Despite my enforced early start yesterday it was still mid/late afternoon by the time I hit the outskirts of Tehran due to all my stuffing around looking for a money-changer and the too-numerous photo stops.
And this landed me smack bang in the middle of Friday afternoon peak hour traffic. Tehran is a BIG city – on a par with London and New York, except the driving is much worse. Much, much worse! Not as bad as Delhi, mind you. Nothing is as bad as the driving in Delhi. Driving/riding in Delhi is beyond description. It has to be seen/heard/smelt/felt to be believed. But at least you don’t have feral goats and cattle in Tehran, just feral M-series BMWs and CLK Mercs.
But I digress.
With a little bit of help from a friendly surveyor I found Ferdowsi St without too much trouble (it would have been a bit hard to miss – it runs due south from Ferdowsi Square. Duh!) But, despite my many attempts, I could not find the hotel in the chaos of the crazed traffic. Eventually I pulled up beside a policeman who seemed to be completely mortified that a western tourist had stopped to talk to him. After a bit of mime and mapping he pointed to a small side street about 100m away. The hotel was not on Ferdowsi Street at all. It fronted a small side street coming off Ferowsi.
The Ferdowsi International Grand Hotel
The so-called mid-range Ferdowsi Hotel was actually called the “Ferdowsi International Grand Hotel”. And it certainly lived up to its grandiose title. One look at the ornate, almost life-size prancing horse statues guarding the entrance and the doorman wearing a cap and jacket said it all.
At first, I was reluctant to even approach the main entrance but the “help” were very helpful and took me to a desk clerk who spoke quite good English. She told me single rooms were 1700 toman/night (which is 17000 rial). This was equivalent to about US$80/night. For what it was the price was a steal. A similar room in Sydney would have been $150-200/night at least. I hadn’t stayed in such a fancy hotel since the Awari Hotel in Lahore nearly 3 months ago. And after the flea-pit in Gorgan I was looking for an upgrade! They also changed money at an unbelievably generous rate. I took it.
And so the “Ferdowsi International Grand Hotel” became my home for the next few days while I tried get a feel for Tehran.
Yademan Tower in Gorgan: architectural monstrosity complete with revolving restaurant at the top.
Next morning I was up at sunrise. I had no choice. Unfortunately, my room faced east and the morning sun was streaming in through the curtainless window. It was already getting uncomfortably hot so I decided to get on the road as soon as possible before I started dissolving in a puddle of sweat.
After extricating my bike from the courtyard up a few steep steps and through a narrow gate I headed out to do battle with the early morning trucks and buses.
On the way out of town I passed the new and controversial Yademan Tower in Basij Square. A combination of part spaceship and part 70’s kitsch, the Yademan Tower is Iran’s second tallest tower after the Borj-e Milad in Tehran. An eye-catching piece of architecture for all the wrong reasons.
My goal for the day was to reach Tehran. Originally I had planned to avoid Tehran completely. But, just like my plan to avoid Delhi, my new route took me directly to another megalopolis. The Iranian capital is home to about 10-15million people so I had to steel myself for more high-speed chaos.
But before I got to Tehran I had over 400km of riding ahead of me – 150km along the steamy Caspian coastal plain before heading south, back over the Alborz mountain range to the relative comfort of the dry desert plains of Tehran/Qom plateau.
And the ride through the mountain pass turned out to be an unexpected joy.
Carrot jam? Yum – breakfast of champions!
After a somewhat peculiar interpretation of a western breakfast at the Negin Hotel I had a quick look around the city of Bognurd before I headed off. It seemed to be modern and soulless – just like the hotel.
With little of interest to keep me in Bognurd, I headed for Gorgan, 350km up the road. Gorgan is the eastern gateway to the Caspian Sea and to get to there I would have to climb up a low pass that separated the mainly desert province of Khorasan from the very different province of Mazandaran, the thin slice of northern Iran jammed between the Alborz Mountains and the Caspian.
Discussions that I had previously had with travellers who had travelled the Caspian Sea route across Iran often cited the humidity of the Caspian coast as the main reason for disliking it. After living in northern Australian for the last 35 years I discounted this as a plausible reason for disliking any particular region.
I should not have dismissed them so lightly. Continue reading
I had been in Mashhad for 4 days now and, in my travels so far, I had found that 3-4 days was about the right length of time to spend in one place if I wanted to have a decent break without feeling like I was getting bogged down again.
But I was starting to get itchy feet and the time had come to get back on the bike.
The question was – in which direction? For the first time in my trip I now had a choice of routes to take. Apart from the road east to Turkmenistan, there were three major roads leaving Mashhad open to me.
The first option was due west on the main highway via Sabzevar directly to Tehran. This route skirted across the top of the Dast-e Kavir desert and while it was the quickest route to the west it was also the most boring. I had considered this route originally but, with the exception of the ancient city of Nishapur (the birthplace of Omar Khayyam), it did not have much else going for it.
The second option was south-west across the deserts of central Iran, the Dasht-e Kavir and Dasht-e Lut, to Yazd and then on to Esfahan. This had been my original intention as Esfahan is one of the most important historical cities in Iran. However the thought of travelling almost 1000km to Yazd across the dry, flat desert plateau in the height of summer was not very appealling. It would take me at least 2-3 days and there was not much of interest in between. Desert crossings in 35-40° heat had lost all the appeal they had once held for me.
The third option was north-west to the Caspian Sea via Bognurd and Gorgan. For some reason I had never really considered this route. I had spoken to quite a few fellow travellers about the Caspian Sea route. It seemed to have polarised people’s opinion – they either loved it or hated it!
My mind was made up. I would scrap my plan to visit Esfahan and head to the relative cool of the Caspian Sea to see for myself.
It was a decision that I would come to regret.