A different world
The first two out of seven weeks altogether spent in I.R. of Iran, was definitely an adjustment time for me. Just crossing that one border had made all the difference in the experience. It seemed we had finally gone quite far away from home and found ourselves in a country where many of the everyday activities were done in quite a different manner. And of all things combined there was I – a female – travelling with two (and later – three) guys on a bicycle! And how strange it seemed for many of the locals, that we might be just friends. (apart from when I was wandering by myself, it seemed a little silly that I had bought a wedding band to put on). But what better way to enter and cycle around the country than a two week New Year celebration time? Iran welcomed us open heartedly.
Unexpected encounters and surprising situations occur invariably – Iran has many a tricks in its pockets. Cycling or walking around the cities and even more so in smaller villages you are constantly being watched, watched by countless pairs of eyes and being greeted non-stop. It really is a genuine surprise at first for Iranians to see foreigners in their country and this surprise turns into joy in a split second, followed by the tremendous Iranian hospitality. Of course there is the matter of taarof – which can only described as Iranian etiquette of deference and extreme politenes, however, one must learn (as we did with time) that sometimes this benevolence is only a part of an act, and whilst travelling in Iran the question “No taarof?” became a big part of our vocabulary.
The follow up to Ivars’ article about our first couple of days in Iran shall go like this:
There were 6 cyclists leaving Marand. Double the mount that had entered Iran from Armenia (much of the travellers coming from Europe enter the country through Turkey). Iran seems to be the Mecca for bike tourists since it turned out to be the country where we met the most cyclists so far, a good bunch of whom were much like us – committed to their trip 100+10% and had decided to write a new chapter in their lives but for some it was an extended holiday trip. So how come Iranians are still so surprised to see bike tourists around?
A few kilometres up and down the hill and we found ourselves at the crossroads where our numbers became smaller. While the three of us and our new traveller friend Max would take a detour in the direction of Lake Orumiyeh (or simply – Lake Urmia) to a town called Shabestar, where we had been invited the previous day by an eager English teacher who wanted for us to see his hometown, but two of the other French travellers – Flo and Clement, decided to head straight to Tabriz, the capital of the East-Azerbaijan province of Iran.
Sounds a little complicated, and even we were surprised to find people greeting us, looking straight in our slightly confused eyes “Welcome to Azerbaijan!” more times than “Welcome to Iran”. The truth is – quite a few people do not consider themselves Persian in this part of the country but relate more to their Turkish or Azeri ancestry. Even though the official language in schools might be Farsi, more often than not the language spoken in the private environment in North-West of Iran is Azerbaijani or other Turkic dialect. In fact, almost 20% of the people in Iran speak Turkic at home or amongst friends.
Saved by the call – or how we became big fish in a small pond
When we arrived in Shabestar an hour or so later and called our supposed host, we heard some sad news, he’d had a car accident the previous day (presumably not long after we met him on the road) and he was at the hospital with his daughter. Not knowing all the facts for sure, we assumed it was courtesy of the crazy Iranian driving culture – by far the busiest and most intense road traffic we have witnessed. We decided to grab some cheap lunch at a local place and then cycle to the Lake. By a lucky chance we had chosen a place where no one spoke English, but after a couple of minutes Dainis was handed a phone. On the other end of the line was Mehdi – also an English teacher, who instantly said he would come over and help us sort out everything – starting from the “menu” and ending with the “day sightseeing schedule”.
Mehdi Kouzehkonani turned out to be from a town called Kuzeh Konan which is where we ended up for a couple of days. Our new friend seemed very eager to make this small town a touristic place. We visited the local pottery markets and the pottery itself (deemed by the locals to be famous for its ceramics, however, not a single Iranian we asked later, knew much about it). We went to the most popular places in town – starting from one of the oldest trees to the developing park, to restaurants and even a sweets shop, had a road trip back to Shabestar and much more.
On every step we were treated very much like celebrities and Mehdi tried to keep us occupied with an intense schedule, we even got surprised by a scheduled meeting to the town Mayor and his advisors where we were asked multiple questions about our thoughts on their tourism attractions and our advises how to improve it. Wait, what? Yes, that actually happened, much to our amusement.
We managed to go to Lake Urmia mere 10 km from the town. Once the biggest lake in the Middle East and one of the saltiest lakes in the world it is now, however, almost completely dried out. A sad turnout – the aftermath of some badly made decisions to diverge the water of rivers and springs that used to flow in the lake and increasing draught over the years. Check out the difference over the last 30 years here.
Foreigners here are not a very common sight to put it mildly, particularly now that the salt lake is dry as desert and not many people come here even on holiday anymore.
You never know where a road might end up
Since we had spent an extra day in Kuzeh Konan, we were eager to be back on the road. After being advised countless times that the marked road along the lake on Max’s map does not exist in real life, we decided to cycle back some 20 km to a town called Sis and take another small road (this apparently did not exist either) – we were up for anything. We eventually found what was supposed to be the turn and, according to Ivars’ GPS started cycling in the direction of nowhere. We were a little surprised to see another village, not marked on any of the maps we have seen so far.
However, some of our previous experiences had taught us – the locals are always helpful and scared for tourists’ safety – sometimes even too helpful. We were warned that we might see “wild animals” there and it would be far too dangerous. It was still early in the day and we really did not want to cycle back to the noisy cars but try our luck from where we were, so we decided to proceed. The day turned out to be the hottest one so far, the spring was definitely here, and for Latvian standards – one could definitely call it summer.
A little more of the dried out land, after which came a meadow and finally – a swamp. We pushed our pedals and then pushed our bikes and eventually came to a conclusion – we will have to go back to the main road and heavy traffic, since we could not see the end of the swamp or the meadow and even going the direction where the road was supposed to be, no tracks were in sight. So after more than 20 km pedalling in circles (off-roading in its truest sense) we were going back to the road, particularly busy this time of the year, when Iranians visit their relatives all across the country and celebrate Persian New Year. We had tried our best.
The rest of the day we just pedaled the main road and had to breathe the fumes of all the cars eagerly driving to Tabriz. As Ivars mentioned in his previous article, it is an Iranian tradition to give money to your friends and family during the Nowruz celebrations, having explained this, it might be easier to understand, why we were given money by strangers who stopped their cars by the road and wanted to take pictures with us.
The cyclist hot-spot
Upon leaving Marand, our WarmShowers.org host Akbar gave us an extensive list of his contacts and cycling enthusiasts or hosts all across Iran, so once we were in Tabriz, we gave a call to Hamed Bey, who helped us find the best possible place where to stay in the city – Tabriz Passenger Park (or called locally – Musafir Park). A place specially designed for/oriented to hosting travellers, particularly foreigners – has a hot shower and a kitchen for all the campers staying there and even a WiFi (works ok, if you know what to expect from the internet speed in Iran – extremely slow). Here it proved once again, how popular Iran is amongst cyclists and we met quite a bunch at this very same park – Niko from Austria; Anais and Gilles from Switzerland; Kamran from Pakistan.
The labyrinths of the Tabriz Great Bazaar
With the population of metropolitan area of Tabriz being almost the same as the whole population of Latvia, we were quite eager to see what this Silk Road metropolis has to offer.
We, of course, wandered the labyrinths of the famous Tabriz Bazaar and surprisingly did not get completely lost. Being one of the oldest bazaars in the Middle East and the biggest covered one in the world it is also exceptionally well organized with piles of spices, towers of tea, massive bags of nuts and overloaded tables with heavy trays of famous Persian dates on one side of the bazaar, and bags of wool, clothing, household essentials and cosmetics on the other. The most famous part of the brick labyrinths did not pass us unnoticed either – the Carpet Bazaar.
With the main hall housing Persian silk carpets with prices going up to, or even higher than our budget for the whole trip and countless smaller aisles covered with colourful rugs in all shapes and sizes. I must admit what stood out the most, wandering around, was the place itself, with the arched labyrinths turning, stretching for hundreds of metres and the people around.
The Flying Carpets
We were back on the saddle 2 days later, greeted by some heavy rainfall, we had chosen the “perfect” day for cycling – where had the heat and sun from the previous couple of days disappeared? We decided to try swimming out of Tabriz in the direction of Tehran anyway. Apart from a flat tyre the first day (my first flat in the whole trip), it seemed we were storming across Iran and our bikes were the Flying Carpets.
The condition of the road was excellent, even considering that we were cycling the smaller rd. 32 which was also a little older than the highway running next to it, the weather became sunnier, hotter and even too hot during the days. If there ever was headwind, it never blew for too long and the road in front of us never fully challenged our ability to cycle up serious hills, whenever we did find ourselves amongst mountains, the road was stretching through valleys of rivers.
We met countless locals, who seemed to have made a pact to fatten us up, thus there were cars stopping by the side of the road to give us treats, sweets and fresh fruit, encouragement in any form they could express (it often being just smiling and repeating things in Farsi we could not understand) so our sugar levels were at a constant high.
Over the course of two days, the heat started to hit in and we found ourselves looking for activities to do during midday, when the heat was at its peak and the sun – the strongest. The boys had already managed to get sunburnt again and I, well, was cycling fully wrapped as appropriate in Iran thus – melting under the layers of clothing. It was only spring in Persia, so I can only try to imagine how it would feel cycling in the middle of summer. Even with late morning starts, extended midday breaks, picnics with Iranians by the road and lunches, and evening parties with mystery hosts, we managed to cycle (on average) over 100 km a day.
Iranians love tents, picnics and going on road trips, but I believe no other day of the year can compare to the 13th day of Nowruz – Nature Day, the day before last of Persian New Year marking the end of celebrations. We woke up in the city of Zanjan, by the roadside park, amongst countless other tents. All the cars were heading out of the city, much like us and even before we hit the sign marking the end of Zanjan, there were more and more tents, carpets, BBQ grills and gas balloon stoves – on a day like this you might be considered lucky to find a tree or a bush, that has not been occupied by a Persian family. (Iranians not only take a picnic blanket with them when they go out in the nature, but quite often bring along a carpet or two for good measure, this allows them to put the carpets inside their electronic tents and feel right at home)
The evening sun was quite pleasant to cycle in and the wind of the day had finally calmed down. Whilst filling up our water bottles by a roadside café, an older man on a motorbike approached us out of nowhere. In a very primitive English he persuaded us to join him and his family for a Nowruz garden party nearby, even though we were quite eager to spend the evening in our own company for a change, we gave in, partially out of respect of Mr. Reza’s great and a little amusing efforts to speak in English with us using words: “Garden, tea, apple, dance, party, family, Nowruz, friend good English, come, you guest!” on repeat and pointing eagerly in the direction of the apple garden.
That night we ended up at Mr Reza’s garden shed teaching him words in English and learning a thing or two about our host’s hobby – love for the poppy seed substance so notorious in Persia till the late hours of night.
All roads lead to Tehran
The day after Nature Day in Iran is probably the kind of day you would rather avoid riding a bicycle anywhere and hide away from the heavy traffic. So we turned to smaller roads hoping it would be less busy, turned out quite the opposite, since the roads have less lanes, they are much narrower and without proper shoulders where to cycle.
In a town of Khorramdasht we met an ex pro-cyclist, we assumed he could only be the equivalent of the town mayor. Treated like gods at an afternoon break, we were given some travel tips and also the address of the mayor of the next town – Sagzabad some 40 km away, where we should definitely stay overnight. Upon leaving, massive bags started being filled with food and drink, enough to cross the desert for a week, if only there would be one in front.
Saved from “the danger”
It was a really hot day for cycling along a desert like landscape when we were stopped by the police. After unfruitful attempts to communicate with the officers we were handed a phone to discuss the unsafety of the road with a man speaking some Russian on the other end of the line. Arguing it is completely unnecessary, that we are cautious cyclists and are definitely going to be ok, we could not shrug off our new companions and ended up being escorted by the police from the middle of nowhere for some 25 km to the nearest town Safa Dasht where we promised to find a park where to camp. Whilst having a tea break in the city (it is sometimes almost impossible to pass cities on a bicycle and not to stop for some tea or a photograph if one does not want to insult the hospitable Iranians), we met a bunch of locals and ended up going from end of the town to the other meeting people.
We spent the evening playing volley ball and cards, and even managed to have proper conversations that didn’t just consist of the usual questions of “Where are you from?” and “How much does this and that cost in your country?” which was quite refreshing and fun. And speaking about the amount of food we had again – it seemed to me – if we continue to eat so much, soon we should have enough energy to cycle to the moon.
We were really close to Tehran now, and the next day only took us about 2 hours to be thrown in the real traffic. Amongst the countless cars, we were greeted by a great number of motorbikes as well, and it looked like they can go whichever direction they choose. It was only then that we had arrived at the real jungle.