Or Welcome to Iran!
On our last day in Turkey François and I left Doğubeyazıt going east. With tailwind we flew past the supposed ark of Noah and full steam towards Iran. Then suddenly Francois realised that he had still a small bottle of Pastis in his panniers.
Since Alcohol is not legal in Iran we had to get rid of it! But where. The roadside was not a suitable place to drink the last drop of alcohol that one has carried for thousands of miles. So 100 meters before the border to Iran we turned left where there is a meteor crater from 1892. Shortly before the crater itself there was a Turkish checkpoint where we had to deposit our passports. I did not feel comfortable at all to leave my passport with a random foot soldier. Actually I don’t feel comfortable to leave my passport with any official looking guy especially wanting to cross a border within the next few hours.
So at the crater we opened the Pastis and enjoyed the thought of getting slightly intoxicated into Iran. Is it actually illegal to cross intoxicated into Iran or is just the consumption and possession of alcohol illegal? I guess this is not clearly stated in the law but I will ask a lawyer if I can find one on the way.
At the border we just arrived behind a busload of people who brought goods with them that seem to be cheaper in Turkey. Obviously this took a lot of time! On the Turkish side we had to use the pedestrian crossing and had no chance to pass the bunch before us. On the Iranian side things were somewhat easier. We could take the car crossing where there was not much going on. The only problem was another overly correct border official. He questioned me over half an hour about my reasons to cross into Iran and made copies of every page of my passport! Francois seemed to be less suspicious. He passed within five minutes… So in the end it took us slightly more than two hours.
Wow, I did not expect that any border would make such a difference! Here in Iran there is just another vibe in the air. People waved at as and shouted: Welcome to Iran! Even the customs officer who had so thoroughly questioned me before followed us to offer some sweets. People just seemed to be happy to have us in Iran.
The rest of the day we just rode on and slept beneath the road in our tents, happy that we had made it to Iran.
The next day we realised that another change had happened at the border: We now faced fierce headwind. What we did not know yet was that this was going to be a constant nuisance for the next ten days and going to be the cause for some pretty bad mood.
So we fought the headwind and tried to make nevertheless about 100 km that very day. In the evening we camped again next to the street and fell asleep instantly.
The following day held not much difference. But at least we knew we would have a warm shower in the evening. Yasher from Marand was kind enough to organise a cheap guest house for us where we could refreshen and shower and enjoy a good night's sleep. As soon as we had arrived he invited us for falafel and later asked us if we wanted to join an English class. We were pretty tired from the hard day on the bicycle but politely agreed. The English class turned out to be really interesting since we could for the first time talk to women in Iran. It is actually difficult to engage into a conversation with Iranian women since the culture is pretty segregated.
This proved to be pretty clear when the young women wanted to show us a mosque in their town. They told us that they had never been inside the mosque since it is actually a man-only place. But together with us they felt confident enough since they had the feeling that they should be allowed to enter for “touristic” purposes. Not long after we were inside the light went out. A man furious about the presence of women in this holy place started to jell at them. This was another eye opener. I just feel sick thinking about this kind of behaviour towards women. I just can’t accept religions that discriminate people based on their gender.
Walking around town that night I felt like an alien. Everybody wanted to start a conversation with us and practice their English skills. I enjoyed it but felt like in a zoo.
The next day we started off with a friends couple (Jérémy and Clair) and two local cyclists towards Tabriz. We enjoyed the company and exchanged some bike culture - in other words how to survive those crazy roads.
After arriving in Tabriz we came across a big sign pointing out the tourist office location and so we decided to give it a try. It turned out that Nasser Khan who runs the office is a very famous tourist guide. He is mentioned in all the travel guides as being quite a character and he is. He organised us the cheapest hotel and phoned the owner to give us a good room. He was also the personified black market for money exchange.
In Tabriz we had a day off since we were already pretty run down by the constant headwind. So we stacked up on supplies in the local bazaar which is actually world famous and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This magnificent and labyrinthine bazaar covers an area of over seven square kilometres with 24 separate caravansaries and 22 domed halls. There are separated areas for spices, coarse knot carpets, fine knot carpets, jewellery and so on. Finding a way from one area to another was impossible for us. So we just took random turns and got spit out at one of the many exits.
In the evening we even managed to meet some local girls and spoke over chai about their lives in Iran. It was a refreshing experience to hear about their progressive mindsets and I hope Iran is moving towards this direction.
After a good nights sleep and a breakfast of must-asal (yogurt and honey) we were on the road again. This was hard again. I know I moan a lot about the wind here but it is a major factor when you are cycling. The wind can destroy or make your day. Since Iran is a big country (about four times the size of France) we have to make some kilometers each and every day. At least the road was picturesque. We were both pretty exhausted that evening and slept again in the tent somewhere along the way.
The following day was probably even worse since the road was now also going uphill. In the evening we saw big rain clouds on the horizon and we managed just in time to find shelter under the road where we camped for the night.
Meanwhile our spirits were really low. The rain that had started did not help at all. So when a friendly trucker by the name of Mohammad stopped to offer us chai and a ride to Zanjan we gladly accepted. The ride was an experience of its own. The old Mercedes truck from the 80’s was still “going strong” but the roads were just too much for the suspension. Anyways we had a good time and arrived in Zanjan safe and dry where our host Ali awaited us for the night.
At this point I need to write something about the famous hospitality of Iranian people. Because that night was the beginning of an odyssey. Please don’t get me wrong here, I love how Iranian people welcome us and I deeply appreciate it. But sometimes it can be just too much. After a day on the bicycle - especially with headwind and bad weather - the only thing I want is a meal and a bed to sleep for 12 hours.
This is just not possible in Iran. The hospitality in this country turns around socialising. In Europe I made very good experience with WarmShowers a platform for touring cyclists to find hosts along the way. Most people in Europe have been cycling themselves and understand the needs of cyclists. Here in Iran the platform is used by other tourists and therefore there is little knowledge of the needs. There is nothing wrong about it. But it can be extremely exhausting when you arrive and the first thing is to visit family and friends of the host without having a shower first.
On the other hand I enjoy those host situations a lot since I have the possibility to see into a culture in a way I would never be able to if I stayed in a hotel instead. But as we were extremely exhausted by the days behind us and needed rest this became oppressing. We wanted to be polite and grateful for all this hospitality but it was hard to keep up the mood. Not having the power to make decent conversation combined with communication difficulties is no entertaining setting.
This situation could have been changed by us - no doubt about it. We could have stayed a day longer which would have been no problem. People actually invited us to! Or we could have stayed at a hotel instead. The first thing was sadly not really possible since we had to go to Tehran for visa reasons. The second was not on our radar.
So after three consecutive days of nice hosts with insufficient sleep I arrived at my low point of my journey so far. I wished Iran to be a good country to travel in. So many people said it would be the best country I was ever going to visit and now I was here and the magic was gone. I was angry at myself for being such a bad guest in such an welcoming society. But the lack of sleep made me grumpy and tired of all the people here. And being not fully concentrated on these roads is just plain dangerous.
The French couple we had met days before had suffered an accident which lead to a hospital visit. They are currently traveling by bus because the injuries make it presently impossible for them to ride a bicycle. Then there was another accident of which we heard over social media of an long distance cyclist who got hit by a truck and ended up in coma for two days.
After the last night without sleep we just decided to sleep in the tent and slept on one of the last fields before the urban area of bigger Tehran.
That day we also visited an old caravansary which was actually fenced off but we found a hole in it. The only problem was that the guard saw us and he guided us around. Of course not without earning some money and a pack of cigarettes as payment.
On the day we wanted to ride into Tehran François suffered from a punctured tire. After fixing it he had another one and after that yet another one. We found out that there was a failure with the rim of the wheel something we could fix but saw too late. He destroyed all his spare tubes and mine did not fit his system. So we hitched a ride into downtown Tehran. Not cycling this part was a clever choice anyhow. Traffic is terrible. Istanbul is nothing compared to Tehran.
In the center we found a bicycle shop who sold us a Chinese inner tube - fingers crossed - and we fixed the problem with some hacking skills. So we could finally enjoy the craziness of Tehranian roads by cycling into the north of the city. There lives an old friend of François who invited us to stay for as long as we wanted. The only problem is - he lives on the highest point of the city…