03 March, 2008

I ran through Iran

The only fly in the otherwise smooth and creamy ointment of our Iranian Border crossing was that we were to be issued with an unarmed Army bodyguard. The reason for this was that in the previous weeks, a Notorious Bandit’s brother had been arrested, tried and sentenced to death. In retaliation, the Notorious Bandit had kidnapped some western tourists and threatened them with the same fate as his brother unless the authorities released his errant sibling. The brother was, nevertheless, put directly to death and the Notorious Bandit let his captives go. We were to be protected in case he’d had some second thoughts on the matter. But I still had a bit of bother understanding what exactly a single unarmed Army bodyguard might reasonably do in the face of such a desperate criminal as a Notorious Bandit.

I lent him some gloves and Teus-Jan re-organised his luggage to accommodate our bodyguard. After a quick refill, we were off into Iran, carefully remembering to ride on the right hand side of the road, the first time for me since the US. Soon we stopped and the guard was replaced by another. We began to wonder whether this was just some ruse to get us to give each man a wee lift. Arriving in Zahedan we were quickly picked up by the local police and asked to follow them around for a while. This became boring, especially as we were so tired and still fairly unwell. Eventually, having followed them around for miles, our convoy stopped and we demanded to know whether we could go to our hotel now, or were being arrested. This was all in sign language. They seemed a little bit shame-faced when they realised how fed up we were. They led us directly to the nearby “Tourist Hotel”. I think maybe they had just been ‘showing us off’ to the locals.

In the Tourist Hotel we were shown a very comfortable room with all the usual channels on TV, we ate a hearty meal and went swiftly off to sleep.

After a wonderful breakfast of olives, carrot jam (yes, carrot jam), feta cheese, eggs and some delicious bread, we made to leave. “Ah, so you are leaving?” asked the man at reception.
“Yes, thank you, we’ll be down to pay our bill once we’ve packed,” we smiled happily.
“Then I shall just telephone the police for you,” the man smiled conspiratorially.
“No!!” we begged him, but he’d have got into more trouble if he hadn’t phoned them.

It seemed that having followed these policemen around all the previous evening, this morning they would be escorting us out of their city.

First we needed to buy fuel cards. Fuel in Iran is probably the least expensive in the world at 5p a litre, but it still needs to be carefully rationed because of the West’s sanctions. The Government’s way of doing this is to see that fuel is unavailable unless you have a card. These are readily available to locals but foreigners such as we have to apply to a special office. This was fine but we were very low on fuel. The first thing we had to do was to find the office but even before doing that we had to explain this need to these policemen who wanted us to follow them and spoke no English while we had no Farsi.

Morning following followed and it was found that the office was probably closed. Following this revelation, more following followed. Then, in an understandable bout of uncharacteristic frustration, Teus-Jan overtook the police car. I followed him and now they were behind us, but less than pleased with that idea. We gestured for them to keep up, anxious for them not to think we were trying to escape from them. We were also secure in the knowledge that we knew from the local map where to find the office we needed. They tried to overtake us again, gesturing angrily. They tooted and sirened but we were so fed up of uselessly following by then, that we refused to be overtaken and manoeuvred accordingly, preventing them from getting in front. After a while another police car appeared in front of us at a roundabout, the one behind waved dejectedly and drove off back towards the town. We were sure we knew where to go and set off in the appropriate direction. The new police car waved furiously but didn’t follow us as went off in a different direction. We were becoming dangerously short of fuel.

At last we found ourselves back at the office the police had previously said was closed. Of course it was wide open, and the lovely ladies inside could not have been more helpful. I got to sit still in a lovely cool office while Teus-Jan went off with some executive who, embarrassed, was busily apologising for everything being so complicated. But he had immediately made it uncomplicated since he jumped on his pushbike and cycled off, leading Teus-Jan to the bank. Here we could get the pay-in slip to the government’s bank account so that he could issue the cards. Top man, within just a few minutes we were looking for a fuel station.

Having found one and filled up, we were a little anxious that the police might be lurking in wait for us on the edge of town. We had already told them in which direction we had intended to go. There are only three roads out of the place anyway. But there were no policemen, we were free at last, and enjoyed a fantastically scenic run through the otherwise deserted desert countryside.

We made excellent progress on wonderful roads with very little traffic. By evening we were in Kerman, where a fine gent named Paul had left a Turkish Lonely Planet for me in one of the hostels. He had been riding East on a Honda VFR800 and I had found his website during a particularly hot evening in South East Asia. We had tentatively arranged to meet for Christmas somewhere on the Indo-Pakistani Border but, given the political situation in Pakistan, he had decided to head off to the South and take a ferry to Oman, so we had never met. We were at odds about which of us was the dafter – me taking such an elderly bike round or he riding such a modern road bike with all the plastic bits to smash up.

We were tired and hungry and it was getting dark on our arrival. Outside of towns Iranians seem to be far, far better at driving. We just wanted to eat something and get our heads down. Some helpful people arrived eventually and showed us to a very good hotel. The hotelier knew the hostel where Paul had left the Lonely Planet book and called its owner in the morning. He duly appeared, having driven home from his hostel to collect our present. We expressed our sincere thanks, apologised for not having found his place the night before and were off on our way. Fantastically helpful, the Iranians. Like everywhere else, it’s really only those in uniforms or who have some other petty ‘power’ that can be difficult. Often though, thankfully, even they are quite friendly. And I still haven’t paid any bribes since Mexico. It also seems to me that those countries about which we hear the most scary stories in the Western media are populated by the kindest, most helpful and embarrassingly generous people.

It got much, much warmer as we approached the ancient city of Yazd on the old Silk Route. Tues-Jan had been here before and led us to the excellent hostel where we ate well and relaxed in the cool of the perfectly designed yard. I was getting unpleasantly affected by the heat that day, and foolishly declined Tues-Jan’s kind invitation to look at the beautiful blue Mosque nearby. I went to the internet café instead and later got very lost on the way home. We were still neither of us fully fit. Next day we would split, as Tues-Jan went north towards Tehran, while I went west towards Esfahan, a place I’d been told not to miss, before turning north into the Kurdistani mountains.

We swapped bikes for a spell in the morning so that we could look our own bikes over on the move, as well as have a wee go on the other’s trusty steed. My bike looked all right, apart from all the oil leaks, while Tues-Jan’s TransAlp held real appeal. Honda make few bikes with anything remotely approaching ‘character’, however, and this was no exception. A firm, reliable, no nonsense bike, I could see how it would so easily get you wherever you wanted to go with the minimum of fuss. It was a good choice of bike, and just a little bit different with that massive tank.

The inevitable fork in the road duly appeared and I rode off to the West while Tues-Jan went North in another blaze of horns and waves. The usual immediate feeling of deep and stark alone-ness was gradually replaced by the independent sense of adventure I was more used to when riding alone. I had first felt this curious change most strongly on leaving Khartoum and Rachel behind. But 50 or so miles further into the run, it gets replaced by the deeper understanding that “this is what it’s all about, this is what I was looking for – just the bike, the road and me”. Daft, but one has to justify a lack of mates somehow!

Esfahan was big, but the drivers here seemed more murderous than in most Iranian cities. After being laughed at by the third very near miss and locking up the front end four too many times, I decided enough was enough. Not being able to take my eyes off the traffic, I hadn’t found much beauty in the place, although I’d ridden straight through the centre of the city. Separate people had insisted I went there, but I was tired, had seen nothing of interest from the back of the bike and risked life and limb at every turn. It was time to head further out of town.

I wanted to find a place where I could camp wild – I hadn’t camped since Australia, and maybe wanted to over-emphasise my new alone status. The first such strong feeling since before arriving in Pokhara at Christmas. I couldn’t find anywhere suitably private and so I continued up and up into the snow. I had seen Daran on the map and felt it was achievable. It was high in the mountains, and I arrived chilled to the bone in a quickening dusk. I stopped on the outskirts of town to get my bearings and was immediately approached by a police car. They were surprised to see me and led me immediately to another ‘Tourist Hotel’ with no one else in it but me. An interpreter was found to explain to the staff my every requirement from hot shower to morning breakfast. That done, I was left to the peace and quiet of my room, book and sleep.

It snowed in the night and I prayed that would be all the snow for today, that soon I’d be low in sunlit valleys with white mountains all around. No such luck! I left it as long as I could before setting off, hoping for the maximum possible warmth. As I left town, the snow began. For the remainder of the day it alternated between heavy and light snow, accumulating on the windscreen and freezing my knees. It doesn’t seem to matter how many layers you have on, it is only a matter of time before extreme cold seeps down to the bones. It is a slow, accumulative procedure which you don’t really notice until you stop and begin to shiver. While on the bike, the concentration on not falling off seems to prevent shivering. When stopped, the shivering seems to prevent any sort of concentration. Funny thing the human body. Fortunately the snow never seemed to lie too thickly on the road and the tyres still worked. I had been told that these roads had only been opened four days ago, so the delay in India waiting for the visa had been well worth it.

Mildly (or maybe a bit more than ‘mildly’!) hypothermic, I had no time or desire to be seeking cheap accommodation and just had to get warm. I went straight for the 4star hotel in Kermanshah. It was expensive, but excellent, warm and even had under-hotel parking. The Visa card could cope with this – clearly an emergency!

The staff at this hotel was particularly helpful, escorting me both to the iCaff and the pizza shop, after willingly conceding their own restaurant prices were a bit mad. It is sometimes difficult to be sure whether all this escorting is protective, restrictive or just friendly. But they managed to make it look quite friendly. In the morning, as I went to repack the bike, ready for the day’s arctic survival exercise, the kitchen staff were soon around me. Again, lack of language did not prevent communication. One young lady introduced me to her husband and as I started up the bike to leave, she ran off while the others prevented me from leaving in the friendliest way. She quickly returned with a glass of water which I would have shown gratitude for, but she splashed some of it in front of the bike as she beckoned me to move on. I was quite touched by this obvious 'blessing' on the remainder of my journey, and she ran in front of the bike for a while, splashing little bits more as I left the hotel amid the friendliest smiles and waves.

More powerful emotion quickly came as I got confused about how best to leave this friendliest of cities. I stopped an elderly gent who spoke excellent English which he had learned during the Shah’s dictatorship. With eyes brimming over, he told me he had not heard or spoken my language in 20 years. He was overwhelmingly impressed by the nature of my trip and I felt he’d have willingly adopted me if I hadn’t been on my way. A genuinely helpful and excellent human being, he urged me not to believe ugly Western rumours of Iranian nastiness. I happily assured him I had long since suspected these were nonsense, even before I’d left Scotland, and that it was a privilege to have my suspicions confirmed.

I would really love to return to Iran some summertime, maybe in a camper van. The roads and infrastructure are excellent and the scenery truly fantastic. History seeps from every brick and hillside and the locals are especially warm and welcoming. True independent freedom in a camper van – where I wasn’t committed to any overly organised accommodation – would be properly liberating.

Another day of extreme cold snow, but breathtaking scenery brought me to Mahabad, within easy(ish) reach of the Turkish border. I had wanted to get as far as Orumiyeh but the cold was too much for me again that day and I had to stop.

Kurdistan is not a country (yet?) but the mountainous Kurdish nation straddles three other countries: Iran, Iraq and Turkey. These are themselves products of the mandated system which broke up the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the Great War. These snowy mountains were in Iranian Kurdistan. In neighbouring Turkish Kurdistan it would be just as mountainous and, for a little extra drama, the majority Turkish Turks were having something of a dispute with the indigenous Turkish-Kurds. The third group of Iraqi-Kurds were offering safety to their Turkish-Kurd cousins and the Turks were chasing them across the Iraqi border. Of course I wasn’t going into Iraq but the road through Turkish Kurdistan skimmed along Iraq’s northern border with Turkey. Should be interesting. Iranian-Kurds were quietly having nothing to do with any of this silliness.

I set off next morning through cold snow and bright sunshine towards the most eventful border crossing of the trip so far.