When we were done with the Iranian customs they assigned us a policeman to escort us to the bus terminal in Zahedan. Once we exited the immigration complex we were swarmed by taxi drivers wanting to take us to the bus terminal. Since there was only one guy who spoke English, he told us that we could not cycle as we were still in Balochistan (Iran side) and it is very dangerous for tourists as there are also kidnappings and the policeman will ensure that we get safely onto the bus to where ever we wanted to go. At the Zahedan terminal the police officer even escorted us to the loo and even paid for it. He wouldn’t let us out of his sight until he handed us over to the police personnel at the bus terminal. People in Zahedan were not so friendly and just gave us odd stares and communication really was a problem as they only speak Farsi. Even the sign-boards and menus are in Farsi so when ordering food we just used hand signals to show what we wanted to eat.
Being in Iran was a bit odd at first. With the country being an Islamic republic, I had imagined that Iran would be like Pakistan where there were no women on the streets, but it was completely the opposite. The women were doing their shopping, walking around hand in hand with their husbands or boyfriends and everyone was so fashionable with their winter wear/ overcoats and the women in their knee-high boots. After a few days in Tehran I began to understand that most Iranians are very liberal especially the younger generation. After speaking to a few people, a lot of Iranians have a strong dislike for the government, but they can’t express or say it aloud. They even showed me the hand gesture that they would be slaughtered like chickens if anyone from the government found out. In Tehran looking for a WiFi connection was impossible. Internet cafes are also hard to find. The internet is controlled and monitored. Most US websites and social networking services are blocked such as Facebook, Gmail, Blogger and WordPress but most people can get around it by using VPN. We were disconnected from the outside world for a week in Tehran.
After getting a bit bored, we decided to visit Karaj, a town about 45km from Tehran, where we met up with my friend Milad. I met Milad while he was on holiday in KL. We actually met by chance on the busy street of Bukit Bintang. My friends and I were on our bicycles when Milad approached us, asking where he could buy cross -country mountain bikes and if there were any races that he could join in Malaysia. We exchanged phone numbers and kept in touch through sms. Two weeks before I was to depart on this journey, he came back to KL again to take part in a DH (downhill race) in Kuantan and he got 3rd place. When he came to KL I told him about the journey that I was going to do and told him I would be passing by Karaj and he told me to just give him a call once I was in Tehran.
In Karaj, Milad introduced us to this Manager & friend, Afshin, and told us we would be staying with him. Afshin is a multi- talented sportsman. He does a lot of outdoor and extreme sports such as skiing, mountain climbing, cross country mountain biking and also big wall climbing. He also manages his own MTB club called Ofogh mountain bike club, Afshin also gets many tourists who come to ‘couch surf’ at his place and he brings them on skiing or mountain trekking trips.
We also had the opportunity to tag along with Milad to watch him train. He took us to his usual training ground. The mountain was quite high and it took us about 30 minutes to climb up to his starting point. From up there we could get a bird’s eye- view of Karaj, but the view wasn’t so clear as the town was covered in smog. On weekends the mountain can get quite busy with many people enjoying the multiple- treks to the summit. Milad also introduced us to his family and hosted a dinner for us at his home. His family was very happy to see us. I guess most Iranian families do not get the opportunity to meet up with foreigners as they are mostly disconnected from the rest of the world.
While we were having a real good time in Karaj, we had to leave for Turkey as our visa was expiring, so we headed for the border town of Maku in Iran. From there on, the landscape began to change with snow everywhere. There were huge snow-capped mountains. It was such an eye opener for me, as this was my first time seeing snow up close 🙂 Crossing into Turkey was no hassle as the police/immigration officers were very friendly and happy to know that we were from Malaysia. We then proceeded to cycle to the town of Dogubeyazit which was 45 km away. We got a taste of cycling in sub zero temperatures which was really torturous and to top it off there was a headwind of at least 20-25kph which really slowed us down. We cycled for 15 km before we decided that it was too cold and maybe dangerous to continue.It must have been at least -5 degrees. We tried to flag down a few vehicles but none of them would stop but finally a mini van with 3 people in it decided to stop and we loaded our bikes into the van. None of them could speak English, but one of them gestured to us that we were crazy to try and cycle in this weather :p lesson learned!
Dogubeyazit is a small town with mainly Kurdish people and most of them are very friendly. People on the streets would greet us with a smile. As it is winter now, there are not many tourists in town. The main attraction in Dogubeyazit is Mount Ararat (5,137m). The mountain is said to be where ‘Noah’s Ark’ landed and it really is quite a sight. Many tourists come here to climb the mountain during the summer. Another attraction is the Ishak Pasha Palace which was built during the Ottoman empire.
We had such a good time in Pakistan. We made so many new friends and ate so much good food that we were getting too comfortable, but all good things must come an end especially while travelling like this. It was really hard saying goodbye to all of our friends, but time was running out as our visas were about to expire. We were advised by a lot of people to take the train to Quetta instead of taking a bus, for fear of it being attacked by rebels at the tribal areas. Following their advice we took the train from Lahore to Quetta. I really enjoy riding on trains, but this journey will be remembered for the rest of my life! A journey that was supposed to take 24 hours was delayed up to 38 hours. At Jacobabad the train stopped for about 6 hours, after the previous train was attacked by rebels. Soldiers boarded the train at Jacobabad all the way to Quetta to ensure the safety of passengers. After spending 2 nights on the train we arrived at Quetta in sub zero temperatures. We then rode to town in search for accommodation. In town there were many police and military check posts complete with sandbags and barbed wires. Quetta is notorious for killings and kidnappings. There have been many stories of tourists/aid workers getting kidnapped, so we were told not to wander the streets during the night. Luckily for us, there was a tikka shop opposite our hotel or we would have no dinner that night. Even during dinner or walking on the streets we got a few angry stares by the Balochis. We didn’t even bother to take pictures of the town as we did not want to attract unnecessary attention.
The following day we boarded a bus for the final stretch of Pakistan. The journey from Quetta to Taftan was about 600km and took 12 hours. We had to register ourselves at various police/army check-posts and once the police were alerted of our presence they assigned an armed escort for the rest of the journey. All throughout the night I was thinking to myself whether this one policeman was enough to protect 30 passengers. If a party of 6 armed bandits were to ambush our bus we would be sitting ducks, for sure. We reached Taftan town at about 4am in total darkness and the only place opened was a restaurant where we had a quick bite (pratha) and ‘chai’ while we waited for sunrise and for the border to open. According to my Macau friend, Gordon, Lonely Planet described Taftan as ‘hell on earth’ and that description was not far off with just a few buildings and mostly barren wasteland. It really was a depressing place to be in. Checking out of Pakistan was easy, and after an hour we were done with Iranian immigrations and customs. After confirming that we only have 14 days on our visa, we decided to board a bus to Tehran.
So a short summary of our cycling in Pakistan. It is a bit more relaxed than India (trunk roads). On the trunk roads it was quite safe to cycle on the shoulder, but can be very bumpy, and also with hundreds of miles of farmland there is not much scenery. Bus drivers drive like they own the road, but they will honk to alert you. In the city, it is chaotic with the auto rickshaws and motorbikes. It can be dangerous when the auto-rickshaws just cut in without giving signal and just grind to a halt.
More on Iran in my next post.
Peshawar is my favorite city so far in Pakistan, known as the oldest living city in Asia. It is the capital of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, land of the Pashtuns. It is a vibrant city with a rich history. For centuries it has been a trading centre between Afghanistan and Central Asia. Back in the old days, traders from all over Central Asia would pass through and stop to park their beasts (camels) at the caravan sarai (highway motel) for the night and they would have a meal and also share stories with other traders from distant lands. Peshawar is well known for its bazaars. They have huge separate bazaars for spices, dry fruits, crockery, meat and fish, and also vegetables.
Another thing that Peshawar is known for is their green tea (kawa). They are served in little rustic teapots. These tea shops were very popular, centuries ago, with the traders. One particular tea- shop that we visited has been operating for 300 years.
While in Peshawar, we were lucky to be guided by Prince and Kausar, who are truly amazing people. They are certified tour guides and they are also very active with their charity work. Prince runs his own NGO which is called ‘World Welfare’. We had a rare opportunity to visit an Afghan refugee camp which was under their care. While our time there was short, we were warmly greeted by the elders and children of the camp. The settlement was recently rebuilt as it was all washed away during the floods in August 2010.The houses are mostly built with bricks and mud. It was quite sad as they were really living with the bare necessities. Prince has done a lot of work in the settlement. He has helped them rebuild their houses and also install water- pumps. He also runs learning centres for the children, by teaching them English and having Computer classes and for the girls it’s mostly handicraft work. The sad reality is that the children have to work in the brick factories for 10-12 hours to support their families, so the learning centers are always empty. In order to get the kids to come for classes, Prince sometimes has to fork out money for the families so that the kids can go to school.
Peshawar is also a city with the most gun shops around. I must have seen at least 25-30 gun shops. A long time ago people used to walk around town with their guns & rifles but are now forbidden.
It was too bad we didn’t have time to visit the tribal areas where they have a gun factory producing Kalashnikov (AK-47) rifles 😦