Welcome to Iran!

[This post was written on 18th February in Tehran, but posted from Uzbekistan]

I have too much to say I can’t think what to write! SO much has happened since our last post and I’m beyond excited just thinking about all the adventures we have had (as Steve would say, I’m nostalgic already!). I suppose I should start where Ryan left, in the mountains in East Turkey….We rode out of the city thrilled to be back on the road after a few days rest; we’d made it from the coast of the black sea up to Erzurum (a section of the ride we’d been worrying about since leaving England 5 months ago!) and in 300km we would be entering Iran, WAAAHOO! We’d already cycled over mountains and camped in the snow, coping fine with both, so we were feeling a bit too relaxed about the next section.

On the first night after leaving Erzurum we snuck off the snowy highway to pitch the tent, just out of sight from the main road. We were initially pleased with our spot, but started to worry when we checked the thermometer which read -18 degrees…the sun was still up dammit!! We frantically ran around whilst windmilling our arms, trying to warm up as the sun disappeared behind the mountains and the red line dropped even further. Words cannot describe how much this kind of cold hurts, the next 3 days were going to be the worst I have experienced.

We struggled to put up the tent with numb double gloved hands and endured lots of snapping at one another before we eventually got the tent up and our kit inside. All our water bottles were frozen, so Ryan fired up the stove (thankfully petrol doesn’t freeze at these temperatures) while I collected snow. It takes at least 10 pans of snow to fill up one bottle and is a horrible task when you’re tired, hungry, dehydrated and cold beyond belief. Dinner was stone cold 1 minute after being cooked even though we ate straight from the pan.

As I stuffed my fully clothed and jacketed self inside my sleeping bag I wondered why the hell I was here. I was miles from nowhere, freezing and exhausted and horrified at the thought of the chilling nights ahead. Endless lorries offered us rides as we battled awful weather that day and I was very much regretting my insistence on continuing by bike at this point! Inside the tent it was so cold we had to zip our sleeping bags up over our faces and pull the cords shut tight to trap any warmth. Ryan reached outside during the night to grab the thermometer which read -25 degrees!!!!

The next morning the inside of our tent looked more like Santa’s grotto as our moist breath had condensed, then frozen, during the night. It was just so cold that the simplest tasks were a struggle, at least I didn’t have to bother getting dressed the next day and there was no nice warm bed to leave. To be brutally honest, I felt shell shocked by our situation.

The next evening we rolled out our sleeping bags and found the feathers had clumped together and were full of ice. We definitely weren’t prepared for this and we were being taught a harsh lesson.

When we finally emerged from the mountains 3 day later the road rolled gently over hills dotted with crumbly mud homes. Sadly Eastern Turkey was visibly poorer, we were now in Kurdistan, and people would proudly tell us they were “Kurdish, no Turkish!”. As we pedaled towards Agri along a particularly desolate stretch of land, a couple of teenage boys with pitchforks jumped in front of our bikes to barricade the road. I was in front and slipped past but Ryan was forced to stop. They demanded money, and as Ryan tried to cycle away one boy held onto his rear pannier bag to stop the bike. Heart pumping with panic, I turned to go back but Ryan shouted to me to keep pedaling – so fueled with adrenalin I raced on. I turned to see Ryan leap back on his bike and kick the arm of the boy holding his bag, which gave him a chance to get away. We kept cycling as hard as we could for a couple of kilometers before we eased up. Our senses were very sharp for the rest of the day. We’ve had a few instances of kids throwing stones at us while shouting “money money money” in East Turkey, but almost half heartedly and from a big distance. But this was something far more sinister and we were both quite shaken afterwards. It’s a shame because these incidents made us much more wary, so when the next group of youngsters sprinted alongside our bikes smiling and cheering I was anxious, and although I laughed with them I subtly sped up so they couldn’t keep up for very long.

Our goal for the night before the border crossing to Iran was the town of Dogubayazit, which sits huddled next to the magnificent Mount Ararat, Turkey’s highest mountain which is famous for being the supposed landing site of Noah’s Ark. The final stretch of road to the town was like most we have ridden in Eastern Turkey – patches of perfect tarmac followed by unrideable terrain where the road is being replaced. We usually choose to ride the side of the road that is being rebuilt as it is closed to traffic, whereas the other side hosts lorries and cars flying terrifyingly close in both directions!

On 17th January we arrived at the Iranian border, slightly battered but over the moon to have made it. We zoomed past the miles of lorries queuing at the border and then wheeled the bikes through no man’s land and through large iron gates painted in bold Iranian colours. “Welcome to Iran” chorused the grinning armed police.

We converted some dollars with a savvy money changer, bank sanctions mean that foreign bank and credit cards don’t work in Iran so visitors need to carry all the cash they’ll need in Iran over the border – preferably in Euros or Dollars. In return for two crisp $100 bills we got an inch thick stash of monopoly money which wouldn’t fit in our wallets!!

With Mount Ararat dominating the sky behind us and a great view of Iran spread out below the border post, it felt like the perfect start to the next section of our ride.

The landscape was confusing as the dusty roads, clay huts and camels are desert scenes to my mind’s eye, but the ground was still covered in snow. Most of Iran is above 1000 metres in altitude and therefore very cold during winter. We rode about 30km to Maku where we had our first wander and a bit of time to look around.

All the women wear either hijabs (headscarf) or chadors (full length black cloth draped over every inch of body except their faces, or in the extreme their eyes). Soon I would feel naked without my hijab on and Ryan now yelps when it slips off (as though i just did a moony!), but at first it felt odd. We would soon learn that there is a very open and liberal Iran behind closed doors, but initially I was very nervous about doing something wrong and causing offence as there are so many laws for women – including not being allowed to ride a bike!! I dyed my hair dark brown in a vain attempt to draw less attention as bright blonde hair stands out a bit here. The next day I jumped in fright when I glanced down to see a furry slug on my shoulder, before realising it was my pony tail!

From Maku it took three days to reach Tabriz, the first major city with 1.4m people, and the road was awesome – much flatter and smoother than recent days. Although we struggled to find food each day as the road was empty, I really enjoyed these days cycling.

We spent a few days sightseeing in Tabriz before beginning the 650km haul to Tehran. We planned to take the tollroad highway (the safest option as most traffic travels on the narrow ‘old road’, with no hard shoulder) so we needed to stock up with three days rations as there would be no villages or shops for at least 300km. We found a bakery and 10 minutes later pedaled off with a pannier bag bursting with steaming bread – a gift from the man ahead of us in the queue. A few kilometers later a cake shop owner spotted us and hauled us in for some spectacular cakes, which we couldn’t resist.

More offers flew towards us which we had to refuse as we were getting nowhere, but after about 20km a tea break sounded good and we accepted an offer from a gang of young welders clad in black leather. After this stop we really needed to press on, but a man waving on the side of the road had driven past us and was now waiting for us outside his house! Unable to decline, we went into his amazing holiday home and met his extended family and gaggle of over excited children. After a snowball fight and some playing in the snow we feasted, sat cross legged on the floor Iranian style.

After all this we were too tired to continue and finally agreed to stay with our host, and now friend, Mr Ali. We insisted the holiday home was perfect for us to roll out our sleeping bags, but Mr Ali wouldn’t hear of it and drove us to his “proper” house in Tabriz, and so we were back where we started. After two amazing days spent with Ali’s family we persuaded Mr Ali that we absolutely had to start cycling again and so, reluctantly and with our bags bursting with gifts, we finally left Tabriz.

That day alone proves that Iranian people love to show foreign guests literally unbelievable generosity. It’s so different to the norm back in England that it has made us feel awkward at times. Every day we are shown the most incredible hospitality, I feel really welcome in Iran and it is by far the most interesting and beautiful country I have ever travelled in – not because of the landscape but because of the people.

Every Iranian we meet asks what people in England think of Iran. When discussing our route with people in England before we left, Iran was always the country that raised eyebrows, usually because of the unfavorable stories in the media. Even in Turkey, also a Muslim country and neighbors of Iran, we were forever told how dangerous Iran is.

Many of the Iranians we’ve met are all too aware of their reputation in the west, however unfair that may be, and want to quash the negative images. Iran does have its problems, and we’ve heard many complaints about life here from people we’ve met, but first hand experience shows that Iran is a beautiful country full of kind people and I hope with all my heart that this amazing country is given the opportunity to be free.

Iranian homes are boiling in winter, with huge stoves kicking out a million degrees of heat into the one room where everyone eats and sleeps. I am often given prime spot next to the stove as soon as we arrive. In one of the more conservative and religious village homes we stayed in I sat sweltering with a purple face poking out of my hijab and layers of cycling gear for hours (literally!) unable to remove any clothing. Meanwhile, Ryan sat with the men who fired questions about religion at him – at one point they asked him if he was satisfied with me, no worries that I was sitting a few feet away!! The next morning as we cycled off down the dusty track from their home the Grandmother gave me a framed extract of the Koran (well I think that’s what it was) and followed us down the road sprinkling holy water on our tracks, touching and surreal.

The rest of the nights between Tabriz and Tehran we spent camping in tunnels under the highway which were absolutely perfect for us being both hidden and sheltered. Despite being days to the next shop we were never short of food as people continuously pulled over to give us tea, bread, nuts, water and anything else they were carrying!

Cycling into Tehran took a whole day, the city sprawl is massive and Iranian traffic is mental – no matter it’s a 3 lane road there will be at least 6 abreast and cars piling onto our precious hard shoulder beeping relentlessly. But, regardless of the obstacles of late we have made it to Tehran in one piece and it feels pretty good to be here:-D

The Black Sea

We had a massive break in Istanbul, 11 days off the bikes in total! We hopped from budget hostel to nice hotel when Dad came for the weekend and finished off spending a few nights with Emma and Justin, who are living in Istanbul for 6 months before continuing their cycling tour home to New Zealand. Probably a good idea as they’ll avoid the Central Asian winter that we’re on a collision course with! I had a practice bash at making pizza with just the utensils we carry on the bike – they didn’t look up to Pizza Express standards, but Ryan wolfed the lot and we now have a third dish to add to our pasta mush and rice slurry repertoire.

Cycling out of Istanbul and out into the Asian landmass was exciting, despite it being the start of the more challenging and unknown section of the tour. We have learnt so much already and our confidence has grown, the thought of cycling across continents doesn’t seem quite as daunting now as it did when we left 3.5 months ago. I suppose most people attempting to cycle halfway round the world would do a few smaller tours first for that very reason, but not us! Our training consisted of one return trip to Brighton.  At least we weren’t over prepared.

After leaving our hosts in Istanbul we pedalled north up the Bosporus towards the Black Sea, where we’ll be spending most of December. We enjoyed the seaside villages and blue skies as we meandered out of the city sprawl and began getting a taste for the hills – which later on will torment us. Ryan was still suffering from a bout of illness picked up whilst in Istanbul and was munching antibiotics like sweets, so we kept the pace lazy and the days short, but it was good to start moving.

We got our first glimpse of the Black Sea after two days and that evening we hauled our bikes along the sand to make a beach camp. We found a secluded spot before Ryan made a solo streak for the icy water leaving me giggling (and warm) on the sand. The dry night and mild weather enticed us to roll out our sleeping bags on the deserted stretch of beach and not bother with the tent. It was surprisingly comfortable on the soft sand and we were asleep soon after sunset. The crashing waves and brilliant stars made it quite a special night, and each time I woke I was amazed by the beauty of our little insignificant spot under the night sky. You should all try it this summer!!

As has become usual in Turkey we have had lots of spontaneous hospitality over the past few weeks. Every day we meet new people in new villages and get a glimpse into their daily life. We’ve stayed with lots of kind families already including sailors, farmers, policemen, Kurdish workmen and shopkeepers. The people we have stayed with invite us into their homes a few minutes after meeting us on the side of the road.  Once inside there is usually a flurry of calls to bemused neighbours and relatives who pop over to see the “bisiklets” and crazy “Ingilizce” during the evening. Sometimes we’re handed the telephone to say “hello” which is generally greeted by shrieks of delight and laughter. I never get bored of the excitable chatter as people listen to our story of what we are up to, even if usually people struggle to grasp that yes we are cycling the whole way and we haven’t flown to Turkey with our bikes! The Turkish homes have all been filled with tasty food, noisy banter, endless cups of cay, laughter and sometimes bum wiggling dancing (which Ryan is awesome at). It is always difficult to pedal onwards the next day as they all want us to stay, as do we!

Further along the coast line we spent a night in Sile, which is a pretty seaside town with a big harbour, where we treated ouselves to a Pansyion (a cheap hotel) and slept for 12 hours. Even though we’re never more than 6 ft apart [except when we’re going uphill!] occasionally it’s still nice being just us two for a lazy evening with no tent or phrasebook to battle with.

From Sile the weather took a turn for the worse and we left our cozy bed for torrential rain, within minutes we were soaked to the bone. We discovered our rain clothes are pathetic despite claiming to be ‘waterproof’ (should’ve done a practice tour!) and water gushes down our legs, inside shoes, trousers and pretty much everything. Not fun when you have to sit on your arse outside for 6 hours then crawl into a wet tent and put on the same wet clothes tomorrow. We have just ordered painfully expensive new outer layers, but in order to stay warm as we head into the coldest winter either of us will have experienced it’s important that our clothes don’t get soaked through every time it rains or snows. At least here on the coast in Turkey it isn’t as cold as England yet! We have enjoyed checking the weather out at home and seeing London fall apart in the snow:-)

Given the biting rain, wind and hills we have been surprised to have had some of our best days so far. Violent waves, winding climbs and snow peaked mountains is pretty awe inspiring stuff from two wheels, so we do get rewarded for our efforts. It’s a great feeling being curled up in the tent at night and thinking about what we achieved and experienced in the day. The other night I was zipped me up my sleeping bag with just my mouth exposed to keep warm and was being fed cookíes, unfortunately only on a cycle tour is that acceptable behaviour.

Between Karasu and Eregli we were delighted to have a stretch of smooth flat road, much more like we’d imagined the coastal highway would be like from our limited research (we now think (hope!) it starts after Samsum in 300km). The mountain roads reappeared too soon and as we cycled along an exposed cliff top road out of Zongaldak with ferocious winds and even more rain we were fighting for every revolution of the wheels. The thought of getting round the next corner was horrific, let alone NZ! On tough days like these it’s priceless to be rescued for some precious minutes by friendly villagers, who toast us dry by the blazing wood burning stoves that are the centre piece in every tea house.

The temperature dropped as the road moved away from the coast and into the mountains, as we climbed higher from Filyos we were surrounded by snow (which was a relief as Ryan had refused to cycle another climb without seeing snow that day!). The roads became very icy, occasionally we had to push the bikes as it was too dangerous to ride. It’s so frustrating not getting the thrill of a fast descent after an exhausting climb! One family we stayed with explained that just 2 km further inland the snow is waist high at the moment. I think we made the right choice to stick to the coast, however we will have to tackle the snow at some point. We both agree that cold, clear, icy days are infinitely preferable to rain in any format!

The road is now back on the coast and wiggles back and forth and up and down over the lumpy cliffs, so we pedal 5km for every 1km of coastline. Its been pretty gruelling and we are having to rely on each other to keep morale high as the relentless climbing and slow progress take their toll.

We are currently enjoying a rest day in Inebolu after having spent last night dinning in a police station. During the meal a phonecall resulted in one guy casually getting up, pulling a big handgun out of a desk drawer and tucking it in his trousers before strolling off! A little reminder we really are out of Europe.

Tomorrow we head towards Samsun, maybe in time for Christmas – fingers crossed Ryan gets enough chocolate to fill my perpetually hungry belly!

The end of Europe – Nis to Istanbul

After Bex’s last post we left Nis (south east Serbia) and battled the strongest headwinds I’ve ever experienced either side of the Bulgarian border. The wind was being channeled down the valley we were cycling through and gusting savagely in our faces. We were down to 9kph on the flat whilst pedalling at full power and were both blown off the road a fair few times. Having to pedal even when going downhill is not good for morale!

After wondering at times whether we would ever make it, we were relieved to finally arrive in Sofia where we stayed with Andrew and Tereza for a well earned rest day.

With recharged batteries we set off for Plovdiv where we planned to meet Rob, who was cycling from Hungary to Istanbul. Rob had spent the previous week chasing us through Serbia in the same gale force headwinds which, when combined with the punishing schedule he’d set himself to make our rendezvous, required repeated dawn to dusk days on the bike, on his own. It sounded extremely tough, but at least he was full of entertaining stories about the various low points on arrival in Plovdiv. The three of us were to cycle the rest of the way to Istanbul together at a considerably more relaxed pace.

The plan came together nicely as we all arrived in the pre-determined hostel on the same day and used our two days off to catch up over some delicious cheap Bulgarian beer and explore the city. Plovdiv was surprisingly nice – I knew nothing about it before we arrived, but Roman ruins, a centre busy with families and a good rock pub made it a great place to spend a weekend.

We left Plovdiv excited about the prospect of Turkey – one of the best things about starting the trip from England is that the excitement increases seemingly every day as we get further from home. To us, everything is always new and the differences, although gradual at bike speed, are continual.

The most clear cut change happened as we entered Turkey. Every other car greats you with a horn blast and a wave, we’re woken every morning by a call to prayer booming out of the nearest mosque at 6am, and when we stop anywhere an offer of a cup of Turkish tea is made almost instantly. The tea houses seem to be a real focus of the village communities we’ve passed through so far, with the locals passing the time playing dominoes or having a chin wag alongside endless tiny glass cups of ‘cay’. We’re trying to say yes to every offer as these little experiences along the way are what travelling by bike is all about, but at some point we have to politely say no to another refill as otherwise our 90 day Turkish visa would expire before reaching Istanbul!

The friendliness and hospitality displayed in these villages has meant we felt confident enough to ask in villages and tea houses at the end of the day if we could pitch our tents somewhere in the village. This usually leads to interesting experiences that would be missed if wild camping in woods or staying in a hotel. Every time so far we’ve been shown a place to pitch our tents, which have included next to a mosque, a shopkeeper’s garden, and behind a petrol station. Luckily the night we camped behind a petrol station was the same night our fuel for the camping stove ran out. Two minutes later we had a fresh litre of petrol, the beauty of a multi-fuel stove.

Rob noted that the challenge provided by not knowing the language or where we would sleep as the sun begins to sink provides many of the best experiences.  My favourite moments from our short time in Turkey have come when incredibly kind families have invited us into their homes for a meal, minutes after our arrival in their village.

We cycled a northern route towards Istanbul to avoid the busy and notorious D100 road that runs from the border straight into the city. Although it took a couple of extra days, the alternative route meant we visited lots of small villages that were the scene of most of the hospitable acts described above. The weather is still amazing – aside from one thunder storm we’ve had clear blue skies and warm sun, so our long days in the saddle meant we all looked like raspberries most of the time. The rolling hills of this less direct road combined with our heavy bikes got the sweat dripping off our brows, our efforts rewarded by the clean air and long views from the summits. Shepards hearded their beasts across the green fields to our right whilst the Black Sea was far beneath us to the left.

Then last weekend came the moment we’d been looking forward to – we cycled into Istanbul!  After the quiet roads and small villages the heavy traffic and fifteen million people of Istanbul provided an abrupt change. It was awesome to cycle past the Blue Mosque and we stopped for some end of Europe photos on the banks of the Bosporus.  All that remains is for us to catch a ferry over the famous stretch of water before we can begin tackling Asia.  It felt good to check into a cheap hostel for a few days, take our first shower in a week, tuck into a kebab and begin exploring a new city. We had a celebratory night out which somehow ended with Rob and I (after one or two half shandies) getting up on stage in a bar and performing an acoustic double act. I know about 3 chords on the guitar and Rob couldn’t remember the second line, but we escaped major embarrassment (I think…).  Apologies to Frank Turner for butchering one of his songs.

Istanbul is a major milestone for us (and all European cycling expeditions heading east) for a number of reasons, including it being the conclusion of our first continent, a change in dominant religion, and it marks the end of the warm up leg through relatively familiar territory.

Our task gets harder now, not least because the countries get much larger. We’ve cycled for 4 days across Turkey so far and have barely made a dent on the total distance. Our thoughts have turned to possible ways of negotiating the impending middle eastern winter whilst continuing to make progress on the bikes. Our Iranian visa applications were successful and we’ve collected them already here in Istanbul. As such, we intend to slowly cycle along the Black Sea through Turkey followed by Northern Iran (roughly as per our route map), taking as long as our visas will allow. This should allow us to spend the worst of the winter in these slightly less cold countries before heading up through the ‘stans to China in the spring, visas permitting (we’ve begun the tricky business of lining up the visas already, I’ll write more on the details of this when we’ve finished the process).

However, this is all very much educated guesswork from us – we don’t know for sure how cold it will get en route (certainly parts will be sub zero) or how well we’ll be able to cope when the temperatures do drop. We may end up having to hole up in a town if we hit a particularly cold snap, or seek alternative transport if snow halts our progress and our visas are running out. Either way, it will be good fun trying and we’ll give it our best effort to stick to the bikes and tough it out.

For now though we’re kicking back and enjoying Istanbul, combining some sight seeing with expanding our bike spares selection for the next leg of the trip.


Europe stats:

Distance cycled: 4000km (exactly!)
Countries visited: 11
Days on the road: 76
Days wearing the same shorts: 76 (we’ve been very lucky with the weather)
Days off: 21
Punctures: 3 (all mine – may have to cut back my baguette consumption)
Sets of eyelash curlers sent home: 1 (not mine, I hasten to add…)