Back on the road: Shiraz to Isfahan 

After leaving Azhang and Bita we continued to cycle out of Shiraz. Traffic was heavy due to it being a weekend, with lots of people heading out of the city to spend a day in the surrounding countryside. 

After a few too many close over-takers we decided to try our first hitch in Iran. Iranian drivers really are the worst we’ve ever encountered, even worse that Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan.

Hitchhiking isn’t that common in Iran we’re told and the road we were on was pretty fast moving but eventually a truck did stop and a lovely chap dropped us 25km down the road where the traffic was beginning to thin.  

Very soon we turned off the main road leading to Isfahan and took a rural detour via Sepeydan. When we reached the town we stopped for an ice cream and got chatting to a local who eagerly showed us pictures of his mountain bike. He had it in the back of his car along with all his gear so he ended up cycling with us up the hill for an hour. 


Half way up we stopped in a lay by and 3 minutes later along came his wife, parents and children piled into an old landrover. 

In true Iranian style, a carpet was laid over two large slabs of styrofoam and a pot of tea, complete with silver tray, and a huge bowl of fruit is produced. It was a lovely way to end the day before we found a secluded spot to pitch our tent. 



Day 2

The next day promised a mix of climbing and long downhill sections. The landscape was pretty brown after the long summer. 


We stop in a small village where some police keep us a while to check our passports. We also meet this lovely lady who is dressed in this amazing outfit complete with think black eyeliner.


We finish the day with a pretty big climb and camp just off the road.

Day 3

A long downhill section awaited us the next morning which would take us towards the town of Yasuj. We needed to spend some time there changing money and food shopping. 


A small point of interest along the way down was what is known as the Persian Gate. It’s a steep valley where the Achaemenid army took its final stand against Alexander the Great’s oncoming Macedonian forces. The battle that took place here is as historic as the famous Persian-Spartan battle of Thermopile because it’s outcome really decided the fate of the war and the numbers of each side were heavily uneven. Unlike Thermopile it was the Persians who were the underdogs at the Persian Gate (10,000 v 700) but by using the terrain to their advantage they managed to wipe out huge swathes of Alexander’s men forcing them to retreat and regroup. Unfortunately for the Persians, their victory was short-lived, and Alexander managed to find an alternative route up the mountain, ambushing the Persians and slaughtering most of them. He then marched onwards, unchallenged, to Persepolis. 

The valley also offered up a rare opportunity for us to wash our clothes. Iran seriously lacks water at this time of year as it has no major rivers running through any of the country. 


We spent a long morning in Yasuj hunting for a money exchange. Eventually we got taken to a local jewellers by a very kind bank manager. 

We were very worried that the next stretch of road would be really busy but the cycle ended up being incredibly scenic and the road had a descent hard shoulder and wasn’t too crowded. 


Day 4 

Day 4 promised a lot of climbing but with it the scenery got better and better.

We also had to navigate through a lot of tunnels.


Our destination that evening was Ab Malakh waterfall which Azhang and Bita had told us about. It sounded amazing and wasn’t in the guidebook which made us want to go there even more! 

After a particularly long climb we free wheeled down into this beautiful valley where this picturesque town overlooked tiered rice fields, mountains completing the picture behind. 


Another long ascent awaited us after but a recording of Billie Connolly live entertained us as while we climbed. 

Ab Malakh waterfall is situated 10km off the main road. Visitors need to get down the very steep dirt track to the river and climb up the other side to the tiny village beyond which acts as a base to walk the 2km to the falls. We were certain we’d be able to get down to the village but had no inclination to, or conviction that we’d be able to, cycle back up the next morning. This meant we needed to try and organise a lift. 

The thing about travelling with a tandem for nine months is that you end up thinking that anything is possible and that everything will be OK in the end. So we descended the steep track confident that we’d be able to communicate what we needed to someone in the village. Of course we were happy to pay any costs. 


The track was very steep… And on the way up to the village on the other side we got a puncture… 

However it was all good. We reached the village and met two young lads called Ibrahim and Hassan who had a very small amount of English. With a our limited Farsi and lots of hand signals we managed to communicate that we needed a truck or car to pick us up at 11:30 the next morning, they said no problem, they could arrange it. Experience has learnt that 99.9% of time you can completely trust people. Sorted! 

To top it off a local family in the village offered to host us that night and we spent a lovely evening eating barbecued fresh fish caught from the waterfall and sleeping on their porch.

Family breakfast
Fish kebabs
 

The village mosque glowing at dusk

Day 5
One of the sons (I’m afraid we’ve forgotten his name!!) offered to take us to the waterfall the next morning so at 8:30 the three of us set off.


It was a stunning walk through a steep gorge and we were the only people around. This meant I didn’t need to bother too much with hijab.

Then we caught sight of the waterfall which looks like it’s just pouring down from the middle of the mountainside through a rich green arch of vegetation to the river below. 


This natural phenomenon was made when a huge landslide fell and blocked the river. 


Over the years the river has carved out a new path through the rock creating a short tunnel. At the same time, an underground spring inside the mountain found an opening where the landslide had occurred; hence the water cascading down over the tunnel made by the river. 


Because we had a local with us we were able to find our way down to both sides of the waterfall and see exactly what was going on. It was very cool!


After exploring for an hour Paddy and I both took a deep breath and had a quick dip in the pools. It was freezing but we hadn’t had a wash in five day so we really needed it!


When we got back, to our relief Ibrahim was there early ready to take us back to the road but there was a slight problem… He only had his motorcycle with him!!!

After a while we realised he had a plan to tow us and the tandem up the slope… ‘Ummm… I’m not sure that’s going to work’ we said. 

We’ve managed to get tandem on every kind of transport imaginable… Trains, buses, trucks, tiny cars… we even got it on this canoe boat once in Myanmar… 

But we had never got it on a motorcycle before… Until now. 

Our lovely guide went to fetch his other motorbike and together we took the bags, wheels and seat posts off and strapped tandem across the first bike with Paddy perched on top. Unfortunately we have no photos of this… 

The second bike took me and most of the luggage. Somehow we managed to get everything up in just three trips. The guys were absolute heroes. Here they are at the top looking pretty pleased with themselves! 


It was 1:30 before we got back to the road and we had some serious climbing to do. We were heading to the town of Semirom where we planned to catch a bus to Isfahan. It didn’t really matter if we arrived that night or tomorrow morning so we didn’t push it. 

On the way up we were given gifts of water, cakes, apples, a bag of walnuts and a huge box of dates. Iranians really are the friendliest people ever.


We camped off the side of the road 40km from Semiron and tucked into the dates… Iranian dates are like little droplets of heaven, I can’t eat enough of them and they are particularly nice spread over a digestive biscuit. 🙂 


We easily reached Semiron the next day and by 12:30 we were on a bus zooming along the last 180km to Isfahan.  

Shiraz

A young law graduate called Hamid had offered to host us in Shiraz. It was really nice sharing his super central flat with his aunt, sister and younger brother. Hamid was busy looking after his mother’s tailors shop while she was away visiting family so we only got to hangout with him in the evenings.
His 22 year old sister Fahima who is studying tourism at the local college however was still on her summer break so she offered to show us around one day. 


We started at the late 18th century Vakil bazaar and wondered through its many domed brick streets and visited it’s two green courtyards. 


After a coffee together we headed over to the Arg-e Karim Khan – the fortress-like royal court of Karim Khan who, the 18th century ruler who is responsible for most of Shiraz’s historic buildings. 


There wasn’t much to see here to be honest but we did enjoy the actors who were walking around in period costume… 🙂


After lunch, Paddy and I headed down to Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh shrine complex. In 835 AD Sayyed Mir Ahmed, brother to Imam Reza’s (who’s own pilgrimage site is in Mashhad), was hunted down and murdered by the Caliphate.

We have had to overcome a minor frustration while sightseeing in Iranian cities. The very high entrance fees for all the attractions are prohibitive for those on a budget. If our guide book (published in 2012) is anything to go by, admission fees were nowhere near as extortionate a few years ago and it seems the government recently introduced a blanket tourist fee of 200 rials ($5) for most ‘attractions’. Even the smaller mosques now charge this fee and needless to say Iranians pay a fraction of the price or go free. 

We don’t mind paying to see historic buildings but it’s hard to part with $10 each time when you end up walking aimlessly around a semi renovated building with no explanations or guides in English.

The exceptions have been when visiting the major shrine sites. Both the Harem-e-Rezavi and Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh complexes were completely free to enter and we got a free English speaking guide to take us around.


Eating out isn’t dirt cheap either and there is a distinct lack of decent restaurants, with fast food joints and kebab shops making up the short fall.

Thanks to our amazing warm showers hosts however we’ve been able to avoid paying any hotel costs so far and we’ve enjoyed some tasty nutritious home cooked meals. 

Fahima cooked Ash one morning which is a thick vegetable soup found all over Iran. Shirazi’s typically eat it for breakfast.

That evening we went to the tomb of the famous Iranian poet Hafez. Iranians are very proud of their literary history and many of their great poets have been honoured with spectacular mausoleums. Iranians will make almost pilgrimage like journeys to visit these sites, touching or kissing the tombs while reciting some of their favourite verses. 

It was nice visiting after dark as the spectacular dome covering the tomb was all lit up and it was pleasant to walk around the surrounding gardens. 


We come across a small band of people sitting in one dark corner listening to one man who is reciting a whole chunk of Hafez’s works by heart. 


After spending some time near the tomb Fahima took us to the cafe to have our first taste of falooduh an alternative to ice cream but made of short strings of frozen starch. I think we’ll both stick to ice cream next time! 

The next day we had a relaxing morning at the flat and then spent some time food shopping before 
rounding off the afternoon with a traditional Shirazi pastime – a picnic in the UNESCO Bagh-e Eram gardens.

Not wanting to disturb Hamid and his family too much by overstaying our welcome we decided to spend a night with Azhang (civil engineer) and Bita (architectural consultant), another warm showers host who live in the west of the city for our last night before heading north to Isfahan. Actually they had only been signed up to the site for a week so we happened to be their first guests!! 


They were a super couple with a lovely apartment and we had a great evening with them and needless to say, we were VERY well looked after! 

They cooked us a delicious meal of Dizzie which is a very traditional Iranian dish.

A large watery stew of chickpeas, potatoes, lamb, tomatoes and carrots gets cooked on a low heat for a good few hours.

The liquid is drained into a large bowl and the meat and veg then pounded into a thick paste. 


Ladles of the liquid are placed in your bowl and then you tear pieces of bread into it. Some people like to mix the paste into their soup but others eat it separately with bread, salad, pickled veg and olives. It’s very tasty!

After dinner we took a stroll together in the local park. People stay up late here including young families so the park is a hive of activity. Azhang treated us to an amazing ice cream – another thing the Iranians do very well. 

In fact the average Iranian has a very sweet tooth and cakes, sweets, ice cream and pastries are eaten at all times of day. They love cake so much they even eat it for breakfast! 


The next morning happened to be a Friday, the weekend in Iran, so Bita and Azhang were able to have a long breakfast and then cycle some of the way with us on their own bikes. They are both very fond of the outdoors and have a dream to plan their own cycle tour across Russia in the next few years. 


After 15km of cycling together we stopped to say goodbye. But not before we let them have a go at riding the tandem! They coped pretty well considering we were heavily loaded!

So we find ourselves heading north up to Isfahan which we hope will take around 5 days on the bike. We might end up taking a bus from a town called Semirom. 

Persopolis

 It was time to dive into Iran’s ancient Persian history and where better to start than Persopolis, the ancient city of the Achaemenid empire which sits north east of Shiraz. We would take a bus from Yazd, spend a night camping next to the ruins and spend the next afternoon cycling the remaining 60km to Shiraz after visiting the site. 


From the very beginning, Persopolis was intended to be a ‘showcase city’ to illustrate and flaunt the wealth, power and artistic superiority of the Achaemenid empire. 

Construction started in 520 BC under Darius I and added to over the next 150 years by his son Xersus and other subsequent rulers. It’s worth pointing out that Britain was still stuck in the Iron Age with the Celtic people building their ditch and bank forts at this point and the great Roman buildings such as the coliseum wouldn’t be built for another 550 years. 


It’s also worth noting that unlike many of the great Greek structures which were being built at around the same time (e.g. Acropolis of Athens) Persopolis was built, not by slaves, but by paid labourers and artisans, a testament to the humility and egalitarian approach adopted by Persia’s rulers.

The geographical location is significant – it sat at the centre of the empire which, at its height, encompassed Afghanistan and Pakistan and stretched all the way west to parts of present day Greece, and south to Ethiopia.
Historians believe the city which, sits elevated on a towering 12m stone platform, was used for an important annual gathering on No Ruz (Persian new year) when subjects from across the empire would travel to pay tribute to their King. 

The city was taken, looted and later burned by Alexander the Great in 330BC and then for 2000 years much of it lay beneath large dunes of sand and dust which helped to preserve what was left. Archaeological excavations started in the late 1800s.

Unfortunately we forgot to change the battery in the digital camera and so had to make do with Paddy’s phone for the second half of our visit…


Even though there is little left of the sparkling city there’s enough to spark your imagination. 


A majestic double staircase leads up to the city complex and then a walkway takes you through a towering doorway called the Gate of All Nations which is flanked by giant winged bull creatures.


There are some amazing bas-relief sculptures decorating the Apadana palace and staircase. They depict the delegations from the Empire’s various provinces arriving at the city gates baring gifts of cloth, livestock, pottery and furniture. 


The Palace of 100 Columns and the Tripylon are pretty awe inspiring mainly due to the height and number of stone columns which make up the structures. These would have been vast halls with towering ceilings and polished stone walls but historians argue over their exact use and purpose. 


It was possible to climb up the hill to the tombs of Atraxerxes II and III which offered amazing panoramic views of the site. 


It was a great morning and because we had camped so near the site we were among the first in at 8am, missing the worst of both the crowds and the heat. 

After a hurried lunch of Falafel rolls and Zam Zam cola (which we later realised we never paid for!!!) we got ready to cycle to Shiraz. Our exit was delayed due to lots of people wanting to pose for photos with the tandem. 

It was great to be back on the bike – our first proper cycle in Iran – but it was during the hottest part of the day and I was still getting used to wearing full hejab and a headscarf under my helmet. It was incredibly uncomfortable cycling up the hills!! 

We arrived at 5ish and the white sprawling city of Shiraz which, sits at the bottom of a vast valley, appeared before us. Flanking our road into the city was a lovely pedestrianised boulevard, a waterfall tumbling down the rock face behind.

We lingered for a while soaking up the atmosphere. That day happened to be a national holiday so there were lots of locals milling about, having picnics (a favourite pastime in Shiraz we are told). 

Along the terraced walkways a number of free-runners were practising their moves. This one guy (who could clamour up the whole complex in about 20 seconds) climbed up this vertical surface and then polished his set off with a headstand on the edge of the highest wall… 

We’d have three nights in Shiraz staying with a couple of warm showers hosts before cycling north to Esfahan. 

Yazd

Yadz sits in the geographical centre of Iran and also in the middle of a desert, so we arrived and left by bus rather than bike -we’ve already had our desert fix in Turkmenistan. At 7am we wearily got off our overnight bus, put tandem back together and cycled the 10km into the old town. 

 We made a great decision by heading to a swanky hotel and getting a buffet breakfast for a reasonable price. By 10am we were full of various sausage, breads and jams.

We headed outside, it was hot! Our time in Yazd clearly would be spent chasing shadows to stay out of the sun.

Later that day we met our warm showers hosts Mohammed and Maboub with their wonderful little girl, Anita. 

They were excellent hosts and we shared food and good conversation with them at mealtimes for the next two days. Instead of eating at a table, it’s more commen for Persian families to lay out a patterned waterproof sheet into their rug and eat on the floor.

Maboub was also a talented artist and musician.

Anita is 4 and charmed us from the minute we met her, here is her colouring-in versions of us:

I particularly liked my jester hat and Annie’s green skin.

Over our two days Anita painted all of Annie’s nails, styled my hair, helped fix a puncture, showed us some groovy Persian dancing and generally made everyone smile lots. In return Annie sang a song which made Anita very happy. 🙂

Yazd had lots to see. The old town is mud-brick built and has some ancient but extremely clever ways of dealing with the hot climate. Firstly most buildings have at least one badgir which is like a reverse chimney – it’s a tall tower that catches air from 4 sides and directs it down into the building to provide ventilation.

But this is surpassed by the water management system. Persian civilisations grew up in an area where there are no significant rivers, and cities have developed near mountains in order to get fresh water. To do this deep wells were dug up in the hills and underground passages, called Qanats, were dug to transport the water along a gentle slope down into towns and cities. Along the 60cm wide qanat new wells were dug every few hundred metres to check the direction, depth and provide ventilation. 

The slope and direction of the qanat is critical so that the water arrives into the basement level of the town. 

Once there the water serves underground collection points, Hamams, clothes washing areas and huge storage reservoirs called Ab Anbar. These egg shaped buildings are about 30m high (mostly underground), 15m wide and ventilated by 4 Badgirs.

Needless to say we thought the water museum was excellent! The Qanat system allowed civilization to flourish on the Iranian plateau and although metal pipe has taken over, a lot are still running and in use.

Just down the road from Mohammed’s house was the Zoroastrian fire temple or Ateshkadek and museum which we paid a visit to and was very interesting. 

Zoroastrianism or Mazdism was the first monotheistic religion and was the main belief system in Persian until Islam arrived in the 7th century. Zarathustra was apparently born in 1768BC and was apposed to the superstitious belief of the time. He preached that there was a single omnipresent God called Ahura Mazda and there were opposing forces of light and dark in the world. 

Zoroastrian’s worship of fire represents the light from Ahura Mazda and there is a burning flame in Yazd that has been alight since 470 AD! Interestingly it is believed that the 3 wise men from the Bible were Zoroastrian Magi (priests).

Today there are around 10,000 Zoroastrians in Yazd and around half a million worldwide. From speaking with Mohammed they seem to be well respected in the community. It was very interesting to learn about such an ancient faith and the fire temple was well worth a visit even if it looks a bit like the Olympic flame behind a big panel of glass…


On our last evening in Yazd we had another great dinner with Mohammed and then headed out to see the local club Zurkhaneh (House of Strength). This is a kind of body building/strongman ritual that was located inside an old water storage building. About 15 barrel chested men perform repetitive lifts/spins/push ups to the rhythm of a drumbeat and a man reciting parts of the Iranian epic Shahnameh and old Iranian poetry. 

It was impressive for us tourists and at the same time it felt like a regular social occasion for the men. Some of their kids joined in and took a go at the ‘spnning around very fast’ manoeuvre and half way through an old master arrivedand was greeted by all with great respect. He even joined in lifting some weights.

After 2 days it was time to say goodbye to Yazd and we headed to the bus station to travel south towards Persepolis and Shiraz. As usual at the bus station a host of different people came to help us, get photos and swap phone numbers…we’ve given out our number to a lot of Iranians now and randomly gets texts asking how we are getting on! We’ve also got really good at jamming tandem + bags into the bottom of busses, so with little hassle we set off south.

Our first night in Iran

Iran is a huge country and there was a lot of ground to cover in just one month. The plan was to concentrate our time in the central and western parts of the country before heading to the north west tip to cross into Armenia.

Iranian customs and border checks were very straightforward – a bit of questioning but nothing out of the ordinary and we found ourselves cycling towards the centre of Saraks town by 2pm. Most of the shops were shut and the streets empty – we could only assume that everyone was taking an afternoon break during the hottest part of the day. 
Money exchange, getting a SIM card and finding somewhere to stay were the three priorities. 

We stop at a newsagents – the only shop on the street which is open – and Paddy enquires about money exchange. A man in his 30s who had just popped out to buy the paper ends up taking 30 minutes out of his day to guide is to a money exchange. Finding it closed, he calls his brother in law Pedram who speaks English. 

Five minutes later we see Pedram running down the street towards us. We explain what we need and he insists on inviting us back to his house. We had been in Iran for less than an hour and already we had been invited back to a family home; Iran was indeed living up to its reputation of being the most friendly and hospitable country on earth! 

Iranians take hospitality and looking after their guests very seriously. As tourists in Iran we are considered personal guests to all Iranian people and so they feel bound to ensure that we are assisted in every way possible. 

Iranians also show a similar dedication to civility towards one another, and this results in a social etiquette of extreme politeness which is called Taarof. It is not unusual for a shop keeper or taxi driver to initially refuse payment in exchange for their services for example… 

We were aware that we would be offered many invitations in Iran but that it was important to remember to refuse (sometimes a number of times) before finally accepting. 

The whole system is incredibly alien and difficult to navigate but certainly makes initial conversations very interesting! 

Anyway, Pedram offered his invitation a few times so we judge it to be genuine and we were very glad to accept. 


We had a really lovely afternoon in his grandmother’s house with his uncles, sisters, parents and their children. Family is very important in Iran and Pedram’s family seemed incredibly close. There was a lot of laughter between them. 


We were fed a huge meal and and drank lots of tea. Pedram and his parents were keen to host us that night but decided to call the police to check. The police said it wasn’t possible for us to stay with them but offered to escort us to a shelter where we could stay for free. 

We said our goodbyes and we followed the police car across town on the tandem. 

The shelter ended up being a community building run by the red crescent (similar to the Red Cross).  We were given our own bedroom, a safe place for the bike, use of the washing machine, a hot shower and a free meal… Travellers are allowed to stay in these shelters free of charge all over Iran. Amazing!

Here we are posing for a PR photo with the bike.


The next morning we set ourselves the task of exchanging money and setting up SIM cards. In lots of other countries such as Uzbekistan and China it has been almost impossible to get a SIM card but Iran it’s no problem for foreigners to sign up to the system. BBC and other sites like Facebook are blocked and require our VPN but The Guardian, WhatsApp, Skype etc are all a freely available. 

Iran, like Uzbekistan, is currently suffering from high inflation so we’re careful not to change too much.

After a hurried lunch we cycle to the bus station to enquire about a bus to Mashhad. We were incredibly lucky, as the coach was pulling away from the terminal as we arrived but we managed to quickly unpack the bike and fit it underneath before clambering on board. The process would have been quicker but the two bus attendants kept pulling me away because I had managed to get a black smudge on my nose from dismantling the handlebars… They were very insistent that I wipe it off! 

We would stop in Mashhad for a couple of nights before heading across the desert to the town of Yadz. Iran here we come! 

Turkmenistan – our four day dash across country no. 9!!!

After all the hype and worry about getting our visa for Turkmenistan it felt slightly surreal crossing the border and finding ourselves on the edge of the Karakum desert. We were both very revealed to be taking this route rather than taking a flight or crossing the Caspian by boat.

It took a while to convert our letter of invitation into a visa in our passport but having camped only 7km from the border the previous night we had plenty of time. We made a beeline to the rail-side market in Turkmenabat where we changed $50 into Turkmen Manat and stocked up on water and food for the four day journey. We had met a couple of cyclists on the road to Bukhara who had told us that there were cafes and restaurants every 40km so we didn’t bother carrying loads and loads of food.

Our first impressions of the Turkmen people were that they are very beautiful! People are incredibly friendly but slightly more chilled than in Uzbekistan, possibly because they’re not too used to tourists. Women wear long elegant dresses which are more shapely than the tunic/trouser conbo found in the other Central Asian countries although a lot still wear a tied head scarf. 

We spotted lots of young people walking home from school – the boys wearing white starched shirts and black ties and the girls in long green dresses with colourful hats and decorative fronts. They all wore their hair in long plaits which we guess is part of the uniform.
So we headed off into the desert. The road is very straight, flat and well maintained and that promised tailwind we had heard so much about was blowing us along nicely. 


At 6:30am we pulled off the road, snuck down into a sand dune and set up camp. 

Knowing it would be a hot day we get up at 5:45am and were able to get going by 7:30am. The wind helped a lot that morning and we zoomed along the road at 26km an hour. 


After stopping for a quick somsa and to stockup on water at a roadside cafe we get going again, but that tail wind has changed and it’s now not helping us quite so much. We also hit some small inclines and so our average speed dips to 22km/ph. 

We wanted to cover a lot of miles that day though, there was still a long way to go and we knew the road would be a lot worse for the last 100km to the border. Late in the afternoon we spot another cyclists in the distance. Annette had cycled all the way from Germany on her three wheel, reclined bicycle. We swapped news and tips before setting off again.


Darkness was closing in but Annette had told us about a restaurant 20km up the road and convinced us it would be a great place to stay. Trusting her advice we managed another 70mins on the bike bringing our total distance up to 140km – the longest distance we have done so far on the trip! This extra toil was well worth it however and not only did we get a good meal at the restaurant but the owner offered us a shower and sleeping space in a spare room all for free. Can you imagine this happening in the UK?! 

The next day saw us reach the city of Mary which is close to the archaeological site of the ancient city of Merv. Merv, along with Demascus, was once one of the great cities of the Islamic world, an important centre of learning and an important city along the Silk Rd. We didn’t have time to visit the site however.

We would also be missing out on visiting the capital Ashgabat which would have been a considerable detour north for us. It was a shame as it’s famous for being one of the strangest places on earth. A ‘showcase city’ full of golden statues, marble buildings and manicured parks all built to the lavish tastes of the current president and previous ‘Turkmenbashi’.


Cycling through Mary’s city centre did offer us a glimpse into this world of splendour however. There was a spectacular blue domed mosque with four matching minarets at each corner and a number of gold domed buildings, one of which had a fittingly ‘bling’ metal work exterior complete with a golden statue of Berdymukhamedov (current president) outside it. 


Paddy said it looked as if a handful of super yachts had just thrown up on the pavement which, I thought summed up the whole look pretty well. 

After Mary we carried on down the road completing another 100km day before turning off down a side track and camping in the sand dunes again. 

With two more days left on our visa and only 150km left to cover we were in pretty good shape. However, we knew the road would get much worse once we turned off south onto the smaller back road towards Saraghs and we also needed half a day to cross the border so we couldn’t relax too much.

After 40km we turned off the main highway and started to follow the potholed gravel road south towards the border which took us through the fertile plains, lush cotton fields flanking the road on either side – these plants looked much healthier than the ones we were used to seeing Uzbekistan. It’s a slow bumpy afternoon and we manage 96km before stopping at a group of buildings to ask if we can pitch our tent nearby. 

The buildings turn out to be seasonal living quarters for a large group of cotton pickers who are still out picking in the huge field beyond. The owners welcome us and invite us to walk out into the fields to see the picking in action.

Around 35 people, women mainly, are out in the field. Covered with white head scarfs to protect themselves from the beating sun they move through the plants plucking at the burst pods. The fields go on as far as the eye can see.


At dusk we all traipse back to the buildings and each bag is weighed and then added to a metal cage. Everyone goes off to wag and change and we’re shown where we can put up our tent. 


In a makeshift outdoor kitchen surrounded by bamboo/fern walls, a huge plov is being prepared.

We’re given a huge bowl and invited to eat with a group of women just as the sun disappears. They are a horrendous amount of mozzies and we both get attacked despite wearing log sleeves and lots of repellent. One particularly nasty one got me on my forehead and the sting swelled up into a huge lump! 


After dinner some very cool Asian drum and bass was blasted out and all the younger cotton pickers jumped up to pull some shapes. Everyone is really nice and we have a great time dancing and taking lots of pictures with them all. 


At 10.30pm we retire to our tent but the music continues to blast out for a good hour after we fall asleep. 

By 6.30am everyone is up and getting ready to get back into the field. We pack down too and after some cold plov get back on the bike to cycle the remaining 40km to the border. We leave Turkmenistan feeling sad that we only had 5 days here. The hospitality and the people have been amazing.

Pamir 4: Khorog to Qal’ai Khumb – stomach bugs, checkpoint vodka drinking and wallet losing 

Khorog was a nice town to hang out in before moving on. There is an excellent Indian restaurant in the middle of town where we ate both nights as well as a number of excellent local cafes.

It felt amazing to eat some different tasting meals as we have largely been living off the same tomato based dish when camping. We were also able to draw cash (although ended up using our debit visa AGAIN after our Caxton MasterCard wouldn’t work in any of the machines….) and spent the best part of our day off lazing in the towns lovely park, swimming in the lido, playing cards and drinking lots of beer.


We were able to stock up on all the essentials at the market which including the normal hunt for porridge oats… We weren’t going to carry as much food with us from now on as there would be many more towns and shops on the forthcoming road.

So we set off out of Khorog the next morning. We had stayed at the Pamir Lodge which is where most other tourists, especially cycle tourers end up. We had an OK stay but in some ways it was a mistake for us to go there mainly because we both caught an ugly stomach bug which didn’t manifest itself until we were back on the road.

We didn’t cover as many kilometres as we wanted the first day only managing 72km before camping outside the town of Rushon.

The bug hit me first (the next morning) and we managed 30km before I admitted defeat and told Paddy I couldn’t go on. We set up camp in a lovely spot along the shores of the river and I spent the majority of the afternoon sleeping, waiting for the Imodium and antibiotics to kick in. 

Afghan children playing across the river directly opposite our camping spot

By the evening I was feeling pretty good at which point the same bug hit Paddy who was up half the night being violently sick…

Despite the bad night we managed to set off the next morning and did a good day of cycling. 

At 4ish we’re stopped at a checkpoint and got chatting to the friendly army guys manning the post. This friendly chat ended up with us being invited into their office for vodka shots (I say ‘shots’ it was more like large glasses). 


By the time we left I was rather tipsy (as was Paddy) and we’re not ashamed to admit that we had a little stop overlooking the river and sang along to Elton John for a while at the top of our lungs. Half way through Paddy’s passionate performance of ‘Don’t let the sun go down on me‘ a guy pulls up in a silver car and despite out cheery waves flashes an official looking government card. Clearly we’re meant to be highly intimidated by this although we have no idea what the card means or who this random person is. Nevertheless we act all meek and he drives off after telling us to move on.

The wind had seriously picked up at this point and we struggled onto the next village where a nice family and their huge turkeys let us camp in their garden.

We want to reach Qal’ai Khumb by the next evening but the road – which had largely been decent asphalt since Khorog – turned back into a stony potholed nightmare.

We stop at a cafe to have an early lunch and met some other cyclists, one of whom has just had a small bag stolen from his bike… 

We keep a watchful eye over the bike at lunch. 

We continue on for another 22km where we discover our wallet is missing… Not understanding quite how this happened, as I had had it moments before getting on the bike, we discuss whether it’s worth cycling back in case it’s somewhere in the cafe.

Fortunately, it only contained about £5 worth of cash and one bank card (Paddy’s) so we decide it’s not the end of the world – the wallet itself is probably the biggest loss.

Amazingly, we manage to call the card company over Skype via our Tajik SIM card and have it cancelled there and then! The world is an amazing place…

While getting back on the bike I realise that I have also lost my new cotton shirt – scatter brain comes to mind… 

After a long day in the saddle – six and a half hours! – we reach the extremely modern town of Qal’ai Khumb where there are modern facilities such as street lamps and late night restaurants! We find a lovely homestay and have our first hot shower in five days. It turns out we weren’t as tanned as we thought – just filthy!

Tomorrow is Monday and we need to get to Dushanbe as quickly as possible to start the Turkmen visa process so we will take a shared taxi from here to the capital. 

Pamir 3: The Wakhan corridor – Khargush to Khorog

Day 1: Just past Khargush to the little hamlet of Langar

Distance: 60.2km / Ride Time: 5:18

A long day sees us reach the village of Langar. There’s a fair amount of climing despite us following the river downstream and the road is frustratingly bad in some places. 


To make up for the rough road however the views across the valley are pretty spectacular and throughout the whole day we have a great sight of the Hindu Kush mountain range situated just over the border in Afghanistan.

The first part takes us close along the riverbank before a long climb up where we stay for the rest of the afternoon. The wind gets stronger and stronger as the afternoon progresses and we fear that we will have to put up with this pattern for the majority of our cycle through the valley.

Finally we drop down and suddenly find ourselves cycling through a green oasis. The road is lined with charming stone walls and we pass stray goats and donkeys munching their way through green hedgerows.


Traditional white Pamiri houses with their pyramid sky windows cling to the hillside while streams and small canals wind their way down between the buildings feeding the flower beds and fruit trees. Langar is a beautiful place, and compared to the the dry, dusty moonscapes we’ve become accustomed to, it feels like a pastoral paradise! 

We find a nice, albeit simple, homestay with a local family who’s house is set along a small river, their garden filled with apricot trees. 


The dad takes us to the local shop, a higgledy-piggledy walk up through the stone walls and across little streams. 


The whole place feels like we could be in a small Mediterranean village somewhere.

There’s not much in the way of food in the shop but we manage to get some noodles, and more importantly, 2 litres of beer!


Cheers!

Day 2: Langar to Yamg
Distance: 38.3km / Ride Time: 3:20

From Langar there are villages almost every 5km or so along the valley each with at least one homestay. We planned a short day as we were in need of a decent rest and were craving a proper bed and hot shower after five nights of washing in a stream.


We headed for the village of Yamg where we had heard there was a little museum dedicated to a 20th century musician, philosopher and astronomer called Mubarak Kadam Wakhani. 

Our progress was delayed an hour due to more front rack problems – another sheared bolt. We fear we’re going to need to replace the whole rack soon, there is only so many cable ties and bolts we can go through!

We had a beautiful ride through the small villages which are all surrounded by green fields of tall grass. It’s fairly hazy but we can still make out the Hindu Kush mountains. 


Tall poplar trees and a strong head breeze keep the heat at bay and we arrive at the village by 3pm before finding a lovely homestay where we get fed to our hearts content!


We take the next day off and spend the morning visiting the museum which is set in a reconstructed traditional Pamiri home. 


Our guide (Mubarak’s great grandson) even plays us some tunes from the musicians own string instruments and explains about the various inventions and philosophies of his great grandfather. 

Traditional pamiri sky light with beautful interlocking wooden beams. Each level represents one of the five elements


It’s an interesting morning and we both enjoy some time off the bike.

After the museum we cycle just 7km up the road to Yamchun where there are the famous Bibi Fatima hot springs and some impressive 12th century castle ruins. Both the fort and hot spring are situated 11km up a steep track so we leave the tandem in the local roadside shop and organise a lift (in a very old Lada Land Rover) up to the top. 


To our surprise we eat an excellent lunch of stuffed peppers in the cafe nearby (experience has taught us not get too excited over the cooking in Tajikistan) and then each get a turn in the hot spring separately – it’s a nice way to relax and meet some locals. 


It’s a gorgeous walk back down to the road and we stop off at the fort on the way back which boasts some very impressive views up the valley. 

12th century fort


Just after the fort there is a footpath which takes you through a countryside short cut back down to the road. 

You can find trees dripping with apricots all over the Wakhan


We don’t go far after this excellent rest day – just a short half a kilometre from the village where we pitch the tent next to a makeshift volleyball court. Some local boys come and watch us getting set up before being called away to bring their goats home who are grazing nearby. 

Day 3 – Yamchung to Ishkashim

Distance: 78km

Today was one of those days which passed without much happening. The scenery remained the same but the wind seriously picked up and we had it bashing in our faces all day long. Thankfully, after our first 30km we were back on paved road which was simply bliss after nearly 7 days of bumps, pot holes, washboards and sand!

It was a long day in the saddle but we rolled into Ishkashim by 7pm. This small town acts as the central hub of the Wakhan valley and there is a weekly exchange market with neighbouring Afghanistan.


Finally we would be able to restock on food properly – the shops between here and Langar have been woefully bare and we’ve had to rely on mostly homestays for lunch and dinner. (Our huge reserves of porridge oats and the abundance of apricot trees have meant breakfast hasn’t been a problem!)

Once arrived we duly turn our clocks back by one hour. (The eastern Pamirs work on the same time as Kyrgysztan but Western Tajikistan sets its clocks an hour behind… )

Our hostel allows us to pitch our tent in the garden but we get fed and are allowed to use the hot shower which thankfully still has a full tank despite the lack of electricity in the town that evening.

Only 100km to Khorog!

Day 4/5 – Ishkashim to Khorog

Total Distance: 73km followed by a half day of 39km 

After replenishing our diesel and food stores we hit the road and eat up 40km by lunchtime. 

The valley is so steep here that we are close enough to wave to the people on the Afghan side

The road is good even though the valley is much narrower here. Thankfully the wind isn’t so bad, in fact there were times where it pushed us along a bit! 


We reach the village of Andarob where some local guys invite us to sleep in their garden, the stars are amazing that night and we sleep with the fly sheet off. 

Next morning we complete the 39km to Khorog and arrive by lunchtime. The road on this stretch isn’t the best and by the time we arrive and struggle up the very steep hill towards the town I’m done.

After a delicious lunch by the river we, like every other traveller in Khorog, head out to the Pamir Lodge and spend the afternoon lounging in the sun. 

LifeStraw Mission gravity water filter (2 stars) V SteriPEN UV water filter (4 stars) REVIEW 

Most cyclists take a water filter system away with them and the choice of which one to get depends on the kind of cycle tourer you are. Do you want to be completely self sufficient in terms of your water consumption or are you looking for something that you will only use in an absolute emergency? How much bottled water are you willing to buy? How fussy are you drinking straight from mountain springs? How far into secluded areas are you likely to go?

We became a lot less fussy as our trip progressed and with this our ability to fight off some bugs and bacteria has probably increased too. (Although we really probably should purify every time!)

Before we left we decided to buy a LifeStraw Mission ($119.15) which works by filling a 5L dry bag with water, attaching it to a special microfilter (gets rid of all viruses and bacteria) via a long tube, hanging it off a tree and letting gravity do its work.


The idea behind this purchase was that we would be able to filter a large amount of water which we could use for drinking and cooking without having to suck or pump the water clean ourselves (as many other filters require). Simple! Once you get the system going you’re left to get on with other things; no further effort required apart from swapping the bottles every so often.

At first the filter worked really well (it improves after a few uses too) but to be honest, we rarely had to use it in South East Asia as we were always buying bottled water. There were a couple of days in Cambodia and Thailand (where we were getting through 8-9L a day) when we found ourselves off the beaten track and needed to filter from a lake or river.

We used it slightly more in China when we were more adventurous in terms of our route and were making a conscious effort to reduce our plastic consumption. But we were often so high and so remote that we simply collected and drank water straight from the mountain streams.

Most of the time the water we were collecting was either very clear or had gone through some kind of pre filter to at least get rid of debris and dirt (e.g. In village wells and water collection points) but wasn’t necessarily treated against nasty bacteria and other waterborne infections. 

With this in mind we bought a handheld UV Sterilisation Pen (SteriPEN Ultra $99.99) and had it shipped to Chengdu. 

We’re currently carrying both the LifeStraw and the SteriPEN…

Why did we only give the LifeStraw a 2 star review?


  1. It’s not very robust. One morning I pulled out the filter and found that the dirty water (red) tap was completely twisted until it was torn and thus completely useless. No idea how this happened but it made us realise how fragile the filter is – not ideal for two travellers covering 80km a day…Due to its simple design, the filter still worked without the red tap but only when one of us sat there holding our finger over the hole. A week later Paddy whittled a simple bung from a stick, not ideal but it works ok and we can again leave the system filtering while we set up camp or relax.
  2. The filter is fairly bulky (measuring over a foot in length even when packed) and isn’t necessarily built to be kept in a bulging pannier, however careful you are when packing it.
  3. There isn’t always a suitable place to hang the bag which means one of you needs to hold the bag up on your shoulder – this gets tiring as a 1.5L of water takes around 4-5mins to filter! 
  4. It’s hard to rid the filter completely of water even if you hang it out overnight or blow air through the system while the red tap is open; This leads firstly, to water leaking into your pannier and secondly, to limescale building up on the inside of the feed tube. I don’t think this necessarily affects the filter too much but can’t be too good for it either?! 
  5. LifeStraw customer service is terrible and it seems it’s impossible to buy more pre-filters. At the bottom of the water bag is a pre-filter which stops all the larger debris before the water feeds through the micro-filter. After a number of uses you must clean and then finally replace your pre-filter. The system comes with a number of spares but it’s common to lose things when travelling, and ours disappeared somewhere near the Tibetan border. After 3 emails (which were ignored) and trawling their website as well as the internet in general we’ve concluded that it is impossible to buy more spare pre-filters…. We even contacted a number of LifeStraw UK distributors none of whom were able to help us. 

In conclusion, The LifeStraw Mission would be a good product for people who are camped somewhere fairly permanently, or at least not packing, unpacking and packing again multiple times a day like we are. It would also work better for people who have more storage space such as a camper-van or car.

It really is great to be able to leave the filter working while you set up camp and have something that works without any kind of power supply but you really need to have the time and space to pack the system away properly and unfortunately this means it just isn’t right for cycle tourers. We still use ours and we make it work but we wouldn’t buy it again. 

The SteriPEN on the other hand is brilliant and we use it FAR more than we have ever used the LifeStraw. Some cyclists have complained about the pen needing to be re-charged but we’ve always been in a position to be able to re-charge it when needed. It’s probably not completely waterproof no but as with all our other electrical gadgets, we protect it by keeping it a waterproof pannier. 

Other cyclists online have complained about their steriPEN braking but ours has been fine.

Of course some would say that the downside of a UV filter is that you can’t be sure you’ve decontaminated the ‘rim’ of the bottle… But if you think that most of the time you’ll be able to get clear water and just need a filter to kill the nasties then consider getting a UV pen instead. They are lightweight, compact, long-lasting and very quick. Just make sure you have a permanent water bottle with a wide enough top to use it correctly.