Wednesday, 25 June 2008
Well, the intention wasn't to cycle through Iran at all. We wanted to take the ferry across the Caspian from Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan, and carry on East from there. We spent a lot of time and effort in Baku to try and organise these things. But, the irregularity of the ferry, as well as visa headaches regarding the "-Stan" countries, made us suddenly change our route. For the first few days' cycling in Iran along the Caspian coast, we were quite surprised to find the area green (rice paddies), with many rivers and forested misty coastal mountains. The people here are also very friendly and helpful, and camping is permitted just about anywhere (we've camped on public beaches, Mosque gardens, and in village people's yards). A problem for us is the strict dress code - I have to wear long pants at all times, and Leana has to wear a head scarf, long pants with a long-sleeved top over it, and long sleeves. (This is not the ideal cycling outfit for hot weather). From the coast we had to cross a substantial mountain pass between Chaluse and Karaj, on our way inland to Tehran. We spent more than a day cycling the 80 k's up the pass to an altitude of 2700 m, and then we cruised down in the drier climate past the spectacular Karaj Dam. There were many tunnels on that road, as well as half-tunnels to protect the road agains rock falls and avalanches in winter. Even although it is mid-summer and very hot, there was still some ice up on the high mountains, and even a glacier near the top of the pass. Tehran is a large, hot (in summer), smoggy city. We've been here for more than a week now, and we've criss-crossed the city by Metro, Bus, and on foot. The traffic is crazy, and the most dangerous thing about the traffic is the thousands of small motorbikes (you're not even safe on the pavement). There is a lot of segregation between women and men, such as separate coaches on the metro for women only, and separate areas on buses. This is clearly a "man's country", with evidence of discrimination against women (i.e. the dress code, and restricted sporting activities, amongst other things). We've been trying to organise things like money and visa's (never-ending), which takes time and requires a lot of patience. Iran's financial system is rather isolated, and our credit cards (which we've used in every other country to obtain cash) are invalid here. Fortunately we had a few dollars with us which we could change, but that didn't last long. Money can also not be sent here from SA. We were lucky to have met a very kind tour operator who forwarded us some cash. This enabled us to settle the bill for our (cheap) hotel room, and to pay for our Pakistan visa's (which is where we'll be heading tomorrow). Between Tehran and the Pakistan border we'll be cycling through some very tough desert and mountainous stretches, and we will have our work cut out for us to get there in the 14 remaining days which we're allowed in Iran. Daily distances cycled since Baku were:- Shirvan 112 km; Celilabad 106 km; Astara 106 km; Jokandan (Iran) 82 km; Hashtpar 90 km; Rushar 125 km; Chaluse 109 km; Sayabishay 70 km; Karaj 92 km; and Tehran 55 km.
Sunday, 1 June 2008
We eventually got away from Tbilisi after waiting a few days for our Azerbaijan visas. The Georgians has elections during that time, and election day was a public holiday. Due to our extended stay in Tbilisi we moved from our hotel to the less expensive Nasi's Home-Stay, which is popular amongst backpackers. Nasi is a retired Georgian school teacher (photo), who has turned every conceivable space in her house into some sort of sleeping arrangement. She's very strict about cleanliness (leave shoes outside), so our filthy bicycle bags were a major nightmare for her. We met some interesting travellers there, including Claudio and Patrizia who had cycled from Beijing via SE Asia and the Sub-Continent, and were now on their way home to Italy. Later in the week we met Yuka from Japan (cycling on her own from Nepal to Europe), and Lee from China (photo). Lee has been cycling the world for 11 years, and amongst his less memorable experiences are having his bicycle stolen in Brazil, bags ripped apart by Afghan police, and (surprise-surprise) being robbed in South Africa. The day we left Tbilisi we crossed the border into Azerbaijan, and noticed a distinct change in the climate compared to Georgia. The countryside was more arid, with thousands of cattle and sheep being herded by horesemen (often along the main road - blocking traffic for miles). Agriculture mostly involved the use of ancient rusting tractors and hand-held implements. The major fashion accessory in the villages is gold - in the mouth (it's not unusual to see someone with a complete set of golden teeth). By the time we'd cycled East to the Caspian coast the landscape had become almost barren, and most things there seem to revolve around the oil industry (riggs in the sea, and pipelines and oil trains on land). The capital city, Baku, is very different from the rest of Azerbaijan. Although there is an ancient section with various historical sights, the city is becoming rather modern and cosmopolitan. Currently we are in the process of trying to organise our passage to the East (a major headache which will probably take a few weeks - if we're successful). In the mean time we'll probably leave Baku and cycle around the Nortern area of the country before returning. Distances since Tbilisi have been: Qazax 101 km; Ganca 99 km; Yevlax 120 km; Qarasu 120 km; Alat 87 km; and Baku 66 km.