Sunday, October 19, 2008

Over the Kopet Dag into Iran

After the heavy climb (1500m vertical) from Ashgabat up to the border - right on top of the arid range - we were intrigued to see what Iran would be like. Julie pulled out her scarf and donned 'hejab' for the first time. The officials were impeccably polite and friendly, and there were absolutely no issues. A promising start, but we were more worried about what Ramadan (1-30 September) would mean for our appetites. 23 days to get through! Cross border contraband included a bottle of wine (see Turkmenistan), a Salman Rushdie novel and 'The God Delusion'.

We rolled down past the long queue of Iranian and Turkish semitrailers to Bajgiran, a desolate little border town, where we were amazed to find Coke (real Coke) in the first shop. (I confess to a mild soft drink addiction over August - in the heat - and Julie and I had shared our 'last Coke' back in Ashgabat.) A dorky young Iranian man on a motorbike spoke OK English and invited us back to his place to stay the night. He turned out to be the local librarian, on assignment here with his young wife. 'I hate it here.' We soon found out how Ramadan works: 'I don't fast because it is too difficult for me, but my wife must because she is fat.' Ouch. Next surprise came very quickly: satellite TV with raunchy Lebanese MTV (which ran non stop) and endless Arabic porn channels (which I found playing with the remote)! Questions included: 'Do you have free relations in your country?' and 'Can you watch movies and TV on the Internet?' It made me ashamed to think how much bandwidth (or whatever the hell it is) rich people must squander on crap. Of course the Iranians all want it too. Next morning Julie stole a bit of girl time with librarian wife (boring questions about weddings) while I briefly found out just how boring a librarian's job can be. Turns out he spends all his time 'studying English' - and during Ramadan only has to work 8 am (read 9.30) till 1pm (read 11am)!

That first morning we discovered the delights of Iranian bakeries. This one churned steaming hot 'barbary' flat breads out - for 500 rial each (believe it? - 5 cents.)
As soon as you stand in the queue the locals turn around, make sure you're served quickly, and help you with the change.

Next village a shopkeeper invited us in for tea. In his courtyard the sharp eyed bastard spotted my bottle of wine, buried below three water bottles! He kept winking and nudging me conspiratorially then asked for some and came back with an empty
bottle! I poured him a sip and tried to tell him he was a Muslim AND it was Ramadan!

We rode through these beautiful, dry, empty mountains towards the west and after two days descended into our first Iranian city - Quchan.

First impressions: lots of 125cc motorbikes. Lots of men staring. Fewer women, almost all in black chadors, obscuring their faces.

It was 4.30pm when we got to town and we thought we'd find a feed. There were plenty of bakeries working, but not a single restaurant in town open. A kindly local man volunteered the location of a 'park' for 'camping' (they use the same words in Farsi). We retreated to this leafy park to eat our fresh bread with honey, spotting a few kanoodling couples and a few people picnicking on a blanket. It seemed this was a 'safe zone' for eating. Turns out anybody 'travelling' and certain other groups (pregnant women, diabetics) are exempt from Ramadan - but it's still unacceptable to eat in 'public'.

A friendly bloke walked past and eagerly wanted to show us something. He took us back to a kiosk and pointed out a spot on the concrete under a spotlight where we could camp. He was saying something about 'police' and pointing to himself. No uniform, though. Then he opened the kiosk and got out some icecreams for us. He rode off on his bike, suggesting he'd be back later. Sure enough, later he turned up - in uniform. In the meantime we'd met three other policemen who were delighted to find us a spot to camp, and offered tea. We chose a rotunda in the shade, just near the police mini-station. This was our introduction to camping, Iranian style.

Next morning we said farewell to our police friends and I received my first kiss (on the cheek) and a pink rose (signifying friendship??) from an Iranian man...

From Quchan we headed across arid plains with grape farms to Bojnurd for more Iranian-style central park camping with lots of locals, mostly travelling to/from Mashhad for the holiday. Kids would periodically appear next to our tent with melons, cakes, bread and other little gifts sent over by their families. At dusk we went to a canteen style restaurant where everyone was eating a set menu chicken and rice. Out the front was a self important parking attendant in a white uniform with red braid. We had a few swigs of wine left so thought we'd go for a wander in the park before dinner to finish it off. I got it out of my bag (where it was now well buried) - discreetly, I thought. But when we got back the attendant started raising his voice and demanding to inspect the bottle!!! I ignored him and just turfed the bottle as soon as I was inside. How the hell did he pick that?

Then south over another range to Esfarahen, where we'd been invited by a lovely family. From here across empty desert and up onto a plateau, then down through beautiful lush temperate forest to the Caspian Sea coast.

Julie rode in a loose long sleeved top and pale travel pants, with a headscarf under her helmet. That didn't stop endless stares. I rode in pants for a very short while, got sick of it, and went back to my baggy mountain biking shorts (knee length). After consulting with a few locals I decided my policy would be to whip pants over the top if we were stopping off in a town for a little longer - or maybe if a policeman told me to put some on. (This never happened.) Most people didn't seem the least bothered that I was wearing shorts - they were too fascinated. Only once or twice did I see an older man 'tut tut' and shake his head disapprovingly. As time went on we got a little sick of eating and drinking inside little shops during daytime (most restaurants and cafes were closed). Occasionally a shopowner would even put shutters down so we could eat freely. But we became a bit more relaxed after a while and started to have a few nibbles and sips in towns. Only rarely did we get strange looks and in any case we had our line ready - something along the lines of 'masi - dochakhe mosaferat.' (Christian - bicycle journey). It was amazing, though: you literally would not see anybody chewing gum or taking a sip of water in public during daylight hours. I'm sure young men everywhere were stuffing their faces all day behind closed doors, though.

We ran into extraordinary hospitality almost everywhere. It took about 3 weeks to pay for accommodation - not for lack of trying. In Azad Shahr an English teacher took us to a hotel as we'd requested but then said, 'It is not so good. I have a flat in town which is empty, you may stay there. Or you may return with me to my village and stay with me. I am at your service.'

Another regular, very warm greeting: 'Welcome to Iran. Is there anything you need?'

Families were great to us. Young men, on the other hand... The towns near the Caspian coast were increasingly packed with bored young John Travoltas on motorbikes, cruising around doing laps (of us), shamelessly checking Julie out, hooning past on the inside and yelling to scare us, and generally harassing us. Not fun at all. These boys style their hair with kilos of hair gel and are extremely fashion conscious, checking themselves out in public mirrors all day. Tight jeans, muscle T shirts, jewellery... Complete disinterest in anything Islam screams out at me. Yet there are absolutely no sanctions on their behaviour. They seem to be able to do anything, any time they want. As for women...

Moving west the traffic seemed to settle down. From Chalus, on the coast, we rode south over the Alborz mountains and through the terrifying Kandovan tunnel (2km long) then down through more long tunnels to Karaj - a satellite megalopolis of Tehran. These tunnels generally had bored police and ambulances/paramedics at one end. Our worst tunnel moment came when a car without headlights (like about 30% of cars in tunnels) overtook towards us (single lane, tunnel wall 50cm to our right) as cars were about to pass us from behind. Luckily, these braked in time. On the open winding mountain road, it was just a matter of watching out for the constant overtaking, often in blind corners, in our direction. Oh, and tailgating.

A word or two more about Iranian traffic: diabolically awful. Most cities and towns are gridlocked, mostly with Paykans, which are Iranian made Hunter Hillmans (late 1960's- early 1970's models). Very many of these are taxis, marked and unmarked. The traffic generally moves very slowly, but all drivers constantly weave left and right trying to find gaps. They're also constantly watching cars next to them and avoiding collisions. Lanes mean nothing. Indicators are very rarely used. Cars turning onto the road in front of you do not look at all towards oncoming traffic - they virtually have right of way. This also has the advantage that they will see whatever motorbike is inevitably coming up the wrong side of the road towards them. Or it might be a car reversing back over an intersection. It could be anything.

Share taxis constantly stop and swerve over to the side of the road (no indicators) to pick up/drop off/hunt for passengers.

Traffic lights also mean nothing. At the busiest intersections in Tehran you can see motorbikes simply riding out into the intersection, making all the oncoming traffic in both directions stop, and sneaking across. Footpaths aren't safe either as motorbikes are quite happy to ride on them at 30-40km/h to avoid gridlock.

Motorbikes are especially dangerous at night - they don't slow down and often have no headlights...

Another pet hazard - women in chadors who are too busy covering up and chewing on their chadors to look at traffic. Also shocking at night. Talk about a death wish.

Roundabouts are maybe the worst. Imagine you want to go straight ahead. As you ride on, many cars coming behind you will just cut in front to turn right. Then cars coming from your left will also cut in front of you to continue straight. Eventually you're stranded somewhere in the middle, with cars heading towards you weaving left/right as they try to guess which way you will go. If you freeze with panic, at some stage somebody will courteously wave you through. At any time a motorbike could come at you from the wrong direction.

It's an extraordinary driving culture. 28,000 deaths a year on Iranian roads, I've read. I didn't realise that this kind of martyrdom was recognised by Allah.

In favour of Iranian motorists: they honk discreetly, mostly to say hello, and there is remarkably little road rage - certainly none towards us. When I yell abuse the response is almost always a silly smile and a wave! The bastards!

The roads? Generally excellent. Petrol is 1000 rial (10c) a litre, though it's 'rationed' to 4 litres per car per day or 1 litre per motorbike per day (smart card system). Beyond that it's 40c a litre.

Road police? Activity level zero. On the other hand, two cop cars with sirens did scream to a halt near our campsite one night when it was reported that a young woman was not wearing proper hejab (as we heard later from other campers). I looked up to see Julie blithely wandering away towards the toilets, ignoring the calls of the police. She took her time and they left before she appeared.

There is utterly excellent food in the Iranian markets - apples (from 20c/kg), grapes ($1/kg), pomegranates ($1/kg), tomatoes (from 20c/kg), eggplants (40c/kg), greens, dates, honey, halva, Iranian olives and olive oil (delicious).
All of the fresh fruit and veg has been better than anything in Australia, let alone Europe... On top of that delicious fresh bread, fetta/cream cheese, yoghurt...
On the other hand restaurants are very hit/miss. Lots of basic kebab joints and fast food stores dishing up unappetising 'pizza', hot dogs, hamburgers.

Universal lowlight in Iran - the miserable status of women. Hiding/cringing behind chadors in smaller conservative towns. Highly educated with no prospects and utterly frustrated in big cities. A few drive but none ride motorbikes (though they all ride on the back as pillion passengers.) We saw one girl walking with a pushbike in Esfahan. We are told it's not 'socially acceptable' for women to ride bikes.

Politics / the government? Islam? More later. I'll just tell you what's on TV: endless lectures by imams about things like Palestine and evil Israel.

In Karaj I had my bike welded again - this time a bracket on the front fork for my front rack. Another back yard electric arc job, but it looked good.
We left our bikes in Karaj and caught an overnight train to Yazd from Tehran, then a bus to Shiraz, bus to Esfahan, and overnight train back to Tehran. A week all up - but we were busting to get back onto the bikes. A hunt for two replacement brackets I needed delayed us for a few hours, but was entertaining.

Over the past six days we've ridden from Karaj to Tabriz (about 600km) over refreshingly safe freeway. After a day stocking up and wandering in the most excellent bazaar today we're planning to head into Armenia tomorrow, then southern Georgia and Turkey. Why Armenia? 1. The lure of Armenian cognac. 2. Beautiful mountains, and autumn should be pretty. 3. They speak Russian there. 4. It's the nearest hejab-free zone. 5. It's a few borders away from Turkish Kurdestan.

8000+ km so far - since mid May.

Above all, I am really looking forward to escaping the constant terror of riding in Iranian cities. You only need so many reminders of your own mortality. It's sad that this fear sometimes overshadows the sheer joy of bike touring.

1 comment:

michael said...

Hi Rob,
It was fun to read about Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. Sneaking a bottle in - you are naughty!

Keep up the updates they are really entertaining.

Enjoy Turkey (my favourite country) although i took the black sea coast road, which from your direction is flat and big roads to start and then gets beautiful.


Mike (from Osh)