Riding the Silk Road, 2002-2009)

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

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Qiven' er to Qazvin, and Remembering the Alamut

Qazvin, Thursday August 6th

I'm back in Qazvin, which is becoming familiar on my third stay here. I got back this afternoon from a fantastic three-day sidetrip to the spectacular Alamut Valley, and am going to resume onward progress tomorrow morning.

My first departure from Qazvin was, sadly, on a bus. I took an afternoon clunker to Tehran on the afternoon of the 2nd, loading my bike in the bottom luggage compartment of the bus. It wouldn't fit, so I started digging out my Allen keys to turn the handlebars sideways, but the conductor and driver kept trying to force the handlebars in, much to my annoyance. My annoyance factor was increased when, after this display of incompetence, the driver demanded $4 for loading the bike, when the ticket to Tehran cost $1. I refused, and the passengers around me started speaking up on my behalf, so the driver retreated in a sulk after a long diatribe. After two hours of listening to music on my iPod, I was greeted in Tehran by the reprise of the driver's rant. This time we were outside the bus, and he shouted on and on and on, despite the fact that he hadn't asked for any money for anybody else's luggage. On and on he howled, and I had unpleasant flashbacks to my first trip to India. Eventually I lost my temper and did my best Earl Weaver imitation, standing two inches from his face and shouting back. Another conductor came by to mediate, and we eventually settled on a "luggage loading tip" of $1, which was still excessive but which ended my interaction with this villainous vermin. I remembered yet another reason why I prefer bike travel to bus travel: no moronic shouting matches with venal conductors/drivers/touts/taxi drivers.

After that, my flying visit to Tehran went well. With almost no luggage on my bike, I flew through the crowded streets to the old Tehran traveller's standby, the Mashhad Hotel, where my 2004 trip had ended. I went out for a doner kebab, and on the way back to the Mashhad, I passed a shop in which two men were playing chess. Seeing my interest, they invited me in and soundly trounced me twice while I had an enlightening conversation with them. One of the men said "I'm not religious. I don't go to the mosque. I don't even believe in Islam. But the government makes me pretend to be a good Muslim. Most Iranians are probably like me, but we get ruled by the 20 percent who are religious fanatics." On the image of Iranians abroad, he said "I went to Europe a few years ago, and once when I gave my passport to the clerk at a hotel and he saw that I was Iranian, he drew his finger across his throat and looked at me. I think this man was very stupid; he only receives one channel when it comes to Iran. Just because the US had a president for eight years who was just as stupid as Ahmedinejad, it doesn't mean I need to behave like that to an American. It really made me sad that that hotel clerk was so close-minded."

I set out the next morning before first light, trying to get out of Tehran before its infamous traffic and smog had a chance to build up. I was 40 km from my hotel by 8 am, and cycling with an Iranian rider whom I had passed earlier and who had caught back up to accompany me. We didn't have much language in common, but it was still fun to interact with someone who shares my interest in cycling, and I was sad to see him peel off and head to work at his factory; he does a 32 km commute every morning and night on his mountain bike. After that I was on my own in an insane maelstrom of traffic which lasted until almost 100 km from Tehran, which is how far the smog, traffic and horrible grey dormitory towns spread, like mould along the edge of a bathtub, west of the city, along the foot of the barely-visible Alborz mountains. I kept my head down and enjoyed the sensation of riding fast, unencumbered by luggage; I averaged a good 5 km/h faster than I would have with full panniers. About 110 km from Tehran, I ran into David, a Swiss cyclist who was towing an intriguing locking trailer which held the phenomenal amount of 100 kg of luggage (just when I was lamenting the fact that my luggage weighs around 40 kilos). He's the only cyclist I've ever met carrying a full-sized folding aluminum lawn chair. We exchanged news and tips, before he grunted off towards Tehran and I zipped along the remaining 50 kilometres to Qazvin, finishing my 158 km before 3 pm and rewarding myself with a good nap and then a great meal at the home of a young lawyer who had stopped to talk with me along the road. Good conversation, even if the food was disappointing take-out kebabs. I was happy, too, with having closed the gap between my 2004 and 2009 trips, so that now I really can say truthfully that I've cycled the whole way from Xian to here.

On the morning of the 4th, having pared down my luggage by leaving behind cold-weather and wet-weather gear, extra books and long-term spare parts, I set off for the lair of the Assassins: Alamut castle. I have been fascinated for years by the Assassins, as the Ismaili Muslims were known during the Middle Ages. I first heard of them in William Dalrymple's book In Xanadu, and ten years ago Joanne and I made a memorable visit to a couple of Assassin castles in Syria. Since then I've wanted to visit the global headquarters of this secretive organization, popularly depicted as being 12th-century forerunners of al-Qaeda, striking terror among rulers throughout the Middle East who opposed them by a program of systematic targetted murder by young fidayeen who were not expected to return alive from a mission. More recently, however, a revisionist view has started to take hold that they were in fact Muslim equivalents of the French Cathars: free-thinking humanist scholars who were brutally put down so that their seductive ideas of liberal living would not take hold further afield. Alamut, founded in 1090 by the first Assassin leader Hassan Sabah, "The Old Man of the Mountains" as Marco Polo called him, was their first castle and the sect's headquarters until its destruction by the Mongol armies of Hulagu Khan in 1256.

In Iran, as in Syria, the Ismailis chose inacessible, isolated mountain areas to establish themselves. The Alamut valley is cut off from the main caravan routes of central Iran by a high pass over the foothills of the Alborz mountains to the south, and by the main wall of the Alborz to the north. To this day, the valley is hard to get to, making it perfect for a short bike trip: little traffic and spectacular views. I set off early and after 20 relatively flat kilometres, the road gained 800 metres in a mere 12 kilometres, an average grade of about 7 percent. It was a long, hot grunt over the top of the pass at 2280 metres, but the views at the top over the valley made up for the tired legs. I plummeted down 1300 vertical metres in another 20 km to cross the Alamut River, and promptly began climbing again, steeply up the opposite bank. All day I rode this crazy roller-coaster of a road, gaining and losing hundreds of metres at the drop of a hat. The landscape was wonderful, with expansive views over the peaks of the Alborz and the isolated green oases where irrigation brought the hillsides to life. I tried to figure out what mountain range I was most reminded of, but it eluded me. The sense of space was reminiscent of the Annapurna Range in Nepal, while the coloration and oases were straight out of the Pakistani Karakoram. There were hints of the Moroccan Atlas and even Patagonia. I met a group of student protestors from Tehran who were taking their first day off the streets in over a month; I admire their courage, but I wonder if they have any hope of succeeding in changing their government. I rode all day in a haze of pleasant impressions, before finding an isolated campsite and calling it a day after 2400 vertical metres of climbing. Luckily I put the fly on my tent for the first time, since there was a cool wind, as I had my first rain of the trip, a series of thunderstorms that kept waking me up throughout the night.

The next day I dropped precipitously back to the main river, got to the turnoff for Hassan Sabah's castle, and proceeded to climb 800 metres in a mere 7 thigh-burning kilometres. The whole way, the rock of Alamut, "The Eagle's Lair" dominated the view, rising precipitously from the verdant cherry orchards below it. I would not have wanted to be a Mongol soldier plodding up the hill, looking up at the inacessible fortress I was expected to capture. (The castle was captured, in the end, largely by trickery and forged documents.) Once I had bought my entrance ticket and parked my bike, there were still 150 vertical metres to climb on foot, up a rickety staircase that would not have been there 900 years ago. The nearly vertical rock was a formidable defence, and with the extensive system of water cisterns atop the rock, Alamut could have weathered a siege for several years. There's not much left standing up top; the Mongols systematically destroyed all of the hundred or so Assassin castles in northern Iran to root out the Ismailis. However, the views are stunning, and there's enough foundations to visualize what the castle must have looked like. An archaeologist working there told me that Alamut had a famous and extensive library that was put to the torch by the Mongols; he subscribes to the Assassins-as-humanist-freethinkers school of thought.

I tried to absorb as many views and impressions as possible, but I was eventually adopted by an extended clan of Tehranis and whisked off to a barbeque at a nearby lake. I rode my bike back down the hill from Alamut (my brakes were so hot at the bottom that when I sprayed water on them it vaporized instantly), and then tossed it into the back of the family's pickup truck for the ride to the lake. Evan Lake was very pretty, but the best part was swimming in it, and then stuffing myself silly on ridiculous amounts of rice pilaf and BBQ chicken. I set up my tent beside their encampment, and had a wonderful night's sleep, undisturbed by any precipitation.

I wanted to set off early this morning, but I had to fix my first flat tire in Iran, and while I was doing that, the family cooked me up scrambled eggs on toast and loaded me down with pistachios and dates for the road. I had another day of big climbs, over 1900 m, and by the time I got to Qazvin, my legs were done! Time for a big feast of qimeh nasar, the local lamb and pistachio stew, and then to bed to get some sleep for tomorrow's dash towards Soltaniyeh. I'm only 5 riding days away from Azerbaijan, and I'm getting excited about a new country!

Riding Day No.
From Bushehr

Final Elevation

Daily Destination












Past Moallem Kelayeh


Evan Lake










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