Month: August 2012 (Page 1 of 2)

First impressions of Iran

Cycling through Iran is something I’m really excited about. With the Caspian Sea in the north and the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman in the south, Iran has been important for the Silk Road and trade between east and west. The country has one of the oldest civilizations dating back to 2.800 BC and yet we know so little about it. So it’s great to be here and learn more about the people living in this country!

For some reason, border crossings have always taken much time especially for a group and their bicycles. Leaving Turkmenistan went quickly (due to a not working X-Ray machine) and entering Iran went even faster with just an extensive passport check. Just before we were allowed to enter the country, the head of Immigration gave us a warm welcome! He wishes us a great time in Iran and hopes that our stay will be that pleasant that we come back many more times! Wow, I have been traveling to many countries, but never felt more welcome than here!

From the border we cycled in two days to Quchan. On the first day we were able to camp a little bit further (30 kilometer) down the road in a little park due to the fast border crossing. This was the month of the Ramadan, and people are allowed only to eat before sun rise and after sun set. Which means: many people go out for a picnic in the evening. Until late. We were camping in a perfect picnic park… This was also true for our second night, where people were celebrating the end of the Ramadan. It was special to see how large families were gathering together and have a nice meal in the open air. It was also the first time I saw tents, other than ours, where people would sleep in; both during the hot afternoon and at night.

Since the second day was only 50 kilometer, I was able to explore Quchan in the afternoon. First impression is that it was similar to a small Chinese town. Lots of small shops selling the same things or things you would not need. Lots of traffic without much regulation. Many people in the streets. But it’s different. People seem to me more modest. Advertising is less obvious. There is no loud music or shouting in the streets. The cars use their horns seldom. And there are no tall buildings (which you would see in China everywhere). People are friendly and hospitable. We were invited for a cup of tea and some bread at one of the picnic’s right next to a mosque. That was very special since a large group of people was praying only 10 meter from where we were sitting! After drinking a Zam Zam (coca cola) the shop owner quite often refuses to let us pay since we are guests; we do pay of course.

Next to our camp ground, in the shade, we met a couple of which she spoke good English. A few of the riders, including me, were able to talk to them for a couple of hours which was really great. We talked about religion and what that means in their life. When a girl turns 9 years old she has to start wearing a scarf. Some regions are more conservative than others; in Quchan women all wear a black chador, in Bojnurd it seems to be more relaxed and other colors are allowed. I was told that if a woman does not cover her head properly she can go to jail. It seems that people are quite afraid of the police and that the justice system is not transparent. Still she was telling us that she did not like the political system, the people did not elect this president and she would like to travel to the United States. There are many Iranians living in the United States and she does not believe that country has any intentions to do the Iranian people any harm. If there is an anti-US demonstration, she says that people are forced to participate.

After three days and seeing just a small part of this huge country, I found the people in Iran one of the friendliest I have seen on this Silk Route journey. They are relaxed, open minded and hospitable. A great country to visit!

 

From Mary to a canal camp

After a week we left Uzbekistan and entered Turkmenistan. Two days of cycling through the hot country side of Turkmenistan brought us in a nice small town called Mary for a well-deserved rest day. It has some really impressive buildings, a big bazar, a dirty hotel, nice shashlik restaurants and that’s about it.  From Mary we’re cycling some 120 kilometer to a ‘canal camp’. Another great day on my bicycle!

If you look around you, you’ll always see something. Even in a desert or on a rough road: camels, strange road signs, bridges, lots of sheep and goats, someone repairing a truck and beautiful ancient looking cars and busses. A Coca Cola stop is usually something else than an cola: a little kid trying to ride my bicycle, sleeping for an hour, having fun with my fellow riders, putting water from a well over my head, patching Mun Yew’s tube. And sometimes, there is a stop just to enjoy the view and take a picture.

One of the stops is at a cotton field where girls were collecting cotton by hand. So when these girls waved to me, gesturing to join them, of course I couldn’t refuse! It was hilarious! When I was next to them, they wanted to have their picture taken. At first they were a bit shy, but after a while they took of their scarfs and argued between themselves who would be in the picture next. The younger boy took the pictures, including a few of himself of course. At a certain point, they even asked me to lift them and everyone was laughing when I did. After approximately half an hour Carolina, doing the sweep, joined and much more pictures were taken. We had a great time in the middle of a cotton field!

I can’t remember how much kilometer after this cotton field Carolina and I stopped at a Coca Cola stop. Chris, Mun Yew, Jane, Siegfried and Martin were about to leave and John stayed to keep Catharina and me company. They say it’s my fault… I had my second flat due to a big thorn so I accepted the invitation of four men just having lunch. After one glass of vodka, I started to patch my flat. At that moment, Catharina and John were also invited by the men and they started their first glass of vodka. Seeing the speed everyone was drinking, I hurried up and fixed my flat in 5 minutes or so. Catharina and John were already drinking their third glass! In order to catch up, I got a big glass and more vodka. We talked about soccer, Amsterdam and Ashgabat, but it was all about the drinking. One of the guys was a former judo champion and his hands were really huge! My hands are big, his were at least 5 centimeter longer. I figured that it’s better to have him as a friend so I bought another bottle of vodka (for 3,5 US dollar). After bottle number four, lunch was over and they had to go. And we still had to cycle 5 kilometer to camp. Easy…

From cotton fields to madrasahs in one day

How wonderful riding a bicycle can be! And what a change: from the high altitude Pamir mountains to the flat cotton fields in Uzbekistan. I never knew the stan’s would be that diverse and different! The Uzbek-people are really friendly, waving and inviting me for a small talk all the time! There were 5 cycling days through the country side, two rest days in Samarkand and one in Bukhara.

I noticed that now that we’re in Uzbekistan, I’m quite often one of the last ones to leave camp. I’m relaxed and not in a hurry and I enjoy the day as much as I can. There is no rush to get into camp early so I take my time and make a short stop every hour or so. There is always something to see: a small village, people selling water melons or a bucket full of tomato’s, children playing along the road, a coca cola stop where traditional bread is made in a clay oven or just the view of a cotton field!

I have been wearing cotton all my life, seen some pictures of raw cotton in school but never in real. It felt like a big discovery when walking through a cotton field! Looking at the flowers, how they develop into a green hard bulb before they explode into cotton! There are fields after fields. And irrigation channel after irrigation channel! Which, by the way, are great channels for a swim to cool down!

Entering Samarkand was a bit challenging since we had to ‘circle in’ due to one-way streets and difficult intersections. Before reaching the hotel, I noticed some great and impressive madrasahs already! And there were two rest days ahead! In addition, I was thinking of a late birthday present while riding into town, and after seeing checking the bed and shower, and hearing of a poor internet connection, I decided to check into a luxurious hotel 😉

Samarkand is one of the oldest cities in the world, prospering from the Silk Road in ancient times. Between 1365 and 1405, Samarkand was the capital of Amir Temur’s empire, stretching from Turkey well into India and Iran. During his ruling he forced craftsmen (from all the places he had conquered) to build amazing and architectural innovative buildings: madrasahs (most famous is the Registan), mausoleums and mosques.

I spend a full day, from early in the morning till late in the evening walking around this amazing city. I took many and many pictures. Here are just a view of them:

 

It’s hard to believe that Samarkand, nowadays in the middle of nowhere, was one of the largest cities in Central Asia; with what I’ve seen in China, I’m sure that’s not the case anymore. Tomorrow we’re off to Bukhara, a city with even more madrasahs. What a life!

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