Iran is, unlike Turkey, one of the few countries, where I actually had a rough idea about the route to follow: down to Esfahan or Shiraz and then all the way up to Mashhad to continue through Central Asia. I allowed myself two full months to do this route to be sure not to be in a hurry and to enjoy my time riding there; Iran is not a country, again like Turkey, where I might return anywhere soon.
I also wanted to have time to get used to a country that proved to be so different to anywhere I’ve been before: everything was new, not only things I already know of, such as the lack of alcohol or the veiling of women, but also new things surprised me, as their social habits, governed by taarof, meaning that you are never sure if people really mean what they say; even before entering a room there is a small ‘discussion’ based on the word ‘befarma’ (basically please) to allow the other person to have the honour to enter the room first and I always do the wrong thing entering the room before anyone else. And then there is the overwhelming curiosity of people, from the English-speaking person who bombards me with every kind of questions – “what do you think of Iran?” being the most common, but there is no topic that could escape their curiosity; “What do you do in Italy to entertain yourself?” and lots of questions about money also rank high between the most asked questions – to the often annoying young boys in their motorcycle that follow me in the traffic shouting questions in Farsi I am not able to answer. At the beginning I even struggled to understand where to buy bread, and for a whole week I didn’t notice that the time has changed, my clock was one hour behind, something that didn’t really matter as long as I was cycling and camping, but it gives you the idea of how little I understood things around me. And entering the country close to No Ruz didn’t help a lot: things were even more extreme than usual, people more curious and most of the shops would be closed (for a whole week I tried to find an Internet café, but, everytime I asked, the only answer I received was a sound I didn’t understand, followed by the word ‘tatil’ – holiday – accompanied by a sorry-looking face).
At least, as I said, I had a rough idea about the route to follow and when, back to my first Iranian day in Urmia, I bought a very basic Iranian map, it didn’t take long to notice one thing: the presence of something that looked like a big hole on the North-East of the country, with the word ‘Dasht-e-Kavir’ (desert of Kavir) written on it, and a road with very sparse villages going through it. That was the road I was planning to follow from Yazd to Mashhad; I then remembered to have read something that spoke of a desert, but I didn’t imagine it would have been so big – almost 1000 km; I always thought my first desert crossing would have been in Turkmenistan. How wrong I was.
After two enjoyable days in Yazd, a beautiful city which I visited with a Chinese boy and a German couple that were in the hostel with me, I was ready to leave again. I’ve downloaded a short guide written by other cyclists about the road from Yazd to Mashhad; knowing exactly in advance what you will find takes some of the fun out of the riding, but this being my first desert crossing, I felt safer this way, knowing where to find water, food, villages and help if needed.
I left Yazd with my bags full of food – rice, biscuits, dried fruit, canned beans, nutella, jam, it would have probably lasted me over one week – and 10 litres of water; 6 litres would have probably been enough, especially because you can always ask for some water to a passing trucker, but I wanted to be on the safe side. Anyway within an hour the water in the bottles would become so warm to be almost undrinkable and most of the tap water I found along the way was somewhat salty, for this reason the few time I would find fresh and good water I would stock it up.
Shortly after having left Yazd I did a left turn, suddenly things changed and everything disappeared to leave space just to sand and small bushes. And so it was until the following town – Tabas – almost 400 km, 3 villages and 4 days later.
And what would have been a better moment for the bike to break, if not a few km after having left Robat, the last village before Tabas, exactly 160 km far? On a long descent the gearing system suddenly made a scary sound and the cog would not turn anymore, it was like glued to the wheel and my only option was to pedal all the time, even when going down, as if riding a fixie . In the evening I camped close to the mosque that commemorate the fall of two American helicopters in 1980 and, borrowing the proper tool from a truck driver, I removed the cog, but the problem was the freehub, something I didn’t know how to deal with, so I resigned myself to cover the remaining 120 km to Tabas pedalling all the time, arriving in town completely exhausted, also because of the hot weather, and the headwind that I had for the last 50 km.
Luckly in Tabas I found a very helpful mechanic, who even spoke some English, however he had no idea about how to remove a freehub, so I went to an internet café nearby, printed some instructions that explained everything about freehubs and we spent the rest of the morning taking the wheel apart to locate the problem. After having taken out the cog, opened the hub, the freehub and taken out the bearings, somehow we managed to fix it, everything was turning normal again and I had to thank again a kind Iranian who spent a morning helping me. It was already 1 pm and I had no intention of leaving Tabas, there was a mosque where I could pitch the tent for night (together with many other Iranians), but most importantly there were some gardens where I could rest under the shadow of the palms, with drinkable and fresh water, something I hugely missed in the previous days. And the mechanic mentioned there was another cyclist in town, he was from South Korea and he was riding on the opposite direction as me, so later I went to meet him; during the dinner we had together he told me that he also liked the luxuries Tabas has to offer, he has been in town for 4 days, camping outside a shop, trying to recover from the ride smoking marijuna with the shop owner – a pleasure I shortly shared with him -sleeping most of the time, going to the gardens to refill his bottles and being part of the town life, just for a few days. Surely it must have been hard for him to hit the road again.
After Tabas the scenery didn’t change a lot, there were other 250 km of desert until shortly before Kashmar, where I didn’t plan to stop at all. I ended up sleeping there two nights, hosted by a doctor, who had an English-speaking son; lots of things happened in the time spent there and Kashmar has become one of those town I would have never crossed had I been on a bus, but that will remain in my memories for a long time. But that’s a story for a different post.
It might sound strange, but I really enjoyed the desert, much more than other places. I enjoyed the very basic routine I set myself into: early start after a night spent in the tent, long break to avoid the warmest part of the day, a break spent either close to a mosque or under a bridge to escape from the sun, during which I would eat lunch, sleep or read (and the book that kept me company during these long breaks – To Kill a Mockingbird – will now be strongly linked to this desert in my memories), more cycling again before setting up camp, either in a village if it was nearby, or just wherever I happened to be, the roof of an abandoned caravanserai being my preferred camping spot.
And I also liked those long flat stretches of quite repetitive landscape, especially when there was little traffic; I didn’t have to concentrate on the ride itself, I was able to pick up the right rhythm, letting the thoughts on my mind flow freely while watching the landscape: lots of old memories came up to my mind, things I thought I forgot long ago, memories from high school times, or from previous trips, or I just thought of people back home or I daydreamed about possible future destination (what I will do after China is still unclear to me). Strangely the thought of what I will do once this trip will be over, almost never crossed my mind. And, after all, the landscape was not so repetitive, things would change and I learned how empty spaces can assume completely different forms: one day I woke up close to a mosque surrounded by sand and completely in the middle of nowhere, than I had 50 km of somehow rocky and deserted mountains, before hitting a huge flat valley where you are able to see for more than 10 km ahead and, right before sunset, I saw the first palms of the oasis town of Tabas.
After Kashmar there was a big mountain to climb, then I’ve taken a smaller road through villages that saw the passing of me and my bike with big surprise (and tried again to warn me that the asphalt would have ended soon), before hitting the main road that would lead me to Mashhad, Iran’s second biggest city as well as second largest holy city in the world according to Wikipedia. As much as I liked this mini adventure in the desert, I was happy to be arriving in Mashhad, I was really in need of a big rest, especially before the mad run that awaits me in Turkmenistan – 5 days to cover 650 km – where incidentally there will be another desert to cross.