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Friday, November 25, 2011

From Attaturk to Khomeini

October 18 - October 30

It has been 30 days of captivity. Every night we are awoken by the screams. With fear in our eyes we wonder: Are we next? ... just kidding. Our final approach to the Iran border is a downhill which continues all the way to Khoy: The first major city after the border. "Welcome to Iran” is the first thing we hear. At the check point, the border guard inspects our passports. I had been worried about our visas. They expire in two weeks and there was some confusion about whether the ending date was the last day in the country or the last day of entry. Apparently the latter. Bored out of his tree, the customs officer stamps our passports. As we wait, a man approaches us and says to Tommie “Come here please”. They both go into a room. The door is closed and locked. We look at each other with a “yikes!” look in our eyes. Later on it will be my turn. All the man wanted to know is that we are here on vacation and that we plan on going to touristic locations. This is pretty much the truth aside from our intention to wild camp, which we kept to ourselves. With the formalities done, and a mild fist fight outside (we were just spectators), we are set free. Off we go to explore our next country.

The first kilometres are a bit rough. The road is either being built or renovated. At the first village, we go into a local shop to get supplies for the night. Outside, a rusty Toyota pickup is idling. In the cab are six guys dressed in dirty rags, each of them armed with Kalashnikovs. It feels like watching CNN Breaking News in 3D. We wave nervously. They wave back and ask us where we are from. We answer. To add to the nervousness, a man comes up to me and says in broken English “Leave! People here dangerous!”. As we obey his command, the scene gets more cliché: Another pickup. This one has a huge machine gun mounted in the cab with a guy ready to fire. The man is wearing an old-school motorcycle helmet and a camouflage get-up. It’s a scene from Mad Max.

That doesn’t stop him from being friendly. He waves to us as we pass by. So do we. After several kilometres, it’s time to take a load off. We find a nice spot to camp by a river away from the road.

Michèle comments: At that first village, I went into one of the shops to buy water. I wanted three 1.5 litre bottles, the shop only had two. In a new country, the first few days are always an adjustment especially with a new currency and figuring out how much things cost. A customer in the shop asked me the classic introductory question "Where are you from?". He introduced himself as an engineer, not from that village but from Khoy. At that point, his English seemed to run out so the conversation ended. He was still standing there as I went to pay. I held out a note of 10,000 rials. Roughly, that is about $1, which I thought reasonable for the two bottles. The shopkeeper accepted the bill and smiled. Then Mr Engineer from Khoy spoke to him in an angry whisper, and the shopkeeper slowly opened the till to hand me a 2,000 rial note in change. Outside the shop, Mr Engineer from Khoy talked to Benoit telling him that we should leave. In my mind, the danger in that village was that some people might rip you off 20 cents.

The next morning is a traffic free downhill all the way to Khoy. This is where our luck takes a slight turn. First, we get an introduction to the kind of traffic we will be facing here in Iran: It's not great. Actually, it's borderline retarded. More on that later. Second, we get several annoying equipment failures: My rear wheel gets caught in a sewer grate; bending the rim. Later, the zipper of our tent will fail. These are the realities of travelling I guess.

The one redeeming fact is that Iranian roads tend to be very wide with a paved shoulder. Most of the time, you can feel relatively safe. Enjoying the ride? That's another thing. From Khoy we get to a small town. It's Friday and the only shop open is a bakery. As we gather things to buy, the owner of the shop, Mr Habib, invites us to his home for food. The layout of the Iranian home is great. There is very little furniture. Just wall to wall persian carpeting with dinner served on the floor.

Tommie and Marie are music teachers and have taken over the entertainment. It's a good opportunity for me to sit back and be incognito. Being an entertaining guest is not my favourite activity. Fortunately for us there is someone who speaks English. Mehdi is his name and he invites us to check out ceramics shops. We all imagine artisans working on traditional pottery but instead we get to a market blotted with the worst kitsch I've ever seen.

The place was quite busy and people were lining up to buy this stuff. It was a bit of a Borat moment when Mehdi asked me if we have such shops in my country. I told him yes. They are called Dollar Stores.

The next day, the goal is to get to Tabriz. The closer we get to the city, the traffic grows into an infernal chaos waiting to be a bloody mess. I suggest trying to catch a ride in. It doesn't take long before someone with a pickup offers to drive us in. Once in Tabriz we try to offer money but the guy won't take it.
- I invite you he says.
Good thing we got a ride because it takes us hours to find a hotel that is clean and cheap.

Michèle comments: A few days in Tabriz and suddenly it is time to say farewell to Tommie and Marie. They were heading north to the Caspian Sea and to Tehran; we would be heading south, hoping to find warm temperatures again. It was getting bloody cold in the northwest. I always think about what we learn from the people we travel with. I loved Marie's view on what was important: An autumn leaf that she found on the grounds of a castle tucked in with her other important documents. Tommie was a masterful negotiator and generally had a don't-take-no-shit attitude. That came in handy when we took the bus from Tabriz to Esfahan. After being assured numerous times that there was "no charge" for the bicycles on the bus when buying our tickets, at our arrival in Esfahan, the bus steward unloading the bikes started to demand "Money, money, money..." Benoit blew a spaz and we didn't give him a rial. He said later that he was inspired by Tommie.

I'll let the pictures speak for the beauty of Esfahan where we stay for two nights.

It seems that we stumble into peoples lives like mini eras. You become friends quickly and part ways just as fast. At the famous Imam Square, we meet Mohamed, an Iranian who speaks fluent English. He invites us to stay the night at his place. This is an opportunity for us to get away from the small talk limited to our Lonely Planet, English to Farsi book. Mohamed offers us more than just hospitality. He is a rich source of knowledge on Iran and the Middle East. It is so interesting to travel through the political landscape of a country in the eyes of anonymous local people. Not the journalist superstars who feed us bullshit by the handful. When we ask if he thinks things will change here in Iran he replies that people are not ready for change. They have to first decide what they want. Then he says something we will remember: "Sometimes you have to give up something you like before you can pursue something you love".

One thing is for sure, we haven't met anyone that has anything good to say about the government. Women seem to like their headscarves even less. Even Michèle says she would rather wear a wig and moustache. Women seem to rebel quietly by putting their headscarves way back, showing most of their hair. Some wear tons of makeup. One young woman had eyebrows so trimmed that you are left wondering if it's the same down below.

Michèle comments: I was sick and tired of the headscarf by day two in Iran. I had thought that I would adapt well to the headscarf, it being only a temporary inconvenience for me. Benoit said "It doesn't suit you," and when I looked dismayed at his comment, he quickly added, "That is a good thing." One young woman speaking perfect English asked me, "How do you like your headscarf?" Before I could form a diplomatic answer, she replied, "I hate mine. But I have to wear it." As well as covering their hair, women have to (it's the law) wear clothing that covers their legs, arms, shoulders and most importantly conceals the bum. When we first arrived in Iran, I didn't really have any form-concealing attire so I had to wear Benoit's big baggy 'husband shirt'. I was the perfect candidate for the what-not-to-wear section of a fashion magazine. Many women are wrapped head to toe in the 'chador' tents of black fabric that flap in the wind and make them look like bats. Only at close proximity can you see the detailed delicate patterns of the fabric. It made me wonder why they bother -- why not just choose any old black fabric -- and then I thought perhaps that attention to detail is also a form of rebellion. Enough about the conservative dress code for women, let's talk about the traffic. The drivers in the city are the worst, like nothing I have ever seen before. Our initiation into riding our bicycles in traffic was in Khoy. It scared the shit out of me. It felt like 'straight street' driving: No rules. The best way that I can describe an Iranian driver is as a snake, looking for the smallest crack in between cars and slithering its way through. Honking instead of using a turn signal. Ignoring the dotted lines separating lanes, and often ignoring the solid line separating the oncoming traffic. Backing up in the middle of a busy road. Instead of slowing down to make a turn behind you, racing ahead to make a last second turn in front of you, forcing you to squeeze the brakes in terror while cursing at them for cutting you off. There is no chance of daydreaming in traffic here. Every second you have to be expecting the unexpected. I understand the Iranian driving technique better now that I think of it as a snake, but that doesn't mean I like it. The Iranians don't like it either, so they tell us, but they still drive like maniacs.

While some rules are tight in Iran, some are incredibly loose. Like camping for example. You can camp anywhere. Even downtown of a major city. Here in Esfahan, one of the parks turns into a tent city every evening.

Michèle comments: While camping at the city park, we met Kees & Nathalie who are travelling from Holland in their Landrover. Somehow they have adapted to the snake driving. They even drove in Tehran traffic, which we heard is insane beyond insane. I worry about the state of my lungs being amidst so much pollution. Trucks belching black smoke, cars with engines idling, and so many people on motorbikes that it isn't funny. Our camp stove is complaining about the dirty gas too. It has been performing poorly ever since we have been using car gas here as its fuel. We hope that soon we'll be able to find cleaner fuel before our poor little stove dies completely.

The next day, we follow a GPS track out of Esfahan which leads us to a massive highway full of moron motorists. On the outskirts of the city, it's nothing but industrial parks. No thousand-year-old mosques here. We finally get to the turnoff that gives way to lighter traffic. It is extremely dusty, to the point where you could call it fog. Wind is kicking up dust somewhere. It seems odd because the desert is mostly rock. We keep heading east: One night camping in the open desert surrounded by howling jackals and another in a garden beside a prayer room.

Dust is getting everywhere and the zippers of our tent fail several times. Disappointed by my choice of route, all I want is to catch a ride out of the area. But we keep pushing to a town called Hasan Abad where we get a bit of food and then sit on the sidewalk, pouting. You can guess what happens next. We get invited to spend the night. This is where we meet a school teacher. He doesn't speak much English but communicating with him seems easier. I show him on our map a road that goes from Hasan Abad to Yazd. He tells me that the road is a dead end. Determined to show us his town, we both pile into his car. As we head down on the infamous road, the dust seems to get thicker. Then, in the span of several metres, the rock desert and vegetation stops to give way to sand dunes as far as the eye can see. There is so much dust and sand being kicked up by the wind that you immediately get disoriented.

I try to get out to take pictures but I can barely breathe or keep my eyes open. I can't imagine what a real sand storm must be like but I'm told that they can strip paint off a car. As we drive away, Mr school teacher says "... biciclette no".

Early in the morning, we cycle out of Hasan Abad on a quiet road. The wind died during the night, and with the dust now settled, we hook onto a long straightaway: The sand dunes on one side and flat, all the way to the horizon, on the other.

Today we are blessed because there is a good tail wind. We are very careful not to take these types of conditions for granted. Out here, things can change quickly. At the end of the day, we stop at a ruined castle to find a place to camp.

It would have been ideal to camp inside but there are no flat spots. The best thing to do is to make tea and wait for a solution which shows up on a motor bike half an hour later. Ahmad is a Zoroastrian and he tells us that this is our home: We can camp anywhere we like. Zoroastrians believe in praying towards the light. In ancient times, the only way to make light was with fire. Therefore, there are many fire temples especially around the city of Yazd where one fire has been kept going for 700 years.

Michèle comments: In Hasan Abad, and again with Ahmed at the castle ruin, the solutions appear when we stop and wait. Imagine life as a horse-drawn carriage: Let go of the reins and let the horses have their heads. Things will work themselves out. At the castle, I was looking at the uneven ground, stupefied, wondering why we couldn't see a good place to camp. Running through my head was the thought, That castle didn't just appear before us for no reason. Once, a long time ago in Montreal, we had dinner at a Mauritanian restaurant. The owner was entertaining us with tales of sand storms in the desert. The sand obliterates the road and sometimes the cars get stuck. No solution seems possible. In such a case, he said, the first order of business is to make tea. I thought of that restaurant owner as we set the water to boil.

We end up camping in an almond orchard where Ahmad and his friends bring us fire wood. Later on that night they will roast almonds, make fire tea and light up the qalyan. Ahmad has a unique personality and a unusual sense of humour that is difficult to describe. As he lights the camp fire he says half jokingly:
- In the name of God.
We ask him how many people live in his village; he replies:
- 11 people and 20 cats.
When it's time for us to go to bed he adds:
- And now, we will never see each other again.

Michèle comments: Ahmed was an interesting character. He had a presence about him that made him stand out from the ordinary. He spoke in a sort of stage whisper. With his friends around, he acted the jester a bit. A village cat sauntered by and Ahmed said, "The cat's name is ..." followed by a word in Farsi. His friends collapsed in fits of laughter. For all we knew, he could have been saying as a joke, "The cat's name is Testicles." I decided not to repeat the Farsi words that Ahmed was teaching us, ... just in case he was pulling our leg. When Ahmed was not around, one of his friends was loud and annoying, like an awkward teenager trying to appear cool to hide his nervousness. His way of addressing Benoit as "Mistère, Mistère..." was probably meant to be polite, but it jarred at the nerves. Later, Ahmed returned with his friends, and the previously loud awkward one didn't say a single word, as if Ahmed's presence was commanding him to silence.

To be continued...


  1. Really impressive! The desert, wow! Michèle with a scarf! Zoroastrians! Wishing you a great and safe trip. Where are you now?

  2. They may be brisk entries and exits from other people's lives, but I remember both occasions fondly. I hope you are both enjoying being back on the road. For my part I am now living in Marseille, learning French slowly and continuing the marine biological research.

    Bonne Continuation, Martin

  3. Very informative the passage on the veil with the drawing. This law on clothing is difficult to grasp in 2011. I am expecting a comic book on your trip...;)Keep rolling! Daria

  4. Cool ta photo en voile, Michele !!

    Et contents d'avoir de vos nouvelles apres si longtemps.


  5. Salut Viviane: Nous sommes présentement en Oman. L'internet est un peu plus rapide!

    Bonjour Martin: Nous sommes très d'avoir de tes nouvelles! Comment vont les méduses?

  6. C'est toujours inspirant de vous lire...


  7. Daria: Merci Daria. Oui le port du voile a été difficile pour Michèle, mais il parait que c'est 100 fois pire en Arabie Saoudite.

    Seb: Moyennement cool le voile. Personellement, j'y comprends rien.

    Shanty: Merci Shanty, stay tuned!