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.

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More Major Malfunctions


NA’IN, IRAN — One of the biggest headaches a person can have while planning for a trip like this is figuring out what to pack. Over at the forums at Horizons Unlimited, the received wisdom is to assemble everything you think you’ll need, then unload half of it, and what’s left over is all your personal possessions for a year. Mostly because my bike isn’t exactly big, I took this to heart, and was brutal in cutting away the fat. Do I really need this tire pressure gauge? Digital SLR, or point-and-shoot? One pair of jeans, or two? In almost all cases, I opted to leave things out. And when it came to those things that I did bring, I found myself shelling out for a handful of big-ticket outdoorsy items. My friend Kareem, who once spent a year living in several countries with only what he could fit into a single carry-on bag, recommended deluxe merino wool clothes from New Zealand’s Icebreaker Clothing Company, not just because they’re built to last (and sleek and stylish to boot), but also because you can wear them again and again before they start to stink. Plus, when they do get ripe, they wash easily in a sink and dry quickly. I was sold. And that’s how I came to plan on getting by for an entire year with only four pairs of Icebreaker-brand lightweight merino wool boxer-briefs, purchased on an EasyJet shopping trip to Berlin. (I also bought a bunch of Icebreaker socks and adopted the ingenious Devitt Sock Management System, but that’s another story.)

Back in Yerevan, some evil cleaning lady at the Hotel Europe had thrown out a pair of my prized unmentionables, thus reducing my collection by a full 25%. (Staff at the front desk couldn’t understand why I was so inconsolable. I’m still nursing that grudge.) My crash on the outskirts of Tehran rendered a second pair unwearable, which halved my original strength. And last week in Esfahan, after I’d hung a load of wet clothes on a jury-rigged laundry line in the window of my hotel room, an errant gust of wind sent a third pair tumbling two floors down and into a ventilation shaft, presumably never to be seen, or worn, again. As I peered down into the black void of that ventilation shaft, waves of dread washed over me along with the dawning realization that I was now down to the single pair I was wearing. I was in one of the most heavily embargoed pariah states in the entire world; there was no telling what kind of weird, unforgiving underthings I’d have to resort to buying. They’d be imported from North Korea or Burma or worse, probably, all exposed burlap and held up with a complex array of straps and trusses. I briefly considered the commando option. Things were not good.

After much begging and pleading on my part, the concierge let me climb out of a 1st floor window into the raised courtyard and root around in the ventilation duct. And then, a miracle! They were easy to find, at arm’s length and draped over a grate in all their overpriced glory. I was now back to two pairs, which, while far less than ideal, was still feasible. I don’t bring this up to suggest some element of extreme privation, like I’m really roughing it out here. I’m not. But when a person reconfigures his life for long-term travel, his relationship with material goods changes. There’s vastly less stuff to worry about, but what few things remain suddenly become hugely important. The day-to-day business of staying clean and fed and healthy and mobile suddenly occupies much more brainpower than it used to. And ruminating on underwear — when and where to wash it, how to not lose it, where to replace it if the unthinkable happens — has an oddly effective way of focusing the mind.

RIDING A DYING VESPA, too, has an an oddly effective way of focusing the mind, and the Hamburglar really got me thinking as I sputtered east out of Esfahan towards Yazd. The sporadic engine problem I’d been having, where the bike would struggle for a few minutes at a time and then go completely back to normal, was happening more often. For those of you who’re interested, here’s what that sounded like with the bike at full throttle. (Warning: not for the squeamish)


Joern back in Hamburg, tireless as always in remotely supporting the Vespa360 Project, watched that video in his home office and theorized that the little airhole in the gas cap was clogged, and was creating a vacuum in the fuel tank which then periodically obstructed the fuel flow. I found a roadside mechanic to clear the hole with compressed air, but sadly, that did nothing. I checked the fuel pipe, and found no leaks. I tried stripping and cleaning the carburetor, and that didn’t help either. Maybe it was a weak spark that was doing it, so I tried three different plugs. No dice. All the same, the problem affected the bike maybe 10% of the time; the other 90%, it ran great. I stopped with my roadside tinkering and tried to eat as many miles as I could before sunset.

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Delijan Fried Chicken


ESFAHAN, IRAN — The suburbs of Tehran slowly gave way to a semi-desert landscape of rock and scrub as I cruised southeast on the highway out of the city. Off in the distance to my left I could see the bleak expanse of the Great Salt Desert, and on my right entrepreneurs had painted bright red and yellow advertisements on boulders and stretches of concrete guardrail, but apart from that there was little to be seen. Iranian road manners tended to become less aggressive outside of populated areas, and the ride was pleasant enough, if not a little dull.

I was still a little rattled from my spill on the way out of Tehran, and my hip was aching, so I decided to wuss out and find a hotel in nearby Qom for the night. Qom wasn’t really on my itinerary. It’s the second-holiest city in Iran, a sort of second-tier Jerusalem for Shi’a Muslims, and is famous for its massive Hazrat-e-Masumeh shrine. It’s also the literal and spiritual home of most of the hardline clerics who’ve ruled the country since 1980. In other words, not really up my alley. But I guessed there must be a selection of decent hotels there, what with the constant flow of pilgrims to the city, and thought better to rest up there before pushing on to Esfahan the next day.

In the failing light the highway curved past a few dozen acres of anti-aircraft batteries, their gun barrels all trained on the same imaginary target in the sky, and I remembered reading something about a uranium enrichment installation being built somewhere near the city. I crossed a dried-up riverbed and into the city itself, and I could see that the guidebook was right: the Ayatollah Khomenei’s face was everywhere, and much unlike the scene in Tehran, all the women were wearing black chadors. And for all its presumed privilege as the home of the revolution, the cityscape was notably tumbledown and disorderly, with many vacant lots separating ramshackle two-storey structures. Large-scale trade in watermelons appeared to comprise a large part of the local economy.

I pulled over to fiddle with my GPS and find a place to stay. Moments after I stopped, a smiling, bearded man with thick, 1980s glasses leapt in front of my headlight. “Hello!” he said, offering his hand. “I am journalist! You are from Yugoslavia!”

People I’ve met east of Ukraine all assumed the ‘BG’ on my license plate signified Bulgaria, and not Belgrade, and he was the first guy to get it right. Well done, sir. I answered that yes, the Vespa’s registration was indeed Serbian, but I myself was from Canada. This confused him to no end, but he nonetheless wanted to help me find a hotel. Here I was in the least liberal corner of Iran, a city that traded on the vilification of the Great Satan (and presumably, the Great Satan’s little buddy to its north), and this ‘journalist’ who’d followed me now wanted me to follow him somewhere. Night had fallen now, and the highbeams of passing motorcycles flickered through the dust across an enormous nearby mural of the Ayatollah’s glowering face. I’ll admit that my spidey-sense was tingling — but I put those thoughts out of my head and took him up on his offer. My new journalist friend got in his Paykan, and I tailed him.
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Into the Belly of the Beast (II)


TEHRAN – (Continued from Part I) Maryam and Shohreh* led me to the buzzing courtyard of Café Gallery, which was, by all appearances, a little nugget of modern Europe grafted onto what was already the most Western part of Iran. It was all clean, minimal lines in there, somewhat over-designed, and mixed tables of 20- and 30-somethings talked and smoked and picked over frou-frou salads to the accompaniment of LCD Soundsystem’s latest long-player. I realized then just how quiet the country had been up to that point: there’d been very little music played in public, and if the country had a soundtrack it would be the muted noise of traffic, clanking cutlery, and the muezzin’s call to prayer. Here in the Café Gallery, things were very different, and it was jolting.

Western-style brunch featured heavily on the menu. Trying to blend in, I ordered a cappuccino and a carbonated mineral water. The waitress, who seemed to be a well-known eccentric among this North Tehran crowd, didn’t bat an eyelash at that and promptly returned with my drinks. The cappuccino was perfectly executed – they even made a heart-shaped pattern in the foam and included the little cookie on the side, which I genuinely appreciated after the raw approach to coffee preparation all across the Caucausus – and while the water wasn’t quite up to the standard of a Hungarian Theodora or a Serbian Knjaz Miloš or even a Georgian Borjomi, it was still pretty good. (You can take the boy out of the farm and all that, but you can’t stop him becoming a mineral water snob.) I leaned back with my Euro-drinks to survey the scene and it felt off-kilter, like I was somehow bending the laws of space and time. This wasn’t the Iran you read about in the news.

The downtown branch of Café Gallery

Maryam and Shohreh made great company. Multilingual, secular, university-educated, and career-oriented, they were the very picture of liberal Iranian youth (and there’s no shortage of youth here, with 70% of the population under the age of 30.) Our conversation slid from weighty matters of the day to a rundown on all the scandals happening within those café circles: which waiter or waitress had hooked up with whom, who was married but had something going on the side, and so on. Pretty juicy stuff. I’ll confess to being a little distracted, though. After barely a week in the Islamic Republic, I was stunned when a girl seated nearby suffered a headscarf malfunction, and as she took her sweet time putting it back on I got an eyeful of long, lustrous blonde hair. Meanwhile, she’d rolled up the full-length sleeves of her manteau – it was still hot outside, even in those hills – which resulted in a shocking display of forearm. The compulsory hejab rules in Iran neatly invoke the law of unintended consequences: they manage to somehow eroticize a woman’s elbows, thus making the entire country a very sexy place indeed. I learned that many women here ditch the Muslim duds whenever the coast is clear, and sometimes even when it’s only partly clear, and in the semi-enclosed space of that café they subtly waged a war of attrition against the heavy-handed forces of reaction. I, for one, was rooting for the underdog.

Shohreh then related a story about her vacation a few summers ago up in the town of Nowshahr, on the Caspian Sea, with her sister, her sister’s boyfriend, and a few others. They’d been walking across a park one day when one of the notorious morality police vans pulled up, and out sprang a pair of cops – state-operated party-poopers, essentially, who rove the streets looking for any unfortunate souls whose morals are visibly polluted by Western influences. The fuzz demanded to know the relationships between the men and women in the group, none of whom, of course, were married or related to one another. A bribe of $150 worth of rial was offered, which isn’t exactly chump change in Iran, and when the cops’ demands for more cash couldn’t be met, a ruckus ensued, out came the cuffs, and they hauled Shohreh downtown. After two days of languishing in a cell with some pretty shady characters, she was summarily tried, convicted of publicly consorting with unrelated members of the opposite sex, and sentenced. Punishment was swift. She was led into a cell where a burly, whip-wielding woman in a black chador stripped her naked and lashed her twenty times, from the back of the neck to the back of the ankles, drawing blood with each stroke. She was then released — not before a prison guard snidely observed “Guess you won’t do that again!” — and she made her way back to Tehran in tears. It was a full week before she could sit down or sleep on her back. “I decided then,” Shohreh said, “to leave Iran as soon as I could.” No kidding.
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