Riding the Silk Road, 2002-2009)

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

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

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