The Vespa of the Shifting Sands


IN THE ABARKUH DESERT, IRAN — Yazd is 3,000 years old, is one of the oldest continually inhabited places on Earth, although it didn’t look like much on the approach to the city: by all appearances it’s just a standard mid-sized Iranian town out in the desert, with wide, straight, tree-lined boulevards full of buzzing retail and a driving style best described as “mental.” I had no map of the city, and the resolution of my GPS map was such that the city was plotted on the screen as two intersecting roads with the word “Yazd” helpfully superimposed in the middle. All I knew was that I had to get to the Silk Road Hotel, and it was somewhere in the eastern part of the old town. I rode up and down the main central boulevards, asking strangers for directions to the hotel, and nobody had heard of it. I thought I’d just continue riding around aimlessly; surely it was around there, somewhere. As I cruised around, peering at all the street signs for indications of where it might be, some guy on a motorbike with his son riding in his lap pulled alongside.

“HELLO!” he said. I waved hello back.

“HOW ARE YOU?” he hollered over the wind, wanting to have a proper conversation at 50km/h.

“FINE!” I said, and returned to my driving, speeding up a little.

He goosed the gas and kept up with me. “HELLO!” he said again, warming to his theme. Then he got a little fresh by declaring “I LOVE YOU!” I looked over, and he and his son were clearly enjoying this. Ha, ha. Meanwhile, I was tired and sweating and in need of a shower and a cup of tea. I ignored him and kept riding.

He kept throwing all the English he knew at me — “Hello!”, “How are you!”, and “I love you!” — trying to provoke a reaction, like he was tapping on the glass of an aquarium. I tried to lose him by making a turn; he followed. Soon he and his son were orbiting me in tight circles and yelling and laughing as I exasperatedly tried to focus on the street signs. Pretending they weren’t there wasn’t going to get rid of them — the heavy artillery had to be brought out. I had no idea what hand gestures carried any currency in Iran, so I just kept my hand on the throttle and my eyes on the road and ran through everything I could come up with: yes, the bird got flipped, then I added an index finger and a jabbing motion, English-style, followed by a vigorous fist-shaking. Scraping the bottom of the barrel, I even did that Italian chin-sweep thing that ends with an upwardly-facing open palm. I looked over to see if any of that had an effect, and sure enough, they both wore expressions of extreme displeasure on their faces as they pulled away into the night.

I DID EVENTUALLY FIND the Silk Road Hotel, and as cheapo places to sleep go, this was one of the best I’ve stayed in. From the outside, it’s just another nondescript, mud-caked wall in one of the hundreds of alleys that comprise Yazd’s whisper-quiet maze of streets, but behind that lies a huge Persian courtyard with a fountain and European-style tables surrounded by traditional raised sitting areas. Beyond that, on the perimeter, are inward-facing guestrooms. I settled in and enjoyed the serenity of the space after the long drive.

Yazd is an immensely rewarding place to poke around in. Its ancient old town is the real deal, without any trace of the sterile over-renovation that can rob very old cities of their essence. (It also helps that regular people still live there.) You can spend an entire day wandering through it, and even scootering through it, barreling down six-foot-wide alleys and through derelict market halls topped with the enormous domes that are typical of Yazd’s architecture.

Another wonderful architectural feature is the profusion of “windcatchers,” or bâdgir, forming Yazd’s skyline. These towers are an ancient form of air conditioning that channels hot desert winds down to subterranean canals of cold water, which then employ a pressure differential to blast the refrigerated air back up to the living space. Pretty ingenious stuff. It must cost a mint to install, but the operating costs afterwards are minimal.

Back at the hotel, I kicked back, caught up with my reading, and took in the scene. A fresh-faced English kid lounging in the courtyard rummaged around in his rucksack and produced from it, I shit you not, a didgeridoo, and inexpertly coaxed many long, flatulent notes out of it, much to the annoyance of everyone within earshot. Meanwhile, across the way, a blonde European, clad in loose-fitting Pakistani traditional dress, or salwar kameez, sat there smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and looking at peace with himself. If Iran did indeed have a tourist trail, I was back on it, and I smugly assured myself that I was far cooler than any of these people. Pfth. All these poseurs — they probably got here on a friggin’ bus.

Travel snobbery can be an ugly thing, and I’m as guilty of it as the next guy. As I understand it, the archetypal travel snob, who ironically defines himself by his presumed open-mindedness, belittles other tourists who haven’t managed to get around to all the world’s unlikelier backwaters with nearly as much penny-pinching élan as he has, and drones on about being “immersed” in the “local culture.” This variety of travel snob is pretty insufferable, from the sounds of it, although I thankfully haven’t yet met one on this trip. But there are many meats in travel snobbery’s rich, judgmental stew. People are people, after all, and most everyone’s naturally inclined to status-seeking, no matter how they go about their travels. You see it in hostel bars on the tourist trail, where clusters of westerners size each other up, a miasma of prickly mistrust hanging over their heads, and the natural assumption is that everybody else isn’t doing tourism properly. They’re moving too fast, or too slow, or relying on package tours, or not being environmentally friendly. They’re spending too much money, or spending too little. They’re going to predictably well-visited destinations, or sticking together with their countrymen all the time, or behaving like it’s frosh week all over again, or conversely, not having nearly enough fun. Visiting a country ruled by a repressive regime can be a no-no for some, but at the same time, some people feel the exact opposite. You can slip up by reading the wrong guidebook, or skipping a visit to someplace like Bhutan, or going on an ocean cruise.

Back in Budapest, many long-term expats reserve the worst of their travel snobbery — and I call it that because, when you think about it, the expat life of moving somewhere and getting a job and learning the language and maybe even settling down and starting a family is, in a certain light, a form of hard-core tourism — for the drunken armies of English stag-party hooligans that descend on the city every summer. These Anglo-Saxon invaders are pretty annoying, I’ll agree, but they provide a very instructive counter-example to the expat, who’s integrated himself at least somewhat with the local population, and carefully carved out an image of himself as culturally sensitive and worldly and adaptable. He sees these marauding beer-swillers and ass-grabbers in his midst, and feels not shame, but fear — fear that his new hosts will associate him with the worst elements of his civilization, and maybe suspect him of being some sort of fraud. And then he makes tremendous efforts to distance himself from his own country, and even to disparage it. But to the locals, who don’t make such fine distinctions, it comes across as so much self-loathing.

This queasiness with being lumped in with others of your ilk betrays a self-centredness that goes beyond worrying about being merely tolerated; tourists obsesses, strangely, about being liked by the locals too, and it goes a long way towards explaining why people raise a stink over how others like them tramp around the world. Back in Tbilisi, I took it on the chin from an American USAID worker who was seriously peeved that I wasn’t raising money for charity with the Vespa360 Project. She thought I was some kind of monster because I was just doing it for kicks. For every ambitious trip you take, apparently, you have to pay some form of penance, and I had sinned by not joining the grim priesthood. Likewise, a Canadian couple on bicycles I met in Yerevan were initially somewhat forgiving about my doing this trip on a Vespa, if only because a scooter presumably has a smaller carbon footprint than one of those “big bikes” they’d seen tearing up the highways of the south Caucausus. I then sheepishly explained that, well, er, actually, the oldschool 2-stroke engine in there, what with all the oil it drinks, probably belches out as much carbon per kilometre as your average city bus. That didn’t win me any friends either.

Personally, I’ll admit to a very predictable nose-in-the-air struggle with this idea of authenticity as enjoyed by privileged westerners. I’m driven up the wall by the sight of affluent people, mostly young and living off their parents but many well into their 30s and 40s, luxuriating in some hard-to-reach, yet carefully prepackaged idea of a prelapsarian, third-world paradise. You know the sort of place. It’s almost always on a beach — it doesn’t matter which country — and local proprietors have learned to maximize profits by serving banana pancakes, putting Bob Marley’s Legend on constant rotation, and inking henna tattoos in a confusing jumble of pagan, Buddhist, and Confucian symbols. At some point during a typical evening, a well-muscled local dude will start flinging around balls of fire attached to strings. Everybody oohs and aahs, has another drink, and exults in the authentic awesomeness of it all. And then the lucky few the next day drone on about how they got sooo wasted and totally hooked up with that hot Norwegian a few bungalows over. In loathing this whole sorry spectacle so much, I think I may have skipped my midlife crisis entirely and gone straight to grumpy old man.

Which brings me back to the blonde European guy in the Silk Road Hotel courtyard, dressed in mufti. I’d instantly written him off because of his native getup — who, exactly, was he trying to fool? I later learned that he was actually a fantastic guy. His name was Clement, he’d just retired from the French gendarmerie, and he and his girlfriend Lenore were on their way back to Bretagne in their fancifully painted Renault 4 Van after having tooling around India and Pakistan for a few months. He wasn’t wearing the regional togs to make any sort of Kumbaya, One-Worldist statement; he’d bought them on the cheap while driving across Pakistan and he claimed it was the most pragmatic way to dress in this heat. No dirty hippy he, we had a lengthy and thoroughly enjoyable conversation about automatic weaponry before talking of our shared love of beer, and how much we’d enjoy une petite bière right then, but alas, we were in Iran. C’est la vie. He and Lenore then gave me all sorts of useful tips for my upcoming ride through India, and I resolved to stop being such a snob and judging other tourists so quickly.

MEANWHILE, I’D RECENTLY RECEIVED NEWS from my dad that my tourist visa application for Pakistan had been either rejected or lost, which would make getting to India overland a little tricky. I resigned myself to riding south to the main Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, crossing the Strait of Hormuz on a boat to Dubai, and then sending the Hamburglar to New Delhi via air freight. I wasn’t all that happy about this — it seemed like so much cheating — but at the same time was secretly kind of relieved. Crossing Pakistan sounded pretty daunting. All that recent flooding had done a number on the road infrastructure, apparently, and there was all the unpleasant stuff the flooding brought with it: refugees, political instability, fuel shortages, cholera. Plus there was the question of whether or not it would be in good taste to haul ass through all that human misery. Surely I’d be an idiot to even try it.

And then Clement and Lenore came along to tell me their recent joyride across Pakistan was just boffo. I really wished they’d told me it was a horrible place, in no way navigable by Vespa. But if their Renault could do it, my bike could have done it too. Sadly, in the end, it didn’t.

The Renault 4 Boulangerie Van: Going places Hamburglars fear to tread

The next day I set out towards a tiny village called Zein-o-Din, only an hour’s drive southeast of Yazd. It’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere and only notable for its caravanserai, built in the 16th century and only recently restored. It didn’t disappoint. From the road, it looked like some enormous fossilized sponge cake surrounded by absolutely nothing.

Inside, though, it was something else entirely, a Persian precursor to the modern-day motel, and with all the trimmings. They feed and water and house you for the night for 25 bucks.

After dinner, I went up to the roof and stared at the Milky Way, and briefly contemplated my own insignificance against the vastness of the universe. I quickly got over that, then saw with some relief that civilization really wasn’t that far away. The main highway framed the horizon, and scores of latter-day dromedaries, the brightly-lit trucks handling half of Iran’s gulf trade, silently moved along it towards the Persian Gulf.

The next big stop for me was Shiraz, with a stopover in Persepolis along the way. I had some serious riding to do, most of it on paved roads, and hunkered down for the next leg. It was possible to take a shortcut on a series of back roads on the way to the edge of the Abarkuh Desert, which turned out to be of the more enjoyable parts of the ride so far.

I camped out on the edge of that desert, which was, I’m not very proud to admit, the second time in the whole trip I actually used my tent. It turns out that I really don’t like camping. The next day I met up with the main highway leading across the desert itself, which is four lanes wide, sporadically blackened with tar, and frequented by trucks. After a few dozen kilometres, I was thrilled to finally see desert desert off to my left: there really was nothing out there but sand. It was forbidding and dangerous-looking, but oh so close, and I pulled off the road and headed out there for a picture.

At first, progress was easy enough, the sand having been packed hard enough to support the weight of my bike. Vegetation eventually grew sparser and sparser until there was none at all, and suddenly my Vespa — which doesn’t really lend itself to dune-bashing — sank up to both axles. I dismounted and pushed and pushed and cranked on the throttle with the bike in first, and after a time got it out, after which it immediately sank again. More pushing and engine-revving followed, my arms started to ache surprisingly early on in the exercise, sand sprayed everywhere, and around and around I went until I found some harder soil to stop the bike on.

It was time to get my bearings. I looked for landmarks, and saw none. I had no idea which direction I’d come from. It was just sand all around, all the way to the horizon, and the tracks I’d left went off in crazy curlicues and eventually disappeared. I was at least a kilometre from the road, but there was no sign of it, nor could I hear the traffic from the trucks. Something like panic set in — I had no water and no food. Eventually I managed to make a rough guess, based on the sun’s position in the sky, about which way was east — and if I just went in a straight line that way, I’d eventually hit the highway. A few minutes of pushing and riding and pushing later, I found it, and rolled up on to the sweet solidity of the tarmac.

Only then did I realize that I had a fully-functioning GPS unit mounted on my dashboard, and the circuitous route I’d taken to get lost one whole kilometre into the desert was clearly traced on its screen down to 1-metre resolution. I made a mental note to avoid any further desert expeditions from there on in, hopped back on my bike, and headed off down the road towards Shiraz.


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