09. Iran

To Maku and the Turkish border

Due to Sam’s enthusiasm it seemed like I had been in Tabriz for a week but in fact it had been only three days. It was now time to pack the bike again and continue my journey across northern Iran to Maku – the last stop before the Turkish border. Tabriz to Maku was only 250km so it would be a relatively easy day’s ride. I could have made it to the border post at Bazargan as it was only another 30km up the road but I had learned that, wherever possible, it was usually better to approach border crossings in the morning rather than the afternoon.

Stark country side

The often stark terrain of the Azarbayjan-e Gharbi region

After thanking Sam and Agdaz for their wonderful hospitality I said my good-byes. When I went out to the bike I found it was spotlessly clean. Sam had washed the bike for me! It was no longer covered in its patina of dirt and grime that it had acquired after three months of travelling through Asia.  And Sam continued his generosity by loading me up with food and drink for the journey.

I jumped straight onto the freeway that would take me out of town. It was felt good to get away from the mayhem of the Tabriz traffic. The countryside was quite desolate in parts. Often it was difficult to discern the mud-brick homes of the villages from their rugged, rocky surroundings.

A very friendly Iranian family invited me to join them for lunch.

A very friendly Iranian family invited me to join them for lunch.

It was another hot day but it was always a great feeling to be on the open road again and by early afternoon I was in Maku. I stopped in the main street at a local cafe to escape the heat and have some lunch. Immediately I was asked to join an Iranian family for lunch. Only one of the family spoke any English and that was fairly limited. But that was no problem. The father asked about my travels and he translated for the rest of his family. I asked the family for directions to a hotel but as they were not locals but travelling through to Orumiyeh they could not help me. Eventually I found the hotel I was looking for where the hotel staff even let me park the bike in their very grand, marble-floored foyer.

That evening, as I sat eating dinner in a local restaurant, it struck me that tomorrow I would be leaving Iran. More surprisingly, I realised I had only been in Iran for a total of two weeks. Was it really only two weeks since I had escaped the absurdity that is Turkmenistan? It seemed more like a lifetime ago.

I had entered Iran with a broad plan to visit many of the ancient historical sites. One was the most famous archeological site in the world – Persepolis, home to two of the great Achaemenid kings, Darius and Xerxes. My trip was also to take me to the fabled cities of Shiraz and Esfahan. Alas, it was not to be. Instead of being a trip through “Ancient Persia”, my travels had somehow morphed into a journey through “Modern Iran”.

From the manic outpourings of modern Shi’ite Islam in Mashhad to the relatively modern, but soulless, cities of Bognurd and Gorgan to the megacity of Tehran  to the ordinary suburban life of Tabriz, I had seen 21st century Iran in a way that I could not have anticipated when I crossed the rarely-used border at Sarahs.

But my time in Iran had been all too brief. I made a mental note to myself that Iran was the one country that I would love to visit again. Had I gained any new meaningful insight into Iran – one of the most-maligned countries in Western media? Not really, other than that the Iranian people were no different to any other people. They just wanted a home for their family, enough food on the table and hope for the future – the same as people all over the world. I strolled back to my hotel in the cool of the evening realising that I was going to miss Iran.

Tomorrow I would have to make the short 30km dash to the border at Bazargan and Turkey.

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At home in Tabriz: Part II

When I awoke next morning Sam had already prepared an elaborate breakfast for me – none of your nancy-boy continental breakfasts here. It consisted of vast quantities of different meats and cheeses along with freshly baked breads and fresh fruit. It was an enormous challenge to the appetite but delicious.

As expected, Sam had planned a full morning’s sightseeing for me, to be followed by lunch back at home before venturing out again in the late afternoon for more visiting. But today would be different. Sam decided that it would be easier to use public transport rather than the bike so we walked up to a nearby bus stop and caught a local bus into the city. The bus ride took about 20min during which time I was the cause of much curiosity for locals. Apart from salaam aleikum and aleikum as-salaam I couldn’t converse with the locals but Sam was very enthusiastic in introducing me to as many people as possible on the bus.

Our first stop was another, but more in-depth, visit to the famous Tabriz  bazaar. The scale of the bazaar was mind-boggling. One could easily get lost in the intricate web of darkened alleyways and secretive caravanserai.

The elegant Sa'at Qabagi or Tabriz Municipality Building

The elegant Sa’at Qabagi or Tabriz Municipality Building

From the bazaar we made our way to the elegant, Tabriz Municipality Building. It was built in the early 20th century by the Germans and now boasts many separate small museums including the Tabriz Municipal Museum and the Tabriz Carpet Museum.

The Municipal Museum housed an eclectic collection of quaint bibs and bobs from 19th and 20th century Tabriz. The outside exhibits included odd things like a collection of early 20th century fire engines and the first taxi in Tabriz (an old W120 Mercedes Benz). Inside, the museum seemed to be dedicated to famous Tabrizi citizens. Important no doubt, but not very rivetting for an outsider.

The small gardens surrounding the building were beautiful, spoilt only by the huge fountain which had been drained for repairs.

Now that's a carpet! This priceless antique carpet measures 25m by 17m. That's Sam in the upper left corner.

Now that’s a carpet! This priceless antique carpet measures 16m by 7m. That’s Sam in the far upper left corner.

In a different wing of the Municipal Building was the Tabriz Carpet Museum.

The highlight of the Carpet Museum was a massive hand-woven carpet measuring 16m by 7m. I asked the museum attendant about the history of the huge carpet but she was only able to tell me that it was “rescued from a wealthy person’s house”. Not really sure what that meant.

Next on Sam’s seemingly endless list of museums was the modest-looking Azarbayjan Museum. It was only mid/late morning but the day was already starting to get uncomfortably hot and, with all the tramping around the streets of Tabriz, I was quickly approaching museum overload.

I waited outside while Sam haggled with the guard about something, all the time fearing the Azarbayjan Museum would turn out to be nothing more than another local council museum.

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At home in Tabriz

Sam, my geneous host and new-found friend in Tabriz

Sam, my very generous host and new-found friend in Tabriz

As I sat on the footpath trying to cool down an elderly, yet surprisingly spritely, gentleman on a modern mountain bike stopped to ask, in very good English, if I was OK. I replied that everything was fine, I just needed a break. After the usual chit-chat I told him I was looking for the Kosar Hotel.  Semsary, or Sam as he preferred to be called, gave me some simple directions to the hotel and began to pedal away.

After riding about 50 metres Sam returned and said he was heading home for lunch, and then asked if I would like to join him. With nothing better to do I gratefully accepted his offer. We headed off in the direction of Baghmisheh, a modest residential district on the eastern outskirts of Tabriz several kilometres away. As we wound our way through the chaotic traffic Sam would occasionally catch a tow from my panniers when we rode up some of the steeper hills.  Sam’s wife, Agdaz, had prepared an enormous lunch – enough for six people not just the three present. After lunch, Sam and I swapped life stories – his far more dramatic than mine.

Sam was in his sixties and a retired officer from the Iranian Air Force. But in his youth, he had served his National Service in the Iranian Army during the Iran/Iraq War where he had seen several of his closest friends killed in action. This was to affect him deeply.

Thanks to his regimen of daily cycling, swimming laps three times a week and light gym work at home, Sam was incredibly fit for his age.  He had little interest in motorcycling but his enduring passion was mountain climbing. Sam had climbed all of the major peaks in Iran – most of them well over 4500m. But the one climb that he was most proud of was scaling Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Not because of its difficulty but because he had led an expedition of disabled Iranian war veterans, sadly both young and old, including several amputees with prosthetic limbs and one who was completely blind. In his retirement, Sam had made it his own personal mission to provide some form of rehabilitation for disabled war veterans.

It made my able-bodied travel seem quite unremarkable.

As lunchtime meandered into late afternoon I made to bid my new-found friend a fond farewell but Sam would have nothing of it. He insisted that the traffic to the hotel in the city centre would be very dangerous at that time of day and that I should stay the night. I began to politely decline his offer but was really very relieved when Sam became more insistent and I didn’t have to go searching for the Kosar in peak hour traffic.

Sam and Agdaz’s home was quite roomy and split over three floors. They had three adult children who were all away with either work or study. The entire second floor was unoccupied and given over for my personal use including the ensuite. I don’t know what the Kosar Hotel was like but I doubt it could offer the same hospitality.

Unbeknownst to me, as well as becoming my host, Sam had immediately appointed himself my personal tour guide, interpreter and historian. In the time it took me to have a shower and put on some clean clothes Sam had come up with a plan for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening as well.

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Zanjan to Tabriz

After escaping Tehran, I headed for Qazvin, the halfway point on the road to Zanjan. Qazvin is one of Iran’s most historic cities. It was first founded during the Sassanian kingdom in the 3rd century AD but rose to fame as the Persian capital  under the Saffavid shahs in the 16th century, before eventually losing out to Esfahan. Originally I was going to spend a couple of days in Qazvin as it is also the main gateway for visiting the famous 12th century castles of the Assassins in the Alamut valley. But like so much of my time in Iran so far, my plans changed on a daily basis. The only thing I knew for sure was I was still heading west. Apart from that, each day was something of a lucky dip.

Hiding in the shade of a pedestrian overpass. The only shade around.

Hiding in the shade of a pedestrian overpass. The only shade from the blistering blue skies.

According to the BBC World Service weather forecast it was going to be yet another 35-40C day. The road I took was the M2 freeway, Iran’s number one 6-lane monstrosity. It was as boring as all hell. So Qazvin came and went with nothing more than a pitstop. An insult to history for sure but I was starting to run low on interest in Iran. My eyes were firmly fixed on the Turkish border.

I persevered with the monotony of the M2 and eventually Zanjan appeared out of the heat haze. It was still only early afternoon and I briefly considered riding all the way to Tabriz. But only briefly. I decided to call it a day and began the search for  some accommodation.  I found the Park Hotel, a modest little place with friendly staff, right on Azadi Square. It was nothing special but it was inexpensive and had secure parking for the bike – something the Ferdowsi International Grand in Tehran didn’t have! I spent the cool of the late afternoon and early evening wandering around Zanjan. It was a  modern city but pleasant in a way that Bognurd and Gorgan weren’t.

But my stay in Zanjan was necessarily brief as my mind wandered further afield.

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Heading for Zanjan

 But not all!

But not all!

Eid al-Fitr, the feast held to celebrate the breaking of the fast of the holy month of Ramadan, had started at sunset on Saturday which explained why the Ferdowsi’s restaurant had been completely packed. The tables groaned under the weight of a month’s worth of unsated appetites. It was party time. But without the  Bacardi Breezers and Jaeger bombs!

Which was great for the locals who had been hanging out for a decent feed. But it wasn’t so great for me. The next day everything was closed. I tried to visit several museums. All were closed. I tried to visit Golestan Palace. Closed.  I wandered around the backstreets of the bazaar. Even most of these stalls were closed. It seemed everything was closed except for the occasional street vendors.

After a couple of hours of walking for little reward I decided to return to the Ferdowsi. At the reception I asked the staff if the museums and the Golestan Palace would be open tomorrow. I was out of luck. Again. Apparently, the Ayatollah had proclaimed Monday as an extra public holiday. Good one, Tazza!

I decided it was time to escape from my gilded cage at the Ferdowsi.

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Tehran for tourists

The entrance to the Malik National Museum and Library - an iwan worthy of the Registan.

The entrance to the Malik National Museum and Library – an iwan worthy of the Registan.

Tehran is probably not on the top of too many tourist’s to-do list. Which is a shame really because it has quite a lot to keep tourists happy. It is bursting at the seams with museums. In fact, one of the reasons the Ferdowsi was recommended to me was because it was in southern  Tehran – the old part of the city where many of the museums are located.

Also within a short walk, just past the manic Imam Khomeini Square, was the Golestan Palace complex. Golestan Palace was home to the profligate Qajar dynasty for over 200  years but some of the buildings in the complex (there are  about 20 palaces and buildings) are over 400 years old.  Like all palaces around the world, the Golestan Palace is a monument to the greed and excess of its royal inhabitants.

But back to the museums. The list of museums seems endless. It includes the National Museum of Iran, the Museum of the Islamic Era, the Malik National Museum and Library and the National Jewelry Museum. Then there is the Carpet Museum of Iran, the Glass and Ceramics Museum, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and even a Post Office Museum. And there are many more museums scattered throughout the rest of Tehran.

As well as these traditional museums there are museums that show the darker side of Tehran’s history. The Iran Ebrat Museum is a truly gruesome reminder of the role that SAVAK,  the last Shah’s hated secret police, played in modern  Iranian politics by torturing political prisoners.  And of course there is the infamous “US Den of Espionage” – the basement of the former US embassy where the CIA planned and executed the 1953 coup that overthrew Mossadegh. But it is usually only open by special request.

Traditional Qajar era artwork.

Traditional Qajar era artwork.

After spending the best part of my first day doing the rounds of some of the museums I headed back to the Ferdowsi. With daytime temperatures refusing to drop below 37-38C  I was happy to return to my little piece of air-conditioned Iran.

That evening, during dinner, I studied my fellow guests. I was the only western tourist amongst the hundred or so diners. The food at the Ferdowsi was always delicious and generous and everyone at the Ferdowsi was very courteous and friendly.

But I felt there was something missing.

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Tehran – a city of revolutions

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.

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The road to 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.

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Gorgan and the Caspian Sea

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.

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Westward ho!

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.

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