August 24th, 2016
East and North or North and East
We leave even later than usual due to our long chat in the park last night. We need to leave Esfahan to reach Turkmenistan in time. The timing is important because we have transit visa for Turkmenistan that are valid from August 29th to September 2nd only. We don’t know how strict they are and we don’t want to find out either. Therefore we opted for the shorter 5-day transit visa. A longer visa duration would have been possible for tourist visa, but such visa require a pricey and mandatory guide/minder from the Turkmen government. It would be really nice to camp near the Darvaza Gas Crater, but not at over US$ 100 (€90) extra per person per day. Besides, the engineer’s voice in the back of my head says that the burning gas crater is a waste of energy. So much for romantic desert camping at the ‘Door to Hell’.
Turkmenistan borders Iran’s northeastern provinces. Bajgiran is name of the border crossing at which we’re supposed to report in five days. There are basically two main routes of nearly equal length to get from Esfahan to Bajgiran. The southern route leads past Yazd and then crosses the semi-desert (on asphalt) to Mashhad with very little in between. From Mashhad it’s 225km (140mi) to the border. The northern route leads to Qom, south of Tehran and then east from there. Between these routes lies the Dasht-e-Kavir desert. The maps show roads through this desert but we don’t know the state of these roads. What we do know is that villages are few and far between.
To be on the safe side we choose the northern option, which also gives us the opportunity to ride through some national parks. We already know part of the route (to Qom) and that the main roads in Iran are generally very good. There are more towns on this route so if we’d need help we would get it quicker.
Cover Your Behind
Our chosen route should be cooler too, but we don’t notice any of that today. It’s really hot again, especially for Petra who needs to keep her motorcycle jacket on during rest stops. It’s illegal for women in Iran to dress in something as revealing and short as a T-shirt in public, let alone the light synthetic undergarments that we wear under our motorcycle gear. Officially women’s clothing in Iran shouldn’t emphasize the female form and be long enough to cover one’s backside. Petra’s motorcycle gear doesn’t entirely comply with that. The pants are rather baggy but the jacket is short. So far, we haven’t heard a single complaint about that from any Iranian including the undercover Hijab Police (no pun intended). They are probably too surprised to see her ride a motorcycle and there might be something like a ‘foreigner bonus’.
Petra does wear a headscarf though, which is also required by law. Wearing one isn’t compatible with wearing a helmet so there is a time when the helmet and liner come off and hair is visible. She has a headscarf within reach and wears it soon after she’s taken her helmet off and everyone has been fine with that as well.
We skip Kashan this time and reach Qom just before sunset, with more waving, photos and small gifts of food & drinks from Iranian travelers along the way, of course.
Qom appears to be a very conservative city that is well known for camping: every woman here wears a big black tent. I keep wondering where they put the tent poles but I’m not supposed to stare at them that long. All nonsense aside, Qom is the largest center of Shia scholarship in the world. Therefore many of the campers and their families are pilgrims.
Traffic flow engineering hasn’t been invented here yet. The traffic is very dense, as are the nauseating exhaust fumes. We have the usual passport battle at the hotel and paying ahead resolves the situation. From now on, the receptionist is nice to us again and insists that he brings our tea all the way to our room. He also suggests that we park the bikes in a guarded parking overnight, which is a good idea. When walking there I am asked by strangers whether I am from Turkey or Thailand. Iwandragga shakes his head.
We get take-away food and eat it in our room because we don’t feel like sitting in the local restaurant. As a bonus, Petra doesn’t need to sit in public with the inqompatible tarp on her head.
August 25th, 2016
not(Chador) ⇒ Haram
I’ve taken the motorcycles one by one from the guarded parking lot to the hotel entrance so we don’t need to carry our luggage around two blocks again. When I return for the second bike, the cashier comes to me and gives me half the parking fee back. He felt sorry that he charged me double although we only used a parking spot for the size of one car. Neat.
When loading the bike there are many interested passersby. One woman asks Petra whether I am her husband. She confirms this and the woman then asks why Petra is not wearing a Chador. This is probably not the time to joke and use pantomime to tell her that we forgot the tent poles, so I do my best to keep quiet while strapping the luggage to the bikes. The woman tries to explain that this is haram for married women. We pretend not to understand that haram means ‘forbidden by Islamic law’. Well, we guess we should be leaving soon then.
The same terrible traffic as yesterday evening. We get to enjoy another not-well-thought-out detour around large construction works. By the time we’ve left the city, both of us have an emissions-induced headache already.
We Feel Deflated
The road from Qom to the north east in the direction of Garmsar seems quite new and is quite empty. It leads us through a desert landscape on both sides. This experience is heightened by the occasional herd of camels. I add the sight of a warning sign with a camel on it to the collection of signs with deer, cows, school children, frogs, airplanes, sheep and elderly people. I hope that we won’t break down here because it’s scorching hot, there is no shade and camels have no opposable thumbs to help us out.
We have our late lunch break at a fuel station near Garmsar. As we’re sitting in the shade, I notice that my rear tire is looking ‘flatter than usual’. The pressure is a depressing 0.5 bars (7 psi). Bad news. The good news is that this must have happened just recently because I would have noticed such a low pressure when riding. More good news is that we’re at a fuel station with a small shop, a toilet and shade. Even better news is that I’ve practiced mounting a set of Heidenau K60 Scouts on our balcony at home when it was just above freezing. Here, the 40°C (104°F) in the shade will keep the rubber soft and it will be much easier to get the tire partly off and on again. I’ve got all my tools and I feel relaxed. The only thing that’s missing is our balcony.
Petra takes on the job of warding the ever-interested bystanders off with a torque wrench, or at least answer their questions so I don’t get disturbed. I know this may sound antisocial but if we don’t do that it will take forever if we let everyone take photos with us.
The culprit is found quickly: a crooked nail. The tire comes off quickly as expected. Tip: bring some tire mounting paste and don’t mess around with soapy water. It stays on the rim and tire much better, so you’re done much quicker and it only costs you little space in your luggage.
I use a spare tube so I can repair the punctured one when I have more time. After putting it in and levering the tire back on, I check whether the tube is not caught anywhere between the tire and the rim. This doesn’t seem to be the case. Then I inflate the tube with the electrical pump. This is all going very well until the tube loses pressure instantly. Crap!
The tube must have been caught between the tire and the rim anyway, but I couldn’t see it! This didn’t happen when I practiced… Another tip: before inflating the tube to operating pressure, inflate it just a little, then use a tire lever to lift the tire off the rim in various places around the rim. Because the tube is slightly inflated, this will make sure it slips from between the rim and the tire when you lift it, if it was caught in the first place.
This stop will take a little longer than expected. I take the ‘brand new’ tube out again and see that it’s got three punctures in a row. A typical so-called snake bite puncture, albeit by a snake with three fangs, or rather a beginner with an electrical pump. I fix the punctures as well as the puncture in the first tube and put the tube in again. Following my own tip above, all works well. While I put the wheel back in, Petra now uses a tire lever to ward off the selfie crowd. This is not entirely fair or accurate: as always, we’ve been treated well by bypassing Iranians. We’ve been given water, melon, cookies and another calendar. The calendar is probably a tongue-in-cheek gift to keep track of my progress.
The air pollution here is worse than usual. It’s not only because of the smoky cars and trucks but also because this fuel station is powered by a huge diesel generator. Yes, in the desert where there is more solar energy than you could possibly need to operate a few fuel pumps and a cash register. The result: a throbbing headache and newly paved lungs.
We’re finally done. Two more selfie sessions and we’re really done. It has gotten dark meanwhile and although we generally avoid riding in the dark, we’re willing to take a chance because the main highways in Iran have all been very good. So we’ll ride the next 110km (68mi) to Semnan in the dark.
At first we think it’s getting foggy until we realize that it’s only foggy behind big trucks. Our headlights are showing what remains mainly invisible in the strong daylight: these are all exhaust fumes! It’s amazing and disturbing at the same time. How about lifting some sanctions and let these people buy trucks that are newer than 1968? It would save many an Iranian life.
We reach Semnan without any further trouble. The hotel’s receptionist actually believes his own fairy tales and does not even accept our offer to prepay the room. We haggle it down to him keeping only one passport, which is pointless, but we feel better anyway.
We have a delicious lamb dish among many wedding guests. Men only because, apparently, weddings are celebrated in separated mens’ and womens’ parties. We finish quickly. This was a long day.
August 26th, 2016
Another Telltale Sign That You’re in Iran:
There seems to be no noticeable crime in Iran, yet every Saipa Saba or the equivalent Kia Pride β has a cheap 1980s car alarm. It has the same memorable alarm tune as Hammond’s BMW 325i convertible in that Top Gear episode. Every day we hear at least five of these going off in our vicinity, usually with people still sitting in these cars or actually driving them. Petra and I know the tune by heart now so we ‘sing along’ as we hear one, with big smiles on our faces.
Bravest Driver First Scheduling
We were exhausted yesterday (in two different ways), so we’re leaving late again, meaning that we’re sweating quite a bit around the bikes in the parking lot in the late morning sunshine. My rear tube has held up overnight and we’re making good progress to Damghan and Shahroud even though we’re riding a pass of nearly 2000m (6500ft) high.
It’s too early to stop in Shahroud so we continue north through the Khar Turan National Park. There is a great winding mountain road and another pass of similar height where we take photos of the wonderful surroundings. After the pass it’s all downhill and not only literally. There are many trucks on this road that are seriously hindering the traffic flow. There is a lot of overtaking — left and right, who cares? — among the drivers that are waiting to overtake the trucks, but there’s no progress. We’re in the middle of this not wanting to risk overtaking these drivers on a winding road with the low sun blinding us.
The landscape is totally different from the bit before the pass but equally stunning. There are steep rocks surrounding farmers’ fields full of abundant green crops. It’s really nice to see but we’re not happy about a few things: there is no way to stop to safely take photos, we could have stocked up in Shahroud on provisions and camp right here where we like it, it’s almost dark so we’re too late to camp anyway and we have to find some hotel in the next town. This feels like İmranlı in Turkey all over again. Stupid!
Eventually we ride from Azadshahr to Gonbad-E Qabus and back, a 35km (22mi) detour, to find a hotel. When we stop at a quiet spot in town to search on-line, a car suddenly reverses quickly toward us. A family of six gets out and is very interested in what we’re doing here. We ask them whether they can point us at a hotel on the map. This is counterproductive because it starts a long discussion among them. When I look up from my map, the crowd has grown to thirteen people. How did that happen so quickly on a place that was so quiet two minutes ago?
We find Hotel Ajam soon. The receptionist already starts bargaining the price in our favor. That’s usually not a good sign. At first sight, the room looks acceptable. We take it because we don’t have the energy or the time to look elsewhere anyway. Déjà vu!
No Star Hotel
We park at the bottom of a very steep ramp in the basement between onions on the floor, a cubic meter of mineral water bottles and the junk that was left over from a reconstruction. We move it aside first to prevent more punctures. At least the bikes are not on the street tonight.
We take the elevator up to our floor. It must have been mistaken for a urinal recently and the VERY LOUD ELEVATOR MUSIC is not helping to mask it. At some intermediate floor, the obligatory bride and groom want to enter the elevator but it’s packed with us and our stuff. Why would you want to stay in this hotel on your wedding night?
Upon closer inspection, we find out that the toilet in our narrow bathroom has not been cleaned at all. A photo is available upon request. The shower head is mounted at the opposing wall, but almost above the toilet. If you turn it on, everything gets wet, also because there is more water coming from the back of the shower head than from the front. The curtains in the room are made of really thin white cloth in a symbolic gesture to keep the light out. Because the waiter in the restaurant only knows the word ‘chicken’ we have chicken. On a positive note, we only saw two cockroaches. Each.
We are so going to camp tomorrow!