Not Just a Grape in Australia

Oct
12th
2010

SHIRAZ, IRAN — After my narrowly-averted tragedy in the desert, I thought it wise to stick to the main roads for the rest of my time in Iran. Heading southwest out of the Abarkuh desert, I caught up with the highway and pulled over for gas. Now, I’ve become something of an expert in Iranian gas stations lately, and this one was more fetching than most. The manager clearly had some pride of ownership. Just look at the place!

The cutest lil' gas pump in the Iranian plateau

Upon hearing that some foreign weirdo on a Vespa was filling up with his heavily-subsidized petroleum, the owner, Hossein, invited me into his office for tea. As one does in Iran. Declining was out of the question, of course, and I joined him in his lushly-appointed inner sanctum. He got out the silver tray and pots and cups, and while we were waiting for the tea to brew, he showed me his collection of handmade wood carvings.

Hossein was seriously into dolphins, but when you think about it, they’re child’s play when it comes to whittling; dolphins are all oblique angles when they’re not gently arcing curves. The caribou he’d recently finished — complete with insanely intricate antlers, and no sign of after-the-fact glue jobs — now that, that was the sign that he’d graduated to the big time. His output was impressive, all done with a stylized ’70s aesthetic that somehow looked both freshly hip and would also look great up at the cottage next to the highball glasses and UNO decks. It bore all the hallmarks of a guy whose talents were wasted in the gas-slingin’ biz, and so I asked him if any of his stuff was for sale.

His face darkened as he poured my tea. “No,” he said, putting an end to that conversation. “May I take your picture?”

“Sure,” I said, and tried to wipe some of the diesel residue off my face. He held up his cellphone camera and took a few shots.

Hossein smiled at the results on the little screen. “You have pretty eyes,” he observed, gesturing at his own eyes to make his point clear.

“Thanks,” I said, unsure where this was going. I asked him if I could get his picture, and he was all too happy to oblige.

Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Hossein of Abarkuh

I thanked him for his hospitality, and was on my way.

A FEW KILOMETRES LATER, as I turned onto the main 4-lane road to Shiraz, my engine did its predictable coughing and wheezing bit, and then died. There, on the rear tire, was evidence of some liquid — gearbox oil, or fuel maybe — spattered in a perfect star formation, emanating from somewhere near the axle.

As this trip goes on, I’ve been getting philosophical about the Hamburglar. I see it less and less as a single, two-wheeled means of conveyance, and more and more as several hundred metal and rubber parts, roughly arranged in the shape of a Buck Rogers rocket sled, that somehow manage to rattle down the road in loose formation. There’s a single 198cc piston and cylinder in there, mounted to the side well off the bike’s centreline, and — you have to love Italian ingenuity — counterbalanced by the wheel and engine being mounted slightly off-kilter. The piston’s slammed in and out by crude 2-stroke technology that creates several dozen very loud and dirty explosions every second, which, as well as sending a whopping 12 horsepower and a surprising amount of low-end torque to the rear wheel, generates an enormous amount of vibration. It shakes lightbulbs out of their mounts, undoes nuts and bolts, and makes a hell of a racket with any part of the bike that isn’t quite securely fastened. It also has a troubling ass-numbing effect.

And so, as I rove around on this quaking mass of shortcuts and compromises, originally designed to get postwar Italy moving again, cheaply and in style, I get lost in very simple thoughts. Thoughts like, “I wonder where that mystery liquid is coming from?”

Kersplat!

Kersplat!

I smelled some of the residue, and it was clearly a mixture of fuel and oil. I removed the side panel, opened up the air filter cover, and braced myself for what horrors might lie inside. Things looked absolutely fine in there. I wiggled the fuel line around, and there were no leaks. Not knowing what else to do, I put it all back together and tried starting the bike. Of course, it ran just fine, stringing the mystery along just a little further.

I CAMPED FOR THE NIGHT on the outskirts of a dusty town called Dehbid, and the next day headed towards Persepolis. This Persian answer to the Acropolis, built by Darius the Great around 500 B.C. and massively expanded by his son Xerxes 30 years later, is arguably Iran’s biggest tourist attraction. The mass of billboards you see on the ride in, with the Ayatollahs’ smiling faces lauding this great accomplishment of Persian civilization, seems a bit disingenuous given that its construction predated the Arab conquest (and the arrival of Islam) by well over a thousand years. Previous anti-clerical rulers of Iran — most notably the last Shah, who threw an outlandishly lavish 2500th birthday party for Iran there in 1971, much to the chagrin of conservative Iranians — tended to play up the pre-conquest angle of Persian history a lot more, and treated Persepolis as their own personal testament to greatness.

You can’t blame them — the place was built to impress. On the way in, up the stairs of the Gate of All Nations, you walk through several gates festooned with graffiti from various visiting explorers and conquering armies all the way up to the first half of the 20th century.

Kilroy wuz here

Beyond that, past several marble columns with griffins, or “homa birds”, perched on top, is the Apadana. All of the surfaces are marble and covered in bas-relief carvings, full of hypnotic repetition and depictions of evil monsters being slain by Persian heroes.

There’s a harem, and a treasury, and off to the side a Stonehenge-like cluster of trilithons that make up the Palace of Xerxes.

But it’s the sheer enormity of the columns still standing in the open areas that are the most awe-inducing. It must have been a vastly more stupendous sight back before Persepolis was sacked, looted, and razed by Alexander the Great.

I wrapped up my Clark Griswold-style tour of the place — I was in and out in two hours, let’s go, lotsa stuff to see and do, kids — and hopped back on the Vespa for the short ride to Shiraz. The countryside mellowed out on the way south to the Shiraz valley, with evidence of massive amounts of irrigation on all sides. They grow a lot of seedcorn out there in the desert.

I FOUND MY FLEABAG HOTEL in Shiraz with no mishaps — thank you once again, Garmin Corporation of Kansas City — and noticed that the French BMW GS I’d spotted back in Esfahan was in the parking lot. I parked next to it and left another note for the owner, like a stalker.

Shiraz is famous for its laid-back attitude, and believe it or not, its wine. (This is where the syrah grape comes from, although if you want to get your hands on some homemade vino there, you’re bound to pay a mint for some barely drinkable plonk.) You certainly feel the different vibe just from wandering around the city; there’s something vaguely Mediterranean about it, with its bustling street life and its freewheeling street vendors selling everything from ladies’ underwear to pirated DVDs, all lovingly laid out on blankets on the sidewalk.

The next day, as I locked up my hotel room on my way out to do some sightseeing, I bumped into the guy staying one room over. His name was Matthieu, and as luck would have it, he was the mystery BMW GS rider. Hailing from Marseille, he’d recently quit his job as a forest ranger and was planning on riding overland through Pakistan to India. We couldn’t stop and chat for long, though, and he left me there with a friend of his from Shiraz. It was never really a question of what happened next. I had a new buddy!

Aresh was a fellow motorcycle enthusiast, in his mid-20s and full of beans, and we went for a burger. Upon hearing about my mechanical problems, he insisted on helping me out. There were a few LML and Chetak mechanics in Shiraz, he said, and he knew of the best one. But first, I had to follow him to his place to see his first attempt at a homebuilt chopper. He hopped on his bike and I on mine, and we eased our bikes out of the hotel parking lot.

“Please ride carefully,” I called out to him over the sound of idling engines. “Not like an Iranian.”

“Sure, no problem,” he said, and popped a wheelie all the way down the street. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t trying to be funny — it was a relatively slow wheelie. I struggled to follow him through the traffic, and we eventually made it across town to his crib. His chopper, whose power plant was limited by Iran’s relatively restrictive regulations on engine displacement, was nonetheless a hell of a machine.

Zed's dead, baby, Zed's dead

It had some wonderful smart-alecky touches, like a single exposed piston hanging decoratively from the frame, and an utterly useless electrical cooling fan pointed downwards at the cylinder. There used to be a plastic skeleton hanging from the front of the bike, but the local Basij put the kibosh on that and Aresh had to remove it.

We later visited one of Aresh’s favourite bike mechanics to examine the Hamburglar. He took it for a spin, poked around in the engine, reset the carburetor, and gave it a clean bill of health. Of course, I couldn’t reproduce my fuel-flow problem for him. Maybe he thought I was crazy. Anyway, before I could take his picture, all the assembled mechanics insisted on combing their hair and moustaches.

Lookin' sharp, gents!

Later that night, we were off to a café owned and operated by one of Aresh’s friends. Matthieu showed up with his new friend from Shanghai, who was busy traipsing around all of Central Asia and had just arrived from Pakistan. The café was in the local upmarket shopping mall, and was done up in a minimal, modernist style. Aresh’s friends were a great crew, fairly liberal-minded and constantly bemoaning the lack of any nightlife options in Iran. (Yerevan, in their minds, was where you went to let your hair down.) Many of them were into motorbikes, too, and we got the requisite group photo down in the garage.

After the normal 10pm closing time, Aresh’s friend closed up shop and we had a lockup, Iranian style. We knocked back a lot of coffee and tea that night. Faced with a lack of booze and any venues where boys and girls can freely mingle, these guys nonetheless knew how to make the most of their limited options. At one point, Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For” came on the stereo and her thoughtful lyrics filled the air.

Take a chance you stupid ho…

“I love this song!” Aresh explained to no-one in particular.

Like a cat in heat, stuck in a moving car…

Aresh was clearly agitated. “When I hear it, I just have to… I have to move!” His knee started bouncing up and down. After a few more bars of the tune he couldn’t restrain himself any more.

ARESH HAD ANOTHER VESPA MECHANIC lined up the next day. As we made our way there, yet another thing went wrong with my bike: the throttle would wind up on its own to the redline and stay there. I stopped, restarted it, ventured back out into the crosstown traffic, and again the same screaming engine. I turned off the ignition and weighed my options. It was easily another 5km to where we were going.

Aresh then proposed pushing me there down the highway. This sounded dubious at best, but he insisted he’d done it before. And it worked: he put his bike behind mine, parked his right foot on my bumper, opened up the gas, and before long we were both rolling along at 40km/h while other motorists roared past us at twice that speed. Past on and off ramps we went through the Iranian traffic, cars swerving all around, and I thought to myself, what a stupid way to die. Happily, we made it there unscathed.

The mechanic was an extremely cool guy, and treated me like royalty, putting his other customers’ work on hold while he went to town on my bike. He attacked the carburetor first, cleaning it and resetting it. Then he took out the main fuel jet and examined it. I had the #116 jet installed, which is standard for a P200, but clearly not here in Iran at 2000 metres above sea level. He then installed a #108 jet, the hole in which was much smaller and would result in better running at high altitudes. I’d have to put the #116 back in when I got back down to sea level.

“This thing has an opening the size of the Ayatollah’s asshole,” the mechanic declared, holding up the larger jet, and everybody had a laugh. I noticed that there were no portraits of Iran’s religious leaders prominently displayed in the shop, and thought it a good time to tell them about the “Ayatollah Assaholah” t-shirts and other related merchandise popular in the U.S. in the early ’80s. None of them had heard of that, and they all thought it was great.

Where the sun don't shine

Afterwards, he injected oil deep within my throttle cable outer casings, along with the clutch and brake cables, and then took the rear wheel off and changed my rear brake pads. While he was at it, he looked at my clutch. It had, he guessed, maybe 5000 kilometres left on it. I mentioned that I had a spare clutch, purchased at a highway-robbery price from Toronto’s Motoretta Scooter Shop, and he took the opportunity to install that. A few more routine maintenance jobs later, he was done.

The bike was incredibly peppy now, bright and responsive and just feeling great in general. I couldn’t have been a happier camper. I tried to pay him, but he made a big show of refusing payment. I insisted, and still no luck. This was a battle of wills, and I was determined to win, so while he was off tending to somebody else’s bike and up to his elbows in grease, I took what I thought was a reasonable sum and stuffed it in his shirt pocket. Then I made a run for it. In the meantime, I still can’t think of a single country where a bike mechanic will do four hours’ work for a foreigner, for free. It would be the height of understatement to say that everything you’ve heard about the legendary Iranian hospitality is true.

Happy to be with a healthy bike again, I said my goodbyes to Aresh and he gave me a one-man escort on the highway out of town. I was off on the road towards my final Iranian destination of Bandar Abbas, the main port on the Strait of Hormuz.


374 Responses to “Not Just a Grape in Australia”

  • John Jordan Says:

    I am glad you didn’t die while he was ‘pushing’ you. That is incredible!

  • Milos Says:

    On our way from Serbia to Portugal we were stuck one night some 25km to Salamanca in the middle of the night with a broken clutch on one of the Vespas, waiting for the tow truck till 2 am… long story short – first question a mechanic in Belgrade asked me was – “why didn’t you push him, you know, right foot on his rear end… ”
    Good luck, India should provide good service support for Vespa. Keep rolling!

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