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.


On September 2 we rolled up to the Turkmen border, having camped 5km down the road the night before. We had the typical 5 day transit visas. A truckload of German tourists just beat us to the border post but we managed to get over in 3 hours - excellent time. The Turkmen bank officials made 3 charming attempts to short change us on the silly $12 'departure cards', but no other hassles.

As we left a local Russian guide asked me if I'd seen her stranded Spanish tourists. We chatted, I joked about being a spy, and she hissed, 'Don't say that, not even as a joke!' Welcome to Turkmenistan, one of the silliest banana republics around.

I'll revisit this later.

Just one memorable moment: riding from the big Saturday Ashgabat market back into town, a bloke in a truck leaned out the passenger window as the truck went past and gave me a 1.5 litre soft drink bottle with what I thought was flat cherry cola, or some kind of juice. It turned out to be some kind of delicious wine, half way between shiraz and port!

Heading west from Tashkent

I forgot to mention a few details about the Georgian restaurant: how there were very few guests but a big 'in' crowd (which we snuck into) that dined like kings and never paid, the Russian girlfriends who kept disappearing to the toilets and came back sniffing with strangely elevated moods... then there was Georgian self described 'mountain man' - a well drunk Georgian businessman who wanted to take Julie to the mountains in a stretch limousine for the night and offered me 'any woman I want' in exchange... he really shouldn't have used me as an interpreter, though...
There was something else going on here!

Anyway, we headed west for three days to Samarkand where we camped in the yard of an elderly Russian couple. On two consecutive nights we wandered past and were invited into wedding feasts where we were fed with whatever was available in exchange for our dancing. It's supposed to be good luck to have extra guests at Tajik weddings. Fun. As for the days, we rolled around the markets and monuments of Samarkand, past the Registan to my favourite spot, the row of mausoleums at Shah-i-Zinda.

We also hunted down Volodya, president of the local bike racing club and bike mechanic, who took us back to his typically Soviet flat in the suburbs for the night and down to a lake for a swim. Next morning, full of watermelon and coffee, Volodya escorted us through the back streets to the road heading south towards Shahrisabz.

Past delicious pears and mountain honey over a 1500m pass to Shahrisabz, then another few hundred k's to Bukhara. More melon feasts. Once I stopped and asked and old bloke where I could find a watermelon. He took me back to his place where there was a pile 2 metres high in the back yard. He insisted I took two. We rolled 100m up the road, found a patch of shade, and got stuck into one of them. A granny found us and brought over a blanket. Then she brought over ANOTHER watermelon. As we left we were offered a fourth melon (thanks, but no thanks). Up the road I swapped one melon for two ice creams! It was stinking hot, getting towards 50 degrees in the sun (late August). We took to finding shade and melons for our early afternoon siestas and washed our shirts out a few times a day in irrigation canals.

A little further some teenage local girls approached Julie with more melon offerings as they were on their way home from a day in the fields. Unfortunately a bunch of men found us as well, took over the conversation (typical) and scared them off.
That night we were invited home by a man whose trade turned out to be... traditional circumcisions! He was very happy to explain his trade, got out his tools, and humiliated his 14 year old son by pulling his pants down to demonstrate! Not very useful when the kid's already had the job done! He then ducked off to a wedding feast (we declined to accompany) leaving another local man to be our host and get very sloshed while I poured most of the vodka under the table...

We left our bikes in Bukhara for a few days for a side trip (petrol fuelled) to Urgench and Khiva, 450km northwest.

From Bukhara it was another 100km west to the Turkmen border across either arid or irrigated plains. While checking out a melon stall en route our bus driver to Urgench (who we'd had dinner with) turned up! Back to his place for another feast...

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


When I got to the fringes of Tashkent I tried to change some money at a market, where there was a government exchange booth (1325 sum to $US1.) Unfortunately I was swamped by a horde of smartarse, aggressive young Uzbek men (black market traders) offering me 1330 - when I knew the rate was 1380. I told them to go away with no effect, then I turned my back on my bike for 15 seconds to express myself more firmly. One yelped, 'Hey! Your bike's gone!' and sure enough, it was. Laughter and heckling ringing in my ears, I ran around the booth and out into open space. No sign of my bike - and all my gear. Back to where it had been - just laughter. From the amusement I suspected a nasty joke but I was shaken. All of a sudden, after a few long minutes it reappeared. No clear culprit. I rode off using the best language I could muster, being abused in return with copycat trash from bad movies ('F- off motherf-er!!!'). Not a great start.

A lot of other things hadn't changed much in Tashkent. The broad leafy boulevards were the same. Still countless fountains and water features, as if they didn't know what else to do with all that water. Still excellent ice cream! As for the traffic - not too bad (though drivers predictably crap for a cyclist, cutting corners etc.). Still lots of flashy hotels which look empty. Still plenty of police around. Few foreigners/tourists. A hint of tedium.

What had changed since 1999? Mobile phones EVERYWHERE. Very soon I found people taking pics of me (or even filming me) - of course without asking. Lots of closed down internet cafes. Broadway, the pedestrian mall in the centre of town which used be be great value, was dead - apparently shut down by President Karimov.

Oh, and the police have been kitted out with spiffy new green uniforms.
Julie flew in to Tashkent airport in dry summer heat and was abandoned by ground staff for a while (left in an empty stairwell with locked doors) but at least the indifferent Uzbek staff didn't try to extort any money from her (this had already happened in Bangkok for 'excess weight'). Her bike got through unscathed, plus I only had to wait two and a half hours for her - bonus. We found a comfy hotel with a pool and next day checked out the Turkmen embassy, with its huddles of miserable victims and extremely grumpy neighbours. 10 days processing time for a 5 day transit visa – along a pre specified route.

Julie bought some galvanised iron (fashioned by my dad!) and some Bunnings clamps which seemed to sort out my busted frame good and proper!

At the Chorsu Bazaar we stocked up with sultanas, peanuts, dried apricots, apricot kernels, dried cheeseballs, and headed out of town to escape the heat while waiting for our visas.

150km east, snug up against the Kyrgyz border, were the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains, a big azure blue reservoir and the ski resort of Chimgan. On the way up Julie began discovering the delights of Central Asian cuisine, including shurpa (clear soup with potato and a hunk of bone/meat) and pelmeni (Russian style ravioli, in a clear broth). First night was on a tapchan (elevated platform with cushions) in front of a wayside inn – after a feed they often won't charge you to roll out your sleeping bags and spend the night. Julie also soon discovered gastro and was pretty miserable as I dragged her (gently) up into the hills.

On a chairlift near Chimgan.

We checked out one of the Soviet relic sanatoria where Uzbeks buy 5-10 day passes to 'rest' and eat set menu cafeteria food 3 times a day for about $16 per person per day, all inclusive. Up in Chimgan some local Russians invited us back to their dacha, tucked away in a remote canyon down a 4WD track. On our way back down from the hills we ran into some junior road racing cyclists near Gazalkent. It turned out that this was an Uzbek junior development training camp, run by Lyudmila, a former road racing champion of the Soviet Union. The team was all staying at a school boarding house, and they dragged us back there for the evening meal. Next morning we rode with the peleton back down the road to Tashkent (50km) with coach Lyudmila escorting us in her minivan (and carrying our bags).

Lyudmila told us she was on a salary of $US300 a month as a senior development coach. Her son was road racing professionally in Italy and a lot of the bike gear she had was sourced from him - though there were always dramas trying to get it through customs, which of course want to 'tax' everything. The gear the kids rode was a bizarre mixture of ancient Soviet steel frames and top notch Colnago frames that had obviously been in huge stacks and had somehow been welded together... but they managed to ride vast Soviet style training distances on it.

Back in town Lyudmila offered us her son's flat to crash in for a few days while waiting for our visas – a great spot in the centre of town, just opposite the Alai Bazaar. This son was in Moscow but there was one other Russian woman living there, who was rarely home. This was Tamara, who turned out to be an obsessive fitness coach with no end of nasty bitching to do about Lyudmila, her husband and her three sons. At least she wasn't home much and the Olympics were on TV. But three days later Lyudmila's husband turned up unannounced and began berating me – should have guessed that the same kinds of things were being said about us - 'we are barbarians, never wash, never clean up' etc. He was also getting anxious about our need to register with the police. It was time to move on and when we left I made a little comment to Tamara about her personal attributes. Her response: 'Well, you shouldn't call our President a fascist then.' Ooops, I had forgotten all about that!

We dropped in on the Georgian restaurant in town where I used to take clients so regularly that I translated their menu for them. Just as we arrived a Georgian friend of theirs had won a wrestling gold medal and so we were invited straight in for celebrations which ended up lasting for the next three days (or at least that's when we left!) After three free feasts I had to insist on translating the new menu on our last night. I got it done by 9pm with Julie's help in time for a final feast and we rolled out of town at midnight on cool, empty roads - excellent - camping 25 km out of town.

Dushanbe to Tashkent

My kind hearted granny, Baba Lyolya, turned out to be full of amazing stories. She gave me a family history lesson and dug out 100 year old photos from her parents' era in Petropavlovsk, in southern Siberia, where she was born. (I think it's now Kazakhstan - the distinction is vague up there, northern K. being very Russified.) Most of these were from studios with great props and Sunday best furs. She really put across how isolated Dushanbe was back in 1954, despite the railway built in the 20's. When she arrived the local Tajiks were still living in clay pot homes ('kibichki') and the girls would flock around her to stroke her ponytails in awe.
From there on her stories ranged from her involvement in organising (illegal) backyard abortions (she gave a detailed 'recipe') and stories about how she'd go to Termez (on the Afghan border, now in Uzbekistan) to catch the first supplies of household products to stories about her work as manager of the neurosurgical hospital in Dushanbe, with long gone Jewish and Russian consultants... Extraordinary living history of the Soviet Union.

The following day I went back to the Iranian embassy having decided to resort to begging. Who knows, maybe they don't take this whole reference number thing so seriously. They seemed receptive and said come back in the afternoon. By that time my number had magically appeared.

From Dushanbe my route headed north over two big passes past Khojand towards Tashkent. I'd had some horror reports of the road, with massive road and tunnel construction works going on.
So I thought I'd get a lift on a truck. 'Smokin' Granny' (my new name for her since I discovered she secretly puffed on old school 'Polyot' cigarettes) kindly decided to cook me French toast for breakfast. Very sweet of her but I soon offered to cook it for myself - not so easy when you're blind.

I rode up the road 15km or so and waited well into the stinking hot afternoon near a police checkpoint for a truck to offer a lift. I had plenty of company - due to sky high petrol prices (and roadworks) not many drivers were interested in going over and transport was scarce for everyone. Eventually I got lucky. The truck turned out to be empty- hmm, not so good, nothing to cushion the bike with! All I could use was my groundsheet. We headed up past the Tajik president's silly palace-dacha into the mountains and the road soon turned to hell. The tunnels were as bad as feared - 30cm of water over rubble! Glad I didn't ride. My Tajik drivers were in a hurry to get home and hammered over the first pass. At 2am there was a roadblock so the boys decided on shuteye till 5.30am. We slept on a tapchan (open air traditional tea house platform, with cushions) next to a mountain stream. Over the next pass helter skelter and we stopped to get my bike out. I was nervous. Climbing up into the container dust was everywhere and I found my bike right at the front- it'd obviously been tossed all over the place but was intact, thanks to the 4 panniers which had protected it. Only minor casualty was my billy - a bit of panelbeating gives it character, anyway.

I rolled down through apple trees onto the plains near the border to the first roadside stalls of watermelons and delicious long white melons. On my way I met plenty of friendly lowland Tajiks who were busting to give me apples, plov and anything else they had for the road. After one failed border crossing ('the international border is 40km up the road, this one's just for locals') at Bekabad, I got over into Uzbekistan. The border guards seemed younger and more worldwise than I remembered them - I asked one what the black market rate for Uzbek sum was and he told me (correctly)! From here it was 100km across cotton fields and piles of watermelons to Tashkent.