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

Turkey for Christmas

We flew down a steep country lane, swerving round potholes and skidding through gravel. It was late December but the warm sun and green valleys meant it felt like an English summer. We weren’t quite sure exactly where we were as this road wasn’t on our map, but we didn’t care as we enjoyed the adrenaline rush of being nearly-but-not-quite out of control.

We’d grown bored of following the same winding coastal road for weeks, so we had turned inland down a narrow country lane in the hope of finding a more interesting road. Previous deviations from the map had backfired spectacularly, but fortunately this time our decision to ditch the main road was rewarded – our boredom instantly vanished, and we met Muhammed.

We’d stopped for a quick lunch of water and bread by the local mosque when Muhammed, the village priest, saw us and invited us back to his house for a much tastier lunch. The dinner table was rolled out and loaded with a delicious feast – Muhammed wouldn’t take no for an answer and kept refilling our plates until we could take no more. Cycling onwards with bulging bellies wasn’t an option so we chatted using the invaluable Google Translate, watched Muhammed’s children ride Bex’s bike, and before we knew it we were eating dinner and preparing to stay the night.

We put a few big days in to arrive in Samsun on December 24th so we could enjoy a mini-holiday in a big city. For once when searching for somewhere to stay we considered factors other than just finding the cheapest possible price, as a stay in a hotel was to be our Christmas present. We ended up somewhere that felt like The Ritz compared with our usual standard of accommodation, it was definitely a nice treat for us to enjoy. Even better news was the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet – I was first in/last out each day, got a few strange looks from the hotel staff, and I’m pretty sure we ended up making a small profit from our stay.

On Christmas Eve we raided a newsagents for chocolate, cookies and satsumas and spent Christmas morning gorging ourselves in our room. We played games and read books over a few glasses of tea in a bustling cafe, surrounded by people oblivious to the celebrations back home. We gave the camp stove a night off as we went out for our Christmas dinner, which turned out to be a lamb stir fry with a couple of huge glasses of wine.

 

We left ourselves a long day of pedalling to reach Giresun where we hoped to have a few days off over New Year. We started nice and early, but a routine food/water/toilet stop at a petrol station in the afternoon scuppered our plans for an early arrival. We’d finished our admin and were just about to leave when the petrol station owner brought out cups of tea, swiftly followed by fresh jam, olives and cheese (like Muhamet, it seems he’d seen us munching on a plain loaf of bread and taken pity on us!) When we were finished and once again ready to be on our way the owner’s daughter appeared and could speak excellent English – a relatively rare occurrence outside of cities in Turkey. We stayed for a chat and it was nice to be able to explain our journey to her father who’d been so kind.

Unfortunately, when we finally got round to leaving we had an hour of light left, two hours still to cycle, and it had started raining. We were quickly drenched through (our new waterproofs were waiting in Giresun for us to collect that evening!) and covered in grit from the road. Cycling on the hard-shoulder of what is effectively a motorway in the dark whilst raining was pretty miserable and we were glad when we finally reached the Giresun city sign where we met Mertcan, our host from Warmshowers. A few parcels from home had arrived at Mertcan’s containing a mix of useful kit and fun treats – it felt like a second Christmas had arrived!

We ended up staying for four days to sort out some admin, relax, and let our hangovers subside after we had a great time at a student house party on New Year’s eve. People in cities are generally less conservative than in rural areas – virtually all women in the small villages we’ve cycled through wear headscarfs, whereas in the bigger towns and cities that we’ve visited many don’t. Likewise with alcohol – between Istanbul and Samsun we didn’t see any bars and weren’t offered alcohol when staying in homes or eating out. My first beer since Rob and I rocked the bar in Istanbul over a month before was consumed at Onder’s house in Samsun – thanks Onder, it tasted pretty good! Once we were back in larger cities such as Samsun and Giresun we saw bars dotted around, and the students we met certainly enjoyed a drink or two on New Year’s Eve!

After a month spent on its shores we finally left the Black Sea at Tirebolu, turning inland towards Erzurum, mountains and the Iranian border. The coastal route we’d taken until this point certainly wasn’t as we’d imagined from our extremely limited research – the road from Amasra to Sinop was hard, hilly and took us ages to cycle, but the coastline was beautiful and the weather warm and sunny for the most part. The main highway on which we’d naively envisaged racing across Turkey in a matter of days started at Samsun. Even with the benefit of hindsight I’m glad the road was full of surprises, even if they weren’t usually pleasant ones! If our research was so thorough that we knew exactly what the road ahead would look like, what would be the point in cycling it? The less planning, the greater the adventure…or so we kept telling ourselves as we were faced with yet another lung bursting climb.

Every single day in Turkey we’d been told that it was defintely impossible to cycle to Erzurum in the winter due to the mountains/snow/cold/ice. We hoped otherwise – our view was that if the road was ok for buses and lorries, then surely it could be cycled. We’d been checking temperatures on the internet and Erzurum (the highest, and therefore coldest, city en route) seemed to average daily highs of -2 degrees and night time lows of -17. England has had worse recently! We ignored the advice, turned right off the coast and hoped we’d packed enough jumpers.

The ascent from coast to Erzurum, which lies at 1900 metres above sea level, was stunning, and the highlight of the trip so far for me. We spent the first two days catching tantalising glimpses of huge mountains in the distance – we knew we were heading straight for them and would soon be more than two vertical kilometres above our current position.

We cycled along a deep gorge for two days, the road winding gradually ever higher up the steep sides. The temperature began to drop noticeably compared with the coast as we inched our way upwards towards the snow line. The road was a rare combination of smooth surface but little traffic and the views were incredible – it was impossible to get bored on this road whilst gazing at endless peaks, lakes and houses pearched crazily on the sides of hills. We ate lunch sat on a wall overlooking the gorge, legs swinging over the edge, occasionally holding our breath to appreciate the absolute silence.

One night we slept in a teacher’s hostel – they finish school early and spend the evening drinking tea and playing cards in the communal area. I challenged one teacher to a game of backgammon – Turkish people play in a completely different way to anyone I’ve played before. After playing a number of Turks over the last month or so, I think I’ve worked out their rules (apologies if you’ve no interest in backgammon!):

1) If it’s possible to take an opponents piece, do so at all costs.
2) When deciding between two moves, always choose the highest risk and most aggressive option.
3) Leave as many of your own pieces uncovered as possible.
4) Whatever the move, always slam your pieces down as hard as you can
.

At least it makes for an entertaining game!

The following day we arrived in a town just before dark looking for somewhere to sleep. We couldn’t find a place to camp and the two hotels were both full, but luckily Servet, a jewellery shop owner with excellent English had spotted us. After phoning half of the town, we were handed the keys to his friend’s empty apartment. We lit the wood stove and rolled out our camping mats in the living room (the bedroom was freezing as houses with stoves tend not to have central heating).

So far we’ve crossed two mountain passes (of 1875 metres and 2409 metres – for reference, Ben Nevis is 1344 metres, and the highest mountain in last year’s Tour de France, the Col du Tourmalet, is 2115 metres) which came complete with summit signs for celebratory photos. These were much more fun than the short but steep climbs on the coast. On the coast the hills were short but incredibly steep, requiring every last ounce of our effort as we stood on the pedals to battle gravity, and as we began and ended each day at sea level our efforts felt wasted. In the mountains however, the climbs generally involve around forty kilometres of relatively gentle ascent (proven by the fact that Bex’s panting remains in earshot behind me), which takes a half a day of more measured effort. The road crawls between huge hills, the entire landscape white with snow with the exception of a strip of black tarmac ahead and behind. When we reach the summit we’re rewarded with a real sense of achievement – we’re standing on top of a mountain pass, with a photo to prove it!

 


The temperature is considerably colder at the top and although we’re warm on the way up the descents are extremely cold. Bex teased me for putting on every last piece of cold weather clothing I was carrying, but less than two minutes into the descent I heard a muffled squeak from behind as Bex was forced to stop and wrap up. The wind chill of a fast descent plus the fact our bodies are no longer working means the sub zero temperatures feel much colder and the feeling was lost from hands, feet and faces within minutes. My brain felt like a frozen pea by the time we reached the bottom.  Once over the pass we dropped down on to a flat but high plateau, surrounded by 3000 metre peaks.

Our tent hasn’t had much use in Turkey as whenever we ask for permission to camp people usually say it’s much too cold to sleep outside and find us somewhere indoors to sleep. However we really wanted to camp for a night up high in the snow for a bit of fun so we snuck off the road just after crossing the final pass about 70km before Erzurum, found a flat spot of land and set up camp. The thermometer read -5 as we cooked up dinner and a hot drink, but the temperature soon began to drop as the light fell so we got into our sleeping bags at 5.30pm (rock and roll) and read our books by torch light. This was by far the coldest place we’ve stayed (because it was the highest), but we were nice and warm wrapped up inside the tent. It’s impossible to explain that to any locals though, given our extremely limited Turkish – they think we’re slightly insane just for cycling in the winter, let alone chosing to sleep outside in the snow.

We’re now in Erzurum giving our legs a well deserved rest after 4000m of climbing in the last week. The Student Winter Olympics begin here in two weeks – we saw the massive ski jump on our way in and there are hundreds of flags decorating the city.

We hope to enter Iran next week, after we’ve tackled the final two 2000+ metre passes that lie on the road between Erzurum and the border. We’ve heard that WordPress may be blocked in Iran – we’ll try and post a quick update to the website by email, but our next proper blog update will probably be from Turkmenistan in early March. Enjoy February!