Saturday, 9 October 2010

Iran. Land of hills and Hillmans

I was going to add something to the last entry about the Eastern part of Turkey but it seems so long ago now. All I will say is that we found the Kurds a little sour, but on weighing up their situation, one can udderstand why they might be a little cheesed off.

So we entered Iran without problem and road just 20kms to Maku where we stayed in a cheap hotel. Anja had bought a headscarf in Turkey but was not happy with the colour and I needed badly some suncream so we went shopping. Maku is a linear town stretched along the bottom of a gorge and full of vibrant shops selling all kinds of goods. We were helped by alot of friendly people and realised we were going to like it here.

We needed to get to get to Tehran to sort out visas for India and to work out how we were going to get there having decided to give Pakistan a miss. Not a good time to go there right now. A look at the map and scan through our first guidebook (thanks Ma) showed a possibly interesting and quiet backroad that would take us to the Caspian sea coast following the Aras river along the border with Azerbajan, then turning south to Kaleybar and joining a major road again a week later in Ahar.
This decision turned out to be a good one. One never knows what the other direction would bring but I reccomend anyone to take this road through Poldasht, Jolfa and Kaleybar.

As I write we sit indoors watching the rain fall on kiwi fruit bushes that run some few hundred yards to the Caspian sea. The last week or so has been one of the most memorable of the trip sofar.
The road from Maku to Poldasht was flat but hot. We expected a town like Maku with hotels but were dissapointed and were advised by a taxidriver to head for Jolfa for somewhere to stay. We moved on against a head wind and knew we would be camping out. Difficult as there were large police and army areas and ominous looking signs we could not read. Before entering the river gorge we saw a turning and a sign saying 'Aras free zone', that lead down to the dammed river. Free zone, whatever it meant exactly, sounded good to us. Better than forbidden zone which we guessed the other signs meant. We were in luck as it was a piknik place and some guys cooking fish (slack attitude towards ramazan we thought) said it was fine to camp. Much better than we expected. We watched the sun set over Azerbajani mountains and slept a good nights sleep.

Next morning I knew we would have a good day. We had a plan for once. Only 40 kms to ride, a mountain church to visit on route and an hotel, well, rooms at the back of a resteraunt, chosen from the lonely Planet guidebook. We felt like real tourists. \par
The road was spectacular, through a red rock gorge by a rushing river. St Stephens church was in a little oasis with a spring and gardens. A beatuful building also but unfortunately, as is usual for us, closed. We rolled further down the road visiting a shepards church and a caravanserai and turned up early in Jolfa. Good chicken dinner that night. The people here speak Azari and Farsi. Across the river they speak Azari and Russian. We met alot of people from over the border and Anjas Russian came in handy once again.\par

The next day we followed the river this time against a strong headwind. More spectacular scenery surrounded us with ancient castlewalls running down to the river. The traffic was light, mostly single tanker trucks driving from one part of Azerbadjan to the other avoiding Armenia. Old Soviet trucks carrying what from the frequent spills, looked like diesel. As we came round one precarios bend we saw the reason for the roadstains; a truck, jacknifed on its side, the cab hanging over the cliff and the cargo draining into the river below. The accident had just happened and people were helping. The scene was overlooked by watchtowers from both sides so we dicided rubbernecking was not a good idea. Hopefully the driver was ok. I doubt it.

At Kordasht we visited a restored bathroom complex with detailed relief cielings and as no-one was there camped in the pommegranite orchard with only a low mud wall and the river between us and Armenia.\par
By now we were getting used to the pattern of cycling in Iran: most people toot and wave and every half hour or so someone pulls over and politely askes if they can have their photo taken with us, if they can help or if we would like to come and stay with them for a few days. Often a car will slow enough for a watermelon or a packet of biscuits to be handed from the window.\par

The day we left Kordasht we fought a strong, dry, hot wind that whistled up the valley. Towards evening the valley widened and the town we were heading for turned out to be barely a village, just a couple of houses. We were thirsty and out of water. I had just stopped to filter our emergency supply of dodgy, now warm tapwater when a Zandap pickup screeched to a halt and out jumped Gelseem. Young, handsome and speaking a couple of english words, he insisted on putting our bikes in the back. We thought he was taking us 15kms to where we could find a cold drink.We were wrong. Gelseem was not letting us out of his truck and we sailed past our turning to Kaleybar. Our protests fell on deaf ears. We were going to stay with Gelseem and his family in a town 50kms away. This was confirmed by a phonecall to his English speaking brother Asgar, so we sat back and enjoyed the ride.

Gelseem and Asgars family was large and extended and we were never sure how everyone was related because no distinction was made between mothers and mothers in law or sisters and sisters in law etc. A nice idea making a much closer family than we are used to but a little confusing. \par
We were welcomed and fed and taken to visit waiting parents on the old farm where we walked to the river as the sun set over alfalfa fields and Azerbadjan. A great evening and our first look inside an Iranian home. Gelseem drove us back to our road junction early next morning, helped us buy some supplies and dissapeared into the dust.

This was our first insight into Iranian hospitality and something that was to happen repeatedly. It is not easy as a 'westener' to understand the motives behind such frequent and generous acts. My guess is that the reason hovvers somewhere between the muslim teaching that a guest is a gift from god, the knowledge of how Iran is portrayed by the foriegn media and a wish to set the record straight and show how they really are, a desire to meet foriegners, learn about the outside world and practice their European language skills, a pride in showing off their country and a general decency and helpfulness which is more evident because of the openness of asian people in comparison to more reserved Northern europeans and Americans.
So we set off up the hill to Kaleybar. We breakfasted under a solitary tree and were joined by an old cowherd. One of the many nomads roaming these barren mountain plateaux. he readily accepted some tea and buscuits and a third of our tinned cherries. This guy I reckon had lived his life outdoors, close to the pattern of seasons, of life and death of animals, of cold and heat and hunger. He had no use for some faddish idea of fasting a whole month. You can't walk over hills all day with no shadein 40 degrees and not drink anything. It has been said to us a few times in Iran, 'Islam is the new religion here', brought by the Arabs. Persia is much older and I suspect cowherds on the plains saw it come and will see it go.\par
The climb was a big one but we refused offers of a ride from passing trucks. We dreamed of a cafe at the top of the pass with cold drinks and icecream, a picture window and a view from the terrace. We found a low mud hut with a dark interior. I stepped in to ask for water.
These situations make our trip interesting perhaps above all others. Inside were three women on oneside sat on a dias and two men on the other eating at a table. Kids and an old man drifted inbetween. It seemed I had entered someones house as they were taking anearly dinner. I was given a tin cup of water from a dirty bottle. Always a dilemna between being impolite or risking a night on the throne (if they had them here). I drank what I immediately knew was good spring water and by gestures it seemed there was more round the next bend in the road. I tried to retreat as I didn't want to desturb a mealtime but after many times refusing gave in to the invites, called Anja in and sat down to a fine chicken dinner with cold fanta produced from and old fridge I now realised dominated the room. We were in a resteraunt afterall and though well fed and watered were not allowed to part with any of our money.
As we often say to each other before going to sleep at night, 'you never know where you're going to end up'.

This welcome break made us a bit late and we discovered there were two passes to cross. Towards the second the sun went down. We were obliged to drink tea with some piknikers and had to ride the 15kms downhill in the dusk and dark to Kaleybar the Araz hotel and a second chicken dinner. A memorable day.
Next morning we figured to ride without bags up to the foot of the path that leads to 'Babak castle' where the Azari hero Babak fought off for so long the Invading Arabs. We thought an 8km ride could would not take long but an hour and a half later and 700m or so higher we strapped the bikes to the roof of a passing Paykan (old Hillman car) and rode the last 2 kms.
The walk to the castle was as spectacular as the fort itself, perched on the peak of a sharp rocky mountain with views thousands of feet to the town below. The walk back down to the bikes stretched our calf muscles but the ride on the hairpin road bordered with beehives and apiarists at work was pure pleasure. The next day it was hard to walk.

We rode on towards Ahar. First stopping for tea with the town tentmaker. A fairly easy day. We stayed this night with Mahommed and family and again met all the relatives. Mahommed stopped us on the road and invited us to come and stay. There is a custom in Iran called Tarof which means when something is offered it must be refused, maybe three times, we are not really sure. If still offered after this the offer is a genuine one. The rules seem a bit unclear and the whole thing a minefield of faux pas for the Iranians let alone foriegners. Some Iranians say they hate the whole thing. We start by refusing but go by our instinkts as to wether it the offer is genuine or not. Why would someone stop you on the road and insist you come and stay if they in truth theydon't want you to.

It was great with Mahommed and family though communication not easy.
Now we were on the main road from Tabriz to the Caspian sea coast though the ride was quite pleasant. In a layby we met Soonah and Merdi. A young couple themselves on holiday, travelling round in a beat up ex-taxi.\par
Our plan was to stayin the next town but on getting there we both somehow came to the same idea of getting a bus to Ardabil the next city, 75kms away. I felt a bit guilty as we loaded the bikes into the back of an old 60's coach and paid a dollar each for the ride but spending the night in Meshgin Sha somehow did not appeal.Ardabil was a fairly decent city with a wonderfull mausoleum; that of Sheik Safi-od-Din. The hotel we picked was memorable for being one of the worst I have ever experienced run by one of the nicest Patrons. We had to clear away the remains of someones half eaten dinner, ask for and change our own sheets, take a course on locking and unlocking the ancient and temperamental portal, listen all night to a dripping tap that refused to give us water and go without a 'dusche' as the shower closet was the most filthy, fetid corner of the world I have ever set eyes on. It made us laugh out loud. Who wants to clamber over rotting toilet cleaning equipment to stand in a browny black mouldy pit under cold orange water.The trip back to daylight would leave one filthier than before. We declined. The toilet was not to bad.

We were promised a drop from 1500m to -25m the next day, Ardabil to Astara on the coast. After 40kms we were still climbing against a gale. Hard cycling. The only respite was meeteng Soonah and Merdi again. They had passed us and were waiting with ready-laid piknik. A great, happy, easygoing couple. We agreed to meet in Astara if we made it that night.

Eventually we reached a short tunnel through a mountain and went in 300m from hot, dry windy semi-desert to cool cloudy forrest. The sharpest climate change I have ever seen. Now we dropped down and down. It was getting late, we were hungry and tired so we decided to camp. we followed a little stream some way back from the road, found a nice spot and cooked dinner. Spaghetti as I remember. Half way through eating a young man walked by and said something about food and cigarettes. I said thanks, we had all we needed and he went on down the goatpath. \par
Anja was worried about not meeting our friends from the road but something about the young man bothered me. We were so used to friendly people that though prefering to be hidden we were less concerned than we would have been in Europe but something about this guy was wrong. Why was he here. He didn't fit somehow.\par
Eventually I realised it was his shoes that I didn't like. Flipflops in the mountains was wrong. On further thinking he could have been asking for food. We were so used now to being offered stuff maybe we didn't understand.\par
I picked up a packet of biscuits and set off down the path to discover a tent by the river with 4 young guys in. They were friendly enough and devoured the biscuits in seconds. In return I was offered heroin and grubby looking equipment. I said no thanks and this was no Tarof. We chatted a while and I wandered back. Dark had fallen.
We packed up and moved on. The guys were nice enough but there were 4 of them, they knew where we were and from their eyes they looked like addicts. They had no food and probably no money. Most likely all would have been ok but we would not have slept well anyhow.\par
Hitting the road in darkness was not Ideal but we were lucky. 500m down the road was a cafe and honey stand. We asked if we could stay and were lead round the back to a row of tea drinking stands. Carpeted and roofed and just what we needed.

Leaving early the next morning we rolled down to the coast for breakfast in the rain. A comical experience of Iranian overhospitality. The only access we could see to the 2m wide brown beach was through an empty car park guarded by a half dozen police in camouflage uniform. We were wondering wether to enter when a man on a moped ushered us in and welcomed us in broken Russian. He offered us the solitary, already occupied beach shelter which we declined. Were the other people supposed to move? We said we had all we needed and just wanted to sit on a rock and make ourselves some tea.
We were brought by moped, against our protests, 25 litres of drinking water and some ice, a parasoll, the policemens kettle full of boiling water, a carton of peach juice, a plastic table and chairs in yellow and blue, some coffee sache's, chocolate bars and pistachio nuts we were still eating a fortnight later. \par
As the rain strengthened, our bikes were protected by bin liners and we were given one each and a course in how to improvise a raincoat. Four policemen were made to move from the shelted for us. We stayed a few hours but left before the guy gave us his moped and the clothes from his back.

We made only 50kms as on the outskirts of town my pedal which I was confident had got over its problems gave up the ghost. It had loosened enough for half the ballbearings to fall out. I should have kept a closer eye on it.
Ballbearings this small were not to be had so I bought some new pedals. Annoying as my pedals were super expensive double sided shimano's and had not really done that much work. I brought them along hoping later to mend them.

Some 25 kms out of Astara as we were passing through a small town we were hailed by a gang of motorcyclists, well 6 smart young men on 3 small Hondas. At first I waved and carried on but one bike was persistent. 'Mister stop please' begged the pillion as he pulled accross my path. I expected the usual questions and was readying my newly learnt Iranian proverb 'I won't know where I'mfrom until I'm married' as an alternative to the now dull 'England' answer, but the guy made immediately a phonecall and ignoring me chatted away to someone in Azari. I hate it when someone answeres their mobile when hving a conversation. I find it doubley rude when they make the call and tripley when they have interrupted an enjoyable bike ride. I began to move off. 'No no no' came the cry 'talk to teacher' and the phone was handed to me.
In clear and polite English I was asked to remain where I was for five minuits. The teacher was on his way.
In four minuits another motorbike pulled up and off the back jumped the younger than I expected English teacher. Yaser.
We spent 3 or 4 days with Yaser and Rafika his wife, eating sometimes at his mothers house, walking on the beach, visiting friends, shopping and sitting out the heavy rain.
There was little choice but to stay at least one night, the offer was put in such an elegant way.

Yaser came from a poor family, their lives made worse by the early death of his father. He had put himself through as much education as possible and had started a small language school in the town. He is not only a teacher of English but an encourager of dreams and somewhat of a hero to manyof the townsfolk.
Yasers dream is to travel the world by bicycle as we are doing and his hobby is inviting tourists to his home. We wre number 77and 78 over a seven year period. It is known that he does this and calls had been made from as far as 20kms back, warning of our imminent arrival. The scouts had been sent to find us. We had had no chance.
Hopefully we can be such fine hosts when Yaser gets to Europe on his bike. I believe he will do it.

Suddenly the coast road was busy. It was narrow with no hard shoulder. There was no view of the sea and we were informed that it became more dangerous nearer Tehran. We decided to take advice and take a bus to the city. In a town called Talesh we stopped and asked a teenager for the bus station and the internet cafe and so began a comical episode.
Alireza took us to the internet cafe so that I could email Manije, our contact in Tehran. He waited outside and protected Anja from a growing crowd of inquisitive young men. Translating aswell in more than passable English.
He was very keen that we visit his 'English Institute', what that was we were not sure and were reluctant to go but it seemed so impolite not to.
We entered the building, were introduced to someone in an office and Alireza dissapeared. We were sipping tea and wondering what we were doing here as we described our journey to an ever increasing number of people.
'would you mind talking to a few English students' said one of the teachers 'It is good for them to talk to native speakers, come this way please'.
Little did this teacher know that he was suggesting my worst nightmare; to have to stand and talk infront of an audience is something that could keep me awake at night for weeks, sweating in the lonely hours. Here I had no time to worry. Anja was lead off to talk to the girls and I was introduced to a group of young men. Being fairly advanced English speakers they luckily plied me with a series of intelligent questions and quite enjoyed answering them.
The second class was a not so advanced group of law students which was difficult, conversationwise and the last group which Anja and I attended together was beginners with a teacher who seemed more keen on talking himself than hearing anything from us. We left feeling a bit dazed and confused and were escorted by the last teacher to a shop selling language books. We were shown many of them. This town was keen on learning English. We heard there were 10 such institutes in town.
Anja made friends with a female english teacher who showed us to a chicken and rice resteraunt. She could unfortunately not eat with us as it was too late for her to be unmarried and out alone.So she said. It was nice to be alone, we felt exhausted from being handed from one person to another but he word was out that tourist were in town, calls were made and we had many more visitors and invitations before we finished dinner and made our way to the busstop.

Early morning in Tehran and almost everything was shut. I needed a pee. Badly. A cafe of sorts was open and we reckoned we could get a cup of tea and use the WC. The cafe however was full of working men eating traditional Iranian breakfast, Kalepoche,(or similar sounding). Sheeps head porridge. Why didn't we want any? Hard to explain. What were we doing here if we didn't want to eat? Please could we just have some tea? Why don't we eat? No No No!!! Tea. Please. No sheeps brain thank you very much. Yes we're sure it is delicious. Yes we are a little strange.
Cycling through Tehran is not something we can reccommend. Its difficult. Not overly dangerous. Just unpleasant.
We climbed 12kms through this large city uphill to the foot of Mt Tochal. In the last street before the mountain was a 12 year old boy waving at us and smiling. So began the second chapter of our Iran experience.

More to follow. Pictures also.

We are safely in India but Anjas bike was crushed on the plane. Bastards.
Trying to fix it in Mumbai. Maybe, maybe not. Could be a hero cycle for Anja from here on.

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