December 17, 2009 GMT
Iran - Tabriz

First things first. Here is the complete Turkey itinerary:

TURKEY ROUTE COMPLETE

Now onto Iran... where to start! (I am writing/revising this more than a month after entering the country, for reasons that should become apparent soon)

The country is vast. Three times the size of France I hear. The political system is a theocracy, which basically means that Islamic rules/theories govern how everything works. The immediately noticeable change from Turkey is that all women here cover their head with a scarf - the more traditional ones cover themselves completely in plain black fabrics that make them look, as an Iranian friend suggested, like penguins. The theory here is that to guarantee decency you have to completely hide any feature of your body that can evoke sexual desire. The body's figure, hair and even the face itself (lips etc) are covered. This is the most extreme case and is referred to as the "chador" - literally, a tent.

The (luckily) by far more usual case is women that dress in jeans, have a black top that covers their behind (like a small skirt over the trousers) and a nice colourful scarf casually thrown around the head, usually covering only the half of the hair. This is the I-am-only-doing-what-you-force-me-to statement that most women choose to make, and it's not awkward in any sense.

There are a lot of shades of grey between these two extremes. Some women do not allow a man to touch them, so extending your hand for the handshake that is so typical among men evokes an uncomfortable "sorry, I can't". Others do not allow a man (outside the family) to see their hair at all. I've had this experience when I was being hosted by a lovely, very polite and considerate family in Esfahan: One day, after knocking at the door and saying "hello, it's me", I just opened and walked in, only to notice two of the women fleeing the room to go put on their scarfs. Ever since I am extra careful about giving people enough notice, since I do not intend to insult anyone's personal choice.

Shades of grey are also mixed, so in the same family it is very usual to have women who choose to be more traditional and always cover up in the presence of a stranger, while others will always take off their scarf as soon as they're home and will have no problem interacting with you (a stranger) completely uncovered and in very casual and completely western-style clothing.

Men dress very regularly for european standards, albeit sometimes in a flashy manner (e.g. shiny business suits) that would be perceived as "too much" in Europe.

Other than clothing, social segregation is also quite visible to the foreigner. I was invited to a post-wedding dinner (I wouldn't call it a "reception" - it was just a dinner, in, food, out), where the "salon" used to host the dinner had a big curtain-like parapet that divided the space in two - women were on the left, men on the right. It was amusing to be on the male side and listen to the mayhem going on on the women's side (dancing/singing apparently), while all the men around me were just picking on their food and wishing for a swift end to a boring dinner. Funny that men should create such rules (as religion is of course completely dominated by men) and then suffer from them. A strange sense of justice. Of course while trying to find the bathroom I was faced with a door and a curtain, I took the curtain, and realised that about 100 pairs of eyes instantly were on me, as I had stepped into the women's part of the salon... I quickly retreated, opened the door and jumped in the bathroom, hoping that my sins would be excused for being a foreigner. And indeed they were.

In public transportation the same story goes on: women at the back of the bus, men in the front. Reminds me of Rosa Parks and the idiocy she had to deal with for her entire life, until one day she said "you know what? I'm not taking this crap any longer", which kickstarted the American civil rights movement against institutionalised racism and pretty much changed the world for the better. So I was particularly proud when a young girl I met in Esfahan had the courage to very naturally sit beside me on the bus, after I asked her why she was standing there. It's a simple action for most of us, but against the rules of this totalitarian state. It takes brave people to stand up to the idiocy of such archaic rules and I feel privileged to have met a number of them.

The Iranians are fantastic people. Helpful to a fault, cultured and never giving up the fight. I met poets, musicians, sculptors, authors, nature lovers, people who enjoyed singing traditional songs on top of 3000m mountain peaks, people who would break into an amazingly skillful dance given the support of only a voice and a tambourine, people who would bring entire bookcases down to find a dictionary so that they could continue that chat on philosophy/religion/society/family affairs/spirituality that was treading a slow but fascinating path with the help of phrasebooks, sign language, all the foreign languages everybody knew on the table, English learning books and dictionaries...

People who have not lost the will to live - quite the contrary, people here oppose oppression by building strong friendships, keeping the family strong as a support network, having plenty of interests, hobbies, activities, associations, clubs, traditions, being very interested in meeting new people and foreigners and talking about everything with them. I've met very little superstition against me, even from people who got to meet me without choosing to (e.g. relatives of people who chose to host me).

Iran gave me the impression that one can be very easily accused of doing something wrong and getting jailed for it. So, to protect the innocent and just have a clear conscience, I will not show pictures of any of the people I got to know in Iran. It was a tough decision, as I feel very close to some of them, and some of the pictures capture very warm feelings and memories, but I think I'll sleep better at night knowing that I'm not exposing them to any danger, as I consider myself already blacklisted in Iran (again, read on for my reasons to believe this).

A note on religion in Iran: Interestingly there are less and more discreet calls to prayers compared to the muezins of Turkey, who broadcast their chanting prayers at such a volume that I almost fell off the bike close to Van when I happened to be riding past a mosque the second the prayer started. Having said that, government buildings in major cities are littered with verses from the Quran with English translations attached to them, which sometimes make for awe-inspiring doublespeak It's funny (if you're a cynic) or sad depending on which side of the fence you're at. If I was an Iranian I think I would find it very sad.

As the story unwinds I will post pictures of such propaganda Quran signs.

The funny part here is that most people in Europe think that Iran is a nation of religious extremists. This couldn't be further from the truth. The overwhelming majority of people is secular to the bone and couldn't care less about a religion that has been twisted into an excuse for a totalitarian state. The ideals of the Muslim religion are so removed from the reality of how this theocracy operates that people are just fed up with it all.

There are those who say this is ok - there are those who say having censored TV/radio/Internet/newspapers is alright, since we can always get (illegal) satellite TV/radio and always find a way around Internet restrictions. They portray the existing situation as a mere nuisance on paper and not a veil of real restrictions, but I am not convinced. It's all fine and well that satellite dishes are everywhere, completely obvious to anyone, and the government is doing little to tear them down, but the filtering/censorship veil is everywhere. It stops people from publishing their work. It stops people having concerts that are not approved by the government. Did you know that it's forbidden to show musical instruments in Iranian television? Yep, they've been judged too un-religious to be shown to the public...

But enough with the treatise on Iran. The trip has evolved as follows: After entering from Bazargan (Turkish border) I headed south to Tabriz. After spending the first night in a hotel, receiving my initial shock at the friendliness of people and rummaging around Tabriz's vibrant bazaar, I spent most of the next day marveling at the Orumieh/Urmia salt lake:

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The plays of the water with the salt and the sky were beautiful:

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Salt formations on rocks around the lake's bank:

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In Tabriz I spent one week... finding a home away from home, spending time with an amazing family of really special people. We saw Tabriz together, went mountain biking, for walks in the park, rummaged through their bilingual library, had long chats about everything and anything, climbed mountains together...

Exhibits from the Azerbaijan Museum of Tabriz:
The superman of peace: (he looks rather defeated)
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Human misery:
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The cycle of life:
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Creation of a sculptor friend of a friend, in Tabriz... I have never met so down-to-earth, sensitive people who are true creative artists:
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All that hanging around in the house (where no shoes are used) is taking the toll on my socks:
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Monument to the fallen of the Iran-Iraq war on a hilltop just out of the city. Beautifully illuminated.

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Two girls on the hike on Micho, about an hour's drive north of Tabriz:

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A mountaineer enjoying the view from the peak, at 2800m:
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Grass on Micho:

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Yours truly during a lunch break on the mountain. I am happier than I look.
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It was very difficult to leave Tabriz, and the (very real) prospect of never seeing my family again made me cry my eyes out like a complete fool. Bizarre, considering we had known each other only for one week... but I had to move on so after greeting everyone and having a last supper and last breakfast together, I took the road via Ardabil to the Caspian Sea.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 03:55 PM GMT
December 27, 2009 GMT
Iran - Tehran & Semnan

The day I left Tabriz I spent the night in a sleepy beach community called Gisum.

I woke up early in the morning to take some snaps of the Caspian:

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Fishing still appears to be of consequence to the local economy, as a few small vessels were taking to sea at 6 in the morning:

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I then skirted the Caspian until Chaloos, where I left the sea and took my life in my hands as I tried not to be hit by the maniac drivers over a couple hundred mountainous kilometers till Tehran.

Tehran was crazy, I got there after dark and I reckon a good 10% of the drivers didn't bother turning their lights on... the traffic was appalling, no rules were being followed and in general I was afraid for my life every single minute on the road. I didn't know where I was going so I called the friend of a friend of a friend who happened to be there and eager to come and meet me - the problem was that his English was quite basic, my Farsi non-existent and I couldn't explain to him where I was (as I didn't know, really). So I stopped at a police station and asked for help - immediately the best English speaker was summoned (a young conscript who turned out to be studying computer programming) and he explained to the distant friend in Farsi where we were... so I waited for more than an hour till he got there, during which the entire police station came out to meet me, offer me food/drink, I used their bathroom, they were all extremely friendly blokes etc.

A notable exception was one fellow who turned up rather late in this whole show, approached me very slowly looking at me intently with a crooked eye and introduced himself with the charming opening line of "I suspect you". I think he tried to make me scared or something, but I was already surrounded by 10 of his buddies who were dying to take pictures of the bike and to know everything about me and were laughing their heads off, so the suspicious dude got carried away and by the time he left he wished me good health and every success and even passed a couple of very big compliments my way. Quite charming transformation.

Tehran at night:

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Driving around Tehran is a quite colourful experience - the LED/lights industry must be thriving in Iran, not too sure about the stylists/professionals who are supposed to have any sense of visual taste and training on decoration...

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Needless to say throwing all colours of the rainbow at drivers is NOT enough - they also set them up so that they blink and change colours all the time. Extremely distracting. I mean, Tehran is an ugly city as it is, this colour thing really finished it off.

Traffic is manic, rules are there to be ignored, and everyone seems to be pushing physical space boundaries to the limit... the prevailing rule is: if it's physically possible, it will be done:

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Please someone shoot the decorators of the airport (after you're done with the road people). Again, coloured fluorescent lights that change from one horrible colour to another... geez!

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Another sample of Tehran traffic at night - not too bad, since these blokes at least have working brake lights! But do consider that this shot has been taken while ALL cars move... not a lot of respect for peoples' personal space on the road eyh?

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Trying to figure out where the bloody leak of my practically brand new Exped DownMat 7 DLX is... if there's one thing that pushes my button is when ridiculously priced kit (I paid GBP 100+ for this inflatable mattress) simply break after a little while. This mat lasted less than a month of use and then gave up the ghost - apparently it's slowly leaking from everywhere. Fab.

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The whole "copyright" deal in Iran is slightly ridiculous. People know that the government will not bother enforcing the rights of multinational corporations, and hence rip off anything they can mercilessly... here is a fine example: a full MacDonald's menu used in a fast food restaurant that, err... is not a MacD.

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The problem in Iran is that this way of thinking applies to software as well. Hence, everyone uses non-original versions of software (Microsoft, Adobe, Symantec, McAfee, ESET, AutoDesk etc), which invariably does not work properly and leaves people at the mercy of all sorts of nasty viruses (virii for the pedantic?). The result is that each and every PC I used was infected with multiple worms/backdoors/trojans of all sorts, which resulted in a less than smooth computing experience.

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That crappy situation, coupled with the filtering/blocking by the government of any and all Internet activity, results in a less than dandy computing experience in Iran... Internet cafes have network outages and usually dial-up grade connection speeds, which are just maddening. This is why I'm writing this from Islamabad and not Tehran. It was simply a nightmare even to get to my email there...

The proxy they're using: (JetApp)

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This is what you get when visiting something that's blacklisted (youtube, flickr, facebook, twitter etc):

iran internet filter

Since it's a given that the government is relaying every single bit of data, it's trivial (just a bit computationally expensive) to filter for keywords. So I have been urging everyone in Iran to ONLY USE ENCRYPTED CONNECTIONS, especially for stuff like email. Here's how to do it in gmail (this is not mine, but I don't remember where I got it from - hope the original author is not offended I'm re-publishing his good work)

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Anyway. After frolicking (not) in an after-wedding party in which men and women had to be separated (by law), which resulted in the women having a ball and the men silently playing with their food, we took some snaps...

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...and hit the madness of the road once again.

A quick'n'dirty solution had to be found for the mattress problem, so until the whole warranty thing could kick in, I had to buy another inflatable mattress... $35 from Tehran, significantly bulkier, no down, but hey, it's simple and it works.

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To cut a very long story slightly shorter, I spent 5 days in Tehran with a family that was bereaved by a recent death and wasn't in the best of shapes - I was trying to cheer them up in my usual goofy way and it seemed to be working on the mother, but the son was not having it. Soon enough I felt I was becoming a nuisance and even though I hadn't seen anything of Tehran (but had managed to get a nice 20-day visa extension - yay!) I left for Esfahan.

Now, there is the regular way of getting to Esfahan (highway, takes a few hours), but there is another, infinitely more interesting way, that skirts the Kavir desert SE of Tehran and then cuts right through it, from Semnan to Naein and then to Esfahan. It would take a couple of days, but I wanted to see my first ever desert - the concept itself is extremely fascinating, even though all Iranians I talked to found the desert the least appealing place to be on the planet.

On the 20th of November I left Tehran (Friday, Islamic rest day, hence less frantic traffic on the street, hence increased chances of survival for me) and headed east, towards Mashhad. My plan was to leave the highway at Semnan and take a road that my map showed to be secondary/unsurfaced to Mo'alleman and from there south through the desert via Jandaq , Anarak and Nain to Esfahan. it would take a couple of days, but I was certain I would find somewhere to stay in one of the villages en route.

After taking the fork SE off Semnan that notionally headed towards Mo'alleman and the desert and riding for about 30km it turned out that the road was closed - I got to a dead end filled with "Military area - do not enter" signs. Crap, let's try another fork in the road. That one took me to a salt mine after less than 5k. The army conscripts that were there were extremely friendly, invited me over for tea and laughed their head off while taking Rambo-type pictures with the bike.

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After that pleasant intermission...

(this section is copied/pasted from an email I sent to friends right after the incident, feeling I had a chance to let the world know what was happening before I disappeared for good)

... I sighed in disappointment at having to turn back and take a 200km detour to reach my destination and started riding back to Semnan and the highway.

A few minutes later I was clumsily flagged down by an unmarked (civilian) car - a tiny Kia that could barely cope with carrying the 3 people that were in it. The driver stopped right in the middle of the road and even though I was already in the process of stopping, I almost bumped into them. He was clearly not amused and demanded to see my passport. I asked what the problem was, was told he is "military police" (even though he was in plain clothes) and that I was in a military area. I explained to him that he was mistaken as I had not trespassed the area marked by the signs. He regardless took my passport, entered the car, beckoned me to follow him and drove off, ignoring my demand to have my passport back.

So I followed the car for 30km back to Semnan and back to a police station / military barracks of some sort. On entering the town I noticed that I had a tail - an army enduro (off-road) bike with a soldier carrying an automatic weapon on it! I gestured to him "what's up dude?" and he gestured back "Just following orders mate". It was quite ludicrous, as his bike couldn't have been more than a 200cc,
15bhp relic of the 80's and I rode a 650cc, 66bhp bike. I could shake him (and the car) at any time, so having him tail me was quite comic...

We got to the army post/barracks/station where my passport was photocopied and I was asked some bureaucratic questions (name, registration number, date of birth etc), I was offered tea and cheese-filled bread by the soldiers doing their service (who were as usual very polite and friendly and wanted to know everything about the trip and the bike etc). After spending about an hour in there, having one of my panniers very unprofessionally searched by someone who seemed to be in charge there (who was bewildered at the bicycle pump I carry to inflate the tyres), I started asking what gives and have they checked my passport already and may I be excused, it's lovely talking to you but you know, we also have places to go...? The answer was that I had to wait there.

Then the elite team arrived - 3 dudes in plain clothes that filled the doughnut-munching police-officer description perfectly. They didn't salute me, smile or talk to me. They spent about half an hour talking with the idiot who had picked me up in the first place, who then proceeded to wave goodbye, smile at me and leave. One of his buddies that were in the car shook my hand, said "I'm sorry" and left.

At that point I started to worry.

After some more commotion, filling in papers etc, the 3 elite dudes waved me to their car (again civilian unmarked vehicle). On my way there I was told to start my bike. Thinking this would be one of those airport type turn-on-your-laptop-to-ensure-it's-not-a-bomb checks, I complied. To my utter surprise one of them jumped on, kicked it down from the stand and rode off, on MY motorcycle. Extremely pissed off I had no chance but to enter their car and hope that the idiot riding my bike would just follow us. I was telling myself this is another way to
ensure I wouldn't head off (leaving my passport with them - obviously!) but no... to my detriment the idiot riding my bike took a fork in the road and disappeared, obviously taking her for a spin, since, well, I was his bitch, right? What could I do?

A few minutes of reckless driving later we got to another police station, this one completely concealed behind a high brick wall, again completely unmarked from the outside. They honked the horn and the gate opened. My bike was nowhere to be seen, obviously the bastard riding it was still enjoying raping the engine, and could do nothing but silently hope the safeguard mechanism that stops the engine
working at too high (damaging) revs worked well.

I was led to a room with very bright fluorescent lighting, six chairs around a low table and an iron desk. There was a barred high "window" that looked to a completely dark room. I thought "they can't even afford a see-through mirror - amateurs!" and tried to amuse myself with that thought. After a few minutes I heard my bike's engine and the idiot riding it came to me and handed over the ignition key, trying hard not to smile too smugly.

I waited. They left me alone in that room for a good hour. They had taken my mobile phone and camera before entering the building and now there was nothing to do but wait.

After some time a soldier showed up. Friendly, talkative, but with no English knowledge, he made various obscene gestures to the expense of the police (hoping that I would eagerly agree? I wondered) and then noticed my very nice enduro gloves and started asking me how much they cost. I gave him a price, after which he asked how much he could buy them off me from. I was rather disturbed at this, as thoughts of "well you're not going anywhere anyway, you might as well have some cash" sprung to mind. Regardless, I fetched the phrasebook and uttered the phrase "all necessary" to indicate that my personal equipment was not for sale. After this he started asking me what I would give to him as a gift, you know, as a Greek to an Iranian, as a reminder of our
acquaintance... I repeated "all necessary" and tried to appear sad that I had nothing to give him, while I was getting even more uncomfortable with all this bargaining over my stuff.

Finally, something happened. A woman showed up that turned out to be the interpreter that they would use to question me. I offered my hand, she said "sorry I can't" and took a seat. Then the two doughnut-munching cops showed up, followed by a third one who looked like a geek (he had his collar shirt buttoned all the way up, but with no tie) and shortly after an older cop showed up. Everyone but me stood up on his entry, so I gathered he was their senior officer. He
greeted everyone in the room but me and took a seat.

So there we were, all 6 of us, cozily sat down for a little chat. It was already dark outside and I had already spent 3 hours under police custody, and I still wasn't quite clear about what was going on.

The interpreter used very typical fake politeness ("could you please tell me" etc) and asked me for all the stuff they knew all over again - my name, the bike's type, registration number, my passport details, where I entered the country from, when, etc... It soon got so obviously ridiculous that I stopped her and said something like "look, everything you're asking me, you already have in your hands - what is the true purpose of this?", to which she replied "oh no no there is no problem, the officers just want to make sure you are not a spy". Now, I realise it's not the best of ideas to laugh in the face of 5 people who are holding your passport, mobile phone, camera, vehicle and all other earthly belongings and have already demonstrated that you're their bitch as far as "civil rights" and all that malarkey is
concerned, but being accused of being a spy was a tad too much. I laughed heartily, thought "yeah, that's the way to do this spying business: wear reflective clothing, hop on a bike exotic for the standards of the country to ensure you attract the full attention of every single person within seeing distance and go off on your own in broad daylight to take pictures of your opponent's military
installations! That's IT!", then laughed some more with the ridiculosity (I know, I know...) of this thought, and then decided NOT to share this thought with them - I somehow thought the entertainment value of it would fall on deaf ears.

To cut a long story short, for about an hour in there, they made me write stuff in English (handwriting sample?), asked me to name who had hosted me in Tehran, had a look through my pictures in the camera and my memory stick backup (but were polite enough to accept NOT looking at anything that was in folders marked as being out of their country) and then agreed to let me go.

The ending was very interesting... I was asked to sign a piece of paper the interpreter had been scribbling on, IN FARSI. I explained it's preposterous to ask me to sign something I cannot read, to which she replied "no problem, it's just what you have told us". After arguing some more, getting nowhere and realising this piece of paper cannot possibly have any legal standing in any court of law, I signed it. What was I to do? I had to get out of there at some point.

Then I requested a copy of the paper I signed, which was denied with a lot of amusement (laughter etc), and in a very Orwellian way the interpreter said "don't worry, we'll all take pictures together", which made me feel slightly better, as if this whole thing was a misunderstanding that had been resolved, but not so... they took me back to the room, set me up against the wall alone, and took very close (biometric-grade?) pictures of my face (and then full-body and the bike as well). Of course I protested, of course they ignored me and did what they wanted with me anyway.

After that they escorted me (this time I was riding my bike) to the dreadful Ghods Hotel in Semnan (as it was 8 at night at that point and I wasn't going to do any more traveling that day), checked me in and said goodbye.

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The next morning after checking out of the hotel and changing some dollars to rials at a local bank (finding which involved elaborate diagrams of the town by an extremely friendly and helpful bank manager - too bad he couldn't draw, let alone give proper directions...)

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...I was stopped by an unmarked car AGAIN on my way out of Semnan... Two plainclothes dudes with snide smiles again. Asked for my passport again. Passport not given back AGAIN. "Follow us" and they get into the car AGAIN and force me to follow and I'm thinking "this cannot be happening - are they ready for round two and they were following me and just waited till I reach the city border to pick me up again?" I had the feeling they were playing mind games with me...

It would appear it was none of that. After going to the unmarked hidden building once more, the idiots from last night were still there (in slippers, obviously working hard at keeping their country spy-free), took one look at me and said something like "what is HE doing here? We already checked him last night you idiots!" to their
colleagues who had picked me up, gave me back my passport, made the idiot who had taken my passport apologise and shake my hand, and with that, I was free to go.

I protested, raised my voice, knowing that they would pretend they don't understand, repeatedly asked "WHY?" and "WHAT"S THE PROBLEM?", got no reply but amused faces, thought I better make my leave while the gate is still open, dressed up and left.

And that was my encounter with the paranoid police state that modern Iran is.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 12:41 PM GMT
Iran - Kavir desert & Esfahan

As I mentioned in the previous post, due to the slight misunderstanding with the police, I was forced to spend the night in Semnan (the birthplace of none other than Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad I hear). At this point let me note that the President in a theocracy doesn't matter that much, the Supreme Leader is calling the shots while being conveniently shielded from international publicity/exposure. He's the numero uno of the country, he is appointed FOR LIFE and is NOT elected by the public. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Ali Khamenei, the guy who after Khomeini and his "revolution" is running the show in this country since 1989!

Back to the trip. After being let go for the second time by the "foreigners' police" I left Semnan as fast as I could. It was a cold morning, and I soon felt weak and had to stop for breakfast. Last night at the hotel I hadn't left my room - heck, I had even put a chair under the doorknob. Talk about paranoia. I was being haunted by thoughts of being taken in the night and getting a filing in - so much for Mr Krishnamurti's teachings on fear. So I had consumed the chicken my extremely attentive and just plain nice hosting mom had given me for the road as it was, cold, with the fat solidified and stuck to it. With my fingers.

Now it was time for breakfast, but as I was out in the open and out of that godforsaken place and nicely warmed by the sun, I felt less vulnerable and I allowed myself the luxury of stopping by the roadside for some proper breakfast. The butter was kept frozen cold even though it hadn't been in a fridge for 24 hours, and I had to thaw it a bit to enjoy it. The solution was funny but elegant:

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Eating was very good for my psychology, as was finally entering the desert. I stopped to gaze at the camels - what a bunch of funny animals. They seem not to have a care in the world.

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Desert tranquillity:

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This camel is certainly a size 47:

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The desert was beautiful, but not as I expected it. It looks more like a vast plowed field, not a sea of sand as I thought.

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The rock and soil formations change in color from place to place, with some being truly beautiful, with an extra-terrestrial quality to them...

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A river of salt, still as death, running over the dry soil.

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This is one of those signs that just magically make your day and you find yourself roaring with laughter on your own, in the middle - oh, let's say of a desert, with nobody but the sky to listen.

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Mo'alleman did not have any sleepover facilities (I enquired and got told "mosque" and I thought "not tonight mate"), so I rode on till the next human settlement. I reached Jandaq after sun down.

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Luckily the road running through the desert is excellent - as most of the Iranian road network, so I wasn't too worried about riding in the dusk. For my sleepover I asked around at Jandaq, a sleepy desert town, the guy I was talking to rung a friend of his who appeared within 4 minutes with a friend of his on a motorcycle, and off we went...

I followed them for 5km into the desert, over twisting dirt paths with no signs whatsoever, apparently random, cursing myself every second for not taking the time to turn on the GPS before we left civilisation, so that if anything happened I could find my way back... but it was too late, we were already in the proverbial middle of nowhere, I could sometimes barely see the distant lights of Jandaq but nothing else - it really is pitch black at night in the desert.

I decided to take a couple of snaps as evidence for whoever found my body. This is how far away we were from Jandaq:

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Luckily my paranoia was just that, paranoia, and when the diesel kicked in and the light came on...

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... I found myself in the courtyard of the prettiest ancient desert house... a fire was lighted instantly, over which I warmed my fingers and had some simple food I was carrying with me.

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Then hot wood was taken from the fire and positioned underneath a special table covered with a thick blanket and I was shown hot to sit with my back on a pillow and my legs under the blanket, my naked feet hanging over the hot wood and that was niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiice. Simply divine after a cold day on the bike, with whatever had happened with the police and whatnot.

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Out came the dry dates (which I found out I absolutely adore), the chai, the fruit, the biscuits... from "oh boy, we're being jumped out here" Hollywood-fueled fear to "This is life!" and smiley faces and a lot of much needed relaxation. The proprietor was very friendly but with limited vocabulary, so we enlisted the help of all books we had handy to communicate:

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These books sometimes provide a keyhole to the local society... would you find this in a language learning book (presumably for children) in your country?

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The next day I greeted my hosts, admired their (simple but undoubtedly more reliable than mine) panniers

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and headed for Esfahan. I got there in the early afternoon, ran straight into a guy beating the living lights out of a poor car driver (punches in the face in broad daylight in the middle of the road - sensational stuff) and marveled at the continuing extreme resourcefulness of fast food restaurants to wet their clients' appetite:

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Luckily another very kind couple was available to host me and they stopped whatever they were doing and came out near the river to pick me up and take me to their home... I spent a week in Esfahan, meeting lots of people, drinking a lot of tea, walking as I haven't walked in years, trying to take in the magnificence of its buildings...

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... mostly lingering around the impressive Naghsh-i Jahan Square...

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... (renamed Emam Square after the "revolution" that appears to have parallels to Mao Zedong's "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" that erased thousands of years of Chinese history & culture), indulging in local delicacies under the auspices of my splendid hosts:

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A pigeon tower - used in old times to collect pigeon droppings (poo) to use as fertiliser.

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I was quite annoyed at the seemingly random places motorcycles could NOT be used... why, I wonder?

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We also visited the Birds Garden of the city, which was to my surprise really nice!

Flamingos:

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(I couldn't help thinking of the while observing these guys...)

More interesting inmates:

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A younger version:

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Flirting or itching?

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The royal version of what the good doctor would call "Rats of the Skiessss!":

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A ponderous old gentleman:

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An interestingly decorated cock:

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A black swan taking his/her morning stroll:

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The message here is "I can see you looking at me"

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A hunter, trying to preserve his/her decency by looking far away into the horizon...

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More excellent English - thank you, all your base are belong to us:

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By that time I had realised that my phone was not receiving any international SMS messages, and had significant trouble sending them too. I read the SIM instructions and realised the Chinese company that operated this Iranian network had put support issues in the hands of fantastic personas, so I wasn't likely to get much help anytime soon:

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Dates. Awesome. Bought a whole kilo of 'em out of the bazaar around the main square, and am still munching on them here in Pakistan, after having given some away to people...

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Taken to a nice restaurant by my polite hosts, I once more marveled at the cluelessness of the people composing & printing the English menus:

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The music room of the Shah's palace on the main square. Fascinating.

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Esfahan stretches one's ability to take in one more building, one more mirror-adorned living room, one more narrow bazaar alley, while trying to stay out of the way of small motorcycles buzzing around (on what's left of the sidewalk)...

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... braking for nobody, honking at anyone who dares claim the pedestrian sidewalk from them.

Decoration of the Masjid Mosque, which is still under heavy construction:

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Almost gothic halls, where light plays its own games...

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On the way back from the mosque, we bumped against an old mansion being restored and begged our way into one of its mirror rooms. This is the ceiling:

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More beauty and attention to detail around the main square:

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Can you imagine how much work decorating this dome was?

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Souls wandering the corridors of old palaces:

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More places around town that motorcycles are not welcome. Grrrrr...

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Time for some religious propaganda (come on, you could see that coming...)

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Well, that's good to know. Do whatever you want, pray, sorted.

The police would have a kick with this one:

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Oh, that's also good to know. We take credit only for the good - the bad is all YOUR STUPID FAULT:

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I looooooove religion. Especially when messages like these are plastered all over buildings around major cities. So... discreet.

Another message about the police and an interesting new word for my vocabulary:

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So, in Iran motorcycles larger than 200cc are not allowed (genius!), so mine naturally drew a lot of love... here I'm giving a ride to a family member of my hosts:

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Street shops in Esfahan at night:

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The main square at night:

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Esfahani art - splendid displays at the bazaar:

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Details of the above display. Looooots of work has gone into this...

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More lovely displays in the bazaar - this time metal work:

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Esfahani sweets - apparently some of the best in the country:

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Night in downtown Esfahan:

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It was once more a wonderful feeling to be taken in so kindly by a family, even though I sensed that (at least initially) some of its members had severe reservations about "hosting the tourist".

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Some of these concerns I understand (potential trouble by the government, who appears to have instructed people not to mingle too much with foreigners for fear of being charged with something surely involving spying/treason). some not so much (a sense of "doing something wrong" according to Islamic rules when the husband is not around and the women are forced to interact on their own with the stranger.) I have to admit that in Tabriz I never felt like a tourist, and was never labeled as one. I was heartily greeted by everyone I met, who was genuinely interested in knowing about me and other cultures I might be able to provide a window to. But in Esfahan, I was a tourist. Repeatedly labeled as one, I thought about what bothers me so much about being called "a tourist"... I'm not sure, but something about not having caught a plane from London to meet an organised group to do sightseeing and then piss off out of the country makes me feel that being called the same as such people is unfair. This is more than mere tourism, although it's a fine line and the language barrier doesn't make it easy to get such details across.

Before I forget, something quite funny one sees in all major Iranian towns: Open-air "gyms", for the population to get its exercise. Unbearably funny to watch old people exercising away in public:

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One cold and wet morning I attempted to leave Esfahan, simply because I had set my mind to it. Must-leave-today. I was late to start, and the weather was really atrocious... I was following the road south to Shiraz and planned to cut through the mountains east to Yazd. By the time I reached Shahreza, a mere 70km south of Esfahan, I had to stop by the side of the road, take my gloves off and without turning off the engine attempt to thaw my frozen fingers in the hot exhaust fumes. If you've done this, you will know it's painful. Something about tissue and nerves shutting down to protect themselves from extreme cold, and then loudly complaining with intense pain when they get re-activated.

So anyway there I was, on the side of the highway having fun with my exhaust, when a truck stopped right beside me, the door opened, and the driver beckoned to me to jump in the cabin. My initial reaction was (of course, as a European!) "no no thank you I'm fine" thinking "I'm not out of my mind to jump into this stranger's truck!" - and there were two of them in the cabin... but a few seconds later and after the driver and his friend insisted and gestured "it's cold out there, in here we have heating!" I said "oh, sod it" and jumped in.

It was Paradise. The good man put the heating at full blast, surely to their discomfort but also surely to my great comfort... they served me hot tea from a thermos and sunflower seeds to munch on. We spent a good quarter of an hour in that truck, introducing each other, our families, our jobs, our daily lives, our habits, our countries, religions... the driver told me he was recently married, what job his father did, and I shared with him my side of the story... they advised me not to take the road I was planning to, as it had no petrol stations, restaurants, mechanics, nothing, and it would be cold and wet and dark. Instead he begged me to return to Esfahan, get a good night's kip and the next morning take the direct route to Yazd through Naein. He knew what he was talking about, and I took his advice. Other than a stockpile of sunflower seeds they gave me a tiny donkey doll (one of those soft decorative cloth animals), laughing, pointing at the donkey and saying "police!", which only resulted in all the three of us cracking up... it was such a basic scene, in the cabin of a truck, shielded from the cold, refreshed for life by the hot tea and the discussion, that I had no hesitation to follow his advice.

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After heartily greeting them and sharing a few of my dry dates and pieces of chocolate with them, I swallowed my pride and called my host family in Esfahan. Two hours later I was sitting in their living room again, eating delicious hot food, while my clothes were drying next to the gas water boiler.

I spent the afternoon walking around Esfahan for one last time and getting drenched with rain (too much optimism when it comes to the choice of clothing...), met a friend for another installment of a good chat, had dinner with her family and then returned home for a magnificent sleep. I was exhausted.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 12:49 PM GMT
December 28, 2009 GMT
Iran - Yazd

After my first (ever) failed attempt to leave a city, and recharging my batteries in Esfahan, the next morning I took the easy way to Yazd. 7am start, no (intentional) mountains, no bravado and luckily no rain. Having said that, part of the journey was spent going over a mountain pass that was "a bit nippy"... I had to stop every 10km, dismount, take off my gloves and thaw my frozen fingers with the hot exhaust fumes. It was hard going with no serious winter equipment, but for such rare occasions I rather put up with a little discomfort than kit out the bike with heated grips and thus add weight/complexity. So I just suffered a bit. I reached Yazd in good time (around noon), pondered over another helpful SMS sent by IranCell

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... pondered some more over religious/nationalistic propaganda on the roadside:

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... met a CouchSurfing friend who helped me locate a simple (basic, really) hotel close to the old city of Yazd

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... had a meal and a quick wander around the old city and collapsed.

Yazd has a unique collection of boutique hotels - like traditional mansions, with internal courtyards and the raised bed/sofas on which people just lie on carpets and eat/read/chat/doze off... very relaxing indeed. The only problem was that my hotel was expensive ($20) and empty. Being frustrated at my Brandt guide book (the perspective of which can be summarised by the jaw-dropping - and I quote "Most foreign visitors will wish to stay at the 5-star XYZ hotel...") I coughed up and during my stroll around the old city

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... with its rather strange artifacts

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... and its exquisitely colourful mausoleums

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... I bought a LonelyPlanet book for Iran. Lo and behold, I immediately spotted the Silk Road Hotel and moved there - $8 a night, excellent breakfast and lots and lots of travellers creating a strange ambiance... I felt almost too comfortable, which was a strange feeling. As if I was not traveling any longer. Perhaps the amounts of high-tech electronic gizmos and the heaps of technical clothing got to me.

My efforts to change hotels were temporarily thwarted by the Vstrom's ignition switch getting stuck. The damn key would simply not turn. At that point I remembered Alaric's motto: "If it moves and it shouldn't, duct-tape it. If it doesn't move and it should, WD-40 it!" Luckily I had already spotted a fellow biker at the Silk Road Hotel so I walked over, found Ove and he gave me some of his miraculous WD-40 which fixed the issue instantly.

This allowed me to get lost in Yazd's magnificent ancient alleys with the bike, while trying to locate the entrance of the hotel Orient's parking:

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Alleys continued, this time in the foot-only version:

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The following days we hanged around the Silk Road, visited a traditional wrestler's training session (with lots of music and lots of skill involved), which was taking place in an underground water reservoir - here is the massive reservoir that was used to store water for the neighborhood before modern piping systems came about:

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Here is the dude (couldn't possibly be more than 15) leading the chanting and the music. He was firing away for two hours on that thing...

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The training commotion and an old man watching:

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The training/ceremony is extremely demanding of those taking part:

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We (as in, the group of foreign travelers that formed for the few days I was in Yazd) also took an organised tour to some classic sightseeing places to the north of Yazd, on the outskirts of the desert. I can't say I was very impressed.

Here is Matthias, an excellent & unusually environmentally sensitive chap who is traveling the world on his bicycle.

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A girls school (all dressed in pink) visiting an old fortress in Ardakan:

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An ancient air-conditioning unit (also potentially called a "wind tower") - air is trapped by the intakes and led through the looooong structure in a motion that cools it - hence it keeps the water of the reservoir underneath it also cool.

Cool!

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This is the water reservoir itself, for a change containing only a Canadian instead of water! This is Marco, and the credit for the picture goes to him, as he was the one to observe how light works there:

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The tourist bus stopped at a very suspect sandwich place (that served spaghetti sandwich which, to Zoe's detriment, was actually that - spaghetti in a bun), where we had a uniting experience - Pink Panther came on telly, and all of us - Iranians, Canadians, the Norwegian, the Brit, the German and the Greek - roared in laughter.

(sorry I have no picture of the laughing bit, but the way I laugh it's impossible to hold a camera at the same time)

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Then we went to Chak-chak (which means - in a pleading way - "drip, drip!"). Nothing much to see here, some bizarre legend about a princess who was thirsty and asked for water and suddenly the taps turned on. Suuuuure. Hardly worth the drive.

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The best part of the Chak chak experience was that we were forced to wear these silly caps and remove our shoes, so at least we got a funny picture out of it:

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Then we visited the loveliest of all tourist attractions of the day - an old, half-collapsed mud village. It was fascinating to walk through its dilapidated buildings and climb on roofs of suspect structural integrity. As Ove noted "We would never be allowed to do this in Europe".

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If there is a Batman of goats, this is the Joker he's after:

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This is what happens when one doesn't promptly answer a pissed-off Canadian:

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One of the more intact buildings of the village:

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Our guide, probably quizzing Zoe on the punishment a double homicide plus rape get in the UK. He was a highly entertaining chap, sharing many juicy details about Islamic law as it is implemented in Iran. (the bit that got me and Matthias rolling on the proverbial floor in a fit of laughter - otherwise known as ROFLing - was the description of the punishment for adultery: They bury the woman waist-deep in the earth and stone her to death - BUT! if she manages to dig herself out, people have to leave her alone and not touch her. For the man, he is taken on a mountain and thrown off the edge - if he survives... (*drumroll*) he is taken back up and thrown off a second time. If this doesn't demonstrate that women are favoured in this life, I don't know what does.)


We then got back to Yazd which has been significantly cleaned up from all that cabling that had been lying around and getting tourists tangled up by switching to cordless taxis.

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For the rest of our days in Yazd I had plenty of fun hanging out with the other travelers, milking the town for all it had - including a completely inappropriate private party at another hotel involving booze and women (both in minuscule quantities, but still...)

This is how the "party" started, with Zoe thankfully being prudent enough to bring her own music player and a portable mini-speaker (you rooooock!) and Marc dancing (with his fingers) ON the speaker. We had to cuddle up to listen, but yep, the beat was there.

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This was more like the real party... about 10 people, some almost dancing, most just taking pictures.

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...and this is the SERIOUS booze that ensued.

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It was a strange feeling - we were doing nothing wrong, just having a little bit of harmless fun, but it was quite evident that a potential raid by the police was on everyone's minds... Last time I felt guilty about something as silly as this must've been in highschool, when we used to sit on a ledge we weren't supposed to. Woo hoo - striking the system where it hurts. Riiiight.

The next morning we got up with a hangover from all that alcohol, but still somehow managed to do a nice day ride with Ove to visit some fascinating Towers of Silence (Zoroastrian cemeteries where human bodies were left to be picked clean by vultures, to protect Earth's purity) & the desert with the bikes.

This is Ove contemplating whether riding up right to the entrance of a Tower of Silence was really a good idea...

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Well, I couldn't be stopped - running around off-road with someone to catch me in case I fell (for a change) was just too good an opportunity to pass.

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After that Ove was swiftly revving the Beemer up the slope:

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That's Ove with the bikes on the nice (albeit tiny) vantage point that we used to park right in front of the ancient cemetery...

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Another old water storage/cooling building, with the cemetery in the background:

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View from one Tower of Silence to another:

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Then we rode out to a town called I-don't-remember-how (but it was due SE from Yazd for a good 100K), did some funny local shopping and then had a kick-ass picnic in a field we nearly got stuck in. It was a lovely afternoon, really.

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And that was that for me and Yazd. The next day I packed my bags, greeted my fellow travelers slightly annoyed that I might never see them again and moved on. Next stop, Shiraz!

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 10:49 AM GMT
December 29, 2009 GMT
Iran - Shiraz

Leaving Yazd behind was a bit iffy because I thought I would never see all the lovely people I met there - Ove, Matthias, Zoe, Marc etc, but it turned out I was quite wrong. After doing the day ride from Yazd to Shiraz (most of the route is at an altitude of over 2000m - thank Allah the sun was out), I found the "camping" I had so been looking forward to... I was unfortunately right to be sceptical about the quality of a campsite in an Iranian city - it was basically a concrete square (you know, the one for cars to drive around), with lawn in the middle. Ta-daaa! We have a camping! At $8 a night it was grossly overpriced too. (what do you mean "breakfast"?)

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Its list of follies included being a part of a "tourist complex" which meant people with many complexes would supposedly randomly walk around the "camping square", all the while their eyes just happening to be fixed on you. Very discreet. Oh, and the bloody PA announcements... you think you've conjured enough Zen to get over the $8 for a grassy patch and then all of a sudden 100dB announce to your brain "PERSON XYZ IN RECEPTION NOW!" It was seriously loud. Loud enough to wake ME up (and I do sleep heavily). Very annoying.

To top it all off it was bitterly cold at night (remember the whole altitude thing, the whole December thing also doesn't help - what sort of an idiot would be camping in Iran in December in between freezing his butt off on a bike for days?), which resulted in a fitful sleep.

So I woke up EARLY, packed up, provided sincere feedback at the reception when they asked me how I liked it ("Your camping sucks, Sir." - sniff of the nose, 180 degree fast turn and walk out - THAT taught them!) and got the hell out of there. I drove around Shiraz a bit to have a look at 2-3 hotels (okay, one of them was a military barracks, but it didn't take outsiders for lack of running water - so I'm cheap), got utterly stuck in the permanent traffic jam amplified by a poor sod who had hugged the wall with his car in a very central tunnel/underpass, and after a few hours of effort I managed to check-in to a decent hotel with decent parking for the bike and a very matter-of-factly approach to solving practical problems.

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I then proceeded to go out to walk the centre of Shiraz a little bit. Perchance I found myself outside Pars Tourist Agency (which LP says are the next best thing since sliced bread) and walked in to ask whether Persepolis would be open tomorrow (as it was Friday, Muslim rest day). On entering, I was faced with two beaming travelers saying "oh hi, we met you in Turkey!". I was so surprised that I couldn't remember who these people were, until further hints were dropped into the mix... Cappadocia... bicycles... ah, but of course! It was Battista & Morgane, the Swiss couple who travel the world by bicycle!

My only excuse for not remembering instantly was that I met them very briefly in a dark campsite, we exchanged perhaps 50 words, and it was the day I had seen the good doctor off from Ankara, so I had been considerably upset and disoriented.

Meeting these lovely chaps again in Shiraz made me realise that they covered the same distance with me in the same time, with me having a motorised vehicle and them only their leg power. Slightly concerning, that.

So we quickly arranged a guided tour to Persepolis for the next day, I had dinner and went to bed (what? it was almost 7 o'clock!) and the next day lo and behold! the minibus that was taking us to Persepolis stopped in front of Marc from Yazd! In Persepolis itself we met Matthias (on the road to Shiraz), and by the end of the day Ove had ridden in too! So the gang had re-assembled in Shiraz. As the good doctor would say "quite amusing, actually".

At this point let me make a note to digress from the ravings of the LP guide about Pars Travel Agency - perhaps they are the best, I never tried the others, but the guide allotted to us for Persepolis sucked. The guy was bored out of his brain, making stuff up as he went along (obviously thinking tourists will believe anything, including the theory that the Persian empire was a democratic welfare state - honestly!) and in general quite annoying. Certainly not worth his money.

So we visited the Necropolis with the majestic tombs of kings in mind-boggling sizes:

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...and mysterious buildings the use of which noone supposedly knows:

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Next was Persepolis proper:

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with its trademark angry birds:

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Getting back from Persepolis we all scrambled for food. Here is the gang having a meal at one of the few recognisable restaurants of Shiraz, which sported a "tourist menu" which had 10 items which basically boiled down to "rice with meat or chicken". All the while, people around us were having kebabs, daals, salads etc... Feels nice to get the tourist treatment...

Anna, Morgane, Battista, Marc & my arm

After a couple of hours Matthias reached Yazd as well - we had met him on the road back from Persepolis on his bicycle. I helped him check into a decent hotel...

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...and fooled around with the camera while he got ready to go:

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That evening we also checked out the local cinema scene and watched an Iranian film at a movie theatre:

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(of which of course we understood zilch)

Luckily our cultural balance was promptly restored by a small concert by Matthias and his guitar, who did not waver under the constant flashes of people taking snaps/video footage and did very well indeed. You can listen to his music online at Matthias' website.

The next day we walked around a bit with Ove, checked out the castle (a tower of which partly collapsed when some genius built the road underpass and dug through the castle's foundations)

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...and then visited mosques with lovely floral-inspired decoration:

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...which as you can see I was extremely happy about:

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Ove was having a blast snapping away:

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What rocked my boat more than the mosques and whathaveyou was this old house, ex-restaurant and current modest carpet museum. It's worth a visit just for the exquisite internal architecture of the building.

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...and some of the specimens:

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(click on an image if you'd like to see a larger version - then look for the button "all sizes" above the image)

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That night we went to another "proper" restaurant, which had the most annoying live music in the world (thankfully at some point the guy ran out of breath and just HAD to shut up). I was taking pictures to keep sane.

Ove:

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Battista & Matthias:

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Morgane & Battista:

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We then returned to our hotel which was OK because thankfully we knew which direction to pray towards. Obviously, if you're more than 2 degrees off your bearing, the prayer doesn't hit the right god and it's never heard (unlike all well-directed prayers which as we all know are dealt with instantly).

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The next morning we took a stroll around the many bazaars of Shiraz... they are quite spectacular when it comes to colors and smells...

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...but let us not forget that they have their un-spectacular side as well:

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This is a choice I've been struggling with, actually. Showing only the beauties of a country/land portrays it in a false light. Truth be told, there are plenty of slums/shantytowns/dilapidated neighbourhoods in Iranian cities.

Leaving the bazaars behind we pondered at some more religious/war propaganda (which is to be found in ample quantities in Iran)

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...and visited the tomb of Havez, who I must obligatory quote as "one of the most loved poets of Iran"

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The gardens were quite nice, although again didn't live up to my expectations from hearing/reading raving descriptions about how sublime the gardens are etc.

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On the way back, Matthias spotted a concert hall and we walked in, only to be pleasantly surprised by a traditional music festival! I can't tell you how delighted I was to sit there, watching this lovely tribute to music under (o, the irony) the clouded faces of the current and past Supreme Leaders. (who basically persecute music in Iran as un-islamic, banning the display of musical instruments in TV, banning music schools altogether etc)

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All in all Shiraz did not meet my (high) expectations - the bitterly cold weather didn't help either. After a few days the gang was ready to move on and we spread in the four winds... Me East to Kerman, Matthias, Battista & Morgane South to Bandar-Abbas and Ove West to Bushehr. It was lovely to hang out while it lasted. Safe journeys dear travelers!

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Next stop, Kerman. Slowly making my way to the border...

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 02:22 PM GMT
Iran - Lut desert

Leaving Shiraz I took the road SE to Kerman, which was a good full day's ride through some nice landscapes, mostly mountains and some barren plains. It was good to ride for a few hours - too much city life and too much socialising was getting to me. Riding through a barren landscape for the better part of the day cleared my head and made me feel that I'm traveling again. I was on the road, and the road is good.

I got to buzzing but relatively uninteresting Kerman by the end of the day, found a quasi-decent "inn", dumped my stuff, changed into regular clothing and went out to explore.

Kerman by night: (notice interesting pedestrian overpass circling the square)

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It was already dark, but I did manage to stumble upon a lovely museum of contemporary art, with an intriguing collection of "resistance" compositions by young artists who were basically passing anti-war messages, albeit peppered with anti-Israel propaganda. The exhibition was funded by the government, so the selection of works was not surprising. Some of the pieces of art were quite interesting, but it was not allowed to take pictures. So no dice for you, dear reader.

I then spent a couple of hours walking around town - plenty of traffic (human & mechanised), noise, dust... all the loveliness of a modern city. I had something like a hot-dog from a bakery in which people were queuing (always a good sign), checked my email (in between power cuts) and went to bed.

My next stop was the desert - a CS friend had tipped me as to the existence of "something very beautiful" near the village of Mashdad, SE of Kerman. The ride there was excellent in its own right, bringing me close to snowy mountains:

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Mercifully there was a nice tunnel that saved me climbing above 3000m - then led me to an "adventurous area" (whatever that is)

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and finally delivering me to the Lut desert. My first proper sandy desert. 300m of elevation all in all, dilapidated caravansarais scattered all over the landscape...

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...palm trees everywhere, me taking off two layers of clothes... ooohhh it's SO nice to not be cold for a change.

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So the Kavir-e Lut was my first sandy desert. I had to try, hadn't I? I stepped down and checked the hardness of the ground on foot. It didn't look too soft... so I descended from the road with the Vstrom, frolicked on the sand for about 10''... and 80 meters later I was stuck and already agonising about how to get out of there.

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Luckily with a bit of unloading and a bit of pushing it took less than 15' to get the bike back on nice, safe, hard tarmac.

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And that was pretty much the end of my sand expedition... until I realised (after meeting more beautiful ancient caravanserais in the proverbial middle of nowhere)

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...that there is a really hard trail skirting the Kaluts, like a dried mud lake of sorts:

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I rode that for a few minutes until I lost visual of the tarmac and began to feel that not even the GPS is making this safe enough...

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So I turned back, leaving all this for another time, another life maybe...

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A true adventurer on all counts, I wussed out and got back on the tarmac.

Reaching the Kaluts was an experience... gigantic sand formations for tens of kilometres, beautiful, majestic, errie in their inexplicable steady orientation. As if a flock of whales has frozen in time, migrating across the globe, being caught under the desert, in endless waves that go on and on... truly beautiful.

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By late afternoon the road...

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...took me to a "desert camping" I had spotted earlier, a big project to build a really nice campsite with structures like mini bungalows.

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There were 3-4 workers there, building stuff, and noone else. I asked them whether it was OK for me to stay, the guy who could speak a bit of English said "no problem", I asked for the price, he said "no money" (wooohoo!) and I was sorted.

I had noticed some worrying splashes of oil around the engine and I decided to have a look (I needed to at least unscrew something on the bike to get my monthly Alex-the-mighty-mechanic dose). Luckily I had what I needed with me, try catching THAT nut without the proper tool...

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The "interior" of the bike (under the saddle) where all the tools, spares etc reside:

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I chose a hut, made my bed, did some washing, cooked dinner, read a little bit, pondered the loneliness, quiet, loveliness of the desert, and around 8 went to sleep...

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...which was to be interrupted pretty soon by three busloads of juvenile Iranians who apparently raided the desert camping just to find a place to be able to scream their heads off without being arrested... you think I'm exaggerating, aren't you? If only... it was the teenage-girls-rip-off-and-throw-their-underwear-at-rock-star kind of screaming. It was the ohmygod-I-cannot-believe-I-am-watching-Elvis-on-stage kind of screaming. It came and went in waves, from multiple sources. I spent the night twisting around in my sleeping bag and making pleasant thoughts like "my kingdom for a loaded machine gun..." Around 5 or 6 in the morning they got tired (or lost their voices - wouldn't be surprised), so I managed to catch a couple of hours of sleep.

Around 8 they started pissing off, being noisy in the process, so I got up and ran about 500m out of the camp to see the early morning light on the Kaluts.

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Lovely, innit?

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Yep, proper sandy-type sand. Walking on this stuff is surprisingly difficult, so next time you find yourself stranded in the middle of the desert think about it twice before "just walking over them sand dunes"...

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This is where I (nearly) slept. Pretty charming place, really. And warm. Oh, bliss!

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I was giving the the noisy teenagers deadly looks as they were parading in front of my kitchen (the VStrom with the tea brewing on the petrol stove) and some of them might even have been remotely embarrassed. A man-and-woman team approached me, all smiles, the girl spoke in the most royal British accent and asked me how I was. Luckily I swallowed my default reaction which would be to "verbally abuse" them and it quickly turned out that they were not part of the group of juveniles - they also had had a rough night, so I guess we were on the same boat.

We ended up sharing our breakfast (with me the clear benefactor as they were way more organised food-wise) and had a mini-feast in their hut.

PC110137

It turned out that they were a group of people who work for an NGO that takes care of children whose families were devastated by the terrible earthquake that flattened Bam a few years back. Some of the children would come out to see the Kaluts and play in the sand, would I like to join them?

I politely declined (the default "no" that negative people like me use when they just need more time to think about it), we greeted each other and went our separate ways. After a few kilometers I realised I really DID want to join them, so I turned back and drove the 30km to the Kaluts to join them.

It was a wonderful feeling seeing the children frolic around in the sand.

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They were genuinely having a great time.

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We then drove back to the campsite for lunch

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This is my command centre. You can't get lost with all this stuff (famous last words?):

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Lunch presented a few practical difficulties for me - try eating your sandwich without making a mess while having 2 kids jumping on you and another 10 talking, singing, striving for attention. Beautiful, smart, witty creatures. They wanted to know everything about me and the trip, they sang a song and wanted me to reciprocate with a Greek song (to my utter embarrassment I was so overwhelmed that I couldn't come up with anything), they told me every word they knew of English and taught me some Farsi too...

When it was getting time to leave I asked if we could take a group picture, which created a little commotion between the elders. A few minutes later, after I had dressed up and was ready to go, I was told that it was not a good idea because if the picture fell in the wrong hands, the government would give trouble to the NGO for allowing sheltered children's pictures to be taken. And so it is in Iran. The underlying threat that one might do something, anything, that one day may be used against them. The constant fear of standing out in any way, which results in self-censorship and an omnipresent stiffness in human relations. A sad state of affairs...

After asking for permission which was happily granted, I took this photo of this little guy who took a fancy to my tank bag. He was part of a visiting family, nothing to do with the NGO, so there it is - the secret sauce - the critical piece of information that the theocracy needs to control - what I could not show you using the lovely kids taken care of by the NGO as example - an Iranian CHILD!

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After doing two rounds of the roundabout and blasting off towards the horizon standing up on the pegs (hey, if it's a request from the kids it doesn't count as showing off!) (suuure) I took the mountainous road to Bam.

On the map the road looked like a nice, smooth stretch of tarmac. But the map is just a piece of paper. It cannot portray the dramatic twists and bends, the gorgeous scenery surrounding you as the cylinders do their job and carry you and everything you did & will need for 6 months up and down mountain passes, crossing unmaintained, unsurfaced connections between pieces of road that are still under construction...

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Finding yourself riding on the pegs to safely get over a watery puddle, while following the main road to anywhere, is a relatively unnerving experience. One can't help thinking "can this really be it?", "did I miss something", "am I lost?" etc etc. This is where a GPS and good maps make a big difference. I've exclusively used maps from the OpenStreetMap.org project and am very happy with them for having the most obscure roads of these countries mapped. A big "thank you!" to all contributors who created and continue to improve these maps - I upload GPS tracks as often as I can to do my bit and further improve these freely available maps.

I followed the beautiful road over the mountains heading in the general direction of Bam.

PC110171

Corrosion has worked wonders here:

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And just like that, the mountains were over and I was on the horrible main "highway"to Bam.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 02:53 PM GMT
December 31, 2009 GMT
Iran - Bam & race to the border

Approaching Bam was a scary experience - long gone was the superb engineering of Iranian roads and the trouble-free road connections between major cities... the road that connects Kerman to Bam had some horrific stretches of single-lane traffic bouncing over potholes, with trucks bombing it to the border as if their life depended on it. You know things are getting dangerous when you have to accelerate to 140kmh to keep a relatively hassle-free pace that allows you to overtake the major troublemakers. Way faster than my comfy traveling speed of 100kmh.

But anyway. Got to Bam late, went straight to Akbar's guesthouse (the usual stop of overlanders) and had an early night.

I spent most of the next day fighting with the nasty Sality virus, trying to get it off Mr Akbar's PC, but without my toolkit, a fast internet connection, or even a CD-ROM drive on the machine, it was a struggle...

0wned by sality

While the computer was doing things I would read, reflect or just chill out.

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I visited the ex-magnificent, now-demolished and under re-construction Bam Arg (Citadel/Castle)

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of which very little is left

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from the 2003 earthquake that claimed more than 20,000 lives and left Bam in ruins and devastation.

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On the way to the castle, a typical Iranian family on a motorcycle:

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(What do you mean "helmet"?) I've seen families of 4 riding bikes like this, while eating and carrying a small animal (goat?) with them. One wonders what the value of human life is in the minds of these parents, or how dire the lack of alternatives really is.

After visiting the castle I did some simple shopping for foodstuff and generally got myself ready to enter Pakistan. I knew that the police escorts overlanders from Bam all the way to the border, so as far as I was concerned Bam was my last stop in Iran.

So on the day I wanted to get to the border I let Mr Akbar know, he let the police know, and at 06:30 I was ready to go. The police car led me to the local police station, where I waited for the next team that would escort me out of Bam... and hence the waiting game started. It was all fine and well until a little further from Zahedan (it was already noon by then, as I was constantly waiting on the police to changeover, do their paperwork etc), when something that *really* pisses me off happened - the police took my passport, gave it to an 18-year old conscript (soldier) who jumped in a passer-by's car and left for the border, asking me to follow the car.

The reason I was so pissed off is that this happened after the dude had tried to persuade me to ride pillion on my bike, apparently holding the spare TKC80 tyre that was occupying the second seat. After I refused (obvious safety reasons), the soldier flagged down a passer-by and jumped in, with MY PASSPORT. Goddamnit, it's mine and they have no right to keep it from me. We had already been through this. But they just ignored me and the guy left. I took off my helmet and commenced shouting down the guy who was in charge. I told him I'm going nowhere on a leash, that this is illegal, that I DEMAND my bloody passport HERE NOW. I threatened and I hollered and I played angry (I was almost really angry, actually) and I made him give me his name and number and acted very you-just-see-what-will-happen-to-you.

They were doing something illegal to me, you see. And it's especially annoying when they're ignoring your requests for an explanation on top.

After half an hour my passport was returned by another soldier in another car. I took it and left, thinking I just might have time to make it to the border before it closed for the day... but it wasn't meant to be.

At the next police checkpoint I was stopped again, my passport was taken again (all the while being reassured they would just take down the information and hand it back) and then... you guessed it! They wouldn't give it back and they thus forced me to wait there, less than 50K before the border, for ONE HOUR. Once more I started a shouting match and was nasty to the guy in charge which was a shame because he was very polite (but still ignoring me and doing something grossly illegal dammit!), who in the end gave me my passport back. But then I had to wait for the escort... by the time it arrived, it just took me to another checkpoint 10K down the road where I was handed over to the next guys who (surprise!) announced that it was too late to cross the border today, and I had to check into a hotel they would take me to (how attentive!) to spend the night there.

It wasn't even 16:00 by then, and I was very soon to find out that they had played the same scam on Simon and Lisa, two Brit travelers I had met in Bam, and Nico, a German biker who was tagging along.

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The group of 3 had started from Zahedan (a *really* short ride to the border) and had been stalled by the police and led to the hotel... it was preposterous. The police had actually lied to them about the border closing at 14:00 (which is patently false), to convince them, after hours and hours of delays, to go to the hotel.

Is it a surprise that the hotel was expensive and crappy? I was happy to meet them, because in my blind fury I needed someone to share my frustration with, and they were only too happy to spill our venoms together against the business that the Iranian police make by stalling people, forcing them to waste a day, trampling over their right to hold their passport, not providing any real security (the soldiers weren't even armed for crying out loud!) and finally delivering us to a "safe" crappy hotel that surely split the money with the police.

A corrupt, disgusting state of affairs. But that's what every traveler approaching Pakistan from Iran has to get through.

After this whole ordeal we obviously didn't want to leave any more money to the hotel, so we cooked in the room using all of our cookers - it was a nice little live portable stove comparison gig, which was actually good fun. Lisa cooked deliciously and after all those hours of frustration had us licking our plates and putting on extra portions of pasta... and then some more.

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This is how you get petrol in Zahedan... all of it is apparently smuggled to Pakistan (where it's sold for a multiple of its value in Iran), so petrol stations are "empty" (at least for us foreigners).

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The next day we left for the border at 7, Simon carried our "security" guy (who was protecting whom I wonder?)

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... and of course were at the border by 07:10, pictures and all...

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...and out of Iran, cursing and muttering all along, pretty soon.

This was my itinerary through Iran, for the 5 weeks I spent there.

OSM Iran complete

It was a sour ending for a country that meant a lot for me. So many places, so many people, so many strong warm feelings... the coppers were the only stone in my boot. Unfortunately not a freak occurrence, but rather the symptom of a faulty system (a theocratic police state), it made us all very happy indeed to leave Iran behind.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 05:09 PM GMT
 
 

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