The day after Christine’s birthday party we said goodbye to Turkey and cycled with Ian and Dean towards the border with Iran. En route we passed a sign for Noah’s Ark (which is said to have come to rest on the top of nearby Mount Ararat) but decided not to investigate as it would have involved a 10km detour uphill, and we figured it was unlikely there was actually anything to see. At the border there was a 2 mile long queue of trucks waiting to cross – no doubt they were in for a long wait so we were pleased to be able to cycle by them to the front. Just before we got there we stopped to get changed into our Iranian cycling gear – the law dictates that women must wear hejab (which consists of a headscarf, trousers, and long-sleeved top that is also long enough to cover your bottom) and that men should keep their legs covered. We discovered after crossing the border that when cycling it is perfectly acceptable for men to wear shorts and a t-shirt as they would elsewhere in the world, but there are no such exceptions for women. Crossing the border took a couple of hours but was straight-forward enough. A friendly soldier took charge of us and escorted us through the process which helped. We all had to provide fingerprints (again – we did that when we got our visas). We chose to change our money at the bank, rather than with the multitude of money changers at the border. Glad we did this, because the bank gave us only smallish notes, whereas the money changers would have given us the equivalent of $100 bills – not easy to break. We probably explained before, but due to the econmonic sanctions on Iran, non-Iranian debit and credit cards do not work anywhere in the country, meaning you are totally reliant on cash. The best cash to have is $US bills, which we had to buy in Turkey as we weren’t carrying enough with us (for some strange reason you cannot buy Iranian rials outside of Iran). Quite annoying, as this means that we had to convert the money in our bank account (£) into Turkish lira, which we then had to change to $US, and then into Iranian rials – an expensive way to get currency but the only option available to us. We really don’t want to risk running out of money while in this country as there is literally no way of getting hold of money – money transfers such as Western Union do not operate here. Although it was good that we got given small bank notes, it did mean that we literally had a plastic bag full of money, because rampant inflation on over the last few years means that $1 is worth 10,000 rial, and all of our money came in 20,000 rial notes. We felt a little self-conscious to say the least tucking the money away – one consequence of having to carry cash is that it is patently obvious that any traveller crossing the border is carrying a significant amount of cash. However, touch wood we haven’t had any problems so far.
A couple of differences between Turkey and Iran were immediately obvious after crossing the border. Firstly of course all the women are covered up. However it must be said that many appear to interpret the laws rather liberally, with many of them, particularly in the towns and cities, wearing figure hugging clothes, loose scarves and lots of make-up. In contrast, Muslim women in Turkey tended to dress rather conservatively, with tight-fitting scarves and long trenchcoats. Of course the difference is that those women are able to choose whether they wear hejab (in theory at least, no doubt societal pressures are also a significant factor), whereas women in Iran cannot, and presumably the more liberal dressing is a rebellion against the regime as much as anything. Another difference is the driving. Iran is notorious for having good roads but terrible driving – indeed it has the dubious honour of the most road-crash deaths per capita (28,000 deaths and 270,000 injuries in 2006, out of a population of around 60 million). Not good for cyclists! Straight away after crossing the border it was obvious why so many accidents occur – people just drive where they want, at the greatest speed they can, with absolutely no regard for road rules or even common sense. We soon lost count of the number of crazy overtaking/undertaking manouveres, handbrake turns, chaotic junctions etc that we saw. One particular highlight that comes to mind was on our way into Tabriz. We had stopped by the edge of the road, which was actually a 4 or so lane highway (I say lane, but there are no road markings and nobody makes any attempt to drive in a straight line), to ask directions, when a bus pulled up behind us to let people off. For some reason it stopped 3 metres or so from the kerb, resulting in a van driver behind spying an opportunity and trying to drive – at high speed – through the gap between the bus and the kerb. As it came through the bus door opened, taking off the van’s wing mirror. What would have happened if anybody had tried to descend from the bus at that moment I dread to think. In general busy junctions do not have traffic lights or roundabouts as we do in the UK, rather it is just a case of ‘who dares wins’. Absolutely nuts. Rather ironically, apparently President Ahmadinejad has a PhD in traffic management – he doesn’t seem to have put it to much use!
What with the time to cross the border and the time change (we lost another hour and a half) it was getting on by the time we actually got into Iran, and so we headed only a short distance to a small town called Maku. It was downhill all the way and the change in altitude contributed to a notable increase in temperature compared to Turkey. It was so hot in our hotel room that evening that we experimented dowsing our bedsheets in cold water before going to bed – a trick that works a treat for keeping you cool enough to get to sleep. We went out for dinner but initially struggled to find anywhere – it seems that Iranians are far less into eating out than Turks are – eventually we ended up at a hotel restaurant, where we were the only diners. However the food was great – if nothing else it was wonderful to have the choice of something other than kebabs or pide (Turkish pizza) – and we enjoyed a very pleasant meal, followed by a cheap and nice rose flavoured ice-cream in a late-night ice-cream parlour, which seemed to represent most of Maku’s nightlife.
The next day we started earlyish – 7am – to make the most of the cool temperatures at that time of day (a balmy 25c) and had a lovely 30km downhill ride through a valley into a wide open desert-like plain. By 10am the temperature was really hotting up and at midday we decided to stop and rest in the shade at a restaurant. Very pleasant – we had lunch then got out our groundsheet and thermarests and had a 2 hour snooze, before carrying on at 3pm. During that time our thermometer read 47c in the sun, and 40c in the shade, hotter than either of us has experienced outside of a sauna. It turns out that Iran is actually currently experiencing a heatwave, indeed most of the country has been given a 3 day holiday because of the heat. So we are cycling in one of the hottest parts of the world, at the hottest time of year, in a heatwave. I will never complain about cold rainy England again! We managed 120km on that day though, ending up in a town called Ev Oghli. There were no hotels in the town but the locals told us to try the mosque. We had previously heard that Iranian hospitality included accommodation in mosques when no hotel is available, and we were quite excited by the prospect. However it was not to be, as much to our disappointment we were soundly rebuffed at the mosque. Possibly this was because it was almost prayer time, we are not really sure. Things turned out ok though, because there was an Iranian Red Crescent station just down the road (the equivalent of the Red Cross, except their primary role in Iran appears to be rescuing people from road traffic accidents), which we had heard are also willing to offer accommodation to travellers. They were far more welcoming, providing us with a room to sleep in and quite amusingly a hospital trolley each to sleep on – very comfortable! We were just glad there were no accidents that night otherwise we may have been turfed out onto the floor!
We then got up with the sun again and pushed onto Marand arriving around midday – just a short day as were tired. Ian decided to hitch onto Tabriz as he thought he needed to get his visa extended (it turned out he didn’t), leaving Pete, Dean and myself to look for a hotel. We were doing just that when a motorbike pulled up and a young woman asked us if we would like to stay with them for the night. Of course we accepted, and followed them back to their house on the outskirts of the town. Their house was absolutely lovely, and the family were very welcoming. The young woman, who was 17 and called Sahar, spoke excellent English. She told us that her uncle had seen us ride into town and had called her, knowing she and the rest of the family was interested in meeting foreigners. The two of them then hopped on a motorbike to come and find us and invite us back. We showered and changed and enjoyed a lovely lunch with the family – which consists of Sahar, her parents and her 7 year old brother Sina, who was lovely but very energetic! After lunch we all took a nap – most appreciated by us – and then Christine was invited to a get-togethtier of female relatives and friends at Sahar’s aunt’s house, while Pete and Dean were entertained by Sahar’s father, another uncle, and her grandfather who is around 85 (they think but don’t know!), is still active on his farm and has 3 wives (legally men can have up to 4 wives, although several people have assured us that this doesn’t happen anymore). The party that Christine went to was great, a real insight into what it is like to be a woman in Iran.
Despite being tired and our protestations that we had to get up early the next day, we ended up having a late night because people kept coming round to the house to meet us – great, but tiring! We also had more dancing, including some Scottish dancing which we demonstrated much to everybody’s amusement. Earlier in the day we had shown the family photographs of our wedding, and all of them laughed for a long time at the pictures of men in kilts – it is not done to even show your knees over here as a man, let alone wear a skirt! It was still very hot – 34c at midnight in the living room – and so the whole family, and us, slept outside in the garden (they normally do this at this time of year). It was much cooler and therefore much pleasanter than sleeping inside.
Another early start and we were in Tabriz by late morning. Another example of Iranian hospitality occurred when we stopped just outside the city to ask for directions to the centre. First of all a truck pulled over and we were given ice-creams – most appreciated! Then we were taken into some offices where the manager kindly printed off a map of Tabriz and explained clearly how to get to the centre. While we were waiting for this to be sorted out, the receptionist produced lovely cold cherry tea and cream puffs, without so much batting an eyelid at our presence – wonderful. We were much revived by this, and had no problems (other than the traffic) getting into the centre of Tabriz.There we met up with Ian again, and a local guy called Hanif who we had heard about from other cycle tourists, as being a nice guy who goes out of his way to help cycle tourists in Tabriz and Iran generally. He proudly told us he has helped 230 cycle tourists over the last 9 years! He showed us to a nice cheap hotel, and even negotiated a discount for us, before taking us for some cheap local food called dizzi – a tasty meat and potato stew. That evening he took us to a pizza restaurant that is themed on the GodFather films, but which is actually called GoodFather because the authorities took issue with it being called GodFather! The next day we did some sightseeing and shopping, and then in the afternoon Hanif drove us out to a village in the nearby mountains for a picnic – a great experience because it is not somewhere that tourists go, and also it was at an altitude of 3000m so was nice and cool! It also gave us an opportunity to experience Iranian roads from inside a car – somewhat terrifying! We decided to stay an extra day in Tabriz to give us a chance to visit a village called Kandovan, reputed to be Iran’s answer to Cappadocia. Because it was a national holiday on that day the place was very busy with domestic tourists and we had as much fun people-watching as looking at the termite-mound-like houses that the village is famous for. Everybody was very friendly and interested, asking where we were from and anything else that they could manage in English. On the way back to Tabriz we stopped at El Goli park, a big park where young people in particular come in the evenings to stroll, picnic and flirt with the opposite sex (from a respectable distance of course). There is a big lake in the park where before the revolution people came to swim – a lovely prospect on such a hot day – but where bathing is now forbidden. Instead the boys hired pedalloes and had a race, resulting in them being told off for going too fast! On the way back to the hotel we also spotted another cycle tourist, a lone female. We pulled over to say hello and tell us where we were staying so we could talk to her later on. She is called Sophie and is from Belgium, and has been cycling through the Middle East since February, including a stint in Northern Iraq (apparently she went that way because it was less hilly than Turkey!). Very brave in such male-dominated societies – even just eating out would be a challenge as it is something that women just don’t do alone in this part of the world.
After Tabriz we set out on the long ride to Tehran, which we expected would take almost a week. The first night we ended up in a town called Bostanabad which only had one hotel that was quite expensive, so we decided to do as the locals do at this time of year and camp in the park. As I mentioned earlier, it is so hot in the summer that it is much cooler to sleep outside than inside, and those that do not have a garden or a yard to sleep in head down to the park at night instead. This is great for us as it means we can also camp in the park, where you have facilities such as toilets and nearby shops, as well as security in the form of police patrols, not to mention a nice atmosphere. The only downside is that we attract a good deal of interest, and inevitably it is not long before we have a crowd of spectators keen to know where we are from, what we are doing, what we think of Iran etc. While it is really nice having this level of interaction with the locals sometimes it can be tiring! The next day we had a relatively short day – 100km, but most of it on a gentle downhill gradient which was lovely. En route we stopped to buy some fruit and have a break at some roadside stalls. The guy on the stall tried to rip us off, asking for $3 for a bag of fruit when we knew full well it should be a dollar at most. We argued then went to another stall where we got a reasonable deal. This wasn’t the end of it, however – some locals nearby observed what happened, and had a go at the first guy for trying to rip us off, and insisted he give us some more fruit for free to say sorry! Nice to have locals interceding on our behalf but a bit embarrassing!
In the next town, Miyaneh, we were befriended by a friendly young guy called Amir, who helped us find a hotel, negotiate a discount, and run a few errands that needed doing – all in return for allowing him to practice his English! To say thanks we agreed to attend his English class that evening. It was an advanced class, so everybody there spoke good english, and we spent a fascinating hour asking questions and being asked questions by the class. All very enjoyable evening all in all. That night though we had our first unwanted brush with the authorities – around midnight (after we had been in bed for two hours) we were woken by the hotel manager saying the police wanted to talk to us. Turned out they just wanted to lookat our passports – in reality we guess they heard there were foreigners in town and decided to be nosy. They left soon enough and we were able to return to bed. Our next planned stop was a town called Zanjan, but at a distance of 140km it was a bit of an ambitious goal in this heat. We managed 100km by 12 or so, then found a wonderful rest stop area, with fountains and shaded outside daybeds where we could nap, where we rested until 4.30pm. It was still immensely hot at that time, and a headwind had started up, so it was starting to look questionable as to whether we would make Zanjan. To make things worse shortly after leaving we had a pile-up after Ian, at the front, dropped his iPod and braked sharply, and we all did the same, with the predictable domino effect. Christine’s bike came off worst, with the rear mudguard somehow bending back on itself and jamming the wheel. The mudguard had to be removed, but otherwise there was thankfully no permanent damage to her bike. After all this we were getting very tired and fed up and by the time it got to 6pm and we still had almost 25km to go we decided enough was enough and hitched a lift into town, courtesy of the kind driver of a pick-up truck. Not ideal to have to ‘cheat’ but it was the sensible thing to do otherwise an early start the next day would have been called into question. By the time we stopped the next day, in a town called Abhar, we were within 180km or so of Tehran, but the smog for which this city is famous was already evident, obscuring the sun somewhat. We camped in the park, but once more we attracted the attention of the authorities,ce again after we had gone to bed! This time it was just the park warden and a couple of policemen who insisted that we move our bikes (which were securely locked to each other and a tree by our tents) into the park warden’s shed where they would be more secure. We pointed out that the bikes were perfectly safe where they were, but they said that it would be very bad for them politically if our bikes were to be stolen or vandalized, so they were adamant we had to move them anyway. To be honest we suspect that their insistence on us moving the bikes was as much about them finding an excuse to wake us up so they could be nosy and talk to us, as it was about concern for the safety of our bikes! While Pete and Ian moved the bikes, a rather groggy Christine sat outside the tents keeping an eye on our stuff. It must have been obvious that we had just been woken up, but some local women having a picnic nearby thought nothing of this and took the opportunity to approach and quiz her about what she was doing, and how come we didn’t have children if we were married. Seeing as these two friendly ladies spoke very little english, and Christine still very little farsi, it was a rather laboured conversation which concluded with them taking Christine’s photo several times, and giving her half a watermelon. Very kind, but really all we wanted to do was go back to bed! All in all a rather surreal experience.
Our plan for the next day was to cycle as close to Tehran as we could get before the traffic got too crazy, then to take a bus or hitch a lift. In the end we didn’t quite as far as we had planned, because the smog was terrible – despite the land being completely flat, it was impossible to see more than a kilometre at most, and the pollution could really be felt when we breathed – and the traffic pretty bad too. We managed 100km to a town called Bu’in Zara where we stopped at a truck stop to see if we could hitch a lift. Things didn’t go too well because immediately we were surrounded by a group of young guys who were interested in finding out about us but didn’t seem to register that we were hot, tired, fed-up and keen to get a ride. A couple of them also took the liberty of filming Christine discreetly on their mobile phones without asking – creepy to say the least. When she realised and they were caught in the act they tried to legitimise it by getting her to say a few words on film – good thing they didn’t speak English because Christine took the opportunity to spend a minute or so saying exactly what she was thinking about the situation – suffice to say if they ever get it translated they won’t be impressed! Eventually we got fed up and cycled a few more kilometres to the next town where we were lucky enough to be offered a lift into Tehran in a pick-up truck. The driver was very friendly, stopping from time to time to buy us cold drinks and driving us all the way to the door of our hotel – made our lives so much easier. We insisted on giving him some money although he didn’t want to take it at first! Amusingly he also stopped en route to visit a metal galvanizing factory; we are still not sure whether he was doing some business there or just wanted to show us off to his friends at the factory, but we stopped, had tea, and had a tour of the factory which was quite interesting. Needless to say they don’t have the same standards of health and safety here and there were giant open vats of concentrated hydrochloric acid sitting around looking for all the world for like troughs of water. The eye-watering and nose-and-lung-burning acidic stench gave it away though!
Driving into Tehran was predictably manic and we were very glad to be dropped right at our hotel so we didn’t have to negotiate the traffic ourselves – just crossing the road is an adrenaline-filled life-and-death experience!