It is well known that Iran is a nation of terrorists and fanatics, thus we approached these madmen with great caution. Of course we would be perceived as aliens, something that easily could trigger their suspicious minds. But surprisingly the Iranians already knew many facts about Norway. Among other things they knew that we live in igloos, that the average summer temperature is minus 100C, and that only a third of our children grow up due to the many polar bears roaming around the playgrounds.
The Iranians knowledge about Norway would later be explained. A visit to the library at Tehran University revealed that they are in position of Aron I. Gurevich’s classic from 1977: “Norway – Social Conditions”. It might be interesting to know the book was found in the same section as two copies of Phillip J. Klass’ “UFO’s Explained”. So make no mistake about it; the Iranians are occupied with more issues than most westerners think, thus revealing that it is us who are the narrow-minded ones. It is a typical case of “never been there, so we have to believe the western press which frankly cannot afford to loose readers and advertisement income by publishing boring reports”. At the border we were pushed to the front of every stamping queue. “Welcome to Iran, have fun”, they said. First night stop was in Maku. We asked for a room for two. No problem. No questions asked.
Morvarid Hotel in Tabriz: Ernie (58) has bicycled from England and need a cup of tea before continuing his solo ride to China. Visit him at: www.thebuckstop.net
Another surprise was the road conditions. They are excellent. Even secondary roads are paved, and potholes are rare. The domestically manufactured Peykan’s (which is molded from ancient British Hillman machinery) is everywhere, and often you find a curious car driver rubbing his fender against your side boxes. Despite the road anarchy the traffic is flowing very well. You just have to flow with it. Three days were spent in Tabriz, and another two in Gazvin. We became customized with the grave gawking from locals, and the occasional pinch in my female passengers behind. However, these experiences were merely annoying, not really threatening, and the overall impression was that we were safer in Iran than in eastern Turkey.
The traffic in Tehran offers a lot of exitement, and it takes hours of your full attention getting in and out of town. Be ready for everything!!!
When planning this trip I imagined a visit to Iran as eating dust and living like a refugee. Therefore it is almost embarrassing admitting that I had a Tehran apartment with three bathrooms, a swimming pool, and a private chauffeur named Ali to my disposition. The whole enchilada is explained by family relations in the Iranian branch of Statoil. Oh God, we were lazy. We slept late, ate Iranian pastries till our teeth ached (highly recommended), and we barely sat foot outside the gate, perhaps as a reaction to the prior weeks of motorcycle marathon.
The managers of Lita & John Hostel
Despite the loss of an electrifying story of hardship and adventure in the capital, the wonderful hospitality of Lita, John and Ali was an indispensable experience. For five days we were spoilt, and on the last day we tailgated Ali to the outskirts of Tehran where we soon came back to earth. At that point I had driven through twenty countries, some of them infamous for their road patrols, but I had not yet been stopped by police. It might sound silly, but more and more frequently I gave a little extra twist on the throttle to get their attention, but they always just smiled. Those devious smiles, as if they enjoyed cheating me of the experience. Bastards. In Iran we often saw police vehicles ahead, only to discover that they were made of cardboard. But the policeman looking bored by the roadside south of Tehran was not a fake, and when he waved us to the curb I felt an absurd well of joy. What would he do? Would he put on a rubber glow and strip-search us? Yeah, yeah, c’mon!!! But the officer didn’t even ask for papers. Nor did he arrest us for driving on a road signposted as illegal for motorbikes. He had only two questions: What is your religion, and where are you going with it?
We brought our beliefs to Esfahan where alcohol is illegal as everywhere else in Iran, thus giving party animals a hard time. But Dirk was on the case. With the assistance of Helmut, his partner in crime, and by walking enough hours in the back streets, Dirk smelled (!) a source of canned whisky. The crime was successfully executed under the code name “Operation Potato Chips”, and for the next days we enjoyed several supplies of potato chips mixed with Iranian Pepsi Cola. The girl and I became very fond of Helmut and Dirk, and we were sorry when they one evening jumped into a taxi and disappeared in the direction of the airport.
The view from our scruffy room in Kashan
The next day the Turkish girl was to leave. It was not an easy farewell. We were no longer strangers. Instead we had become fellow travellers on one bike, all together a little ship in the desert, with no real destination but our selves. However, to face some realities, Balto was not prepared for two, and the girl was short of safety gear and insurance. With the long day rides ahead, in particular the nearly 1000km Bam-Quetta stretch infamous for drug traffic and the occasional kidnapping of overlanders, we would be fools to gamble with her safety.
After eating camel stew in Yazd I headed for Kerman, but because of a murder at the hostel I continued further south. Then it happened again, that the bike just stopped as if it was out of fuel. This reoccurring malfunction (usually happening when riding hard) was very annoying, especially when the bike gave up in front of a factory in the countryside. Iranians are very suspicious about foreigners lingering around their factories, and it was no surprise to see those security guards walk out the front gate.
The citadel in Bam will rise again
First the guards wanted to know my nationality. Ah Norway, you go to world cup in football? I didn’t have a clue, and I could see their brains work like steam trains: “First he says that he is from Norway. Then he reveals that he know nothing about the Norwegian football team. Hmm… veeeery, veeery suspicious….” Luckily the bike started in a few attempts, and I got away before they fixed electrocute cables to my genitals.
By the way, did the Norwegians make it to the world cup?
Now, simply explained, the engine drank petrol faster than the tank could supply, and the probable cause was that the mesh filter in the carburetor was clogged. The filter had to be removed, meaning that the carburetor had to be dismounted. Detailed instructions came by email from Holland (thanks Auke), and a motorcycle garage in Bam had the tools. A translator told the mechanic what I wanted done. But when the translator left, the mechanic went out of control. No no no, don’t do that, I said, and people gathered around the bike in such numbers that I was squeezed out of the garage. There, in the street, a boy discovered the protection padding on my Lindstrands motorcycle jacket, thus the bike spectators came out and touched me all over, making me feel like Madonna in one of her erotic music videos. However, their departure from the garage made it possible for me to get in again. And there, under the dim light, I saw the mad face of a mechanic gone bananas. He was about to open the CDI unit. Although he did not speak a single word English, he understood very well what I was shouting at him.
Bam: What’s left of the famous Akhbar Guest House…
… though Mr. Akhbar himself (here shown in a very elegant positure) is happy that the building of his new 1000m2 guesthouse is about to begin
I spent a forenoon repairing what the mechanic repaired (you know, as if you’ve been naïve and had something made or done by Off The Road AG in Köln). Then I went for a stroll around town. The citadel was in ruins, but the reconstruction had begun. Houses were collapsed, but there were stacks of new bricks in the streets. The aid containers were left behind, but used for new businesses. Revival and blossom was on its way, though not yet overly visible. So, at dawn I got a full tank of petrol (NOK 10,-) and left for the Pakistani border, hoping to find a place that was more inviting. Yeah, in my dreams...
Who says that Iranians do not like to be photographed?
(I tried to take a picture of the petrol station behind them)
Like most border towns, Taftan is not there to be dazzling. There is no petrol station, so I spent some time bargaining for canister fuel along the main road. Unfortunately the governmental guesthouse was closed for maintenance, so I had to settle for the second best option in town, the hard-to-believe filthy and inhospitable tourist hotel by the roundabout. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before.
Welcome to Taftan. Here you can… well, nothing really
Allegedly you can pitch a tent outside the Pakistani Custom building (inside the guarded area), though I did not know it then. I wish I did. There is also a rest house inside the border on the Iranian side, though you might want to be through with the formalities and ready to go at daybreak. The unfriendly atmosphere in Taftan was exhausting, and I escaped an hour before sunrise. The change to left side driving required some mind adjustments, and with 630km to Quetta it would be the longest ride on the entire trip to Katmandu. The first 280km to Dalbandin was nice and fast, and there was a petrol bazaar at the outskirts of the village. Again some bargaining, starting at 55 rupees per liter, with the closing offer being 35. On this first leg there was nowhere to buy bottled water (so you better bring what you need from Taftan). Allegedly Dalbandin has a hotel too, but after my accommodation experiences in Taftan I’d rather sleep in a pile of camel manure. The reputedly dangerous speed bumps, described to be at the east end of Dalbandin, are found at every railway crossing and in most settlements all the way to Quetta.
The petrol hustlers in Dalbandin will try to rip you off
For the final 350km the road declined to the extent that I early on questioned whether I was lost or not. The plummet in road quality did not slow me down. On the contrary, the offroaders 30cm suspensionway finally came in handy, and I blasted over the rocks and through the desert, arriving Quetta in less than nine hours total. To my mothers joy I had not been taken hostage by hooligans (hello Mum, I’m OK). Even better, the carburetor overhaul in Bam had cured Balto’s fuel problem. Hurray!
The first encounter with other overland bikers since Croatia: Steve and Anna from Australia were riding a BMW camouflaged with schoolbook paper to make it less flashy
Quetta stinks! Someone said it is the second most polluted city in the world. That might not be entirely true, though it is a good bet. It is mind-boggling that people choose to live in all that noxiousness and filth. I mean, they might not be able to live elsewhere, but they might wanna do something to clean up their home. The abrupt change of environment required a few days to adjust, and I found a decent place to stay, the Bloom Star Hotel which also has secure parking. The hotel also offered some peculiar solutions. The light switch to the room was outside, the door was locked by pushing a button on the inside, and to get hot water in the shower you had to yank the knob while turning it. It took some time getting customized to these patents, and with the arrival of a little gas oven it became quite cozy in there.
This might look like a gloomy scene from the Quetta suburbs, but it is the view outside the highest ranked restaurant in the city centre (hey, you should have seen those suburbs…)
While doing the gravel road to Ziarat, a former mountain resort for colonial Brits, I became increasingly alarmed about two guys in a blue Toyota pickup lingering in my rear view mirror. What did they want from me? Were they robbers? I decided for a shake off, gave the pedal to the metal, and left them behind in a haze of dust. A little later, while stopping for petrol, the slothful diesel Toyota appeared again. And guess what; the two men happened to be Pakistani police officers with instructions (from God knows who) to be my bodyguards, and they were not happy about my run away.
The main street of Loralai
My plan was to spend the night in Ziarat, but the policemen were persistent that I continued to Loralai. They escorted me for half an hour. Then my so-called safety was passed on to a new Toyota crew, this time armed with Kalashnikovs. Who did they think I was? Kjell Magne Bondevik? This unexpected service was a bit frustrating because their cars were slow, and I did not want to hurt their feelings by running away again. But after the next checkpoint they left me alone. It was mostly downhill from there, and at some point I realized that I had forgotten my Lonely Planet book at the petrol station, meaning that all my maps for the cities ahead were lost. How could I be so slapdash!!!
Playing Ludo at the police station
At the city borders of Loralai yet another police crew was waiting, again without any prior notice. Evidently their colleagues up road had given them a phone call. The officers guided me to a surprisingly nice guest house, told me not to go out, and left an armed guard outside my room all night. It all seemed a bit over the top, though I slept like a baby. The next day I was invited to the police station. They gave me a chair in the courtyard, two meters from a cell where ravenous prisoners clung on to the iron bars, and the policemen offered me tea and hashish. Other offers were spirits (illegal too), a drug called “snuff”, and some remedies with alleged therapeutic qualities in a white bottle. I settled for the tea. In a corner they threw dices for money. A guy won a week salary in one throw. Hurray. Another investigator poured his heart out, being in love with a girl from Quetta, yet being destined to marry someone else decided by his parents. Then the man among them whom I regarded as the most trustworthy, approached me with a small package in his hand. I opened it. It was my missing Lonely Planet book, found in Ziarat and driven the 100km to Loralai by a police courier.
After some late night whiskys in my room, these Baluchistan policemen willingly posed for the camera
I left Loralai with a set of horns from a Marco Polo sheep, a peculiar souvenir given by Mr. Rishi, the guesthouse owner. For a while the road seemed fine. Then it deteriorated to the extent that there was no road at all, just on-passing trucks in the horizon to navigate towards. The average speed was much less than calculated, with the cliffhanger descend from Fort Munro as particularly slow and nerve wrecking. It was hot and dusty, I ran out of water, and a headache hit me like a hammer. In the late afternoon, when entering the Punjab region, I was not much to look at. I was dehydrated, my face and lungs were filled with dust, and the air pollution had given me flu-like symptoms. It took three days before I could eat normally again. On the bright side, I had learned some valuable lessons about motorcycling in far-off areas.
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