Sunday, 8 January 2012
Riding Into Summer: Shiraz to the Persian Gulf
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My last couple of weeks in Iran, riding down to the Persian Gulf to catch my ferry to Dubai, reminded me of the vastness of Iran. A country ten times the size of the UK but with the same population has a lot of empty spaces. I felt (mostly) healthy for the first time in a while and I wasn't chasing time so I could take the quieter roads to less-frequented places and make camp at two in the afternoon if I felt like it. Which I often did.
The weather and climate shifted as I rode south and descended from the mountainous terrain which makes most of Iran to the hot flatlands around the Persian Gulf. Lower and warmer. There was still harvesting going on, then palm trees started to appear, and I stripped down to just a couple of layers for the first time since... I couldn't even remember. Probably October.
Riding back into summer while snow fell in Tehran - a few Iranians had told me that Iran is a land of contrasts. I think I'd go further and call it a land of contradictions, as it's a place where you can be met with cold suspicion and warm hospitality. The government wants tourists and their money, but they make you jump through hoops to get a visa and (if you're British) they charge a small fortune for it. The people were the friendliest I've met, but they drive their cars with a cheerful heedlessness, and smile and wave while they're within inches of your bike. Overcoming and dealing with these challenges was part of the fun and it all added spice, making it the most fascinating country I've visited so far. I'd made friends who I'd been sorry to leave behind, and as I had my leisurely ride south through the dry mountains and hills of Hormoz, I wondered if I should have stayed a bit longer, and determined in any case to go back one day.
I had some wonderful camping spots, amongst plantations of palm trees or near Mount Hormoz, where I walked down to the river to fill my bottles with the salty and barely-drinkable water. One scary night, I was awoken by the sound of a huge pack of dogs howling and baying as they passed, what sounded like not much distance away. I lay awake while the sounds passed away, then in the still night I couldn't get back to sleep as every slight sound or rustle was amplified by my imagination into an immediate, intimate risk. I was planning to fight them off with my bicycle pump if they did come close.
Further south, I had a moment of severe grumpiness with a pack of lads on motorcycles who were determined to have a conversation with me when I wanted five minutes by myself to eat my dinner. But, this led to my meething Ehsan, who asked why I was so angry and fed me a huge plate of pasta. Luckily, I regained my sense of humour for the procession of punctures and pump failures which marked my afternoon at his house in Abgarm. Thanks for cheering me up, Ehsan.
There were no hotels and few facilities between Firuz Abad and Bandar Abbas. In fact, the only hotel in Firuz Abad was hugely overpriced so I rode out of town to camp, accompanied by the local kids on motorbikes who practiced their English on me: "Ï love you! What time is it?". And showering was strip-washing in the water reservoirs which dotted the side of the road and, one luxurious day, a waterfall.
I timed my arrival in Bandar Abbas so that I'd only have a couple of nights in hotels before I caught the ferry. It was high season in Bandar Abbas as half of Iran heads south to the warmth, which must be ferocious in summer. To be honest, I was quite hot myself.
The lush beaches and endless sands I'd been expecting of the Persian Gulf coast didn't materialise, but I was quite pleased at the vistas of cranes, lifting equipment, shipyards and oil refineries which marked the coastline. Since I grew up near Teesside and my dad spent most of his working life on the rigs, it made me feel quite at home. Only the blue stillness of the sea gave away that I wasn't sat at Port Clarence...honest!
So farewell to Iran. The next day, I was on the ferry, crossing the Straits of Hormoz, looking at the huge supertankers shipping oil away to Japan, or the USA, and half-expecting the British destroyer to breast the horizon, in response to Iranian threats to blockade the Straits. Again, realpolitik was starting to intrude upon my ordinary life, so it mightn't have been such a bad time to leave after all.
Photos on Flickr