Tourists are still a relative novelty in Iran and as a consequence we have been formally introduced to at least one half of the population. "Hi, how are you?" rings constantly in our ears, proud fathers take photos of their kids alongside us and the bikes and soldiers ask "Do you have time for a conversation?". The other half of the population continues to try and run us off the road, but in the politest manner of course.
Since our last log we have covered over 1200 miles, visited Esfahan, known for millenia as 'half the world', slept in a prayer room at the 2500 year old Persian capital of Persepolis and been hopelessly lost in the narrow streets of the desert town of Yazd. We are now in the Eastern Iranian town of Bam having successfully caught up with three other overland motorcyclists, Cliff, Jenny and Andreas, and are planning our run together to the Pakistan border.
We could really use a beer...
Incredibly, 70% of the population here is under 30 years old and they are desparate for information and contact with "the west". Iran is probably the only country that is run by a goverment based on religious theory and this makes travel here an interesting experience. Hearing that 5 people have been hung publicly only 300 miles away is, at the least, a little bit unsettling. But the situation here will slowly but surely change over the next few years and I am glad we have been here to see how the country is now.
Ali Sadr is an apparently (don't question this) endless network of water caves filled with clear water many metres deep and with ceilings over 15 metres high. There are spectacular stalactites and stalagmites but no life, either in the water or in the caves themselves. Quite a fascinating, eerie place to float around in a small, plastic pedalo with a Farsi speaking guide pointing our the "cauliflower" and "elephant's foot" formations. But the piece de resistance had to be at the top of a marble staircase in the depths of one particular cave. The restaurant. I have yet to see such a gaudy, tacky, over-priced eaterie in such an inappopriate setting. It was really hard not to laugh when the power cut that plunged the place into darkness also killed the flashing fluorescents. Not so funny was the climb back down the staircase. Whoever thought that marble was an appropriate material for stairs in a cave with water continually dripping from the ceiling should have been made to watch the old chap in front of us slipping and sliding his way to an early hip replacement.
As the whole area around the caves had been turned into a fairly gaudy Tourist Complex, we headed back to Hamadan to find a place for the night. Whilst consulting our map at the side of the road, a very nice man, who's cousin just happened to be the hotel manager, led us to the Hotel Arian by driving in an erratic manner through the town and along several pavements. It would have been rude not to follow suit. It has to be said that the traffic in Hamadan was horrendous - in one day we saw the aftermath of one person knocked down, a fairly heavy collision at a road junction and a well trashed police van.
One of the jewels of Iran has to be the ancient city of Esfahan and an early start saw us lower the tone of the neighbourhood by early afternoon. The 300 mile ride was uneventful and the scenery plain and uninteresting - just distant mountains for relief visible through the heat haze. Roads were incredibly long and straight so keeping alert became an issue especially when the temperature started to rise after noon. We intended to stay two nights in Esfahan and checked into Amir Kabir Hotel -as recommended by one of the guides we had earlier sneaked a look at. Backpackers use these guides as some sort of bible and so it was no suprise when we bumped into an Italian whom we had met the last time we stayed at one of the listed places in Turkey.
Our tour of Esfahan was limited to the one day, so we targeted the principle sites. Adrian usually has to be torn away from any place where people hit bits of metal with other lumps of metal - but we were warned by a local not to photograph the blacksmith in the heart of the bazaar as he can get a little bit upset apparently. So before being pelted with ironwork, we pressed on to the rather fabulous Jame mosque which we actually paid to enter. If you only get to see one mosque, then this one is it, the daddy, the big cheese of mosques. And it's reputation didn't do it justice - a truly wonderful place and an oasis of calm in the busiest of cities. We then walked to Esfahan's main square, flanked by two more magnificent mosques. But feeling all mosqued out and as the temperature was climbing by now, gave it up headed for the Nomad Carpet Shop where Hussein supplied us with cups of tea and didn't try to sell us anything. Saw some lovely rugs though.
Stop press: Adrian has had his first, wet shave at a traditional Iranian barbers and has lost his Captain Birdseye abomination of a beard.
Eating out here can become a tedious experience as restaurants are thin on the ground and you can only eat so much chicken kebab before craving more exotic fare - like vegetables or even a sauce! So, we were delighted to discover an Indian restaurant where we ordered a beer (alcohol free of course) and waited for our chosen items. Needless to say, what we got was a chicken tikka kebab that was indistinguishable from the kebabs we had eaten for the previous week.
The ancient Persian capital of Persepolis was our next port of call and we had decided to stay in the hotel sited rather usefully in the car park, rather than find a place in the large town of Shiraz 40 miles further south. The tomb of Cyrus the Great at Passegarde provided a little relief on the way down and we finally reached Perseopis in the late afternoon, just as the light was beginning to fail. Only to discover that the hotel was closed for refurbishment. Only slightly upset by this, we were left with two choices - either continue further out of our way in the dark to Shiraz or spend the night in the car park. Well, it was warm enough and the car park attendant seemed happy so we found a comfortable bench and settled down for the night listening to the world service. Three police then turned up and after some discussion it became clear that they weren't too happy with this idea. A passing couple from the Tourist Information office explained that we would have to move ourselves and the bikes into the prayer room of the complex. This turned out to be a mosquito infested alcove located close to the noisy site security 'rangers'. We plastered ourselves in repellant and had a fitful nights sleep, not least because my inflatable mat chose this particularly handy time to puncture.
I woke in time to listen to Adrian's snores, watch a rather unsatisfactory sun-rise over the ruins and decline the ranger's kind offer that we should pay him for the evening's accommodation. But the ruins (or "just more piles of stone" (c) A. Scott) themselves were fantastic despite the rip-off tourist special entrance and car park prices. The site itself is a large area filled with the ruins of different palaces, halls, treasury and other buildings and monuments that date back over 2500 years. I can't begin to describe it any detail here, but it was well worth the extra milage that the visit has put on our journey and we could still reach our next destination, the desert town of Yazd and it's old mud city before nightfall.
The ride to Yazd gave us our first experience of some real desert which was quite impressive. Just nothing as far as you could see into the heat haze and I made a mental note to start packing more water in case of break-downs. Unlike the human camel masquerading as Adrian Scott, I think I had become quite de-hydrated over the last few days and have been drinking copious amounts of water since then in an attempt to restore the balance.
Anyway, the Tourist office in Yazd gave us directions to our hotel which charged well over $10 a night for both of us - although the mossies came free it seemed. The following morning the room looked like the scene of a mass murder with partially exploded mosquitos splattered over the walls. But after 48 hours in the heat without a change of clothes, we were glad of a shower and clean up. On the ride to Yazd, it was the first time that my patience had started to fray with the constant attention from the locals. We couldn't even stop for a second to talk without a scrum forming and the scores of mopeds and scooters that surround us on the way through the towns can become a liability. The old town itself was lovely though, mud buildings with tiny little streets and alleys to get lost in, bazaars, tea houses and mosques to explore. Just as you would imagine a desert town to be - although the old town is of course now tightly enclosed by much more modern streets and buildings.
Our plan was to meet up with three other overland motorcyclists in the town of Bam. The next, mainly desert, section from Bam to the Pakistan border can apparently be a little bit 'dodgy' and we all felt more comfortable teaming up for this section. Although we had a loose arrangement to meet up over a three day period, we were suprised to actually catch up with Cliff, Jenny and Andreas on the road about 30 miles outside of Bam. And I thought we had too much gear. You should see what these guys are carrying on their bikes - and for the first time I began to think that maybe we had done a good job of sorting out our own kit. Looking like a rolling advert for BMW off-road motorcycles we parked up in the Akbar Guest House and ate our first decent meal (vegetarian) since entering Iran and started to plan the journey to Pakistan. Turned into quite a party in fact, once Cliff had finished venting his spleen about the standard of driving they had experienced so far. Just wait 'til he gets to India...
Posted by Sean Kelly at October 10, 2002 10:40 AM GMT