glanced around for an exit point but we were trapped. Within moments we were surrounded, phones came out as pictures were snapped, questions were fired from all angles and the fever pitch was so intense you couldn't decipher anything from the noise. It was very odd, we really felt like we were the members of some pop band, such was the interest. Soon a teacher wearing a bandage from a recent nose job appeared, and - get this - told us off for wasting their time! They were very busy and had many sites still to see that day, we do apologise.

Weary from our encounter with the The Mob, we set about to find the famous teahouse that overlooks the square. Unfortunately it was closed down, a disturbing trend in Esfahan. We strolled around the square, poking our heads into the little shops under the arches. Close to the mosque there was the usual tat, but further away tucked down small winding alleys some real little gems appeared. There were some truly exquisite handicrafts, from elaborately engraved silver plates to finely painted porcelain vases. In the early evening the little workshops above the shops come to life as the craftsmen work on their trade. At one shop we noticed some lovely hand painted pieces in the typical Esfahanian style. Out the back we could see the artists painting the intricate designs with such delicacy. They invited us in and were happy for us to chat and take photos of them whilst they worked. It was refreshing to actually see the artists and craftsman working, a real testimony to the authenticity of the products.

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Trying to find our way out we stumbled across a small shop selling hand painted cloth. The owner came over and asked us to come over for a closer look. Inside was his father sitting cross legged at a table working on a pattern depicting a traditional Persian scene. His father seemed to be a bit of a legend as he has been working there for over 65 years and was known in the art world. A TV crew from Tehran were there filming him. Rather embarrassingly they made us sit down and engage in small talk with some young Teherani girls who were also visiting, both parties feeling rather self conscious.

Just out of the bazaar and feeling inspired to buy something truly authentic as a reminder of our stay in Iran, we noticed a shop front displaying finely painted miniatures that were hand painted on camel bone. They instantly conjured up images of Persian culture so we thought it would be the perfect souvenir. Hossein started painting when he we 13 and has been mastering the technique for over 50 years. Looking though a magnifying glass we found it virtually impossible to imagine how such minute strokes can be achieved. Hossein uses brushes of the finest cat hair and said he prefers the hair of stray cats as they have not been stroked as much as they domestic counterparts, and their hair is therefore finer.

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There are many magnificent sights to visit in Esfahan, such as the impressive Jameh Mosque, the Lotfallah Mosque with its beautiful dome and the harmonious Chehel Sotun Palace with its lovely garden and intricate frescoes depicting Shah Abbas’ life. Esfahan really deserves as much time as you can throw at it.