I'd just finished a contract for a big NGO and was at a loose end in Sweden. Free time and some savings put me on the road – I figured I’d try to retrace the old caravan silk road that connected Europe and Asia before the age of container ships and jumbo jets. I’d end up in the Himalayas and find… what? See when I got there.
Paved roads, signs using Roman script, restaurants and hotels recognizable as such, all made for a kind of adventure-lite as I headed from Stockholm across to Latvia and then through Central Europe down to the Bosphorus and across to Asia.
Did I need more? Did I want to challenge myself? Hard to say. Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel something stirring in my gut at the thought of riding across Iran and Pakistan. Fear, probably – Americans aren’t overly popular round here. Finally, after a month of riding around Turkey I felt ready. I rode down to the Iranian border, parked up, took a deep breath and went inside the building with the red, white and green flapping listlessly in the breeze.
Iran. The axis of evil, mad mullahs and “Death to America!” chants. Well, the countryside is much like Turkey and when I meet a guy who speaks passable English it turns out he used to race motocross. I’m astounded. Here? In the land of super-serious, no-fun, religion? My eyes are opened, if only a bit.
Tehran is huge, a sprawling metropolis of ten million. Like any other big city, there’s a divide, though. North Tehran has malls and bright shiny hotels. Apart from the women all wearing shawls, it doesn’t seem so different from the West. But take a detour into Southern Tehran and the houses get crowded together. The sidewalks have women in burkhas, and small shops jammed next to each other struggle for customers. Roads aren’t paved as nicely, either.
I’m feeling rushed. My transit visa is only valid for ten days, and I have no idea how, or if, I can make it through in that time. Oh well, nothing to do but push on.
Open desert. Straight highway all the way to the horizon. I’m belting out Steppenwolf to myself in my helmet. Hours pass. I end up in Yazd, a town that looks like it was airdropped from Tatooine.
Next morning I read my guidebook over breakfast tea. Turns out I’m a lucky idiot. I’m staying in one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world. It also turns out that Yazd is the site of the sacred fire of Zoro-Astrianism. Before there was Jesus or Mohammed or Buddha there was this religion which talked about good and evil, which differed from all the other religions of the time which were concerned with gods or demons. I’d never thought about it like that, but it must’ve been a revolutionary concept. Anyway, the Zoro-Astrians originated from this area, and had a sacred fire as their symbol, which has never gone out since the religion was founded 4000 years ago. I must see this.
I park outside a small, modest building and go in. There’s a glass case containing an urn with glowing coals. A lick of flame escapes occasionally. I ponder how much effort it takes to keep a single fire burning through thousands of years of history, of wars, famines, plenty and hardship. I’m impressed.
Onwards. Time is chasing me now. I want to make India before the monsoon season, and my transit visa runs out in a few days. Time to saddle up and put some serious mileage under the wheels.