August 27th, 2016
Full Trunks and Bladders
We’re having breakfast on chairs and tables that have been completely covered in plastic. We fantasize about an alternative that would oblige all guests to cover in plastic, head to toe. After breakfast we think we can load the bikes in the quiet basement, without onlookers for a change, but there’s always the hotel personnel to watch your every move.
A cold engine, a steep and quite slippery uphill slope and a narrow exit at street level: not an ideal start but we manage. Because we don’t know whether we’ll (want to) find a hotel tonight, we shop for camping provisions in the next town. We get water, pasta and tomato sauce (what else?). We fill our Camelbak water bladders, my white Rotopax canister on the Camel and an extra water bag of 6 liters (1.6 gal) for a total of 14,5 liters (3.8 gal). That should do for a night of camping.
The Two-Roads Rule
We enter Golestan National Park. Instead of colorful rocks or rolling meadows, this park actually has luscious green woods. There is more traffic than expected, especially on a Saturday, the first day of the Iranian work week. Many cars are parked along the meandering asphalt road through the trees. We follow their example and have lunch in the woods. When we return to the bikes, a whole family is gathered around them. More questions, of course. We get treated to fruit and tea and they even offer to take our garbage with them!
The forest thins out but the park remains beautiful. We could have camped at our lunch spot but we wouldn’t have covered enough distance today. We do start early looking for possible wild camping spots. We’ve never done this before so it might take a while finding something suitable. The consensus among motorcycle travelers seems to be that one tries to find one just before sunset and quickly set up camp in the dusk. This way the chances of being seen by anyone are lower. And if they can’t see you, they probably won’t bother you afterwards.
The ‘two roads rule’ of wild camping states that a quiet camping spot is likely to be found at least two turns off the main highway. We apply the rule half an hour before sunset and turn into a dirt road. We would have liked to camp between trees, but there aren’t many to be found at a sufficient distance from the highway. After a turn onto another dirt road we do find a farmer’s field that has been harvested and there is no farm around. We are in the middle between two shepherds’ camps that are each 500m (550yds) away.
I am the first to ride onto the field and Petra follows. The ground is hard enough so it’s quite easy until I encounter a slightly muddy rut. I make the beginner’s mistake to try to steer out of it. WRONG!. Almost immediately I’m down on my left side, without damage due to the low speed. What happens though, is that my tank bag moves forward and down and rests on the horn button. Or rather The Horn button! Let me add to the experience of wild camping that it is also important not to be heard…
I switch the ignition off as soon as I can and look around. Nobody seems to have noticed or be bothered by our presence. Now I have time to feel like an idiot. We pick up the bike and ride another 100m (100yds). We set up our tent surprisingly quickly as we’ve only practiced this in our living room when it was snowing outside. Instead of the parquet pegs we use the sand/snow pegs and we’re happy we’ve brought them.
We are also happy with our cooking equipment. We enjoy our spaghetti and our tea, leaning back in our ultra light camping chairs. Actually, that’s Petra leaning back because my camping chair has only two legs. Except for some crying wolves far away, and the shepherds’ dogs crying back, this is a nice and peaceful place. We have a good view of the milky way. This is really is a gazillion star hotel. The scraping high grass in the wind sounds like footsteps, as does every sound on your first night of wild camping. We get used to it and fall asleep quickly.
August 28th, 2016
At 6am we hear a shepherd commanding his dog. He manages to steer his flock of sheep exactly around our tent. I always thought that sheep may help you fall asleep, but they can also wake you up! The herd disappears slowly and we turn around once more in our sleeping bags until the morning sun burns us out of our tent. Preparing our breakfast and cleaning and packing up takes quite long because we don’t have a routine yet. We are spotted by a farmer harvesting on a nearby field but he’s not bothered by our camping spot. Great.
We leave on the same path that we came, this time avoiding the rut. At a fuel station we replenish our water reserves and fill up our tanks and stove, all the while chatting and taking photos with interested Iranians. The road to the town of Quchan is not very long but seems so due to a rather short night sleep and the heat.
We could use a shower and a wash of undergarments after yesterday’s ride and last night’s camping adventure so we look for a hotel in Quchan. Under the eyes of ten bored and staring men we walk to a hotel and find out that it’s actually closed and probably has been for a while. Instead of fondling my clutch lever these men could have tried to tell us right away, I think.
The other hotel looks absolutely awful from the outside. We’re not very happy. We’re tired and don’t want to keep on going. Because it looks like camping again we buy some food at a small shop under the eyes of another group of staring boys and men. They aren’t a threat but aren’t helpful either.
We don’t expect any other accommodation along the 80km (50mi) between this place and the Turkmenistan border. We’re told that there are no hotels until we reach the city of Mashhad, which is the wrong direction and too far to reach before sunset. This doesn’t look great at all. That is, until Farhad appears from beyond the crowd and speaks with us in good German and English. He asks us if we need anything.
We explain the situation and without a doubt in his mind he offers that we can stay at his parents’ house. He is actually on his way out of town with three friends to go hiking in the mountains but they postpone their departure to take us to his parents. I can see him using his phone from the back seat. “Mom, dad, guess what? You’ve got foreign visitors tonight! … Yes, in ten minutes.”
Resistance is Futile
We can safely park our bikes in the yard of Abdul Reza and his wife Farzane. Their younger son Mohammad Jawad is there too. Farhad gives us his phone number and leaves with his friends. Our hosts’ English is limited but better than our Persian so we communicate with simple words, gestures and Google Translate. Having prepared Persian as an offline language — and using short and simple sentences — we can at least express our gratitude for the warm welcome with tea and fruit. I’m glad I brought my tablet because it allows us to explain our trip — where we’ve come from and where we’re going. I can also draw pictures on it and this makes it a useful tool for communication.
How lucky are we? We were on the street a few minutes ago, reluctantly preparing for another night of camping and now we’re received by another very hospitable Iranian family! It is really nice, as a complete stranger, to be received like a family member. People in the West: take notice.
We have a nice and warm shower and even get a tasty dinner on top of that. Because Farzane and her youngest son are going to visit Farhad in the mountains tomorrow and have to get up really early, they insist that we take the big bed in their bedroom and they sleep on mattresses in the living room and their office. We try to protest by explaining that we have our camping mats and sleeping bags but all resistance against hard core Iranian hospitality is futile.
August 29th, 2016
Developments in the KFMM Competition
In the morning our host Abdul Reza is home alone — well except for two strangers. His wife and son have already left, but not without preparing a wonderful breakfast for us. A.R. helps us loading the bikes. Before we leave we manage to thank him using Google Translate once more. We express our appreciation for good meals, a shower and a comfortable bed when we needed it. I don’t exactly know what Google Translate made of it but I do get three kisses on the cheeks after this, so I must have done something right.
With a bit of insistence from our side we give him a Swiss pocket knife and Farzane a headscarf as tokens of our appreciation. A big smile and three more kisses for me. Attentive readers among you will know that it’s now 18-1 in my favor in our kisses-from-muslim-men-competition. We ride off waving and honking our horns. Thank you very much, Abdul Reza, Farzane, Farhad and Mohammad Jawad! We’ve had a wonderful time.
We want to cross the border to Turkmenistan at today. We don’t know how long it’s going to take or whether we still need to pay anything in Iranian Rials so we don’t bother finding an exchange office in Quchan. The road to the border town of Bajgiran is fantastic. The tarmac is great, there are many curves, a great view and almost no traffic!
Upon arrival in Bajgiran we understand why there was no traffic: the border is closed, apparently for some interior decoration (or that’s what I got from the explanation). Now what? Our transit visa state that this is the border we are supposed to cross. The lonely border guard explains that we can take the next border crossing east of here at Lotfabad.
We have a look at the map and see that Lotfabad is a 160km (100mi) detour. We’re not sure whether we are going to make it before the Iranian and Turkmen borders close. Even if the road remains as good as it has been so far it’s still going to be a challenge because the map reveals very curvy roads further east.
We try to make it to Lotfabad anyway, making good progress on the mainly empty sportbike-worthy roads through nice scenery. It still takes about three hours to cover the distance and we know we’re too late. The only town around is Dargaz. We don’t want to stay here and buy provisions for camping. All we need to do is find a camping spot now.
Lotfabad itself is a small village with many houses made from clay and straw along a bumpy main road. We notice that the road beyond Lotfabad follows the border for quite a while. There are two reasons for not camping close to this road. First, it is a border area with many border guards in small shacks who get nervous when anyone spends more time here than necessary. We don’t want to be accused of anything on our last days in Iran. Second, there are many small signs in this border area. The signs show skulls and explosions and some text in Farsi. The text probably doesn’t say “safe camping spot for pirates with fireworks”.
The area is beautiful and looks unreal. There are many steep half-domed brown hills and dips unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Alas, no photos in border areas, special agent double-O-zero! When the road leads us away from the border we start searching for camping spots. We try several side roads, but they are either too sandy or too steep for our liking. All the great spots along a river are taken by farmers and we even end up in a small village using the two-roads rule…
After 70km (45mi) we almost loop back to Dargaz and still haven’t found a good spot. Instead of riding to Dargaz, we go south now. While we take a quick break to eat something, two policemen arrive in their car. They ask us what we’re doing and we explain the need for a place to stay. Their English isn’t very good but they do manage to call a colleague or friend who does speak English. There appears to be no hotel in Dargaz so the policemen suggest: “Why don’t you go camping in the mountains? It’s very safe.”.
Well, that’s what we’ll do then. It appears to be an old road that turns unpaved quite quickly. That fact that it’s old also means that it isn’t used very much, which is good. Just before sunset we find a spot on a dry meadow, 200m (220yds) from a tight turn. We are spotted by a few people finishing their picnic but we (and they) can’t be bothered.
We set up camp quickly in the last daylight and have another spaghetti dinner. We cover the back of our bikes with one bike cover to prevent the reflectors and number plates from drawing any attention from the headlights of vehicles. The drivers that negotiate the tight turn through a small creek are too busy to notice us out here anyway. An added benefit of the covers is that we have a bathroom now where we can clean ourselves up out of the wind.
Silence, the milky way and a hot cup of tea are great to let this busy day fade out.