Into the Tunnel of Extreme Discomfort


BANDAR ABBAS, IRAN — It was maybe 600km from Shiraz to Bandar Abbas — nothing, really, in the grand scheme of things. The first day, I rode an uneventful 250 of those to the town of Darab, along the bleak moonscape of the southeastern mountain range separating Highway 92 from the coast. Now and then, well-irrigated agricultural plots would appear, but apart from that it was pretty desolate.

The days were getting noticably shorter, this being mid-October, so on day two I set out very early. I hoped to make it the 350km to Bandar Abbas by sunset, and I didn’t want to be rushing things at the end of the day. The sun was shining, the bike was running great, and there was a fantastic hilly stretch with great views. A friend of mine back in New York was very curious to know about the state of toilets in Iran, and while they’re generally quite good, I spotted a rare exception up in those hills: a wretched metal outhouse that was a classic of the genre.

The road swept down to a meandering valley, and I cruised eastwards with the throttle wide open.

By mid-afternoon I was beat. An hour before the main turnoff south to Highway 78, I pulled over at a small roadside food stand to buy a few energy drinks. The stand was next to a small cemetery, and groups of visitors clustered here and there in the graveyard, laying flowers. I bought some off-brand caffeine drinks from the wizened old man running the stand, and sat down on a nearby bench to throw them back. Despite being so close to the road, it was quiet there, with nothing to be heard but the wind.

The old man came over with two glasses of tea. “چیزی به زبان فارسی”, he said, and handed me a glass.

“Thanks,” I said, not sure what he’d said, what with me not speaking more than a few words of Persian, but it sounded pleasant enough.

He sat down beside me on the bench and lit a hand-rolled cigarette. He had a face hardened by all his years of country living, although there was light and kindness in his eyes, and he stared off at the horizon. I raised my glass, he clinked mine with his in response, and we sat there in silence staring across the road and watching the corn grow.

A second cup of tea later, I was on my way again, and cranked the throttle as I neared the turnoff point. At the town of Ganj, though, the bike started coughing and wheezing again, and I pulled over. Once I got the bike on its stand, it conked out as if on cue. Fuel was clearly leaking out the back, leaving a growing puddle by the rear wheel.

I got the side panel off again, and I’ll be damned if I couldn’t find out where the leak was. Whatever serenity and peace and good vibes that old dude had imparted upon me vanished when I was set upon by a horde of local kids. They yelled and poked at things and picked up my tools and generally made nuisances of themselves. I was at the end of my rope.

I opened the gas tank, and saw there was maybe a litre left in there. I was leaking fuel, and fast. My oil tank was running dry too — I needed to fill up with that, or risked seizing the engine. Meanwhile, a growing number of screaming kids continued to harass me. A grown-up appeared on the scene, and I thought, fantastic — an authority figure will get these kids to shut the hell up. Instead, he just took part in the staring and the handling of my bike, grabbing hold of my clutch handle and working it in and out, his jaw agape. Serenity now. Serenity now.

I could either stop for the night in this little town, or try and fill up with fuel here and somewhere on the way to Bandar Abbas and maybe, just maybe, I’d make it. Fortunately, one of the kids spoke some English, and was proud to show off his mad skillz to his little friends. I switched into stern-taskmaster mode. Maybe this would work — it was worth a try. There wasn’t a fuel pump anywhere close by on this road, apparently but maybe somebody in this town was selling it. I cleared my throat and put on my best drill-sergeant voice. “Can you get me some benzine?” I asked, hands on my hips.

The kid snapped to attention and confirmed that he could.

“Good,” I said, fishing out some rial and handing it to him. “Five litres. And get me some two-stroke motor oil. You got that? TWO STROKE. And make it snappy.”

“Two stroke oil! Yes!” he said, and collared a few of his friends and ran off. Meanwhile, I fiddled with the fuel line, still trying to divine the source of the leak. Most of the kids continued to be rascally and annoying, but I did manage to recruit a pair of helpers. They held the bike’s seat up, and handed me my tools as I needed them, and kept the other little pests at bay. It was all for naught, though: I couldn’t find the damn fuel leak.

Not ten minutes later, the first kid was back, with some more curious grownups in tow. And just like I’d asked, he had three Fanta bottles full of gas, and — I have no idea how he actually managed this — a litre of low-smoke two-stroke oil. The good stuff, so extremely hard to find in this country. I flipped him a hundred-rial tip and poured all the fluids in my bike, unable to believe my luck. Note to self: when beset by pesky kids on this trip, just find the one that speaks English, give him a Very Serious Job to do, and let him boss his buddies around. Whoever you are, kid, thank you for restoring my faith in the youth of the world.

I had maybe 125km to go before Bandar Abbas, I had a full but leaking fuel tank, it was dark, but no, I wasn’t wearing sunglasses. My plan was to gently coax the bike over the mountains and basically coast down the other side to the sun-baked coast, and then wait for the boat to Dubai. Man and scooter rolled south down the highway in the fading twilight, and the four lanes eventually slimmed to two and started climbing towards the black sawtooth silhouette of the peaks ahead. A whole lot of freight was being hauled up that series of switchbacks, and I passed dozens of barely-moving trucks that strained in 1st gear to make it up the grade.

It was bracingly cool up there in the mountains, but the natural air-conditioning came to an abrupt end when the road hung a sharp left and went into a tunnel. It was boiling in there. The hundreds of trucks making their way through it could barely squeeze into the two narrow lanes, and there was no emergency lane on either side. Average speed was about 2 km/h, and as I probed deeper into the mountain, the air thickened with diesel fumes. There was no ventilation to speak of; before long, I couldn’t see more than 5 metres through the yellow haze. To keep pace with this tortoise-like column of trucks, I let the engine idle and feathered the clutch in 1st gear. Ahead, an exhaust pipe blasted me in the face, and behind, a grille filled my rearview mirrors.

And then my new clutch went kaput. It alternately grabbed and slipped, something I’d never experienced before, and I could no longer use it to regulate my speed as I trundled along. The only other way to go super-slow, apart from the obvious Flintstones-style solution, was to let go of the clutch, use the rear brake, and actually apply throttle to prevent the engine from dying. I swerved left and right in big arcs, engine straining against the brake, and managed to maintain something close to the same speed as the truck ahead of me. The trucker tailgating me, meanwhile, thought it’d be a good idea to lean on his air horn. It was deafening.

On and on I went in fits and starts, sandwiched between two trucks, oncoming traffic to my left, and the craggy tunnel wall just inches to my right. The horn behind me blared, the fumes only got worse, and I was getting a little woozy. And then, as if on cue, my engine started to die. If I was in a movie piloting a stricken intergalactic space plane, this would have been the part where all the indicators on the dash lit up like cheap Christmas lights and the sexy female voice said Warning! Dilithium drive: failing! Shields: depleted! Sadly, I wasn’t driving an intergalactic space plane. I was driving an earthbound Italian scooter, and I hardly needed a disembodied robot voice to tell me, as I went as slowly as possible through that Iranian death-tunnel, that things were less than ideal. I furiously cranked the throttle to keep the engine going, which worked, albeit in a very erratic way, and stood on the rear brake even harder to avoid plowing into the truck ahead.

I was about to just switch the engine off and try pushing it through whatever remained of the tunnel — 100 metres? A kilometre? Five? — thereby holding up most of Iran’s southbound trade with the Persian Gulf, when the mouth of the tunnel miraculously appeared. The bike sputtered and died, and I coasted off onto the blessed gravel shoulder and put it up on its stand. I then bent over and had a coughing fit. That diesel exhaust was intense.

Some guy in a red jumpsuit appeared in front of me, wielding an oxygen mask. “Oxygen?” he said.

“Don’t mind if I do,” said I, and he put the mask to my face. As I inhaled, I looked over and saw that he’d emerged from a container-type mobile home with IRANIAN RED CRESCENT painted on the side; evidently, I wasn’t the first person to come out of that hole in the mountain overcome by the fumes. Minutes later, another guy on two wheels came coasting out of the mountain, pulled over, and doubled over coughing. The Red Crescent guy scampered off after him, although he waved off the offer of oxygen and just kept coughing.

Endless cups of tea were another free service offered by the medics. I happily took them up on the offer, and sat on a bench gulping away as the endless stream of trucks roared past before me at a walking pace. The Red Crescent guys didn’t have five words of English between them, so I had to explain the pickle I was in using visual aids. I walked over to the bike, turned the key, and ran the starter motor over and over again. Then I made a big exaggerated shrug.

They conferred amongst themselves, and decided I was staying with them for the night. One of them made up a bunk for me, and the rest ushered me inside and sat me down for a meal. They had the TV tuned to a local music channel, with the some truly terrible music cranked way up, and we tucked into a delicious tomato-and-onion omelette scooped up with the ubiquitous sangak. Afterwards, more tea, and more caterwauling from Iranian MTV.

“Music?” one of them said to me.

“You want to hear some of my music?” I said.

“Yes!” he said, and I shrugged and dug out my phone. I was pretty sure I had some mp3s on it somewhere. I plugged it in to their stereo and played for them “Bloodbuzz Ohio” by The National, and “Who Makes Your Money” by Spoon — two solid, crowd-pleasing tunes capable of bridging the culture gap, I thought. All the guys scrunched up their noses as the alien sounds filled their mountain redoubt. Geez, I thought. Tough crowd. I took one more chance to redeem myself and played something really safe: the Arcade Fire’s “City With No Children”. They hated it.

I woke up at dawn to go have a look at my bike, which had overnight dumped all its remaining gas on the ground. I put it on its side to look underneath at the fuel line where it came out of the tank and headed towards the air filter housing. I then got the wheel off, so I could get my hands in there and feel around for leaks, and also to see if there was anything clearly wrong with the clutch. Nothing was out of the ordinary.

I then got it back up on two wheels, and poked and pulled around the fuel line in the air filter housing where it attaches to the carburetor. A gentle tug on the banjo union, and thoop! — six inches of hose came with it. The fuel line had split right at the very point where it goes through the rubber grommet at the bottom. It couldn’t have been better concealed. And there was my problem. Or at least one of my problems, anyway.

I showed my broken fuel line to one of the Red Crescent guys, and we hopped in his ambulance and we went back through the tunnel towards the first village on the other side. The tunnel wasn’t nearly as scary during the day, nor did it seem so long when the traffic was so light. We asked at the only then-open mechanic if he had any fuel lines, and he pointed in the other direction and said, “Bandar.”

Obviously, fixing the bike up in the mountains wasn’t going to be possible without a new fuel line. My new medic friend was determined to get me on my way, though, and back at death-tunnel HQ he started waving down small trucks headed south. After a short conversation with the 2nd trucker who pulled over, he turned to me and explained the guy would take me to Bandar for about 10 bucks’ worth of rial. A few more Red Crescent guys came out to help load the bike, and before long the Hamburglar and I were headed south to Bandar Abbas.

I wish I had some amusing or heartwarming story about my little chatty-poo with this Iranian double-clutchin’, gear-bustin’ sort of a feller, but truth is, I slept the remaining 75km to the end of the line.

(Note: according to the infamous Wikileaked diplomatic cables, the Iranian Red Crescent is routinely used by the Revolutionary Guard for political ends such as using ambulances to smuggle weapons. While that’s not surprising (and also more than a little depressing), I’d just like to say that the guys on that mountain were just normal volunteers helping a hapless tourist out of a bind, and they happily did their jobs with professionalism and courtesy.)

THE TRUCKER DROPPED ME OFF at the Hotel Kawsar in downtown Bandar, and we hauled my bike off it with the help of one of Aresh’s friends who happened to be in town. First order of business was to take a shower, and a long nap.

My nap was interrupted by the phone ringing. I answered it, and the concierge explained that there was somebody to see me.

There, waiting downstairs, was a bedraggled Swiss motorcyclist named Laurent. I’d never met the guy before, but he had ridden with Matthieu for a while earlier, and he’d heard that a Canadian guy on a Vespa would probably be at the hotel. He wanted to know if I’d like to reduce costs by sharing a room. I was a total dick about it and said I’d rather keep my own room, thankyouverymuch.

Laurent’s been at the overland motorcycling far longer than I have, having travelled to several continents over many years, and he has a much more hardcore approach to it. Of course, his BMW bike can handle rugged terrain far better than my own, and this helps explain why he was able to venture deep into the desert around the eastern city of Bam and camp for a few days. Laurent was also a godsend to have around, insofar as he’s shipped motorcycles before, and I don’t think I would’ve been able to get my bike to Dubai all by myself.

The next ferry left in five days, and I took this chance to try and fix my Vespa. I found a shop selling fuel lines, and after three tries I finally got one the right size and went to work swapping it with the broken one. Doing things for the first time always takes much, much longer, and I made a lot of mistakes, but eventually I got the damn thing replaced (but not before spilling half a litre of engine oil all over myself, not to mention all over the nicely-paved parking lot of the Hotel Kawsar. Sorry, fellas.) I also tried installing my old clutch, and before long I had a bike that ran.

Laurent and I hung around the city for a few days and started the exporting process. Transporting yourself and a scooter across the Persian Gulf isn’t a simple matter of getting on a ferry and showing your passport; you actually have to export the bike and then import it on the other side, and this takes time. And effort. And money. And more time. First, there was a trip out to the shipping company, where we had a scheduled meeting with an agent. He started the process, assembled some papers together, we took them to a bank, paid some fees, got things stamped, and brought it all back to him. We then headed back into town on Laurent’s bike.

Bandar has vague seediness to it, probably owing to its reputation as being a haven for smugglers of all kinds, and it’s got a rough-around-the-edges feel typical for port cities. It also has actual homeless people, something I hadn’t seen elsewhere in Iran. But the general townsfolk there are friendly enough.

Apart from that, though, there’s little to be seen in Bandar, and I took refuge in an internet café to catch up on things.

The internet in Iran is a funny thing. Much as is the case with the so-called Great Firewall of China, an army of government censors filters out any content that might be deemed un-Islamic or offensive to the regime, and you end up with a situation where you have to use a proxy, or a VPN, or even a remote-access solution like LogMeIn to go about your typical day-to-day web surfing. Otherwise, this wonderfully Web 1.0-ish splash page is what you see:

No internet for you!

And the censorship is wildly inconsistent. The Toronto Sun is blocked, but not the Globe & Mail or the National Post. Der Spiegel — nein. Le Figaro, meanwhile, can be read front to back. Both Digg and Reddit can’t be seen, but weirdly, BoingBoing can. The Iranian government has it in for the BBC and the New York Times, but CNN is kosher. You can also read the London Times and the Spectator, but internet heavyweights Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube are all out of the question. And if you want to mosey on over to Popmatters, Stereogum, the A.V. Club, or Pitchfork, forget about it. Rock and roll, it seems, still scares the bejesus out of the Iranian powers-that-be, and if an abstruse, thousand-word album review on Pitchfork is a threat to the regime, then it might want to reconsider the legitimacy of its claim to power.

I spent only a month in Iran, so I’m not in any position to make grand, sweeping judgments of the place. I can only say that this starkly beautiful and sensuous country, full as it is with the most hospitable and pleasant people I’ve ever met, leaves the impression of being barely governable. It is so rife with contradictory, opposing forces that for it to be ruled, some large part of it has to get the shaft. But most people I met made it very clear to me that however pure the motives of the 1979 revolution, the result has become far worse than what preceded it. Some are darkly humourous about the current situation: one Iranian wag I spoke with said that if the Americans ever nuke Iran, he hopes they throw everything they have at the holy city of Qom, the traditional power base of the conservative clerics who rule the country. This, he claimed, would solve all of America’s problems with Iran, and all of Iran’s problems too. I looked closely at his face, and he appeared to be only half-kidding.

Laurent and I had to make two more trips back out to the port before we could be on our way. I can’t remember all the details — all I know is, I was armed with a sheaf of papers and a carnet de passage and a wallet, and an endless retinue of handlers led us here and there for yet more stamps and bank receipts. Once we’d left our bikes in a holding pen full of sand-encrusted SUVs with UAE plates, we then had to head back inside the main cluster of warehouses to collect signatures.

This last process was the best. One by one, a handler took us to different, out-of-the way offices, inside each of which a well-dressed man reclined behind a desk, mafioso-style. There were handshakes, some quickly spoken executive summaries in Persian, and then these dons of the Port of Bandar Abbas were presented with some document for his assent. They would look at the paper, then up at me, then back down at the paper again, then back at me — really looking into my eyes this time — and then they’d grudgingly sign it. And then it was off to see the next don. Once enough signatures were collected, our carnets were stamped out, and the bikes were officially exported from Iran.

The boat was four or five hours late in leaving, giving us plenty of time to have our passports stamped and for us to load the bikes aboard. Meanwhile, I sat and watched the soccer highlights on a big-screen TV while the official Iranian news agency’s headline crawl kept me up-to-date on world affairs.

That the crawl was shown in English presented a troubling question: for whom, really, was this bullshit intended? Surely they didn’t think your average tourist — to say nothing of your average Iranian — would swallow such tin-eared propaganda so easily. It was an unpleasant coda to my time in this country. Again I was struck by the contradiction: there, on the screen, was nothing but lies, and paranoia, and stupidity; and outside on the street, out there in the real Iran, the civilized Iran, where normal people lived and worked and went about their business, there was sweetness, and light, and a genuinely touching amount of human decency.


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