On Friday 27 May, the time had come to leave behind the bustle of Tehran in favour of the peace and solitude of one of Behzad’s recommendations. Of the four or five most striking locations that Behzad had shown photos of, only two or three did not require a special permit from the Iranian government to visit. Behzad had been confident that it would be possible for the guys to gain the required permits but the problem was the time taken to apply for them. Consequently, the choice was limited, and the first of the two destinations chosen were a salt lake next to some sand dunes near a remote little place called Maranjab.
Keen to hit the road, the guys were up and packed in good time only to be thwarted by a flat tyre – the first of the trip and affecting the front of Ed’s WR. Conveniently, the parking area of Hotel Khayyam housed a number of discarded hardware items, one of which made a pretty effective impromptu paddock stand for Ed’s stricken steed. With the front wheel out and the tube removed, Dan headed out to see if it could be repaired locally while Ed fitted his spare. Frustratingly as Iran is quite a modern place, the car tyre specialists nolonger deal with tubed tyre repairs. As it was Friday the local motocycle shop was closed, though the proprietor of one of the car tyre shops strapped the punctured tube to the back of his chinese 125 and headed off through the rabbit warren of alleyways to see if he could find somewhere to have it repaired. He was also unsuccessful in his adopted quest but was gratefully thanked for his efforts.
By the time Dan returned with the still-holed tube, Ed had the wheel ready to go back in with the spare tube fitted and before long the bikes were once again ready to be pointed towards the motorway to the south of Tehran for a blast down towards Kashan. From there, a small road would take them to Aran Bidgol before picking up a dirt track out towards and around the salt lake and the dunes. The track itself was occasionally sandy, which was not one of Dan’s favourite Brighton2capetown experiences, but the difference this time was the size and weight of the bikes. The whole point of using smaller bikes is to make them easier to handle in more challenging riding conditions (at the expense of comfort and performance on the blacktop) and this was one occasion where the payback was definitely evident. The technique on sand is to keep weight rearward and the power on to stop the front wheel digging in, and allow the front to provide a kind of “front rudder” effect and provide delayed-action directional control. On the Africa Twins the guys campaigned through Africa, the weight of the bike made it difficult to stop the front sinking into the sand and also much harder to control when slithering around and getting very sideways in sandy ruts. The result was repeatedly dropped bikes in African sand. The contrast this time round was stark – neither bike being dropped despite the riders occasionally being taken by surprise by the surface, and it was no problem to take the bikes down onto the salt lake. The salt lake consisted of a thin crust of salt over a medium-soft salty mud. Just what any motorcycle owner wants to take care of their pride and joy – a thrash through some sand followed by a salty mud-pack. After the salt lake, it was time to continue down the track towards the dunes and find somewhere to camp.
A suitable camping spot was very easy to find at the edge of the dunes. The place was completely peaceful with no risk of being disturbed. No other vehicles or people had been seen for some hours, though the precaution of climbing the nearest dunes to take photos and chill out was taken before committing to the camp. As the sun set over the salt lake, the guys headed back down the dunes to settle for the night. Neither Dan nor Ed could escape the feeling of being very fortunate not just to have the opportunity to visit a place like this, but to have it completely to themselves. Dan opted not to bother with his tent at all – simply laying his “Pregnarest” on the sand and settling under a glorious clear starry sky. There were a few noises of creatures around during the night, but no disturbance apart from a breeze picking up in the early hours of the morning.
On Saturday morning, an early start enabled the guys to leave the dunes behind before the heat got into the air and before long the bikes were blasting back up the motorway towards Tehran and beyond, sights set on another off-the-beaten-track Iranian beauty spot. The destination was the mountain Hi Kuh, near the village of Choshm. Struggling a little with navigation to Choshm (the roads in question not appearing on the map they had been given by Alireza back in Orumiyeh, and the place names on it all appearing in Farsi) the guys eventually had the request for directions written in Farsi by a policeman so that when they got into the nearest village they could be pointed in the direction of the road to Choshm. The road was a glorious twisted rollercoaster through stunning mountain scenery and the bikes eagerly devoured it as far as Choshm.
There, the written request for directions was once again brought into play with an elderly man in a Saipa Zamyad who was of course initially more eager to take the guys home for tea than to provide directions to the dirt track into the mountains. Eventually persuaded that it was getting late and Dan and Ed were unsure how long it would take to get to their destination, the elderly helper gestured that they should head into the village and go up the track that headed almost vertically upwards. The track thus described was sure enough easy to find, and two dirt bikes headed up it unsure of what they’d find. Dusty hairpins, precipitous drops and rocky sections were strewn between small water crossings and steep climbs. The bikes lapped up their new surroundings as they had done the sandy track to Maranger despite climbing through the clouds and reaching a peak altitude of 3149 metres above sea level.
After an hour or so on the track, the bikes were approaching the waypoint that Behzad had provided and the riders were looking out for somewhere to camp. Dan spotted a promising looking spot off to the side of the track and headed over to explore. Ed was curious what would be further up and around the mound and headed on past Dan up the steep rock-strewn hillside. Sure enough there was an even better spot just a short climb further up, so Dan set off in pursuit. The DRZ was struggling with the altitude however – anyone who still believes travel bikes should be equipped with archaic carburettors “because they can be fixed” needs a rethink. The fact is that the carbs usually need precisely the right component in order to be fixed, and fuel injection systems are more capable and far more reliable. The carb was the one aspect of the DRZ that Dan had not been keen on, and sure enough Ed’s little injected WR performed significantly better 3km above sea level than the 150cc larger DRZ. Of course both bikes suffered from the same lack of air, but at least the WR was reducing the flow of fuel to suit. The DRZ on the other hand was still sluicing the fuel in like it was at sea level which worsened the Suzuki’s altitude-induced asthma. That combined with continent-crossing rather than rock-crawling gearing was making this last climb a real struggle.
One last rock was asking too much of the struggling motor and despite lots of clutch slip it finally stalled. As mere microseconds before Dan had had the clutch pulled partly in to try and save it from stalling, Dan now found himself accelerating rapidly backwards down the hillside and it was not long before the inevitable Dan/ground interface. Scrambling out from under the stricken machine, Dan could see fuel pouring out from somewhere – he needed to get the bike upright, fast. Heaving on the bars only resulted in the front end of the bike sliding down the hill so it was now rubber side up – the handlebars and seat facing down the hill, the wheels facing up it. This made the bike even harder to right, but Ed could see Dan struggling and headed down the hillside to help. With the bike upright, it was possible to see that something had dislodged the fuel hose from the tap to the filter – so the flow of fuel was easy enough to stop by turning off the tap. With Ed holding the bike upright, Dan could get out his tools to re-attach the fuel hose before re-mounting to make another attempt, but the sheer amount of clutch slip required to prevent it stalling was worrying. Dan decided to save what was left of his clutch plates for the remaining 15,000 miles of the journey and hand-carry the required luggage up to the idyllic camping spot Ed had located.
The views vied with the high altitude to be the most breathtaking aspect of this spot. As with the previous night’s camping spot in the dunes there was no one to be seen, and whilst the bikes had passed a few friendly goat herders on the way up (and the riders refused yet more invitations for tea) no one had made any attempt to follow them. Once again, the guys couldn’t help but appreciate their own good fortune at finding themselves in another amazing location, and having it entirely to themselves – elated at the unspoilt natural beauty laid out before them. The only signs of any human activity in this mountain idyll were the twin wheel ruts they had followed to get here and the odd stone sheep pen.
Sunday 29 May dawned bright and fresh at Hi Kuh, and the camp was packed up leaving no trace behind before Dan started carrying his luggage back to where his bike was parked. The plan was to continue along the track which would hopefully take them all the way out to the north of the mountains. A couple of local farmers in the universal blue Saipa Zamyad truck stop by to try to talk to Dan as he’s loading his luggage back onto his bike and of course invite him for tea, and whilst Dan was able to decline the invitation, his lack of Farsi made it impossible to check that the track did indeed make it all the way out of the mountains. The place was so beautiful however that it almost didn’t matter if the bikes had to be turned round and go back the way they’d come – it would just be more time spent in this glorious environment.
As it happened, the guys were in luck and the tiny dirt track did indeed meet up with a gravel road, which eventually became the tar road to Sari. From Sari, it was simply a case of making up the miles towards the Turkmenistan border, as there were two days to get to Quchan in order to enter Turkmenistan on the first day of their transit visas.
Whilst stopped at the side of the road for a spot of lunch, the guys attracted the attention of various local motorcyclists – one on a very smart (unregistered) early nineties KDX250 Kawasaki came to look at the bikes and invite the riders to stay at his home. Another on a Chinese CG125 clone transferred his pillion to a mate’s bike then spent a few minutes wheelying up and down the road past the resting travellers, culminating in a one-foot-stand-on-the-seat-wheelie the wrong way down the dual carriageway.
As the bikes approached the town of Gogo, the decision was made to head off up into the hills to find a quiet dirt road to camp next to – the previous two nights having been so successful. A likely looking candidate was located on the map and the bikes headed off up an impromptu supermoto track up the side of the hills, which turned into a dirt track through a tiny village much sooner than expected. Gesturing a question of “how do we get up there?” to a local lady, Ed gets the gestured response of “head through this way!”. The bikes and riders continue up the increasingly gnarly rocky mud track and find themselves at the side of a field on the steep hillside. The track continues as two wheel tracks across the field, traversing the slope. Undeterred, the bikes continue across the field, aware of the consequences of losing traction at either end – the bike and rider would disappear down the side of the hill at quite a pace… Finally finding somewhere to put a foot down and take a break, the guys try and ask a local if the track they’re on leads to a lush flat green pasture they can see up on the hillside. The response was a bit difficult to interpret, so Ed disappeared out of sight to investigate. Only when Dan parked up and removed his helmet for a drink does he realise he can nolonger hear the WR. Following Ed on foot (if a bike is stuck, there’s no use being sat astride another one behind and unable to park it to help), Dan eventually heard the WR re-start and roar just round the corner. Dan had arrived just after Ed had managed to get the bike out of a particularly difficult muddy hole, where it had been trapped by a combination of water, mud and tree roots. Dan headed on up the hill on foot to check it was actually worth bothering, and found that it was – another stunning view, and whilst there were plenty of people around and all of them seemed very confused as to what their visitors wanted to do (Sleep in the field? What?) everyone seemed exceptionally friendly, as would be expected anywhere in Iran.
The decision was quickly made to stay, and Dan headed back to fetch his bike, promptly getting it stuck in exactly the same muddy hole as had entrapped the WR. With Ed’s help, it was freed from the clasp of the tree roots with minimal fuss and before long, both bikes were parked up in a field at the top of the hill overlooking another stunning view. The lush green pasture they’d seen from below was clearly some crop or other as it was being harvested by hand in a neighbouring field, so the scrubby brown-and-weeds hillside was the campsite, but with a view like this it was still pretty special. One local man went and fetched water from a spring for the visitors to replenish their stocks, another offered to chop some wood for a camp fire, which was as kind as it was unnecessary. After admiring the view until sun down and snacking on an al-fresco sandwich or two, the pair of weary travellers settled into their tents for another peaceful night’s sleep in the Iranian countryside at 9pm.