Islamic Republic of Tea – Iran

Riding to the Iranian border was quite unpleasant – wet and cold but, of course, we naively hoped that it will all change after crossing – we will enter the hotness of Iranian deserts and will throw off all our warm clothes. Iran – the Middle East – always seemed connected with the Sun (always shining on TV), vast desert-ish lands and camel caravans crossing them. Besides, it is the beginning of the New Year – one day before our entering the year 1394 had started in this country. According to Persian calendar, the new year starts on the day of spring equinox, and usually the weather is pleasant in these days.

Warning sign on the Armenian side - on 8th May 2004 a man was arrested here for crossing the border illegally

Warning sign on the Armenian side – on 8th May 2004 a man was arrested here for crossing the border illegally

After the checks and the x-raying of bags on Armenian side we prepared to leave our asset in communicating with locals so far – Russian language skills – behind, and prepared to be checked and scanned even more rigorously – entering the Islamic Republic of Iran does not sound like a walk in the park. But, to our great surprise, entering the IR of Iran occurred easier that exiting Armenia. No one even tried to find out if we are carrying vodka, marijuana, guns or erotic magazines in our bags and after an ordinary passport check, we were in. Already at the customs, we met with the unconditional joy of Iranians seeing foreigners enter their country – one of the employees even stated that the sole purpose of them being there is so that they can help us in all imaginable ways.

First task – to become millionaires again. It is even easier than in Belarus here (you need 80€ to get 1mil rubles there) – by exchanging a 50€ banknote, we got a wad of Iranian Rial bills that totaled to 1’700’000 IRR. Everything is supposed to be cheap and we decide to try out a canteen for lunch. Reading Persian numerals is not as hard to learn as it seems and we figure out that food will cost us 10’000 each. It sounds exactly as cheap that it sounds really good but not so unbelievably good that we would suspect that something may not be kosher here. But, while stuffing ourselves with the enormous portion of rice and chicken, the suspicion kicked in, and proved to be true – we had fallen victims to the Rial/Toman issue. Iranian Rial – the official currency of Iran – is the world’s least valued currency unit and that already makes everyone calculate numbers with seven digits in their heads but to make things worse – Iranians spitefully cling on to using their previous currency when setting prices and making purchases despite what’s printed on the money itself. One Toman equals 10 Rials. So, the shown price of 10’000 was actually 100’000 IRR – about 3,5€ what didn’t sound so cheap anymore. Tomans are so settled in Iranians’ hearts that sometimes they even mean “Tomans” when saying out loud “Rials” at the same time. All in all, food is generally cheaper than in Europe but if something sounds really really cheap – just add one zero to the price before checking out. Shopkeepers often give you candy in the place of small change – not to bother with 1000 IRR coins and notes.

Nakhchivan (Azerbaijan) just over the Aras river

Nakhchivan (Azerbaijan) just over the Aras river

No Sun, sand or camel caravans traversing the desert. And we are already in Iran. Actually, nothing really changed – surrounded by mountains, blown in the face by the cold wind and rain just like on the other side of the international border. But a couple of things already assured that we didn’t by accident drive through a portal that leads back to Armenia – all of a sudden the road quality turned from bearable to excellent and there were not a single Lada Zhiguli on them.

Running-singing-herbal tea man

Running-singing-herbal tea man

Closing in on the first settlement on our way, I hear a loud singing somewhere from the side of the road. A second later I notice a man, well over his midlife crisis years, running as hell down from the mountain and singing his heart out simultaneously. He catches me on the road and shoots at me everything that he’s got in his English vocabulary: “Welcome to Iran! Where are you from? I speak English only very little.” Doing so, he runs along my bicycle on the road and every now and then reaches into his pocket and hands me some freshly picked green herbs. By playing charades he manages to explain to me that these are for making a tasty and healthy tea. To their amusement this is the way Dainis and Laura see me approaching – cycling slowly, together with an elderly man running along and giving me the herbs. “Goodbye!” and the man goes away, minding his own business.

1st camping in Iran - Nakhchivan still just over the Aras river

1st camping in Iran – Nakhchivan still just over the Aras river

Our alarm for the first morning in Iran was barking dogs and Persian language. Having finally achieved that we get out of our tent, some soldiers greeted us and politely demanded that we leave this place at the very instant. We had chosen our camping site the evening before just about 300 meters away from the Aras river, which also happens to be the border for Iran and Nakhchivan. Military guys spoke even less English than the herbal tea man the previous day but more intimidated by the guns on their shoulders than their little mongrel dogs, we set our personal time record for packing up and set out back on the road. Border guards, of course thoroughly monitored all this process and watched as we rode away.

One of numerous military watchtowers along the road from Nordooz border to Jolfa

One of numerous military watchtowers along the road from Nordooz border to Jolfa

Dainis and Laura continued their way to Jolfa while I took a little detour after a geocache that had been placed five years ago and had never been found yet. I was pretty stoked, of course, when, miraculously, I managed to claim the FTF.

The geocache container, uncovered after being under this rock since January 2010

The geocache container, uncovered after being under this rock since January 2010

This place – waterfall of Asiyab Kharabeh for me and meanwhile – Jolfa for Laura and Dainis was where we first encountered with that kind of interactions with people that became our everyday routine in Iran. When Iranians see a foreigner, preferably with whiter skin and brighter hair than theirs, they surround the poor soul and start drawing their smartphones and selfie sticks to enter a picture taking orgy. They also want to talk to you very much. And they do – doesn’t matter that you don’t know Persian, Turkic or Azeri languages and they don’t speak English or anything else – you can shake your head and shrug your shoulders all you want, they just keep on speaking to you in their own tongue. Sometimes I just talk gibberish back to them: “Krolik mann girghham khakhtset bunj!” Then they act all surprised, of course and show that they don’t understand. Well, I guess that it has something to with the fact that in most parts of Iran tourists are a really rare phenomena, and, as Iran’s a big country, in a way a bit isolated from the world, it is just really hard to comprehend for the ordinary Iranian that a man he meets in his country doesn’t know Farsi (Persian language). But, even knowing this, sometimes it is also really hard for me not to think that half of the people are simply a bit mentally challenged here. I got stopped at a military post on my way. They’re gonna check my documents, visa etc., I think. I stop. But they are just smiling at me, throwing their welcomes and trying to make a small talk in Persian. “Hello! … OK, goodbye!” – I ride away. Often they also don’t understand that repeating the same sentence ten times will not help me make more sense of it if I didn’t understand it after the 2nd time.

The waterfall of Asiyah Kharabeh

The waterfall of Asiyab Kharabeh

On my way from Jolfa to Marand I somehow ended up sitting in a family picnic. Tea, lavash, cheese, sweets and fruit. During these – 13 days of Nowruz – families from cities usually pack their automatic tent and some carpet on the roof of their cars, get a lot of food and drive out to picnic. Jolfa County is a very popular Nowruz picnic destination. While sitting, I get asked if I know about ‘Daesh group’ – they say that I look like one of them. Doesn’t ring a bell at the beginning but soon we come to a conclusion that this is how ISIS or ISIL is called here. DAIISH is the straight Arabic shorthand for the group known as: al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham. Cycling around Iran, quite a few times I heard the exclamations “Daesh, daesh!” directed at me, but, luckily, they were almost always accompanied with a smile on authors face.

Entering Marand like a boss.

Entering Marand like a boss.

Exiting Marand the next day - like a boss.

Exiting Marand the next day – like a boss.

Next city – Marand – is home to a cycling enthusiast who, as Dainis read in a forum, hosts every cyclo-tourist who passes by. Furthermore, no one usually contacts him beforehand – he just finds the cyclists and brings them to his place. As with us – Dainis had just stopped on the roadside before the city when a car pulled up, driven by the one and only – Akbar. When I arrive, Akbar is already elsewhere – he was told that another cyclist is approaching from a different direction. He did not leave any contact details or address, just told us to ride into city and he would find us. As happens – just as we’ve reached the main street, he, on a bicycle now himself, accompanied by a cyclist from France, intercepts us. Cruising from one side of the city to the other, we now own this town – going on the middle of the road, seems that the right of the way is always for us. Cars stop, people smile and wave at us – what a welcome!

Outside of Akbar's shop

Outside of Akbar’s shop

Inside of Akbar's shop

Inside of Akbar’s shop

Our destination – shop owned by Akbar. It has everything – starting with dehydrated lemons to dust covered shaving gels. Outside lie stacks of big bags of Iranian bread, some non-alcoholic drinks and a stand with snacks. These things remain outside also when the store is closed, and nobody would even think of stealing them. It is like that with many small shops in Iran but this one stands out from the crowd with various environmentally responsible posters and notices about the dangers of smoking. Also, it proudly states that this shop is a part of warmshowers.org network and supports cyclists. Akbar himself is far from the typical Iranian – he didn’t try to talk with us all the time, in fact, he almost didn’t talk at all. At some point he just went away, leaving us standing by the shop and wondering will we have a host tonight or should we start looking for a place to camp. No reason to worry, or, maybe another reason why to do so – the shopkeeper suddenly showed up again, with two more cyclists he had found. So, in the evening, there were already six of us standing by the shop: three Latvians and three Frenchmen – Maxime, Flo and Clement. That is, excluding the small crowd of locals, of course.

Certainly a Pepsi-approved fridge in Akbar's shop

Certainly a Pepsi-approved fridge in Akbar’s shop

After some hours just standing around, Akbar just announces: “Let’s go!” We end up not at his place but at the house of one of the guy’s we met by the shop. Akbar just vanishes again and we are left with people who don’t really speak any of the languages we do. But the evening turns out quite good and interesting – the first time we get to eat real Iranian dinner, at a real Iranian family house, in a real Iranian room, sitting on a real Iranian carpets. The living room is already quite large but it seems even larger because it has almost no furniture to take away space from it. They have no such silly things as tables, chairs or sofas. In Iran, I would definitely declare carpets – pieces of furniture. You sit on a carpet while watching TV, eating meals, just resting, doing some home works etc. Going to sleep – also on the carpet. Which means – it is not hard to manage sleeping places if you are hosting six cyclists.

We were drinking tea all the evening, of course. Black tea is pretty much the only hot drink Persians are consuming every day in tremendous amounts. This evening I also got the revelation about how they deal with sugar in their tea, which was previously a mystery – I had seen that they drink tea with sugar, quite a lot, but they have no spoon or anything else for stirring it. So, the correct method of drinking black tea with sugar is as follows: you take a cube of sugar, dip it in the tea a bit – the tea will rush up the cube reaching your fingers and coloring the cube mildly brown – then you place the cube between your lips and pull it inside your mouth while taking a sip from the tea cup. I wasn’t able to observe, of course, in what manner exactly the cube is treated within the mouth but I assume that it is being held in place with tongue, while ‘filtering’ the incoming tea through it until it completely dissolves. Although I use to drink tea without any sugar at all, this process is so new and interesting that, in Iran I usually switched to this way of drinking tea.

Iranian room, Iranian carpets and European cyclists trying to fold their legs in various ways to sit on them

Iranian room, Iranian carpets and European cyclists trying to fold their legs in various ways to sit on them

Rest of the evening is spent, eating cookies, drinking more tea and thinking about how are they able to sit so long in the position on the floor that, at least for myself and Dainis is almost unbearable. The TV channel PressTV meanwhile broadcasts the same news about Israel spying on the nuclear talks all over again, in English, though. The family gets also quite a few visitors tonight – and we cannot really decide if they are coming more because of the Nowruz traditions or just to have a look at us. At some point, the carpet is transformed into a dinner table – by spreading out a film table-cloth on it. Back to eating another mountain of rice.

Master of the house - Hasan and some guests

Master of the house – Hasan and some guests

Prior going to sleep we witness another Nowruz tradition – giving of money. The guy we got to know by the shop – Davod – gives each of us a gift – fresh-looking and signed IRR 5000 bill. This is the first time I see a rial note in such a good shape – as Iran is largely a cash society, most of the circulating bills look like they have been through hell – torn apart, glued back together, worn out almost beyond recognition, dirty and bescribbled. For giving the money in the New Year, people especially go to queue up in the banks to buy the new and fresh bills when the new copies have been printed by government.

First of the many times to come we go to sleep on carpets that night but many other things that are new for us are still to be experienced, e.g. the using of the toilet.

The whole Marand-gang. Left to right: Akbar, Ivars, Dainis, Clement, Flo, Maxime, Laura

The whole Marand-gang. Left to right: Akbar, Ivars, Dainis, Clement, Flo, Maxime, Laura

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