Iran part two (Tehran to Mashhad)
28 March, 2011 6 Comments
Arriving in Tehran and parking the bikes for three weeks felt amazing – after two months of winter cycling in plunging temperatures luxuries like a warm flat, hot shower and a coffee machine were appreciated like never before!
We made some great new friends during our time in Tehran and while we waited for visas to be issued we also took a week-long round trip to visit three famous cities by bus in central and southern Iran. It was surreal watching hundreds of kilometres of desert flash past the window whilst Bex happily shovelled chocolate into her face – the 2000km round trip would’ve meant four weeks of hard graft on the bikes! There were impressive mosques and bridges in Esfahan and ancient sites in Shiraz, but Yazd was our highlight. Sitting in the middle of a vast desert Yazd has an awesome old city, still lived in but made from clay. I had one of my more memorable birthdays as we sat on the roof of a clay building and watched the sun set over the city.
We really enjoyed our week but it reminded me that although sometimes it can be a grind, I’m pleased that we’re travelling by bike and seeing the bits in between cities as well. I felt really disconnected when we arrived in each city, and whilst looking at the map had to convince myself that, yes, we really had just hopped across half of a massive country whilst I’d been sleeping.
Once back in the capital, Tehran definitely lived up to its reputation as the most liberal city in Iran. Young women walk the streets in figure-hugging clothes with headscarves precariously perched on the back of their head, stretching the rules as far as they dare. Seemingly everyone has a way round the government’s internet filter, and house parties with alcohol and dancing seem to be commonplace, if you know the right people!
It was difficult to drag ourselves back out on the road after such a comfy rest but finally we managed it, reacquainting arse with saddle and beginning to tackle the 1,100km remaining before the border.
Less than an hour from Tehran a car pulled over and a man got out, flashed some ID at us and said ‘Police, passports please.’ His ID, written in Farsi, was probably a library card for all we knew, and it was pretty obvious this was a random guy trying his luck. We told him as much and refused to get out our passports. He seemed nervous and didn’t look that tough, but then again he had 3 mates waiting in the car whilst I had Bex… In fairness, I haven’t seen Bex in action so she might turn out to be the female Jack Bauer (officially the world’s hardest human) but I wasn’t too keen to find out. I raised my arm and flagged down a passing motorbike, and as soon as the motorbike began to pull over our imposter rather swiftly got back in his car and sped away.
Less than one minute later in typical Iranian style we were invited in for a tea stop. That evening we stayed with a young English teacher who just 5 minutes after meeting us let us into her flat to relax whilst she went back to work. We slept well that night with the earlier incident long forgotten after the later acts of kindness that have been typical of our time in Iran.
The sprawl of factories surrounding Tehran finally gave way to desert on our second day of cycling. The road split the monotonous flat land for as far as the eye could see. If we had a headwind it was demoralising knowing that it would be hours until you reached the horizon. The landscape was so different to anything I’d seen before but grinding our way slowly across the flat yellow land grew repetitive after a few days, although the occasional sighting of a herd of camels never failed to please!
Villages were few and far between so we had to be careful to carry enough food and water. There seemed to be a truck stop or something at least once a day, but as these weren’t marked on our map it was hard to judge. Bex gets tetchy if she doesn’t have regular snacks so we erred on the side of caution. We slept wherever we could at the end of each day, including the prayer room of a mosque, a friendly villager’s clay house, with the Red Crescent, and with a couchsurfer in a bigger town near the end. We tell locals we usually sleep in our tent, but in the last 1,000km we hadn’t pitched the tent once!
The Red Crescent stays were fun – they’re the roadside rescue and recovery service and teams of four are on standby for 48 hours at a time, living in stations stuck in the desert about 100km apart. For the vast majority of their time they have nothing to do, so they drink tea, play table football (they were bloody good!) and watch TV – so I guess we were a welcome distraction. Two nights in a row different stations welcomed us in, gave us tea, dinner, a warm room and breakfast. The following day we were packed off with bread, tuna, beans and water. This was during a 300km section of desert in which we were told there was ‘nothing’. We’d stocked up with supplies beforehand, but finished the section with more food & water than we started with!
The couchsurfer we stayed with turned out to be Masoud, an awesome guy who owns an English language institute for children. Unbeknown to us, Masoud had arranged an open day at his institute, and about 80 kids on bikes met us for a ride down the street. They had even printed and framed a load of our photos for everyone to see! Parents plonked shy kids next to us for photos and a chat, and we felt like celebrities for an hour.
In Mashhad, the last big city in the north-east of Iran, we visited the Holy Shrine, the holiest site in Iran. The tomb of Imam Reza is the highlight, and tourists aren’t allowed in – Muslims only. Our host, Hamed, assured us we might get lucky if we didn’t say anything when walking past the guards, so Bex borrowed a chador (a sheet covering everything but the face, common in Mashhad and rare in Tehran, but compulsory in the shrine) and I combed my beard (knew it would come in use!) and we went for it. Success – we were in!
We walked through huge busy courtyards covered in hundreds of praying mats to the room containing the shrine. Going inside was quite amazing – hundreds of people were crowded round the rectangular metal box (men and women separated by glass), pushing and shoving trying to touch the shrine, many crying. Back in the courtyards, it’s common for funeral processions to walk around the shrine. In the 15 minutes we sat in the sunny courtyard, 4 or 5 dead bodies, wrapped in a rug in open caskets, were carried past. 20 or so men followed each one, chanting. Once outside in the streets, Bex whipped off her chador within 10 metres of the exit, which got a few funny looks from the guards on the gate!
The driving has continued to amuse us through Iran, no gap is too small for an Iranian to push his car through and traffic coming on to roundabouts appears to have right-of-way. Mopeds, battered old cars and pick-up trucks are the vehicles of choice in Iran, usually with outrageous loads. After an extensive two month survey, here are my top five loads seen on the back of a standard issue Iranian moped:
1) a family of four
2) a cage full of pigeons
3) a 5 foot high stack of cheesy wotsits
4) a dead sheep
5) an 18-inch sword, being sat on by a bandana-wearing boy
In Iran there is a concept of ‘tarof’, a kind of etiquette which involves refusing an offer from your host a number of times before performing a politician-esq u-turn and finally accepting. In Mashhad I saw Hamed refuse a banana twice before accepting it at the third offer! This was obviously very confusing for foreigners, usually if I’m hungry and someone offers me some food I’d accept it first time with thanks. The aim of tarof is to enable the host to save face if in fact they cannot afford to give what they offered. I think lots of Iranians know that foreigners are generally confused by tarof, but hopefully we didn’t cause too much offence as we munched our way across Iran!
After an awesome two months in Iran, sadly it was finally time to leave. We’ve had countless amazing experiences whilst cycling across this interesting country and I’m never going to forget the incredible generosity shown to us by complete strangers and new friends alike.
When planning this adventure we decided to use the opportunity to raise awareness and funds for charity. Those of you who know me probably also know that Ella, my youngest sister, has a guide dog, so it was an easy choice to support the charity Guide Dogs (we also chose AMOS Trust).
In 2009 Ella received Wendy, her first Guide Dog, and after seeing the subsequent improvement in Ella’s life I want to help Guide Dogs provide dogs for more people in need. All related costs of owning the dog (training, food, vet bills etc) are covered by the charity, and there is a waiting list for dogs.
At the start it didn’t feel right to ask for donations before we’d even turned a pedal and the trip was just talk, but now we’ve cycled about 9,000km I feel that we’re slightly more deserving of a few small donations. So the fund-raising drive starts here! If everyone who managed to finish reading this blog (or scrolled down looking at the photos!) donated just a couple of pounds it would help to get the fundraising total heading in the right direction.
Please click here if you’d like to donate. Thank you so much to those that have already donated!
Here’s a message from Ella:
I had been dreaming about having a guide dog for many years and a few months after my 20th birthday my long-awaited dream came true.
Having guide dog, Wendy, has opened up a whole new world of independence for me and also helped me to see my future in a different light.
It has really changed me as an individual person because I no longer have to worry about any obstacles that may have an effect on independently reaching specific destinations such as shops and restaurants.
I feel that I have also become more sociable now because people stop and chat to me because they are interested about Wendy.
Having and caring for a guide dog is a huge responsibility and not everyone would enjoy this – but for me it’s fantastic!
The link once more: http://www.justgiving.com/worldcyclingtour-guidedogs
Thank you for any donations!