Thursday, 21 February 2013

free speech and movement

Yesterday I arrived in Mashhad; Islam's second city and my final destination in Iran. My next two visas are confirmed and the Turkmen border is two day's ride away. I will be sad and glad to leave. The initial sense that I am to be looked after here has been tested and proved comprehensively. Family home to factory floor, opium den to police cell I have been welcomed, cared for, indulged and overwhelmed in more diverse company and setting than I could have optimistically hoped for. Islamic notions of duty, the ambassadorial inclinations of a vilified people, a pathological curiosity of Westerners or the fetishisation of liberal Europe could all be thanked for my cosseted passage but the simple, Persian explanation - which I mainly prefer - is that 'Iranians are nice people'. Alas I feel my own duties as ambassador for Englistan have been dispensed rather less consistently. Dirty, greedy, short-tempered... I have my moments, afternoons even, of good grace, but too many times I've answered welcome with gruffness. In my defence it's usually because I'm hungry; long-road weary in strange towns searching for a sandwich, or anything. Every third Iranian boy over twelve years of age has access to a motorbike and the other two ride pillion. Whatever happened to BMXs? I can't outrun a 125 (but they love to see me try) and so my sandwich searches are escorted by cavalcades of teenage gigglers keeping pace to practice their what are you from?s. The correct response of course is to stop and engage, work on my reciprocal friendliness until somebody in the sandwich-know shows up, but apparently I have to relearn this daily. Oh and impatient ire will be filmed by matey pillion; give thanks for the Youtube ban. Mystifying that I still don't carry enough food to prevent this kind of scenario; hangry, a friend used to call it. Really though even at my least gracious I am generously assisted and I've gotten much better at relaxing into the necessary exchanges; photos and stilted, repetitious conversation for food and direction. Lovely, big-hearted people.

The impression of scale is likewise borne out. Of course anywhere can be big if you don't move in straight lines but Iran really is the largest country I've crossed (almost twice now). In my novel celerity it feels I've ridden through every landscape in every season on every road. Vast place. In the last two weeks alone I've slept on palmy beaches, in windy desert and up frozen-bottle mountains. Two nights ago I camped in the dry corner of a carefully irrigated young wheat field beneath gnarly Wintered almonds, waxing halfmoon glowing snowy peaks; I couldn't photograph it properly. I've enjoyed the transitions, kit rotations and new views. Welcome chill after the Gulf, delicious greens after the desert. The anticipated desert hardships manifested as little more than wind and trucks, although the one exacerbates the other; crosswinds amplify passing truck squalls exponentially. Turbulence like big waves hitting. With unflinching drivers, single carriageways and only sometimes a skinny shoulder of rough macadam the hazard is significant. But for all their vehicular terror the truckers themselves quite mitigate the obvious desert concern of short supply. My distance/speed/food arithmetic didn't account for the winds and twice I was fairly rescued by a timely packed-lunch donation. There was even another, more salacious offer from a driver and his unveiled mistress which I shan't detail and didn't accept; Valentine's day, no less.

Mashhad sports a Very Holy shrine/mosque complex and sees twenty million pilgrims annually. It is accordingly congested. Today I saw a mosque islanded on a roundabout and can't help but think that such a holy place should have fewer cars. I'm staying with Vali, a fascinating polyglot who's helped me secure a whole five days to cross Turkmenistan. He rumours a trio of cyclists a day ahead of me who, after a couple of pretty solitary months, I'm keen to catch up. I've a sense of the closing chapter, of difference ahead, and keep thinking that I've been saving up all sorts of insightful, arrest-worthy things to write about Iran from the relative political safety of Uzbekistan (!). In fact on reflection I realise that I'm much more confident with the personal and aesthetic narrative; I've little to comment politically. Only a strong and general scepticism about the conflation of state and religion. It unnerves me. Nothing too controversial there, so I'll say it now. I'll let you know when they've let me leave.

mosque sleeping

I've known it was possible since Turkey but never really cared for the correctly assumed lack of privacy. There were ten of us in the end, tramps, truckers and a tourist. I was embarrased to blow up my airmat and did so as quietly as I could when all else were snoring. And they did snore, terribly, predictably. Gone three I dropped off. A couple of hours later a rising mumbling which, ears plugged and eyes buffed, I didn't investigate. I woke with a start at five thirty; fifty bums raised in prayer and me the last remaining sleeper, only thankful I'd not chosen the mecca wall. Not my favourite morning.

Imam Reza's shrine

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

mapscraps and mileage

Last night I burnt three-quarters of Iran. I’ve been chastised before for disrespecting maps. It would be nice to have them all home for a one-day bathroom wall or something, but that's not how this works. So once I've loaded the last relevant scissor-strip into my barbag there’s a ritual joy in casting off a country's scrappy remnants like so much jetsam; here now and forwards. Steady pacing since Isfahan I've never cycled so far so fast and unbroken before, with only a couple of half-stops in a thousand miles. My daily average has crept up a third and I've not cooked a proper meal in days. I launder in unlikely places, bit-charge my mp3 sticks in hamburger stalls. Twilight, if I hit my target (I have targets!), I saddle-swagger into towns and villages in that trembly distance-delirium to find The Shop for date boxes and chicken tins. I load luxuries. Chocolate milk and sweet buns by the kilo, Islamic lemon-beer and stacks of cheap phonecards (send me your landlines & when's a good time - I'm fairly free evenings...). Dog tired I get silly (or short) with the kids who follow my camp, before feasting sugar and salt under carpet stars. My usually noisy self seems to pipe down a little when I keep moving like this and I'm enjoying having so much space to push against.

The police flag me tirelessly for passport checks. Racial profiling! Who can I complain to? Perhaps my mock-salutes are ill-advised. Here and there a reassuring display of humour though: along one of those subtle, sapping gradients two bored officers (how do you police a desert?) made an afternoon play of waiting to offer me a lift at each 10k marker. Fair-play to them it got funnier each time and, my sciatic side singing out yes, harder to refuse. Good when will wins. Dusk outside my target town they gave quiet applause and an escort to the station where I was fed and slept. I balked a little when, passport taken, I was ushered into a cell... Trust everybody though eh, what else can you do? I kept my jacket on this morning; holiday over, it's February again. I've got my altitude back and have been a couple of days skirting deserts in chill hills. This morning I reached historic Kerman where really I ought stop and look around. Precious momentum though, I'll be out this afternoon under a double load of water; North East through real desert for three or four days. I love the big skies and wadi camping; clouds doing all sorts of mares and mackerel, stars nightly brighter as I get further nowhere.

Sirjan hospitality

Friday, 8 February 2013

Bandar Abbas

I'm in Bandar-e-Abbas, my last Persian Gulf destination. Once I've fixed my puncture this afternoon I'll get along North out of town to start climbing back up across the country. I've little to recollect of the last week or so along the sea; I've been effective. Early starts and late stops, big mileage and dinners. I spent a morning drying all my stuff and repacking for summer weather; warm stuff at the bottom; digging out Greek sunscreen and nail-scissoring off the trackie-bottoms Jamshid gave me. There's been no wind and hardly a hill to speak of. Easy without all the hard bits, and far less to tell. I had to ford a river yesterday and enjoyed a break after, baking my clayshod feet in the sun until they crumbled. One beachy midnight a torch woke me in the face; two men with assault rifles outside the tent - are you tourist? - areh - OK, salaam - cheers mate. Back to sleep to forget it by morning. Big, salty bits and weird Gaudi-abstract sandstone cliffs. A couple of hundred-mile days, several seventy-eighty ones. It's been nice to purge that little petrol foible I'd picked up lately! Now there's a habit-forming substance...

I had an email a few weeks ago from a Flemming somebody who wanted top tips and advice re. long distance cycle touring; I wrote several similar notes in my dream-plan stage. I replied tardy and rambling one night from my camp; a detailed description of circumstance (location, horizons, sleeping situation, dinner and breakfast inventories, morning direction etc) and little of practical advice whatsoever. There's not a lot of advice to give. I just heard from the French couple I met in Istanbul who're trying to sell their Renault Clio voiture to finance the next ride, which sounds a good start.