By the time I found a hotel in Tehran it was early afternoon and I had almost lost the will to live.
Once the intensity of dodging high speed projectiles coming from every direction had been elevated and viewed through the perspective of a hotel window, the torment of the morning gradually dissolved into a sense of accomplishment that I had actually made it to Tehran in one piece.
The strain of being under constant threat, like a heavy suffocating blanket of distress, lifted from my shoulders freeing trapped energy held on reserve to action fight or flight responses. That had been a daily ritual for the last few days and, like the unwinding of a coiled spring, each occurrence had a weakening effect. I felt vacantly present, but hungry enough to go back out in search of food.
Tehran was like most large cities; buzzing with activity. Everywhere you looked someone was hustling their way to a precious coin. I looked at the faces passing me in the street and wondered where they were from and where they were going. Faces tell a story all of their own. They are also a blank canvas for us to project ourselves upon. As I looked into those faces passing by, aware my perceptions were merely my own projections, I took note of my own state of health. I was tired, jaded from the road, but focused on hustling my own precious coin; passage to Dubai.
I wandered around working through how I could change my perspective, ate chicken and rice, bought an extra pair of trousers (I only had one pair and had to keep my legs covered at all times), got ripped off by a vendor of dried fruit and nuts, and returned to sleep a deep, dreamless sleep.
Whenever you find yourself overwhelmed by your circumstances you must identify the sources of stress and define which are under your control and which are not. The weather and traffic were variables totally outside of my control; though I could choose different routes, the smaller roads were only sign posted in Persian and not illustrated on my map (which was in English). When I reduced what I was able to control back to time on the bike and attitude, concerns over money, distance travelled, and the weather, dissipated. Worrying about things outside of your direct control is like wishing for them to happen, and a waste of mental and emotional energy. Focusing on only what you can control directs your energy to where you need it most.
I woke in the morning with a much tighter focus; spend eight to ten hours on Shurly Anne and stay positive. The previous evening I managed to pick out the most direct route out of the city using Google maps which happened to be 3 – 4 kilometers the wrong way down a one-way street; when in Tehran and all that! I was immediately pissed off when I discovered I had been swindled out of $30 for the overnight stay, instead of the $3 I thought I had agreed. I had tried to pay the previous night and was told “No problem.” They hold onto your passport and when it came time to check out the next morning the decimal point had been conveniently moved in their favour. I had cycled around for hours the previous day to secure a lower cost hotel only to pay the same rate offered by the first hotel visited. To say I was on the verge of killing someone was an understatement. Paying the previous evening, however, was under my own control and I had to swallow the lesson and move on. B**TARD!!!!!!! Sorry, that slipped out.
Cycling the wrong way down a one-way street at 25 mph with a slightly aggressive stance during rush hour was the perfect antidote. I saw stand up fist fights in the street, motorcycles being smashed up and now have a streak of yellow paint on one of my panniers from a brush with a taxi driver.
After twenty-five miles I stopped for a second breakfast, pleased with progress and fired up for the remaining sixty-five miles to Qom. Before finishing said breakfast the rain had started to fall – no rest for the wicked. I shovelled the remaining pasta and coffee down, packed up and hit the road.
The wind had dropped and, although I was saturated, I was pleased to be making progress, taking shelter under a bridge to refuel in the afternoon. There was nothing to enjoy about the day externally but I did feel good that I had stayed positive while spending nine hours on Shurly Anne, despite the torrential rain and relentless exposure to the toxic fumes pumped out by a chorus of tooting lorries.
Qom was a different place in the morning; the rain had cleared to reveal a cold, fresh, quite attractive city. Only as I cycled beyond the city limits did the wind appear once more, bringing suffering to an otherwise perfect day. Damn you wind! To remain positive I spent most of the day in a meditative state, focusing my attention on all the things I was grateful for; the opportunity to cycle through Iran, the privilege of travelling around the world, my family and friends, and the many acts of kindness I had received. I even tried to say thank you every time I was blasted at point blank range by an air horn, which proved to be a stretch to far for my self induced positivity. It sucks, especially when the wind drowns out the engine noise of the approaching lorry and the air horn hits you out of nowhere like a sniper’s bullet.
To make matters worse I had missed my turn and was taking the long way round. Miles of straight road and I had somehow missed the solitary exit. Those mistakes eat away at you when you have eight hours to think about them, four of which were spent unsure if I was even cycling in the right direction. I was burnt by the sun in the morning and, through a steady climb in the afternoon, found myself shivering from the cold and eventually soaked by the rain. On two occasions I released my exasperation by shouting at the top of my voice, ‘AAAAAAARRRGGGGHHHH!!’
To top it all off, both of my food stops, which are savoured highlights on such days, were spoilt. The first by a paranoid policeman that was convinced that if I didn’t move on quickly I would be robbed, taken hostage and ransomed. He then questioned the validity of my Visa which, in fairness to him, was ambiguously stated; when the visa was issued it was valid for two weeks, during which time you must enter Iran, from the date of entry you can then stay for thirty days. My second meal, under yet another bridge, was lukewarm, undercooked, crunchy pasta with curry powder, nuts and dried fruit – yum. My Primus stove lost the will to cook half way through; it was coked-up and too hot to clean.
The Police were called to the cheap hotel I found in Delijãn that evening for a repeat of the earlier discussion over the validity of my Visa, by which point I really didn’t care if they locked me up before deporting me; maybe they would send me somewhere warm, sunny and wind free I imagined, where lorries are not fitted with horns and touring cyclist always have right of way.
A nice chap called Hamid, who lived next door to the hotel, was called in to help translate, and he very kindly drove me around looking for another gas canister for my stove. He spoke English very well and I was able to find out more about Iran and what his views were on internet filtering and politics.
The Policeman took my passport away to check it against their database, to be returned later – all tickety-boo. I wondered if this would now be a daily occurrence, the validity period for entry ran from the 25th of February to the 12th of March, it was then the 13th of March, hence the confusion.
Delighted to wake to a clear, cold day which remained wind free for the hundred and twenty mile ride to Esfahan, staying positive was getting easier. Esfahan was heralded as a beautiful place with many interesting sights to see. However, after arriving late, finding a hostel, eating, sleeping and cycling on early the next day, its beauty was lost on me.
The roads were mainly flat, straight and busy, and with little of interest to see, which encouraged me to just get through the miles. Cycling through Iran during the previous five days had been the least enjoyable period of the journey so far, and concerns over money also weighed heavily on my mind. Wild camping spots were non-existent, and spending money each night on accommodation further burdened the financial tight spot I found myself in. It felt a little like I was being squeezed from all directions. I just wanted to get to Bandar Abbas and secure a ticket to Dubai, only then could I relax.
The wind was back again the following day along with drastic temperature fluctuations; cold, hot, then freezing cold. I spent the night in the tent on the front porch of a restaurant twenty miles outside of Shahrezã.
The cycle to Safãshahr one hundred and eighteen miles further on was the most enjoyable for over a week. The wind was finally working in my favour and for good stretches I made fast progress, maintaining an average speed of over 15mph for the day. Safãshahr sat just beyond a long climb, and the altitude and falling sun created a beautiful scene to end the day.
Stopping to ask if there was a hotel led to a wild goose chase around the city centre until a passing non-resident took it upon himself to help me find one. We ended up at a doorway which opened straight onto several flights of stairs. The chap that was helping me then asked for my passport, which I thought was odd. Something didn’t feel right. There was nothing to suggest it was even a hotel. He then said don’t give your passport to the owner, who had appeared from somewhere out of the darkness, and don’t pay more than the equivalent of $3. Alarm bells were ringing in my head, the whole scene just looked wrong. It was now pitch dark and freezing cold; I put on my kagool, thanked the chap for his help, and cycled off.
I found a café and asked again if there was a hotel or somewhere I could put my tent. The owner gave me a cup of tea and explained that it was only a small city and that there wasn’t a hotel or anywhere suitable to put my tent. He said I could try the mosque and if that didn’t work out that he would allow me to stay at his home. The mosque was 100 meters up the road and teaming with people. While looking around for somewhere safe to leave Shurly Anne, I decided it felt too cheeky to just mooch in and ask to stay for the night. Hungry, and with the offer from the café owner in mind, the route of least resistance beckoned.
Omid, the café owner, was a qualified accountant and had taken over the running of the café six years earlier after his father had died. He maintained the accounts for the café and a few other businesses in addition to running the café with his mother on a day-to-day basis. He prepared a stew of lamb and vegetables which was served with bread and wedges of raw onion. Raw onion is always served with meals and is not an addition I particularly enjoy. Another customer showed me how to eat the dish; first separate the liquid from the stew into a separate, empty dish and add pieces of bread to soak it up, then use the metal plunger provided to mash the meat and vegetables together. It was delicious and filling – just the ticket.
A friend of Omid’s, Saadi, gave me a couple of oranges to eat and we sat and drank tea while watching TV. Omid worked in the kitchen preparing food for the next day until 11:45pm, there were no other customers that evening and I struggled to stay awake. Omid’s home was a thirty second walk from the café where he lived with his wife and mother. He introduced me to them when we arrived and then set up a bed on the floor for me to sleep on. The house was spacious and nicely finished inside with carpets, tiles and rugs on the floor, and paintings on the walls.
Omid was leaving to start work in the morning at 5:00am and said I could join him whenever I woke. I was in the café before 7:00am ready for breakfast. He offered eggs and a number of other things with Persian names. Something big and filling for the long ride to Shiraz was my only request. With a knowing look, Omid disappeared into the kitchen to emerge moments later with a popular, hearty Iranian breakfast of sheep’s head.
Sheep’s head! Of course! My mind flicked back to the previous evening when Omid left the café, returning with a transparent bin liner filled with severed sheep’s heads. When else would you eat sheep’s heads? Breakfast was obviously the perfect time for such a treat…
I looked at the plate thinking, ‘where do you start?’ Well, I started by removing the teeth that were still attached to the flesh of the gums. The skull had been removed and what remained was a mixture of white lumps, vien-y sinew, white strips of skin, dark meat and teeth. It was served with a separate dish of fatty grey liquid, which was presumably the cooking juices and brains?
Crickey, what a way to start the day. There was an eye in there somewhere. Although trying not to look too closely at what was going into my mouth, a brief glance followed by a particularly gelatinous mouthful was enough to cause a partial gag reflex. Still, at least my breakfast was no longer watching me. It wasn’t so much the taste that I struggled with, more the textures and reappearing images of lifeless sheep’s heads in my mind that were difficult to stomach.
Omid sat with me in between serving customers and, while holding it together, I worked my way through a mighty portion to clear the plates. Keeping it down was made easier by satisfying the resulting craving for ice cream. On finishing, I readied myself for the long ride ahead and asked for the bill; the equivalent of $30 and included, I estimated, $25 for the overnight stay. Payment for the overnight stay had not been mentioned up until then and I was surprised by the size of the bill. Omid was a very nice chap; he worked incredibly long hours and was kind enough to help a stranger in need. Although the bill was unexpected I was grateful for their assistance and the opportunity to help support Omid and his family.
The road to Shiraz brought colour to the fields and mountains to the horizon. Typically, the Iranians have a different approach to the Turks when it comes to laying roads and mountains. The Turks just tarmac over them, where the Iranians tend to tarmac round them or tunnel through them. Weaving round and through mountains in the sun for long periods of the day with intermittent blasts of head wind, following eleven long days in the saddle, gradually took its toll. Getting to Shiraz had become the obsession of my thoughts and, after one hundred and ten miles, the final vicissitude was presented as a double summit; two long, steep climbs in quick succession, and to Shiraz I had arrived….
[The fundraising is progressing well, thank you for all of the recent donations. The total now sits at just under 3000 GBP (not including gift aid). I wanted to make a special mention to each of the schools that raised money during Shonette’s Dough Disco World Record attempt:
Carlton and Faceby School North Yorkshire
Thoresby Primary School’s Foundation Stage
Front Street School Gateshead
St Francis RC Primary School
Lime Tree Primary School
St Joseph’s Academy Market Harborough
Clervaux Nursery School
Between them these school’s raised a total of 560 GBP!! An absolutely fantastic effort thanks so much. Last but not least a big thank you again to Shonette for the donations raised through her raffles.]