Riding the Silk Road, 2002-2009)

Riding the Silk Road, 2002-2009)
Where it all began: Xian, May 2002

Monday, July 27, 2009

Half the World, Half the World Away....

Esfahan, Monday July 27th

I am on my third afternoon in enchanting Esfahan, known in Persian as "Half the World", and after two days of seeing the multitudinous sights and soaking up the atmosphere of the wonderful Naqsh-e-Jahan (pattern of the world) square, I'm having a quieter day: fixing my stove, trying to deal telephonically with the dimwits who run the DBS Bank customer service desk in Singapore, re-stringing my travelling guitar, reading and generally chilling out. Now it's time to bring my blog up to date.

It took five days of cycling to get from Shiraz to Esfahan, along a route rich in history, both ancient and medieval. The first day, I got up early (as usual) to beat the heat and was climbing a steep incline to get out of Shiraz before 7 am. The road was crowded with drivers who had the same idea, and it made for an unpleasant two hours of diesel fumes and incessant grinding engines before the road, and I, descended steeply onto the flats of an agricultural valley. I noticed that my new bike's wheels have less rolling resistance than my old bike, as my maximum speed on descents has increased by at least 10 km/h; I was surprised to look down at my cycling computer and see that I was doing 66 km/h! The rest of the day I stayed in this valley, passing through the 10 km traffic jam of Marvdasht (I think that in Iran, a city is only an excuse for a good traffic jam) and making it to Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the ancient Achaemenid Persian Empire, by 11, just in time for the blistering heat of midday.

I loved Persepolis. I had been looking forward to seeing it ever since reading about Alexander the Great in high school. Alexander captured the city in 331 BC, after routing the Persian army for the decisive third time at the battle of Gaugamela in what is now Iraqi Kurdistan. He despatched fast horsemen to secure the city and its immense treasury (3000 camel loads of gold, silver, bronze and precious gems), and made his own way there at a more leisurely pace. He and his army spent some time living there, but one night, either as a drunken accident or as a deliberate act of revenge for the Persian destruction of the Acropolis 150 years earlier, the city was burned to the ground and abandoned forever.

The city is impressively situated on a raised platform overlooking the plain, underneath barren stone cliffs. The city was used for annual gatherings of the nobles of all parts of the immense Persian Empire, and tourists today follow the same route as those Medes, Elamites, Phrygians, Ethiopians, Arabs and Cappadocians did 24 centuries ago, climbing the gently-angled ceremonial staircase up into the city and then passing through the immense Gateway of all Nations. This gate, with a very Egyptian flavour to it, has been graffitied by generations of travellers, including the infamous African explorer Henry Morton Stanley. Luckily, plexiglass now protects the stone from similar vandalism today.

Once inside the city, there are tons of massive ruins to see. The Persian emperors were clearly trying to impress their allies and underlings, and they built on an Egyptian scale, with huge courtyards of columns, and immense palaces. The most impressive sights, however, are the carvings on the staircases of the Apadana Palaces, where envoys from all the 30 or so nationalities of the empire are shown bringing gifts to the emperor. I spent a long time looking at and photographing the reliefs; they reminded me a bit of the carvings at Angkor Wat, although not so extensive. The other highlight for me were the imperial tombs of the later emperors Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III, carved into the cliffs above the city, providing wonderful panoramas out over the extensive city.

I was pretty flattened by the heat, but I revived after some lunch, and cycled a few kilometres up the valley to see some smaller sites. Naqsh-e-Rajab has four impressive Sassanid carvings (from five centuries after Persepolis), showing the early Sassanid emperors Shapur and Ardeshir getting crowned by the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda. I was intrigued to see the changes in the 500 years separating the Achaemenids from the Sassanids. The depiction of Ahura Mazda is quite different from that shown on the Achaemenid tombs that I had just seen, and the artistic style has changed from quite Assyrian to much more Roman. As well, the writing system used for Persian has changed from ancient Babylonian cuneiform to a curly alphabet that looks like a precursor of the Arabic alphabet, and the other official languages of the empire (other than Persian) are now Parthian and Greek, rather than Elamite and Babylonian as they were in the time of the Achaemenids.

I then zipped across to the cliffs on the other side of the valley to Naqsh-e-Rostam, where the great Achamenid Persian emperor Darius (the founder of Persepolis) and his successors Xerxes, Darius II and Artaxerxes II had their tombs. They're so identical in style that, except for Darius' tomb which is identified by a lengthy cuneiform inscription, archaeologists still don't know whose tomb is whose. As well, there's another enigmatic building, a big cube with slit false windows, whose purpose is unclear but which seems to have been a tomb for somebody important. Underneath each tomb is a later Sassanid carving, as if the Sassanids wanted to emphasize that they were the successors of these world conquerors. Having read the Histories of Herodotus several times (if you love history and haven't read Herodotus, now is the time!), I found being at the tomb of Darius (whose life and accomplishments make up a lot of the pages of Herodotus) quite moving. Of course, the emotionality might have been due to incipient sunstroke too.

While I was sitting there sketching, a young Iranian woman came running up the steps to talk to me in English. She was a young medical researcher from Tehran, and she had some interesting points of view. She lamented the current state of Iranian culture ("Culture? What culture? We used to have a great nation and high culture, and now we are nothing"), the economy ("we have all this oil, but the people have no money at all") and politics ("Of course Ahmedinejad is a madman, but he's still a better leader than the others would have been. My friends and colleagues mostly voted for him, because it was a choice between the bad and the worst, and he's merely bad.")

That night, searching for a place to pitch my tent, I found a perfect historical spot: the ruins of Estakhr, the last capital city of the Sassanids, laid waste by the rampaging Arab armies in AD 637 and not excavated since. I put up my tent in corner of the city wall and fell asleep, pondering the rise and fall of empires, oblivious to the modern traffic 100 metres away.

The next day, I followed the valley uphill, along a quiet side road parallel to the expressway, making for a very pleasant morning. Eventually, where the agricultural land ran out, the two roads merged and I rejoined the chaos of the main road through a tunnel and out into a bleaker, more desert-like world that led to Pasargadae, the first Achaemenid capital. It was again like a giant convection oven as I toured around the slim remains of the city founded by Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid empire. His tomb, a huge but simple structure, has stood the test of time better than the rest of his city, which consists of a few fallen columns and the foundations of a few temples, as well as another enigmatic cube. The signboard says that this one is believed to be the tomb of Cyrus' son Cambyses, and Wikipedia says that it was definitively identified as such in 2006. I liked the austere empty feeling of Pasargadae, and rode off satisfied with having seen it. I had planned to ride another 30 or 40 km, but only12 km down the road, I passed an actual river (well, a large irrigation canal) and decided to camp beside it instead, since running water is at such a premium in Iran.

I awoke well-rested, which was just as well because the next day was unexpectedly hard, at least until the afternoon. The road just kept climbing and climbing, interrupted by brief downhills, and the wind was persistently blowing hard in my face. It took forever to climb the 600 m to the crest of the pass, which (as it turned out when I looked at a decent map later) was over the main range of the Zagros Mountains, although it just seemed like a series of rounded desert hills. I was quite discouraged by the snail's pace I was setting, and wondered glumly if my forty-year-old body was too old for this bike touring gig. Luckily, about ten different cars stopped that day to give me cold water, fruit, juice, cake and encouragement. Then the downhill started, and I zipped along without pedalling for thirty kilometres with a tailwind and felt very positive about the whole experience. I made it to Abadeh, the first real settlement I'd seen since Pasargadae, and rewarded myself with a night in a hotel, where I slept like a log.

The last day and a half into Esfahan were a haze of downhills, tailwinds and excessive heat and traffic, with little scenery and lots of noise. I camped out the last night before Esfahan behind an abandoned factory that turned out to be home to a small colony of tramps. They were quite friendly, but I must confess to having slept nervously under the stars.

After several days in fairly desolate surroundings, it was a relief finally to get to Esfahan, and its leafy streets, air of civilization and tremendous architectural gems. Esfahan is one of the crown jewels of the Islamic world. As the capital of the Safavid Empire in the 16th and 17th century, it was adorned by its rulers, particularly Shah Abbas I, with a series of wonderful buildings and gardens. The Naqsh-e-Jahan square ("The Pattern of the World"), renamed Imam Square, is a magnificent public space, and I keep going back to it every day to watch the ebb and flow of the people, along with the play of light on the mosques that line its sides.

The Jameh Mosque is huge, impressive and one of the most beautifully conceived mosques I have ever seen. I spent a good couple of hours prowling around it. The Imam Mosque is also gorgeous, but it's under scaffolding which ruins the beauty. I think the real gem of Esfahan, however, is the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, a small but perfectly conceived structure with the most mesmerizing ceiling (like an Escher drawing of infinity) and a delicate interplay of light through the latticed windows over the blue, green and yellow tiles inside: simply magic!

The atmosphere in the Naqsh-e-Jahan is excellent as well, with thousands of local Esfahanis and Iranian tourists coming out in late afternoon to see the sights, picnic, take horse carriage rides, or shop for souvenirs. I sit out every day at 6 in a second-story teashop to watch the show. They say that this is the second-largest square by area in the world, after the Stalinist space of Tien An Men Square; I'm not sure I believe it, but it really is a magnificent place to see, and I'm off again as soon as I finish posting this!

Esfahan, strictly speaking, isn't really on the Silk Road route that I started to ride in 2002; most classical and medieval traders would have passed further north, at the latitude of Tehran. However, when I was last in Iran in 2004, everyone assured me that Esfahan is the main reason to visit Iran, so I decided to add on this spur, from Bushehr up to Qazvin, to my original route just so that I could see Esfahan and Persepolis. I have to say that I'm glad: Esfahan is the Islamic world's equivalent to Florence, a city full of some of the most important architectural and artistic products of a major civilization.

My search for guitar strings brought me to Jolfa, an ancient Armenian quarter. The Armenians have always been famed as musicians in Turkey and Iran, and so the guitar shops are all in Jolfa. I bought my strings from George, an Armenian guitar teacher, and rode around the tiny but uber-wealthy neighbourhood, full of ritzy cafes and expensive grocery stores. The Armenian cathedral is a strange mix of Islamic architecture (iwans and tiles and arched doorways) and Christian iconography inside (brilliantly coloured frescoes reminiscent of Greece and Cyprus). I toured the cathedral and the museum next door with two Turkish backpackers who kept muttering darkly about what they viewed as incessant propaganda about the 1915 Armenian genocide. They were planning on going to Armenia on the way home; I wonder how they will be received there.

So having basked in a bit of culture for a few days, it's time for me to hit the road again early tomorrow morning, heading for Natanz, Kashan, Qom and Qazvin. I hope to be able to take some slightly less busy roads, but I'm not sure such a thing exists in this automobile-obsessed society. I will post again, probably, from Qazvin. In the meantime, enjoy the pictures, enjoy the summer, and talk to you all again soon!

Ha! Figured out how to do this! I will continue to fill this in as the trip progresses.

Riding Day No.
From Bushehr

Final Elevation

Daily Destination
Estakhr (ruins)
Past Pasargadae
Past Shahreza

Monday, July 20, 2009

Scorching My Way to Shiraz

Monday, July 20, Shiraz

I'm sitting in a posh internet cafe here in Shiraz at the end of a much-appreciated second day off from cycling here in the former Iranian capital. It was an unexpectedly harsh reintroduction to life in the saddle over the three days it took to ride here from Bushehr, and my now-forty-year-old body was pretty sore and tired afterwards. Two days of eating well, sleeping in, visiting the sites, getting an unexpectedly generous visa extension and (oddly) a night of beer and Scotch with some of the gilded youth of Shiraz have left me ready to hit the road again tomorrow refreshed.

The first day of cycling, out of Bushehr, was a matter of riding for survival. I had a morning dip in the ocean (I won't see the sea again until Turkey), and rode out of town by 7:3o, hoping to beat the heat. The first twenty kilometres went fine, aided by a tailwind, but after that the road changed direction enough to create a hot, dry tailwind that coated me with fine dust all day long. The heat built up rapidly, and by noon it was 48 degrees in the shade. The traffic was incessant, the scenery (cloaked by the dust haze) was non-existent, and I felt as though I was on an Exercycle from hell. My iPod (I'm cycling with a source of tunes for the first time ever) was a sanity saver and kept me going through the heat and sweat. Luckily, like at the Tour de France, passing motorists would pull up and hand me bottles of cold water on a semi-regular basis, which was A Good Thing as my water bottles were boiling hot within twenty minutes of being filled. A long lunch spent sheltering in an air-conditioned sandwich shop, and then it was back into the heat, this time with the added bonus of a long climb. By the time I put up my tent, I had gained 500 metres in altitude, most of it coming in one long, thigh-burning climb right at the end of what had been a long day. I had a kebab supper at a truck stop in the village of Konar Takhteh, turning down offers of clandestine whiskey from the staff and being flirted with by the owner's female cousin whom he called on the phone to translate for me. Afterwards I put up my tent on some rocky ground out of sight of the thunderous road traffic, falling asleep almost instantly despite the residual 32-degree heat rising from the earth beneath me.

I awoke much less sore than I had feared, after a longish, toughish first day. I remember barely being able to walk on the second morning of my 2004 ride after overdoing it, but my old joints and tendons felt good. This is just as well, as the day began with a long grunt of a climb, 400 vertical metres through desolate rock gorges. At the top, I entered a world transformed, a landscape of tomato fields and orange groves. I stopped into a tiny village to ask for water, and a local architect, who was supervising some construction work, sat me down and fed me an enormous breakfast instead. I turned down offers to stay the night and explore the ancient castles that topped the hills above the hamlet, and headed back onto the road. The landscape seemed more welcoming of humanity than the howling desert of the day before. The heat, however, was still fierce, and by the time I reached the old Sassanid Persian (the dynasty that lasted from 224-638) capital, Bijapur, it was again an incandescent 47 degrees.

I wandered around the deserted ruins (Iranian tourists are more sensible than me and show up in the early morning), admiring the very Roman-looking structures and the dramatic surroundings, at the end of a narrow river gorge and beneath a formidable rock slab. The greatest of the Sassanid kings, Shapur I, had the city built partly by a captured Roman army; he obliterated the Roman legions at the battle of Edessa in 260, and brought back the Roman emperor Valerian in chains to live out his life in comfortable house arrest in a palace in Bijapur. Sensibly, some of the main structures were subterranean, insulating them from the worst of the summer inferno.

I then made a strategic miscalculation, mostly out of ignorance. I rode up the gorge, looking for the cave in which a colossal statue of Shapur I still stands. I thought it was a short scramble above the road, but, as I found out, it is some 400 vertical metres above the valley, a harsh, sun-baked 45 minutes that took a lot out of my already-tired legs. I was accompanied by a helpful Iranian math/physics student named Mehdad, which was a blessing since the path was barely discernible on the rocky hillside. The views from the top, and of the statue itself, rewarded the effort, but by the time I got back down to the bottom and started riding, it was 4:30 and I hadn't had any lunch. I bumped my way down what Mehdad called a shortcut and what I called a dry riverbed, and ended up back on the road by 5:15, tired and hungry. I rolled along until I found another kebab joint, filled my belly, and then rode along until I reached the foot of what looked like a pretty sizeable climb, where I called it a day and camped amidst a sparse oak forest. It was amazing to me that after such heat during the day, 34 degrees inside the tent actually felt cool. In the middle of the night, I woke up chilly as the temperature dropped to 24 degrees, and crawled under my sleeping bag.

Being at 1040 metres, I knew I had to climb another 500 metres or so to get to Shiraz on the third day, but I didn't realize how much extra climbing would be involved. I spent the morning gaining nearly 1000 metres along a pretty road giving great views back over the inclined rock slabs that make up the Zagros Mountains. I bought some plums and figs from roadside vendors and had a wonderful breakfast in the forest. I finally topped out at 2040 metres and was rewarded with a minuscule downhill into a fertile agricultural plain alive with the wheat and tomato harvests, and covered with tent cities of Qashqai nomads who come in to help with the harvesting. After lunch, I anticipated a gentle descent into the city, but instead I undulated all afternoon, climbing a hundred metres only to lose the altitude again. My legs felt like lead by the time I reached the long-anticipated downhill coast into Shiraz. I promptly got lost in the vast maze of insane traffic that is modern Shiraz, and had to be guided to my hotel by a passing Iranian cyclist. I slept well that evening.

Yesterday I accomplished something that had been a worry ever since I got my 15-day Iranian visa. In a matter of an hour, I got a 30-day extension that means I could stay here, if I wanted, until August 29th. I had heard all sorts of worrying stories about people not being able to extend their visas, but the officers I dealt with were extremely helpful and actually offered me even more time if I wanted it.

Relieved, I made my way out to some of the mandatory sights of Shiraz: the tombs of Saadi and Hafez, two of the greatest Persian poets, and to a famous garden. Saadi's tomb was beautiful and peaceful, despite the hordes of tourists, and I was fascinated to watch the groups of Iranian tourists and how they behaved: groups of schoolgirls swathed in black running down to soak their feet in the famous underground fish pond; young couples having clandestine rendezvous in the alcoves of the gardens; middle-class tourists in their finery; a wandering dervish (like a Muslim sadhu). I haven't read much of Saadi's poetry, but he has enjoyed a bit of a popularity boom in the West recently; for those of you interested, check out this link to his verses. I also checked out the tomb of Hafez, without doubt the most beloved literary figure in Iran. (Here's where you can read some of his verse which, I think, doesn't translate really well.) Unfortunately, the tomb complex is undergoing renovation, and the jackhammers destroyed any sense of peace or beauty. The garden was closed by the time I got there, so I retired to my hotel for a siesta, and then went out to another nearby garden to sit under the fruit trees and relax after the adrenaline-inducing, lightning-reaction full-contact sport that is riding in Iranian cities.

I went out on the town last night with an Iranian guy whom I met on the road to Shiraz. It was a funny evening: lots of driving around, picking up friends, picking up a shipment of beer, buying flowers, before finally settling in for a massive feast and too much Heineken and Scotch. The food was spectacular, and the evening ended with his kid sister playing the piano for us, and then me getting pressed into playing as well. Years of lack of practice and hours of Scotch didn't help my performance, but it was fun, and Mehrdod's mother and other sister came down to listen.

Today has been a day of unapologetic sloth, seeing the exquisite Nasir-ul-Molk mosque and another garden, lounging in the same garden as yesterday, and catching up on diaries and this blog. Tomorrow, I'm off to the ancient Achaemenid Persian capital of Persepolis, a place I've wanted to visit ever since I was a kid and read about Alexander the Great conquering the Persians. After that, a brief visit to Cyrus the Great's original capital at Pasargadae, and then the longish (400 km) haul to Esfahan, a ride that I'm assured is far flatter and a bit cooler than what I just rode.

For those of you keen to see what sort of hellaciously hot weather you're missing, check out the Wunderground forecasts for Bushehr, Shiraz, Esfahan, Qazvin and Astara, and think of me sweating my way across the Iranian plateau!!

I hope you're all having a great summer and I'll bid you adieu until Esfahan.

For the cycling statistic geeks out there, I'll keep updating this table as the trip continues.

Riding Day No.
From Bushehr

Final Elevation

Daily Destination
Konar Takhteh
85 km from Shiraz

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

In Iran!!

Wednesday, July 15, Bushehr

After two and a half very frustrating days of delay, I've finally made it to the Islamic Republic of Iran, after a ferry that started after midnight and got in at 5 pm. It's a relief to have made it, and to think that, if all goes well, I will have taken my last public transport for at least four months. I hate not being in control of when I leave, and a two and a half day delay did nothing to cure me of this hatred.

Bushehr is a relief after Kuwait; although the temperature was 33 degrees when I rolled my bike ashore, it was fully 15 degrees cooler than in Kuwait, and instead of a dragon's breath wind roaring in off the desert, pleasant sea breezes cool the town in the late afternoon. I toured the local "sights", such as they are (crumbling houses from eighty years ago that, except for the old British Consulate, were never much to look at), changed some money and am now about to get some sleep in preparation for an early departure tomorrow morning to beat the heat. I hope to be in Shiraz in three days, via some interesting ruins at Bishapur, and in either Esfahan or Yazd five days after that. My route choice will depend on what's going on with visa extensions; I only got 15 days on my visa, so I need at least another two weeks to make it to the Azeri frontier and see the sights along the way.

Anyway, after months of anticipation and weeks of preparation and slow travel to get here, the first pedal strokes of the trip will take place tomorrow morning. Only 6000 meandering kilometres to go until I reach the Mediterranean! I can't wait!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Still stuck

Kuwait, July 14

It's Bastille Day, and I feel like storming the ramparts, as I'm still stuck in transport limbo. The ferry was cancelled again last night (high winds was the official explanation) and so they're supposed to try again tonight. If it doesn't happen tonight, I will go to plan B and fly to Shiraz. Which is probably what I should have done in the first place!

I'm beginning to think of the Huwally Continental Hotel as the Hotel California: I've checked out three times but haven't yet successfully left! I feel as stuck as the migrant workers who do all the real work here. Talking to lots of them over the past few days, I haven't yet met anyone who likes being here; they're here strictly for the cold hard cash. I'm even worse off, paying $50 a night for a "cheap" hotel instead of earning money!

Anyway, I sincerely hope that I sail tonight!!

Peace and Tailwinds!


Monday, July 13, 2009

Get Me Out of Here, Beavis!

Kuwait, July 13, 2009

So I'm trying to escape from Kuwait, its heat and expensive hotels and blowing dust, but the ferry to Iran isn't co-operating. I originally thought it would leave Sunday morning, then was told Sunday evening, and now it's tonight (Monday). The sooner it leaves, the happier I will be; Kuwait's charms are getting more threadbare by the hour, with its rubbish Internet connection frustrating my attempts to make the most productive use of my time. I'm still searching for bungy cords to hold my backpack and tent on my back rack; I foolishly forgot to buy them in Canada and have been going into and out of malls in search of them (and of air conditioning: did I mention that it's 48 degrees here every afternoon, with a scouring hot wind that sucks moisture out of every pore in my body?) since I got to Kuwait.

For an oil-rich state, Kuwait is kind of down-at-heel looking. Partly it's inevitable, with the desert winds depositing dust on everything faster than it can be cleaned off. Partly, though, it's in the nature of the place, a meeting place for locals and for immigrant labour (from Egypt and other Arab countries, the Indian sub-continent and the Phillipines) to make money as quickly as possible, not a place to settle and put down roots and lawns. It reminds me quite a bit of Cairo, although with newer cars.

On Friday, I arrived in the mid-afternoon, put my bike and luggage together fully for the first time, and cycled off down the road looking for the only "cheap" hotel in the city (still 50 US dollars, which passes for cheap here). It took longer than I had hoped, but I found the Hawally Continental and checked in, the only Caucasian guest among dozens of Indian workers in from the desert for a few days off.

I spent Saturday cycling around the vast sprawl of the city, navigating its perilous motorways (in this land of the car, there are no non-motorway roads to get from one neighbourhood to another) and checking out its seaside Corniche road. It took a long time to find the ticket office for my ferry to Iran, and by the time I'd bought the ticket, everything was closed for a sensibly long siesta (12-4), so I cycled along the Corniche, had a dip in the dubiously clean water, trying to avoid being run down by the swarms of young men on jet skis, and finally made my way to the one thing I've seen in Kuwait that is truly excellent and beautiful: the Tareq Rajab Museum. I spent a couple of hours wandering through the outstanding collection of decorative arts, calligraphy and textiles from across the Muslim world and other parts of Asia. The jewellery collection was particularly impressive, even to someone like me who is generally unimpressed by rocks and metal. I walked out relieved that there was something of real beauty in Kuwait that speaks to the human spirit; modern Kuwait seems to be an empty shell of fast cars, shopping and mobile phones.

Yesterday morning I checked out of the hotel, loaded my bike, put my backpack on my back (since I haven't found the damn bungy cords yet) and rode off to the port, only to be told to come back today. I left the bike (they have to pre-load the luggage) and took a (mercifully cheap) taxi back through the horrific lunch-time traffic jams back to the hotel, where I checked in again, took a nap at 2 pm and woke up after midnight, only to roll back over and sleep until morning. I think I may have been a bit jet-lagged.

The one redeeming feature here at the moment is that there are great English-language papers, so I am catching up on world affairs. The news from Iran sounds unpromising: a few more protests, more arrests of journalists and bloggers, uncompromising words from Khamenei. It will be interesting to see what public opinion is while I'm there (assuming that they let me into the country!!)

I've posted a few pictures. Most are of the bike (still looking shiny and new), although there is one photo showing the magazine censorship; check out the black ink on exposed cleavage and midriff on the magazines at the newsagent's. It's funny; Kuwait is much more liberal in terms of attire than Iran or (I gather) Saudi Arabia; women seem to choose how much or how little of seventh-century Arabian dress codes to adopt. I suppose that the fact that most people here are not actually Kuwaitis affects the situation too.

I don't know if I'll be able to post from Iran, so if not, I'll talk to you all in a month!


Thursday, July 09, 2009

All Systems Go

Bangkok, July 9

I'm in Bangkok for a day, collecting my camping and biking gear (and travel guitar) which I had stored here, buying my new Ortlieb waterproof panniers, having my camera tuned up, and trying (unsuccessfully) to catch up on the world of e-mail and internet. I have now boarded eleven different aircraft in a month; tomorrow, I have two flights (changing planes in Qatar) to get to Kuwait. After this, with any luck, I will not take any more airplanes for the next five months or so.

I've got the bike set up in its more-or-less final configuration now: handlebars taped, computer attached, panniers adjusted. I've bought two sets of rear panniers in order to have extra storage volume, but I have to adjust them, maybe with extra straps, to prevent them from rubbing into my tires, or on the ground as I turn, since they're longer and wider than real front panniers.

I'm indulging in my least favourite aspect of a bike trip this afternoon: figuring out how to pack all the contents of my panniers, as well as the panniers themselves, into one big backpack for the plane. One of the panniers will be my carry-on luggage for the flight and will carry all the densest non-metallic bits (particularly books) since I'm grossly overweight as far as luggage goes.

Everything is good; I can't believe that I'll be in Kuwait tomorrow, on the ferry to Bushehr, Iran on Sunday and on my bicycle, pedalling towards Europe, on Monday. The open road awaits!

Peace and Tailwinds


Saturday, July 04, 2009

Got the bike!!!

July 4, 2009

It's 11 pm and I'm just back from the Rocky Mountain bicycle plant in Delta, where Peter Vallance, the man who's in charge of sponsorships for the company, put the final bits on my new bike tonight. It looks fantastic (see the pictures): great, tough, solid wheels, disk brakes, chromoly steel frame, top-end Shimano Deore and Deore LX components. I brought the Surly Big Dummy front fork, the special touring handlebars, pedals and seat that I wanted and Peter finished the assembly work. It was fascinating to see all the new bike frames under development and to watch such a skilled technician fine-tuning and adjusting all the necessary bits. My first test ride, a couple of laps of the parking lot, felt fantastic: I've never had such a smooth-riding, smooth-shifting bike. The Blizzard frame even looks good, in the red-and-white of the Canadian flag, with lots of maple leaves, handy to establish my nationality in places where Canadians might be more welcome than Americans.

I still have to put on some stuff; my new Tubus racks (Ergo front rack and Logo rear rack) which will take some creative problem-solving to deal with the disk brakes currently in the way, my Cateye cycling computer, water bottle cages and handlebar tape, but the bike looks fantastic and I'm very happy to be riding it on my trip. It's a definite step up in quality from my faithful old Rocky Mountain Sherpa, and I hope it serves me as long and faithfully.

Can't wait to start riding in Bushehr in a little over a week!!

A big thanks to Rocky Mountain in general and Peter Vallance in particular for providing me with such a high-end bicycle for this trip. It's a better bike than I would ever have bought for myself!