Riding the Silk Road, 2002-2009)

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

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Turning Kebabs Into Kilometres

Qazvin, August 2, 2009

I'm taking another rest day here in the junction town of Qazvin, 150 km west of Tehran, after five surprisingly hard days of riding from Esfahan. When I arrived yesterday, after 120 km of battling incessant strong headwinds, my legs were cooked, and I decided that they had earned a day off.

I left Esfahan on July 28th with genuine regret; I really enjoyed the town, and could easily have spent more time there. However, I also knew I had to keep moving towards the cool heights of the Caucasus mountains, so I zipped out of town at 7 am, after a final farewell to lovely Naqsh-e-Jahan Square. The first fifty kilometres were flat, on a motorway full of trucks barrelling along. I've been pondering why there seem to be so many more trucks on the road here than in Canada. I can't decide whether it's because there are fewer roads, so traffic is more concentrated; whether there are just far fewer private cars, so that there are proportionately more trucks; or whether Iran is just more devoted to heavy industry; or whether Canada makes more use of trains for moving heavy goods. Whatever the case, it's extremely hard to find any roads in Iran that aren't completely full of ancient diesel trucks with deafening engines belching forth clouds of black soot into the air.

As I left the huge industrial suburbs of Esfahan behind, I could clearly see the pall of smog hanging over the city. One way to reduce smog, of course, is to generate electricity in a carbon-free way, which the Iranians are (very controversially) doing. Where I started this year's trip, in Bushehr, the Russians are building a nuclear power plant. Outside Esfahan, you can see eight enormous cooling towers marking another nuclear power plant. And in Natanz...but I'm getting ahead of myself.

When I turned off the motorway onto a small side road to the town of Natanz, I thought my day was about to improve. There was almost no traffic on this road that led across bleak desert over a small mountain range to the town on the other side. On the other hand, within fifteen minutes of getting onto the road, a hot gale-force headwind had sprung up and I spent the next thirty kilometres fighting and cursing it as it tried to blow me back to Esfahan. When I finally crested the pass, it was mid-afternoon, and I spent the rest of the day pedalling just as hard downhill to try to overcome the wind. I had a pleasant conversation with a red-headed university student in an attractive oasis town where I stopped for much-needed liquids, and then gritted my teeth for the final forty kilometres to Natanz. Grit was the word of the day, as my face, my legs and even my luggage were sand-blasted and absolutely covered with a fine grit that took days to get out. Cruelly, the final five kilometres were steeply uphill, and I had sympathy for Tour de France cyclists who spend 200 km riding as hard as they can only to have an uphill climb into a ski resort to finish the day. I had a slightly strange interview with the police on my way into town; as they drove off, two men who had been watching remarked "Ahmedinejad supporters!" I spent the night in an overpriced hotel run by two grumpy old codgers, and slept well.

The next day was correspondingly easier, as I lost 600 metres in elevation while making my way to the old caravan town of Kashan. After a hard climb out of Natanz, it was downhill most of the way, past the Natanz nuclear research station. If the Israelis, or the Americans, ever bomb Iran, Natanz is going to be the primary target, and the Iranians know this. For ten kilometres in every direction, most of the hilltops bristle with anti-aircraft guns and missiles. I didn't stop for many photos. Kashan, when I got there around lunchtime, was a pleasant town, with most of its historic centre turning to dust as its residents move out to concrete boxes on the outskirts of town. I settled in at the friendly family-run Golestan Inn, and then looked around a few wonderful old 19th-century mansions, absolutely palatial in size and decoration. One of them was built by the local governor; if I had been Shah and one of my governors had built such an opulent house, I would likely have arrested him for corruption.

I rode slightly out of town to the west in the late afternoon, with the heat at this low elevation (1000 metres) hitting me like a hammer. I stopped in at Sialk, where a very, very old settlement is being excavated. This is one of the earliest pre-historic settlements of my entire Silk Road trip, with pottery and building foundations dating back to the 6th and 5th millenia BC, and something that looks a lot like a ziggurat (a Babylonian-style stepped brick proto-pyramid) that dates back to 2500 BC. While I was there, I ran into a French couple who were surprised that I was able to bike in the heat. When I remarked that I rode as many kilometres as possible in the morning, and then survived the afternoons, the wife remarked that "You may be surviving, but are you actually enjoying it?" I pondered this as I rode up to Fin Gardens, pleasant-enough royal gardens full of streams of running water. In a parched country like Iran, you can see how paradise is conceived as being a garden like this, full of fruit trees and roses and running water. I had the single best meal I've had in an Iranian restaurant that evening, scarfing down great bean soup and wonderful dizi (a chick-pea and potato stew) while chatting to the personable restaurant owner, a passionate Moussavi supporter who wore his political allegiances around his neck in the shape of a green scarf.

After Kashan, my next stop was Qom, the conservative religious centre that was where the Islamic Revolution began. I had a long, hot but flat slog across the edge of the Dasht-e-Kavir desert, interrupted by a few encounters with passing cars to give me cold water or fruit. One encounter, though, was strange, with a man asking me where I had come from and then asking (since I said I had ridden through Central Asia) if I had any Turkmen money to sell. I said no, but he was curiously insistent, pulling out a wad of Iranian money and waving it around and repeating "To show my bibi! For the bibi!" I said a few dozen times that I hadn't got any Turkmen money, and then he asked about dollars. I said (untruthfully) that I didn't have any of those, and opened my wallet to show that I had only Iranian money. The insistent shouting and waving around of his money continued until I had had enough and left. It wasn't until I was in Qom and went to pay for something that I realized that, in all the confusion, the old man had skimmed most of the big Iranian bills out of the wallet. I was seriously annoyed, but because all my encounters beside the road have been with benefactors and providers of cold drinks and good food, I let my guard down. I'm not sure how much money the guy got, but I would guess on the order of $100 worth of Iranian rials.

Qom itself, when I got there, was blisteringly hot, very crowded and almost impossible to navigate. It took over an hour to find the hotel that I wanted, where for $11 I got the smallest, noisiest, least-appealing room of the trip. Being a huge pilgrimage town, prices are very high by Iranian standards; in my wanderings, I came across a hotel that would have cost about $20 in a town like Kashan or Abyaneh; in Qom, rooms started at $80, as there's such a huge number of Gulf Arabs and Saudi Shi'ite pilgrims willing to pay more than the locals. I was unimpressed with Qom, particularly when I had to go exchange more money after discovering the roadside sleight-of-hand, so I went to the opulent but hellishly crowded pilgrimage shrine (to the sister of the eight Imam), had some food and made an early night of it.

The next day, I set off early with hopes of finding the Three Wise Men. Ever since William Dalrymple, in his superb Marco Polo travelogue In Xanadu, first told me the story of how Marco Polo had said that the biblical Three Wise Men were buried in Saveh, I've been curious about the place. I rode north from Qom along a busy highway, and then turned, with the help of some helpful policemen who plied me with melons, onto a small side road to Saveh. The ride was along a fertile irrigated plain, and I got to Saveh in time for lunch. It was exceptionally hot, and after a few minutes of looking around among all the new concrete buildings, I gave up on the Magi and settled for air conditioning and pizza. I had a long discussion with the owner and workers at the pizza joint, none of whom had heard of Saveh's claim to fame. I was consoled by the fact that Dalrymple also failed to find any trace of the Wise Men, despite having the local police driving him around. I had no map, and so I regretfully turned my back on the place and rode off towards Qazvin.

The late afternoon was given over to a 500-metre climb back up onto the Iranian plateau, and then a pleasant ride across a plain of quite attractive yellow grass. I found a secluded camping spot out of sight (although not out of hearing) of the highway and had a wonderful, relaxing evening, not interacting with trucks, crowds of curious Iranians or hideous hotels. I played guitar, cooked up some supper, drank litres of tea and watched the stars come out. I realized how important evenings like this have been for me along my route; they allow me to relax and unwind after days that are sometimes a bit on the stressful side.

Yesterday was just such a stressful day. Overnight a cold north wind sprang up. While the cold was a welcome change, the direction was right in my face. I spent all morning battling to make 35 km up to a pass, crawling along at barely above walking pace, the wind tearing at the bicycle and at my hair. Even the downhill from the pass was barely better, and only the fact that it was so cool (28 degrees at noon instead of the customary 40) made it bearable. Fortified by kebabs in the industrial town of Bueien Zahra, I fought on, this time across a plain of Dutch flatness, getting all the way up to 14 km/h as the wind continued to impede progress. I got to Qazvin with my legs absolutely rubber, and was in bed early last night.

So today I'm off by (yikes!) bus to Tehran. I feel that I need to join my 2004 route to this summer's route, and the easiest way to do that is by making a 150 km sprint without my luggage (which will stay in the hotel here) from Tehran back here to Qazvin tomorrow. With luck, if I get up early enough, I will be 40 km out of downtown Tehran before the Tehran traffic madness begins.

After that, I plan to ride over a mountain pass into the secluded valley of Alamut, one-time headquarters of the feared Assassins from the 11th to the 13th century. The scenery promises to be much better than the mundane deserts and plains of the past week!

Until next time, I wish everyone

Peace and Tailwinds!!

Riding Day No.
From Bushehr

Final Elevation

Daily Destination
7/311263.9130.714158747:3617.239.140 km past Saveh

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