In Kyrgyzstan, the most exciting part of our journey begins. In the weeks that follow we’ll be riding and trekking in the world’s best mountain ranges, from the Pamirs over the Karakorams to the mighty Himalayas. These ranges and their extensions comprise all of the world’s seven and eight thousand metre peaks, as well as a few legendary highways.
Three weeks in the Islamic Republic of Iran means three weeks without a drip of alcohol. In Central Asia, however, the Russians have made sure that beer and wodka are widely available. Schol!
For a while we relax in the cozy hotels of Bukhara and Samarkand that we discovered two years ago. Good to recharge the batteries after crossing Turkmenistan, but things look a little too familiar and soon it starts itching to discover new things again. We ride to the Fergana Valley, which we skipped on our previous trip, to learn how silk is made. I’m a little shocked to see that this involes drying and boiling hundreds of little butterfly worms, but I buy a nice silk scarf anyway.
Uniformed officers wearing large Russian hats await us at the Turkmen border. It appears that we’re about to be catapulted back to Soviet times. We start with seeing the doctor (yes, we’re in good health sir), then passport control, then about four different customs officers each writing a line in a large book, and finally immigration to get our entry stamp. We also pass by the ‘bank’, where we have to pay the passenger entry fee, vehicle transit fee, road insurance, document processing fee and vehicle disinfection fee. We also get a fixed itinerary and have to pay a fee per kilometre to compensate for the cheap subsidized fuel. Total cost for our two days crossing of the beautiful country of Turkmenistan, where there’s nothing to see but desert, two boring potholed main roads and a surreal city or two: 138 USD, transit visa and the (for foreigners) ridiculously high bridge toll in Farap not included.
At the first police checkpoint we discover that the fixed itinerary is no joke. We’re sent back and have to take the truck congested main road via Tejen, quite a detour (zoom in on our route to see where we got turned back). We end up driving in the dark, quite dangerous if the opposite traffic doesn’t see the need to turn on their head lights! When we finally reach Mary, we get a cold welcome by a sleazy short-skirted Russian receptionist (a bit of a shock after Iran). All shops and restaurants are closed by now so I dine on water and honey, while An crashes on the bed.
Condensing three weeks of impressions in a ten minute movie wasn’t easy, and getting it uploaded was even more difficult. Thanks again Takis for helping us circumvent the internet censorship in Iran, China and Pakistan!
We hope this movie will give you an idea of what it’s like to travel in Iran. Looking forward to read your thoughts!
Mashhad is the gateway between Iran and Central Asia, and just about every overlander passing through seems to stay at Vali’s home. Vali is a busy little man who likes to insult his guests, but always with a lot of humour! He sorts out the last visa on our list, the Turkmen transit visa, saving us a lot of time. And we learn a few things about the Persian carpet trade while staying here.
Three things I wouldn’t hold possible happened on my birthday. First, the roadside mechanic I trusted to change my rear tire managed to break the valve in half and ran off with my ruined tube. Secondly, he reappeared after an hour with the valve perfectly welded back together. And last, after weeks of good weather, rain and hail came pouring down so heavily that Mashhad’s streets turned into rivers and two Belgian bikers were very sorry for not wearing their rain gear.
Central Iran is dominated by the great Dasht-e-Kavir desert, making for great rides between sand dunes, salt lakes and desert rock formations. On the way we visit the old silk road cities of Esfahan and Yazd, two of Iran’s highlights, and the isolated oasis of Garmeh.
On the desert road between Kashan and Esfahan, in the middle of nowhere, we drove past what is supposed to be Iran’s uranium enrichment plant. Not that we could see much, only kilometres of wire fence, guard towers and large artillery mounted on the hill tops. Every hundred metre or so there were ‘no parking’ and ‘no photo’ signs, urging us to rush through as fast as possible and leave our cameras stashed deeply in our tank bags…
Iranian hospitality is unequaled, but after a while can become a little tiring. So we learned to say no to invitations now and then. Especially after spending a night at Josephs, who was so kind to invite us in his modest home in Tabriz because all hotels were full of medical tourists from Azerbaijan. Only, he turned out to be a bit grumpy and insisted we’d help him find a Belgian wife for his one-legged friend, so he’d be able to move to Europe. Joseph was willing to pay three thousand dollar to any woman who’d marry his friend, on one condition: she should not be black. No, he did not like black women.
Another time a stuttering man kept following us to our hotel in Kashan, thinking we were lost. On the way he used the tree branch he was holding in his hand to point at every obvious thing we came across: ‘re-restaurant!’, ‘sh-shop!’, ‘wa-watermelon, hmm, ve-very good!’. In the end, the hotel staff had to send him away.
Unlike in Europe, we never have problems finding a hotel with parking. Iranians always find a solution, even if they have to improvise. We’ve parked our bikes in corridors, courtyards, in a dormitory and even on a roof, like in the beautifully restored Ehsan House in Kashan.
After staying with them for two days, our Tehrani friends had to catch a plane to Europe. Nema was so kind to arrange us other accommodation in a 5-star hotel owned by a family friend. It was a little embarrassing to arrive in our dusty motorcycle suits and drop our dirty bags in the lobby. And then a bit more so when they gave us their most expensive room and didn’t expect any payment. No point in trying to refuse Iranian generosity, so we relaxed in our two-bedroom suite for two days while we waited for our Uzbek visa to be ready
Fourteen million people are living in greater Tehran, traffic is mad and rush hour seems to last all day. That’s why we were glad our friend Nema would meet us on Azadi Square, which isn’t too hard to find, and escort us from there. When we got to their nice apartment in the north of Tehran, Nema’s wife Maryam awaited us with a delicious home-cooked dinner. The next day they guided us around the bazaar and the old part of the city and took us to a nice Persian restaurant where they serve dizi, a tasty stew which you have to mash yourself with a wooden masher.
On the way to Tehran we stopped in the town of Abyek to stretch our legs. As usual, a small crowd quickly gathered around us, curious about where we come from, how fast the bikes go and how much they cost. In such places it usually doesn’t take long before the police notices us also. But these policemen looked serious and weren’t dressed in uniform. ‘State police,’ they said, and we had to follow them to the nearby police station for an interrogation. Fortunately Ali, a helpful local who spoke English, popped up out of nothing offering help and joined us to the station to translate. The police asked us a few questions about our trip and what we were doing in Abyek, and photocopied our passports. They apologised for ‘just doing their job’ and we could go, relieved they did not check our insurance because we were riding without!
Ali, who turned out to be a businessman importing German harvesters, then took us to a restaurant for lunch. Afterwards he offered to fill up our tanks with benzin, which we kindly refused since he already paid for our meal!
The Iranians are among the most welcoming and hospitable people we’ve ever met. Genuinely happy to see us, they often stop for a chat, curious about our life and our opinion about Iran. Quite openly they also give us their own opinion about their country and its repressive government. Every day people offer us tea or bread, invite us to restaurants or their home, or want to guide us around their town. Quite incredible, given the image Iran has in the west.