The primary aim of our visit to Tehran was to sort out visas for Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and China, a process that ended up being rather more compFor licated and protracted than we were expecting. This was because the Chinese embassy, in their wisdom, decided that Pete’s passport was too worn to be acceptable, and on this basis refused to give either of us a visa. The lovely Sandra at the consulate section of the British Embassy here intervened to tell them the passport was in a perfectly acceptable condition, but to no avail, they woudn’t budge. Either a new passport for Pete or no China visas, which would have thrown a major spanner in the works. Thankfully the British Embassy were able to issue Pete with a shiny new passport in a very speedy 24 hours. We were particularly lucky here, because just 2 weeks before all this the embassy here had officially changed how passport applications are handled – now all applications have to be processed centrally in Dusseldorf, a process that takes a month. However because the change-over was so recent, they still had a handful of new passports left over, which they had authority to issue in an emergency. Thankfully they were kind enough to consider this an emergency (although admittedly it wasn’t really!) and give one of them to Pete. Had they not been able to do this our only options would have been to skip China (which would have been rather complicated and would have meant we missed one of the highlights of the trip, the Karakoram Highway), or for Pete to have flown back to the UK to get a new passport via the express service there (although this would have created even more problems as he would have then had to get a new Iranian visa, a process that takes some 3 weeks). The complicating factor with Pete getting a new passport is that all the visas we have spent so long getting for Central Asia were issued for his old passport, which was now invalidated. So we had to go back to all the embassies and get the visas swapped over to his new passport, which thankfully we were able to do without too much hassle or expense (see our separate post about visas for the low-down on the practicalities of getting visas in Tehran) . So after a delay of a week we should be picking up our Chinese visas tomorrow, then finally heading out of Tehran in the direction of Turkmenistan. This section of the journey will, rather annoyingly, have to be done by bus as we don’t have enough time left on our Iranian visas to cycle it; we could extend these visas, but then that would cause problems for the timing of our Central Asian visas (which are all dated precisely). That said, if we have to skip any cycling, this is probably the best place to do it; from Tehran to the Turkmenistan border promises to be hot and desert-like, not particularly inspiring.
Another aim of our visit to Tehran was to try and get some work done to Christine’s bike. Without getting too technical, the Cannondale touring bike that Christine bought for the trip was very poorly set up in terms of gears. For some reason Cannondale decided to sell the bike with road racing gears on it, rather than the mountain bike set-up that you would normally get on a touring bike. You want a mountain bike set-up because it is hard work cycling up hills with heavy bags on – road racing gears are designed to let you go fast, but they don’t include ‘granny’ gears that allow you to keep a reasonable cadence while going uphill. For the more technical among you, the largest gear ratio on the back is 11-28; ideally you want 11-32 or 11-34 on the back of a touring bike. To make matters worse, for some peculiar reason Cannondale also decided to make the rear cassette 10-speed rather than the more normal 9-speed. Again this is common on racing bikes, but is totally unnecessary on touring bikes, and in fact makes life more difficult because spare parts are much harder to get hold of (incidentally we have tried to contact Cannondale to complain and to get their advice on what to do but so far they have not deigned to respond). Ideally we would have worked all this out prior to buying the bike, but to be honest we assumed the bike would be similar to Pete’s Cannondale touring bike that he bought a few years ago, and which contains the gear set-up that you would expect. Not being technically minded it never even occurred to us to check! The upshot is that so far on the trip Christine has been finding the hills more difficult than she should have been. We have compensated by putting more weight onto Pete’s bike, so it hasn’t caused any major problems, but is not exactly ideal. We looked into changing the set-up in Istanbul, but unfortunately it is not possible to buy an 11-32 or 11-34 rear cassette for a road bike; such a component does not exist. So to get a more favorable set-up would involve changing the entire gear system (rear cassette and shifters) to a mountain bike set-up, which is a big job because it also involves swapping the drop handlebars for straight ones and changing the brakes, because the current set-up was not compatible with mountain-bike style gears and shifters. This is a big job so at the time we decided not to go ahead with it, but the bike shop in Tehran that we went to had all the parts available and seemed to be competent enough to do the work, and so we decided to go ahead and get the work done. The guy doing it was really nice and didn’t charge anything for his labour, despite the fact that it took him several hours. In true Iranian style after the work was done he invited us back to his house (which was nearby) to meet his family, and then asked us to stay for dinner (and some home-brewed alcohol!), after which he drove us and our bikes all the way back to our hotel! The parts were a lot cheaper than they would be in England so all in all we got a bit of a deal. You don’t get customer service like that at home! We were a little surprised at how easy it was to get hold of quality Shimano parts in Tehran (which was what I needed for my bike), especially considering the sanctions imposed on Iran that prevent imports of products from the U.S. or Europe. Iranians are resourceful people though and get round the sanctions by importing goods from the UAE or from countries such as Thailand; the owner of the bike shop that we went to visits Thailand every month or so to pick up parts. Consequently it is easy to get hold of parts that you wouldn’t expect to be able to be available here.
One thing that the long delay in getting our visas did allow us to do was to take the time to nip down south to the legendary Iranian cities of Esfahan and Yazd. We did this side-trip by bus as we just didn’t have time for the requisite 1000km detour. We arrived in Esfahan in early afternoon and after checking into our hotel went for a wander round the town, first to the huge Imam Khomeini square, which is the second largest square (actually it’s a rectangle but everyone calls it a square) in the world, after Tianamen square. Opening onto the square are several mosques, including the impressive Imam Khomeini mosque (said to be the finest mosque in Iran), as well as other historical buildings such as the Ali Qapu palace and the huge covered bazaar (which it is impossible not to get lost in). The square also contains a nice set of fountains, which it seems to be ok to paddle in, a concession to leisure and fun that is all too absent in other parts of Iran. We certainly appreciated a paddle in the heat of the day. It is at nighttime that the square truly comes to life, with hundreds of people sitting around on the grass picnicking and chatting, paddling in the fountains, or just wandering around enjoying an ice-cream. The other part of Esfahan that we really liked was down by the river, particularly around the Si-O-Seh bridge. Again this area is really lively at nighttime. The river is so low at this time of year that you can easily walk (well wade) across the river bed rather than walk across the bridge, something that lots of people do. The bridge also has many arches, in which people sit, some of them playing music, others smoking a water pipe or simply watching the world go by. There is also a simple chaikana (tea house) at one end of the bridge which serves cheap and tasty osh (our favourite type of soup), and proved to be a great place to hang out and interact with the locals. Despite Esfahan being probably the most touristy place in Iran, by virtue of its stunning architecture and UNESCO-world heritage status, western tourists are still sufficiently unusual that we attracted a great deal of attention, as we had done elsewhere in Iran. As usual though the people are invariably friendly and helpful. On our second evening there we visited the Armenian quarter, in part it must be confessed to see if we could have a drink (Christians – the vast majority of whom are of Armenian origin – are legally allowed to drink alcohol in Iran, but not in the view of Muslims i.e., behind closed doors only. Ironically many of the Muslims that we met also drink in their own homes, but that is another story). Unsurprisingly, we were unsuccesful in our quest, having to make do with some good old Islamic (i.e., 0%) beer.
One feature of Esfahan that surprised us slightly, considering that it is quite touristy, is that it is quite conservative; we saw more burqas here than we have anywhere else on the trip so far. This may in part be due to tourists coming from Saudi Arabia (which we understand to be more conservative than Iran), as well as the simple fact that this city contains several historical and holy sites. This greater level of conservatism was first made apparent on the bus journey down, when we stopped outside the city of Qom for a break. Qom is known as one of the most conservative cities in Iran, and contains the renowned theological university where good old Ayatollah Khomeini (the leader during the revolution) studied to become a cleric. We knew this, but were still surprised when Christine tried to order a burger from a stand in the roadside service station, and was completely ignored by the staff – eventually she twigged what was going on and got Pete to order for her. Apparently women aren’t capable of ordering their own lunch in this part of the world. Not sure what a woman travelling alone would do – probably they would have to prevail upon a woman to get her husband to order on her behalf (or go hungry). A strange experience, and one that we hope we don’t have too often on this trip. Our hotel in Esfahan also had a notice up requesting guests to remember their Islamic dress whenever in public, including just going to the toilets (which are shared). Bit of a pain for Christine to have to remember to cover arms, legs and head when just going to the loo!
After two days in Esfahan we moved on by bus to the city of Yazd, which is famous for being one of the oldest cities on earth – it has been continually inhabited for at least 7000 years. Stuck out in the desert, it was also a key silk road city. Today the city has expanded significantly, but the old town remains fairly untouched and is a magical place to stay. All the buildings are made out of red-brown mud bricks, and the lanes between the building are so narrow that cars cannot get down them, meaning that the old town is blissfully quiet. Although there are fewer impressive sights than in somewhere such as Esfahan, the absolute peace and quiet combined with the immense sense of history make the old town a wonderful place to wander around. Another feature of Yazd that adds to the experience is that most of the hotels are based around traditional houses, with simple but comfortable rooms set round a courtyard containing so-called day beds (wooden structures with rugs and cushions on, perfect for snoozing on in the afternoon), plants and fountains. We stayed in the Orient hotel, and it was probably the nicest hotel that we have stayed in o the trip so far, despite costing only $30. We only had just over 24 hours in Yazd before we had to get back to Tehran to continue with the visa process, which was a shame as we could have easily spent a couple of days there. It is a good base for desert-based activities such as camel-riding or camping out under the stars, and it would be nice to come back one day to do that sort of thing. As it was we spent the first evening, following morning and early afternoon walking around the Old Town, and the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the hotel, before catching the night-train back to Tehran.
Our first evening in Yazd actually ended up being rather surreal. Yazd is famous for being the centre of the Zoroastrian religion, which is a kind of precursor to Islam. The hotel we were staying in was hosting some sort of conference organised by the Zoroastrians on the topic of the concept of a saviour in different religions. As part of this they had invited speakers from several other religions as well as their own to give a speech about who they believe their saviour to be. However they only had people from the Zoroastrian and Muslim camps to speak – apparently the Jews had declined to come because it was the night before the Sabbath (rather amusingly the fact that they had not come was reiterated several times during the evening) – and there were no Christians in Yazd to ask. Here, however, they had a solution. They got the hotel manager to approach the western tourists in the hotel to ask if one of us would mind talking for a few minutes about Christianity. Now we were the only native English speakers there, so the manager (who would be translating) was keen for us to do it. We explained that we are atheists, a concept that doesn’t really exist in Iran and which he didn’t seem to understand, and in the end we were both brought up as Christians so have a reasonable grasp of the basics, so we figured we could come up with something. Finding the whole situation rather hilarious, Christine volunteered, but only had about 10 minutes or so to prepare, so planned on just winging it. The moment came and Christine got up in front of the microphone and TV cameras and spent a couple of minutes explaining about God and Jesus and how about Christians believe that God is their saviour who will save them going to hell etc etc. However rather naively it didn’t really occur to Christine to ‘sugar-coat’ this last bit about how God would save Christians (and by implication would not save non-Christians) – it was all a bit of a joke to us and we forgot that most of the audience take their religion quite seriously. Hence the audible gasp from the audience at this point, and the later furious comments from the hotel manager along the lines of ‘how would we feel if someone else told us that we were going to hell because we didn’t believe in their god’. We were rather annoyed at this to be honest – at the end of the day they had asked us to talk about what Christians believe, and we considered that we had done them a favour by doing this at little notice, and that quite frankly if they didn’t like what they heard they should have thought more carefully about who they invited to speak and given them more time to prepare. Nonetheless we went to bed with our tails between our legs and half-expecting to find a fatwa on us the next day. Thankfully the hotel manager had reflected on the situation somewhat and had realised the situation we had been put in, and was quite apologetic for upsetting us. Besides, he told us, apparently the Zoroastrians said something even more offensive to Muslims than what Christine had said! So we are relieved to be able to laugh the incident off, but will be far more circumspect in future when discussing religion.
The night train was great, for the same price as the bus we got a proper bed in a 6-berth carriage, which we shared with a friendly family who were very much amused by our attempts to speak farsi, and were happy to join us for a couple of games of cards. The only issue was that unlike most forms of transport, there was no segregation of males and females, meaning that females must remain in hijab even while in bed – quite annoying for Christine – she would actually have preferred to have been separated from Pete in a women’s only carriage where it is easier to relax. Back in Tehran, we learnt that, as explained above, we wouldn’t be getting our Chinese visa as expected, and would be spending another week waiting, which we were rather depressed about, particularly as the other cyclists in our little party all got their visas ok and so cycled off without us. Still the ensuing week wasn’t too bad, despite Tehran being a big smoggy city with relatively few places to relax or sights to see. We spent much of our time shuttling back and forth between embassies, which rather unhelpfully are all open at the same time on the same days, necessitating much dashing around to get to them all in time. They are all located in the ‘posh’ northern part of Tehran, but aren’t close enough together to be able to walk between them, meaning we have spent a lot of money on taxis this week, and have had innumerable arguments with taxi drivers, none of whom use meters and just about all of whom are determined to rip you off. To make matters worse, half the time they don’t know where the embassy actually is, and have to stop to ask several times, usually going around the block a few times in the process, wasting even more time. Indeed we are pretty certain that we are now better able to find the Turkmenistan and Tajikistan embassies than your average Tehrani taxi driver – we often ended up directing them ourselves!
The spare time we did have we spent seeing more sights, including going up the Tochal telecabin, which transports passengers from the north of Tehran (at a height of around 1500m) to the top of nearby Tochal mountain, at a height of 4000m. Tochal is a popular ski resort and it must be nice for Tehranis to have such easy access to the slopes in winter, and to good views and hiking trails in summer. We went for a bit of a walk at the top and were pleased to note that we didn’t feel significantly more breathless than we did lower down – seeing as in less than a month we will be cycling on the Pamir highway, most of which lies above 4000m, it would have been worrying if we had found walking difficult. Unfortunately it was during this week in Tehran that we had our first experience of crime; on a busy bus the rucksack that Pete was carrying was slashed with a razor blade and the contents removed, thankfully all we had in there though was our map of Iran, which we have pretty much finished with – our money etc was stashed in a money belt. The map wasn’t even complete – we had chopped off the bottom half that we didn’t need in order to save weight – bet the thief was gutted that that was all he got! If nothing else it could have been a lot worse, and instead has served as a salutory warning to be more careful in crowded places in future. We got the bag stitched up ok so all is well that ends well.
Whatever happens tomorrow (1st August) with our Chinese visa we will be leaving Tehran as, as explained above, our Iranian visas are about to run out and we don’t have time to extend them (if there is a problem with our Chinese visa we could reapply in Tashkent, but hopefully that won’t be necessary). We will have to bus most of the way to the border as we don’t have time to cycle, but will be firmly back in the saddle once we cross into Turkmenistan as we only have 5 days in which to cycle around 600km across a desert in searing heat – wish us luck!