Mashhad - Sarakhs ... 27/09 - 30/09
We are well rested when we reach Mashhad, what a trip! We have difficulties in finding Vali’s guesthouse, as all streets name are in Farsi. Mashhad is a pilgrimage city, not a touristy town. Besides most people don’t speak English and streets name have changed. We are even told the street does not exist! Fortunately, Ben has a great sense for directions.
Vali’s guesthouse is great but a bit bizarre: some beds scattered in a basement and covered with carpets on the walls, the floors, tables... We were warned Vali is a carpet seller! 3 Australians are leaving the guesthouse for Yazd. These are our last days in Iran, but for them it’s just the beginning. They come from Turkmenistan and will work in Denmark.
We visit Imam Reza’s shrine. This is a very holy place nearly as important as Mecca. Pilgrims offer a fascinating spectacle: sheikhs in white djellaba, Saudi Arabian women in a full black gown, leaving only their eyes free, the rest of the face is completely covered by a black light fabric.
Being buried next to this shrine is an honor; it represents for Muslim the same as being cremated in Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges for Hindus. We see small groups of people around a coffin, an imam is praying, surrounded by men in the front and women in the back.
The Chador is compulsory. It’s the last challenge for Sylvie who is counting days before she can remove her veil and talk to men again. The Chador is a large black veil that envelops the whole body. An elastic behind the head helps maintaining it but for some reason it doesn’t work for Sylvie and she has to put it back on her head to cover her hair every 5 min. There are no sleeves, both hands are permanently occupied to keep it closed. One wonders how women can carry their shopping bags! Despite all her efforts, Sylvie is told off by a guard, a lock of hair is visible! It’s for sure, Chador is not for her. This is all the more frustrating than men can walk bare head and in short sleeve shirts. Even after a month, it is still very difficult to accept the principles of Islam...
The shrine is an architectural wonder, constructed in the same style as Isfahan, maybe even more beautiful! Blue and gold domes, marble courtyards, delicate mosaics, and gardens ... It looks like a palace. New courtyards are being built every year to deal with the ever increasing number of pilgrims. Donations help building those extensions. When we visited, a huge courtyard was being finished.
Several courtyards and mosques are forbidden to the infidels, but we still manage to have a look through the doors. Men, women and children are sitting on the ground, praying, crying, and even beating their chests. To come here appears to unleash a lot of emotions for Muslims. As for the Catholics in Lourdes.
Back at the guesthouse, we meet Patrick and Christina, 2 Australians arriving from Turkmenistan and Walter, a Swiss who is traveling by motorbike and crossed Turkmenistan in a day and a half. They are all very happy to leave Central Asia, too much hassle with the police! We don’t care, we’re happy to be finished with the hejab and Ramazan!
We spend a great evening sitting and eating on carpets on Vali’s terrace under the stars, exchanging advice and good addresses.
We depart the next morning after a warm farewell to Vali, his wife, sisters and our fellow travelers. We haven’t cycle for 3 weeks and apprehend the 200km that we have to do in 2 days; it may be a bit to much to start with especially with Sylvie’s knees! But we don’t have a choice; we must be at the border with Turkmenistan on the 1st of October due to our visa.
10km after Mashhad, a civilian car starts tailing us like in the movies but at 15km/h, it is difficult to be discreet!
Corinne and Loic were followed by a police car for nearly 150km near Gorgan (north-eastern Iran) so we know what this is all about. The government is trying to stop drug smuggling between Iran and Afghanistan but dealers are responding by kidnapping travelers. A little further we exchange our remora (or sharksucker fish) for a big police pick-up. There is no way a drug smuggler can get between us and the car! The car is already struggling to maintain such a low speed when a headwind starts blowing and we automatically falls under 12km/h. Unconsciously you start forcing on your knees when you’re being followed and Sylvie will pay the consequences throughout the week. We will never see drug smugglers but there are others... (wait a little before reading the next sentence for the suspense) Three big dogs start chasing us but the policemen make their engine roar, their tires screech and charge the dogs. Good to have some close protection :o). Inexplicably, the police drops us after 30km, they are probably fed-up with our speed...
Lunch at a small cafe on the roadside in the desert. It’s like being in a Wild West Cowboy movie: wind screaming, small and dry bushes bending, and trying to cling to the desert sand. The cafe is like a little cube in the middle of nowhere. We have our usual tuna and cheese on bread meal, with some vinegar crisps for a change.
We cycle in the middle of a desert; the sand is undulating for ever and ever and strewn with sparse vegetation. There is nothing to stop the wind. Two guys in a pick-up truck stop and ask us if we want a ride to Mazdavand, 25km away. The driver seems alright but his friend has red eyes ... Alcohol, drugs? Anyway we give it a go as there is no way we will reach the caravanserai before the evening with that wind. We insist on going in the trunk with the bikes but the driver stops a little further together with another truck. What's happening? The road is deserted, they are 4, we are 2... But we are worried for nothing the driver is concerned with the police and ask his friend to go in the other truck so we can go inside with him, nice of him! He explains that for 30 years, they have been keeping their mouth shut and dying of hunger. Another one who did not choose! We understand that he wants to invite us to his home to sleep and eat but also to smoke, a bit too risky especially in this region. He drops us at the top of a long climb and when we want to give him some money he gently refuses. Thanks to him, we will be able to sleep at the caravanserai. It is almost dark when we reach the intersection to the caravanserai, and we still have 6km to do. That would be ok if the land was flat but that is not the case there are three very steep climbs. Once again we’re very lucky a man and his son join us on a motorcycle. We are very tired, it’s very dark and we struggle to go up the hills but the man shows us where to go and sends his son to help Sylvie pushing her bike. Thanks to him we find the caravanserai, what a day!
Two caretakers live next to the caravanserai. They are extremely nice and offer us tea, grapes and their gas cooker. We setup our tent next to their house.
The next morning, surprise surprise, 2 shock cords from the tent are hanging miserably. Is it the dogs who barked all night? No, a rodent! Yesterday when we setup the tent we did not see the hole next to the tent.
A bigger surprise awaits us when we wake up, two French cyclists just arrived! Jean-Marc and Olivier are traveling from Lyon to Shanghai and are crossing the border to Turkmenistan on the same day as us. What was the probability of that happening especially this late in the year? The four of us visit the caravanserai, the two caretakers explain how they are renovating the place and how it use to be and work. The camel drivers stood on a platform to eat and sleep, while the camels were tied around them so they could take care of them. You can still the mangers running along the wall, and the rings where they use to attach the camels! Further you can see the rooms were the rich merchant use to rest and sleep. At that time, the caravanserai was completely covered but several earthquakes and bad weather conditions have caused a lot of damage. The two caretakers are trying to restore the place or at least limit the damages.
In the middle of the courtyard, a large reservoir was collecting rainwater. The water was then distributed to several other smaller reservoirs scattered around the caravanserai, through underground pipes. Loopholes and a covered way help defend the caravanserai. All the silk, spices and other goods must have been tempting for thieves. Every wall has been painstakingly decorated with verses from the Koran. So much work, finesse and ingenuity... If only highway stations, caravanserai of today were that beautiful!
We hit the road delighted to have two new companions to cycle with. The day goes by very quickly. There’s only sixty miles to the border, so we take our time and chat at the same time as we cycle!
We setup the tent in a field next to a small house made of mud. We have to be careful as a lot of fields are irrigated and we could be flooded during the night. The dogs are again barking all night long. At the beginning we thought that would be great to have dogs for safety reasons but as they bark at the slightest noise, you spend many sleepless nights.
This is our last day in Iran. We will keep beautiful memories of all our encounters, especially with Nahid and Bijan in Tehran. It is not an easy country due to all the cultural differences, and the Islamic laws but we are fortunate to only be crossing the country, Iranian have to leave with it everyday. The architecture of Isfahan and Mashhad amazed us. Nowhere have we seen such beautiful blue domes and refined mosaics...