Part 3: Iran
A month cycling across Persia
My Persian adventure started in the northern city of Tabriz with a new cycle buddy, Xavier. We set off to cross the country from north to south, 2,000km across mountains and desert, without overstaying our 1 month visas.
We took the "old road" which passed through cities such as Qazvin and Karaj, keeping a wide berth of Tehran and instead heading to the religious city of Qom.
From Qom we headed south to Isfahan, a city so renowned for its beauty and incredible Persian architecture it got its own proverb: "Isfahan: Half of the World".
The journey continued south to the poets city of Shiraz, via the ancient ruins of Persepolis. It was here Xavier and I split up for the final rush to the port of Bandar Abbas so I could catch the ferry onwards to Sharjah, UAE.
The highlight of my cycle through Iran was the people we met and the homes we were invited in to.
Everyday cars stopped on the side of the road to offer us water, pomegranates, grapes, walnuts and anything else that might help us on our way.
Each evening as we searched for somewhere to pitch our tents that night we invariably were taken in to family homes and, whether or not they spoke English, shared stories and experiences with great food and company.
The hospitality in Iran was incredible and we experienced nothing but well meaning people and amazing acts of kindness.
"Tonight we sleep in a palace!"
- Xavier (every night!)
There were days our route took us across mountain passes or through Iran's expansive deserts.
If we were lucky we would find a farmhouse to stay for the night. Arriving just before dark we would find the men were in from the fields and sharing a meal together before travelling back to the nearest town to spend the night with their families. Our timing was often lucky enough to coincide with these meals. Us offering up some of our food was out of the question and we were always treated as esteemed, if not slightly smelly, guests. On occasion the Arak (local, and illegal, moonshine) would come out; one such night even ended in dancing with a bunch of Iranian farmers to music from a mobile phone!
If we'd not found anywhere to stay by the time it would get dark we would peel off the road in to the desert and pitch our tents, frequently waking up in the most random of places!
Xavier was a great travel companion. At 21 he had the perfect mix of youthful naivety and curiosity (not that I was exactly one for sensible plans!), which often led us in to ridiculous and comical situations - we always made it out the other side!
Xavi was studying at university whilst he was travelling, by which I mean was literally meant to be in class but had taken the monthly Euro grant you get for studying in France and decided to cycle to Iran with it! Where the road allowed, and I use that phrase liberally, he would get out his textbook and read on the go, propping the textbook up on the handlebars.
The funniest trait I found in Xavier was that, for someone who had just spent the last 4 months travelling by bike, he didn't seem to actually like cycling - especially in the wind or hills. On the longer hills he would sprint up to the back of a slow moving truck and grab on to one of the bars for a free tow to the top. It would sometimes take me hours to catch him, where I'd usually find him lying on the side of the road calmly reading. For Xavier it was all about the adventure and interest of meeting new people. Oh, and at the end of the trip Xavier flew back just in time for his exams... which he aced!
BLOG EXTRACT: Mr Ali and friends - Stories of typical hospitality in Iran
Cycling down a shadeless road under the beating sun we were relieved to see the not uncommon sight of a car pulling over a few hundred metres ahead of us. Out of the car jumped a man and his two daughters. As we slowly rolled towards the car he scurried around to his boot and go out a bottle of water and some plastic cups. "Quick, fetch the pomegranate!".
He waved at us to stop and thrust the cups of water into our hands. As he introduced himself his daughters were putting the pomegranate into a bag of other snacks so we could take them on our journey.
"You must call me when you get to Zanjan, farewell for now and good luck on your trip!"
"What was your name?"
"Me? I'm Mr. Ali."
Xavier and I looked over the map and realised we would be passing through Zanjan in two nights time. "What a nice man we thought".
We set off back on the road, keen to make up for a late start. As it got to around 5pm it began to get dark, and out of food and water we started to look for some to buy before making camp.
The road was sparse and we hadn’t seen as much as a shop in tens of kilometers. Rolling through a large valley with apple orchards lining both sides it was an ideal area for wild camping, but we didn’t have enough supplies to stop for the night.
Eventually as it got darker we found a shop and pulled in. The only food we could find, other than the obligitary junk food, was eggs,of which we bought 6 and filled our water bottles from the local fountain. It wasn’t ideal, but with some emergency rice I had been carrying since Europe it would make some kind of meal.
Resupplied we put our lights on and cycled into the darkness, looking for a place to camp for the night. After a few more kilometres we saw a track leading to a house. We decided to investigate to see if we could camp in the garden.
The lights were on but no one was home. Several shoes were layed outside the front door, it looked like a lot of people were around but we couldn’t see anyone. Not so keen to get back on to the road, in now complete darkness, we waited but after ten minutes we admitted defeat and got back on the bikes. Only to hear an incredible whistle piercing the silence. It came from across the field and was followed by a set of headlights.
The family had returned from the day on the farm. Three generations greated us, and after approval was granted by the grandmother, whose farm it was, we were invited to stay. But not camping in the garden: we were invited to sleep in the spare room. Lined with thick persian carpets it was an ideal sleeping quarters and would make for a comfortable night.
A few minutes later a fire was going outside and large skewers of meat being placed on it. We shared a BBQ of chicken and meat and talked deep into the evening, remarkably we had stumbled upon a family who all spoke english!
The next morning we took some photos, swapped facebook details and were wished a good journey. We had an ambitious 160km in front of us if we were to get to Zanjan to meet Mr Ali that night.
The ride was long and monotonous, following a large road down another valley. Mostly bypassing the towns, which were often seated up the valley edge, making for an unappealing detour on a bike. In the afternoon the wind kicked up and delivered a strong blow to the face. Our progress was slowed and again we found ourselves riding into the darkness. As we approached the city the road got busier and turned into a 2 lane carriageway as it turned pitch black. Struggling to see the patchy road surface against the oncoming headlights we slowly bounced our way into Zanjan.
Again we had struggled to find regular food and seeing our first market we stopped to eat. Downing a litre of milk, an ice cream and some chocolate biscuits I immediately felt rejuvenated. The shop owner then came out of the shop to gift us another ice cream each, which we greedily wolfed down too.
We called Ali and arranged to meet outside a hotel in the centre of town. We weren’t exactly sure of the plan but we were ushered in to the hotel and presented with another meal of chicken and rice. It was a kind gesture, but having just stuffed myself with snacks i struggled to finish it.
After the meal Mr Ali explained that it was his friend’s hotel and he had paid for a room for us for the night. Another stroke of kindness but Ali wasn’t done there. “Do you want to go swimming?” Ali questioned after we finished our chicken. It was an unexpected and puzzling question, after a huge 170km cycle all we wanted to do was shower and go to bed, but after Mr Ali’s kindness it seemed rude to decline.
Now, when a 50y/o man in a country you don’t know offers to pay your hotel and then, after depositing your luggage there, offers to drive you across town to go swimming alarm bells would usually ring in the ears of a traveller trying to avoid being scammed. However, sometimes being open to opportunities leads you to the best experiences and you have to go with your gut. This fortunately turned out to be the latter.
After a hair-raising drive across town – Mr Ali adopted the usual style of Iranian drivers! – we arrived to the swimming pool and met up with a few of Mr Ali’s friends and their children. We attempted, and failed, to pay for the entrance, as Mr Ali pushed in front to make sure he took the bill. I wasn’t sure of the rules of the swimming baths in such a strict Muslim country, but other than the men and women obviously not mixing (each having a separate time of day to go) it was the same.
Without the distraction of alcohol, swimming falls into an evening social activity and chance to catch up with friends and family in Iran and the pool was full of men chatting and laughing. The atmosphere was relaxed and Xavier and I floated around the pool, relaxing in the sauna and jacuzzi, the perfect detox for the legs, after the long cycle. “Why don’t we go swimming after cycling every night?” we pondered.
After the swim we went to a juice bar and all supped delicious pomegranate juice, before going our separate ways. Mr Ali had one more surprise in store for us, as he sped across town at break-neck speed. Asking him to slow down, he simple replied “This is Iran.”. We found ourselves winding up a steep hill on the edge of town and as we got to the top had a magnificent view over the city. Mr Ali had been great and the night, although unexpected, had been perfect. I’d be lying, however, if i didn’t say i was relived to arrive back at the hotel to find all of our belongings right where we left them.
Ali met us the next morning and had brought us breakfast to the hotel. We mentioned we would find an internet cafe before leaving, but he was having none of it and drove us across town to his work office to use the internet there.
Returning to the hotel we thanked Mr Ali, his hospitality to complete strangers had been remarkable and unheard of back in Europe.
"When all your desires are distilled
You will cast just two votes:
To love more, And be happy."
- Hafez of Persia
Iran was a tough country to cycle across. The distances were huge and there were some long sections between places we could resupply that we weren't very well prepared for.
This was more than made up for be the kindness and hospitality of nearly everyone we met, whether it was people in cars stopping to check we were ok, families inviting us into their homes or thought provoking conversations with people over copious amounts of tea as people reminisced about a time of more freedom to travel and openness in Iran.
Pictured: Myself and Xaiver with Mr Ali's daughters, who stopped to offer us food and fruit on the side of the road