Saturday, 30 October 2010

Arrival in Esfahan

After eight days riding through villages, small towns and desert, we made it to Esfahan, the jewel of ancient Persia and one of the finest cities of the Islamic world. Our plan is to spend a few days here, do a side trip to Kashan by bus, and hopefully extend our visa so that we don’t have to hot foot it out of the country. Even though we have already cycled 1,200km in Iran, we are still only halfway through.

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Thursday, 28 October 2010

Express to Esfahan

Saveh – Esfahan

The following day we had a short day into Saveh, where we got adopted by a local on a motorbike, Ali, who helped us find a hotel. On the way, some other young guys on motorbikes started following us, and wanted to take some pictures of us. One of the men, surprised to see a foreigner, gave Guy a hug and planted a big fat kiss on his cheek, much to Guy’s surprise. We guess he didn’t realise that Guy hadn’t showered for a couple of days… Ali invited us to come to his house. He asked us several times, but as we wanted to shower and rest first, we suggested to meet him in the evening instead. We picked up a box of cakes as a present, but unfortunately Ali never showed up. We sometimes wonder if the Government stance on not interacting with foreigners makes some people nervous and reconsider. On the positive side we now had a big box of cakes all to ourselves. ||

Our plan from Saveh was to cycle to Qom and then Kashan before we made our way to Esfahan. We didn’t really want to go to Qom, which is the most conservative city in Iran and home to the ruling cleric, but it was on the way to Kashan, which we wanted to visit. Unfortunately, we found out that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, was visiting Qom for the first time in a decade. We saw a lot of footage on TV of thousands of people attending his speeches in Qom. Most were members of the Basij, the hardline volunteer militia known for brutally beating down the protests after the last elections, who looked pretty scary. We thought this was not a good vibe for two foreign cycle tourers passing through, and also it would have been impossible to get a hotel room. That meant we had a long day ahead as we had to actually pass through Qom and camp somewhere on the other side.

The day started badly when we left an hour later than planned as breakfast was delayed. This was the first hotel in Iran we stayed at that had breakfast included, so we were quite excited about it. It wasn’t worth the wait… All we got was some cardboard style bread and a bit of cream cheese. Embarrassingly, we actually got out our own supplies to supplement it. When we left town, the road again was so narrow that we could not cycle on it – we were back on gravel for the first 20km. This slowed us down so much that there was no way we would make it through Qom. By the time we got to the turnoff, we both had a bad feeling about going to Qom and made a last minute decision to skip it and keep going straight towards Esfahan. We thought we could still visit Kashan by staying at the small town of Delijan, leaving the bikes there and taking a bus as a side trip to Kashan before returning to Delijan and resuming our cycling.

The road improved and became dual lane with a hard shoulder. We were going steadily uphill, passing many pomegranate farms along the way. Pomegranates are the new melons – many people give us pomegranates, and often they insist on giving us way more than we can carry. One guy gave us seven, despite our protestations!

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In the evening we camped behind a disused quarry in the desert. It wasn’t as remote as we had first thought though, with a railway line nearby and a busy road not far away. Despite this, we still managed a good night’s sleep and left early for what we thought would be a fairly short day to Delijan, 70km away. 

We arrived in Delijan by lunchtime and made the bad decision to try to get a lift to Kashan in a pickup truck, taking the bikes along. That way we could get to Kashan the same day rather than staying in Delijan, and we could just return with the bikes a couple of days later to keep on cycling. After asking various locals for directions to the turnoff for Kashan, we found ourselves leaving the town on the road to Esfahan. Everyone we asked confirmed that the turnoff was on this road. Eventually we asked a guy on a motorbike, wearing aviator glasses, maroon leather jacket and a finely trimmed moustache, looking very porno. He held up four fingers to convey the distance whilst chewing his gum in a slow deliberate fashion and keeping his eyes fixed on the horizon.

“So the turnoff is 4km away?” we confirmed.

“Ahh huh” came the cool response in between gum chews.

Hmm, it looked a little closer on our map, but the map hadn’t always been accurate, so we kept going. Annoyingly Porno kept slowly riding next to us. A while later the turnoff was nowhere to be seen. Looking at our map, we realised that he must have meant another turnoff, which was 42km away! By now we were 12km south of the town, and we really couldn’t be bothered going back, so we decided to push on. Porno had finally left us and we had a nice tailwind, but we were also going uphill so when we finally got to the turnoff it was getting dark. We had done 111km – not really the short day we had been hoping for.

At the turnoff we met another guy waiting for a lift, but things weren’t looking good: there were almost no cars going towards Kashan. Most vehicles went only part of the way, and there weren’t any pickups or trucks that could have taken the bikes. After waiting around for a while we decided we’d had enough. It was dark by now – not the ideal time to find a camp spot. However, there was a fuel station and restaurant at the turnoff, and we started chatting to the restaurant manager who invited us for a tea. We indicated that we had to go and find a place for our tent. “Aaah”, he said, “you can go down there.” He pointed, but we didn’t understand, so he sent his assistant to show us the way. We went around the building and the man pointed to a small room laid out with carpets. We realised that this was the prayer room, but he insisted that we could sleep there.

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Not wanting to prevent people from praying, we went to the restaurant first, to have dinner and relax for a while. Around 9pm we got so tired that we decided to move into the prayer room for the night. We put our bags inside, while the bikes were parked in the fuel station attendant’s room. Once we had laid out our sleeping mats, we took up more than half of the space in the small prayer room.

We need not have worried: people still needed to pray, and some smelly cyclists sleeping in the prayer room were certainly not going to deter them. Several people entered the room and prayed right next to us while we were sitting there with our sleeping bags and all of our panniers. Luckily it quietened off about 10pm and we actually had quite a good sleep until 5:30am, when truck drivers came in their droves to do their morning prayers. It was very odd to be lying there whilst one foot away the devout were praying. After pretending to be asleep for a while, we spotted a gap and quickly got up before the next lot arrived.

We had tea with the fuel station attendant and pushed on to the next town, Meymeh, only 30km away, where there would be another turnoff to Kashan. Both of us were pretty tired by now as this was day 7 of continuous cycling and we were suffering from a bit of sleep deprivation. When we got to the turnoff, we waited around again, but it was the same situation as before and we did not manage to get a lift due to a lack of traffic.

The next plan was to stay in the town, leave the bikes and get a bus to Kashan. This was smashed when we were informed that there were no buses to Kashan from this town. Somehow we are just not destined to go to Kashan. Maybe we will have another chance to get a bus from Esfahan, but otherwise we will just have to let go of this idea.

In Meymeh we had a nightmare trying to find the hotel and spent a lot of time going up and down the main drag much to the amusement of the shop owners. In the end, we clocked up over 50km, instead of the 30km it should have taken us to get to the town. The hotel was actually under a bank, completely unmarked, how silly of us for not checking under the bank. Whilst we waited for the hotel manger to appear the bank staff very kindly invited us in for tea and sweets.

In the morning, we went full steam to Esfahan, with a lovely tail wind for half the day, clocking in at an average of 32km/hr. We had to make it to Esfahan as early as possible in order to change some money as we were flat broke. The banks in the small towns we had passed through were not able to do this for us. It was now Thursday afternoon, which means shops (and money changers) close early and stay shut on Friday (the Islamic weekend).

After eight days of cycling through dry arid landscapes, Esfahan felt like a real desert oasis. The tree lined streets, parks and water fountains were a feast for the eyes after days of emptiness. It felt tranquil and almost European in parts.

On the way to the money changers, we were stopped by a young guy in some sort of police or army uniform. He said something in Farsi to Guy, but kept pointing at Freddie. We only understood the words “bicycle”, “Iran”, and “no”. He was quite insistent, and after a little while we deducted that he was probably saying that women aren’t allowed to cycle in Iran. Obviously we knew this was a load of camel poo as we would not have made it through the border let alone to Esfahan. We played dumb and kept asking him for directions to Imam Square. Eventually he got frustrated with our non-existent Farsi skills and walked off, making some gesture that looked like we should wait there for him. Not keen on waiting for an outcome that was unlikely to be favourable for us we decided it was best to push on, so we cycled off as quickly as possible and dived down a side street.

So imagine our horror when we arrived at the money changers just before 3pm and it was already closed! Guy spotted some movement inside and nuzzled up to the window, prompting one of the guys to come to the door and offer us a last minute transaction. He even offered Guy a slice of his tender chicken breast lunch which Guy devoured perhaps a little too hastily, as judging by the money changer’s look he was not expecting Guy to be quite so indulgent.

All cashed up, we cycled down to Si-O-Seh bridge to take a picture before finding a hotel nearby. Esfahan was a bit of a milestone for us, reaching the heart of the Islamic world seemed a ridiculously impossible destination some 5 months ago when we wobbled out of suburban London. We will spend several days in Esfahan, sightseeing, sorting out a visa extension and making one last attempt to get to Kashan by bus.

Monday, 25 October 2010

From Persian carpets to highway underpasses

Zanjan – Saveh

About 35km East of Zanjan is the small town of Soltaniyeh, which was built by the Mongols as their capital after they had conquered Persia under the leadership of Ghengis Khan. It was largely destroyed in 1384, but some of the monuments survive. We visited the Oljeitu Mausoleum, which was built by a Mongol sultan and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. It has a beautiful blue dome; at 48m high it’s the world’s highest brick dome. The building was more impressive from the outside, as there is a lot of scaffolding on the inside, but considering our $0.30 entrance fee we did not complain!||

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In the evening, we asked to camp behind a restaurant and ended up being invited to stay with the family in their flat above the restaurant. Read more about our first home stay in Iran.

The following morning, we were excited as we hadn’t enjoyed most of the cycling so far because of the constant traffic, and we were about to finally turn off the main road for a while. We could already see the smog from Teheran, a mere 200km away, and were glad to finally turn south and away from this metropolis. We were in for a big disappointment. The “minor road” we turned on to was much, much worse than the main road. There were even more trucks than on the main road, and there was only a single lane for the traffic going in each direction. There was no hard shoulder, and the road was just wide enough for two trucks to squeeze past each other. Cycling on this was suicidal. We hoped it would improve, but ended up cycling either on the gravel next to the road, or on a parallel dirt track, for the next 75km. We had planned to get to the next bigger town 100km away that day, but by late afternoon it was clear we would not make it, as we had been slowed down so much.

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Just before dusk we ended up in a small town called Ebrahimabad. There was no hotel, but a restaurant owner offered for us to camp on a patch of grass near his restaurant. Unfortunately it was a small patch of grass surrounded by the highway, a main road  and a car park. It was the equivalent of camping on a city roundabout. Iranians will camp anywhere and don’t understand our wish for a quiet spot and some privacy. They all insist it is safe to camp anywhere, which might be the case, but we attract so much more attention than they would. As it was getting dark, we did not have much choice though, so we found a slightly better patch of grass next to the highway. There was a Police caravan next to it, and the Police man was very nice, so we felt reasonably safe there, even though it was very public. Kayvan, the Police man, bought us some beers (non-alcoholic of course), and sure enough, a few minutes later we were surrounded by about 10 young men on motorbikes wanting to chat.

They were quite friendly, and one of the guys ended up inviting us to his house. He had a nice smile, friendly eyes and a calm manner, and the thought of a home stay as opposed to a camp next to a dual lane highway was rather enticing. If we felt uncomfortable we could always come back to sleep next to our beloved highway… Ahmad led us to his family’s home, which was essentially a courtyard with several flats for the various family members leading off it (this seems to be a typical Iranian home setup).

We were invited into the flat Ahmad shared with his wife. They had been married 10 months ago and were both quite young, with Ahmad being 24 and his wife only 18. Soon, his two brothers and his mother joined us and we had tea. One of the brothers spoke a little English, and with the help of our phrase book we were able to communicate. It turned out that Ahmad and one of his brothers had a shoemaking business. They designed and manufactured women’s shoes downstairs. Over the course of the evening Freddie was asked to try on a few different pairs of shoes, and questioned about her size and her favourite design. Inevitably, in the end she was presented with a beautiful pair of hand made shoes, and there was no way they would let her decline the gift.

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After dinner, we tried to give them a bag with mixed nuts, but this prompted them to get out more food, including some fruit and our dreaded enemy: the unshelled sunflower seed. These are very popular here, and everyone seems to have perfected the technique of cracking them with the front teeth and at the same time extracting the seed. We find it quite tricky and always end up with the shell in our mouth, so we crack them by hand, and we are very slow. This prompted a lot of laughing and the whole family was poking fun at us, until they decided to help us by cracking the seeds for us. They found it very funny that back home we just buy the shelled seeds – they think we are very lazy.

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We were also shown a video of Ahmad’s wedding – we watched about 90 minutes of it, of different parts of the day. It was very strange as the bride was nowhere to be seen. In fact, it was an all-male party, where the men were dancing and eating without any women being present. As we learned later, the women have a separate party where they can celebrate in a more relaxed environment as they don’t need to wear the hejab.

When bed time came, we were given Ahmad’s room while he and his wife moved into a different part of the house. For the second night in a row, we had a comfortable night sleeping on a Persian carpet. The next morning they prepared breakfast – warm milk, tea, flat bread, omelette, jam, butter and cheese - and were rather shocked when we then announced that we had to leave. They tried all possible tricks to make us stay longer. We explained about the time restriction on our visas, upon which they suggested we take a bus instead of cycling, so we could stay longer.

We did manage to extract ourselves eventually and cycled past the police caravan to say goodbye to Kayvan. He invited us for tea, so we sat in the caravan chatting away, as Kayvan speaks excellent English. He was studying for a Master of Engineering and was doing his military service in the police force. While we were there, a police car pulled up and two police men came into the caravan. They were both very smiley and one of them asked Freddie: “Miss Frederike, I would like to ask you a special question: How do you find wearing the head scarf?” Freddie answered that it was ok, but not so comfortable when it is very warm outside. The other police man, with a cheeky smile, promised that she would go straight to heaven if she kept wearing it.

Just as we were saying goodbye to Kayvan, the police boss arrived. He immediately decided that it was too dangerous for us to cycle on these roads and flagged down a pickup truck to take us 25km down the road to the next town, from where the road would become wider again. There was no discussion, and he did not listen to our explanation that we were actually cycling next to the road, not on it. Unfortunately the pickup truck was a bit too short, so we could not close the trailer gate and our bikes were in danger of rolling off. We were ordered to go in the back with the bikes and off we went. The drive was quite scary, as the driver still decided to overtake other vehicles and was going quite fast. The bikes were fine though, and after a little while we made it to the town, Bu’in Zarah. This was the first time on our trip that we have skipped a section, but we had no choice in the matter, and secretly we were happy about this outcome as we were not looking forward to cycling on the gravel again.

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By now it was already lunchtime, and we only made it about half way to Saveh before night fell. The road was much better, with a wide hard shoulder. The traffic was 90% trucks, and it seems to be the main thoroughfare between the North West of Iran and the South, even though it was marked as a minor road on our map.

At dusk, we were in the middle of a desert, which was completely flat and featureless. This meant there was nowhere to hide our tent. We could either camp in full view, which might result in some unwanted visitors, or we could wait until it was dark and then walk out into the desert and camp there. There was, however, a third option. Below the road there were some small underpasses. We decided to go into one of the underpasses to cook dinner, and then look for a camp spot once it got dark. However, while we were in there, we got quite comfortable and managed to pitch the tent in the underpass.

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It just fit, so we made a cup of tea and got our books out to have a read. The noise was not too bad below the road considering how close the traffic was above us. The traffic rumbled on all night, but we had a reasonable night’s sleep. There was even a hook for our toiletries bags, so we really made it our home for the night! It was quite a slide going from the top of the hospitality ladder, sleeping on Persian rugs, down to the bottom: sleeping under a highway.

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Sunday, 24 October 2010

7,000 km photo

We were in the middle of the Iranian desert, between Bu’in and Saveh. We had just spent two nights staying with some lovely Iranian families who invited us into their house. Freddie had even scored a new pair of fancy shoes as one the families were in the shoe making business!||

Earlier in the day we had been ordered by the police to get a lift in a pickup truck to a junction  some 25km away. The route had been deemed too dangerous to cycle on, which was true, but the police did not understand that we were actually cycling on a dirt track next to the main road. We guess that an incident would have also meant a lot of paper work for police… Secretly we were happy as we had already cycled 70km on dirt at 10km/hr and were fed up.

As there was only flat desert around us, with no shelter, we ended up camping in a highway underpass below the road that night. Quite a descent from our previous nights of sleeping on Persian rugs.

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Saturday, 23 October 2010

An Iranian home stay

We had been planning to find a hotel on our first day out of Zanjan, but the lush fruit plantation area we found ourselves in was just crying out for a wild camp, so we made a last minute decision to pitch up for the night. We stopped at a small tea restaurant to ask for water. The men working there were quick to give us what we needed and of course presented us with some tea within minutes. We noticed that there was a large orchard behind the building, so we asked if we could camp there. No problem, they said, but please have your tea first. Next, they gave us some roasted corn on the cob, and just as we were contemplating setting up the tent, we were asked to follow one of the men up the stairs and into a flat above the restaurant.

Hossein showed us around the flat and pointed to a room laid out with Persian rugs. He indicated that we should sleep here. We refused his offer, but he made it clear the offer was not just Ta’arof, and that he really wanted us to stay. He had to go back to the restaurant, so he helped us take our bags inside and left. We had a much needed shower and relaxed for a while, amazed by the trust that people here place in total strangers. He had only met us half an hour before, after all, and here we were alone in his house!

We have only been in Iran for 11 days and we are starting to feel really at ease. It feels very safe, children wander the streets at night, theft seems to be almost non existent, people generally trust each other. Camping in the most public of places (city parks, beside motorways, truck stops) is considered very normal and done regularly by locals in the warmer months. Living in London has made us anxious about our security so it has taken time for us to relax and really trust strangers again. It feels good to be able to leave our bikes outside a restaurant unattended or camp in a public place and not worry too much about theft. Evidence perhaps of the many good values bestowed in people through their faith.

After a while Hossein returned with his wife, Sohra, and his eight year old son, Alireza. Again, he had to leave, and so we made ourselves at home in the living room. The flat did not have a single chair or table in it. It was completely laid out with beautiful carpets, and there were pillows lined up along the wall. The bedrooms were devoid of beds, or any piece of furniture for that matter, a stark contrast of our little London flat where you couldn’t walk a foot without bumping into some piece of furniture. The floor is used for sitting on, eating, and sleeping, so it is understandable why the carpets are such a prized possession in Iran. We can only imagine how our parents would feel if we had our dinner on the good Persian carpet at home!

Sohra served us tea, grapes, cucumbers and cakes, and we were able to communicate by using our Farsi language guide. Sohra dressed in quite a modern way and had her hair dyed blonde. She became very good at finding words and sentences in the guide. Alireza was also learning English at summer school, so he got his books out and we devised a game to help him remember the letters of the Roman alphabet (which of course is quite different to the Arabic alphabet he is used to). We also showed them the photos of our families, which they appreciated.

We were unsure what to do about dinner, as we did not just want to expect them to provide it, but also did not want to appear rude by getting out our own cooker. Luckily, Hossein later solved this by getting some food delivered from the restaurant downstairs. A plastic sheet was spread out on the floor, and we were served rice with butter, Lavash bread, kebab, cabbage, peppers and olives, as well as a yoghurt drink which we are slowly getting a taste for.

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After dinner, Alireza went to sleep. Sohra opened our Farsi book and pointed to the words for “let’s go” and “town square”. We all piled in to Hossein’s tiny 1970s Renault, which only had one headlight. It felt like we were going back in time to when we were kids, as this kind of car does not even exist anymore back home.

We were given a whirlwind tour of the nearby town, stopping at various local sights such as the park, a monument and a mosque. We bought a puzzle for Alireza at a street market, and then we were taken to the ice cream parlour. This was a very popular meeting place for young men – probably the equivalent of a pub back home. Hossein insisted on buying us banana milkshakes and lemon cake, which was delicious.

When we got back home, Sohra spread out some soft rugs and pillows for us on the carpet, while she and Hossein made their bed in the living room. We felt humbled as they were treating us so well, giving us their own bedroom and feeding us.

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The following morning Sohra prepared breakfast – flat Lavash bread, jam, butter and cheese. Hossein invited us to stay for another day, but unfortunately our time in Iran is limited and we had to move on. Sohra went out on the balcony where she was drying a large pile of grapes to make raisins, and gave us a large bag of raisins to take with us.

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We took some photos out the front of the restaurant before we said a sad goodbye. It is always hard to say goodbye to the lovely people we meet, many of whom we will probably never see again. The people in Iran are especially emotional when we leave, which is really sweet. This was our first home stay in Iran, and we have certainly experienced the hospitality Iran is famous for. Amazingly, we were invited again to stay with another family the following night.||

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

High on fumes

Tabriz – Zanjan

On the way out of Tabriz, there was – as always in Iran - constant traffic and many trucks and buses. About 40% of the cars are Paykans. These were designed in the 1960s and were almost the only cars on the roads in Iran for a very long time. They only come in white, and they burn 12-15l of leaded petrol per 100km. They don’t have catalytic converters, so the fumes are just terrible. The trucks often spew out big clouds of black smoke too, and it was no wonder that after a little while, our eyes and noses were hurting, and we both had a headache from the fumes.

The driving in Iran is pretty bad. When someone wants to overtake, they just do it. No matter if there is oncoming traffic, a blind corner, or two cyclists in the way. Many times we looked up to see a bus hurtling towards us at high speed on the wrong side of the road. We are not surprised that Iran has one of the highest rates of road accidents in the world. Unfortunately, the country is known for having some of the best roads and the worst drivers. They even seem to be aware of it, as we see quite a lot of cars and trucks that have a triangular sign with an exclamation mark on the back – some of them even have the word “danger” written on them!

Our view was like this most of the time:

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For the first time on our trip, we seriously considered hitching a lift or even completely giving up on cycling in Iran. We reached a real low point. We had hoped that the traffic would be lighter after Tabriz, as there was a parallel Freeway, but somehow everyone still seemed to use the old road. When cycling all day, you normally get into a relaxed state of mind, a zone where your legs are pumping but your mind just rests. But when there is so much traffic and you have to be constantly checking what is happening all around you, you don’t have a chance to get into the zone, and just get more and more irritated and unhappy. The scenery was depressing too, with lots of industrial sites, power stations and abandoned factories lining the road. However, we decided to stick it out for that day, and hopefully the traffic would be better the next day, otherwise we would catch a lift.

We slept in a hotel in Bostanabad, our window facing out onto the busy road we had been on all day. When we opened the window, the fumes came in, exacerbating our headaches. We were really fed up, and the only reason we kept cycling was because we had seen a parallel minor road on our map, which started about 20km out of Bostanabad, and which we were going to try out. In the end, we never found the turnoff for that road, but just around that time the traffic suddenly became much lighter. There were still trucks and buses, and many cars, but there were a lot less than before, and we were able to get back into our happy zone and enjoy the cycling. The scenery also became nicer, with the factories being replaced by a small river. There was also finally some agriculture, which made the villages a bit less depressing. The cycling itself was easy, apart from the constant traffic. The roads here are much better than in Turkey, with a nice smooth surface and very gentle gradients.

We cycled the 100km to Mianeh quite quickly and arrived by 3pm. On our way into town, we noticed a tea house with comfortable carpeted platforms out the front, so we claimed one and slammed down some Iranian beers. Of course alcohol is banned in Iran, so the beer is alcohol free. The local beers often have Belgian or German sounding names like Delster or Bavaria, and they come in different flavours including lemon, pear and peach. It tastes like a combination of beer and lemonade and is quite refreshing.

Usually we rely on the locals to help us find a hotel, but they often won’t tell us about the cheapest places unless we really insist. This time we were lucky: we met an English teacher, Nader, who recommended that we stay in the local Teacher’s Accommodation. Apparently this was the cheapest place in town, and they would be happy to rent us a room. Our room was lovely, the best we have had so far in Iran, and it even came with an en-suite bathroom! Nader decided to adopt us for the evening and said he would meet us at 7pm.

He brought his 12 year old son, Salar, and showed us around the town. We met many of his family members and friends, had ice cream and talked all evening. Read more about our evening with Nader here.

From Mianeh, it was 140km to Zanjan, our next destination. There was nothing much in between, and the distance was just out of range for us, as it was a bit further than we could comfortably cycle in a day, particularly as it gets dark early these days. Freddie’s bike also had its first puncture since we left home, after 6,700km, a shaft of glass went through her tire. Not a bad record we think, as so far we had only had one puncture on this trip, on Guy’s bike. The scenery improved and we even had a short but quite spectacular mountainous stretch, where the main road went through a tunnel and we had a secondary road to ourselves – for 10 minutes.

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Regular readers may recall our experiences during the melon season in Turkey, where we were sometimes given huge melons up to 8kg in weight. We thought melons were out of season now, but were taught a lesson when we were given four melons within half an hour! First, a young guy stopped us and gave us a small watermelon, which we ate by the side of the road. Two of his friends arrived on motorbikes, and insisted on giving us another watermelon. Shortly after we left, a couple of guys in a pickup truck stopped us and invited us to eat with them. We declined, abiding by the rules of Ta’arof, and they gave us two honeydew melons instead. Luckily the melons were not so big, so we were actually able to transport them.

Some of the young guys in this area are a bit aggressive, especially guys on motorbikes. They often yell when passing us, and one guy travelling in the opposite direction thought it was very funny to come over to our side, ride straight towards us and then pass by with inches to spare. At one point, two guy on motorbikes came up from behind us, and one of them started yelling something at Freddie in Farsi. He rode next to her, coming closer and closer and completely ignoring Guy (which is very inappropriate in Iran). He came so close he almost pushed Freddie off the road, and eventually she yelled at him and he gave her a hard slap on the shoulder before turning and speeding off.

We were annoyed and decided to have lunch away from other people, so we pulled off into a small area with some trees, which was sheltered from the road. As soon as we arrived, two men on motorbikes pulled up. Here we go, we thought, but it was just Nasser and his dad Ali, who owned the piece of land we were sitting on. They were very friendly and a little shy, and eventually they sat down near us and accepted some dates from us. Nasser spoke some English, and he invited us to have some rice at their house. We declined, and later he asked again. We thought the invitation was probably genuine, but we are never quite sure because of Ta’arof, and we discussed it for a while before we decided to accept – if he asked again. Unfortunately by then they probably thought we didn’t want to come, so they said goodbye and we left. This is really complicated in Iran, and we think that we might sometimes miss out on some nice hospitality – but sometimes we also have invitations that are definitely just Ta’arof, and slowly we are beginning to be able to tell the difference.

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In the afternoon, we started looking for a wild camping spot. It was not so easy, as most of the land was agricultural and there were many people around. On the right hand side, some hills came up, and suddenly we spotted a lovely dried out riverbed. Guy investigated and we quickly pulled into the river bed and around the corner to be out of sight of the road. It was a lovely spot, fairly hidden and with nice views. However, in this part of the world it is very difficult to find a “shepherd-proof” spot, and sure enough, suddenly we saw a dog appearing. This is never a good sign, and shortly afterwards the shepherd appeared. He was driving his herd of sheep through the riverbed, and he just greeted us and moved on. At this time of year, it gets dark at 6pm and stays that way until 6am. There is not much to do as we usually don’t want to put our torches on to read because we are not keen on being discovered at night for safety reasons, so we just talk for a while and try to sleep as much as possible. In summer we had the opposite problem – sleep deprivation – as it only got dark at 10pm and light again at 4am, and we were often in farm areas where we had to leave by dawn.

The camping was great to relax our minds from the constant onslaught of impressions that Iran is throwing at us. We cherished the peace and quiet of being in nature, and the simplicity of just putting up our tent without dealing with city traffic and having to find a hotel. Camping is actually fairly common in Iran as many people camp out in the city parks in summer to escape the heat.

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In the morning, however, we had pretty much run out of breakfast foods. We only had a little piece of bread left, so we ate that and left. We have found it quite tricky to find basic foods like bread and vegetables in Iran. Many shops along the road only sell snacks, and bakeries often only sell cakes, muffins and cookies, but no bread. We sometimes spend a lot of time hunting around for basic foods, and also there are not many shops in between towns so it’s difficult to resupply. Despite the sanctions it is still quite easy to find some Western brands like Coca Cola and Nutella though.

This morning we were in luck. We noticed a little cafe with a terrace by the side of the road and pulled in to investigate. The owner greeted us, and we communicated with sign language that we were after something to eat. He motioned for us to sit down on one of the carpeted platforms in the garden and proceeded to yell at someone across the road. Soon enough the chef arrived from a nearby field. He was wearing a combination of what looked like pyjamas and work clothes, his collar turned up, with big hair and a smile to match it. He was carrying a dried head of sunflower (sunflower seeds are a popular snack here and are often sold as whole sunflower heads). We had no idea what we had ordered, so we were delighted when the chef arrived with two omelettes, bread and tea.

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When we arrived in Zanjan around lunchtime, we had, as always, trouble finding a hotel. As we were looking at our map, a man came up to us and immediately invited us to come to his house now, almost without any introduction. We politely declined, as all we wanted was a shower and some food, and he helped us find our hotel. Here, we spent two nights relaxing and exploring the city, as well as stocking up on food for the next leg of our trip. We are planning to head to Qom and then Kashan, before we make our way to Esfahan.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Tourists on parade

Cycling into the dusty outskirts of Mianeh we were greeted with the the usual long stretch of greasy garages exhibiting pieces of Paykans and old trucks at various stages of their life cycle waiting to be welded, beaten and batted and then spat back out on the roads for the next round of battering.||

Once you get through the initial mayhem these small regional towns can be quite pleasant but they are always guaranteed to be clogged with traffic. Cars and trucks jostle for position and motorbikes dart through any gaps that momentarily appear. We know our place in the food chain so we are always ready to back off, but being too timid often results in confusion from drivers as they expect you to be opportunistic. Once you get your nerve and get into the flow of the traffic it seems to work rather well but we still haven’t worked out the traffic lights. The traffic lights consist of three lights, either all amber or all red. Normally they are amber with the middle light blinking. We take amber as saying, “go if you want but be prepared for anything” and the red as “stop” but it seems there are variations on “stop” as many drivers still go through when it’s a certain phases of blinking red, all rather confusing so we end up doing what the traffic does.

As usual perplexed by the Farsi script we were unable to find a hotel so we stopped for a few moments at cross roads to consult the map. Within a minute there was a small crowed mulling around us intrigued by the strangers on bikes. With much miming and broken Farsi we tried to explain how we find ourselves in their town.

Soon a man stepped forward and asked us in broken English if he could help. We asked for a hotel, stressing the word cheap as by default all tourists are sent to the most expensive hotel in town as it is assumed that we want to pay well over the odds for a nice en suite with a sit down loo. After examining our unkempt looks he soon appreciated the fact we were ready for the local establishments.

The nice chap had offered to escort us to the hotel but first asked if we needed anything from the shop.

“Shop, bread, yoghurt, milk, egg?” he enquired, mustering up all the grocery vocab he could find.

Guy politely refused, explaining we don’t need anything, but it seemed he wasn’t taking no for an answer.

“No, no, I say to YOU, do YOU need anything from shop”.

“Umm, nope, I REALLY can’t think of anything”, Guy insisted.

After a moment of confused looks he escorted us to the Teachers Residence, holding Guy by the arm as we crossed the road whilst Freddy was stumbling behind struggling to keep up.

The Teachers Residence looked far too nice for our usual standard so we were naturally concerned about the price tag attached. After a small negotiation with the very friendly Resident Manager we found ourselves in the best Iranian room to date, en suite (no sit down but a real McCoy flusher), fridge and safe place for the bikes.

The chap who had found us the accommodation, Nader, was keen to meet up later and show us around town, and we were keen for the local tour. We waited outside the residence and soon Nader appeared with his ever so slightly rotund son in tow.

He introduced us to his son, “this is my son, he is very fat”.

Taken aback by the rather abrupt introduction Guy stumbled for a response. “Nooo Nader, he’s just……well fed, your wife must be a wonderful cook” said Guy, immediately regretting what he had just said.

It soon became apparent that the conversation was going to be limited as his English was quite basic. It emerged that Nader was actually a teacher of 30 years. Guy asked him what he was a teacher of.

“I’m teacher English”.

Guy turned to Freddie with raised eyebrows. Perhaps this was an explanation as to why we had encountered such little English throughout the town…

We decided that we should go to the park, the pride and joy of most Iranian towns. Just before the entrance Nader asked us if we would like some ice cream.

“Mr Guy, do you like ice cream?” said Nader.

“Sure”, replied Guy.

“Does she like ice cream?” enquired Nader, pointing to Freddie some one foot away.

In an attempt to bring Freddie more into the all-male conversation Guy turned to Freddie.

“Yes, I like ice-cream too”, chirped Freddie.

Strolling into the parlour it soon became apparent that Nader knew most of the staff and was quickly giving them the run down on his prized find from foreign lands.

We sat down to our ice cream dessert. A delicious rose flavoured ice cream, with the consistency of thick goo. In a momentary lull in conversation Freddie questioned the origins of a brown liquid on the table. After a discussion with the staff a small dish of beans emerged, similar to Kidney beans but larger in size.

Nader doused the beans in the brown liquid which turned out to be vinegar.

“What is it?” enquired Nader.

“Beans”, we replied.

“What is it?” said Nader pointing to the vinegar.

“Vinegar”, said Freddie.

He wrote them down in his little notepad, no doubt the word of the day for tomorrow’s English class.

Diving into the beans Guy made the classic tourist mistake of eating with the left hand, the poo hand. Freddie shot Guy a look but it was too late, you could see the look on Nader’s face. Within a flash a second bowl was ordered and Nader told us it was for us.

“Thanks”, we said.

Moments later he asked if he too could have some beans. We soon realised we had made the second most common tourist mistake in Iran, not anticipating Ta’arof, we should have refused the beans as he actually wanted them for himself. During all this commotion his son, Salar, was polishing off his second helping of rose flavoured ice cream.

Leaving the parlour we headed for the town centre, which was very vibrant, with modern shops selling the latest mobile phones and flat screen TV’s to more heritage items such as antique shops with hand painted vases from Esfahan and Persian carpets from Tabriz.

Every second store Nader seemed to know someone, he would say a big hello and making sure that we were clearly on show. People would greet us with big smiles and hand shakes, it was very self absorbent but we must admit it was all rather fun.

Nader also had an older son that has a shoe shop in town. We went to pay him a visit.

“What do you think of my son, beautiful?”

“Yes, he’s very beautiful”, said Guy.

Within a flash Nader had explained to his son that Guy thinks he is beautiful, much to the embarrassment of both parties involved.

“Are you comfortable?” Nader shot up.

“Yes.”

“Are you tired, do you go hotel or park.”

We explained that perhaps we could go via the park to the hotel. We were still really keen on going to the Park. We walked back the way we had come and nearing the park again we suddenly doubled back to the hotel. It seemed we were never destined to see the park after all.

Back at the hotel we found out that Nader did not devout all of his time to teaching but was an active member of the school’s ping pong team, and if legend be true, his brother is the captain of the Iranian national team! Of course the strong ping pong gene had rubbed of on Salar and we watched videos of him in action on his fathers mobile phone. Somewhere during the course of the evening it was clear that the day’s activity was taking its toll on Guy as his pronunciation of Salar had some how metamorphosed into “Salad”.

“Ohh look look, I can see Salad, he’s very good at ping pong Nader!”

Just to make matters worse: “Salad, you are very good at Ping Pong.”

After a few rounds of picture taking and some address swapping we parted ways after a truly entertaining but exhausting evening.

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Saturday, 16 October 2010

Tabriz: an insight into Iranian lives

We spent only two days in Tabriz, but it felt a lot longer. On our first day, we were adopted by a local to explore the amazing Bazaar with its exotic fruits and spices, beautiful carpets and handmade jewellery. We didn’t plan to do too much on our second day, only resting up, writing our journal and sorting through our photos. However, the one thing we did want to visit was the Blue Mosque. ||

The Blue Mosque was built in 1465, and was one of the most glorious buildings of the era. Every surface was covered in blue mosaic tiles and calligraphy. It collapsed in an earthquake in 1773 and was only restored in the 1950s. At the mosque we met a couple of girls from Kermanshah who were here on a weekend trip. They were very sweet and invited us to Kermanshah, but unfortunately we are not going that way.

Inside the Mosque the patches of original tile work that remained were stunning, a visit prior to the 1773 quake when it was in its full glory must have been exquisite.

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Afterwards, we were resting in a nearby park, watching families picnic and children zip by on rollerblades, when an older man with frizzy white hair came up to us. He spoke German and was delighted to be able to practice. Like a waterfall, he talked without a break, quizzing us about the economic and political situation in Germany, Australia and the UK. Question after question was fired at us: “What is the unemployment rate in Australia at the moment? Is Australia affected by the global financial crisis? What are your biggest exports?  What do you think of Angela Merkel? Is is true that she has a PhD? If you wanted to live in the USA, would you need a visa?” and so on. He was an intensely curious and kind man, and like many of the people here, when we finally extricated ourselves to walk back to our hotel, he looked sad to see us go.

We feel that many Iranians are very keen to meet foreigners, as we represent a connection with the outside world. On the other side it’s also sometimes dangerous for them to be seen with us, and several times we had to pretend they were just showing us the way when a police man came along. Many educated Iranians we have spoken to dream of emigrating to another country, usually the US, Canada, Australia or the UK. Many people speak openly about their issues with the current government here, and ask us for information about life in our countries, and how to get a visa. One young guy we spoke to said, “Our president is a very bad diplomat, making the situation much worse for us Iranians, it feels like a prison. I have only one wish: to emigrate.” It’s such a sad situation that so many of the people we speak to are faced with this dilemma; leaving their country, a country they love passionately but a country that gives them such limited freedom. Another guy we met said that not even all the Iranian oil money could persuade him to stay in a country where he has no freedom. A young girl said 40% of her class mates have already emigrated and many more will follow.

Walking back from the mosque, we noticed a teenage girl with her dad. Sometimes they were walking next to us, sometimes we overtook them, then suddenly they appeared in front again. As we passed them again, we heard a faint “Hello!” They were both very shy, but really wanted to talk to us. The girl was 13 and wearing braces. She spoke a little English, and her dad was even shyer than she was. “Please, come to our house”, she invited us after a few minutes. We were curious, but at the same time also tired from our previous encounter with the German speaking man, and we also still had stuff to do back at the hotel, so we declined politely, but walked a little further with them. We found that in Tabriz, people were so extremely friendly that we could not accept all invitations, otherwise we would not have a minute to ourselves. Iran is the most fascinating, interesting and contradictory country we have ever travelled in, and we needed time to digest our impressions.

We quickly finished our journal writing and headed to the internet cafe. In Turkey, we almost always had a WiFi internet connection in our hotel, but in Iran this was pretty much non-existent, even in the better hotels. We were in for a surprise: as we entered the internet cafe, we saw PY sitting there, the French backpacker we had met back in Dogubeyazit. We thought he would be far ahead of us by now, but somehow he was still in Tabriz. He looked absolutely exhausted. Diagnosis: hospitality overload. It turned out that he had made friends with some local guys. They were making music together and so he had stayed much longer than planned. They were planning to head to a park just outside the city, Elgoli Park, and invited us to come along.

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An hour later we were on our way. PY got his guitar from the hotel, and we all jumped into a taxi. Shared taxis are very common here, and on the way, the taxi stopped several times to pick up or drop off other passengers. The two Iranian guys were sitting in front, one on the other’s lap, and they asked the taxi driver to play their tape. They were into rap music, which is actually banned in Iran. Because of this, they had no access to a proper recording studio and had to use home studios. The whole scene seemed to be quite underground. PY had recorded a song with them, which they now delighted in playing at full volume making the old Paykan taxi rattle to the heavy beats of their rap tunes and the taxi driver grow more and more nervous that he might be found guilty by association. Ahmed, who composes music, told us he wants to emigrate, because everything he wants to do in Iran is banned.

The plan was to find a quiet spot in the park to make some music, but this never happened as the park was full of Iranians enjoying the many outdoor food stalls and waterpipe bars. We met up with a local girl PY had met through Couchsurfing, and decided to have a quick bite to eat. This turned into quite a long dinner and a smoke of the waterpipe.

The guys told us that there is no way for them to buy legal software or download Iphone apps, as they are unable to pay for them because of the sanctions against the banking system. Even Paypal is blocked for Iranians. There is a huge black market for software, and in fact there doesn’t even seem to be any copyright law in Iran, which must have a big impact on businesses here. PY’s friend sometimes does translation work for a client abroad (she is an English teacher), and the only way for her to get paid is to use an agent who has a bank account in Azerbaijan and receives the money for her, in return for a fee. People here feel very cut off from the rest of the world…

It was an interesting evening, and we would have liked to stay in Tabriz a little longer. However, we only have a one month visa and are not sure if we will be able to extend it, so we had to jump back on the bikes the following morning and pedal towards our next destination, Zanjan.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Tabriz Bazaar

Wow. We felt like we had stepped back in time. This was how the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul must have been like a very long time ago, before the arrival of tourism.

The Tabriz Bazaar covers 7 km2, most of which is a covered labyrinth. Construction began over 1,000 years ago, and most of the brick vaulting was built in the 15th century. There are also 24 caravanserais within the bazaar – large open courtyards where in the olden days traders with their camels would have arrived.

We quickly got lost in the bazaar, and our first interaction was with a retired history professor who was now selling antiques in his little shop in the bazaar. He showed us many amazing things, including 18th century coins, Iraqi bank notes featuring Saddam Hussein, and a handmade necklace that could hold a miniature Qr’an.

Next, we discovered an amazing bakery. A local couple recommended some cakes for us to try, and we stocked up on muffins, cream profiteroles and cookies, all for the princely sum of 1 Euro.

In the carpet section, we came across a large hallway where men were sitting on the ground knotting carpets. We had never seen carpets like these: many were actually mounted on picture frames and showed images ranging from English country houses and nomads with donkeys to flower arrangements and carpets with Arabic writing. Surprisingly, there were quite a few Christian religious paintings like the Last Supper and Mary with baby Jesus. There were also carpets depicting a US 100 Dollar bill, and even one showing Lady Di! 

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Nobody was taking any notice of us. Obviously tourists were not the main customer base here – what a difference to the constant hassle of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul!

Walking around the carpet section we met an older man who spoke very good English. He was carrying a small carpet under his arm and invited us back to his carpet shop for tea. We accepted, expecting a sales pitch but thinking we might learn something. We walked up a small unmarked staircase and into a little office full of carpets. Several men were already there discussing business, and we were invited to sit down while our friend went to a tea shop. We never caught his name, but he showed us pictures of other foreigners he had met, and he was just genuinely interested in meeting us. The sales pitch never came, even when we asked some questions about the carpets. He explained that Tabriz is the main carpet centre in Iran, and many people come from Teheran, Esfahan and other places to buy carpets here. He is the one with the brown suit in the right hand picture.

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Our Farsi language guide was useless as the people in this area are mostly Azeri. In fact, 25% of the population of Iran is Azeri, and they speak a mix of Azeri and Turkish. Most understand or speak Farsi as well, but not as a first language. Iran is an incredibly diverse country, and so far we haven’t met many Persians. We have met mainly Azeri, Turks, and Kurdish people so far, but expect this will change as we travel further south.

After tea, our new friend showed us around the bazaar. We walked with him through the herb and spice area, where many shops were displaying large bags of fragrant goods including saffron, mint and lavender. He explained that many people here use herbal medicine, and the herbs are used for all sorts of ailments.

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We also walked past jewellery shops where we saw the jeweller creating rings, and we visited a shop selling handmade knifes with sheep bone handles. Our friend took us to the honey section where jars of local honeycomb and pots of honey were on sale, and we bought some to take with us. We also bought some juicy Iranian dates that were weighed and packaged into little boxes by a specialty shop.

This was shopping the old fashioned way, and we loved it. It was so authentic. Tabriz Bazaar is where we really started to fall in love with Iran.

We also went to visit a nearby mosque with a magnificent brick vaulted interior, and then it was time for lunch. We went to a small restaurant in the bazaar where many traders eat their lunch or drink tea and smoke the water pipe. Here, we were shown how to eat Dizi. Dizi is an Iranian stew made with lamb, chickpeas, potato and tomatoes. There is an art to eating it: first you place chunks of bread into your bowl, then you drain the liquid from your pot of Dizi into your bowl. The bread is soaked for a little while and then eaten. Next, you place the rest of your Dizi into your bowl and remove any bones. You are given a little masher and use this to mash up the stew before eating it. It was an unusual taste for Freddie who does not usually eat lamb, but it was delicious nonetheless.

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The fruit and vegetable section was equally exotic, with bags of tiny yellow lemons that were scooped up with a large spoon, sweet mandarins with a bright green skin, and wooden carts piled high with pomegranates or roasted turnips.

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We said goodbye to our new friend and made our way back to the hotel. Walking through a park, we passed men playing chess and a row of outdoor bookshops. The following day we visited the Blue Mosque and met lots of friendly people, including a very shy 13 year old girl and her dad who invited us to their home. In our first few days in Iran we have had so many invitations already that unfortunately it is impossible to accept them all. People here don’t see so many foreigners and are very keen to interact, making us feel so welcome. We could spend a lot of time here in Tabriz, but time on our visa is ticking and we will have to leave tomorrow to cycle towards our next destination, Zanjan.

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Transitions: adjusting to Iran

In Iran, we are altering our approach to our blogs a little. For the time being, we will not post a chronological account of our experiences. Instead, we will pick out certain events that we will write about in more detail. We will post our usual chronological blogs later when we can find a descent internet connection…||

We had a few interesting days, crossing the border from Turkey to Iran and cycling via Maku to Tabriz. We have entered another world, passing through muddy villages and finding a lot less facilities on the road than what we were used to in Turkey.

Freddie has changed into her new cycling outfit, to comply with the laws in Iran: A light cotton coat, long trousers and a Buff that she wears like a balaclava underneath her cycling helmet, to cover her hair. Luckily, the temperatures are quite cool now. Off the bike, she wears a slightly more stylish headscarf to fit in better with the local women. Some women wear very modern clothes, with their head scarves pushed right back to reveal elaborate hair dos and a lot of makeup. Many young girls wear jeans and Converse trainers underneath their coats. However, most women we have seen do wear the chador – a large black piece of material, sometimes decorated with black flower patterns, which covers them from head to toe and is held closed with their hands or teeth. They often even cover their faces so that only the eyes can be seen. Freddie is generally getting used to the new dress code, but it is a bit of a hassle when we are in cheap hotels with shared bathrooms, where she has to get dressed up every time she needs to use the loo!

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It is quite common that the men we interact with only speak to Guy, even when they are asking questions about Freddie. “What is her name?”, “What is her job?” This took some getting used to for Freddie. On the other hand, we do find women here fairly outgoing and we have met some women who just came up to us on the street for a chat. We actually see a lot more women out on the streets than in Eastern Turkey, where they were almost non-existent.

Our first impression of the Iranians is that they are a bit more shy than the Turkish people, but very warm hearted, friendly and curious. They are always ready to help us out and a quick “salam” to a passing stranger often invokes a small crowd all trying to assist us in any way possible. It is very easy to find people who speak English in Iran. Every time we stop to ask someone for directions, we find someone who speaks English. The Iranians strike us as very intelligent people, and often when we ask people where they have learned English, they say that they have just taught themselves. Iranians are very well read as evident by the numerous bookshops. They are also extremely curious about foreigners, and the other day we were speaking to a student who told us he was very nervous and excited as we were the first foreigners he had ever spoken to!

We are also enjoying the food in Iran, in particular the juice parlours and bakeries with freshly baked cakes and cookies that we have found in Tabriz.

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Our first few days in Iran were quite confusing. All the signs are written in Farsi script, which we really can’t decipher at all. Sometimes we had trouble finding hotels because the word “Hotel” is also written in Farsi, but with the help of the local people we always found our way in the end. Luckily, many road signs are written in both Farsi and Latin script. The other confusing thing was the money. We had changed 100 Euros near the border, and became instant millionaires when we got a big wad of bills worth 1.45 million Rials. The problem was that nobody in Iran talks in Rials. People normally talk in terms of Tomans – one Toman is 10 Rials. Sometimes they also talk in US Dollars. Not knowing the price of anything, we were never sure if, when shopkeepers held up 3 fingers, they meant 300, 3,000, 30,000 or 300,000 Rials. We were lucky that on our first few shopping trips we were accompanied by Iranians who translated for us, otherwise we would have been quite lost.

The other complicated thing here is Ta’arof. This is a formalised system of politeness which can be very confusing to outsiders. For example, someone might offer us some food, but instead of just accepting, we would be expected to turn down the offer. They would then offer it again, but we would have to turn it down three times first, before accepting if they still insist. This system gives people the chance to make an offer, but then to be able to back out without losing face. Also we might want to pay someone for a service, and they might say “it’s nothing” – but in reality we would have to insist until they take the money. For us, it is difficult to tell if an offer is genuine or just Ta’arof, but slowly we are getting familiar with the quirks of the Iranian culture.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Suleyman the Terrible

Marand – Tabriz

In the outskirts of Marand, we were stopped by the secret police (we think). A man in a car followed us and stopped us. Two other men were already standing nearby and moved closer as he started to fire questions at us in perfect English. How many days have you been in Iran? What is your planned route? Where are you planning to spend the night? How are you finding the Iranian people? How do you justify your statement that the Iranian people are friendly people? I am Iranian, how do you know I am friendly? What is your evidence for this? ||

Guy did his best to answer all questions which seemed to satisfy (Freddie was ignored in this exchange, being a woman) as we were eventually released, while the man briefed the other two men in Farsi. Unfortunately it was quite late by now and starting to get dark as we cycled into town. No problem, we thought, we are in the town now and will easily find a hotel. However, the town was a lot bigger than expected, and we asked for directions several times. At one point we followed some guys on a motorbike through the rush hour traffic, until they eventually pointed up a hill saying the hotel is 5km out of town. By then we had done 105km, it was dark and we were knackered. A crowd was forming around us, and the consensus was that the hotel up the hill was the only one suitable for foreigners. There was another option in town, but it would be too dirty. We were happy with a bit of dirt but did not want to face the traffic in town again, and besides the hotel was in the direction we needed to go the next day anyway, so we continued up the hill, expecting to pay over the odds for quite a fancy hotel.

It was only about 6pm, but it was pitch black by now, there was no hard shoulder to ride on, and the traffic coming out of town was very busy. Eventually there were no more buildings and we thought we might have missed the hotel. We stopped to reconfirm directions at a construction site. By now we were really fed up with the traffic and cycling uphill in the dark, and we tentatively asked if we might be able to camp at the site.

The night guard at the building site pointed to the empty guard house and offered for us to sleep in there. This was perfect! We put the bikes in and he invited us to a construction site container to have tea. He seemed to be the most hospitable guy, getting out bread, cheese and cucumbers for us, making sure we were comfortable and keeping the tea topped up. We decided to cook dinner there and made spaghetti with tuna sauce. Suleyman, the guard, ate with us and we were having a great time. He was learning English words and we were learning Farsi words, and it was all good fun. Suleyman also pointed to himself explaining he was from “Kurdistan! PKK!”. This worried us a little as we thought we were finally out of PKK territory now… At the same time we were happy to experience some genuine Kurdish hospitality after our mixed experiences in the Kurdish area of Turkey. Eventually a friend arrived and had some tea with us, then it was time for bed. Our dishes were kept in the container and it was decided that they would be washed in the morning.

Suleyman took us back to the guard house, pointed to some blankets we could use to sleep on and gave us a bag of potato crisps. He explained that he would sleep in Marand tonight and come back at 7am the next morning. And then in the dark of the night, with just a silhouette of Suleyman showing he motioned that we would give him Dollars. Dollars?!

We were disappointed and annoyed. He had not indicated at all that he expected us to pay for sleeping here. We had had such a good time together, we thought we were friends! Suleyman turned to leave. But hang on – how many dollars? He did not understand our question, but we insisted and gave him a note pad to write down how much he wanted. He got very nervous and disappeared across the street with our notepad while we paced around in the dark guard house, considering our options. When he came back, someone had written on the notepad “mani gevmi” – aha, “give me money”. Still no amount, and finally he understood and asked for $10. We offered $5, he accepted and turned to leave. He explained that he would lock the guard house so we were “safe”. We were very uncomfortable with this and asked for the key, but he insisted he had to keep the key, and suddenly he closed the door, locked it from the outside and left us all alone in the dark. We knew that in an emergency we could get out of the window, but it was not practical with the bikes, and we could not face packing up again and getting out into the traffic looking for the hotel. Besides, Suleyman still had our non-stick frying pan. So we stayed.

We made our bed on the upstairs floor and tried to get some sleep. However as night set in our fears and paranoia began to fester. We started to worry that Suleyman might not be happy with our offer of $5 and might come back with his PKK cronies. He had betrayed us and we did not trust him anymore. We decided we should probably prepare for the worst so we did what any rational mind would do: we armed ourselves. Our primary weapon is our pepper spray, Freddie could conceal this in her headscarf and whip it out at a moment’s notice. Next we had a small pocket knife, which at times struggled to negotiate crusty bread but it would have to do. We settled down on our mats, wide-eyed, listening intently to the faintest of noises.

A little while later, we heard a muttering of voices downstairs, and a small stone knock against the upstairs windows. Our hearts skipped a beat, Suleyman and the PKK had come for us!

We peered out from the upstairs window, there were three men milling around outside and calling out to us. Here we go – time to fight!

Half asleep we decided we should first dress and prepare for battle. Guy was frantic as he couldn’t find his cycling shorts but soon realised was not entirely necessary for battle. Freddie couldn't decipher whose shirt was whose and inadvertently had Guy’s shirt on and then panicked when she couldn’t find her head scarf – what if she ran out on the street without it, would she get arrested?

During the mist of the the confusion and panic Guy had a thought.

“Shall we try to talk to them?” Ok, that’s a great idea, diplomacy first! So we opened the window, and Guy stuck his head out.

Trying to act as casual as possible Guy enquired as to the nature of their visit.

Robbery, kidnap, torture, theft…

The men were calling “Suleyman, Suleyman” and making gestures indicating food. They were just looking for Suleyman to have some food together! Relieved, Guy explained that Suleyman was in Marand, and the men thanked us and left.

We lay down our weapons, had a laugh over our stupidity and slept soundly, content that we would soon be reunited with out non stick frying pan.

At 7am, Suleyman, looking a little sheepish, turned up and unlocked us from our prison. He was acting friendly as ever and nothing in his behaviour indicated the awkward situation from the previous evening. He invited us back into the container for tea. The only reason we accepted was because of our frying pan. So we went in for a quick tea. Suleyman then brought out bread for us and started making omelettes. We needed something for breakfast anyway, so we ate with him keeping one eye on him at all time. He made us a packed lunch, did our dishes and generally clowned around a lot. We were not sure if he was feeling guilty for the way he had treated us the previous night, or because he wanted to make an effort so that we would give him more money. Eventually we decided to give him $10 because of all the food he had given us, and were relieved when we finally left the place.

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We had got ourselves into a tricky situation by underestimating how difficult it could be to find a hotel in the town. We don’t think Suleyman had any worse intentions than trying to make a few bucks from the passing tourists, and to be fair he did work hard for his $10. In the future, we would have to be more cautious and make sure we found a place to sleep well before dark. Often we have a split second decision to make -  do we trust this person? From this situation we have learnt to avoid making such decision when it’s dark and you can’t get a proper feel for the situation.

We were really tired from all the entertainment of the previous night and to make matters worse, there was no hard shoulder to ride on for most of the day, and the traffic was still extremely busy. A van driver cheered us up by giving us some yoghurt, and later a young guy presented us with an apple and some iced water.

Finally the sprawl of Tabriz appeared, and coming into the city centre we instantly felt comfortable. The city has almost a cosmopolitan feel to it with leafy boulevards, coffee shops and pizza restaurants. We got a little lost at first, but eventually found a hotel that Jay had recommended to us, which was really good value and also had a kitchen that we could use.

Tabriz has a population of almost 2 million and a strong university presence. 70% of the population of Iran is under 30 years of age, so there are young people everywhere (contraception was illegal in the 1980s…). It’s a lovely town with lots of parks and gardens and a truly amazing bazaar. We saw a very different side to Iran in Tabriz, and one that we really liked. Exploring the colourful bazaar we quickly made new friends, and it was lovely to see a modern city after the depressing villages and crumbling industries we had passed in our first few days. It certainly wasn’t love at first sight, but slowly we were starting to really appreciate Iran.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Iranian Blues

Dogubeyazit – Marand

After two wonderful months in Turkey we were finally ready to say goodbye. We were sure we would miss it, but at the same time our experiences in the Wild East had left us shaken up a bit and we were ready for a new country. We left Dogubeyazit for the final 30km ride to the Iranian border, passing the snow capped peak of Mount Ararat on the way. There was also a sign pointing to Noah’s Arc, but we had heard it was just a stone shaped like the Arc, so it didn’t sound too exciting, and besides it was a 10km detour up a hill, yeehk!||

Shortly before the border, Freddie changed into her Iranian cycling outfit – a very light cotton coat to cover her behind, and a Buff worn as a balaclava to cover her hair.

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We then passed a queue of trucks, which was more than 5km long. They were mostly Turkish and Iranian trucks waiting to cross the border, and judging by the utterly bored looks on the drivers faces, some of them looked like they had been waiting for a long time already.

At the border, we had a surprise when suddenly Jay appeared! We had met Jay a few days earlier in Agri, and he said he had passed us on his way to the border and had waited for us there to make sure we would get through without problems (he is Iranian). However, he said he would cross the border by himself as he feared that chatting to foreigners might cause some problems for him with the secret police.

As soon as we came to the Iranian side of the border, we were greeted by some extremely friendly border guards, one of which slipped us a friend’s phone number in Tabriz when we mentioned we would pass through the city. We were also interviewed by a friendly tourism officer who took some notes about our route and gave us a map of Iran. When we were waiting for our passports to be returned to us, which only took about 10 minutes, we first pretended not to know Jay, but he is such a nice guy that he couldn’t resist coming over to ask if everything was ok. We had arranged to meet again in the border town, but we waited there for quite a while until Jay finally arrived, looking a little frazzled. He said that he had been detained at the border for an hour by the secret police who wanted to investigate him. They asked him who we were and how he knew us, and then proceeded to quiz him about his frequent travels abroad, threatening to detain him again when he next crossed the border. This was the first time we felt that we needed to be very aware of our actions in Iran, and how they could impact the Iranian people we were interacting with.

We stopped in a tea shop to calm Jay’s nerves. We were sitting on a platform laid out with carpets and pillows, and with some men smoking water pipes nearby. The tea in Iran is served slightly differently to Turkey: instead of putting sugar in the tea, you put it on your tongue so that it melts when you drink your tea. We have also found that the tea culture is not as prevalent in Iran as it is in Turkey, and a few times we actually had trouble finding tea at all, which would have been unthinkable in Turkey. 

We then cycled on to the first bigger town in Iran, Maku, while Jay took a taxi there. In the town, we really had trouble finding a hotel, as all signs, even on hotels, were only in Persian script. To us, it was completely illegible, and so we had to ask several locals before we found the hotel. Jay was waiting there for us and it felt really good to see a familiar face in an environment that felt so foreign to us. The women in the head to toe black chadors, the heavy traffic, the correct etiquette, the secret police, Ta’arof - all this was swirling around our minds.

Jay was planning to take a bus to Tabriz in the evening, so he had a few spare hours to kill. The hotel was basic, but very cheap, particularly after Jay had negotiated a discount for us. We had a walk around town and went out for dinner in a local restaurant. The food was excellent – barley soup, grilled chicken in a tomato sauce, rice decorated with pomegranate seeds, and yoghurt – and the bill came to only $11 for the three of us. Good news, Iran seemed to be a lot cheaper than Turkey which would hopefully give us a chance to reduce our budget blow out from Istanbul.

We planned to take three days to cycle from Maku to Tabriz, and we were going to try to stay in hotels. Being in such a new and different country, we wanted to get to know it a little first, before we started to wild camp again. On our first day out of Maku, the weather was cloudy, cold and it started to rain later on. The scenery was drab and we were struggling to adjust to the crazy traffic.

The road was quite small, which a narrow hard shoulder. There was lots of traffic, including many buses and trucks, and we witnessed many dangerous overtaking manoeuvres which literally made our jaws drop with amazement. At times a bus would overtake a truck, and at the same time a car would overtake the bus on the hard shoulder with one wheel completely off the road, in the meantime a motorbike would be trying to squeeze into any small gap that might appear. Meanwhile there was also oncoming traffic so we saw quite a few narrow misses. Luckily the vehicles usually gave us enough space, but we really had to be very aware of the traffic around us at all times. Even during moments of nice scenery we dare not take our eyes of the road for even a second. To add to this the heavy traffic is made up of mainly older vehicles that spew out intensely polluted exhaust fumes which makes our eyes and throats sore.

The villages looked a lot poorer than in Turkey, and also not as colourful. Not every village seemed to have a mosque, and there didn’t seem to be much going on in terms of agriculture. It was quite hard to believe that Iran actually has the world’s second largest oil and natural gas reserves, and none of that potential wealth seems to get to these villages. We even passed a sign with an image of a fuel station and a rose, saying “Victory is ours” (in English, probably for the benefit of us tourists!), all rather ironic when you look at the state of the crumbling industries some distance before. However, there are not many fuel stations at all in Iran, and half of them are closed down. The ones that are open usually have massive queues of cars – normally about 40-50 cars queuing for fuel. We are not sure if this is the effect of the recent sanctions (Iran actually reimports a lot of its refined oil from other countries), but it was certainly a strange sight in such an oil rich country.

There were not many facilities on the road at all. The water points we were used to from Turkey had dried up, and there were no shops or restaurants along the road, no mosques that we could see, and obviously no fuel stations to stop at either. We couldn’t read many of the road signs as they were in Farsi, although once in a while there was an English sign as well.

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We were feeling pretty down – the Iranian Blues had struck. We missed Turkey but we knew from previous travellers that Iran was a real highlight, surely things would improve. In the afternoon, we were having a quick stop by the side of the road to clear our minds from the demands of the traffic. It was cold and raining and we were fed up with it all. A car passed us, then turned around and pulled up behind us. A couple of guys got out and pulled out a Thermos with tea, which they offered to us. The warm tea was just what we needed in the trying conditions, it cheered us up immensely.

Shortly afterwards we pulled into the small town we were planning to stay in, Qara Ziaeddin, to look for a hotel. A friendly looking older guy on a motorbike motioned for us to follow him and took us across town and into some back streets before stopping in front of a small tea shop. We were confused – this was a tea shop, not a hotel! They explained that the owner rented out a couple of rooms above the tea shop, at the cost of only $10 per room. Bingo! Our room was basic but fine, and the owner soon invited us for some tea. He said his name was Jalil, and he spoke good English. The tea shop was very popular with old men who spent the afternoon there smoking water pipes and drinking tea. Freddie, as always, was the only woman but there seemed to be no problem with her being in the male dominated environment. We then asked Jalil where we could buy some groceries, and he summoned his 12 year old son, Hadi, to take us on a tour of the town.

With Hadi, we discovered how shopping is done in Iran. There are usually no supermarkets, but many small shops specializing in particular items. First, we went to the grocery shop to buy some milk and biscuits. Next, we went to the fruit and veg man to purchase pears and tomatoes. Finally, we visited the bakery. This was a fantastic place: several men were busy kneading and shaping dough balls, which were then flattened and placed into a large wood fired oven. Our bread came out of the oven and was immediately placed on a small table with a brush, where Hadi brushed off any remaining bits of charcoal. We walked through the unlit back streets where some boys were playing football and women in black chadors were darting from house to house. Iran seems a very safe country, and parents don’t seem to worry at all about their children walking around town after dark.

Jalil invited us to come to his house once the tea shop was closed, to meet his family. When we arrived, we were taken through a courtyard into the living room. Chairs were lined up along the wall, but Jalil’s 80 year old mother was sitting on the floor chopping huge amounts of celery. Freddie was invited to take off her headscarf, we were served tea and snacks, and then the TV was turned on. Amazingly, we were then watching the German ZDF channel, BBC’s Persian channel, and some Iranian programs broadcast from the US. Apparently most Iranians have satellite TV (illegal of course) and they really like to watch the international programs.

Iranians are very curious people, and they ask us many questions about how things are in our home countries. Many questions relate to costs and money, and we did get caught out when Jalil asked us about our salary (this is quite a normal discussion topic here). We understated the facts so that the gap between our incomes and his income wouldn’t be too shocking, so Jalil was rather surprised to find out that he apparently earns more than we do! Oops.

Later, we had fun with the camera and a few props as Hadi and his sister clowned around with us before they were off to bed.

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The next morning we felt better about Iran, the sky was blue, the landscape beautiful and mountainous and the traffic tamer. We had a long day ahead, as we wanted to cover over 100km to get to the next town, Marand. The cycling was quite easy, but we still had to concentrate on the traffic intently. In the early afternoon we stopped at a picnic bench to have some food. There was a Red Crescent ambulance nearby, and soon the paramedic came over for a chat. His English was excellent, and he was a really nice guy who had given up a career in civil engineering to become a paramedic. He was really passionate about helping other people, but unfortunately he was also a little shaken up as there had been a very bad accident that morning. It was a frontal collision between two cars, and one of the drivers had died. We stayed for an hour or so before we had to move on and cycle into Marand.

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