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20th – 29th May 2011 : Dash the Dasht – the desert sessions

July 10, 2011

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I have been very much looking forward to this section of the trip since before we left England – and after going across Syria and enjoying the emptiness of the desert, I knew this would be a special period on the bike.

It started better than ever – we took a quiet dirt track road towards Chak Chak, a holy Zoroastrian pilgrimage site, and there was not a sound in the air, not a truck in sight – just us, the track and the desert. Although the road conditions weren’t great, it was mesmerising to be cycling in total silence. The enjoyment of the peace didn’t last long though, as we soon lost Mathias.

Julian was up ahead, I was in the middle, and Mathias was behind struggling with the sandy track. I caught up to Julian in ChakChak as nightfall came, and we waited for an hour for Mathias but he didn’t show up. We were contemplating cycling back for him when a car pulled up, and offered to give me a lift back down the track in search for him. We rolled slowly along, keeping an eye out for a third set of tyre marks in the sand. I didnt see anything – hanging out of the window shouting his name into the wilderness. My escort got bored in the end and drove me back to Julian, apologising with gifts of bread and watermelon. After they departed we decided to head back on the bikes in search of him. He was probably just camped up somewhere.

We got about 2km back down the track, struggling in the darkness on the loose gravel, when we spotted a light high up in the hills, about 700m away. We shouted out ‘Mathias!’ towards the light and there was a muffled response, followed by some activity – the light started to come towards us. We had no idea who it was, and were quite nervous about a sour encounter. Julian motioned to get his knife, making me even more nervous about the situation.

Of course it was Mathias – spotting a hut up in the hills and thinking we were there he headed up just before nightfall, only not to find us and to find two workers who offered him a bed in their hut for the night. We were relieved to find him, as he as to find us, and agreed to meet tomorrow morning. we set up camp while he returned to his hosts.

That night was probably the most memorable camp spot of the trip – total silence and just the majesty of the surrounding desert mountains and the full moon, as well as a little bump from the hash we received as a gift ftom Yazd. Good night!

The next morning we headed up to ChakChak, a small dwelling centred around a dripping rock face that is meant to be the most holy site of the Zoroastrian faith. The road out of Chak Chak was beautiful and just how I imagined the desert here to be – long shallow climbs and smooth descents over barren rolling mountains – the heat was intense but the scenery was spectacular.

It wasn’t long before we were back on the main road and the desert experience turned somewhat. For the remaining 800km we remained on the main road, which was a heavy artery of lorry traffic going to Tabas and Mashhad. This was not so much what I had in mind, and every night saw us camping not far from the roadside and having to tolerate the escalating night traffic that ruined the desert silence.

The road itself was very very long and very very monotonous – and extremely hot. A strange thing happens in a landscape like this, that you lose your sense of scale. What seems close is actually very far away, meaning the long straight roads towards some kind of landmark that seemed in the near distance was a painfully slow approach, making the road very tedious and boring. We had to rest in shade from midday until 4pm as it was too hot to cycle. Resting places included under the road, in shops and in the shade of small bushes. It was some tough, sweaty days.

One advantage of being on the main road is we were never far away from water and food supplies, and each village offered the chance for a short rest from the sun and a recharge, as well as a visit from the local police forces, who were in increasing abundance and keen to check our documents at every opportunity.

During one particularly scorching flat day we came across the biggest 4×4 I’ve ever seen, being driven by a Russian Archaeologist and Historian couple. They were a fascinating funny pair – they were equipped like spies, and were repremanded on more than one occaision under suspicion of being so. They had extensive GPS equipment, a video camera setup for filming all the road, advanced photography equipment and roaming internet connection. She didnt like to wear a headscarf, and during our third cup of tea in the shade of their boot she was confronted by an angry passer by who saw her hair. They had been arrested when she went swimming in a bikini of the south coast of the country, and had some problems with the military when they were driving along the Afghan border – all in all they were nutters. It was great to meet them in the middle of nowhere, and I was very jealous of their mode of transport – their car was equipped like a tank, meaning they could just turn off road whenever they pleased and go truly into the abyss, something that we just can’t do on a bike. We parted ways, wondering if they would ever make it back to Russia without being jailed.

All in all we spent 10 days in the desert, trying to do 100km a day to get to Mashhad by the 30th April. The first four days went fairly smoothly, and we made it to Tabas, a veritable oasis, in good time to afford an afternoon off the bikes relaxing in Golshan Park. The second half of the desert stretch was not so smooth, as the nights became a struggle.

Although the days may be unbearably hot, the nights have been an absolute pleasure –for the first time we can sleep without topsheets, under the stars in a warm still night. This was absolute bliss. It turned quite ugly after Tabas however, as the storms started to roll in. The first night we were lucky and played witness to quite an epic electrical storm in the distance, narrowly missing the rain and the wind and enjoying the show. The next night we were not so lucky, when a quiet still night within 5 minutes turned into a blistering sandstorm. All my stuff was arranged outside my tent as i was expecting another calm night, and before i knew it the wind came in and blew all our gear across the desert. We were stuck – if we left the tents, they would be off too, so we had to remain inside and brace ourselves against the wind to prevent the poles from snapping. This happened every night for three nights, with sand invading every crevice, all over the food and electrical equipment. There were periods where we thought we would lose all our stuff and be taken off into the night, or be struck by lightning. It was quite exhausting, and quite exciting. Safe to say we found all our missing items (minus a tea strainer) and the tents survived. Though on the third and final night it became too much for Mathias, and in the morning he was violently sick.

It was most likely a combination of heat, exhaustion, slightly dodgy water and improper eating, but he couldn’t move and was vomiting heavily. We got him to the roadside and packed up his stuff, in which time a curious police truck arrived to check our papers. They offered to take him and his stuff to the police station in the next town 15km away, so off he went, with us in tow about half an hour behind him. We arrived at the police station to find that he’d been taken to hospital, in yet another town beyond, deeming he needed emergency attention. This didn’t bode well. The police were very kind, offering to give us a lift with all the gear to the hospital to see him. We arrived to find him tucked up in a hostpital bed, having been pumped full of 9 injections, containing a wide array of drugs. He seemed a lot better, and the staff were keen to discharge him, after a group photo with the tourists. They seemed more concerned about getting a good photo than Mathias’ health.

The english speaking member of the entourage, Hosain, had offered us his place to stay to ensure Mathias’ recovery. We accepted the offer, knowing that all he needed was some good rest. This was putting our plan to get to Mashhad before the 30th in jeophardy though, as we had two days to do 300km. Mathias had conceded to get the bus the next day, seemingly to unfit to cycle the rest. We decided to stay with him until he got the bus, mainly to deflect the attention of his host away from him so he can rest, as well as giving us a chance to rest up as well. This would mean the next two days would have to be monumental in order for us to get to Mashhad in time. They proved just that.

We were fortunate on the first day, with tailwinds and smooth downhills, seeing us top 135km by sundown. We found a great camp in a field just off the road, and got a good nights sleep in ready for the next monumental slog tomorrow. This day proved to be the biggest yet – 161km in searing heat, headwinds and big climbs – we reached Mashhad just before midnight after having done the last 40km stretch on a 4 lane superhighway coming into the city. We were totally exhausted, but we made it, and headed to Vali’s homestay where we found Mathias well rested and in good shape.

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