March 24, 2003 GMT
Southern Iran

The first town we came to proved just what a change Iran would be from the subcontinent.

Here the streets were clean and pleasant, with a developed air that would not have seemed out of place in Europe. Still, pulling up on our bikes we attracted crowds as large as those in India, but here it felt more threatening due to the presence of soldiers waving semi-automatic weapons at the crowd to make them disperse, and asking us to move on for creating a disturbance!

After taking five days to cross 1000km of desert, we arrived the next day in Bam, which was an oasis in every sense of the word. Bam is essentially a large patch of date palms with an extraordinary ruined mud brick city, topped by a mud citadel. In many parts of the world, such a site would be packed with visitors, but here it was practically empty for us to enjoy. We also experienced the first of many atmospheric Persian tea houses, complete with date biscuits and hookahs (that's as in water pipes, not chador-shrouded Persian prostitutes). A rest day in Bam was great for winding down after the forced march through Pakistan and the uncertainties of the borders.

The Bam citadel, before its destruction in the earthquake at the end of 2003

The Bam citadel, before its destruction in the earthquake at the end of 2003

Our onward ride was interrupted by some mechanical troubles with Bernard's bike, which suffered a complete loss of compression. We were quite proud of ourselves for taking apart the top end of the engine at the side of the road to replace the piston rings, but of course this proved to have been entirely unnecessary as the solution was much simpler! The problems also led to an enjoyable encounter with some jovial metal workers, who machined a new part to stem an oil leak and refused to accept payment.

The Iranian people are living up to their reputation for hospitality and generosity. We spent one night, when we failed to reach our intended destination by dusk, in the caretaker's room of an unfinished hotel. Again payment was refused (until we insisted). On the same day, when we did reach the next hotel, we were given breakfast by some other guests, and later were given biscuits when doing photocopying, then bread when asking directions. Today I was invited to join the extended family of an English teacher for a picnic lunch.

After three days we reached Shiraz. When I flew out to Delhi, the plane stopped in Muscat, so I see a pleasing theme developing. Shiraz is a deep ruby city with an aroma of dark fruit, eucalyptus, mint and American oak. Or at least it should be. In fact, it's a pleasant place with broad, tree-lined avenues. There we found a hamam, where I was scrubbed in the steam with a kitchen scourer and mauled by an old man with a fag hanging out of his mouth - the authentic hamam experience. This wasn't in a traditional old building, since most of these seem to have been converted to atmospheric tea houses. When the muezzin stops wailing and I've finished this, I'm off to another one for supper.

Spectacular scenery near Shiraz but no sign of grapevines

Spectacular scenery near Shiraz but no sign of grapevines

From Shiraz we visited the ruins of Persepolis. It would have been a stunning site in its prime, two and a half millenia ago, before it was sacked by Alexander the Great in 331BC. He certainly got around, that man - in thirteen years, he conquered almost everywhere that I'll have visited until I leave Turkey. The ruins are still impressive, particularly the bas reliefs that indicate that the Achaemenians were fond of receiving presents. They detail bountiful gifts being brought by all of their subject nations at the time of the Persian New Year, which coincidentally is happening at the moment. As usual, we were as much of a highlight to the Iranian tourists as were the ruins themselves.

On parting (for the amusement of those who know me)

On parting (for the amusement of those who know me)

Bernard and I parted company yesterday, since he has a more limited timescale. I came on to Yazd, breaking all speed records across the desert: with a good tail wind I touched 60mph, which is practically supersonic for a Bullet. The roads in Iran are excellent, so the lack of power of the Enfield starts to become an issue. Petrol costs aren't an issue, since it's laughably cheap at 4p per litre and therefore impossible to use more than a pound's worth in a day. Hills reduce us to a crawl, and much of the region we have covered so far has been quite high. Most days we have peaked above 2500m, where it's decidedly chilly when the sun's not out, and downright unpleasant if it starts raining. The vegetation at this altitude is sparse scrub, the hills are covered with patchy snow, and the beauty is very much of the rugged variety. Parts of it remind me of Snowdonia, only at twice the scale.

Iran seems generally far less frantic than India, and Yazd is no exception. Its old mud city is still inhabited, so it's fascinating to wander around the peaceful alleyways after seeing the ruins in Bam. It's also the one remaining centre in Iran for Zoroastrianism, the religion superceded here by Islam. This afternoon I visited the Towers of Silence where, like the Tibetans, Zoroastrians put out their dead to be picked apart by vultures. It would have been more serene had the hills not been used as a dirt bike course by teenagers on lawnmower-sized motorbikes. These are actually the biggest menace in Iran, since on entering a town it's all too easy to attract a swarm of youngsters on their pop-pops, who buzz and swerve around as you're riding. They're not malicious but they're incredibly annoying.

War broke out on the way to Shiraz, which is only a day's ride from the southern Iraqi city of Basarah and another from Baghdad. Handily I can follow the news on the same map that I'm currently using for navigation. All is peaceful in Iran, however, and there is no detectable hostility towards those from the belligerent West. The people don't approve of the war, but then who does?

Posted by James Whyte at March 24, 2003 02:49 PM GMT

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