After one and a half hour of riding up the hill in Tehran on some crazy roads we arrived at the place of François's friends.
Names don’t matter here but for the sake of simplicity lets call them Sepideh and Babak. They studied for two years in an other country. So this was probably the reason why we weren’t treated the “Iranian” way but the “European” way… or in other words we got a cold beer when we entered the house and had a relaxed dinner with red wine later.
The following days we learned a lot about Iran from a totally different perspective. Babak's family always lived slightly outside of what the state of Iran considered conform and so do Sepideh and he now. They live together while not being married (anymore) something that gets you into prison in Iran. Making your own alcohol puts you into prison for two years. Smelling of alcohol in public - according to any police man - gives you 80 whip lashes. I guess if I’d asked Babak he would have shown me the scars of this particular experience. Sepideh was arrested multiple time for inappropriate clothes, mainly a too short coat. But probably the biggest crime Sepideh and Babak are committing is not believing. Not believing in Iran is regarded as an un-Islamic activity and can cost your life.
Babak is also very active in politics and is supporting the current president Hassan Rouhani in the upcoming elections (19th of May 2017). He expressed his view that Iran is going the right way - slowly but steadily. Society - he says - is just fed up with the Islamic state and the mullas are slowly dying out. So there seems to be a way for small reforms and those reforms are happening.
François and I spent a total of three days in Tehran mainly to get visas and do bicycle maintenance.
The first day was the “embassy day”. With way too little sleep we headed of into the rain. An hour of crazy Tehranian roads later I arrived at the Turkmen embassy while François went to the Uzbek embassy in the mean time.
I was well prepared. Carrying with me a correctly filled out form, photocopies of my passport, a photo of me and the respecting visa as well as a hand written letter to the consular I felt confident that this was going to be a quick thing. But that is not the case with Turkmenistan.
I was greeted by closed doors although I had arrived 15 minutes after the opening hour. There was actually no door but a small window 20x30cm that may be opened if the person in charge is in the mood do to so. I knocked and waited. There was no real shelter from the elements so I started to count the raindrops falling on my head. After 20 minutes the slide door opened but some agents who obviously knew the local rules rushed in front of me and applied their forms. The sliding door closed again…
In the mean time some other travelers arrived. For example Clair & Jérémy whom I had previously met on the road. We shared the stories we had heard about Turkmenistan and my hopes of getting this visa started to dwindle. The current rejection rate of a simple 5 day transit visa is well over 50%.
And I actually do have a history with this country already. It is the only country that had denied a visa before but people had told me I should try it again on the road. Now I learned that there must be at least a six month period between every attempt to get a visa.
So when I finally got my papers returned through the window I went to my temporary home in Tehran to figure out some alternative route.
The days in Tehran were great. François and I could get some repairs done and I bought a new phone since mine was dying.
With Sepide we also ventured into town and saw several things that most tourist probably never get to see. We went for example to a flea market that takes place once a week in a carpark. This carpark is then closed to the general public. She also took us out for a traditional breakfast - kalleh pacheh . You better look it up. It was very tasty - if you don’t believe me: try it!
After those few days of rest - if you can call it so - we ventured off into the south. Leaving Tehran from the north is fun! Over 20 km we could eliminate 600 meters of altitude and the traffic was flowing for once. The best part was going through the Tohid Tunnel which leads traffic under the city center. Thanks to some powerful fans that are supposed to keep pollution out and the steep gradient we reached top speeds of over 65 km/h. Honestly I might cycle up town again to just go through this experience again!
The rest of that day was not particularly exciting. It was hot and of course we faced head wind again that robbed our power. We slept between some pleasant hills that marked the border to the desert area.
The following day was marked by some more desert and a small salt lake. Sadly it was not possible to visit it since the recent rain had flooded it. It takes about one month of really dry weather to harden the lake enough to walk over it. This day was also a tough day. Wind, heat and traffic were so harsh that we did not make much progress. We pedaled though the holy city of Qom but had no intention to visit the holy shrine. As non-muslims we would not have been allowed in anyways. On top, I did not like the mood of the city. It was just too holy and narrow minded. This became most obvious by the political propaganda posted everywhere. Thus we left the town behind and found a beautiful place to camp for the night situated in the midst of colorful desert mountains .
The next day we had a only short stretch left to Kashan, a city we definitely wanted to visit. We found a nice hostel where we could stretch our legs for two nights.
Kashan is famous for its old houses cooled by wind and tunnels. We did explored some ruin but the intact ones where way too touristic for my taste. There where busses that spat out groups of tourists to swallow them half an hour later again. Everybody wanted to sell something. This was the first time that I experienced something like this in Iran. Normally people are genuinely interested in us and not just our money.
But we did not need to see any of this since it was the birthday of the 12 Imam (or a similar anniversary). You may ask: What's the big deal? Free food! :)
Iranians love to party and the birthday of a holy man is always a good thing. The streets were crowded and as mentioned the shop keeper provide food for free.
From Kashan we headed further south through some hilly landscape. It was a hot day and there was no shade available. So when we found a place that offered a reasonable good picnic spot we did think for long.
Had we looked around a bit closer it would have been obvious that we were to do something really stupid. But since we had already covered over 50 km that day without a proper food break we might not have cared anyway.
I had not eaten even one bite when a police motorcycle stopped and we were asked for our passports - by the way for the first time in Iran. The next thing I realized is that next to the road was a surface-to-air-missile launch base.
I did what I always do in such a situation - I had a good laugh. We were “detained” and had to go to the police station and give our data, signature and fingerprints. As everywhere in the world people in uniforms are just completely incompetent and most annoying. They did not know the visa rules and had to phone Tehran, they could not explain what we had done wrong and they did not do the obvious - asking what we are doing here. I was hungry, pissed off and rude. I hope the police realized that. Some people should feel this even more. In return they tried to be nice and friendly but what can you do?
While they played "Being important" I checked google maps and found the reason for all the fuss. It was a nuclear power plant and you know Iran is a little sensitiv about this topic. The sight is well known and it is well known that uranium enrichment happens there - so there is no need for spies anymore.
So after an hour or so we were escorted ten kilometers until we were in a safe distance from this secret site and could finally eat our lunch. That day we did not make much more kilometers and decided to just camp somewhere.
I was woken up by wind - wind from the wrong direction. You may anticipate my mood right then. Somehow we pedaled another 70 km and camped again in the desert. It was a pleasant camping spot and we were even greeted by the shepherd that night. But all this did not really lift my spirit.
The next day we somehow made it to Esfahan, one of the supposedly most beautiful cities in Iran. It actually is and I can only suggest you go there!
That night Rouhani (President of Iran) was giving a speech in the Naqsh-e Jahan Square. So after a quick shower I went for some political activism. Or, in other words, I did what everybody said one should not do: (1) visit a big political gathering in (2) a country that is seriously divided on certain topics and (3) carry a big “reporter” camera.
The police did not let me inside the area where I could have seen the podium and where all the supporters were so I had to jump the fence. How should I known that this is not the idea of a fence?
Inside the people were passionate and some explained what was going on and what Rouhani was talking about. One person told me for example: “He is talking about you!” - Me: “What?!” - “Yes, he is talking about tourists! We welcome you here in Iran, you know!”
Later that evening François and I went to the famous Pol-e Si-o-Seh (a bridge if you wonder) - the meeting point for young Iranians. It is very much like the Rhine in Basel or the lake in Zürich where I life when I’m not on the road ;). Only difference: no alcohol and you can get arrested for singing! Why bother about singing, you might wonder. Well people here enjoy the special acoustics of the lower part of the bridge and to be fair, the police does not arrest people but warns them.
The following day was supposed to be day for rest. However, I went for another political event. In the same space as Rouhani the day before now Ebrahim Raisi was giving a speech. I wanted to see the kind of people that supported such a person. I did not feel too good at this event. People were interested in my opinion about him. What should I say? Being honest? Well I just said nothing or the usual tell-them-what-they-want-to-hear stuff. There was an aggressive, religious mood - just not a place you want to spend you holidays… There were actually more people at this event than at the one the day before. I don’t think this was due to the popularity of Raisi. We saw busloads of people carried to Esfahan to “support” him.
I’m not really sure if people were paid to come here but some people did not seem to be too convincing. Like there was this one young man walking around with a flag that stated: “Down with America” - written in Farsi and English. Why in English as well? For the tourists or for the media? I don’t know. But then he wore Nike sneakers - why should he know that this is an American brand - and, oh wait, he also wore an American Eagle T-shirt… I guess you got the point.
You have to know that Raisi is an extremely conservative candidate and has many double standards just like most populist politicians. Raisi is also well known for his involvement in the 1988 execution of political prisoners. Later I found out that Babaks uncle was one of the victims of this execution and that his father only escaped by luck.
After that well deserved rest and way too much saffron ice cream we took a bus back to Tehran. Well back in Tehran is not equal back in Tehran. The bus terminal was 25 km away from out hosts. So back up the hill and through the Tohid Tunnel which we had enjoyed so much going the other direction. Not to mention that cycling up a tunnel in rush-hour in a country that does not know catalyzers falls under the category - bloody stupid. After that I felt really sick - maybe from a slight carbon monoxide poisoning?
Back in Tehran I checked gain with the Turkman embassy and as expected they declined my visa request. So I bought the cheapest flight from Tehran into Central Asia which was Almaty in Kazakhstan. I was disappointed that I could not do this trip overland - well I could have done so. But this was not the kind of thing I had in mind… So I got a box and packed my bicycle.
The remaining days I enjoyed the company of these amazing friends I had found in Tehran. We went for birthday parties and campaigned for Rouhani. I knew at this point that I am going to miss Tehran but my mind is not set on Iran. I have mixed feelings about this country.
So it came that on election day in Iran I took a plane to Kazakhstan. Getting out of the country was relatively easy - only a one hour police check. I guess their internal information system works. At least they knew that I had smeared the fingerprint when I had been arrested at the nuclear power plant.