SALAM FROM IRAN! FRIENDLY FOLK, TASTY FOOD AND A SWEATY TENT.
Kelly made some final adjustments to her new best buddy the ‘hijab’ (head scarf that she was legally required to wear in public) and I swapped my disgustingly revealing ‘man tights’ for a respectable pair of long pants that covered my skinny weird legs as we nervously approached the Iranian border. We were expecting to be interrogated for several hours and have all our stuff thoroughly gone through by heavily armed angry border security…instead we basically waltzed through the border after having our passports stamped and were given a very friendly ‘welcome to Iran!’ by several guards.
Welcome to Iran! Border crossing Near Dogubayzit Turkey into Iran.
We had read plenty of blogs raving about Iranian hospitality and the amazing friendly people, but still in the back of our minds were a bit unsure of how we would be welcomed in Iran because of the negative image the country has in the media and it’s government’s reputation. It took us roughly 10 minutes before our fears were proved to be unfounded with several cars pulling over to wave at us, say hello and one family even stopped to have a chat, give us fruit and beg us to come and stay at there house in Tehran!
The landscape had changed to barren yellow and orange desert with towering rocky mountains in the distance pretty much as soon as we left Turkey and entered Iran. In the first few days we had several ‘I can’t believe we’ve actually reached Iran on a bike’ moments, but we were extremely pleased with ourselves for making it this far on a pair of second hand cheap bikes. Our first night we were slightly unsure of where to camp, we’d just spent around 6 weeks sleeping pretty much every night at petrol stations across Turkey but now I couldn’t approach the petrol stations and ask in Turkish if it was ok to sleep there. So we did something that we probably shouldn’t have…asked at a police station. According to all information on official Iranian government websites it is illegal to have your own mode of transport to travel in Iran without a guide and riding a bike is a definite no no. Luckily for us the cops don’t know that part of the law! Score!
We asked at a large police station/check point and we were welcomed with friendly smiles and pointed to the station gates next to a bush full of newborn puppies and their mother! This particular check point was open 24 hours and had a guy on the roof with a machine gun…never felt safer camping in my life knowing there was a dude with an automatic weapon watching us sleep.
In the morning we awoke without a single bullet hole in our tent, said goodbye to our little puppy mates and hit the road for an extremely hot 110km cycle. The heat had definitely been knocked up a notch since crossing the border so our routine of waking at 5am and cycling until it was too hot, resting in the shade for several hours and then continuing cycling until it was too dark continued across Iran.
The encounters with friendly locals became a daily routine with different people pulling over constantly to give us fruit, sunflower seeds, bread, cold water or basically anything they had in there car. One of the most memorable encounters we had of the whole trip happened on the second day when an incredible little old guy called Ali Baba (seriously) and his mate pulled up along side us as we were having a drink of water on the side of the road outside his village to give us fresh hot bread, cheese, olives and even tea from a thermos in the front seat of his car. It doesn’t matter where you are in Iran; someone always manages to pull some hot tea from somewhere!
He was such a friendly little guy and his English was perfect, he basically put us in high spirits for the rest of the day with his act of kindness and we assumed that we’d never see him again…we were wrong! Him and his friend were heading to the same city as us, Tabriz, but what we didn’t know was that he was heading back to his village the same day along the same road we were cycling. Ali went into a bakery in Tabriz specifically to buy a huge bag of muffins in the hope of seeing us again on his return trip. It was getting dark and we had started looking for another police station to ask to camp at when we saw his car pull up on the opposite side of the road and him and his friend jump out waving at us to stop.
We were both so surprised to see him again and shocked that he’d actually put in the effort to go and buy food specifically in the hope of running into us again. This man is a hero, coolest guy on the planet. Stopped for another cup of tea with Ali and ended up camping outside a mosque….not ideal with the mosque’s speakers blasting the call to prayer directly at the tent at 4.30 in the morning, but hey free place to stay!
Ali Baba and a bag of muffins.
The punishing heat continued over the next few days and the amazing characters kept popping up.
After a morning of extreme heat followed by a freak rain storm in the afternoon we were ready to call it a day and ask at a petrol station if we could set up the tent when we noticed another cyclist crossing the road and heading our way. As he pulled up and said hello we were both amazed to see that he was wearing a ‘warmshowers’ (a website that’s basically couchsurfing for cyclists) tshirt!
This absolute champion of a human being has been giving up his time and money for several years now to track down cycle tourists passing through his hometown Merand to feed them and find them a place to stay. Meeting Mr Akbar Naghdi was a very surreal experience, the last thing you expect while standing around debating weather or not the petrol station you’re standing outside will make a good place to sleep is for someone who is a member of a website for cycle tourists to turn up out of the blue and offer to help you out. Turns out Akbar has a lot of friends that keep an eye out for any weirdo foreigners on bikes like us and let him know of any sightings. one of his truck driver friends had spotted us struggling through the freak storm and called him up so Akbar hopped on his bike and rode the 15km from his house hoping to find us on the road.
I’ve never been anywhere before where I think someone would go through so much effort just out of the kindness of their hearts to help out a tourist, this was an experience that is definitely going to stay with me for the rest of my life. Akbar took us back to his town and guided us through the crazy traffic to his friend’s little falafel shop where he bought us an awesome falafel roll before leading the way to the local high school where we were allowed to sleep in one of the classrooms for the night. Apparently during school holidays it’s standard practice in Iran for schools to double up as budget hotels, we did not know this until Akbar handed over money to the caretaker and then refused to let us pay him!
Felt good to be showered and sleeping indoors after a very sweaty few days, it’s always awkward meeting new people when you smell like the inside of a dead cat stuffed with compost. The next day Akbar and his friend led us out of town on their bikes and we said our goodbyes before tackling a monster hill just out of town and were quickly back to our previous sweaty states.
Akbar Naghdi outside the petrol station he tracked us down to
We eventually made it to Tabriz and spent several hours attempting to find a hotel room with very little luck as every Iranian had decided that because Tabriz is a couple of degrees cooler they were going on holiday there. Eventually settled on a weird guesthouse place with questionable cleanliness, a funky smell and a shower you had to pay for, but more spacious than a tent and at the grand total of $7 a night each can’t really complain!
The list of cool motherfuckers in Iran continued as we took our bikes to a shop where they were serviced for free by a local guy who has a policy of free bike services for cycle tourists! What a place! After getting the bikes serviced and tracking down some camping gas that was pretty much our first ‘day off’ in Iran over with and we were on our way again.
Iran was an amazing place to cycle even with the crazy heat. We spent the next day going downhill and barely had to pedal, which was a nice change! Passed through stunning mountain villages, lush green valleys and barren desserts and continued meeting amazing locals. One family posed for photos with us for about 10 minutes and then put money in my hand before I realized what it he was handing me and refused to take it back! We slept in several ‘red crescent society’ (Iranian red cross) buildings and were welcomed warmly every time and treated like celebrities. One night in a town called Meyani as it was getting dark and we were searching desperately for a place to camp we had a car pull over and two guys offer in broken English for us to come and stay with them at their apartment. This was a fairly regular occurrence in Iran and it became perfectly normal. Thinking about it later I wondered if things like this ever happen to foreign cycle tourists at home in Australia. Hamid and his friend were cool and we got to have a shower and sleep indoors! Luxury!
It wasn’t all fun times during the cycle, as we approached Zanjan where we were staying with a warm showers host we encountered an insane dust storm with unbelievably strong winds…of course this was as we were heading uphill. We were in hell. It took us roughly 3 hours to travel about 20km and was one of the hardest days cycling we had experienced so far. Dust storms are shit and I never wish to experience one again. Dust, dirty shit. On the bright side, earlier in the day a farmer gave us a gigantic sunflower head that I had to strap to the back of the bike along with the massive melon we’d received the previous day. Not the most practical gifts but still extremely kind and made my bike look like a sextastic mobile farmer’s market.
Kelly posing with my bike and our kick ass sunflower that we munched on for several days
Once we actually entered Zanjan the Iranian hospitality was taken to a new level at our warmshowers host Farhad’s house where we were presented with about 5 different drinks, a huge bowl of fruit and a massive sandwich each. We spent 2 nights living in a huge beautiful family apartment where we were treated like royalty and constantly fed incredible Iranian dishes and shown around town by Farhad and his cool friends. I felt like everyone was genuinely sad to see us leave and if we’d asked we probably could have just lived there indefinitely, but we had to move and get to Tehran to sort out the pain in the ass visas for the upcoming countries!
Farhad and some of his family and friends after an epic feast in their apartment
Spent several days in the heat on the way to Tehran and had our first ‘park camping’ experience. In Iran it’s perfectly normal for people to camp out in designated inner city local parks for free…so do as the locals do! It was a weird experience, we would normally always try and get away from towns and cities before setting up camp but I guess because drugs and alcohol aren’t really an issue here camping in a city is actually a relatively safe option…as long as you’re willing to have a crowd of fellow campers huddle around staring at you in shock as you set up your tent. Felt like an animal on display in a zoo sometimes.
Finally reached the monster bitch of a city that is Tehran after passing through most definitely the scariest, worst traffic so far in Karaj outside Tehran. How we weren’t run down by a car randomly reversing at high speed down a busy main road, squashed against a parked car by swerving traffic, smashed head on by a motor bike rider deciding to speed up the wrong way of the road directly at us or taken out by a car door randomly opening as we cycled past I will never know. Intense and terrifying experience but we eventually made it into the behemoth centre of Tehran and met our legendary couchsurfing host Ashkan and his friend. Ashkan is a fellow cyclist and an absolute champion that did everything possible to help us and the two Swiss guys he also had couchsurfing at the time. He went totally out of his way and basically gave up his apartment to us and spent a lot of time showing us around, translating and helping us get our visas sorted out. The crazy bastard once cycled nearly 1000km in 4 days the previous year…until his knee popped on the fifth day and kept him off a bike for a while.
After several days of jumping through a lot of hoops and queuing up with the pushy travel agents throwing twenty passports at a time through the visa window forcing us to wait for them to be all filled out, we had our visas…well some of them. Had to wait a couple of weeks for our Chinese visa before returning to Tehran to pick it up and had to collect our Turkmenistan visa near the border, but at least we had the ball rolling!!
Tehran! Definitely not a cycle friendly city!
We were in desperate need of a bit of time away from the bikes after 4 months with them attached to our anuses so we left our babies at Ashkan’s place and hit the road…In a car this time! The Swiss guys Alex and Flo offered to let us jump in their cars heading south….we made it a few suburbs away when it was discovered the axle on Flo’s big red van was basically held together by rust and spider webs. Not good news for these guys seeing as they were attempting to drive from Switzerland to Mongolia.
We got to witness some pretty interesting car repair techniques by a local mechanic that included welding random chunks of metal to the underside of the van and attempting to re align the wheels with a massive chain pulling the wheels back into place…well sort of into place.
Alex, Ashkan, Flo, Kelly, Ashkan’s friend and me in Ashkans friend’s house in Tehran
It was a cool break getting away from cycling life and going on a road trip. Cars make it look so easy. It’s cheating really. We hung out with Flo and Alex for a few days before we went our separate ways and saw some amazing places, Yazd, Kashan and Esfahan were particularly awesome and Shiraz was pretty cool despite the lack of vino. We headed back into Tehran by bus and back to Ashkan and his sister’s place to stuff around with more crap for the Chinese visa. Ended up getting a bit drunk at a house party with some people on ‘arak’ smuggled into Iran from Azerbaijan which was a weird experience, slightly paranoid about cops showing up and busting us for having a few glasses of booze.
We still had a few days to kill before we could collect our Chinese visa so decided to head to the tropical sweaty north! Holy crap, the Caspian Sea coast was hot! We picked a bad time to visit really, attempting to camp in a park was pretty much impossible as our tent basically became a sauna and the park randomly turned into a huge noisy outdoor party at midnight with locals poking there heads into the tent windows to get a peek of the weird tourists randomly sleeping in a park. Without our bikes we felt a bit lost and stranded. Walking is so slow and carrying a backpack and tent is harder than strapping it to a bike apparently. We had planned on spending a few nights hanging out on the coast but when we actually reached the sea it was incredibly crowded, a bit dirty and slightly disappointing. I guess we may have high standards for beaches coming from Western Australia.
So it was back to Tehran…again! Seriously felt like we couldn’t escape Tehran, had some fun times and met some cool people there but we were definitely ready to get our visas and hit the road again. Luckily for us Ashkan was a fantastic human being and let us stay with him yet again! We eventually received our visa for china and felt incredibly satisfied, we were gonna do this! France to fucking china on a bike! We now had every visa that we needed to make it to our goal so nothing could stop us!!! Unless we crashed or the bikes randomly turned into dust.
We decided to catch a bus to Mashhad near the Turkmenistan border as we needed to be there on a certain date to collect our finished (hopefully) visa for Turkmenistan. This bus trip was one of the only truly negative experience with anyone we had in Iran. To get our bikes in the baggage area underneath the bus we basically had to haggle and argue with 3 guys from the bus company over the price for transporting the bikes eventually agreeing to pay around $25 each…a lot more than the cost of the bus tickets. We thought that was it, all sorted, we had our tickets; we’d paid the shitty excess baggage fee, ready to go right? Wrong!
When the driver turned up and found out how much we payed he went absolutely fucking mental. Started screaming at us and demanding more cash and refusing to drive the bus. When we told him we’d already paid he tried to snatch my backpack out of my hands to force us off the bus. The guy was clearly a bit of a psycho. This screaming fit went on for at least twenty minutes and when other passengers said anything he began threatening to hit them, both men and women. We were incredibly lucky that people on board stood up for us and translated what was going on and basically the entire bus was on our side and assured us that the driver was just an angry fuckwit. I think he was jut pissed off because he didn’t get a cut of the already inflated excess baggage fee that we had to pay and his co workers ripped us off before he got the chance to. He eventually calmed down enough to operate the bus…for 5 minutes before he exploded again and stopped the bus. Eventually we were on our way after police came on board and calmed the crazy fucker down. It was a nervous nights sleep on the overnight bus to Mashhad, half expected to wake up with the driver jamming a plastic fork in my eye, but we got there in the end and my eyes remained unforked.
Mashhad was a pretty hectic city as it’s extremely conservative and there was a religious holiday while we were in town, but we had a great time hanging out with our awesome couchsurfing hosts Amir and Hanie who again made us feel like royalty in their homes spoiling us with amazing food constantly and showing us around town. Even managed to squeeze in a random game of badminton! I feel like we made friends with more people in Iran than all the other countries combined. Our Turkmenistan visa was approved and ready!!! The final piece had fallen into place and we had a clear path through central Asia!!!
From Mashhad we had a few very hot days cycling into the mountains towards the Turkmenistan border, camped outside an army base where soldiers gave us tea and jumped the neighbours fence to steal apples for us. The next night as we climbed higher into the mountains we shared tea with some Turkish truck drivers on the side of the road before being invited into a farmers clay house in a tiny mountain top village where we set up the tent in the courtyard next to a pen full of friendly sheep…and drank some more tea.
We finally reached the border where we camped out in a park behind an army barracks waiting for the border to open early the next morning. It was time to say goodbye to Iran! After initially being very nervous about coming here, I left with a totally different view of Iran and the Iranian people. We made so many friends and experienced acts of kindness that are going to stay with me forever.
ENTER THE STANS!!!!!!
Below you´ll find more photos of our incredible trip through Iran.
(above) Roof of marketplace in Kashan and (below) Town Square in Esfahan
(above) Pink mosque in Shiraz and (below) the beautiful Yazd from our hostel rooftop
(above) Amir and Hanie in Masshad and (below) Yazd after sunset
(above) Family that pulled us over to take photos with us….the father then shook my hand and put money in it before jumping in the car and driving off!