From Italy to Iran on a solo motorbike journey.
Text and photos by Gero Cacciatore
The “Superfast” sails behind schedule from Igoumenitsa to Ancona. On board its cargo of passengers, cars, caravans and trailer trucks. Two motorbikes only: Michalis’s Ktm heading to Portugal from Cefalonia, and my Honda returning to Italy after nearly 12000 Km through the Balkans, a diagonal crossing of Turkey started in Istanbul through the Kurdish south-east, Teheran and the Iranian Kurdistan. Then the long way home.
In few hours I will be back in Italy, difficult to state how I feel. Disheartenment prevails at the view of the general indifference which I am no longer used to. Nobody wants to talk to a stranger, nobody smiles to anyone other than their own travel partners. All except the other solo travellers: Michalis and beautiful Heike from Munich.
We are already queuing to get down to our vehicles. The sky is loaded with rain and the crisp light filters from the pitch-black clouds.
I savour the joy to see my country again.
In my eyes the view lingers of the yellow mountains of the Iranian Kurdistan, streaked with green left by the rivers passage. In my heart, only the people.
Doubts on departure day.
I set off from San Gillio near Turin on July the 26th, at midday.
The first few kilometres are uncertain. My new boots seem too big and I struggle to lift up the gears. Inside the helmet I still breath that distinctive smell of new cars, when you sit in one for the first time.
The motorbike is also new, an Africa Twin I have been longing for and it has only two thousand kilometers on.
Suddenly everything seems so absurd to me: I think of all the time I invested in preparing for this journey, of the personal stuff I had to sacrifice, the distance between me and Teheran, the risks I will inevitably face.
Will it be worth it?
What is it that urges me, at 42, to leave by motorbike riding to Iran, crossing a troubled Turkey, ten days after a failed coup that I watched with apprehension live on tv? Along with existential questions, I have to answer logistical issues, too.
I am travelling without GPS (I don’t even have all the maps), by a new vehicle I don’t know well enough nor does any mechanic, and for which spares are hard to find.
An expensive motorbike, of a red so vivid to deserve the nickname of “la focosa”(the fiery).
An object of desire able to attract attention even in the rich center of Milan.
As usual the journey soon restores the balance and superfluous thoughts are abandoned along the way just like useless things that become a burden. The bike is flying and humming towards Trieste, light like a dragonfly.
The Balkanic route
I can say I feel well into my journey only when I get to Bosnia Erzegovina where the wonder renews itself in every moment : the first little mosque, the farmers hand picking straw, the luxurious Balkan Hollywood-style villas scattered right in the middle of a poor countryside where one people still travel by horse carriage.
I stop in a village to look at my map and it starts raining through the bright light of the sun.
A Roma girl asks for money and when I decline, she gets into a grotty van and moves away with the rest of her family. Beauty and anarchy .
For a moment I am stunned by the tiredness and by the atmosphere I am breathing in and I am reluctant to turn on the engine and carry on.
Sarajevo welcomes me with rain and with the signs of the war on the 70’s palaces located in a council area. I find a room in the old town and I allow myself to get charmed by the light which has turned back to its brightness and by the sound of prayers coming from the big mosque.
The following morning I want to visit Kovaci’s cemetery and climb up the hills to take in the view of the city from above.
it’s 11 o’clock when I get on the road to Serbia , unaware of the risks I am about to encounter. By mistake I end up on a military road filled with small tunnels from which I come out miraculously unharmed.
Noisy evening at the Livade Hotel of Cacak in Serbia. While I oil the chain, in the car park, in front of the main entrance, I see some wedding guests arriving. At the time of the wedding cake, a friend of the groom approaches the musicians’ table, next to me. He has a bunch of notes rolled up in his hand and he puts them into the front pocket of the man with the trombone. He gives a sign with his head. The musicians respond in a military fashion: they jump up on their feet grabbing their instruments, trumpet, trombone, bass drum and they start playing whilst marching.
Like Balkanic military troops, they irrupt in the room and everyone is in a frenzy.
In Sofia, I stay in the luxurious Best Western, renamed “True Adventure Hotel” and in the morning I fall off my motorbike while I do a U turn on a wrecked road.
Just like a patient hitcher I wave with my hand. Stani is the first one to stop, he gets off his economy car and helps me to pull up the bike that likely luckily doesn’t have a scratch.
Now, straight to Turkey.
At the border on the way out of the country, a dull Bulgarian soldier with big dull Bulgarian soldier’s glasses and no intention to smile, keeps me waiting whilst checking thoroughly my passport. He then sends me off to the Turkish area with an abrupt gesture. Checks become even more meticulous. The passport is carefully sifted, scanned and registered. Same for the bike’s documents. “Where are you heading to?”. “To Iran”. “Why?”. “A tour by motorbike”. “Shall I believe you?”.
Under my wheels, Western Turkey passes by too quickly. From Istanbul to Cappadocia.
Everywhere the locals wonder where all the Italians, who used to crowd the touristy spots, are. The political situation in unstable and yet I still cannot make up my mind about what is happening. I just have a strong need to go far away from big cities and tourist traps. I travel fast until I get lost in central Anatolia; when accommodation is thin on the ground, food is less expensive, it tastes better, and smiles are bigger. Then I feel truly at home and I slow down.
While crossing a modern bridge, a doubt crosses my mind: could this river be the Euphrates? I stop to check the map. I am in Mesopotamia!
The landscape is arid and very hot. In Siverek I take the small road towards south. The green farmed fields contrast with the yellow of the mountains where brown and black goats are grazing.
I stop at a service station and I am invited to make myself comfortable in a room with air conditioner . Youssuf, Ibrahim and Akam are Kurdish and wear the typical large trousers they ask me, pointing at my beard, if I am Muslim. I answer I am not while stroking the hairs on my chin. I am happy to be there among them. Knowing that I come from Italy on my bike doesn’t seem to worry them but they are curious to know how much my Honda costs.
By now I am used to this question, which often precedes any other question. “As much as a wife” I reply seriously. Youssuf translates for the others. They burst into a loud laughter. But they want to know the monetary value. In dollars. I halved it for courtesy. I ask how their relationship with the Turkish government is while I sip my chai. Yossuf gets serious and starts writing on the Samsungs. I read his text simultaneously translated “ we are not anti-Turkish but they do not like us. We are different and we do different things, they forbid us to speak our language”.
After declining an invitation for lunch, I leave. We go outside in the heat for the usual photo, Youssuf shows me his new motorbike branded Kanuni whilst Ibrahim gets on my Africa ripping his large trousers….
I stop to buy some water in Viransehir, still undecided whether to go back to visit the old Sanliurfa or to carry on eastwards. A man invites me to sit in the cool in a patisserie and when I ask for a “simit” ( the typical ring-shaped bread covered with sesame seeds) I am not allowed to pay for it. The only boy who can speak some English is sent before me dragged God knows from where, to translate the questions of the elderlies. He is so shy that in front of me he opens his mouth but no sounds come out. Then he gathers his courage and asks how many days I have been on the road and if I am on my own. I have already started the ceremonious good bye ritual when the coffee with lavender arrives, courtesy of the shop owner next door , brought by a boy with glasses who reminds me of my younger self. Impossible not to be fond of these people . I try to return the hospitality with respect towards all of them: a photo, a joke or a smile. One for each one of them. Then I realise that it is getting a bit too much, the number of questions is growing and they are all the same and I am late on my schedule. I drive off towards east.
“ you will never want to leave Mardin” says the guide and indeed at the tenth souvenir shop and after the fourth boutique hotel, I quickly look for a way out of the noisy city traffic. According to the Turkish media, in those days, the PKK would shoot at a check point and would detonate a car bomb killing four policemen.
In Midyat the tension is high and for the first time I do not feel safe. A police car spreads a message through a loudspeaker walking the streets at a walking pace. The Kurdish faces sat in the bar are tense, frozen. I take a picture and immediately stopped by a plain-clothes policeman. I don’t have my passport on me and I am concerned he might want to see the content of my camera. He lets me go and I quickly move away with my pink backpack. Few days earlier a bomb killed 3 policemen. In the evening at the hotel they tell me to travel towards North.
I photograph the Tigri valley and its bathers, the caves hollowed in the rock and the ruins of the old city of Hasankeyf, inhabited since the Bronze Age.
The Ilisu dam, wanted by the government in the name of so called development , will submerge this historic legacy rooting out tens of thousands of people forced to exodus.
The most magical area of my travel, where beauty and civil injustice create an atmosphere difficult to forget, gets past quickly without me realising it.
I arrive in Van while the police shuts the roads for the grand national pro -goverment parade. Thousands of people with red flags celebrate the defence of freedom and democracy against the coup of July the 15th. Young, elderly , veiled women and children demonstrate with fierce heart and strength in a nationalistic islamic fashion which makes me very uneasy.
The Kurdish show indifference and sit in the bars in groups without saying a word. The security measures are considerable, the armoured vehicles , light machine guns and the metal detectors are on the corner of every street.
I stop the motorbike in front of the little white gate of the border between Turkey and Iran, in Kapiköy, August the 8th. A facilitator boy points out my presence to a military guard who nods to move over. Passport ad check of the Carnet de Passage, “Be careful in Iran” says the Turkish guard doodling on a piece of paper, “What for ?” I reply. “Iranian women are very dangerous”.
Welcome to Iran.
On the Iranian side the soldiers are very young and look at me from behind the gate which opens to let me through to the offices.
After letting me jump the queue of people waiting for the visa, a soldier brings me before the seniors. One of them wants to have a picture taken with Pirlo (apparently myself), another one sighs dreamily at the word “Milano”. Then I get asked, seriously this time, what I think about the Iranians. I say that I traveled many kilometres to find out by myself. “Welcome to our country but be careful…roads are very bad”.
The last gate opens, a parked car with the bonnet opened offers local currency, from the window of another one the dirty feet of someone resting stick out.
I enter the traffic of Khoy in the hot hours, looking for a currency exchange bureau. My guardian angel comes towards me with a resolute look and says in a perfect English “Welcome to Iran, what is it you need? Park your motorbike in front of my shop, none will touch anything. I will take you there”.
His name is Mani, he is 25 and studies pharmacy in India. He occasionally works in the family shop which is right in front of the bazar. He takes me to the exchange bureau, he explains the value of Rial and Toman, he finds a perfect hotel for me and buys me an ice cream whilst introducing me to his acquaintances on the road street.
In the evening at the hotel I get a message delivered in Italian: “ hi, I saw your motorbike and I couldn’t believe it! I am passionate about travelling, call me I am at the 104. Amir”.
Amir is an Iranian guy who has been living in Italy for many years. He is currently building an hospital in a war zone. That precious encounter changes my journey and gives it another meaning. I will drive less kilometres but I will go to the Iranian Kurdistan mountains.
At the petrol station near the Urmia salty lake, a small blue Honda approaches. I instantly think of a nuisance but Shahin approach is very different: a smile, where do I come from, do I need anything? I ask for directions to the lake. He invites me to follow him and he will take me there.
It feels like riding on the snow and we aim straight to the centre of the immense body of water, the biggest lake in the Middle East before the river was diverted to the thirsty Tabriz few years ago.
I am surprised of such beauty in a place that is dying. In the distance, like in a dream, I see a veiled woman who is walking on the pink surface of the lake.
Among the insane traffic of the yellow cabs of Urmia which nearly touch me, my headache gets even worse. I park my bike in the Reza Hotel hall where it will stay for a week. The following morning I will be found unconscious in the lift. At the hospital I get diagnosed with food poisoning.
I still have cold sweats and no strength when I get back on the road. Determined to leave despite losing 6 kg, I intend to stop at the first stumbling block on the way to Zanjan.
The motorway runs ever so thick until it clots in a city artery: I am in Teheran.
My arrival feels like a dream and to this day I couldn’t say if it really happened or if it was the result of my imagination. I see the Azadi Tower, the city symbol, but I cannot reach it, I have to follow the flow of the cars wherever they go. I read the road-book I wrote before leaving with the directions to reach Saba’s house (a friend of a friend that gently offers me to stay at her place) but I realise soon enough that I can get there only by following a cab.
Purified by the illness, with no needs nor desires, balanced and in form, the days in Teheran go by happily among taxes, car trips with friends and dinner invitations. Freed from the responsibility to reach the destination I now have under my feet, I have no desire to carry on, perhaps because that would mean going back.
When I thank Saba for her hospitality and I decide to set off to the Kurdish region, I found find myself being lazy.
I stop in Senandaj, capital of the Iranian Kurdistan , before carrying on towards the villages in the mountains. Sanaz, a girl I met in an internet-café, invites me to use her home wi-fi, she introduces me to her parents and her siblings. I am the dinner guest and when I express my contentment for being able to speak to a girl who is not wearing a veil, Sonouran, the older sister, says with a smile that they are Kurdish and communists. The evening flows pleasingly around the table singing “Bella ciao”.
I leave the asphalt road for a mountain unsurfaced one which becomes difficult and full of potholes only when approaching the few inhabited places. I get to Palangan covered in dust, a village built by hand with stones and mud. When it becomes impossible to carry on I leave the bike near the first houses I come across and I cover it with old blankets borrowed from Mohammed, a very smart guy i knew when i arrived.
After a meeting held by the elderlies to assess the foreigner, the father of Mohammed called Razi invites me over for dinner. I am allowed to witness the people in the house pray, comfortably sitting on the magnificent rugs.
Mohammed and Carzan play football in the bedroom while Rojein, the beautiful 16 year- old sister, dressed in a traditional yellow dress, peels potatoes sitting on the floor. With a smile she asks “why are you not Muslim?”
I leave heading north along the unsurfaced road which run few kilometres away from the border with Iraq. These are the places we are told not to visit.
The ochre hills, from gold yellow to light brown, are round and soft. In the valley a line of dense green trees hide the river. It is not difficult to imagine it in flood among the hills covered with flowers, in spring.
“Do not remove the dust from your face, because the dust of the road of poverty is the alchemy of your desire”. Hafiz