Sunday, August 23, 2009

Rider on the Storm

Baku, Sunday August 23

I'm back in Baku today, contrary to my original plan. I left five days ago, headed north to the Caucasus mountain town of Xinaliq, hoping to trek over the mountains with a horse carrying my baggage and bike for two days until I reached the road to Georgia. Sadly, it didn't work out and I've been forced to retreat and take the long way around the mountains via Baku; I plan to leave tomorrow morning early. However, it was a good trip, despite the rain, with some impressive mountain views, some exhilarating and exhausting riding, and an amazing ride back into Baku blown by a stiff tailwind.

My first three days in Baku were absolutely slothful, lounging around Natalya's apartment, reading, eating and using the Internet. On the fourth day, I bestirred myself and rode out to find the Ateshgah fire temple in Suraxani, on the outskirts of the city. I was foiled in my attempt at first by the orgy of road-construction in Baku, which made all my maps out of date. I ended up on the new airport highway, which loops far out to the east before coming back to the airport. By the time I realized my error, it was too late and I got to the airport and doubled back on the old airport road before getting lost again. I ended up in a photogenically decrepit oilfield and took a photo of rusting "nodding donkey" wells pumping away. Five minutes later two policemen came and took me to the local station to yell at me for compromising national security with my photo, so I had to delete the offending snapshot.

After all this, the temple was a bit of a let-down, but it was interesting that despite the Persian name, it was in fact a Hindu temple for long-travelling sadhus. There may have been a Zoroastrian fire temple here once, but not in recorded history. It's one of quite a number of natural fire sources on the Abseron Peninsula, and indeed throughout the region; Joanne and I saw another one, the Chimera, on the Turkish coast last summer. The ride back into town took only 22 km, rather than the 44 km I covered on the way out, and on the way I found a welding shop to repair the small braze-on eyelet that holds my back rack in place and which had sheared off on the way into Baku. The guys in the shop were hilarious, and seem to know how to do a good job welding too.

Leaving Baku on Wednesday, I left ludicrously late (like 11:30 am!) and rode slowly through the post-Soviet post-industrial apocalyptica of Sumqayit, where dozens of petrochemical plants once poisoned the air and water, and which now rusts away in peace. I made it 100 km up the coast, stopping below the sacred mountain Beshbarmaq to camp. The next day I had a slow slog uphill in the rain to Quba, a small pleasant town with (apparently) a Jewish village across the river, and (definitely) the best doner kebabs in Azerbaijan. I cycled another 15 km up the river and camped in a lovely meadow that would have had great views if it had stopped raining.

After a rainy night, I spent the entire next day riding to Xinaliq, a mere 36 kilometres away. My average speed for the day was a mere 7.4 km/h, which tells you that it was a strictly uphill sort of day. And what uphills they were! The Soviets, when building roads, do not go for any wimpy European or Iranian ideas of what a sensibly steep grade is. The steepest bits are a 20% grade according to my cycling computer, which is like an intermediate ski run. On an unloaded bike, that's doable, but with 40 kg on the bike, I had to abandon all dignity and push the bike up several steep bits, cursing and swearing the whole way. I haven't been on such steep stuff since the jeep tracks of NW Pakistan 11 years ago, and this might have been steeper. At least it was paved! The road led through a spectacularly photogenic gorge straight out of a Chinese scroll painting, and up, up, up through green hillsides distorted into crazy shapes like a Salvador Dali pool table. After the last pass, I rode up a mercifully flattish valley with two road maintenance workers, drank tea with them and then pushed up the cruel final uphill into Xinaliq town, feeling glad that I'd donned my long tights and Gore Tex jacket for the first time this trip: it was cold!!

I quickly discovered that my hike wasn't going to happen. You must, by law, take a guide and the guides, with a monopoly, gouge tourists mercilessly, asking for crazy sums of money. The cheapest offer I got was for $500 for 2 days' walking across the mountains to Laza. I would never pay that, and the incessant rain made it a bit of a moot point anyway. I absorbed what views I could between the rainclouds, put up my tent and cooked up a huge meal.

The next day (yesterday) I awoke to more rain, did some bike maintenance (changing disk brake pads for the first time ever: a fiddly job!) and then, when the rain had stopped, rode back to Quba, making it there in time for another doner kebab lunch. I left at 3 pm, hoping to make a few kilometres back towards Baku. And I did: about 110 of them in the next 4 hours, flying along on a downhill (at first) and a fantastic tailwind (later). It's been a long time since I made so many kilometres so effortlessly. I camped out 60 km from Baku, and was in town today by noon, ready for more loafing and Internet. Tomorrow, the road to Georgia awaits, and I should be at the border in 4 more days. Insh'Allah.

Peace and Gale-Force Tailwinds

Riding Day No.

Date

Distance

From Bushehr

Daily

Distance


Final Elevation

Vertical

Metres

Cycling

Time


Average

Speed

Maximum

Speed

Daily Destination

27

8/19
2793.1
98.0
0
441
5:35
17.6
41.9
Beshbarmaq

28

8/20
2886.6
93.5
968
1280
6:46
13.8
28.3
Qacras

29

8/21
2925.2
38.6
1952
1919
5:03
7.6
40.1
Xinaliq

30

8/22
3081.4
156.2
18
866
7:13
21.7
51.5
Sitalcay

31

8/23
3142.2
60.8
0
319
2:42
22.6
47.9
Baku



Sunday, August 16, 2009

Basking in Baku

Sunday, August 16, Baku

I am sitting on the couch here in the spacious downtown apartment of fellow ex-Yangonite Natalya, who's now teaching at the International School of Azerbaijan and who is graciously hosting me. After a month on the road, a few days of urban civilization, nightlife, quiet and books has been a much-needed boost to my morale and body. I will likely be here another day before continuing my Journey to the West by heading north (go figure) out of Baku up towards the Caucasus.

The three days of riding I had here in Azerbaijan were a very mixed bag. The first afternoon, after finishing my last post, I rolled a few kilometres north of Astara to find a cheaper hotel (it looked like rain, so I didn't feel like camping) and lucked into a really nice joint run by Mammad, a genial mountain of a man who looked like an ex-con turned hotelier. As I was settling in, a carload of four Brits showed up headed for Mongolia overland in a battered Skoda. They were great fun to talk to, and were quite self-deprecating about how ill-prepared they were. They had no map of Azerbaijan, just a digital photo of a rough sketch map that they'd seen at the border. When they took a wrong turn, they were halfway back to Georgia before they realized they were heading west instead of south. In a great idea, they painted their car with chalkboard paint so that everyone could write graffiti on it, and it would be washed clean after each rain.

I set off early the next morning, via the amazing Yanar Bulag, or Flaming Fountain. There's an upwelling spring of water that's full of methane, and the methane bubbles burst from the water surface and can be set on fire, resulting in an unusual sight of hot flames dancing atop flowing water. I then rode through a pleasant hilly landscape of forests and orchards and village squares full of men drinking tea and playing dominoes in leafy cafes. In Lengkaran I stopped for some quick internet and had a funny conversation with a gaggle of hairdressers from the salon next door. On the way out of town, I bought a baked chicken stuffed with a delicious walnut paste and lunched alfresco beside the road with a bottle of beer, a loaf of delicious fresh bread and peaches. It was intensely delicious but I ate so much that I could barely move afterwards, making for a lethargic afternoon. I kept stopping in search of inspiration, buying batteries and ice cream, soft drinks and beer, reading my guidebook in a cafe. I finally gave up the struggle and camped behind a farmer's abandoned barn, fighting with my recalcitrant stove to make tea.

The second full day of Azeri cycling the scenery rapidly became very dull, sort of the Netherlands without picturesque villages. Or good cheese. I was uninspired by the flat uniformity of the landscape, as yesterday's hills receded inland and I crossed the pancake flat plains beside the Caspian. Headwinds kicked up strongly during the day, and I again sought excuses to loaf beside the road or in cafes. I passed through a town of post-Soviet apocalyptica, a shattered landscape of abandoned, decaying factories spread along broad rusted railyards, in the town of Salyan where I stopped to buy a SIM card for my phone. I abandoned my hopes of a big 140 km day and camped just outside Shirvan National Park, home to the last remaining wild herd of gazelle in Europe, but unfortunately closed for the day when I arrived. I camped sheltered from the raking wind by the ruins of an electrical substation.

The next morning I awoke early, determined to make good time on the run into Baku. However, the previous day's headwinds had freshened into a mild gale and battered me mercilessly all day, reducing progress to a crawl and sapping my will. Luckily I had lots of things to see to keep my mind off the incessant clawing of the wind. It started with a francolin pheasant racing away from me beside the road. As I stopped to watch it run, I saw more motion behind it in the distance and, pulling out the binoculars, watched a herd of over a hundred gazelle racing away from the road over the savannah. I was still congratulating myself on my luck (I had given up hope of seeing them after not being able to get into the park the previous day) when I saw a herd of two-humped Bactrian camels grazing right beside the motorway, great for photos. I was reminded of some of my other camel encounters along the Silk Road: in western Xinjiang, and along the Oxus in Tajikistan. Always nice to reconnect with the original transport of the ancient caravan routes that I'm retracing.

I was in Elet by 11 am, ready to seek out mud volcanoes. It took over an hour to find the way (nobody really knew its location, least of all the Lonely Planet) and pick my way over an oil-stained landscape onto a tiny hill surrounded by the Caspian where pint-sized mud volcanoes burbled away. They looked like scale models of real volcanoes, but the mud was not at all hot. Like real volcanoes, the "hot spot" (here more like "wet spot") moves over time, leaving inactive cones to erode slowly in the rain and starting new craters nearby. I could have stayed for hours, but Baku beckoned.

I then cursed and sweated my way up the road to Qobustan in search of Paleolithic petroglyphs, which proved to be up a steep hill below some cliffs that were once lakeside thousands of years ago. It took a while to find the first of the petroglyphs, but once I knew what I was looking for (paved walking paths rather than vague trails through the grass) they were much more obvious. They were really interesting carvings: lots of bulls reminiscent of Lascaux (apparently they're really the extinct European aurochs), hunting scenes, a long reed boat that got Thor Heyerdahl theorizing about ethnic connections, lots of deer, and quite a few human figures doing some sort of dance. In places carvings had been inscribed over older carvings many layers thick, resulting in a dense network of incisions almost impossible to decipher. I thought back to the petroglyphs on the shores of Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan that I had seen in 2004, and how almost identical subject matter and style could be found thousands of kilometres apart, evidence of prehistoric contacts along the pre-silken Silk Road. On my way down the hill, I turned off to find the easternmost Roman graffiti ever discovered, an inscription from the time of the mad emperor Domitian (AD 81-96) by the centurion Julius Maximus of the XII legion, presumably sent to scout out the border territories with the mighty Parthian Empire.

Having exhausted my list of things to see, I set myself to the task of grinding into Baku against the dreaded winds. It took four and a half hours to make it 50 flat kilometres into town, fighting for every metre against the malevolent forces of Aeolus. I finally got onto the Boulevard around 8:30 and met up with Natalya who was out celebrating the first staff gathering of the year. I snarfed down food and beer and went out on the town, staying up until almost three, the latest I've been up for months, and then slept until noon, letting my body catch up on much-needed rest.

Yesterday I poked around Baku with Natalya, admiring the wonderful Belle-Epoque architecture from when Baku was the world's petroleum capital a century ago, and the Turkish stone architecture in the 700-year-old stone town. Baku's stone, like that used to build Jerusalem and Rhodes and Oxford, glows a marvellous golden colour in the late afternoon light, and injects an aesthetic warmth into the atmosphere that is almost palpable. The only pity is the enormous amount of state-sponsored renovation going on, turning entire blocks into dust-shrouded construction zones. We wandered about taking pictures, riding the funicular up to the Martyr's Cemetery and the tomb of the Great Leader Heydar Aliyev: it was all very solemn and Soviet and at the same time like Ataturk's Mausoleum, a secular shrine. Luckily the view from the Eternal Flame down over Baku Bay lightened the mood, and we strolled downhill through the stone town ready for some Mexican food and more late-night Guinness and live music.

Today has been a day of unadulterated sloth, spent uploading photos to Facebook, reading and eating. Tomorrow I will do some bike maintenance, and maybe ride out into the industrial hell of the Abseron peninsula in search of an ancient fire temple.

Hope everyone is squeezing the last drops of enjoyment out of the northern summer!

Graydon

Riding Day No.

Date

Distance

From Bushehr

Daily

Distance


Final Elevation

Vertical

Metres

Cycling

Time


Average

Speed

Maximum

Speed

Daily Destination

23


8/12

2397.2

104.4

-7

304
6:30
16.1

33.7
Celilabad

24


8/13

2504.1

106.9
-25
189

6:41
16.123.3
Shirvan National Park

25

8/14
2627.7
123.6
0

664
9:10

13.5
42.2
Baku

26

8/18
2695.1
67.4
0
402
3:27
19.7
52.8
Baku (day trip)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

In Azerbaijan

Astara, Azerbaijan, Tuesday August 11th

I am finally out of Iran and into a new country. Azerbaijan so far is much emptier and quieter than Iran, but I have to say I don't like the vibe in this border town. Maybe it was the disconcerting thoroughness that the passport official displayed towards my passport, scrutinizing every page as though he thought it was counterfeit. It took over half an hour, while the lineup behind me grew to ridiculous proportions. But I'm in!

The last two days of cycling have been thoroughly crappy. Yesterday might well have been the wettest day of the entire trip, with torrential tropical downpours all day and huge rollers coming in off the Caspian. It rained for all but 10 of the 120 kilometres to Talesh (aka Hashtpar) and I splurged on indoor accommodation. This morning, I awoke to more rain, but it stopped after a couple of hours and I got to the border in dry weather. I had a long chat with another Swiss cyclist named David (although with a more reasonable amount of luggage than the last one!) The border crossing was the muddiest and most shambolic I've been across in a while, and I got very muddy putting my luggage through the X-ray machine. At least I got in.....I was a bit worried for a while!! I had a beer to celebrate!

I should be in Baku by Friday, ready for a few days off. I hope to be able to upload pictures more easily on the faster internet connections here.

Peace and Tailwinds

Graydon


Riding Day No.

Date

Distance

From Bushehr

Daily

Distance


Final Elevation

Vertical

Metres

Cycling

Time


Average

Speed

Maximum

Speed

Daily Destination

21

8/10
2214.3
123.8

6

342
7:50

15.8

34.6

Talesh (Hashtpar)

22

8/11
2292.8
78.5
-38
268

4:21
18.1

40.2

Astara, Azerbaijan

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Feeling Rasht

Rasht, Sunday August 9, 2009

The last three days have been long and fairly tough, a dash to see a fabulous piece of architecture in Soltaniyeh and then a two-day slog over the Alborz Mountains (again--that makes four Alborz crossings in total, including one in 2004) to get here, to the holiday capital of Iran, the Caspian coastal region.

The first day, from Qazvin to Soltaniyeh, was tough, a long day (156 km) with a fair bit of climbing, although so gradual, and with such nice tailwinds, that I hardly noticed the 500 metres I had gained. There is little to say about the riding or about the unremarkable landscape (I was soon longing for the Alamut), other than to say it was my quickest day of riding this year in terms of average speed, except for my no-luggage dash from Tehran a few days ago. Soltaniyeh, when I got there, was fantastic, a small town in the middle of a dusty plain utterly dominated by one of the most remarkable buildings in Iran. Sultan Oljeitu, a serial monotheist who went through Christian, Buddhist and Sunni Muslim phases, ended up choosing Shia Islam when he became the Mongol Ilkhan of Iran. He built a new capital in the middle of nowhere (ie, Soltaniyeh) and decided with the zeal of the newly converted that he was going to build a new home for the body of the first Shia Imam, Ali (the son-in-law of Mohammed and the fourth Caliph of the Islamic Caliphate). When the authorities in Najaf decided they'd rather keep Ali's remains, Oljeitu was left with an amazing 55-metre-high dome (the biggest brick dome ever built) with no purpose, so he had himself buried in it instead. It's an amazing structure, very geometric, and I photographed and sketched to my heart's content.

The last two days have been Jekyll and Hyde. Jekyll Day was yesterday: fantastic riding over the Alborz, with little traffic, although the headwinds got bad on the other side. Today was Hyde: incessant headwinds and traffic made for the most miserable day of riding of 2009. On the plus side, I'm only two days away from Azerbaijan!

Getting kicked out of the internet cafe!!

Peace and Tailwinds!!

Riding Day No.

Date

Distance

From Bushehr

Daily

Distance


Final Elevation

Vertical

Metres

Cycling

Time


Average

Speed

Maximum

Speed

Daily Destination

18


8/7

1891.7

156.2

1764

828

7:55

19.8

33.4

Soltaniyeh

19


8/8

1993.9

102.1

436

1552

6:35

15.6

60.6
Past Gilvan

20


8/9

2090.5

96.2

16

809

6:35

14.6

60.3

Rasht











Thursday, August 06, 2009

Qiven' er to Qazvin, and Remembering the Alamut

Qazvin, Thursday August 6th

I'm back in Qazvin, which is becoming familiar on my third stay here. I got back this afternoon from a fantastic three-day sidetrip to the spectacular Alamut Valley, and am going to resume onward progress tomorrow morning.

My first departure from Qazvin was, sadly, on a bus. I took an afternoon clunker to Tehran on the afternoon of the 2nd, loading my bike in the bottom luggage compartment of the bus. It wouldn't fit, so I started digging out my Allen keys to turn the handlebars sideways, but the conductor and driver kept trying to force the handlebars in, much to my annoyance. My annoyance factor was increased when, after this display of incompetence, the driver demanded $4 for loading the bike, when the ticket to Tehran cost $1. I refused, and the passengers around me started speaking up on my behalf, so the driver retreated in a sulk after a long diatribe. After two hours of listening to music on my iPod, I was greeted in Tehran by the reprise of the driver's rant. This time we were outside the bus, and he shouted on and on and on, despite the fact that he hadn't asked for any money for anybody else's luggage. On and on he howled, and I had unpleasant flashbacks to my first trip to India. Eventually I lost my temper and did my best Earl Weaver imitation, standing two inches from his face and shouting back. Another conductor came by to mediate, and we eventually settled on a "luggage loading tip" of $1, which was still excessive but which ended my interaction with this villainous vermin. I remembered yet another reason why I prefer bike travel to bus travel: no moronic shouting matches with venal conductors/drivers/touts/taxi drivers.

After that, my flying visit to Tehran went well. With almost no luggage on my bike, I flew through the crowded streets to the old Tehran traveller's standby, the Mashhad Hotel, where my 2004 trip had ended. I went out for a doner kebab, and on the way back to the Mashhad, I passed a shop in which two men were playing chess. Seeing my interest, they invited me in and soundly trounced me twice while I had an enlightening conversation with them. One of the men said "I'm not religious. I don't go to the mosque. I don't even believe in Islam. But the government makes me pretend to be a good Muslim. Most Iranians are probably like me, but we get ruled by the 20 percent who are religious fanatics." On the image of Iranians abroad, he said "I went to Europe a few years ago, and once when I gave my passport to the clerk at a hotel and he saw that I was Iranian, he drew his finger across his throat and looked at me. I think this man was very stupid; he only receives one channel when it comes to Iran. Just because the US had a president for eight years who was just as stupid as Ahmedinejad, it doesn't mean I need to behave like that to an American. It really made me sad that that hotel clerk was so close-minded."

I set out the next morning before first light, trying to get out of Tehran before its infamous traffic and smog had a chance to build up. I was 40 km from my hotel by 8 am, and cycling with an Iranian rider whom I had passed earlier and who had caught back up to accompany me. We didn't have much language in common, but it was still fun to interact with someone who shares my interest in cycling, and I was sad to see him peel off and head to work at his factory; he does a 32 km commute every morning and night on his mountain bike. After that I was on my own in an insane maelstrom of traffic which lasted until almost 100 km from Tehran, which is how far the smog, traffic and horrible grey dormitory towns spread, like mould along the edge of a bathtub, west of the city, along the foot of the barely-visible Alborz mountains. I kept my head down and enjoyed the sensation of riding fast, unencumbered by luggage; I averaged a good 5 km/h faster than I would have with full panniers. About 110 km from Tehran, I ran into David, a Swiss cyclist who was towing an intriguing locking trailer which held the phenomenal amount of 100 kg of luggage (just when I was lamenting the fact that my luggage weighs around 40 kilos). He's the only cyclist I've ever met carrying a full-sized folding aluminum lawn chair. We exchanged news and tips, before he grunted off towards Tehran and I zipped along the remaining 50 kilometres to Qazvin, finishing my 158 km before 3 pm and rewarding myself with a good nap and then a great meal at the home of a young lawyer who had stopped to talk with me along the road. Good conversation, even if the food was disappointing take-out kebabs. I was happy, too, with having closed the gap between my 2004 and 2009 trips, so that now I really can say truthfully that I've cycled the whole way from Xian to here.

On the morning of the 4th, having pared down my luggage by leaving behind cold-weather and wet-weather gear, extra books and long-term spare parts, I set off for the lair of the Assassins: Alamut castle. I have been fascinated for years by the Assassins, as the Ismaili Muslims were known during the Middle Ages. I first heard of them in William Dalrymple's book In Xanadu, and ten years ago Joanne and I made a memorable visit to a couple of Assassin castles in Syria. Since then I've wanted to visit the global headquarters of this secretive organization, popularly depicted as being 12th-century forerunners of al-Qaeda, striking terror among rulers throughout the Middle East who opposed them by a program of systematic targetted murder by young fidayeen who were not expected to return alive from a mission. More recently, however, a revisionist view has started to take hold that they were in fact Muslim equivalents of the French Cathars: free-thinking humanist scholars who were brutally put down so that their seductive ideas of liberal living would not take hold further afield. Alamut, founded in 1090 by the first Assassin leader Hassan Sabah, "The Old Man of the Mountains" as Marco Polo called him, was their first castle and the sect's headquarters until its destruction by the Mongol armies of Hulagu Khan in 1256.

In Iran, as in Syria, the Ismailis chose inacessible, isolated mountain areas to establish themselves. The Alamut valley is cut off from the main caravan routes of central Iran by a high pass over the foothills of the Alborz mountains to the south, and by the main wall of the Alborz to the north. To this day, the valley is hard to get to, making it perfect for a short bike trip: little traffic and spectacular views. I set off early and after 20 relatively flat kilometres, the road gained 800 metres in a mere 12 kilometres, an average grade of about 7 percent. It was a long, hot grunt over the top of the pass at 2280 metres, but the views at the top over the valley made up for the tired legs. I plummeted down 1300 vertical metres in another 20 km to cross the Alamut River, and promptly began climbing again, steeply up the opposite bank. All day I rode this crazy roller-coaster of a road, gaining and losing hundreds of metres at the drop of a hat. The landscape was wonderful, with expansive views over the peaks of the Alborz and the isolated green oases where irrigation brought the hillsides to life. I tried to figure out what mountain range I was most reminded of, but it eluded me. The sense of space was reminiscent of the Annapurna Range in Nepal, while the coloration and oases were straight out of the Pakistani Karakoram. There were hints of the Moroccan Atlas and even Patagonia. I met a group of student protestors from Tehran who were taking their first day off the streets in over a month; I admire their courage, but I wonder if they have any hope of succeeding in changing their government. I rode all day in a haze of pleasant impressions, before finding an isolated campsite and calling it a day after 2400 vertical metres of climbing. Luckily I put the fly on my tent for the first time, since there was a cool wind, as I had my first rain of the trip, a series of thunderstorms that kept waking me up throughout the night.

The next day I dropped precipitously back to the main river, got to the turnoff for Hassan Sabah's castle, and proceeded to climb 800 metres in a mere 7 thigh-burning kilometres. The whole way, the rock of Alamut, "The Eagle's Lair" dominated the view, rising precipitously from the verdant cherry orchards below it. I would not have wanted to be a Mongol soldier plodding up the hill, looking up at the inacessible fortress I was expected to capture. (The castle was captured, in the end, largely by trickery and forged documents.) Once I had bought my entrance ticket and parked my bike, there were still 150 vertical metres to climb on foot, up a rickety staircase that would not have been there 900 years ago. The nearly vertical rock was a formidable defence, and with the extensive system of water cisterns atop the rock, Alamut could have weathered a siege for several years. There's not much left standing up top; the Mongols systematically destroyed all of the hundred or so Assassin castles in northern Iran to root out the Ismailis. However, the views are stunning, and there's enough foundations to visualize what the castle must have looked like. An archaeologist working there told me that Alamut had a famous and extensive library that was put to the torch by the Mongols; he subscribes to the Assassins-as-humanist-freethinkers school of thought.

I tried to absorb as many views and impressions as possible, but I was eventually adopted by an extended clan of Tehranis and whisked off to a barbeque at a nearby lake. I rode my bike back down the hill from Alamut (my brakes were so hot at the bottom that when I sprayed water on them it vaporized instantly), and then tossed it into the back of the family's pickup truck for the ride to the lake. Evan Lake was very pretty, but the best part was swimming in it, and then stuffing myself silly on ridiculous amounts of rice pilaf and BBQ chicken. I set up my tent beside their encampment, and had a wonderful night's sleep, undisturbed by any precipitation.

I wanted to set off early this morning, but I had to fix my first flat tire in Iran, and while I was doing that, the family cooked me up scrambled eggs on toast and loaded me down with pistachios and dates for the road. I had another day of big climbs, over 1900 m, and by the time I got to Qazvin, my legs were done! Time for a big feast of qimeh nasar, the local lamb and pistachio stew, and then to bed to get some sleep for tomorrow's dash towards Soltaniyeh. I'm only 5 riding days away from Azerbaijan, and I'm getting excited about a new country!


Riding Day No.

Date

Distance

From Bushehr

Daily

Distance


Final Elevation

Vertical

Metres

Cycling

Time


Average

Speed

Maximum

Speed

Daily Destination

14


8/3
1542.0

158.8

1280

778

7:02

22.6

46.2

Qazvin

15


8/4

1630.7

88.7

1366

2385
7:22
12.0

51.8
Past Moallem Kelayeh

16

8/5
1655.2
24.5

1730

1021

2:10
11.3

55.2
Evan Lake

17


8/6

1735.5

80.3

1305

1923

6:00

13.4

53.4

Qazvin

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.

Date

Distance

From Bushehr

Daily

Distance


Final Elevation

Vertical

Metres

Cycling

Time


Average

Speed

Maximum

Speed

Daily Destination

9

7/28
951.1
138.0
1633
1060
8:48
15.0
60.5
Natanz

10

7/29
1026.0
74.9
1005
533
4:14
17.8
52.1
Kashan

11

7/30
1133.2
107.2
990
463
6:01
17.8
31.9
Qom

12

7/31
1263.9
130.7
1415
874
7:36
17.2
39.1
40 km past Saveh

13

8/1
1383.2
119.4
1280
645
8:03
14.8
31.3
Qazvin