August 16th, 2016 (continued)
Time for Money
Before we head to Esfahan tomorrow, I give the bikes one last check-up down in the garage of the hotel. I check the tire pressure, spokes, cooling liquid, the chain oiler and the tightness of various screws and bolts on both bikes. I replace the oiled air filters with spares — cleaning the old ones will have to wait. I also add some more dampening material for the Camel’s headlight fairing because the vibrations have started to become stronger again. It’s quite a bit of work in the humid air of the laundry service in this basement. I’m happy with all the tools and botch materials that I brought. They weigh more than a little but they also make us very independent. Some people would argue that that is actually a disadvantage on a trip like this.
We also spend about two hours to walk around the neighborhood looking for an exchange office. There are many, but every time we walk in and ask whether they can change money for us, they shake their heads and throw their hands up in the air. That is without me pointing a gun at them. Perhaps they close at 4pm, but why would they all be sitting at their desks then? We hate wasting so much time for something that would only take 30 seconds if we had the possibility to pay by card.
Telltale Signs That You’re in Iran:
- Drivers are doing at least three things that don’t have anything to do with driving. We’ve seen: being on the phone, being on two phones, remodeling the glove box or repairing the taxi’s CB radio.
- On the street, there are always at least four white Peugeot cars in sight.
- You’re never more than 20 meters (60 ft) away from a near accident, probably involving white Peugeots.
- Drivers are reversing full-speed on off ramps with a blind bend.
- If nobody honks their horn or flashes their lights, that means that you can keep on driving, whatever you were doing.
- It smells like exhaust fumes in many places. I guess that air cleanliness is measured in parts-per-million (ppm) here.
- A box of paper tissues is never more than 5 meters (15 ft) away. Petra was a bit disturbed by one that said “we love to entertain you” on its side.
- You’re carrying money in plastic bags because any reasonable amount does not fit in your wallet.
- If you need to pay, and a shopkeeper says “four” then you give him 50.000 Rials and get two times 500 Tomans as change.
- Many people say “Hello”, “Welcome to my country” and offer you tea, sweets or fruit. Or all at the same time.
August 17th, 2016
Today we’ll be leaving Tehran in the direction of Esfahan (a.k.a. Isfahan). Esfahan is 470km (290 mi) away from here. We expect to do more than half of that today and spend the night in Kashan.
We take it easy loading the bikes. There are more hotel employees in the garage than usual. They ask for group photos with us and we’re happy to comply. When riding through the exit, an employee of the laundry service blesses Petra by sprinkling some water over her. All help is welcome in this traffic.
The ride through Tehran isn’t that bad or perhaps we’ve gotten used to the chaotic traffic meanwhile. Once we’re out of town on the dual carriageway, the Iranian friendliness continues. Can you imagine doing a 250km (150mi) trip in your country on the motorway and half of the drivers and passengers of other vehicles are waving and smiling at you? Maybe we should do this in the West too, everyone, starting tomorrow. Why not?
Heroine in Iran
We have a quick lunch at a roadside restaurant with more Olympic weightlifting on TV. When leaving, Petra is approached by a man who is interested in our bikes and our trip but unfortunately doesn’t speak much English. He also introduces his wife so she doesn’t get any wrong ideas.
Usually contact is made when the women approach Petra first. A woman on a bike draws a lot of attention here because Iranian women are apparently not allowed to ride motorcycles at all. And men are not allowed to ride anything with an engine larger than 250cc. So we can imagine that Petra is a heroine in the eyes of many Iranian women, riding a bike that is 2.5 times larger than her husband is allowed to ride. Add her luggage to the picture and it all looks quite impressive. Don’t tell them it’s only a matter of technique. And staying alive.
We think it’s really hot today and we’re not the only ones — drivers park only in the shade of huge billboards. We’re crossing desert landscapes with the occasional salt lake. In the blazing afternoon sunshine we need to keep drinking enough to stay focused. We postpone wild camping again for another place and another time.
The first hotel in Kashan is trying the last-free-room-trick and asks a preposterous amount. With a bit of searching we find the Iranian House instead. We can park in the neighbors’ yard (with their consent). They even invite us to tea and bread when we’re done unloading the bikes. Lovely people.
Kashan’s architecture has been tuned to the desert climate. The houses are built around the gardens instead of the other way around. I guess it’s to prevent the garden from evaporating while you’re out for a quick run to the market. The natural air conditioning is also very impressive. This is achieved by building a sort of chimney that reaches down to the lowest levels of the house. Air from any direction at the top of the chimney is directed over a water basin in the tower. The evaporation of the water cools the air that is then led to the living quarters through air vents. That is cool. Literally.
The heat and the sweating have exhausted us. We have dinner in a beautiful restaurant with authentic architecture. It has just the right level of bling.
August 18th, 2016
Lioness at the Fuel Station
This is the first time I’ve used my inflatable camping mat because the bed is as hard as the floor. Breakfast is really decent and served in a cool basement. What a contrast with the heat of the scorching late morning sun in the neighbor’s yard when we’re loading the bikes. A more effective way to cool down rather than pray to the god of air conditioning is ride off to get some air flow through our jackets.
We’ve reached Kashan with our fuel meters deeply in ‘reserve’ yesterday and need to fill up urgently. I’m 2 liters (0.5 gal) from empty and Petra only 1 liter. That means we still had about 30km (20mi) to spare. The station attendant calls Petra a “lion woman” which probably means that she’s very brave riding her own bike.
When I return from shopping for fruit and drinks I encounter a familiar sight. There are eight Iranians around Petra, taking photos and asking questions. One of them is Ali who is traveling back to Shiraz with his wife and son. He asks us if we’d like espresso. What? Yes, please! He takes out his stove and Italian style coffee maker and makes us two darn good espressi, served with cookies from his sweets and cookies company. This would be the point where I’d ask you how many times this has happened to you on the road.
An hour later we have lunch at another — hopefully less crowded — roadside rest area. Things are looking good but when I return from buying the missing parts of our lunch, Petra is being bombarded with questions by another Iranian family. With me present, there is another photo shoot with all of us. Grandma pushes her grandchild into Petra’s arms with the international gesture for “look, one tooth already!”. The ladies take their chance to talk to a Western woman and are genuinely interested. So it seems that a quiet lunch is not possible but we’re enjoying the warm reception instead. Just before the family leaves, one of the daughters comes back to give us a full tin of cookies with pistachio nuts!
Not so interested in a chat is the grandma who just walks up to us without a greeting or a smile and just takes a dozen photos of us while we’re chewing away at our lunch. We let her but think ‘bugger off Grandmarazzi!’
Brava! <Click Click> Brava! <Click>
Except for some lost points in dealing with traffic lights, drivers in Esfahan appear to be less chaotic than in Tehran. We honk ourselves through oncoming turning traffic and reach a hotel close to Si-o-Seh Bridge. This is a bridge over the Zayandeh River or actually over the Dry Zayandeh Riverbed. The water is kept in a reservoir that is used by the city in summer and they’ll turn the river’s water back on again in October.
We’re just here to see if they have a room available, but one of the employees insists that we take the parking spots closest to the door. This causes a lot of hoopla among the many guests using the hotel entrance. There are enthusiastic Italian ladies calling “Brava! Brava!” to Petra. More photo sessions with the Iranians. More questions. Business cards and phone numbers are provided. We really hope they have a room here.
They have a room, with 15% motorcyclist discount (yeah, right), and it’s fine. WiFi is surprisingly good. The street is really busy and exhaust fumes sometimes enter the room with the window closed, even on the fourth floor. We can stay here for a few days though, see the city and decide what to do with the Chinese.
August 19th, 2016 — Just Say No
Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs reports that China is currently asking visa applicants to also provide (a copy of) their old passport if it’s from 2014 or newer. Seriously?? Guess how many of our passports would be affected by this new rule? China, if you simply don’t want us as tourists, why don’t you just say “没有”? That would make it a lot clearer for all of us and we’d stop wasting our time jumping through your stupid hoops! Have I mentioned that we’re talking about a 5-day transit just to get from Kyrgyzstan to Pakistan?
I wrote before that we’re completely fed up with the Chinese embassy in Tehran, and that’s still true, but we have one more thing to try:
(drum roll, please)
Our second passports!
(bombastic trumpet tune)
Mission Control in Zürich could apply on our behalf. We’ve looked it up and found that it should be possible. We’d most likely get 3 months visa validity, ‘because’ we apply in our country of residence. After sending our first passports back to Switzerland we could keep traveling on our second passports that have the visa for Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in it. This sounds promising.
Within a few hours we have the entire chain set up:
- Our Chinese tour operator has quickly adapted the passport numbers on the itinerary.
- Mission Control is willing to apply for us at the Chinese consulate in Zürich.
- Patrik from MuzToo in Osh has friends visiting next month and they are willing to take our passports with them from Switzerland to Kyrgyzstan.
- We’ve also found copies of our old passports on the replacement backup drive that Petra brought from Switzerland. Ha!
What could possibly go wrong?
August 20th, 2016
The End of the Circle
We’re calling the Chinese consulate in Zürich to be sure that visa applications can be done by a third party in our absence. To save some costs, we’re using an application on my phone with a Swiss VoIP subscription. Conveniently, the consulate’s automated phone answering system is mostly in Chinese. It goes like this:
“Ni Hao Sjun Sjing Foo! Na Fu Wang Thi Puo Fwe Do Feng Shui! Lo Phi Mu Seestrasse Hunderteinundsechzig. Xièxiè!”
We try to guess our way through the menus, hoping to get someone on the phone but we seem to be going in circles, which is the sole purpose of most automated phone answering systems.
A big part of the morning is spent on preparing the new visa application forms that we’re going to send to Zürich together with our passport photos and first passports. Then we’re off to the DHL courier office to send the envelope to Switzerland. The friendly employee gives us the disillusioning news that passports are considered prohibited goods because Iranian law forbids sending passports into or out of the country. We ask him again just to buy some time to let this bad news sink in. We even bothered to look up whether it’s allowed to send passports from Iran and haven’t found that it isn’t allowed.
Spurred on by our promising plan, we’ve spent a big part of yesterday and today on the Chinese visa problem again. Result? Zip, zilch, zero, هیچ چی, nada, niks, nüt. We’re both used to achieve at least something when putting enough effort into it. That’s why this is so extremely frustrating! Theoretically, our last option would be to find someone — trustworthy and willing — who will travel from Esfahan to Switzerland soon. This is very unlikely. Realistically, this was our last chance.
In the evening we have dinner at the Shahrzad Restaurant. It has received many good reviews, but it’s all very touristy for our liking.
The food is really good indeed. When we’re done, the waiter puts a receipt with Persian numbers on our table. He has been so courteous to us foreigners to write the amount in Arabic numerals as well: 1.9 million Rials. This can’t be right. It’s way too much. We tell him and he just points at the amount. We know the Persian numerals by now and ask him for the menu again so we can compare. He ignores us and suddenly points his attention at a table next to us.
We’ll get the menu ourselves and find that the amount should be a little over half the amount on the bill, with taxes included. Our waiter is a bit nervous now and says that he will get the “English” version of the receipt. Et voilà: 1.1 million Rials. We had assumed that basic mathematics is the same all over the world, independent of the language, even in the year 1395.
What a pathetic attempt at screwing us over! His “Sorry” is the least convincing excuse we’ve ever head. It sounds more like “I’m sorry you’ve caught me”. I am not in the best of moods because of the Chinese visa situation but I decide not to make a scene. We pay and leave. A shame of the great food.
August 21st, 2016 — Masterpiece
Finally a day without planning and administrative sh*t! I take pleasure in the simple tasks of adjusting the clutch and throttle cables of the bikes in the morning sun, at my own pace. We have lunch in a fast food restaurant that makes pretty decent falafel sandwiches for €1,10 (US$ 1.20). We even manage to find a shop with good Italian espresso, twice the price of the sandwiches.
We are going to look at one of the biggest attractions of Esfahan today: the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. And what a masterpiece it is! The entrance is already impressive but the inside of this place is simply amazing. It’s a large dome and there’s no square centimeter without detailed and vibrant tiles. The light from the windows creates a golden shimmering at the breathtaking ceiling. We really take our time to enjoy it. It’s low season so we even manage to photograph it without another tourist in it.
It’s stunning things like these that make us appreciate the opportunity and effort to ride away from home and ‘go see the world’. When riding we sometimes tell ourselves that we’ve made it “all the way to the Acropolis”, “all the way to Ishak Pasha” and “all the way to the Lotfollah Mosque” on our own bikes. From home it all seems very far away but that can’t be true if you can reach it on your motorcycle, can it?
We have a short look at the bazar and then visit the Abbasi Hotel. The hotel has a big, beautiful and quiet garden where we enjoy tea, ice cream and Fereni.
August 22nd, 2016 — Melting Souvenir
Our Chinese tour operator suggests that we send our passports home from one of the Stan countries instead of Iran. They think there would still be enough time to apply for visa and to send them back to us before our transit on October 10th-14th. We spend a little bit of time to figure out from which countries passports may legally be sent but are aware that this information might not be correct, as we found out the hard way in Iran.
Same procedure as yesterday: sandwiches and espresso. When waiting outside of the coffee shop I am greeted by a strange guy who has first annoyed another group of tourists. He shakes my hand and tells me he is the owner of the coffee shop (which he isn’t). “That’s not possible because I am the owner of this coffee shop!”, I tell him. He didn’t expect that answer, confirmed by a his big sigh and rolling eyeballs. When I look into the shop, the real owner gives me a big smile. The irritating man tries to save his performance by giving me a menu and asking me what I want. I say “I already know the menu because I am the owner of this shop!” He gives up and we have two good espressi.
Today we visit the Imam Mosque. It’s very nice as well, but there is a lot of restoration work going on so it’s hard to take a photo of the inner square without scaffolding or workers on it. Yes, we’re a bit spoiled by the splendor of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque.
The shops around the Naqsh-e-Jahan square sell a lot of handicraft souvenirs. We’re not terribly impressed and happy that the salesmen aren’t so pushy to sell us something. Petra buys a small tile that will still fit in our luggage and I decide to buy an authentic ice cream, which is even easier to transport home, on my hips.
August 23rd, 2016
Amsterdam to Esfahan
Today is our last day in Esfahan. We need to be at the border with Turkmenistan on August 29th and it’s 1260km (780mi) north-east from here. If we don’t want to hurry and have a spare day for unexpected delays we should really be going tomorrow.
We’ve actually postponed our departure here so we can meet Leonie and Peter, two motorcycle travelers from the Netherlands. They have set off on their Amsterdam to Anywhere tour around the world almost three years ago and are now on their way home. We have been in touch by e-mail and WhatsApp before and found out that our routes through Asia are nearly the same but in opposite directions. I predicted a month ago that we would have coffee in Esfahan and that will come true with a bit of cheating from our side. They are coming from the city of Yazd today so we’ll only have one evening with them, unfortunately.
In the afternoon we spend some time on the blog and our notes. For reasons explained before, we’re not publishing anything while we’re in Iran but that doesn’t mean we can’t select photos and write some text.
We also do some last sightseeing at the Ali Qapu Palace. This proves to be quite a disappointment except for the view over the square from the big balcony, partly hindered again by restoration work and scaffolding.
Strangers to Friends
We agree to meet Leonie and Peter in the Hasht Behesht Garden near the palace with the same name. Due to a problem with Peter’s motorcycle chain in the morning, they’ve arrived later in Esfahan than expected. But waiting in Iran is never boring, especially in a lively park like this. We have many conversations with inquisitive locals in the mean time. In fact, we can barely free ourselves from the last ‘interviewers’ when they arrive.
We have a great evening in a rooftop restaurant. As is common when ‘overlanders’ meet, there is so much to talk about! Although, admittedly, we are only in ‘adventurous country number two’, we’ve been dealing with the same kind of preparations and problems on the way. We’re so involved in chatting that we use a thousand words for every photo we forget to take.
A common theme is also the fact that relatives and friends may think we are simply on a very long vacation. Traveling over land is not vacation! There is so much to do, plan and (re)consider!
We thought that it might be our ‘fault’ that traveling in Asia is so complicated with our visa woes. We are almost relieved to hear that seasoned world travelers like they are also describe Asia as the most difficult in terms of planning and visa headaches. They’ve also seen their share of ‘adventurous moves’ like sending passports home or even taking flights to other countries to solve such problems. So if we ever do this again, we’ll seriously consider South America, where you can cross borders as often (and almost as easily) as you change your socks.
We explain our Chinese visa situation and they offer their very generous help: they will take our first passports and visa applications to Turkey, from where they will send them to Zürich! Unsurprisingly, we have brought the envelope with all required documents that we had planned to send by courier, and a list of UPS service points in eastern Turkey… Their reaction: (hands in air) “Now we can finally do something for someone else after all the great help we’ve been given during our trip!”. Thank you so much!!
After we get kicked out of the restaurant we get our promised coffees with free(!) ice cream. We continue talking in the park until almost 2am. If we hadn’t been too tired, I’m sure we could have talked until breakfast. We have a cordial goodbye and each go our own ways. See you wonderful people again!