Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Tehran and home again

Tehran and home again

The stay in Masoud and Selma's B&B was agreeable. Both our hosts are sports people. Their sport is rowing and Selma is the coach of the national girls' team, it is her full time job. They gave us the feeling of being a member of the family and twice we shared iftar (the first meal after sunset in ramazan) with them.
Tehran is a very big city consisting of parts separated by big highways. We lived very close to a Metro station and we used this system to travel around, quite convenient.
We visited the highlights, like national museum, the palaces of the last shah etc. and picknicked in parks. Our travel guide book stated that eating in public is prohibited during ramazan and that you can get in big trouble if the police spots you doing so. But we were absolutely not the only picknickers in the parks, so things may have changed the last couple of years. Still, travelling in this country during ramazan is a bit complicated, as you have to prepare carefully how and where to get (or carry) your lunch when going on a sightseeing tour. All in all restaurants and bars are not easy to find in this country, being it ramazan or not.
As our flight was in the small hours of the night we had a taxi to the airport at 22.00 hrs. We picked up our bikes from the baggage depot in good order, changed our Rials for a good rate, and imagine our surprise when, on entering the departure hall, we heard someone shouting our names. It was Bahram Jallipour, our Warmshowershost from Bander – Anzali on the Caspian coast, one month ago. He was travelling to his sister in Sweden with another flight the same night. He is a nice and funny man and we spent a couple of hours together, talking, repacking and laughing a lot. He is now riding his bike somewhere in Europe and he might direct it our way.....
Both our flights, in Tehran and Istanbul, departed with an hour delay, no problem. On arrival at Amsterdam airport one piece of baggage was not there though. Quite annoying, queing up for the desk for the report. The special taxi (bicycles) just had to wait another extra hour. But then.....

we arrived at our son's house just two hours after they had arrived themselves from the birth clinic: we could admire both our newly born granddaughter and her mother in good health. A very happy re-union with our next of kin and with this new little human being surprising us with her arriving in our world before schedule.

Our missing bag was delivered in good shape two days later, we had to work a couple of dsys to clear the jungle that used to be our garden and now we are trying to get used to the regular pensioners' lives. After an interesting, not always easy, but very satisfactory journey.





Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Kashan, end of this trip's cycling

We reached Kashan after 3 days of desert cycling. A pick-up truck took us 50 k north of Esfahan, from there we cycled 80 k to Natanz. Very quiet road, no traffic, no villages, no gas stations. nothing. 4 k before we reached this town Eveline got a stroke of the heat (and dehydration). She was dizzy, had no clear view nor energy and couldn't go on. I stopped a pick-up truck and they took her to the town and the local hotel. I raced after them and found her back in the street in front of the hotel, recovered. No further consequences were felt and we soon forgot the whole incident.
The hotel was one of the worst ever, imagine that we spent there a whole afternoon with nothing to do in the hot room on not very clean beds, waiting for the heat to go.
We left at first light in the morning for Abyaneh. It's a pittuoresque mountain village at 2300 alt. We reached it at noon and fortunately there is a very nice hotel. The village was nice, but as we have experienced more often, the photos in the brochures are more promising than reality appears to offer. Though, after so many travels, I might be a bit blasé by now.
The next day ride to Kashan was relatively easy. 80 kms downhill. Nothing along the road again, real desert, sometimes very colourful. The only thing we passed was the Iranian nuclear facility, the topic of so many conflicts between Iran, it's neighbours and the US. In a wide circle around it there were guns placed with their barrels directed into the skies. Waiting for Nethanyahu's bombers? We passed and photographed without anyone paying us any attention though.

In Kashan we checked in in a traditional hotel, that is an historic compound of a building with courtyards with adjoining rooms. Very nice atmosphere. We had decided to stop our cycling here, as the road to Tehran is not fit for cycling; empty, hot, too long distances between towns
We spent 2 days there, visited more traditional houses, arranged a tour by car for the next 6 days and packed the bikes in bubble wrap.


The first day of the tour we drove into desert passing real sand dunes, scores of wandering camels, an enormous salt lake and spent the night under the starry sky inside a caravanserai in the middle of absolutely bare nowhere, A very special experience. We got back to Kashan to pick up the bikes and continued north to Qom, a very holy city, dropped the bicycles in the baggage depot of the international airport and stopped in Qazvin. From there we visited Alamut, an ancient fortress on a steep rock far in the mountains of north Iran, and slept in Zanjan. We were driving hundreds of kilometers per day, crossing several mountain passes of over 2300 alt each day. The country is really mountainous here in the north, with the highest summit at 5630 altitude. 



After a night in Masouleh, another mountain village clinging to the slope we found ourselves in Ramsar, on the Caspian sea. Back where we were a month ago. A nice evening on the shoreline there and now, after a spectecular ride through the mountain range we are in Selma and Masoud's B&B in Tehran. A homely place and we are part of the family.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Esfahan, the most beautiful city of Iran

As far as we can judge this is a true statement. Contrary to other places where we have been this city has many tree-lined and thus shaded avenues, which makes strolling around a lot more agreeable. Then there are many sites to be seen, such as the main square, palaces, mosques, parks, musea, even of contemporary art, and the latter we consider very special in this religion-dominated and traditional country.



There's also a river running through the city, hundreds of meters wide and now completely dry. To the citizens' regret, as they told us, just a couple of days ago they dammed the river upstream in order to secure the water supply in these dry times. The river is crossed by several bridges, among which some very old and beautiful ones, especially the one with the 38 arches.

As we have not many days of cycling ahead of us we stayed here for 5 days, spending our time with leasure visits to the sites and reading.
Ramazan (z instead of d) makes it a bit more complicated. Only in the big hotels you can have food and drinks during the day, the rest is closed. But, as a matter of fact, we are surprised that there are so few cafés and restaurants here, you have to search for them with a candle. Strange in such a touristic place.

Then a general remark about the traffic: Though we have never found ourselves in danger yet, the way the Iranians drive their cars is next to lunatic. There seem to be not many traffic rules to adhere to. They just cut you short, block your path, park in the middle of the streets, open car doors or drive away without checking their mirrors, make u-turns on busy streets, ignore red lights and so on. For us Iranian traffic is the worst that we ever experienced. They themselves don't bother and they simply remain the most friendly people on earth that we ever experienced.

No hotel and not wanting to camp

After leaving Persepolis we had hoped and expected to find accommodation in Saadat Shar, but there was none. So we continued and were told to find a place to sleep 20 k further at Pasargad, another archeological site. Wrong.
Though we now use to start our cycling at six in the morning, at eleven temps are over 30˚C and there's only bare desert land. We are not fond of camping in the wild, but in this landscape, with rocks, sand, thistles and no trees or water, we don't consider it at all.

Then we got a lift on the blue pick-up truck of Hamid. Hamid is a sailor and is on a 6 months leave. During his leave he tends the cows of the family. After a 50 km drive we found that the next hotel was closed because of Khomeini's birthday and so Hamid took us all the way back to his family's house in Qaderabad. A simple farmer's family with the basic facilities that such country families have here. Very kind people who all wanted to greet us and speak to us (hardly possible).
The next morning Hamid, who had slept with the cows, brought us back again to the main road (60 km) and on we rode. 
To Abadeh, where we had a very nice hotel. From there we lifted again for some 50 kms, so that we ourselves could ride another 80 km to Shahreza, our last stop before Esfahan.
In Shahreza we were invited to private homes three times, but we refused these kind offers, or better requests, since we wanted to be on our own. Being in the house of strangers, no matter how kind they are, not being able to have a normal conversation with them and not knowing what will happen next and when is rather tiring. So after some trial and error we found this caravanserai hotel next to an enormous and very famous (in Iran that is) shrine. The hotel was a former caravanserai, which means that it was the place where long ago the caravans of camels and horses of the traders used to stop for the night, for commerce, for refreshing etc. A square inner courtyard surrounded by storage rooms, that are now the hotel rooms. Very historic and very agreeable.

In the mean time we had contacted Majid, a WS-host in Esfahan, who helped us find an appartment for our own in the centre of the city, where we have stayed now for a number of days.

From coast to desert

Two days after reaching the Caspian sea we arrived in Bahram's garden cottage. He's a Warmshowers host in the seaside town of Bander Anzali. A very nice and busy guy. For insiders, a bit of a Gomba type :-). We spent two days in his cottage. He took us to a very sympathetic and well organised private orphanage that he supports, where we had a wonderful meal and where he hosted another cyclist, Cyrille from Grenoble.
And he arranged tickets for a VIP-bus from Rasht to Shiraz for us and for which he involved another WS-host, Pedram, who bought our tickets for us and delivered them to us at the terminal. We deciced not to cycle southward to Shiraz, our final southernmost destination, and then take a bus back to Tehran. Because of climate-reasons we considered it wiser to do it the other way round.
So, after 50 km ride to Rasht and a surprisingly comfortable 17-hour and 1200 km bus journey (only 25 businessclass seats on board) with a good sleep we arrived in Shiraz at 06.00 the next morning. And yes indeed, Reza, our new WS-host came to meet us there (another service by Bahram). First thing we did was repair a flat tire, which had miraculously occured a puncture in the bus's cargo hold. Then another 20 km ride to Reza's house (Shiraz is a wide spread city) where we were welcomed by his brother and mother. We lived there for two days on the carpetted floor and were very well taken care of.

Shiraz has some beautiful sites, though the world famous gardens didn't impress us as much as we had expected. Furthermore Shiraz is surrounded by very dry mountains and already very hot in these last spring weeks.
Next destination was Persepolis, the capital of the antique Persian empire, built in the sixth century BC by king Darius and destroyed by Alexander the Great nearly 200 years later. An impressive archeological site and a beautiful bungalow hotel for us nearby.


Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Meeting up with the Caspian sea

Some days ago we descended to sea level. To be more concrete the level of the Caspian sea. I even dipped my finger in it. I had expected a saltier taste.
When we started this trip this sea shore was not included in our plan. Too far east, was the idea. But Akhbar, our host in Marand, suggested this detour and so now we're here.
It made us realize at how amazingly high altitudes we have been and for how amazingly long, for a month. I'll explain: the second day of this journey, now over a month ago, we entered Armenia at an altitude of 400 meters above sea level. After that we immediately ascended towards 1800 and untill today we never were lower than 1000 meters (this was Jerevan). Most of the time we were at 1300 plus, highest point 2300 plus. And today, nearly 40 kms after we had left Ardabil we were at 1600 altitude, there was a tunnel and then an extraordinary view expanded before our eyes: an immense deep and long valley, the decent towards the town of Astara on the Caspian see. Spectacular views, forgot to take a photo. Alps-like green slopes and a road winding down as far as our eyes could see. Descending we noticed that this region was more prosperous, nicer houses, numerous stalls selling fruit and stuff, especially mulberries, and more reastaurants than usual. Touristic, one would say.
When we were completely down we rode amidst rice paddies! Then there was Astara and the Caspian sea.
We will stay along this coast and ride soutward for a couple of days and then turn inland again.


Monday, May 23, 2016

Arrival in Iran

Getting out of Armenia was an experience that reminded me of ancient, pre-1991 times. Ladies with absolutely expressionless faces tediously studying our passports with a magnifying glass before gesturing us out, without a word or a glance. Bye bye Armenia, pity that your border control is so unsympathetic  We liked you so much.

"Welcome to Iran", that's what the colleagues on the other side of the river repeatedly said. Passports were scrutinized, bags x-rayed, but everything with a smile. Then change money, since western bank- and creditcards are nowhere accepted in Iran. Good exchange rate, better than the app on my smartphone calculated!
The ride to Jolfa was undulating, it was windy and we had to deal with a thunderstorm. A bit spectecular, but we reached a guesthouse in due time. In the mean time we had been addressed by several people, men and women, and we had our first invitations to come and stay. When we were looking for a place to eat, Morat, a man who had been a tapestry vendor in Germany, addressed us, showed us a small restaurant, payed for our meals and invited us for coffee in his appartment.
In Marand we were met by Akbar, a well trained man on a brand new KTM-mountainbike. Not completely clear how he knew we were coming. He said that truck drivers called him when they saw cyclists. We stayed in his very basic accommodation, just a room with tapestries on the floor, a basic toilet and shower, not really clean. But he fed us and had a friend take us to an internet café, as he had no wifi. We were his 741st and 742nd Warmshowerguest in four years. And again we had chats and discussions with many people, sometimes in very good English.
In Tabriz we stayed in a (for us) too expensive, but very nice hotel for two nights. Time to rest the legs a bit and get more used to this country. Did some sightseeing, among which a visit to the Azerbeidjan museum. It made us realize that the people in this region are Azerbeidjani, the province also carries this name. Iran is so big, 4 times France, that the population cannot but consist of several different ethnic groups. We had contacts with various persons, young and old. They come to you spontaneously, offering to help, offering tea or just eager for a chat, men and women alike, very kind.

There is this strange mix of tradition and modernity. People seem to have accepted that politically things just are what they are and they cope with it as cheerfully as they can.