Dogubayazit to Maku – into Iran!
Today’s the day – I made it to Iran! I’m pretty excited about it, and perhaps a little nervous too. I’m not really expecting any of spectacular nonsense that I’ve been warned of by some, but I will be taking extra care on the roads – I have no doubt about the accuracy of the traffic reports I’ve been hearing.
I got up nice and early, and managed to find a breakfast of soup & bread just down the street. Mt. Ararat finally decided to show itself, looming large and impressive to the north. I packed up quickly and got the gear on the bike, then got rolling eastwards again, headed for Gurbulak – the border – 30km away.
Nice and flat, under a clear blue sky, the ride to Gurbalak was a lot of fun. I really felt a surge this morning – I’d been awaiting this day since the trip began. I can’t quite explain why crossing into Iran was such a big deal for me – perhaps it represents where my ‘true adventure’ begins. In fact, every country from Denmark to Turkey was new to me also, but there’s something about entering a country where your visa may actually be denied that makes it feel like more of an achievement. Whatever the reason, it had me tingling in the saddle, and the glorious sunny kilometeres dissolved under my front wheel like sugar in Turkish chai. (Yikes – I’m a poet!)
Soon enough, the Turkish border town of Gurbulak was within sight, with the military checkpoint dominating the road just beyond. A long line of parked or idling semi-trailers led up to the checkpoint office, and before I got more than three trucks deep, a friendly driver flagged me down for a cup of tea and a bite to eat. I parked the bike against his truck, and he pulled up a collapsable stool for me. He and a fellow driver were eating an early lunch out of a large storage box that was slung beneath the trailer he was towing, and it was jammed full of pots & pans, bread and spreads, tea and coffee. He pushed some bread towards me, along with a spoon, and motioned to get stuck into the jar in front of me. It was full of a mixture of honey and pistachio nuts, along with a few other types of nuts. The nuts were all lined up in a pattern to tile the inside of the jar, and the whole thing looked quite artistic. I dug my spoon in and pried out a wad, smearing it on the bread clumsily. It tasted pretty good, I have to admit. He also poured me a cup of hot lemon tea, made from a sachet, which I later learned was from Bulgaria. This was pretty good too, so he made me another, and then insisted I take half a dozen sachets with me for my trip. Top bloke.
On to the border, where I was met by a curious police man and an empty check-point office. My Turkish Lonely Planet warned that things ‘slow down’ at lunchtime, which must be a diplomatic way of saying ‘grind to a halt’. I sat around for about an hour, along with a couple of bored-but-friendly workmen, while the customs guy persisted in his absence. I dug out my maps and Iranian Lonely Planets, and after a half-mimed ‘conversation’ with my fellow waiters, the customs guy suddenly appeared at the circular hole in the glass, without any of us hearing him approach. The gents went first, then he quizzed me a little about my trip and sanity, and I was off towards the Iranian checkpoint, 300m up the road.
The same guys were at the gate to Iran, cooling thier heels again. The Iranian immigration official appeared much more quicky, thankfully, and welcomed me warmly. He let me through the main office (with the bike) to a desk where I handed over my passport, and explained my plans in Iran. The gents at the desk were quite serious-faced about everything, but were nice enough in what they had to say.
As soon as I’d set foot into the building, a couple of sharks had started circling, calling out ‘Hey mister – change money?’, and once I was done at the desk they came in for the kill. The first guy to reach me looked a lot like Willem Dafoe, only more so. With his severe, hollow features and death-ray glare, he looked about as trustworthy as a crack-addicted scorpion, and his manner did nothing to change this impression. He was all over me, hooking my arm in his and steering me to a side-door while motormouthing about lira, rial and dollars. One of the customs guys shouted something – apparently I wasn’t quite done yet, and I was leaving without permission. The guy let me go, whispering severely that he’d wait just outside, and would ‘fix me up good’. Indeed.
The customs guy took another look at my passport, then warned me that the sharks were not affiliated with the immigration department, and advised me to use the small bank office within the building for currency exchange. This matched what my Lonely Planet said, and when he waved me on with a stern face I thanked him and headed for the bank door. It appeared that I’d entered the bank through the back door, as I was on the inside of the teller box, rather than the customer side, but after a moment of confusion I was ushered to a chair and taken care of. I changed $400 into rial, and was handed a huge slab of notes – maybe 5cm thick… I guess the look on my face got the teller’s sympathy, because he took back the telephone book of legal tender and handed me a smaller stack of higher denomination notes. Still no way to get even a quarter of it in my money pouch though… Then I was out to face the sharks again. I had very little to give them, and I knew the current interbank exchange rate for Turkish lira to Iranian rial, so they didn’t do very well off of me. Extreme Dafoe wasn’t thrilled, but he payed and played, short-changing me 2000 rial (about 20 cents) – ‘business, my friend – only a cup of tea…’. So be it.
And that was it – I was in Iran!
The road from the border station was all downhill to the town of Bazargan. I stopped for a couple of photos of myself with the bike under the ‘Welcome to the I.R. of Iran’ sign, then rolled down the dusty hill with a big smile. Most everybody in town stopped and stared at me as I rode by, a few asking ‘Where are you from?’, or offering ‘Welcome to Iran!’, and a surprizing number asked if I needed to exchange money – from young teens to wizened old men – sharks everywhere, but these were very friendly sharks, and waved me on with a smile.
My first taste of Iran was dusty, noisy, a bit bizarre – an ‘anything goes’ vibe on the road, and very friendly. I loved it, and I couldn’t get the smile off my face. On I rode, the bike spinning sweetly.
Just as I exited Bazargan, I was somewhat surprised to see a statue of a woman atop a monument on the dividing strip of the road. She was dressed in nothing but a flowing white robe, off-the-shoulder and quite form-fitting. Definitely not in keeping with Iran’s “Islamic veil” laws, and fairly sassy by most standards. *NOTE* – I’ve just had a close look at the photos, and it seems I’ve gotten the little issue of the statue’s gender mixed up. Either that, or the unfortunate lass is blessed with a particularly flat, muscular chest… Doh!
The landscape of north-western Iran is quite magnificent – vast undulating planes of nothing but sandy dirt and scattered rocks, punctuated by enormous jagged hills and mountains, jutting out of the ground on dramatic angles. Even at fairly close range, the land ahead often looked impassable, but a road would meander through the severe peaks on a flat ribbon of earth, without any significant rises or dips. Very interesting, and quite beautiful.
As 4:00pm approached, I rolled into the beginnings of a spectacular gorge, with high rocky cliffs vaulting up on either side. At the same time, a wisp of cloud hovering over the south lip of the gorge became a thick, dark cloud, and the heavens opened up about two minutes later. I decided to ride through it without the rain gear, but changed my mind a short while later when it appeared that things were going to get really heavy. I donned the rain jacket but persevered without the over-pants, and was soon feeling the creeping coolness of the rainwater finding its way through my jocks.
The rain was short-lived, however, and was easing up as I rounded the sweeping bend to face down the main strip of the city of Maku. This town is really long, and quite narrow due to the confines of the gorge. Thankfully I was on the uphill side, and could just roll my way through town while keeping a lookout for the hotel I found in the Lonely Planet. I stopped a couple of times to try to establish where I was – the main street seemed endless – and had a quick chat to a young guy who was walking along the road-side. I told him where I was from and where I’m going, asked if he knew the Hotel Laleh, and kept moving. About 10 minutes later I found the hotel, booked a room and got the bike sorted out in the lobby. Before having a shower I wanted to buy some more water, and on my way out the door I bumped into the same young guy – his name was Mahdi. In fact he’d come to my hotel in search of me, as he wanted to continue the conversation we’d had – ‘because… I love you!‘, he explained.
‘Ummm… I think you mean, “I like you” – right?‘
‘Yes! I like… tourist‘
‘That’s very nice‘. (What else could I say?)
‘You can come to my family house. You can stay my home. I want.. you to cancel this hotel!‘ he said with a big grin.
‘That’s very nice, but I’ve already paid for this hotel…‘
The conversation went in circles for a while, with me not quite ready to go and stay at this guy’s family home (his folks had no idea about any of this).
Eventually I went and explained the situation to the hotel owner, who looked at me quite sternly. He sat me down and explained that the police don’t go for tourists staying in family residences, and that it brings trouble for both the tourist and particularly for the family involved. My curious young friend couldn’t resist evesdropping on the conversation, and got a faster, stronger version of the same warning in Farsi (or maybe Azeri – not sure). In the end, we agreed that I’d go and have dinner with Mahdi and a friend of his after I’d had a shower, and he would wait for me in the hotel lobby. I had a power-shower and got myself ready for my ‘date’ in about 20 minutes, while Mahdi got the full run-down on the police/tourist thing from the owner. He must have learned something pretty heavy, because he was quite apologetic for putting me on the spot later on, and I never even entered the front gate of his house that night.
He still wanted to show me around his neighborhood though, which was up the other end of town. He decided we should try to get a taxi, which is far easier said than done – about 50 other people had the same plan, and it was literally a shoving match at the nearby intersection. As soon as a taxi would start approaching, several competitors would make a dash for it, grabbing the door handle of the still-moving car and holding on for dear life. This would send him ploughing into the crowd behind him, but if he could keep a firm grip on the door and block the people behind him, the taxi was his. This went on endlessly, with more people joining the mess every few minutes, and scarcely any taxis. I just watched from the rear, not wanting to start an ‘international incident’ in the first few minutes of being in Iran. Mahdi gave up after a while, and I suggested we just catch the bus. This surprised him – he didn’t think I’d ‘lower myself’ to taking a bus like a ‘regular person’, but I assured him I would, and we were soon on a very crowded mini bus heading up the street. The roof of the bus was so low, I couldn’t stand upright even with my head looking straight at the floor. Everyone on the bus had their eyes glued on me for most of the trip – I don’t think they’d ever seen a foreigner on the bus before… But the ride was over soon enough, and we were walking toward his friend’s house a few minutes later.
I met his friend Rahied, and after a bit of chat we agreed to go and get some dinner. On the way to the kebab shop I got the full run-down on his part of town, and learned that this was the more affluent area. The houses looked quite nice, actually, and there were several vacant lots waiting for new houses to go up. There were hardly any street lights, however, so the whole place had a slightly spooky and abandoned air to it – if not for my hosts, I probably wouldn’t have hung around here.
We feasted on a bunch of kebabs on pita bread, with onions and ‘sumak’, some kind of reddish powder sprinkled liberally over the meat. The guys were a bit concerned about how many kebabs I was eating – which I later discovered was because they had planned to pay for the lot, and they didn’t have much money on them. I assured them it was no problem – the kebabs were about 80 ceach, and I was hungry. I insited on giving them some money, which they very reluctantly accepted, only because there was no other choice.
We talked about life in Iran, Australia and Japan, and especially about the difficulty young men having in meeting and getting to know girls in Iran – a topic I was to hear over and over again in my later travels. International politics didn’t rate a mention – if you can’t get a girlfriend, nothing else is particularly important, it seems.
We walked around and chatted a little more, stopping for an ice-cream at the local confectionary store. I asked what flavors were available, but this just confused eveyone – ‘Flavors? What do you mean?‘ – apparently ice cream came in only one flavor in Tabriz, and that was pink bubble-gum… The owner gave me a second helping, on the house.
Then it was time to go. On the way to the taxi area, they took me to thier local mosque, which I learned was where Mahdi’s father worked as a religious teacher. We discussed religion briefly, with me choosing my words carefully, and tried to explain that I wasn’t particularly religious. This too was met with confusion – it seemed unfathomable that someone could be ‘without faith’ (in their words), and they wondered how I could live like that. ‘Quite peacefully‘, I replied…
Then we walked over to a corner where a share-taxi was sure to come by, and waited until one did. They told me the price I should pay, which was good to know (about 50 cents!), and I was off with thanks and handshakes. Very nice guys, and a great introduction to Iran!
Maku to Qara Ziya’Eddin
Man, what a day. A day of absolute extremes – blissful, dream-come-true cycling through dramatic rocky landscapes and vast open plains. Heart-warming hospitality and genuine friendliness from complete strangers, all welcoming me to Iran and wishing me a safe journey. Homicidal rage at another group of kids who really caused me some grief today – more about that in a moment.
Woke up a bit later than planned – 7:45am – and went looking for breakfast. A few misses before the banana salesman pointed me to the hotel across the street from mine (which I hadn’t even noticed). The manager prepared a fine meal of two very runny fried eggs, and a elliptical piece of salty bread, which was great. The hotel itself was also very nice, a few notches up from the place I was staying at – I wish I’d seen it on the way in. Not sure why everyone recommended the place I stayed at… Must be the price.
From there I was off and rolling, all down-hill through Maku’s gorge and out on to an enormous open plain. The weather was fine, the sky huge and spotlessly blue, and I was having a ball.
I got a bit concerned when a couple of the more major-looking towns on my map turned out to be virtually non-existant – just a few very shabby mud coloured buildings that may or may not have been occupied. The ‘town’ streets were just dust and rocks, and there was virtually no sign of inhabitation. Certainly nowhere I could buy anything, like water or food. Hmmm…
My GPS is back to using the very vague ‘World Map’ dataset, which seems to be quite a bit worse than useless. Many of the roads it shows don’t seem to be on my paper map, or if they are, they’re extremely minor. The major roads it does show are completely wrong – up to 5 km off the mark, as I discovered today. They’re the right shape, maybe, but they’re at the wrong angle, and *way* off the reality of where they start and finish. In the end I switched the unit to elevation view, so I didn’t have to suffer the doubt and concern that a bad map brings. I clikmbed about 300m over 30 km, which made for some slowish riding without actually puffing my way up any big hills.
The city I’d planned to stop at for lunch just didn’t exist at all – not a single building. Very strange, and quite a concern, as I was getting really hungry, and the next town was marked at 39km further. The paper map showed it clearly, and My GPS showed it off to my right, but I couldn’t see anything. No real choice but to carry on – luckily I had a banana and a couple of Snickers bars in my bag.
As I rounded the next big bend, I saw a group of about 10 young boys streaming down the hill towards me, shouting and waving. Great, just what I needed. They lined up along the side of the road, like supporters of the Tour de France, and the first couple held out their hands for a ‘high five’ as I passed. No problem – slap, slap. The next guy held out a big stick at head level, and I swerved to avoid it, shaking my head. He took a good swing anyway, but missed. I sped up. The rest of the guys all decided to give my bike a good hard shove from the side as I passed, sending me out onto the road into the path of a truck coming up behind me. The truck screeched to a halt, swerving slightly into the boys and forcing them to step back. The driver shouted something pretty serious at the kids, then caught up to me and waved apologetically. I waved back in thanks, and he overtook me, keeping a short distance ahead of me. A few seconds later, another group of kids lined up for the same sort of ‘fun’, but the truck stopped right in front of them, and he waved me around the other side. He was running interference for me! This happened once more, and I waved a really big thanks as he overtook me for the last time, both of us rolling onto the open plains.
A short while later, I came across a trio of men and a little boy, all trying to load a huge log into the back of a pickup truck. They were having trouble, and obviously needed another man to take over from the kid. I stopped and parked the bike, then offered to help out, which they happily accepted. The log was about twice as long as the truck, and even after we got it into the tray, it jutted out a couple of metres. They weren’t concerned about it, so I just shrugged and wished them well. One guy stayed back with me as the others drove off (he would take the tractor back later). I asked him about the map and my current direction, and it turned out I was on a different road to what I thought. I was still going in roughly the right direction, but I had another 60km ahead of me, with a 1000m climb in the middle, at it was already geting late. A 1000m climb? No thanks. I decided to go back to the non-existant town and look again, as this guy swore it was there, and even recommended a hotel for me – Hotel Azerbaijan.
The only problem with this plan was, I’d have to pass the damned kids again, and this time I’d be going uphill, a lot more slowly. The thought was almost enough to have me pitch tent in a field instead, but I told myself to stop being silly, and started pedaling back the way I’d come.
I hoped the kids would be inside by now, or elsewhere at least, and the first group were. The second group came running for me, but they were too distant, and I got past before they could get to the road. The last group, however, were right at the roadside, and were delighted to see me. They all lined up again, dropping a huge stick – more of a log, really – right across the road. I tried my best to swerve out at the last moment and put on a burst of speed, but I was too slow. As I swooped past the last one, I looked back and my heart sank – there he was, holding my helmet aloft, shouting in victory. I stopped the bike and turned around, and immediately the kid with my helmet started running up the hill away from the road, and into the distance. The others all ran toward me, and crowded around the bike. Before I could say anything, they had the pockets and main zip of my left pannier open, and were working on the right (which was padlocked, fortunately). I screamed at them to ‘go away’ (or something like that), slapped away a bunch of hands, and rammed the ones behind me with the (extremely heavy) bike, sending them flying. I’m still not sure how I refrained from punching some of their heads in. Other kids were pushing buttons on the GPS and one was trying to remove it from the bracket. I gave him a decent shove, and in that moment a kid removed my lightweight fleece that was bungeed to he rear rack. He shoved it under his shirt and took off up the hill too. I was absolutely, homicidally furious, and was quite ready to do things to the kids that I won’t type here. In fact I was in the process of dropping the bike and grabbing one of them when a man arrived on the scene. I hadn’t seen him arrive, but he must have come over when he heard all the commotion. I forced a smile and a ‘salaam aleykom’ (greeting), then tried to explain the situation. He was not impressed, and trudged off across the field and up the hill to try and recover the helmet and fleece. I waited in silent anger while the other 7 or 8 kids kept antagonizing me, all demanding I give them a pen or some money. I completely ignored them (other than keeping an eye on their hands), instead visualizing what I’d do with a pen if I got one in my hands.
About 10 minutes later, a different kid came trotting down the hill with my helmet on his head, and one of my antagonists (who was now pretending to be on my side) rushed down to collect it for me. He came and handed it to me, just as another man arrived by moped. I told him what was going on as best as possible, and explained that I still needed my fleece back. The kids all broke into a shouting match about where it was and who had taken it (I assume), and one kid kept trying to say that a dog had taken it. I was grateful for the man’s prescence, as the kids were a bit better behaved while he was there, and he also prevented me from systematically strangling each of them. The kids kept screaming and tugging my clothing, competing for attention. I totally lost my temper, and shouted at the top of my lungs for them all to ‘SHUT THE *#!$ UP!!!‘, which worked for about half a second. The man on the moped could see I was starting to crack, and gently suggested I forget about the fleece and get rolling. He shrugged his shoulders and waved down the road, and all the kids took this gesture to heart immediately, repeating over and over with comically annoying faces.
But there was no way I was letting them get away with this – and what sort of message would that give them anyway? So I did the only thing I could think of that might actually work – I lied, and told the man that my passport was in the fleece. His expression changed instantly, and he nodded slowly, shouting something at the kids which seemed to shut them down a little. I said I’d have to get the police over here if I couldn’t get it back, because it was a very serious situation for me, and the man agreed. He rode his moped up the hill to the village, where by now pretty much everyone had gathered around watching the show. The kids stayed with me, and persisted in annoying the hell out of me by gathering around the back of the bike, despite my warnings to get where I could see them. I grabbed one kid by the nose and dragged him around in front of me, almost lifting him up in the air. He yelped and twisted, then immediately went back behind me! Man, I was going to seriously lose it in a moment…
Fortunately, the moped guy returned from the village, and there was my fleece, sitting on his lap. He handed it to me, but seemed concerned because he’d looked through the pockets and only found a little money – no passport. I made a show of looking through all the pockets, inside and out, then ‘surprisingly’ found my passport in my handlebar bag, to his relief (and mine, of course).
One of the kids had the gall to hold out his hand for a handshake, and I momentarily considered crushing every bone in it. But that would be pretty uncool, even if rather satisfying to my current state of blood-lust. I glared at him, unsmiling, until he gave up, and then I was gone.
My view of kids was at an all time low. But I forced a positive attitude, and managed to smile and greet the people I met on the way back into (the hopefully re-materialized) EQZ. Sure enough, there was a turn-off sign that I must have missed earlier, and I started my way into town. About 1km into town, a couple of kids (aaaarrrgh!) started tailing me, excitedly asking questions (that I couldn’t understand) and commenting on my bike. But they seemed like good kids, and I let them tag along.
I stopped to ask a guy about Hotel Azerbaijan, and he pointed down the road, gesturing 2 km. When I – I mean, we – finally found the place, it turned out to be a restaurant – not a hotel at all, despite the name! But a group of men approached me, and told me I needed to go into the town center to find a hotel. An elderly gent told the kids to lead me there, in fact, and we were back on the road. The lead kid was very excited, and called out to dozend of people along the way to ‘check out the Australian guy’ he was leading. Quite impressed with himself, he was, but doing a good job. My view of kids recovered somewhat. We arrived, soon followed by the hotel manager (also on a bike, strangely), and I got myself a room. The manager took me out to the local mini-market for supplies, and a corner store for a couple of sandwiches. Apparently all the kebap shops had closed at this late hour of 6:30pm. Strange, if you ask me. But the sandwiches were good. I hope I don’t dream of kids tonight, is all I can say…
Qara Ziya’Eddin to Marand
Up early today, thanks to an early bedtime, and was surprised to find the manager at my door at 7:45am. He thought he’s come and help me out with breakfast and the like, which was very good of him. I’d saved most of one of the sandwiches from last night, to serve as a solid breakfast – I hate starting the day on an empty stomach. But he seemed quite unhappy with the idea that I would eat it, and took me to a kebab joint for a few cups of tea and a double kebab. Iranian kebabs are quite different to the Turkish variety – much simpler, just some grilled mince lamb in flat bread, with some kind of (fairly tasteless) red condiment sprinkled over it. No vegetables or sauce, and not especially exciting if you ask me. But a solid breakfast none the less, and I ate it all happily. The manager left me at the shop after he’d helped me order, and wished me a safe journey. “Maybe we’ll meet again in a few years…” he said – unlikely, but I’d be happy if it were true – he’s a good man.
I’ve already noticed in Iran that when the map shows nothing between towns, there really is absolutely *nothing* – not a single house, gas station or bus shelter. Zip. Certainly nothing to eat. So I’m having to be a little more careful with carrying my supplies. I decided to order another double-kebab to take with me as lunch, in case I couldn’t find anything to eat. This proved to be incredibly difficult – either I’m incredibly crap at miming, or the old guy serving had a bullet-proof skull. He just couldn’t imagine what I wanted. I’d already paid for the first kebabs, and he was deeply confused about why I should want to pay him more. He kept shaking his head and waving me down the street, while I repeatedly pointed at the grill, miming taking another kebab and putting it in a bag. Finally another guy noticed the situation, watched me for two seconds and said something in Farsi (or maybe Azeri), and immediately the old guy’s eyes lit up. Yes, I’d like another kebab – to go, thanks…
Packed and ready, with lunch now taken care of, I was off. Thankfully today wasn’t anywhere near as stressful or aggravating as yesterday – but it was a little more taxing physically. The lay of the land here in Iran is a bit deceptive. From the saddle, it generally looks like I’m going downhill a little, or at least riding on the flat, but I’m not. The pedaling is always a little difficult, like riding into a slight headwind (which I am, on occasion), and it never seems to get any easier. I switched the GPS to show my elevation, and sure enough, I was climbing. Very gradually, but non-stop. I started at 900m above sea level in Qara Ziya’ Eddin, and had reached 1150m by the time I was within sight of my destination, 100km later – the town of Marand. Things changed significantly as I approached Marand, which was clearly at a much higher elevation than the surrounding countryside. It turned out to be a 500m climb into (and through) town, to finally reach my hotel – which had a good 13% grade on the (very long) driveway. I was completely stuffed by the time I reached the front steps – but I’m getting ahead of myself…
Back to lunchtime. I decided to take a break at the 65km mark, hoping to have a lake-side view as I ate. Both my GPS and paper map showed a 5km wide lake that lapped up against the roadside, just around the next set of hills. But when I got there… nothing. Well, not nothing, actually – there was a long razorwire fence, with hundreds of birch trees following the fenceline, but the fence certainly didn’t enclose a lake. There was nothing to be seen within that was any different to the surrounding land. Behind the whole lot, however, was what looked like a high security prison, or perhaps a military complex. A little disappointed, I parked my bike against a shattered concrete block in a bus pull-over area, and ate my kebab lunch.
As I ate, almost every passing car, truck or motorbike honked their horn and/or screamed something out their window at me. Always friendly, and quite excited, but I was starting to understand what it must feel like to be an animal at the zoo – everyone shouting and trying to get your attention, even when you’re just doing something as mundane as eating your lunch. I’m not complaining, of course – I chose to come here, and I’m obviously quite a curiosity (even in Europe, let alone Iran), so it comes with the territory. It’s just a bit different to what I expected, I guess – I imagined being out in the great open land, riding in isolation from town to town for hours on end. But in fact I have enormous blinking neon signs, pointing at me from all directions, so I rarely get a moment’s peace from the excited crowds. This must be what it feels like to be famous – my arm is tired from all the waving!
I stopped at a market shack to get another bottle of water, and got into a conversation with a Bulgarian truck driver. He was very impressed that I’d cycled all the way here, and was quite happy to hear I’d enjoyed Bulgaria – which I really did. The shop owner poured me a cup of tea, and then another, while I sat in relative peace and quiet. He smiled and fiddled with some things on the shelves, asking me a few very simple questions in German (he was about 60, and didn’t speak English – but he did speak some German, like many people I’ve come across here). Then I was off again, and soon after was on the approach to Marand.
After fighting the peak-hour traffic and passing through Marand, with about 1000 people shouting, whistling and waving at me, and countless “Hello! How are you?” ‘s, I chugged past a small silver car, parked on the roadside. About 100m later I stopped to ask directions from a couple of guys building a fire in a steel drum, and the same silver car came to a sudden halt beside me. Before I could say anything, the guy at the wheel was introducing himself in perfect American English, waving his business card at me. His name was Doctor Sahand Safari, an Iranian national with U.S. citizenship, who was back in Iran for a while. He meticulously explained how to find the hotel (which, simply put, was straight ahead for 2 kilometres), then offered to help me with anything, anytime – just give him a call. I thanked him sincerely, and I was back to chugging up the (ever steepening) hill.
Just as I finally reached the U-turn lane where I could double back to the horribly steep hotel driveway, his car re-appeared next to me, and did the U-turn first, leading the way to the hotel with his hazard lights blinking. He said he wanted to make sure I found the place (which was fairly easy, given it was the only place within a kilometer or so, and had bright red, green and blue lights out front). He then helped me to check in, which was a good thing – despite most of the signs around the lobby being in English, the staff spoke absolutely no English whatsoever. Dr. Safari’s nephews (who were also in the car) helped me to carry my bags into the hotel, and they were gone with a handshake. I’m pretty sure I spotted my friendly doctor tipping the staff with a bunch of notes, which I can only assume was for them to take care of me. Quite a gentleman – I’ll be thanking him in an email once I get internet access…
I think I may be the only guest at this hotel. It’s very expensive by Iranian standards – US$25 for the room, about eight times the price of my other lodgings, but I was told repeatedly by the town residents that there is no other choice in this town. At least this place has western toilets, and even toilet paper (!) After a deeply appreciated shower, I went down for dinner. In the huge ball-room sized restaurant area, I sat completely alone. The staff showed me the substantial menu, but after a lengthy series of me pointing at a meal, and them shaking their heads, it was finally revealed that chicken kebabs were the only item they could actually prepare – and only enough rice for one helping. Still, it was very tasty, and I ate it ravenously. I also ordered a can of Pepsi (shock!), and I had to do a double-take at the can – it had a genuine, original design pull-ring opener! I haven’t seen one of those since I was a little kid in the U.S.A. – and that was at least 25 years ago…
I’ve hand-washed all my clothes, and now it’s 2:00am – I really need to get some sleep. Tomorrow I head for Tabriz, and it looks to be all uphill again. But at least they’ll have Internet!
Marand to Tabriz
Far out – I just can’t believe what an over-the-top welcome I’ve received here in Tabriz. To call these people ‘warm’ is a bit like calling the sun ‘warm’ – it’s true, but it’s also absurdly short of the mark. But I shall start at the start, as I should…
I was out of bed and at the breakfast table by 8:30am, which wasn’t too far beyond what I’d planned. A simple yet enjoyable breakfast of white cheese, honey with rose petals, and a few pieces of semi-crisp dimpled bread was served. I made short work of it, but I was still a little hungry, and somewhat anxious about the mountains directly behind the hotel (on the route I need to take). I went to the front desk and requested a second breakfast, and the manager (who actually spoke some English) revealed that I could also have ‘eggs with oil’ – meaning fried eggs. Bingo. I scoffed that too, along with about four cups of tea, and I was off to load up the bike.
While checking out, I had a rather frustrating time trying to explain that I would like to order a large and small bottle of water, and some extra food to take with me (to serve as lunch). They all seemed to think I was having a problem with the bill, and kept tallying it up before my eyes to make sure I understood the cost break-down. In the end I just payed for everything I’d already used & eaten, then started fresh with the water & food request. One guy nearly lost his cool, but I just stared at him until he put his smile back on. I finally went and found the English-capable manager myself, and explained what I wanted. He barked a few words at the desk staff, who suddenly looked rather embarrassed, and a minute later I had my bottles of water and a pakage of bread and cheese – no charge.
The first 50m of today’s were great – straight down the brutally steep driveway. From there, the next 8 km were a very steep climb. I rose 300m over 3.5km, which makes the gradient 8.5% – not great on a full stomach. The rest was almost as steep, but it finally levelled out as I neared the apex of the pass, and rolled to a stop at the police check-point right at the top. My freshly hand-washed clothes were a sodden mess, but it felt good to be at the peak. The police let me through with a few friendly questions, and then it was party time – fifteen kilometres of blissful downhill cycling! I cruised at about 38km/hr for most of it, peaking at 46km/hr. Bloody fantastic, it was – payback for yesterday’s grind.
My fears of a lack of lunch were completely unfounded – I rolled through the small town of Sufiyan half-way to Tabriz, and easily found a kebab shop. I ordered a couple of kebabs, some soup and rice, and waited patiently while every patron in the shop took turns asking me the same questions. When my meal arrived, it was HUGE – each kebab was more than twice the size I expected, and the plate of rice was enormous. I ate as much as I could, but it wasn’t pretty…
Back rolling again, the road levelling out now, but the pedaling still easy. I passed an enormous concrete factory on the way, that seemed to be a city unto itself. Soon after I was on the green, manicured outskirts of Tabriz. The roadsigns were quite simple to follow, and several passing motorists stopped to offer direction, including a driving instructor with a rather nervous looking student at the wheel. I had a hotel in mind, from reading the Lonely Planet – Hotel Sina – and it looked like I was going to find it, with all the help that was on offer. But it took a lot longer than expected. I stopped at a busy round-a-bout, and decided to confirm that I was going in the right direction by asking one of the men standing at the curb (all staring at me, of course). I never escaped. Every passing gent stopped to say hello, welcome me to Tabriz, and ask me the same questions (Where are you from? How old are you? How long are you in Iran?). They had me off the bike, seated in an office with endless cups of tea, cake and cookies foisted upon me, while I tried to answer three different people’s friendly questions at once. The office was a real-estate agaency, belonging to a young guy named Mahdi Rezvani, and I was destined to be his prized guest for the rest of the evening. He sat me in front of his brand new PC (2 days old), and proudly demonstrated his dial-up Internet connection. After about an hour of the red carpet treatment, Mahdi proclaimed that I needn’t to go to Hotel Sina, as I could stay at his place tonight. I mentioned something about tourists, hotels and the police, which brought a rush of conversation I couldn’t follow. Finally, he apologetically admitted that perhaps I should go to the hotel after all. He was still living in his family home, and his father was a police man!
But before taking me to the hotel, he led me on a little tour of his neighbourhood. First, he took me to his local mosque, where the call to prayer was underway. I took off my shoes and entered with him, sitting in the corner at the back. As I watched, the dozens of men and boys all lost themselves in thier conversations with Allah, privately telling of thier grievances and wishes for the future. Then the mullah handed a microphone to a boy of about 10 years old, who began wailing an Islamic verse in a high voice. All present began the ritual of praying to Mecca, dropping to their knees and touching thier foreheads to the carpet in unison. Mahdi quietly told me it was fine to take a photo if I wished to, and despite my reservations I snapped a couple of shots. Later, friends of Mahdi came by to shake his hand and mine, and welcome me to thier mosque. A very friendly lot, and very decent people I must say.
After that we popped into at least half a dozen nearby shops, Mahdi nonchalantly introducing me to the shopkeepers as his ‘Australian friend’. He rewarded me handsomely for all this by buying me bunches of stuff along the way, despite my protests. By the time we returned to his office, I had a box of dried apricots, a bag of delicious almond & pistachio cookies, a 900g bag of green sultanas, a 500g bag of pistachios, two bananas, a litre of washing detergent, a carton of pineapple juice and an apple! And we hadn’t even gone to dinner yet!
Mr. Firozi, who ran the Samsung shop next-door announced he was going to load my bike & gear into his delivery truck and take me to the hotel personally, which was 2km away. Seeing as it was now completely dark, and the traffic on the streets had built to a honking, crazed frenzy, I decided to accepted his offer. Soon Mahdi and I were squeezed into the cab of Mr. Firozi’s little pick-up truck, ploughing our way through the chaos of peak-hour Tabriz. We arrived at the hotel after a hairy cross-town sprint, my thinning hair a few shades whiter. I checked in, locked the bike up, and was showered and changed 10 minutes later. Mr. Firozi left with his truck, while Mahdi & I took a taxi to Tabriz’s Grand Bazaar – the Greatest Bazaar in the World, according to Mahdi. He may well be correct, too – despite being largely closed at this hour (9:00pm), it was very impressive – I’ll be going back tomorrow for sure.
We met up with his friend Saied, who arrived by car, and were soon careering down the streets of Tabriz again. Saied’s English was very good, and we spoke at length about the cultural differeces between Iran, Australia and Japan. Specifically, both Mahdi & Saied were very vocal about the difficulties that young Iranians face in meeting partners and having relationships. The laws as they stand make it illegal to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, and even basic communication with the opposite sex is strongly frowned upon by the government and most parents. Knowing that these guys live in a society where many things I take for granted in the West (or Japan) would get me executed was a sobering thought… As a result, even basic social skills with the opposite sex are pretty much non-existant over here.
I discovered why Saied’s English was so good – he was a student at an English conversation school, and he promptly invited me to join the following night’s lesson as a guest. Apparently they’re discussing the Mona Lisa, and the myriad ‘hidden messages’ contained in Da Vinci’s famous painting. I don’t really know the first thing about it, but I’ve agreed to sit-in for a while, just to be social and meet a few locals.
We stopped for dinner at a popular kebab restaurant, and the three of us crowded onto a little platform covered in Persian rugs for a traditional sit-down dinner. Saied ordered a mix of chicken and lamb kebabs, along with a large bottle of fizzy yoghurt drink – strange, but refreshing – and some Coca Cola. We ate our fill of the thin bread and meat (something I’m getting quite used to) while continuing our discussion about life in Iran, Australia and Japan.
After dinner, we drove up the street for some ice-cream (on my request), then headed over to El Goli park to stroll a lap of the man-made lake, admiring the colourful fountains and the attractive mini-palace in the middle. Apparently the Shah had had this built as his own little place to hang out before the Cultural Revolution in 1979, and now it was a public park. Very nice.
The night had gotten cold quickly, and poor Madhi wasn’t really dressed for it. We tried fighting off the chills with a couple of cups of hot tea, and while drinking at the table we spotted a group of girls and guys sitting together, talking over thier own steaming cups. Saied remarked on it, saying he wasn’t sure how they were getting away with it – they must be university students, with loose supervision – but it was a dangerous thing to be doing. Almost as though they had read his thoughts, they separated into two groups, and sat at adjoining tables instead. Part of me wanted to laugh, but I could see by the expressions on my host’s faces that it was no laughing matter…
It was getting colder by the minute, so we decided to call it quits. Saied dropped Mahdi off at his place, then took me back to the hotel. I’d had a very interesting and enjoyable night as an honoured guest of these guys, but they absolutely refused any payment for the food or fuel. Amazing hospitality.
Rest day in Tabriz
Shown all the sights of Tabriz – Grand Bazaar, downtown, driving all over the place. Then sat-in with Saied’s university English class, where I was grilled for two hours by 9 very keen, smart and friendly guys and gals (yes – a mixed class! Almost unheard of in Iran, and quite illegal except in this special case) . After a few questions about life in Australia & Japan, they asked me my opinion of Iran so far, which I tried to answer as diplomatically as possible – I wasn’t kind about the traffic, but I certainly didn’t have to soft-step around the incredible hospitality! The class leader, a very smart and outspoken girl, then homed-in on the only topic that seems to matter to the youth of Iran (understandably) – Girls and Guys. Life is very tough indeed for the young adults of Iran – especially the women – and to be seen talking together in public spells disaster for all concerned. How anyone actually does meet a compatible partner in Iran remains a mystery, both to me and everyone in the room. Very sad, and certainly bad for any sense of pride or support in the current political and social system.
Then we were off for a huge dinner again, at a big kebab restaurant, before I all but fell asleep in the car on the way to the hotel. Killed with kindness.
I rolled into the outskirts of greater Tehran with growing apprehension, as the early evening slowly sapped the light from the sky. Scary memories of the chaos of Istanbul traffic filled my head. Everything I’d heard or read about Tehran’s traffic proclaimed it to be a magnitude worse than anything previously encountered, which I was having trouble imagining. As I closed in on the heart of south-west Tehran, I didn’t have to wait long to ‘understand’ – though I use that word very loosely.
All of my fears of the legendarily insane traffic proved – incredibly – far short of the reality. I can’t really do it justice in words, but I could only describe it as an absolute, anarchic free-for-all. SO many cars, trucks and motorbikes! Lanes marked on most streets, but they were utterly irrelevant. Plenty of traffic lights, all switched off – no point wasting electricity, I suppose. There may or may not have been any road rules at all, but they were long forgotten, or openly despised. I was stunned by the breath-taking audacity and madness of the drivers… High-speed U-turns across multiple ‘lanes’ of vehicles, without hesitation – or even a glance in the mirrors, from what I could see. Motorbikes racing head-long through traffic, contra-flow, directly into hundreds of oncoming, zig-zagging cars. Taxis reversing at amazing speed down the street in the wrong direction. And no-one even flinched – all this happened without raising an eyebrow. Roundabouts were unbelievable – everyone just ploughed straight into the fray, regardless of who or what was approaching, and came to a screeching halt as deep into the pack as possible. From there, they had to shove their way through in short, lurching steps, playing chicken every three seconds to see who gets in front of who.
I spent quite a while at a standstill, trying to come to grips with the situation, and wondering how the hell I was going to get more than 50 metres in the next hour or so. I consider myself a pretty good city traffic rider, and I’m not easily spooked in tight spots – at least not in Tokyo – but this was really something else *entirely*. There was every chance of being reversed into at high speed, rammed mercilessly at a roundabout (or anywhere, for that matter), or flattened by a passing vehicle. I was drawing a lot of attention too – people openly staring at me (instead of the road), grinning or honking. I eventually figured that while the daylight held, I at least had a chance of getting along carefully for a while – if people noticed me, they would only kill me deliberately, rather than accidentally… Right? I tentatively put this theory to the test, and managed to cover a few more kilometres – but the light was fading fast now, and it was getting very hairy. I came up against a huge, multi-lane roundabout, fed by about a dozen roads, with cars zipping all over the place (including the wrong way, in reverse). There was a slew of buses parked along the perimeter, arriving and leaving every few seconds. This was a serious challenge, and I wasn’t sure which way I supposed to be going anyway, so I stopped and dug out the Lonely Planet again.
Every time I stop in Iran, it’s like throwing a chunk of bread into a crowded duck pond – with me being the bread. People immediately home-in on me from all directions, crowding around the bike and offering greetings, asking me where I’m from and where I’m going, and taking my book away to have a closer look at the map. It’s always a friendly experience, but it takes quite a while – I have to repeat everything I say about ten times, and patiently wait for everyone to look at the book and tell me the same information. It’s a bit odd, actually – because everyone just stands there and listens to me repeat myself – no one bothers to say “I’ve already asked him” or “I’ve already told him” – it goes around and around until no-one else can get close enough to take their turn at asking.
This time was no exception, except that one fellow seemed particularly keen on getting my attention, and on pointing the way to a good hotel. He didn’t speak a word of English, but he was quite insistent that I go to the particular hotel he was recommending. He tried showing me on he Lonely Planet map, but soon decided the map was incorrect (something I’ve noticed a lot, incidentally). A huge ring of people had formed around me, thanks to all the buses emptying their passengers a few metres away, and I could see I was in danger of being stuck here almost indefinitely. My new, insistent friend took the initiative and started clearing a path through the crowd, with me right behind him (he was a tall, strapping lad, which helped a bit).
He walked while I rode slowly along the very edge of the road, away from the traffic, and we tried to have a friendly chat. What he lacked in English, he made up for with persistence and gesticulation, and we managed to have a fair ‘conversation’ while he led me down the street to a safer & quieter spot. His name was Mohammed, and he was a card-carrying member of the cycling federation of Iran! He was an avid tour cyclist himself, and had done an impressive round-the-world tour about 3 years ago, taking in America, Europe, Central Asia, Tibet and China. As far as a friend in Tehran could go, I’d hit the jackpot!
He eventually decided to hire a motorcycle taxi, and get the driver to lead me to the hotel, which he did. The high-speed night ride though the streets of Tehran will be something I remember for a very long time – a big thrill, and thankfully not quite a dangerous as the main roads had been.
When we finally got to the hotel, I could see straight away that it was going to be a lot more expensive than I’d hoped. I’d only planned on staying in a cheap back-packer hotel, rather than a luxury dig. He seemed a little deflated by this, but he understood the realities of travel budgets, so we went off in seach of one of the hotels listed in the ‘Budget’ catgory of the Lonely Planet.
As we stood on a quiet side-street under a streetlamp, we were intercepted by the police, who obviously thought there was some shady business going on. I was clutching a few Rial in my hand (the currency of Iran), to explain the price I was hoping to pay for a hotel, and the police took quite an interest in this. I’d read that Tehran had a serious and growing drug problem recently, so I guess this looked pretty dodgy indeed. Mohammed’s easy-going style turned very formal, and the police asked me a series of questions in English. After checking my passport, and grilling me for a few minutes, they eventually seemed convinced of my intentions. But they ‘strongly recommended’ I go back to the nice hotel Mohammed had initially recommended, as the cheaper places were ‘not suitable for tourists – they are for locals’. We promised to do so, and headed back up the street. After the police left we checked the price of the nice hotel (Hotel Shiraz), but it was indeed too expensive, so we waited a few minutes before returning to the cheaper area. I finally found a place that was listed and open (Hotel Markazi), and checked in for the night. Mohammed excused himself while I unloaded my bags from the bike. I thought he had gone to the toilet, but in fact he returned with dinner! It was pretty late, and the only thing he could find at that hour was some canned tuna, heated up on a grill (somewhere – not sure where) and some pita bread, with bottles of Fanta. I was starving, and it was good.
Over dinner, I explained that I really wanted to get down to Esfahan to have a look around before leaving Iran, but that my visa was too short to do it by bicycle. I was planning to catch a bus, train or plane down to see the sights, than zip back here and continue on my way. He kindly offered to take me to a travel agent the next day, which was great, and we agreed to meet up in the morning.
I thanked Mohammed heartily, exchanged details and bade each other farewell. I tried to pay him for the taxi-bike and the food as he left, but of course that was impossible.
Tehran to Esfahan (by plane)
The next morning I awoke at 9:00pm, and about a minute later I heard a knock at the door. I thought it was the manager come to make sure I checked out on time (which turned out to be 2:00pm!), but no – it was Mohammed, back with a surprise breakfast! Fried eggs & bread, and we were off to the travel agency.
It was quite a hike, but we finally found the place – I’m still not sure if Mohammed had an agency in mind, or if we were just walking until we found something. He tackled the travel agent on my behalf, although she spoke very good English and soon cut Mohammed out of the conversation quickly. There were no return seats available on the flights for the day I wanted, so we agreed that I would fly down to Esfahan, and catch the overnight train back to Tehran a couple of days later. The flight cost? $24! The train was dirt-cheap too – about $3 or so. Amazing value… why am I cycling again?
With that all sorted, it was time to check out of the hotel, and take the bike & luggage to the train station, where I planned to leave the bike locked up while I was in Esfahan. That way, the bike would be ready and waiting for me when I got back (by train), and could make my way East from there. Hopefully.
With time so tight, and the traffic being what it was, I decided to throw everything in a taxi and get to the station as quickly as possible. This was quite an experience in itself – not much safer, really, but at least I was in experienced hands, and I could look around a little more freely than if I’d been riding. It was one of those moments where you know you could die a squishy, horribly at any moment, but you’re resigned to the situation – and it’s actually kind of fun. (I think the last time I recall having this feeling was in New Delhi, during a truly hair-raising ride in an ‘ambulance’. At least I had a seat this time, rather than pitching about on the floor…)
The storage area at the station was absolute bedlam, and the guy in charge of the lockers was quite a character. He seemed to have no end of fun telling me exactly what to do with the bike and bags, in a ridiculous degree of step-by-step detail. He made a point of talking right through every question I had, repeating himself over-and-over the instant he finished one recital, all with a big ckeeky grin on his face. Naturally I ignored him completely, talking to Mohammed over the clerk’s head as though he weren’t even there, which seemed to confuse Mohammed quite a bit. I guess the clerk didn’t get much chance to use his English, or antagonize foreign customers. He certainly had a ball, even if I did ignore him. Not the full quid, I suspect…
I thanked Mohammed sincerely – this guy was a real life-saver in the madness of Tehran, doing me a whole series of huge favours to ensure my time went smoothly and succesfully. I really owe him big-time – I never would have gotten sorted in time to get to Esfahan for a start, and would have had serious trouble finding the hotel area also. And he kept paying for everything! A true hero.
Then it was off to the airport, in the same taxi. I had plenty of time before my flight, which the driver was relieved to hear. It meant he had time to pay his mobile phone bill, which he achieved by reversing at an awesome speed straight down the main street, stopping abruptly in front of his service provider’s shop. He left me in the car with people honking furiously at his apalling parking effort. I spied a great quote printed along the lower edge of his rear-view mirror – “MAN proposes, GOD disposes”. Indeed.
The flight was on-time and quite good – only 50 minutes, but the staff manged to feed us all and get everything cleaned up very smoothly. Interesting to see the Iranian Airways flight attendants’ uniforms – similar to many airlines, with the addition of an all-covering head shawl, and a stylish little hat perched on top. Screaming baby behind me, though.
I tried to catch a share-taxi from Esfahan airport into the old-town area, but after waiting nearly an hour, it seemed this wasn’t going to be an option. The taxi drivers all quoted me 50,000 rial, which I was sure must be a rip-off. I got talking to one driver who spoke near-perfect English, and he eventually agreed to take me for 40,000. He later explained that 50,000 really was the correct fare – government specified, even – but he wanted to practice his English, so he’d do it for a discount. Cheapest English lesson I’ve ever given, for sure…
I checked into the Amir Kabir hostel, quite pleased with the price – $4 per night – though rather less than impressed with the 5-share room and toilet – you certainly get what you pay for. But the location was good, and I was soon wandering down towards Imam Square. It was late, already 10:00pm, but there were still a few people about, and the beautiful buildings were all nicely spot-lit. I took a few photos, and made plans for my visit the next day.
Back to the hostel, where I was soon regretting leaving my cushy travel pillow back in Tehran – the pillow on the bed was about the same size, weight and comfort rating as a sack of rice. Slept poorly.
Awoke with a nasty case of whip-lash, and headed downstairs to see what was on offer for breakfast. In the central courtyard I met a South African girl who had also been sharing the same room. She’d gotten up about 30 minutes before me, but so far had failed to get any joy from the kitchen – no breakfast, no boiling water – not happy *at all*. After brief introductions, she decided to go and give the staff a piece of her mind. She returned with the hot water, and a harried-looking fellow from the kitchen carrying our shrink-wrapped breakfast trays.
She had been travelling with her boyfriend by motorcycle (both on the one bike), but thier visas were running out fast, and they decided that he could ride much faster solo – so she was taking the bus to the border. She too had had trouble with kids pinching some stuff, but their solution was a bit more impressive than mine. They had simply ridden the bike up to the small village, where she marched into the nearest house and screamed her lungs out about it. The village parents were initially surprised, then amused by all of this – until she started systematically smashing crockery on the floor! The missing goods turned up in short order, and they were back on the bike and gone in a cloud of dust… Not sure that would have worked in my case – a bicycle doesn’t give you the same sort of options as a motorbike, and she said as much.
Over near the shower block, I spotted a bicycle, and upon inspection it turned out to be quite similar to my own – a Thorn Raven Tour. I managed to track down the owner – a young Aussie guy named Peter. He has been riding around for 5 years now (!), and was onto his third bicycle. He’d only gotten this bike earlier this year, but had also had a bit of grief with it, which I was keen to hear about – namely a lot of broken spokes on the rear wheel. It seems that Thorn hadn’t drilled the rear rim to accommodate the large diameter Rohloff hub, so the spokes were under a lot of stress, leading to many breakages. I remember when I picked up my bike, that the Thorn staff had made a point of explaining the benefits of the ‘Rohloff drilling’, so I guess I have Peter to thank for getting it sorted out in advance!
I stepped over to the net cafe next door, and spent most of the morning answering emails and catching up on the world. I still can’t help thinking how different travel must have been 10 or 15 years ago, before the web…
After that, I tried to do the ‘Half the World Walk’, a walking tour recommended by the Lonely Planet for Iran. I got hopelessly lost almost immediately, which I put down to my poor sense of direction. But after conferring with a couple of friedly locals, it turned out the map was completely wrong – again. Gave up and went back to Imam Square, to revel in the amazing Islamic architecture of this remarkable public space. I entered the gorgeous Lotfallah mosque and stunning Imam mosque, taking plenty of photos (tripods permitted – as they should be! Turkey needs to learn some common sense on that score). Unfortunately there was a lot of unsightly awning and scaffolding in the courtyard of the Imam mosque, perhaps still leftover from Ramazan. But nothing could detract from the incredible detailing and beauty of the buildings themselves – absolutely awe-inspiring.
I had lunch at a restaurant in the bazaar, which was just behind the facade of the north end of the square, near the Imam mosque. Then it was back out to take more photos and browse the numerous souvenir shops. I watched some of the traditional enamel artists practicing their skills, painting remarkably intricate patterns on enamel-coated copper plates and vases. These then get fired in an oven, and come out super-tough – every salesman I passed delighted in dragging keys and coins over the surface of these pieces of art, to demonstrate the durability of the finish. One guy even lit a match and scorched the plate black, then just wiped the soot off – good as new. Quite impressive, considering the delicate brushwork.
I was still wandering around the square well after sunset, taking dozens more photos. When I’d finally had enough, I headed back to the hostel, grabbing dinner at another restaurant along the way.
I slept a little better that night – I think I’d tired myself out enough from all the walking that the granite pillow didn’t really matter.