The last time I’ve been telling you about my adventures in english dates a long long time ago, to the end of January just before I left Ankara. I couldn’t leave it like this, but I also do not have the time to describe everything in detail either, so I’ll just quickly flick through my (already) shattered memories about that time and get you up to date…
So I finally left Ankara on a train, called Trans-Asya express, tho it was no express at all and we arrived some eight hours later than scheduled. However, nobody minded much as we (more than half of the passengers were western tourist which I’d been spending most of the time with, drinking in the restaurant car) were having quite a good time.
In Tehran I stayed for twelve days to arrange my Silk Road visas (Chinese, Uzbek and Turkmen) – process, which finally went much smoother than expected (especially for the Chinese one – 90days/$40, no LOI or bookings required) . When I was about to leave, Brice and Quentin, two French cyclist that I’ve already met on the train, arrived in the couchsurfing ‘squat’ I’d been staying in and as Brice was heading south as I was, I waited for him and we left Tehran for Yazd together.
Across Persia en deux
We passed through holy city of Qom, zoomed through Kashan and fought with heavy head wind in the mountains of Natanz, slowing us down one day behind plan, but that was afterwards sweetened by the fact that in Esfahan we were hosted in a house just for ourselves (me, Brice and Quentin who came by bus). A house so big and spacious that we used to call it ‘The Castle’. Although all the three of us were almost out of money already, we didn’t struggle much – every day (for a week) we would by an enormous can of tomato paste, kilo of spaghetti and cook a king’s portion for everybody, generously showered with olive oil – we lived in ‘The Castle’ after all, didn’t we?
Then we said our final goodbyes to Quentin, who was about to fly back to France, and headed to our first real desert – a 200km shortcut through the sands and stones of Varzaneh to Yazd. The cycling that followed was (and still is, in fact) some of the best, you can experience while bike touring. The landscapes were scenic and breathtaking, the road adventurous and challenging, the night in a caravanserrai, where you’d expect a gin from the lamp to appear anytime, magical, the stars bright and the moon so big and close you could reach out for it. And I almost forgot: the only people we met during the crossing of the desert were some hashashin road-construction workers in an old tent, where they steadily smoked opium in the mystical flickering glow of a kerosene lantern.
After five days, here we were in Yazd, homeless, as we didn’t succeed in finding a CS host, so we didn’t really fancy doing much sightseeing, just enjoyed the sun and slept in a park for two days. Then, in the morning the time had come to part our ways and say farewell to each other. Over the time, I found myself being better and better in abandoning everything and everybody over and over again, but I had the feeling I would have trouble this time. So I slept long, took my time, quickly wished Brice the best luck and gave him a head start on his way to Dubai.
Opium of the desert
And off I went, the one thousand kilometers long stretch of the desert opening in front of me. I rode two days and found a caravanserrai so splendid, that I stayed there two nights, spending the day in between naked on the roof, philosophizing about everything and anything, writing ferociously. In just two more days, through territory of asian cheetahs (as scary information boards alongside the road keep reminding you), I reached an island of green palm trees in the oasis of Tabas.
There is a crossroad near the village called Ozbek Kuh, which you maybe wouldn’t even notice and all the cars just speed through, but ever since I left Tabas I knew that that’s the place where I’ll have to make a big decision: whether to go for Mashhad as quickly as possible or whether I would set myself on my last persian adventure through the toughest desert I yet had to experience. Not minding the biblical dark clouds, casting gloomy shadows onto that desolated dirt road, I decided I prefer the adventure.
And adventure it was. Without GPS and of course no road signs, when having to chose the right way at a crossroad, I could rely on nothing more but the Sun and depth of tracks in the road. Every day I would find a tiny settlement, just with one family, few goats, hens and dogs and get invited to their humble house.
The first night, that happened in a settlement called Tashkiran, where we (with my host Medjid) ‘sounded the gong’ (a chinese expression meaning ‘to smoke opium’). And smoke we did. After four hours of inhaling the deeply dark blue smoke, I feel I’m overdosed. For a long time you think that opium does nothing to you, but then I stood up and wished to sit again. My legs were big wobbly clumsy reeds in the wind and the floor felt like a quicksand in the dark. On the way to the door, grotesquely stiff and slow, my knees were shaking and I wasn’t sure if this was my body. Under the night sky, I felt a little desperate and lost, and I quickly dashed back “into the burrow”, with its comfortable warmth. There again, I pleasantly laid down, dozing and we continued smoking…
Next day I met a police patrol on the road that confiscated my passport and announced that I’m done for the day (I had 30km on my tachymeter). They arranged accommodation for me with certain Mr. Chodabarsh in a village nearby and because I started to feel sick, I didn’t even protest. I then caught a terrible diarrhea (with my stool changing consistency to water and colors through orange and green to frightening gray) and stopped to care at all about my passport (which was then given back to me, while I was already asleep). The night was spent by running across ferocious dogs to the only public toilet in the village – actually only a hole in the ground, surrounded with just a tiny, waist-high parapet, so that when I ‘went for it’, all the villagers had been curiously watching my struggle.
So, the journey through the Namak desert (as it was called) prolonged from the formerly planned one day to four and had been the most difficult thing I’ve experienced so far on my travels. Therefore, when I finally rode out of it and felt a proper asphalt road under my wheels, I felt like a rescued castaway. Little it mattered, that the village where I popped out was not the one I was aiming for and that I had no idea where I was. The existence of the asphalt road was the only thing that mattered.
I made to Mashhad three days after that and having spent just ten minutes in the city, I already bumped into a guy , called Amir, offering me to stay in his house. I didn’t hesitate and followed his car to the nicest apartment I had the chance to stay during my whole Iranian travels. So it happened that I spent all the week and celebrated No Rouz (islamic new year, taking place on March, 21st – this one is 1394) with Amir and his family.
That gave me the enough strength to be prepared for the five-day challenge of crossing Turkmenistan (I had just a transit visa, as almost all travelers do). The first day, I was held by the customs procedures until noon, fought with a terrible wind and then rode until 8PM in something I like to call ‘a biblical storm’, and so I did just eighty kilometers. The second one, I was pushing the bike through 50km of mud and after I was through, I was done for the day, fed up, covered in mud and almost wanting to throw the bike away and die in the ditch. Ok, third day I woke up really early and was ready to do at least 150km. At 3PM, due to the meanest head wind I’ve ever experienced, I had covered lousy sixty. It was clear I couldn’t make it and so I decided to hitch-hike. One long ride with a lorry through the Karakum desert got me to the gates of Turkmenabat and my soul was calm again.
I crossed to Uzbekistan early in the morning of Friday, March, 27th. The always-present enthusiasm of crossing a border pushed me forward and I made it to Bukhara, where I was hosted by Ixtiyor and Zamon, two guys I met on the road, who gave me their address with directions. That really came in handy as I could leave the bike there, do some sightseeing, write article and connect with the world again – at least, that’s what I thought. But in the afternoon the second day, Zamon was calling, (I was with Ixtyior, who showed me around) that we have to rush back to the apartment immediately and he sounded rather upset. It turned out that somebody saw us bringing the bike and everything upstairs and informed the militias. The militiamen then called Zamon to get rid of me immediately otherwise they would have to pay some fine and that if I was found there next day, I would be deported. And get rid of me they did. WIthout any regrets or sad faces (rather scared ones), I was back on the street in five minutes. And because it was clear that I can’t stay in Bukhara anymore, I had to rush to Samarkand to be able to fulfill the duty of registration (an utterly unpleasant annoying law, complicating everything) with police within 72 hours from entering the country.
Again, the wind blew strong in my face and the second day after leaving Bukhara, I encountered snow, ice and frost once again. I wasn’t able to ride. After first thirteen kilometers, my fingers and toes were so numb, that I though I’ve lost ’em. In first bistro I saw, I had to stop and shell out some of my last dollars (I didn’t manage to get Uzbek so’m yet) for vodkas and tea.
Then after few stakans, I felt a lot warmer, but on the other hand I was quite wasted and couldn’t drive straight on the icy road. Again the time was all against me and again I decided to solve it by hitching a ride. Anyway, once I arrived in Samarkand, in front of the OVIR office (The Visa and Registration Department), it was already closed, meaning that I was illegally in Uzbekistan from that moment and I was screwed.
As the night covered me with its icy cloak, I was still there, gliding on the ice down the street back and forth, not knowing what to do. And then I saw the shiny lights of a big beautiful building, the only illuminated building across the length of the desolated street, where I could dig in and be warm, right now, it was the hotel Grand Samarkand and below that inscription, there were four shiny stars, it was the defeat of defeats, and I felt I lay my head bowed on a block of shame, but I was cold, hungry and dirty as a martyr again I was drawn to those warm door of hope, just like the little girl with matches in the Andersen’s story put all her hope in the last match…
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