Video #3 – Iran & the ‘stans

Here’s video #3, made in Almaty using a few clips from the last 3 months or so. That cold winter camping seems a long time ago now thankfully! Hope you enjoy it.

Click here to view if the embedded version above hasn’t worked, or to view the HD version.

Iran part two (Tehran to Mashhad)

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:

Thank you for any donations!

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

A brief update from Tehran

We’re in Tehran having our first extended break since Istanbul in November. It’s been a bit of a cold, hard slog since Erzurum, so we were pretty happy to get here and put the bikes and tent away for a while!

Iran has been ace so far, the friendliest people, most spectacular scenery and our favourite country so far.

Whilst waiting for visas to be issued we left the bikes in Tehran and jumped on a bus to visit a few places in Southern Iran that aren’t on our cycling route and would’ve otherwise been missed.

We’re now back in Tehran and have picked up our reassuringly expensive Uzbekistan visas. We feel nice and refreshed after our break and on Tuesday 22nd we’ll start cycling again, heading east towards Mashhad and the Turkmenistan border.

We’ll post a proper update about our time in Iran once we’ve left and have full access to our photos etc.