Wednesday, 9 April 2014

things change, things stay the same

We are so keen to return to Yazd that our ride from Esfahan is completed a day earlier than planned.  The city seems bigger than before.  We cycle 10 kilometres from the outskirts to reach the Silk Road Hotel next to the fabulous old Friday Mosque in the old city.  We stayed quite a while here last time so we know the owner, Ali, and have another friend, Khoroush, to look up.  Ali very generously offers us a free bed in the dormitory, but we really want a private room.  Unfortunately high season has just begun and the place is busy.  Does he have that old room on the roof at his sister hotel, the Orient?  Are we being cheeky?  Ali is a consummate hotelier, and will always try to please his guests, even freeloading ones.  He gives us a very nice room for the night and in the morning he arranges for an out-of-use room on the roof to be spruced up for us.  It's very basic - but we want nothing more.  He is as generous and kind as we remember him.

10,000 miles - let's have a beer!!!! Okay, let's have a nice cup of tea then

One question we are often asked in Iran is which is our favourite place.  When we reply Yazd, most Iranians look surprised.  The city has been in existence for over 4000 years, and the old city is a half-preserved warren of adobe courtyard houses.  Much has been renovated and much is crumbling to dust.  Most Iranians live in the new part of the low-rise city, while Afghan and Iraqi refugee families settled in the old part in the 1980's.  The Silk Road Hotel is just one of several renovated old houses converted into hotels.  There is nothing quite like them outside of central Iran.  We love the old city and bazaar and the city feels relaxed and peaceful by Iranian standards.  There are some wonderful old buildings, one or two good ice cream shops, and if you can close your eyes and ears to the tour groups that troll through each day you can pretend you have stepped into a time warp.  It's not untypical to meet a visitor who has planned to stay only one night here deciding to stay on a few more days.  

air-conditioning the old-fashioned way
There's always a danger returning to somewhere you have great memories of.  Will it still be as special?  One thing we remembered was meeting lots of great overland travellers on their way to Pakistan and India.  Nowadays you can only get a Pakistan visa at home, so we're not expecting this.  But a nice surprise is finding three other cyclists here.  Gabor is from Hungary and Franzi and Jona are from Germany.  We are especially happy to learn that we are all heading to the Stans.  In Tehran we had met cyclist Raimon from Barcelona and somewhere else in Iran is Dan and Ollie, the young English guys we met in Istanbul.  The 'Tour de Central Asia' peloton is growing fast.  
we'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when

Another thing we remember about Yazd is how time here plays tricks with you. Blink and another day has passed.  Ali's buffet breakfasts seem endless.   The afternoon siesta lasts all day.  The sun sets and the moon rises in seconds.  We arrived yesterday but we've been here five days already.  Tourists lounge in the hotel patio checking smartphones for e-mails.  Step out into the twisting narrow lanes of the old bazaar and watch old men sawing wood in a workshop, baking bread, sewing shirts whilst women in black chadors waddle past with their shopping.

This city is one of the most conservative in Iran.  We have already been told that it's not possible to Couch Surf here, because the local authorities frown  on fraternising with foreigners.  We didn't realise this was such a big issue last time we came here, but when we meet Khoroush and he takes us out for dinner with his fiance, he tells us that he has texted the local police to notify them of our dinner date.  He's had problems in the past with the police, so we can't blame him.  But it certainly spooks us, and we wonder are we compromising him by wanting to see him again.  Happily he is preoccupied with his business, slightly stressed about new openings and stock flow and showing all the signs of a young entrepeneur about to take a risk with a new venture.  He looks very happy with his girlfriend Roxanna.  When we first met he was a young guy who wasn't really settled - we felt worried for his future.  Now he looks like a man with a plan.

usual story: one man working and two giving encouragement

Last time we visited Yazd in 2008 we left our hearts here.  This time I leave a molar. I've just enjoyed my nth chicken curry and the tooth next to the one that's just had root canal work feels sore.  The ache becomes pronounced.  There's nothing for it but a trip to the dentist.  An hour later the dentist is showing me the decayed tooth on an x-ray.  Too bad for root canal treatment.  It wobbles when he pokes it.  I get an injection and then he puts something resembling a pedal spanner in my mouth and after a tug left and right pulls out the poor molar.  I am relieved that the pain is over.  Gayle is relieved that the cost is low.  But how will I be able to chew all that mutton that beckons in The Stans???
fancy tilework at the Friday Mosque

Monday, 7 April 2014


Cycling along the hard shoulder of the main road a young guy on a motorbike idles alongside us.  After our recent experience I warily wonder if he wants to rob us, although there is enough traffic around for us to feel safe.  He smiles but then he reaches into his jacket pocket.  I look for the tell-tale flash of glinting steel as the knife appears.  He reaches out and thrusts it towards me.  It is round and orange and he pushes it into my hand before catching up to Gayle and repeating the gesture.  With a rev of the engine he rides off.  We stop immediately to consume his gift.

that's an awful lot of guano
The road out of Esfahan is not too busy.  Along the way we are deafened by tooting horns and waves and shouts from Iranians on holiday, roofs laden with suitcases.  We pass one of the huge old pigeon towers, built to house the thousands of birds that once provided the fields with fertiliser.  The road and the landscape are fairly flat.  We pass through a line of low hills and on into the sun-baked expanses, going at a fair old lick.  Around midday as our bodies heat up and our energy is dipping we are waved to a stop by a few men at a red crescent station beside the road.  They have a huge cooler full of orange juice.  We drink a couple of litres, accept the offer of biscuits and continue on with renewed vigour.  At the entrance to a small town there's a shady park with grass, pine trees, toilets and sinks with taps.  People have stopped for picnics and we join them.  After the sun, the shade is deliciously cold. We continue on in the late afternoon towards the village of Toudeshk where we know there's a homestay.  Of course, after a day of flat road, it ends with a long slow climb.  When we arrive we are happily tired - 100 kms is a long day after a break off the bike.

desert road
The next morning we continue up the road to a pass in the mountains which we know is the high point of our ride to Yazd.  Mohammed at the homestay has assured us it's all downhill from here.  Mohmammed doesn't cycle much so we're doubtful of this information.  He also has suggested we could complete the ride in two more days, although it's over 220 kms. Half an hour later we have descended a lovely long road and reached Na'in where we stock up on fruit and veg.  It's Nature Day in Iran - the 13th day of the New Year when everyone takes to the great outdoors.  Most shops are closed and the streets are busy with holidaymakers on their way home and daytrippers out for a jolly.  We are accosted by several people who want to talk and take our photos.  We are a bit dusty and sweaty - why on earth does anyone want to photograph us? Riding on we hit a headwind that slows us to a wobbly crawl.  For lunch we seek shelter in a tunnel under the road.  We have to waive the first few we look in as someone has paid a visit before us.  The highway here is out in the wide open desert.  There's nowhere else to hide if you need a toilet break.  Perhaps today is really Call Of Nature Day.

After lunch we decide to ride with music - the road has quietened, the hard shoulder is wide, and there's now a tailwind pushing us along.  It rains.  In the desert?  It rains.  We race along.  At a roadside restaurant we stop to collect water and two Baluchi men approach to chat.  Their three female companions are in full burkas and quickly disappear inside.  The men ask us if we are married.  We have no witty response to this tiresome question, and just lie.  Afterwards I wonder if they wanted to make me an offer for Gayle, to add to their collection.  Towards the end of the day we stop at some trees to see about wild camping.  The trees surround the roads leading to an iron and steel mill.   We um and ahh about camping near to an industrial plant - British spies captured in espionage mission! - before continuing up the road.  The highway is split in two directions by about three hundred metres of no-man's land.  Just as we're despairing finding any cover for the night we come to an abandoned building with walls bang in the middle of this no-man's land.  It's a crumbling abandoned ancient caravanserai.  Magical.  We tip off the road and push our bikes through a gap in the walls and into one of the gardens.  In front of the main building is a pool and ornamental garden.  The walls protect the outer fields from the wind.  There are furrowed plots and dessicated fig trees.  The underground water channel that once fed this oasis with mountain water has collapsed.  The adobe out-buildings are barely standing, but as we pitch our tent and put our bikes out to graze, we can pretend we are travellers in time on the old Silk Road from India.  Gazing up at the stars we reflect with satisfaction on our longest cycling day to date.

home sweet home in the caravanserai garden