Masuleh is simply beautiful. A village perched on a forested mountain where each house roof serves as the neighbours landing. A major tourist destination for Iranians, it had it all: charm, views, mountain air, relaxation and lots of traditional costumes! (You can get photographed in the local attire. Unfortunately, I got scolded for trying to take one myself.) Up and down, in and around, I meandered through the beautiful village stopping to look at the different wares and gifts for sale. Masuleh was also the first place in Iran where I felt tourism was the noticeable economic driver. Right down to hotel owners trying to coerce me to switch accommodation. Of course, the bike was the usual hero (I now call it the Shah of Iran) and it was nice to talk to people and join in the photos. Typically, people want to know three things: 1) Where am I from? 2) How long am I in Iran? And 3) What do I think of Iran and the people? They are always chuffed when I lavish the place and the people with great approbation, but the best part is it’s all genuine on my part. Every one of these encounters is its own heartwarming vignette. They each have their story and I like to know where they are from and what brings them to wherever I happen to be meeting them for the first time.
I decided one night was enough in Masuleh. I’d already spent hours wandering and more hours relaxing on rooftops like everyone else in the village and I was now keen to add Zanjan and Sanandaj to my latest mini-trip. This next leg involved some re-tracing of the route back to the wind tunnel before turning south along the lake and embracing more glorious mountains. It was now Sunday and like each day before it, I kept thinking about the passport. When would it arrive? Does the diplomatic bag get sent from Australia on Sunday or does it arrive Sunday? Sure enough, later on in the ride a call came through from what looked to be the Australian Embassy’s number. Indeed it was. Neda was ringing with the good news. And good news it was! By now it was too late to get back to Tehran to pick it up, so the earliest would be the next day. I decided to continue on to Zanjan, have a look around and leave early the next morning for Tehran. This would mean aborting the ride further away to Sanandaj in Kordestan (i.e. the Kurdish region). A shame because once I’d read about it, I became more and more interested in this beautiful city. But the passport was priority and technically I was an illegal.
Zanjan was pleasant and my brief visit took in a laundry museum. Basically, 80 years ago the mayor of the town built the women a beautiful laundry where they could safely gather to socialise and… wash clothes. With a constant stream of water and two parallel channels running down a long domed building, the place was both aesthetically pleasing and I’m sure quite practical. Something different I guess.
I splashed a bit of extra cash for a flash hotel (after the quaint, but less than average digs at Masuleh) and the professionalism was evident immediately. In true civic duty, the receptionist noticed my “missing passport letter” from the Immigration Police had expired and so she duly called them. They then informed her that it was fine for me to stay there one night. But one night only. When she told me all of this I enquired as to what they expected me to do the next night? She said she didn’t know. I thought oh well, lucky the passport has arrived.
In order to get to the embassy before lunchtime I left the hotel at 6:30am the next morning (missing what was probably going to be an awesome breakfast). I hadn’t filled up the fuel tank, but wasn’t too bothered as Qazvin was only 150kms away and there were always service stations along the way. At 12 degrees it was pretty nippy and the wind chill at 120kms/hr had me stopping to get a vest on underneath my jacket. When the first fuel station I happened upon was closed I started to ponder my remaining range, but still felt confident. Then with 45kms to go to Qazvin, my fuel light came on. I thought no worries at all. This range is at least 55kms (as proven the other night) and so I punched on. I was later to find out (34kms later in fact) that the low fuel warning light does not provide a consistent measure of remaining fuel. Hmmm. And so with a spluttery engine that finally cut out, I turned the ignition off then on, coasted a bit, switched fuel pumps and kicked it over again. Success! I punched on again hoping this might give me the half a litre I need to go the distance. But spluttery was to become a constant theme. I flicked fuel pumps again and got a bit more distance and then again and then again until finally the last gasp left me 8kms from town. I was filthy. What’s more is I was now in jeopardy of missing the embassy. And so I hailed a truck over and the driver responded kindly by searching for a fuel bottle in his storage compartment. When he produced an empty bottle we both looked back up the highway and saw the most beat up car coming along slower than normal hugging the edge of the road. We frantically waved together and he cruised in. With little fuss he popped the bonnet, undid a hose and kicked the engine over. Fuel squirted into the truck drivers bottle and pretty soon I was pouring 500ml of precious benzine into my front right tank. Wondering if this was going to be enough, I was soon informed there was a small town to my right and a quick veer off the highway onto a dirt road ensured I was heading toward fuel salvation. As much as I tried to give this poor guy money he wouldn’t have a bar of it. Both he and the truck driver were just the nicest guys and went about resolving my predicament with the minimum amount of fuss and maximum amount of efficiency. Once I got into this town I quickly pulled up at a food stall to make sure I was heading the right way (500mls is not a lot of fuel). The young guy in the food stall was so surprised and so pumped to see me he beamed magnificently as he asked where I was from and confirmed that I was heading the right way to get fuel. But before I could motor off, he gestured for me to wait. He quickly scanned his food shelf and produced a packet of biscuits for me as a gift. I couldn’t believe it. The gesture was just utterly humbling. Here am I with all my western wealth flying a damn motorbike to a country that is “developing” in every respect and yet the poorest of people are the one’s giving me gifts! My greatest regret is not having the sense and willpower to have studied Farsi even at basic level to offer more back by way of conversation for these people who have opened their hearts and their souls to a complete stranger who offers nothing more than something a bit different to normal life and a shiny big bike to look at. These many, many moments will stay with me forever.
Shortcutting back to the highway, I calculated that I would still comfortably make it in time to the embassy. I knew traffic would be a nightmare, but it was already factored into my equation. Of course, there’s traffic, then there’s Tehran traffic. I kid you not, 40kms from Tehran, it was four lanes of utter carnage. And that was just heading in. And so the weaving began. At first the left shoulder. Then the right. Then the weave. As the engine approached surface of the sun temperature I pressed on, hoping to catch a break soon. After passing a breakdown and a minor accident (you can tell it’s minor from the amount of abuse the drivers are giving each other) the traffic started to free up and so I punched on to get my engine cool and meet my deadline.
Side note: Are you sick of reading about my overheating bike engine? I sure am sick of writing about it.
Of course the engine redlined and flashed for the 17,000th time this trip, but it didn’t blow up either. And then there I was. At the Australian Embassy with my hands on a freshly minted passport with my name in it: SHANE ANDREW MALONEY. Never have I been so happy to see that little navy document. I decided any further administration would have to wait until I’d safely gotten the bike back to Ali’s. It would be back to taxis for my Tehran duties. But before I left the embassy I decided a quick call to the Russian Consulate was in order. The time had come to find out if I could replace my lost visa. The outcome was devastating. “You need to reapply. I’m sorry we can’t help you.”
Side note: As an Aussie, I can only apply for a Russian visa in my country of residence. i.e. Australia. Pretty much the other side of the world right now.
And with that, six months of Russian language learning, months of research and months of excitement about riding through this epic country were just shattered. I’d already contemplated this might happen and now it had. I needed time to think. I would go back to Ali’s and work out a new plan.
I decided a Consulate visit was in order and so the next day (Tuesday) I set off with a laundry list of tasks: get Immigration stamp in new passport, get the radiator fan switch, get new luggage straps, get engine coolant and get some updated advice face to face from the Russian Consulate. All of the above failed, except the coolant. The process for getting the Iranian stamp is three stages, not one. (And a different order). The Russians explained the limitations they faced in the embassy in Iran as it has some special constraints. I told them I understood and thanked them (in Russian of course!), the fan switch is for a car that doesn’t exist in Iran and so it was not to be found anywhere and no one, absolutely no one, could find me a luggage strap. Like a proper tie down one. And I went everywhere. People even declared that they probably don’t have them in Iran, but I don’t believe it. And every part of town people told me to go to, I’d already been to. I decided a litre of coolant was about as much success as I was going to have and took my fourth taxi for the day to get home and rest my weary legs.
For everything this trip was going to be, it is certainly now going to be something very, very different. Let’s face it. It already is. As they say, the best laid plans of mice and men…