Gillian’s cycling adventure| pt 2

Gillian and her friend Jonathan may or may not make it out of Iran

If you missed part 1 it’s here Gillian’s Cycling Adventure

From Tehran the (overly) ambitious nature of my planning became obvious as we cycled down to Shiraz (where we consequently found no Shiraz, or any other type of wine for that matter) and then onto Isfahan.  Whilst both cities were magnificent and beautiful, the 40 plus temperatures made appreciating their sights a challenge.

Cycling in Ramadan created another layer of difficulty, as many restaurants and shops were closed during the day. I also felt uncomfortable eating and drinking in public thinking that we were breaking the law.  We later discovered (much too late) that travellers were exempt from these restrictions!

From Isfahan we stopped at Persepolis where were allowed to camp next to the guard house for the night. The night of our arrival the guards quickly found an English speaking guide who arrived at our campsite with tea and stories of his work as an archaeologist during the original dig.

We then began the trek across the desert to Yadz.  While this part of the trip involved long stretches without towns or people, being able to watch the landscape constantly change proved fascinating.  All the podcasts that I had subscribed to in an attempt to stave off boredom went unlistened to as I focused on the road ahead.

I have heard cycling being described as being about the passing of time,
and with the wheels continuously turning, sometimes fast and other times painfully slow, it definitely felt this way. During these stretches of desert in 30-40 degree temperatures the focus became about getting to the next sign, the next hill, to the first 30km and then over the 100km mark.  There has obviously also much time spent watching my Garmin waiting for the kilometers to tick over! (Much to Jonathan’s disgust!)

When we finally did arrive, Yadz turned out to be just as enchanting as expected with its desert coloured buildings and blue tiled domes.

From Yadz we attempted to cycle across the last stretch of desert to Mashad, the city considered by Muslims to be the holiest city in Iran  (i.e. The Iranian equivalent of Mecca) and our border crossing point into Turkmenistan.
The highlight of this 900km dusty and hot bicycle journey turned out to be camping next to the site of the remnants of a helicopter and plane crash, an ill fated attempt to end the US hostage crisis.  There, we were hosted by the Red Crescent staff who made us dinner and breakfast before providing us water for the next part of our trip!

We then managed to cycle another 120km through the searing heat and wind before Jonathan realised the stupidity of the endeavor and took the bus.  I stubbornly cycled another 270km before I was waved down by a passing motorist, invited into her home for lunch and dinner and then I was bought a bus ticket for the next day!

Watching yet more desert roll by from the bus window I definitely realised that I wasn’t missing out!

While a great place to see the finish of Ramadan, Mashhad proved to be the least exciting of the Iranian cities that we visited. So after a very long tour of the mosque, involving me wearing an extra long borrowed chador that was not dissimilar to a bed sheet; we were glad to receive our Turkmenistan transit visas. This event was somewhat of a lottery win as many people are rejected with no explanation. The irony of wanting to visit a country that did not want us was not lost on me!

Arguably the strangest and least visited ‘stan, Turkmenistan gained nortoriety through the dictatorship of former President Saparmyrat Niyazov.  In this role, Niyazov covered the country in golden statues of himself and ruled as ‘Turkmenbashi,’ leader of the Turkmen until his death in 2016. So, it was with much anticipation and curiosity that we crossed over the border into what our Lonely Planet guide described as a “totalitarian theme park.”

While it didn’t feel right to be excited about visiting a totalitarian regime, having spent a month in Iran it was a relief to finally cross the border and enter another country, any country!  I would also have to admit that the opportunity to have a beer (or two) and not be obliged to wear a headscarf was playing heavily on my mind!

With only five days to cross the country, after successfully navigating the border crossing we loaded our bikes into a waiting taxi and headed towards the nation’s capital, Ashgabat.  Once there, we spent the afternoon cycling around admiring the marble buildings, gold domes and large areas of uninhabited lush parkland before checking into a hulking Soviet era hotel.  A fairly bleak option, we were provided with one towel to share, no toilet paper or toilet seat and told to open a window if the Arctic blast of the air conditioning became too much.  All for the princely sum of $50 USD!

The next day we took a series of taxis to get to the Darvaza gas crater in the Karkarum desert.  While the desert had been described to us as an opportunity to get a glimpse into traditional Turkmen life, with its collection of ramshackle huts and occasional camel the landscape proved rather bleak!  The crater itself, a result of Soviet-era gas exploration in the 1950s was definitely worth the trip.  Basically a pit of flames, the fire burns with incredible ferocity and can be seen from a great distance away (which is handy given that it felt like standing next to an open oven door!)

Alone at the crater, we managed to take innumerable photos before camping for the night and returning to Ashgabat the next day.  After a another night there we took the overnight train to Turkmenabat and cycled the remaining 30km across the border into Uzbekistan.  With its seemingly unending bureaucracy and paperwork, this crossing took up most of the morning.  This left us with little choice but to cycle through yet another desert in the midday sun as a ferocious headwind blew sand into our faces.  Delightful.

Thankfully, the next day proved to be a vast improvement.  We met up with a French cycle touring couple that we previously encountered in Iran.  The day was then spent singing and chatting while cycling through lush green fields criss crossed with irrigation channels and dotted with workers in colourful headscarves.  This was a definite change of pace for us!

As we cycled along we were greeted by villagers and many children and adults on bikes, who seemed to delight in whizzing past, chains squeaking and rattling.

As expected, Bukhara proved beautiful and was not full of the bus loads of tourists that we had expected.  After two days of exploration, we set off to Samarkand, arguably Uzbekistan’s most impressive city with its grand monuments, colourful bazaar and rich history.

Our time in Samarkand was spent wandering around the city and enjoying fresh food and copious amounts of ice cream before we set off to last destination in Uzbekistan. While having enjoyed much of the history that both the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand had to offer it was Tashkent with its plethora of Soviet-era architecture that I was most excited about. Obviously Jonathan was not as thrilled at this prospect.

As I had anticipated Tashkent proved impressive with its plethora of mostly well maintained monuments, Stalinist ministries and highly decorated apartment blocks.

Somewhat distracted by this haze of architectural induced happiness, at this point Jonathan and I decided to go our separate ways (so yes, Hooper, I owe you a beer).

While the trip had been Jonathan’s idea, he decided that he had seen enough of Central Asia whereas I wanted to head to Tajikistan, home of the Pamir Highway, with its promise of some of the best mountain scenery in Asia (and difficult climbs).

Amicably, we repacked our panniers, I learnt how to use our stove and Jonathan jumped on a flight to Korea as I headed in the direction of the Tajikistan border with the hope of finding a cycling friend.*

*Slight spoiler alert but I should probably note at this point that having spent two 150km days alone I managed to meet up with a French cyclist who had also lost his travelling companion just after the Uzbekistan/Tajikistan border.  So no, I am not still trying to utilize my poor navigational skills in Uzbekistan although I did manage to get lost.  Twice.

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