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...
Just a quick note from a friendly internet company. Cliff, Jenny, Andreas Adrian and I arrived safe and sound in Pakistan yesterday after crossing the Baluchistan desert from Bam in Iran to Quetta in Pakistan.
The border crossing went smoothly, if slowly and the only problems were one flat battery and a plug lead disconnected. It feels amazing to be able to stop at the side of the road and watch a camel train meandering across the desert.
We are sticking together for a week or two as we attempt to climb the famous Karakorum Highway into the Hindu Kush which should prove challenging and interesting...
Iran proved difficult for staying in touch, both with phones and internet but things should improve from here on in. Even some of the mobiles are now working!
Five weeks away and I think we're starting to get the hang of this travelling lark. We're getting used to the large crowds that form every time we stop to look at a map. Developing techniques for getting rooms for $4 instead of $5 is of course essential for any one on the road. But when you start to get a little too cocky, certain aspects of a different culture, such as what may be considered a normal introduction, can always pop up and leave you damn well speechless. "Hey mister, where your hair gone?" was certainly one of those moments.
Meeting up with Cliff, Jenny and Andreas to cross the Baluchistan desert from Iran to Pakistan changed our travelling experience to a small extent. Whilst we all felt more 'secure' in a group crossing such a difficult region, there was no doubt that everything took more time - from loading the bikes in the morning, to getting fuel from oil drums at the side of the road, to finding safe parking at night, most things take more time and progress slows. Of course, everybody travels for different reasons and it has made us appreciate even more, if there had been any doubt, that our schedule is a tight one and we don't have much slack for taking things easy.
The guest house at Bam was clean and cheap so we spent two nights getting organised, changing oil and so on before making our break for the border. During this short stay, Jenny and I became better acquainted than I would have preferred when, due to a faulty lock, she 'interrupted' me in the lavatory. Weakly disgusing her horror, she apologised and made her retreat without realising that she had now locked me in the loo. Some time later when I had only partially dismantled the door, her husband heard my pathetic pleas for help and released me from my by now rather pungent prison.
Peter Cotes Building Ltd. are proud to present their latest conservatory
Leaving the guest house at 6:30 would in theory allow us plenty of time to reach the Pakistan border in daylight - and we knew there was a government run guesthouse just over the border in Taftan that would make an ideal stop for the night. As the day and miles progressed, it became pretty hot, the water carried on the back of the bikes heated so much that it could easily have been used to make tea. And although we are now well accustomed to the beasts, our first wild camels were spotted so we of course stopped to take photos. Even more exotic were the dead ones. For some reason that remains unexplained, dead camels at the side of the road are turned into a sort of peculiar monument to the beast's own supercillious stupidity. Stones are piled up high around the rotted, parched carcases and bushes or foliage placed in their mouths. A custom that is unlikely to catch on in the UK. Headless dogs remain a perverse source of amusement and discussion on our now operational bike-to-bike intercoms.
The border crossing into Pakistan went smoothly and, although it was now dark, we found our way to the guest house without problems. As both generators had failed, by the light of gas lamps we ate some sort of prehistoric creature that must have had seven necks, three lungs and one kidney. Chicken it was not, and if we couldn't see to eat it, how the hell did he see what to cook? The morning after we declined to pay $6 for our coffees and headed for a planned stopover in the desert town of Dalbandin 200 miles further into the desert. Now this was a town, and the first time that we really felt that we were somewhere 'different'. The streets were full with people from different tribes and the noise, heat, dust, smells, sights and sounds were like nowhere else we had been. We really felt like adventurous explorers, as did the retired couple staying in the suprisingly decent hotel who had just cycled there from the South of England.
The day after saw a difficult ride to Quetta. It was one of those days when we just couldn't get it together and it seemed that every lorry wanted to force us of the road and every police checkpoint wanted us to stop and say hello. Even finding and negotiating for fuel proved tedious and laborious in the noon-day heat. However, at the checkpoints it is often necessary to sign in with passport and visa details so we noticed that a Dutch motorcyclist, Maarten, was only one week ahead of us. Maarten and I have often communicated via email during the run up to our own trips and I couldn't believe it when we finally discovered that he was in a hotel less than 1km away in Quetta. Maarten had just recovered after being holed up in his hotel room for 3 days with food poisoning, so obviously we all went out for a rather superb Pakistani curry and some blackmarket beers.
Loralai was the next destination for the now not-so-magnificent six and we made good progress until the road finished. Jenny was leading the pack and I started to doubt her navigation skills when we found ourselves riding along a dry river bed. This section turned out to be a 10 mile stretch of road being built almost entirely by hand. Gangs of workers sat at the side of the road breaking up road stone with hammers. In a country with 80% unemployment, I guess labour is cheap. But the scenery was beautiful with, astonishingly, trees and grass providing some relief from the monontony of the desert landscape of the last few days.
On reaching the small town of Loralai, we were immediately swamped by people, causing a fairly serious traffic jam in the narrow dusty main street. The atmosphere was not particularly friendly so we were glad to park the bikes and retreat to the guest house to get cleaned up. Shortly afterwards whilst I was in a tea shop discussing the Iraqi threat with a rather intense Afghan, Adrian popped by to let me know that there was now a policeman in our hotel who had politely informed him that this was a tribal region and our 'lives were in danger'. To the obvious delight of the hotel staff, the solution to this threat (whether real or imaginary) was to provide us with a small chap carrying a big gun. He was a sweetheart, clearly incapable of guarding anything but ours for the duration of our stay. So we took him out to eat, took him for a stroll around the town and joined in as his machine gun was passed between us and the hotel staff for photos.
Following an unremarkable overnight stay in Fort Munro and after discovering our most unpleasant lavatory yet in a Khoshab hotel bedroom, we arrived filthy and tired in the Pakistani capital city of Islamabad. One aluminium pannier had been damaged when Adrian embarassingly toppled gently from his BMW (in full view of the entire population of a small town) and this, in combination with a lot of hot miles and a horrendous sand storm in the Thall desert, meant that that a blow out was clearly in order. All six of us were really pleased to check into a decent hotel for a couple of days 'r and r', laundry and essential maintenance. Only $20 a night is affordable, even on our limited budget and Islamabad is a rather nice place where we can pass virtually un-noticed in the streets. Although restaurants as such are fairly limited, the food available from street stalls can be cheap and delicious and so I am rather worried to observe that I have actually put on some weight over the last five weeks!
Tomorrow, our group of six will split, as Adrian and I wish to spend less time than the others exploring the Karakorum Highway that leads over 600 km towards the Chinese border. This road is said to be incredibly beautiful and one of the wonders of the modern world, climbing to something like 5000m at our first stop at Gilgit. After this climb, we turn back, head for Lahore and then into India...
We weren't too sure if we could do it, and nobody else was even vaguely interested in trying, but Adrian and I overslept soundly before leaving the others in an ultimately pointless attempt to climb the Karakoram Highway (KKH) to the town of Gilgit in one long day. Cliff, Jenny, Andreas and Maarten were to take a rather more 'relaxed' approach to the Highway and we expected that we would cross paths somewhere on the road after maybe two or three days.
Started in 1966 and completed over the next 12 years, the KKH was cut from the rock of the massive Karakoram mountain range with all the elegance of a student vet's first castration. This phenomenal road twists, crumbles and periodically disappears along the path of the original Silk Road to China, where it meets the highest border post in the world. At 380 miles from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, Gilgit is about two thirds of the way along the KKH and is considered by many to be the start of the Highway 'proper'. The place where the seriously high and twisty stuff begins.
Alongside occasional memorials and graveyards to those careless or unfortunate enough to be killed building it, the KKH not only clings precariously to the side of the Karakorams, but also passes the intersection of the Himalayan and Hindu Kush mountain ranges. You may never need to see another mountain after travelling this road 'cos here there are mountains in all directions (but predominantly upwards) for thousands of square miles. It has long been a dream of mine to ride this road and now that dream is finally achieved, I find myself wondering what I can find to replace it.
The first hours of the journey are spent dodging the many goats and cows that pick at the rubbish in the streets of the numerous small towns and villages en route. In one tight squeeze, I attempted to remove the bull-bars from an over-laden mini-bus with the aid of only an aluminium Touratech pannier. (Note to self, breathing in, no matter how hard, cannot realistically be expected to reduce the excessive width of the bike.) But like hair at a Kelly family re-union, the towns become sparse and a small measure of isolation begins to be felt. Average speeds are of course low because there are hardly any straight sections - just corner after corner after corner. And after 5 or 6 hours, our trance-like state is only occasionally interrupted by an on-coming lorry or, worse, mini-bus appearing on our side of the road. We had long since stopped worrying about hopping onto the gravel at the side of a road in these situations, but on the KKH often there is no gravel. Just a sickening plummet to the valley floor below.
Of course we are hardy travellers now and our pioneering spirit was not dampened in the least when we met two German ladies at a remote and wind swept police check point who were patiently waiting for a bus. "Had we passed it on our way? It should have been here 7 hours ago..." Unable to offer a lift, we shamefully abandoned our two Frauleins to an uncertain fate and pressed on. The last 70 miles seemed to take an eternity and darkness fell earlier than we had anticipated, being that much futher north. We were forced to break our No.1 rule by riding the last 30 or so miles in the dark. Fortunately, this section of road was in reasonable repair with marginally fewer back-breaking pot holes to swallow our front wheels. Also, you can't see the horrendous sheer drops when it's dark so my periodic attacks of vertigo were relieved. It was with some relief that after a total of 12 hours in the saddle we finally arrived in Gilgit where yet another friendly local on a small Honda showed us the way to our hotel. We checked in and, exhausted, fell promptly fast asleep.
I don't know if Adrian's bike hit more pot holes than mine, but on examination next morning his rear tyre had, approximately, no air in it at all. More worrying was that some lumps of tread were starting to come away from the canvas. The not-so-round black rubbery thing stayed inflated after it was filled with air of the pure mountain variety and we resolved to keep a close eye on its condition. If the tyre starts to deteriorate further, we could lose a lot of time and cash having a spare shipped over.
We drove 70 or so miles futher towards the Chinese border and a little place called Karimabad. There are vast snow capped mountains around every corner, glaciers, lush valleys, rivers, rapids - a true paradise for trekkers and climbers, and I really can't begin to describe it. Apparently it just gets more and more beautiful the higher you go. The thing is that there are no trekkers or climbers here. Since 9/11, the tourist industry in this region has totally collapsed - a situation no doubt compounded by the recent elections and the predicted violence that failed to materialise. We could easily have spent weeks exploring this area, but it was a close to China as we would get, so we reluctantly turned around and meandered our way back to Gilgit.
We had half expected that Cliff and the others would have appeared at the hotel by the end of the second day, but weren't too concerned when they failed to materialise and continued with our own plans to ride to the town of Skardu in Baltistan. This is a close as we could get to the infamous K2 without undertaking the 10 day hike to base camp. The road turned out to be a 100 mile roller coaster and despite covering 8000 miles since leaving home, we both enjoyed the ride 'enthusiastically'. Following our earlier concerns, we were pleased to note that despite the abuse Adrian's rear was holding together and that his back tyre was fine too. However, our planned loop around to the main road had to be abandoned as the jeep track we had intended to follow was interrupted by a somewhat impassable river. In consolation, we filled our 43 litre fuel tanks (just to make life difficult) and hurled the bikes up a steep, tricky rock path to a very idyllic lake just below the tree line. The next day, as we headed back down the Highway towards Islamabad, we found out that the other four had only just passed through on their way up to Gilgit!
There was no way that we could ride from Skardu back to Islamabad in one hit, so we resolved to break the journey and spend a night in one of the empty hotels that line the KKH through Chilas. We obviously chose a hotel with a slight resemblance to the one from 'The Shining' and even negotiated a reasonable room for $6. That evening, a strong wind slowly built up outside as we ate dinner, alone in the large dining room. We even took fright when the force of the wind burst open one of the shutters and sent the curtains and table cloth flapping violently. It really seemed like something evil had forced its way into the room and joined us at our table. Unfortunately for us, something awful had indeed intruded. Into Adrian's intestines in fact and his dose of food poisioning can only be described as explosive.
Next stop, India...
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