These guys led us out of Zahedan
This section is quite flat and the wind howls carrying sand across the road.
All that's left of the once magnificent Arg-e-Bam, but still worth a visit.
The temperature dropped when we passed snow capped mountains on the way to Yazd
Even before we entered Iran though, we suspected things were going to be very different. As we approached the border we saw more and more modern Volvo and Mercedes trucks in stark contrast to the colourful, but ancient Pakistani Bedfords and whilst the Pakistani customs and immigration offices were dilapidated and run down the Iranian ones were big, bright and modern. The Iranian officials were also on the ball and processed Jack and us efficiently within an hour.
This eastern area of Iran also falls within the Baluchistan region and is as lawless it seems as Balochistan is in Pakistan. This is a land of ruthless smugglers, drug traffickers and bandits and for security purposes a soldier is assigned to escort us out of town. He rode pillion on Chris' bike, quite a hoot (no pillion seat). First order of business though was to get fuel. We knew that fuel would be much cheaper here in Iran so had arrived with near empty tanks, but the only fuel station in the border town of Mirjaveh has no petrol. No option but to hope we make it to Zahedan 90 km away. Memo to self. Don't be a cheapskate and make sure you arrive at a border crossing with enough fuel to cover at least 100km.
Just outside Mirjaveh, we swapped our lone soldier on Chris' bike for a pick up with 4 well armed men. We thought they would be our escort all the way to Zahedan but as it turned out we ended up with about 5 different escorts, each it seems responsible for a short section of the road. The last escort took us straight to a reasonable looking hotel and after the police station last night in Pakistan, we were happy to pay the $50.00 for a very comfortable room.
Early the following morning our new escort met us and took us to a fuel station where we managed to fill up. It's always a bit of a surprise for the pump operators when Jack takes nearly 33 liters and Chris' Rooney 45 liters. Locals have a fuel card and are limited to about 120 liters a month and only pay 10c/liter. We don't have a card but can easily get fuel although at 4 times the local price. At 40c/litre we're as happy as Larry. Diesel fuel is a crazy 1c/litre
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs cautions travelers about traveling between the eastern border and Bam about 350km away and our escorts seems determined to ensure nothing happens to us. Again there is a relay type arrangement with each escort responsible for a short section of the road. I don't think there was any chance of being attacked today though as we rode through an incredible sand storm that would have deterred even the most hardy bandit. This is desert country and the winds became increasingly intense as we progressed westward gusting from our right and blowing sand and us across the road. We've ridden down to Ushuai in Argentina and know what strong winds really are and these were strong winds. Overtaking the many trucks became quite a challenge as we were braced into the wind before the truck, then as we got alongside and into the still air we would need to make an abrupt correction and then as we passed the front of the truck the wind would again attempt to blow us off the road and we would need to make a violent correction to the right. Not a lot of fun and we hope we don't get too many of these during our stay in Iran.
Bam is or rather was famous for the Arg-e Bam, an ancient mud city dating at least as far back as the Sassanian period (224 - 663 AD). The city was a staging post for the trade routes between India and Pakistan. Evidently 'Marco Polo was awestruck by the city's 38 towers, huge mud walls and fairy tale citadel'. Sadly about 4.5 years ago a major earthquake destroyed the town and killed more than 30 000 people.
Even though the Arg-e Bam has been destroyed we felt we should still see the remains of what used to be called the jewel in the Iranian tourist crown. We arrange for a taxi to take us there and an armed police escort followed discreetly behind. The Iranian government is slowly restoring Arg-e Bam using traditional materials, but it could take up to 50 years to complete the project. Chris had seen the city in the mid 80s, so it was particularly moving for him to see it now.
It's about 550km from Bam to Yazd so an early start for us today. An armed policeman slept at the guesthouse, just in case, and he arranged for the police escort to accompany us this morning. This escort followed us for about 200km through beautiful rolling hills and valleys . We are still enjoying the desert scenery and the early morning light gave it a somewhat surreal glow as we climbed to about 2600m and the temperature dropped to 7 degrees,. Even by mid morning it had only climbed to 9 degrees. We were not expecting such cold conditions and had to keep stopping to put on another layer for warmth.
Several overland riders had recommended the Silk Road Hotel in Yadz so we made our way there, but it's not always easy to navigate a strange city where there are no street signs in English. Not many Iranians here speak English either, so we opted for the easy way and got a taxi to guide us. He was happy to do it and didn't even want any money. The Silk Road Hotel seems to have expanded recently and has built another two hotels within 100 meters, the Oasis and the Orient. We stayed at the Oasis and can highly recommend it to others. Enter N31 54.061 E54 22.173 into your GPS.
One of the nice things about being at a travelers stop is that you get to meet and chat with other travelers On one occasion we were told of the dramas of a Swiss couple with their own camper van who elected to drive from Zahedan to Bam without an escort. They were attacked by bandits who fired shots at them and shot their rear tyre. The Swiss couple tried frantically to get away and eventually swung their vehicle across the road to block the path of an approaching bus and the bandits fled. A lucky escape and a reminder that the dangers here are real and one needs to take heed and obey instructions from the police. This incident happened just two weeks earlier.
It's been about 8 months since Dianne and I left our home town of Toowoomba to ride to Darwin and ship Jack to Singapore. We returned home briefly to attend the wedding of a good friend's daughter, but it's been a fairly long and at times difficult slog through Nepal, India and Pakistan. We need a holiday and the Silk Road is the perfect place for it. It's inexpensive ($20.00 a night), it's very clean, comfortable, civilized and the staff are great. Oh, and the food is fantastic. Breakfast is included and consists of nan, a thin bread, boiled egg, lashings of feta cheese, olives and the best dates you could ever hope for. Usually we start with a strong cup of filter coffee (haven't had that for a while) and have a glass of natural yogurt to finish off the meal. After a big breakfast we normally skip lunch and save ourselves as the dinner menu is quite extensive with several delicious camel and other Iranian options. All too good as we're bound to put on most of the weight we've lost..
Another motorcyclist from Holland was also staying at the hotel and heading north and east through several of the 'stans and into China and then into Pakistan via the KKH and the Khunjerab pass. He's a great bloke on quite an ambitious journey and we are keen to see how he gets on. Emile has a very interesting blog and you can log on at www.boskoop2nepal.nl
Chris Cowper our good riding buddy of the last 3 weeks needs to leave us in Yadz. He wants to be at Gallipoli for the ANZAC day memorial on the 25th April. It's been really good riding with someone especially someone as easy going as Chris and we'll miss his company and good humor. I should mention that Chris plans to get to the UK and join two Australian friends and together they will ride across Russia to Alaska, then down the west coast of the USA into Central America before returning to Australia in March '09. Safe riding Chris and have a great time.
Funny how the days can wizz past when you let them. We're making the most of our 'holiday' and resting and feeding up and getting all the little jobs done that we've been putting off. Iran is a fantastic country with very friendly people and it's what could be described as a first world country with third world prices.
The Silk Road Hotel offers desert tours visiting a number of places with a possible free overnight stay at Kharanaq. We decided to do the tour but with Jack and after resting up for nearly a week we're keen to be on the bike again. The hotel manager packed some frozen camel stew and nan for our dinner as the small guest house in Kharanaq had few supplies.
22/4/08 and today is Dianne's birthday. The sky is blue and there is no wind and the temps are in the early 20s. Perfect riding conditions and we made the most of them on a loop from Kharanaq, north on a narrow dirt road to a small village oasis and then onto Chak Chak to see the famous Zoroastrian temple. A long climb to see the fire temple and once there we had to call 'Fhatabon, Fhatabon' to be let into the locked cave. The temple was a little disappointing but the desert scenery along the way was outstanding with craggy mountains either side of the road.
All good things must come to an end and it was with regret that we packed up and left what had become our home at the Silk Road. We're both fully recharged now though and although a little sad we're also looking forward to continuing our journey through Iran. Our next port of call is Shiraz, and yes the wine did originally come from here, but alas with the present religious government, not any more. The ride from Yadz to Shiraz about 450km away was for us, exhilarating. We never tire of desert scenery, the high planes and rugged mountains and this ride has it all as we climbed from 1500m to over 2500m. The warning signs to fit snow chains are a reminder too that this region gets lots of snow in winter and several of the higher mountain peaks still have snow on them now.
Iran, and what was then called Persia has had a fascinating history. It probably all started with Cyrus the Great who founded the Persian Empire about 550 B.C. He eventually extended this empire to include most of southwestern Asia and the Middle East. About 130km from Shiraz we stopped to visit Pasargad, an ancient city built by Cyrus the Great.
About 50km from Shiraz are the famous ruins of Persepolis. This was a former capital of ancient Persia, built by King Darius I of Persia about 500 B.C. Darius and his successors constructed elaborate large stone and mud-brick palaces in the capital, which became the royal ceremonial center for the religious holiday of the New Year. Every year at this festival, the king would renew his divine right as king, and representatives of all the peoples within the vast Persian Empire would bring him gifts. Sadly, in 330 B.C, Alexander the Great seized Persepolis and ransacked the palaces before burning them to the ground.
Far too much to see in one day so we rode back from Shiraz the following day and spent almost 6 hours exploring the ruins of Persepolis and also Naqsh-e-Rostam, where the Tombs of Darius 1st, Darius 2nd and Xerxes 1st were hewn out of the cliff face.
Shiraz too is an interesting city where the atmospheric old bazar-e vakil and spring gardens were particularly enjoyable. We negotiated with a taxi driver to take us to all of the highlights. I think he charged us $15.00 for 6 hours, and this way we didn't have to worry about finding our way around, or lugging our helmets and jackets.
After 3 days in Shiraz it's on to Esfahan about 480km north and Dianne has plotted what she believes to be an interesting route (avoiding the highway) NE along the smaller roads passing through Meymand. Just when you think the scenery can't get any better it does and this trip saw us riding from 1600m up to 2600m through high valleys, past rugged snow capped mountains and across high planes where one can see for miles. This is without doubt one of our top ten best ever rides, and it's come as such a surprise to us to find that Iran is sooo spectacular. We were expecting flat uninteresting deserts for mile after mile and while there was a bit of that in the east, the majority of our riding has been through very interesting terrain.
Esfahan is generally accepted to be not only the most beautiful city in Iran but one of the most beautiful cities in the world. To make the most of our time here we hired a guide, Hojatollh (ph 9133 1100 20 if you are in town) He was fantastic and patiently took us to see the many mosques and other highlights of Esfahan.
Three days in Esfahan aren't enough, but with only a 30 day visa we need to keep moving and today it's north we go to Kashan an oasis town on the edge of the desert to see some of the lavishly decorated traditional houses that were lived in by the wealthy trade route merchants.
One day in Kashan is enough for us and today is a big day as we plan to continue north to the Caspian sea and by-pass Tehran without getting lost. Fortunately my trusty navigator/partner was up to the task and we were soon past this huge city of nine million people and into the mountains on our way to the largest inland body of water in the world. Along the way there was a major traffic hold up. A diesel fuel tanker failed to take one of the many tight corners and crashed into the barrier. 20 000 liters of diesel gushed down the road and we had to wait some time for the clean up. While we were waiting an Iranian man started chatting. His English was good and he was going to his sea side holiday cottage in Fereydun Kenar with his mate and he invited us to stay the night. Iranians are just so friendly.
The weather is very changeable in this part of Iran and ominous clouds are blowing in. Time to leave and head for Hamedan. This ride takes us initially on a steep climb then through spectacular gorges on the way to high planes and past turquoise lakes.
This chart from the GPS shows how steeply we climbed from the coast to over 2650m in about 75km on our way to Hamedan.
On the road from Hamedan to Sanandaj with views that never seem to end but with challenging winds.
Sanandaj is in Kurdistan and the people here are Kurds. We were looking a little lost wondering where the market was and a local fellow who spoke good English offered to guide us. He explained that the Kurds feel different to other Iranian people and have different beliefs, but are forced to abide by the law of the land.
The bike creates a lot of attention in this small Kurdish village and the locals are curious about our journey.
10/5/08 and we're near the end of our adventure in Iran. Our visa expires on the 13th so we will enter Turkey on the 12th. We'd like to stay longer and we can easily extend our visa, but we don't have enough cash with us. Tourists can't access their credit cards here and you can't withdraw money from the banks. You have to anticipate how much you will need and take the cash with you either in US dollars or Euros. We did our calcs and our money will just last. We thought we'd given ourselves a bit of a buffer but things have been a little more expensive than we thought. Even so, we have pretty much managed to stick to our $50.00 a day budget.
Heading north west now to the border and a two day stop along the way in Takab to visit Tahkt-e-Soleiman a Unesco World Heritage site. This was the spiritual center for Zoroastrianism in the 3rd century AD. Zoroastrianism is pre Islamic and followers believe in maintaining an eternal flame in a fire temple and the flame here was kept burning by natural volcanic gas. (the flame in the fire temple in Yazd is said to have been burning for 4000 years)
From Takab it is on to Orumiyeh, only 250km from the Turkish border. We're riding right along Iran's western border now, at times just 40km from the border with Iraq. There has been a cold snap and for most of the day the temperature didn't get over 12 degrees. We're riding through kilometers of rolling hills of lush farmland and then alongside lake Orumiyeh, a huge lake who's waters are so salty, no fish can survive in it.
Orumiyeh is a modern clean city with a population of about 500 000 and this will be our last stop in Iran. We have two days left on our visa so decide to spend a day here just soaking up Iranian hospitality and getting a few chores done. Jack has had a slow leak in the rear tyre that we have been unable to seal with plugs, so I'll remove the tyre and patch it from the inside, and Dianne has a few things she want's to get here as they will be cheaper than Turkey. We have also been befriended by a young Iranian man wanting to practice his English and who spent most of the day with us showing us around and answering our many questions. At the end of the day he simply shook our hands, wished us well and asked for nothing in return for his services.
For our last night in Iran we decided to spoil ourselves and go to a restaurant for dinner. We had superb chicken and lamb kebabs and salad, all for $12.00. Interestingly, the manager spoke good English and explained that English was his third language. Turkish was his first and Persian his second. This region is Azerbaijan and the people here consider themselves to be Turkish not Iranians.
Iran Snap Shot
The Iranian people are the friendliest we've ever met. If we appear uncertain of where to go, they will always come up to us and offer to help - even though they can't speak English. On the ride from Bam to Yadz, for instance, we passed through the large city of Kerman. We stopped at the traffic lights and asked directions from the driver in the car alongside. He said follow me and we did. A little way out of the center he pulled over and got out of the car and offered us some date cake. We accepted a small piece but he insisted we take the whole cake! Then he and his wife invited us to stay at their home. We declined and he continued to lead us to the right road. A little further down the road he turned off onto what appeared to be a minor road and we assumed he was going to his house and that we should continue on the main road, which we did. Wrong choice and about 4 Ks down the road we realised our mistake and turned around. As we rode back we saw our new best friend speeding towards us trying frantically to catch us to get us back on the right road.
The people are courteous, well mannered and well groomed. They are also proud of their heritage. Most Persians are descendants of the Aryans (from southern Russia) who settled here in about 550 BC. The name Iran is in fact derived from Aryan. The swastika symbol originated in Iran and symbolizes Aryans. Hitler apparently chose this symbol as he considered Aryans to be racially superior to all other races.
However, while appearing outwardly happy, almost all the Iranians we spoke to are conscious of their oppression by the religious fundamentalists who govern their country. They are not 'free' to do as they please in a western sense and must abide by strict laws. On the roads there are constant police or army checkpoints and vehicles are pulled over randomly for checks. Unmarried couples cannot walk the streets holding hands and one Iranian young bloke told us that if an unmarried couple are in a house together alone, informers may alert the authorities who would raid the house and subject the couple to 'tests' for sexual intimacy. If the tests are positive then the punishment is severe. He didn't elaborate, but suffice to say that this is a country where there is no 'hanky panky' amongst young unmarried couples and places like night clubs are banned. Another example given by a French businessman was when his secretary met her father for lunch. One of them didn't have their identity card with them and the authorities took both of them into custody until they could prove their relationship.
So often when we are walking around, Iranians will come up to us to chat and practice their English. At some time in the conversation they will almost always make some apology for their government, but always in hushed tones and after checking that no one is listening. The other day we were told that to curb the 'brain drain', the government will not issue passports to Iranians with important jobs.
Most ladies in Iran wear a black 'manteau' or loose over coat and a black 'chador' or large piece of material wrapped around the head and body, over their other clothes. Young modern ladies have replaced the manteau with long loose tops of varying description and wear just a dark coloured magnaeh to cover their head or scarves in an array of colours.
When it comes to marriage, we have been told by several people that it is the groom who must measure up to certain requirements. Prospective brides will seek out a groom who already has a house and car, has money saved and a good job with prospects. Looks are last on the list and love is a secondary consideration. The 'prospect' once found is then invited to meet the brides family and quizzed on his value systems, his outlook on life and his general philosophies. If he gets through this hurdle then the couple will court for a while to see how they get on and during this time the groom's parents will be invited to meet with the parents of the bride for a similar grilling. If all goes well and the couple are compatible and the parents agree, then sometime down the track the marriage will be arranged and the couple will live happily ever after. Although a little clinical, this process ensures that the wife will live a comfortable life and there is little chance of divorce.
Religion - From our Guide book.
Roundabouts are still a mystery to me. Along with the Iranians I don't know who gives way to whom and when. Traffic seems to merge and barge and push and squeeze and somehow get through. We've had to learn to do the same. (If only they would use their indicators, things would be so much easier).
On the highway we also have a problem. We normally try to maintain about 100kph but Iranians are fast drivers so we get passed a fair bit. A big bike like ours is a novelty here in Iran so as they get alongside they have a good stare and as they do they inadvertently drift towards us. This has happened so many times we now expect it and are prepared to take evasive action. If there are passengers in the car they'll give us a big wave and usually take a photo with their phone. In our short time here we've been photographed hundreds of times. If we stop in a town, within a few moments someone (both men and women) will pull out their mobile phone and take a picture, so I always make sure my hair is tidy!
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