Iran

Iran: never have we travelled to any destination with more warnings from friends at home to ‘take care’, ‘be safe’ and even ‘hope you make it OK’. Many thought we were plain crazy and someone even suggested we might be putting ourselves in a situation where we would need rescuing at some point… I guess with all the media hype on Iran it’s understandable. A country of religious fanatics led by mad Ming-bearded Mullahs and dark-browed Ayatollahs bent on developing nuclear weapons to destroy Israel and America forever. On top of that, along with US and Canadian visitors, UK nationals currently require a guide to visit Iran, which is expensive.

Against that Iran for me will always be Persia; land of ancient civilisation and empire, the place where Darius built his Persepolis and the mighty Xerxes set out to invade Greece. Tales from other overlanders we’d spoken to abounded with stories of incredulous hospitality from a warm and welcoming people. And finally, as I’ve grown older, I’ve become a lot more skeptical about the accuracy of some of our news-feeds and the way they portray events. Remember WMD? We were going in to kick Sadam Hussein’s butt over a load of fabricated nonsense that totally destroyed a country leaving an unstable melting pot that has spread to neighbouring areas and spawned unheard of levels of fanaticism and terrorism as a result. Weighing everything up and with a guide all arranged to meet us at the border we decided it was safe enough for us to go and see Iran for ourselves.

Still, it’s one thing talking about an undertaking and another actually realising it… I will admit to a certain sense of unease as we left the Armenian border town of Agarak for the ten-minute drive to the border. Lofty crags that appeared so picturesque yesterday now assumed a Mordorian aspect as we rode to our doom, a feeling enhanced by the garrison of some two-thousand Russian troops at this sole border crossing between Armenia and Iran. The border was quiet; the only sound was that of money changing hands as the Armenians fleeced us of our last remaining Drams in ‘customs handling fees’ before we left their country. Our passports were then scrutinised under a magnifying glass by two more customs agents before a final check by some Russian soldiers released us onto the bridge that spanned the border.

On the Iranian side we encountered three grim-looking, AK-toting soldiers dressed in baggy desert camo-gear. They gruffly noted our number plates and nationality in a big book and then, switching to smiles and grins, welcomed us to Iran. Customs procedures took another half hour, getting our passports stamped and using our ‘Carnets de Passage’ for the bikes for the first time. We rode on to a final barrier and there, patiently waiting for us was Reza, our guide for the next two weeks.

The guide requirement almost stopped us from visiting Iran at all; it’s just not our cup of tea. Travelling on our bikes we are masters of our own compass, ready to change direction on a whim or a fancy, able to linger or move on just as we like. Now we had a two-week schedule ahead, a man to shadow and show us where to go at every step of the way and we were paying handsomely for the ‘privilege’. Yet the alternative was to miss Iran, take a more northerly route that would entail bad roads and ultimately lead us to China where we’d need a guide anyway. So we wound up on a two-week tour, courtesy of Iran Traveling Centre based in Shiraz, with stops at Tabriz – Rasht (up on the Caspian Sea) – Tehran – Isfahan – Yazd – Shiraz (and nearby Persepolis) all finishing in Bandar Abbas where we would take the ferry to UAE.

We immediately took to Reza with his soft brown eyes and welcoming smile that flashed a very warm welcome as the guard raised that final barrier at the border. Any notion that we would be stuck with some expensive fool for a fortnight was quickly dispelled on our first day’s ride from the border to Tabriz. Reza proved to be a gentleman in every sense of the word. He drove a Rodius people-carrier that we used to mule our luggage and served as a teapot / snackery for every roadside stop.

Reza was an invaluable fixer. He was polite, courteous and very knowledgeable about the sites we visited. His first service was to advise Maggie on her attire. In Iran all women must wear the Hijab (headscarf) to cover their hair and neck. Loose flowing clothing is also recommended, such that any suggestion of female form is swaddled and obscured. We read some pretty horrendous stuff online that would have you believe that all women need to be bagged and bound from head to toe, but once in country the dress code was fairly relaxed and the Hijab was not as onerous as Maggie had anticipated.

Iran, the country, was an amazing place from end to end. The ride to Tabriz was a continuation of the great and beautiful mountain road we’d been following since we left Georgia and all the way through Armenia. Tbilisi to Tabriz is without a doubt one of the most stunning motorcycling roads on the planet and this Iranian tail as it finally leaves the mountains, which by now had gathered a dusting of snow, is simply glorious with wow,wow,wow views in every direction. Then the cities with blue-tiled mosques, tombs and shrines, backstreets and bazaars with all the hustle, bustle and tussle of highly animated and friendly people going about their daily business. The icing on the cake was a day at the ancient ruins of Persepolis and the even more impressive tombs at Naqsh-e-Rostam where we stood in awe at the last resting places of Darius the Great, Xerxes and Artaxerxes an impressive lineage if ever there was one.

Iran and food yielded surprises that were delightful and surprising; fresh carrot juice and vanilla ice-cream? Try this one at home and you’ll be surprised at what a lovely drink this makes. Khak-Shir – a delicious and refreshing suspension made from mustard seeds in rosewater sipped at Persepolis gave us fresh legs to once again wander the ruins under a stifling hot sun. Then there was ‘Dizzi’ – a real blokes dinner. A runny stew made from tender chunky meat and vegetables in a savoury tomato sauce all served up in a dedicated iron ‘Dizzi Pot’. There is even a little ritual to prepare it all for eating. First the liquid is drained off into a dish where shredded bread is added to soak up all the juice. For the rest a chunky metal pestle is used to mash up the remaining solids, which can now be woofed with a spoon before devouring the soggy bread in juice. Hit the spot every time!

And so to the highlight of Iran; it’s people. There are no large motorcycles in Iran, 250 being the maximum engine capacity permitted for locals, therefore our two, comparatively large, yellow bikes understandably drew attention everywhere we stopped. We arrived during Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar and the setting for a massive and very colourful 10-day long commemoration. In particular the final day, Ashura, is marked by Shi’a Muslims as a day of mourning of the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of Mohammed, at the Battle of Karbala (c. 680AD) in Iraq.  Husayn had refused to pledge allegiance to newly appointed caliph, Yazid I, considering the ruling Umayyad regime as unjust and religiously corrupt. To avoid confrontation, he set out on the road to Medina and it was on that road that his peaceful entourage of followers and family was intercepted by the Caliph’s army and massacred.

The moral stance taken by this giant in the pantheon of Islamic saints and heroes, whereby he demonstrated complete sacrifice for God and for others, has become a cornerstone of the Shi’a religion. Ashura is a day of grieving over Husayn’s sacrifice and it is said that “a single tear shed for Husayn washes away a hundred sins”. Everywhere buildings were festooned with flags and banners bearing the cipher of Husayn, often depicted with blood dripping from each letter. At major intersections leading out of towns, volunteers from local Mosques were stenciling the name of Husayn on the rear windows of cars in blood-red water-based paint.

We were grateful to Reza for explaining all of this to us, as the spectacle on the streets was a bizarre and slightly intimidating thing indeed for the non-initiated to contemplate. On the one hand there were all these blood dripping ciphers on black flags set against the very serious mood of the congregation on the streets, many of whom were dressed in black mourning garb with a lot of wailing and groaning. All of this was ultimately in appreciation of the sacrifice made by Husayn in his martyrdom and in the past, practices of self-suffering have been enacted ranging from spouts of chest-beating to more severe acts of flagellation.

At the little town of Naein, on the road to Yazd, we observed first-hand some of these practices, where local communities gathered for a series of processions through the town mosque. We filtered through narrow backstreets in a throng of people to witness an incredible spectacle. Suddenly a powerful clash of drums and cymbals announced the start of the next parade, the men chanting as they walked and whipping their backs with chain flails while black chador clad women looked on. As complete outsiders we were amazed at the dedication of everyone involved, but then again it was a serious occasion for a pious people at their worship. At the far side of the mosque, parade complete, the people returned to the normal smiling folk we’d grown to love in our travels through this amazing place.

Another feature of Muharram is the provision of free food and gifts from local mosques and communities. On our way out of Isfahan we were accosted by smiling volunteers at some red traffic lights and loaded up with scrummy cake bars and a delicious beverage of cinnamon-flavoured, hot chocolate milk. Reza was on hand to collect everything and load it into the car and we stopped just up the road to savour these delicious offerings. But this was just another aspect of the kindness and hospitality of the Iranian people and it was bestowed upon us at every opportunity. Getting ready for the road in early morning Tehran a guy came up with a tray of hot apple-stuffed pastries from a local bakery and insisted we take some. Others stopped with offerings of apples, pomegranate, oranges, each offering accompanied by salvoes of smiles and handshakes. Then there was Darab, a small town visited on our last day on the road to Bandar Abbas. Darab will forever go down in our travelogues as simply the friendliest place on the planet, a place where we almost blocked the road with a gathering crowd of well-wishers and the simply curious.

We had stopped to meet with Hossein, one of Reza’s cousins and the plan was to have lunch there. Iran travels on the little Honda CG 125 and it’s various Iranian / Chinese / Indian copies. Suddenly we had dozens of them around us and a sea of smiling faces, all curious as to where we came from and asking ‘what did we think of Iran?’. Maggie was soon off her bike having her photograph taken with people’s children. An old guy on a dilapidated silver CG arrived with a huge flatbread balanced across the petrol tank. Chunks were broken off as we broke bread with our smiling beneficiary. A car stopped and a hand emerged from the dark interior with the gift of a pomegranate. A local shop-owner appeared with a rice dinner! It was slightly daunting to be the centre of so much attention and, in the end, Reza collected up all of the offerings and we made our way to his uncle’s restaurant where we had the best kebabs in Iran for lunch.

If there was a down side to Iran it was the traffic. Driving on the open road was fairly easy with none of the suicidal overtakes encountered in Georgia but town driving was the most manic free-for-all you can imagine. Lanes meant nothing. A major high street with two lanes in each direction yielded at least four cars going each way with a colloid of CG 125’s filling the gaps. When we followed Reza into Tabriz on our first night I looked under his car at the hotel to see if I could see the Scalextric brushes, as I was convinced that the Iranians had discovered some way to power their cars off the white lines as they drive along. I finally figured the logic of it; if you drive along the white line then you have a choice to continue in the left or right lane as appropriate. This is quite fine if there are no other road users around but when everyone does it, chaos ensues.

To spice it all up, it was now late October, getting dark around 5:30pm and we had a few night arrivals. Rasht on our first full days ride was especially horrific in the dark and our intercom was alive with incoming combat reports as we battled our individual dogfights with these crazy drivers. Through it all, Reza was brilliant. He quickly understood our riding abilities and matched his driving to suit, shielding us from the odd lunatic and taking care through especially busy junctions. Then we’d arrive at the hotel for the night, the crazy drivers all dispersed for the day and we were once again be surrounded by smiling, lovely people…

So that was Iran, a great country that has certainly left an indelible impression upon us. At the mention any country, you will have two impressions of that place. One is determined by the actions of its government in the world at large and the other by the actions of the people you meet from that place. The more we travel the more we realize that the government is very definitely not the people, who are basically the same wherever you go regardless of race or colour, creed or religion. We all strive for similar needs and aspirations. This is all becoming more apparent in the modern world where media and mass communication are now firmly in the public domain and ever more remote from governmental control.

This was so apparent in Iran where we could sense a huge undercurrent of change. Following the revolution in the 1970’s the country entered a dark age of puritanical intolerance that isolated it from most of the world though sanctions and censure. Recent moves to retire their nuclear capability are moving in the right direction and it was clear from everyone we spoke to, from old folk who remembered the era of the Shah to the younger generation in touch with the outside world through modern media, that this is the real wish of the Iranian people; to once again be a respected and tolerant partner on the world stage. We wish them well on this journey, which is only just beginning…

Iran was an immensely colourful place. Consequently there are four photogalleries associated with this blog. Please click on the following links for access:

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Armenian Autumn

We left Tbilisi and rode across rolling sun-scorched hill country. After 50-miles the Armenian border loomed large at Sadakhlo. Our exit from Georgia was full of smiles from the helpful Customs staff and again we thanked them for our wonderful time in their amazing little country. Up ahead; the Armenian checkpoint. Officers with ridiculously broad, Soviet-style, visor hats smiled and one of them, Igor, stamped us into the country. We spent about an hour changing money, paying ‘customs brokers fees’ and arranging bike insurance (all-in-all for both bikes, just over 50 Euros plus some remaining Georgian Lari exchanged at the Armenian bank counter at the post)… I’m sure the insurance papers were fully underwritten by Andrex.

The police warned us to proceed up the road and be certain to turn right on the M6 and not left on the M16… We already knew about this. Since independence, following the break-up of the Soviet Union, Christian Armenia has been in conflict with neighboring Islamic Azerbaijan in a war that has killed over 30,000 and displaced millions. In fact both countries are technically still at war because of the ongoing dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, an area between the two countries that is now occupied by Armenia who have no intention of giving it up. Azerbaijan maintains the threat that they will one day reclaim the territory. The past few years have seen a number of raids and skirmishes such that the border area is a dangerous place, both as a militarized zone and a lawless area, where people have been robbed and worse. Our target for today was a little mountain town called Dilijan in the Tavush province. The M16 was the more direct route but runs along the Azerbaijani border so we opted for the safer M6.

We rode the first few miles up to the M6/M16 T-junction somewhat in trepidation as to what lay ahead. The road at the border had been pretty mashed up and was splattered with a lot of mud off the big lorries that frequent the crossing. Immediately we noticed a step change in the friendliness of the people as we rode through our first few Armenian villages. Everyone stopped what they were doing to give us a big smiley wave ranging from cheeky smiles from little children playing on the street to toothless grins from grubby farmers working the land with what looked like medieval implements.

If we were expecting military checkpoints, I’m sure the M16 would have delivered; instead the M6 took us on a winding river chase through some of the most beautiful mountain country around.   Within a few miles we had relaxed into a fantastic afternoon of motorcycling on an empty road chasing curves though a little slice of paradise. In Vanadzor, the first major town, we stopped to get some Drams (local currency not a wee drink!) from an ATM. On entering the town we were astonished not to be cut up, sliced and diced by the Armenian drivers; they were actually considerate and the opposite of their Georgian counterparts in that no longer were people trying to kill us on the road! At the ATM youngsters came up to chat with Mags while I was at the cashpoint, enquiring where we hailed from and wishing us a warm welcome to their country.

Dilijan is a little town at the heart of a beautiful National Park of the same name and on arrival we called our pre-booked hotel to come and collect us as they’d warned that their place was hard to find. As we waited at the main roundabout for our host, George, we engaged with a number of local folk who stopped to see if we were okay and to welcome us to Armenia. George duly arrived and we set off out of town and then up some hilly back roads that deposited us in a little piece of paradise, the ‘Art Guesthouse’, with beautiful views over tree covered valleys all around.

Armenia is still developing and is somewhat lacking in infrastructure. We hoped to spend a day or so hiking in the National Park but there was no real tourist information available nor marked hiking routes. It was threatening rain too so we contented ourselves with a day in the little town. We ducked out of the first rain shower into the town museum, which held a small collection of fine paintings by Armenian artists over the past few hundred years. Downstairs we had our introduction to the story of the Armenian Genocide, which commemorates it’s centenary in 2015, in the form of a moving photo collection by Armenian photographer Nazik Armenakyan who has spent the past few years photographing the last few living survivors from the genocide. Now mostly centenarians, they were all little children when it happened and in most cases were the sole survivors from large families. I’d highly recommend checking out the photographs at Nazik’s website at www.nazikarmenakyan.com/survivors/

In the years leading up to 1915 the Ottoman Empire had been troubled by the presence of a large Christian community within its domain. Comprising mostly Armenians, Orthodox Greeks and Assyrians they had long been treated as second-class citizens, an underclass denied many basic human rights, by Islamic Turks and Kurds. With Europe and Russia fully embroiled in the First World War the Ottomans took the opportunity to systematically and methodically eradicate their ‘problem’. It began on 24th April 1915, when some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople were rounded up and executed as a prelude to a policy of elimination of all Armenians within the realm. Armenian troops serving in the Turkish army were disarmed, used as slave labour and worked to death. Over the next few years a systematic policy was enacted against the Armenian populace whereby all males were executed followed by the deportation of women, children and the elderly by death marches to internment camps deep in the Syrian Desert. Here the survivors were simply contained and left to die and the whole episode is garnished with tales of torture, rape and mutilation enacted on a whole population. Well over one-million people perished.

The genocide remains an emotive issue for all Armenians exacerbated by the fact that Turkey, to this day, denies any official policy or genocide took place. We later visited the Genocide Memorial in the capital, Yerevan, which houses a collection of compelling records related to the period, both from survivors and also from external witnesses such as foreign diplomats and army personnel who were present at some of the incidents. The point Armenia is making in this centenary year of 2015 is that if people had fully appreciated what happened back in 1915 then 1939 – 45 may have been preventable. I’m not so sure of that but I do believe that this is and other genocide stories cannot be laid to rest especially when both Armenia and neighboring Georgia have seen ethnic atrocities in recent times. How can we, as decent, modern, knowledgeable human beings, still permit these things to happen?

From Dilijan, a wet morning climb on switchback roads rising to 2000-metres delivered us to breathtaking views over Lake Sevan, the rippled hillsides on the far shore all swaddled and swathed in early morning mist. The road wound on to Yerevan with far off views of mammoth snowy mountains lurking through the low ceiling cloud. It all made for a wondrous but short day of motorcycling depositing the pair of us in Yerevan in time to participate in the city’s 2797th birthday celebrations. All of the distinctive pinky-red block buildings were decked out in orange, blue and red Armenian flags and a huge sound stage occupied the centre of Republic Square. Whilst Yerevan lacked any really fine buildings or architecture it was a cosy city and one where we felt instantly at home. We had a little apartment for 5-nights just off the circular gardens that mostly surround the city centre so it was easy to abandon the bikes and hoof it around warm sunny streets.

We visited the colourful Vernissage artists market, where painters and sculptors can put their work on display and also the impressive Cascade complex, a huge stairway that hosts an impressive array of modern sculptures. The fine food we had in Georgia simply got better and I’ll say it here: Armenian wine was the best we’ve had anywhere!, both full-bodied reds and refreshingly light whites. Armenians will tell you that this is where wine all started and after sampling these wares I could well believe it. So there you have it… Yerevan; all the ingredients for a fine party, all that was missing was a bit of company…

Enter ‘Father’ Ken McCreevy. We’d met Ken through the Iranian Embassy in Dublin, where the secretary, on learning of our trip asked us if we could pass on some tips on Carnets to a friend of hers who was hoping to travel that way on a bike. We spoke on the phone and learned that Ken was slowly working his way east on a Kawasaki GT550, doing a little bit year by year as time permitted. The bike was currently in Crete and for this year he planned to ride up through Turkey to leave the bike for another break with a friend in Armenia. Our paths finally crossed in Yerevan…

It was a blind date like no other on this planet… The first thing you see on meeting Ken is a big broad grin and followed closely by a salutation containing several strong swear words that all make up for the warmest welcome anywhere. This is swiftly followed by a big ‘ten-bears’ hug and you are simply friends for life. He had brought along Emma, a pretty young Spanish back-packer who was staying at the same hostel, to join us for the evening. The big grey grizzled Dubliner instantly befriends people all around (even if they can’t speak the language) and with a drop of laughing juice the party was soon in full swing.

The following evening we were all out again looking for a place to eat. Mags stopped a young Armenian lass to ask for directions. Anna, a young lady so full of charm and grace, insisted on being our personal escort to an underground tavern where she got us a table and sorted out the menu with some excellent recommendations for local food. Anna had been an airhostess with Armenian Air who sadly had gone bust. She also taught dancing and had travelled in India. Here perhaps in one person were all the qualities we were growing to love about Armenia and it’s people; kind, friendly, smiling, open and ever so hospitable. This was going to be a hard city to leave.

We took a day-trip up into the mountains to visit Gegherd monastery and the ancient temple at Garni but our stay was cut short by heavy rain. Perhaps our one regret about the re-route through Georgia and Armenia was that it was just too late in the season to visit the high mountains, as the weather was poor there with first snows arriving and short October days. On top of that our appointment to be at the Iranian border on 16th October was beckoning and so, with a heavy heart (but lots of laughs), we had one last farewell dinner before our little company dismantled and set off, each to follow their own separate trail.

From Yerevan the road took us past the spectacular snow-covered Mount Ararat (of Noah’s Ark fame). The mountain dominates the city backdrop on any fine day and was to be the first backdrop to the many fabulous landscapes on our ride to Kapan. The journey was just under 200-miles, but on incredulous twisty roads that had us grinning from ear to ear as we climbed over 2500-metre passes and wind-blown, treeless lands. Billowy clouds gathered up ahead and in the distance we could see what looked like a cloud filled valley. On entering this we were effectively blindfolded for the remaining third of the day’s ride. Thin mizzly mist obscured all but a few metres of the spaghetti mess of a road ahead and we had to ride slowly with visors open as they were completely obscured by the fine water droplets in the air. It was a horrible ride made worse by the knowledge that we were probably missing out on some great mountain views on our penultimate day.

A night in mining town of Kapan and then one final ride in Armenia; a short hop to Agarak, right on the Iranian border. That last day… It was as if yesterday, in the mist, we had been deliberately blinded to save our eyes for the beauty of this special day. We took winding loops up awesome mountains, their arboreal mantle fully resplendent in autumn coppers and golds, russets and reds. At the top we traversed the Meghri Pass (2600m) and then dropped down into sun-scorched arid wastelands, the road chasing green-fingered river valleys towards Iran and that border appointment. Eventually the river turned to run along the border with a high razorwire fence marking the line. Across on the Iranian side we could see our first Paykan cars moseying along country roads and, in contrast, fields of goats tended by shepherds in biblical costume.

And so farewell to Autumn in Armenia! From all the other lands we have visited, only Argentina has made such a deep and lasting impression on us; amazing landscapes peopled by the friendliest examples of human beings on the planet, all nourished with the best tables anywhere! We could have stayed forever…

Please click on the following link to the photogallery for this blog: ‘Armenian Autumn’

For more on ‘Father’ Ken please check out www.youtube.com/watch?v=CV0TDfb59P4