Entering Iran by bicycle was deemed a futile venture. My original Visa application had been rejected, not by the Iranian Embassy, but by the agency that prepares visa applications for submission to the embassy, on the grounds that I was intending to enter Iran by bicycle. At the time, the Iranian Embassy had placed restrictions on all applications from those travelling by bicycle or motorcycle. To enter Iran I had to do so by bus, train or plane.
The night train from Van, Turkey, to Tabriz, Iran, left at 8:00pm. It was a cold, damp evening; the train ‘station’ was an empty, derelict building sitting in front of an unlit platform upon which stood several unoccupied portakabins. I had collected my ticket earlier in the day from one of the portakabins, then occupied by a couple of chaps, a computer and an electric heater. The train sat hissing in the dark, steam leaking from every joint obscuring the view along the platform. It was like a scene from an old movie where, through the steam, a silhouette emerged of the ‘baddie,’ in a long Mack and hat, holding a gun.
I could hear voices on the train and along the platform speaking an unfamiliar language, and as I scanned the carriages for a number four to match my ticket, I found only peculiar looking characters; Persian. It was an eerie scene. As I walked the length of the train I encountered a chap who directed me to the carriage where I would leave Shurly Anne for the night, before embarking a passenger carriage, heavily laden with my luggage. It was an old train; the carriages were divided into ‘couchettes,’ which contained two benches sitting opposite each other with enough space to seat six people. There was a second set of these benches at head height, and a third, I would later discover, was created by folding up the seatbacks, and voila! Sleeping space for six human sardines.
The train was scheduled to arrive into Tabriz at 6:30am the following day with a stop at the Turkish border control at around 10:00pm, followed by a stop at Iranian border control an hour and a half later. The train was delayed for nine hours at the Iranian border, not sure why, nothing to do with me though. I met a nice chap called Ali who spoke English, and used the opportunity to learn some Persian words and phrases. Ali also dropped an unexpected bombshell; Visa and MasterCard are not accepted in Iran – ANYWHERE. I felt the blood drain from my face as light headedness followed by a sick feeling in my gut ensued. “What? But I can still pay for stuff with my cards though, right?” “No.” It’s something to do with the sanctions placed on Iran which prevent companies from the United Nations transacting business with Iranian companies. Marvellous! All of my attention had been consumed with getting the visa to enter Iran and I had completely overlooked this minor detail.
Mentally counting up the ‘odds and sods’ of currency I had left over from the countries I had passed through, I suddenly remembered the $500 emergency fund I had stashed away months ago. Bloody hell, I could think of no greater emergency than being stranded in Iran penniless. I then quizzed poor Ali for an hour about the cost of anything and everything in a desperate attempt to convince myself that I would have enough money to make it through Iran and pay for my passage to Dubai. A lot can happen during 1400 miles of bicycle travel, and with so many variables it was definitely both possible and impossible, the only certainties were that I would need to spend wisely and live frugally. This set the tone for my time in Iran.
The train screeched into Tabriz around 3:30pm; after months of messing around I had finally made it into Iran. Due to the delay I decided to stay the night in Tabriz, become acquainted with the unfamiliar land, and get prepared to cross it. Nothing, however, can prepare you for the nuances of road etiquette (or lack of) in a new country; you must simply throw yourself amongst the traffic and react to whatever happens. It is exhilarating and frightening in equal measure. Roundabouts and cross-roads are the best places to establish the rules of right of way; in Iran it appeared that whoever got there first had the right of way. It was a kind of every man for themselves free for all, which made it surprisingly easy to get the hang of; be bold, never hesitate, make sure you get to the gap before everyone else – simples. And on a bicycle or motorcycle, no-one seemed to mind which side of the road you were on, oh, and the pavements are an accepted alternative should the roads get clogged up. The same rules apply as a pedestrian, if you want to cross the road just walk out in front of the traffic and it stops, usually.
I was informed at the tourist desk in the train station that the banks closed at 2:30pm, and that the best way to change money was to go to a ‘money changer’ which could be found around the central shopping bazaar. I had no idea what the exchange rate between Iranian Rials and US Dollars should be, so I stopped and asked a few people along the way whilst checking I was still heading in the right direction. I never did find a money changer, but in looking, the owner of a fast food cafe offered me a decent rate. Fantastic, I’ll have a generic don’t-ask-too-many-questions ‘meat’ kebab, a can of coke and $100 worth of Iranian Rials to go please. He even directed me to a hotel which offered me a room for $7 (Hotel Hatam – I highly recommend it if you’re on a tight budget).
By a stroke of luck, the hotelier was a very friendly retired English teacher and I was able to further refine my Persian phrases and learn more about the do’s and don’ts. That evening, armed with directions and what I was looking for written in Persian, I wandered out onto the streets to find a map and an internet cafe. Persian is written from right to left, although whichever way you read it, it looks like a series of squiggly lines and dots. It is not in any way related to the Latin alphabet, and as such, if you do not know how to read or write Persian you are rendered illiterate. If you use Google translate to convert English to Persian you are presented with the English words written in the Persian alphabet. Which means you cannot read, pronounce or speak the Persian words, which is fine if you are stood next to the person you want to communicate with, but useless if you want to learn how to say words and phrases. As I looked around the streets I felt completely lost and, to a certain extent, excluded from fully engaging in all that was before my eyes. It was a small taste of what life would be like without the ability to read or write, and a stark reminder of why I choose to support Room to Read.
Leaving Tabriz the next day I headed in the direction of Tehran using a map of Iran which was written in English. The signs on the main roads were written in both Persian and English, however, getting out of the city centre was only possible by stopping regularly to ask for help; “Selam (Hello), Tehran?” accompanied by a point in the direction I was heading. People were very willing to help me, often when I stopped to talk to someone other people would come over to ask where I was from, where I was going, and to welcome me to Iran. When I stopped for lunch a lorry driver pulled over to say hello. He didn’t speak a word of English but insisted on filling my water bottles. He then shared some delicious, melt-in-your-mouth dates before giving me the rest of the box, along with six juicy oranges. Words were rendered redundant by the universally understood actions of kindness.
Conscious of my meagre budget and lack of financial safety net, I found a nice spot to camp wild for the night. It was a great first day on the road; the weather was sunny, warm and dry, and I felt hopeful that my time in Iran would be prosperous.
The next day had a similar feel about it as I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast; the dates were so soft I was able to spread them onto bread, enjoyed with coffee, and followed by a couple of oranges – delicious. I was descending from higher ground most of the day, the traffic was pretty light and I was regularly in receipt of toots and waves from passing cars.
I found another fantastic wild camping spot and was thoroughly enjoying the freedom of self-sufficiency; picking up water and food along the way, cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner on the stove while feasting on the details contained in the unchartered territory that surrounded me.
The road then began to flatten out and the wild camping spots created by the hills disappeared into fields of flat farm land stretching out as far as the eye could see. I cycled on through Zanjan hoping to find somewhere out of sight until the horizon began to eclipse the sun. I left the main road hoping something would show up only to be met with a biting flow of cold air. There was nowhere to hide, I stopped to take a picture of the sun going down, while thinking to myself, “I’ll have to go and make friends with someone along the main road,” when a passing car stopped and reversed back to where I was stood. After the usual exchange of ‘where are you from? Where are you going?’ I quickly got my notebook out and asked if there was somewhere I could put my tent for the night. A discussion between the driver and passenger resulted in the passenger gesturing for me to follow them, which I did. After a few hundred meters we joined the main road where the boy of about 12, who was sat in the backseat, got out and beckoned for me to follow him across the road. The car drove off in the other direction and I followed the boy down a narrow road with white buildings either side creating a roofless tunnel. Fifty meters down the road the car reappeared behind us, passed us and parked up in front of us. The driver, Mehrdad, got out and greeted me with a firm handshake before opening a gate and inviting Shurly Anne and I to enter.
Mehrdad had brought me to his home. At the door to the house four small children inquisitively studied the strange looking arrival that hadn’t seen a shower in three days. I removed my shoes and walked into the house along a corridor to a big room on the right where Mehrdad pointed for me to sit down. The room was essentially empty with beautiful carpets lining the floor and similarly styled cushions resting against the walls. I sat down conscious of the pong coming from my entire being, the salt marks around my face, snot around my nose, and windswept hair finished with three days’ worth of grease and sweat. The women of the house then entered to see what father had brought home; there’s nothing like making a good first impression.
I was relieved to hear one of the women, Zara, speak Turkish, and I was then able to communicate more easily. I explained my journey so far and they were interested to see my photographs which then became the main focal point of the evening. Other than Zara, who I believe was Turkish, none of the others had been outside of Iran, so my photographs offered a window into another world. It was a full household of four children, Mehrdad and his wife Sema and their son, Zara and her husband, a Grandfather and Grandmother, and one other woman. The passenger from the car earlier, Mortza, also arrived and we sat and drank tea together, laughing at some of my photos, and I explained which countries they were looking at. Later on, a large mat was placed on the floor, and cheese, bread, tomatoes and cucumber were served with oranges and apples to follow.
After dinner, Mehrdad and his son (not sure of his name), Mortza, Zara’s husband, and I went to Mortza’s house where we drank more tea, ate more food and watched WWE (American Wrestling!). I also had a shower and Mortza lent me some of his clothes so I could wash mine to be dried by the gas heater that remained on all night. Mortza was the local baker and was responsible for making the scrumptious bread we had all enjoyed, and he had to be up at 4:00am to start the process all over again. Mehrdad and I stayed overnight at Mortza’s house and left at seven the next morning to have breakfast with Mehrdad’s family.
It was a wonderfully surreal evening, and when I left in the morning Sema gave me a bag of bread and cheese to keep me going. They also would not accept the dates, oranges and nuts (purchased in Zanjan) I had given them the previous evening. Such kind and generous people, thank you for saving my day.
Cycling along the main road between Zanjan and Qazvin that day brought the Honeymoon period to an abrupt end. The road was straight and flat, which would normally be a good thing for covering miles quickly and comfortably. Not so when a stern, ice cold head-wind blows restlessly straight through you all day. Despite my best efforts I struggled to maintain an average speed over 5mph for the first couple of hours. The contrast in weather from the previous day was so great, it was like I had woken up in a different country. The road was also horrendously busy predominantly with large lorries. I struggled through the morning, cursing the wind, which not only slows forward progress but also blows you all over the place; through pot holes, off the road, into the middle of the road, it was a non-stop battle to keep Shurly pointing in the right direction. There was no escaping it. When it came time for lunch, the road was met either side by fields, and buildings were few and far between. I imagined wind exposure could be used as a form of torture, similar to water boarding. But of course the real torture was self-inflicted; by holding on to expectations formed over the previous days that were no longer being met. Unable to find a suitable place to wild camp I inched my way to Takestan to find a cheap hotel. I was disappointed not to have made it beyond Qazvin or to have found a suitable wild camping spot.
It continued like this the following day, dropping short of Tehran into Karaj. Karaj to Tehran in my mind was supposed to be a short 30 miles, leaving plenty of time to have a look around. Wind and rain literally pissed on my chips while I cycled along the motorway wondering what the f**k I was doing. Frustrated with the traffic, I foolishly thought it would be easier to just take the next junction and follow signs for the city centre. Yeah right, I came off one motorway to find myself faced with a choice of four more heading in the wrong direction. I then spent three hours cycling around helplessly following contradictory directions to find a cheap hotel, only to end up being conned into paying more than I thought I had agreed to pay the day before.
The three days leading up to and inclusive of my arrival into Tehran had been pretty awful; head winds, rain, very heavy traffic and an inability to navigate the city left me feeling demoralised. I started each day with a positive attitude, determined to make the day ahead a good one no matter what. The wind and the traffic were overwhelming and constant; the noise, the struggle just to stay out of harm’s way, the incessant tooting, which, although intended as a welcome, became another torturous aggravation. It is like walking up to a foreigner in the street and shouting in their ear at the top of your voice, “WELCOME TO GREAT BRITAIN!!!” See how many people you can do that to before a well-built chap from Poland (rightly) punches you onto your arse for being a twat. It wasn’t long before negative thoughts crept into my mind.
I wrote extensively about the importance of keeping a positive mind-set in my book, and I was fully aware that the negative thoughts were only going to attract more of the same. I had to find a way to turn it around if I was going to experience the best of what Iran had to offer….