Sunday, July 31, 2011

23rd to 28th July. Shiraz to Bandar Abbas, Iran and Dubai, United Arab Emerates

23rd July. Shiraz. Home of the grape.

Drove some of the best roads yet in Iran between Esfahan and Shiraz, stopping for the night in Yasuf, which was interesting in that I had to stay in a 4 star hotel. There were only 3 hotels in the town, and the cheapest had said what equated to $50, this is over double my budget, and the rooms were v squalid for the rate. So I eventually found this other posh one, that took pity on me and agreed on $40 a 50% discount on their rate. 

Rocked into Shiras at midday, I thought this might be a fun place when I saw this guy on cycle with a huge hooter on the handlebars, that he had some pump attached that he was vigorously using to honk his way through the mad traffic.  I had to ask a few people directions till I found the street. The last one was a guy called Omid, who I randomly asked. He kindly showed me the way. Once found he asked me to come to met his family that evening. I agreed as he seemed a good fellow and there was no hint of an agender. Which  is an awful thing to say as there has not been with any of all these offers that have come my way, but it is my cynical Anglo Saxon mind that is almost confused by what I take as unbelievable generosity and openness. It is in fact just their natural  behaviour towards strangers. 

It was good to meet his mother, who I guess was a bit older than me and spoke great English and then his 23 year old sister, who also spoke very well. So we had a couple of hours chatting away, hearing all about their happy and quite versatile lives, their travel wishes and matrimonial plans. All open and nothing not up for discussion. Again this wish for fast social change was very apparent, but not expected in their generation. The parents were married before the revolution and their wedding pictures were without the vail. I asked for an opinion, and although it was preferred without as an option, it was such a norm now that it was not a subject of any annoyance. 
I was asked about what I saw as the difference of the cultures, and I thought it comes down to a stronger or certainly different family structure that has the children in the house till marriage (30 on average and too long as far as mother was concerned), the ever present Islamic faith that is only practiced by a relative few, I was surprised to learn, and no alcohol. I am finding it weird that one, not that I crave booze, it is just such part of our social life for it to be completely nonexistent takes some understanding. It seems like a near essential prop that enables interaction, courtship and certainly in part the fun and edgy youth culture that drives and stimulates much of our ever developing culture. 
I met another chap, Ali, today who explained that after the Iran/Iraq war in the seventies and eighties, the Iranian leaders told the families to have as many children as possible to rebuild the decimated population. So now there are huge numbers of late twenty year olds, many of whom are unemployed, living with their parents and with little prospect in this politically and economically isolated land. A sad state of affairs, and there is some anguish beneath all the smiles and generosities. 

Scenes from around Shiraz:

Omid had kindly volunteered to call the ferry to get to Dubai, so by 9 am he had let me know that they were running every day, so off I went to one of the most anticipated visits of my time in Iran.....

Persepolis is and was one of the great proofs of Iranian/Persian's significant place in history. It marks the beginning of one of the first civilizations and the largest empire the world had known....right up until Alexander the Great showed up and nabbed it in 331 BC. 

My imagination cannot really do the job of translating the remaining ruins into what must have been an extraordinary human achievement by any standards and in any era. I am sure Hollywood has done the job for me and will have to look it up. 

Now if you ever hear part of the so called 'establishment' going on about what vandals graffiti artists are, have a look at these names carved on to some of histories greatest  treasures. I am showing the tip of the iceberg, there are hundreds from  the days of our Empire. Perhaps that makes it alright? 

Here are some other poor pics of significant history

With a head full of wonder and respect, I hit the road for Bandar Abbas early afternoon, to get the ferry to Sharjah near Dubai. It is over 400 miles south and I wanted to do as much in the remaining day as poss. Darab is a town about 200 miles along the road the way and got there at about 7pm. I asked for a local hotel, and was guided to this very snazzy and looking place. My immediate thought was that it would be way over budget, and although I would have stretched it a bit being knackered by the many hours in 45 degrees, I could not believe it when the very pleasant receptionist said it was about £15. A lovely room with en-suite and breakfast to boot. 
My plans to leave at 5 am to avoid the heat did not have a chance against this most welcome comfort and I did not get away till 7,30. 

About 2 hours later, Batty ground to a halt, I had run out of fuel. It shouldn't have happened, as I give a very wide safety margin on the Garmin fuel gauge of 300 miles, when the range is 4-500 miles. And I was at 250ish.  I had noticed that I had been putting in more oil on the last few fill ups, so I guess I was being warned something was amiss. 
As luck would have it there was a sort of road side cafe 1/2 a mile on, and as we were on a hill, it was not even a push, but a glide. 
If I meet other people as friendly and generous as the Iranians on my travels, I will be of course delighted, but surprised. The guys enjoying their tea and lie down in the shade, sprang into action when they realized what the score was. One guy, Hero 1,  went off in his car to I think a farm whilst the other 2 Heros made sure my tea glass was always full and engaged me in the best conversation, without a word of each other's languages. From my trip, to all things Iran, the chat went on and on until Hero 1 returned with 10 liters of diesel. Unfortunately Batty did not want to start and Hero 1 got about bleeding the system. It is not that I wasn't happy to do it, but he was right in there and knew his way about a diesel, eventually we ended up swopping the injector for the spare I had. The old one was very coked up and probably had a lot to do with the poor fuel economy. She started up straight away. 
I begged to let me pay for the fuel and the time (at least an hour), but I could not for the life of me. 
Batty was going well now, although the local diesel is really smoky and I could see my black trail as I powered up the hills in the mirror.  Going at the same speed as a lot of trucks, I had chocked on hundreds of miles of what must be the world's most polluted roads, I was giving some of the same. Not a great moment in this supposed Eco trip. 

As it happens I have only stopped at a diesel station twice to top up the mainly Veg oil that I had found quite easily, including from a pizza joint. The trouble is that diesel here is massively subsidized and a gallon is just pence,  had I done the whole of the country on it, it would have cost maybe a tenner. As it is I must have done at least 85% of the 1500 miles on veg oil, which is about £1 a litre. I don't suppose running trucks on veg oil is going to take off here for awhile. 

Oh and another thing I have had to struggle with paying for is fruit, which I picked up at road side stalls. I just wanted a couple of the delicious local peaches, but always get given 4 or 5, and a blank refusal to be allowed to pay for them.

Leaving Iran.
If I ever come across a people on this trip that has a more complex and long winded customs and freight procedure, I will be annoyed, but surprised. 

I booked into a hotel in Bandar Abbas and after a very welcome shower, went to find a travel agency that Lonely Planet recommended. The temperature is in the mid 40s and as humid as anything and the healthy walking option soon became a silly idea, but it was too late and I arrived at the agency not looking or feeling my best. I was offered lots of tissues. 
This is when I was told that the ferry was full for a week, I could not believe it. Nothing in what i had read or understood had given any hint of it getting booked up so. It was when she did not know about the bike's price that I started thinking that there was a lot of communication failure getting in the way. It was too late by then to do anything other than go back to the hotel. 
I got on one of their very slow Internet pcs to see if I could glean some more. Luckily I found a  new thread on Horizons Unlimited that thankfully gave the shipping company name and address. So along I went in the morning at 8.30. What followed was a near 10 hour bureaucratic trail that took me to over 20 offices for parts of a puzzle that I had absolutely no idea had to do with what. At last by six in the evening I had my passenger ticket and Batty was ready for embarkation. 2 hours was spent sitting around and another 2 involved going back to the hotel to check out and collect Batty, but it had been a marathon. I read of others taking half a day.
Once the process was in play and I was confident that I would go that evening, I was surprised at how relaxed I was, pretty confused but relaxed. All the guys in the process were warm natured and happy to take this dumb foreigner through the ordeal. The night before I had been on quite a decline with the prospect of a week in one of the hottest most humid places I had encountered. 
Batty waiting to board at Bandar Abbas

That is where all those water melons come from

So what of Iran, do I want to come back? It has been, to date, the most challenging land I have been to. Not that I was ever in any remote danger or had any aggression shown me, in fact I have never had such warmth from those in uniform and those not, but in terms of having 2 weeks in near isolation from my kin, culture and language. In fact I only met 1 Frenchman and a group of Swiss lads for about 15 mins in the whole 2 weeks. Although the Internet works,  it does not like, BBC,  newspaper sites etc etc and I rather gave up trying to get and send email as it took forever and one had to hunt around a bit. I would love to come back, but I would with others and with a great English speaking guide. I would also come in the spring when it is much greener and cooler. There is so much to see and do, a life time is not enough.  The people are fabulous, the landscape stunning and the culture fascinating and rich. The food has been good, kebabs in the main, I am sure that I did not try it's best. Carrot jam is everywhere and I rather got a taste for it, along with the honey that breakfast always came with. The breads were flat and delicious fresh, teeth breaking if the slightest bit old. 

28th July UAE
Waiting to disembark, in an oven like ship's hold for a few hours

Ship docked at 10.30am, managed to sleep for about 5 hrs on the boat in train like seats. Because there were 100 more passengers than normal it took until 5.30 pm to clear the customs etc. Again I had read others who took just an hour or so, so I really pulled the short straw on this passage.
As if it was the most normal thing in the world, when I went, mid trail, to get the Carnet stamped in a little hut at the docks, the guys asked me to join him and his colleagues for lunch, it was all laid out and it was a delicious curry, something my taste buds had been crying out for. They were originally from India and I think Batty's Indian heritage may have had something to do with it. A great welcome to this new land.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Iran, 16th to 23rd July. Orumiyeh to Esfahan

Kirim, who owns the hotel,  has been a complete star. He lived in the US for 10 years and speaks very good English. I had asked him the day before if he knew an insurance broker and he arrange for an acquaintance of his to come by. I had been warned on many blogs etc that the scammers at the border will try and get $100 USD, but the price you should pay is $30 USD. So that is what I was expecting..... Not the $10USD I was charged. 
His stardom carried on as he took me in hand and walked me through the amazing bazar that is next to his hotel.  It goes on and on, and every so often he would stop an ask a pal where to find a sheepskin. This was accompanied by a running commentary about local things, national things, women in vails,  importing plastic was fantastic. Sure enough I saw some fleeces and 5 minutes later and for about £10 a deep and luxurious addition was made. I did not dare say that I had heard you can get them for £5 at Ikea, anyway this had a story. Back to Batty and we chopped to size. The leather was deemed to be too dry, so after a bit of consultation with the artisans that Kirim had found to make some straps to attach the skin to the seat, animal fat was prescribed. This man had friends everywhere, and next thing I knew, we were in a butcher, with a lump of fat the size of a brick, rubbing it into the hide. I had to head on. 
Karim on the right

Some fun going on in the street for the holiday weekend that was just beginning

We have done some packaging illustrations for Ahmad, and here it is practically the only tea.

Another night for Batty in the Foyer of the Hotel

With the lump of fat and the sheepskin bundled into my backpack ready for the next 'oiling' I headed south and made for Bukan, a town on the map. 

Not a long ride, about 3 hours, but it is getting hot. 40 degrees according to my brilliant new whistle that I had picked up in an army surplus shop in Van. Not only does it whistle loudly, it has a compass and a temp gauge. John McComb had tipped a whistle as a good thing for a single biker to have. If the bike falls on you and you can't budge it, a whistle will last longer than a shout.

Got into town and was pointed to a building that was a hotel. I need to learn what the Farsi figures look like for the word Hotel, as the Latin text is getting pretty subtle in these parts.  
هتل is it...I learnt in the end

Met Davud in a very tasty local Kabab place, I am continually being greeted and welcomed, but Davud spoke good English and enough to converse. He found the idea that I was 46 and had no wife or family of my own particularly extraordinary and told everyone of this phenomenon that we were to meet, as he guided me around the town. Even his parents and brother, when I was taken to their house. I had asked him if he was married, but he laughed and said he was only 17, which he look a lot older than. A dinner had been proposed, but alas I had eaten, it would have been quite an experience. Anyway by 9 I was ready to go and left. Apparently it had made Davud's year....

17th Bukan to Hamadan. 
Hard riding, with strong headwinds up in high plains and harvest on the go. Sheepskin v comfortable. 
Rather a thought free day. 
Had 3 offers from people for me to visit their homes. 

I had heard that Iranian driving was quite a sight to be hold and it is. The cocktail of large slow trucks, not many dual carriageways, and a shameless confidence born of a faith that is bound not to fail them when  overtaking over a blind brow of a hill. 
You certainly have to keep your wits about you. Eventually one begins to read it and even understand it, well.... I got a smile and a wave from a chap who screeched back on to his side having attempted to overtake the car that was over taking the truck that was coming around the corner to face Batty, who had every anchor over the side, and was running for the ditch. 

A good thing is that one knows that they won't have been drinking, so it is at least sober reckless driving. 

It is the same on the streets when walking around, it is a sort of dance that everyone does whilst crossing the street through all the traffic. People of all ages, just make their way across any speed of road that in the UK would have had them arrested. 
I started noticing a fair number of people with limps, but that could have been caused by anything I suppose. 

18th July Oridibehesht hotel, Hamadan. 

Either there is a general lack of appreciation that red on a tap infers hot, and blue cold, all plumbers are colour blind, or there has been a huge over supply of one colored taps and at different stages, but it has developed into a joke that initially frustrated me. Every bathroom so far in Iran has been a trickster that has caught me out, one can almost hear the plumbers sniggering away. 

Good snap of the new seat cover

How a marble hill is chopped/sliced down...we will see it in a loo soon.

Some enthusiasts who pulled over and gave me some fruit for the journey

Not very clear but this arch is made of spent tank shells

                                                            Hamadan town centre

It may have been the last 2 nights spent in hotel rooms that could best be described as prison cells that have caused this feeling that I am in a sort of incarceration. The rooms were white tiled floors and walls and only one hard white central light a piece. The beds were single metal framed, with the hardest mattresses ever claiming to be one. But that was not really the reason for this feeling, I am quite happy in simple and fussless places, it is the communication incarceration that is beginning to get to me. Everywhere I go there are out stretched hands of welcome, invitations to people's houses, constant friendly questions in pigeon English which answers are not understood, and failing sign language. Here is this lovely people, intelligent, warm and interested, who I cannot have the conversations I would so love to have. It is an alienation that is vexing me. Further intensified by the Farsi text, that I cannot read, rendering menus and signs meaningless. The guide book shows some of them, but there is such an overwhelming  bombardment of new forms, in so many styles, that it would take months and years to grasp it.  

I suppose it is one of the challenges of solo travel. 

The Spanish course I have on the iPhone is going to be mastered for South America. 

Estefan. Melal Hotel

Have spent 2 days and 3 nights here. It is a slightly higher notch hotel and has BBC WS on the tv and saw the Murdochs' do their ever so humble act. 
Have often heard that it is a gem of a city and wanted enough time to see it. Mette gave me a couple of names of people to look up and spent the first day just wondering around the many sites of this world heritage city. I was picked up by a guide called Esam and arranged to have a full day going around the next day. 

That gave the rest of the day to tackle the Contemporary Art Museum  and the Natural History Museum. 
Some familiar birds, but old and dingy...the 50p ticket seemed expensive for what they showed...out in 30 mins

These macabre exhibits seemed to attract every one the most.

These 2 were the only exhibits that the Art show of advertising students had and my opinion
The Car one is a photo of an undamaged car, but crumpled to make it look smashed up.

The tour around the sites with Esfahan with xxx ( not going to put his name here for reasons you will see) was a fun day, as much in what I found out about his life and dreams, as the spectacles of the city, which were numerous and great and photos will tell their stories.

Ferdosi Bridge, 1 of 5  crossing the Zayandeh

Taj al-Molk Dome, maybe the finest brick Dome ever

XXX sending a love message no doubt

Chehelsotoon Museum Murals; Wars

                                               Chehelsotoon Museum Murals; Parties

Chehelsotoon Palace

Chehelsotoon Palace

Chehelsotoon Palace

Lotfollah Mosque...probably the prettiest of all. 
Taken with a image joining device on the Camera, not convinced

                                            Lotfollah Mosque, from across the square
Lotfollah Mosque

Imam Mosque

He is a 28 year old highly qualified in numerous languages and business courses. He and some pals run their own carpet shop, and he does some guiding when they are quiet. He lives at home with his highly religious parents, as everyone does till they get married. He has never had a girlfriend to speak of, that went beyond a kiss. Again this is pretty much the norm till you marry. 
We got to this conversation after I told him about the trip I am doing, and he sort of joked about having a girl in every country. I brushed it of and quipped that maybe a few years back as a younger man I might have had a go. He sort of cried out that he was so unhappy that as a young man he, like all his friends, were deprived of sex and knowing that the world over it was pretty much going on. I had to put him right about western girls didn't think of sex in quite the same way as men do, and there was a process to relationships that could fail at any stage before the bedroom....more often than not. I think he was rather disappointed that the average number of partners in the west for boys and girls was about 6, so there were many who just had 1 or 2 in their lives. So sexual frustration was a world wide phenomena and his experience was probably akin to my parents generation. Then people just got married much younger as a way to satisfy these natural force. 
Did he not have girl-pals that he discussed this with I asked, but it was just not something he has or could. I would love to have that conversation with a local girl here, but there is hardly any eye contact, and a conversation of that nature seem as likely as flying carpets. 
I had been developing this theory, before I met him, that the men and women here were rather like avian species, as a lot of the blokes do themselves up like peacocks, that would have them at home along Old Compton Street in Soho, whilst the girls are veiled. XXX liked this theory and thought it about right, although he dressed pretty straight and the girls are beginning to show more hair and face, and their true beauty is abundant, but still under wraps. 

I once had a few dates with a girl called Scheherazade who I had met at a wedding a few years back in London, she was half Iranian and a complete knockout. Alas it did not go beyond a few kisses either, but the preparation for this land of beauties was started. 

When questioned it was more of a social revolution that he prayed for, rather than anything vicious, but he wants it now and was happy to take to the streets and follow, but not lead it.