Iran is a funny place. At first sight it is a modern late capitalist economy with a network of quality roads, inhabited by shiny up to date cars driving between gleaming high rise cities. It’s population is youthful and highly educated all sporting the latest fashions and using 21st century gadgets. Yet it’s government is from the 7th century. Actually life in Persia in the middle ages was actually probably far more enjoyable than it is today at least for the rich. Currently almost anything fun is banned. Of course no alcohol is allowed, but neither is dancing and many kinds of music. Satellite TV is prohibited as is gambling, except interestingly on horses at the racetrack perhaps the authorities don’t want to provoke the ire of the horse mad Turkmen population. Even something as simple as dating is fraught with danger as members of the opposite sex who are not relatives are prohibited from fraternising although of course like most prohibited things they still do. About the only thing fun apart from sports that is allowed is eating. Perhaps that is why Iranians seem to spend an inordinate amount of time dining.
And of course women have it even worse. Prohibited from wearing what they like, singing, playing a musical instrument, going to a football match, riding a motorcycle and of course they can never let their hair down in public. But it is the general social attitudes and misogyny that they face that is probably worse. They are treated almost like animals. Suitable for breeding and raising families but at other times they should keep in the background while the men get on with the important stuff.
Of course that is a gross over simplification and there are many more enlightened men out there. Although even the most liberal still have attitudes reminiscent of Europe in the 1950s. They will happily bemoan the position of women in Iranian society over tea while the women cook, clean and then wash the dishes. Then there are the amazingly strong and brave women continuously pushing against the shackles of religion and patriarchy.
The next thing you notice about Iran is the rubbish. There is trash everywhere. In the desert, in the rivers, in the lakes, in the sea, on the mountains, in the parks. It’s easily the worst since we left Vietnam. Although that doesn’t mean that the other countries are some kind of trash free paradises. In China it seems like there are more people picking it up, when we were in the desert we witnessed what it was like when there was nobody about to pick it up. And in central Asia there perhaps wasn’t enough people to make too much of a mess. But in Iran there certainly is. And make a mess they do. it is one of the things that really blights the country.
However the most abiding memory that most people take from Iran is the people. They are simply the friendliest, kindest most hospitable people I’ve encountered in the 50 countries I have visited. Almost every day we get given something. A car will pull up on the road or someone will spot us taking a rest. And come over with a watermelon, some grapes, water, ice cream, bread. Then you have the invitations. Please come to my place for tea, lunch, dinner, to stay the night. Unfortunately we are on a rather tight schedule so are rarely able to take up those offers. But the hospitality is amazing.
We got our first taste of that hospitality in Mashad . But first we had to negotiate a further 200 km of desert. Although it was only lunchtime when we arrived in Iran we were Exhausted after the challenges of Turkmenistan and it was two full days riding to Mashad so we decided to find a hotel in Sarakhs and have a rest. It was stinking hot so apart from going to change some money we took refuge in the air-conditioned haven of our hotel room.
We rose early, roused the hotel manager to unlock our bikes and headed off into the rapidly warming morning. The landscape was still very dry but it was far more interesting than Turkmenistan. We followed a wide valley. On either side dusty hills rose. The flat valley floor was laid with a golden carpet of wheat stubble. Every so often a dusty brown village would pop out of the dusty brown landscape. A scattering of flat roofed houses, a pile of yellow drinks crates indicating a shop.
There was precious little shade to be found. The only trees were stunted ones in people’s gardens. On the first day we lunched in a tiny scrap of shade under some bushes. Then camped just the other side of the biggest hill we’d encountered in over a month. Our legs were a little rusty but we made it just before it got dark.
As we approached Mashad it got greener. There was more water for irrigation so the crops were more diverse and we even found assume trees to lunch under. Anywhere that wasn’t irrigated though was brown and sun burnt.
It was Thursday when we arrived the first day of the Iranian weekend and our warmshowers hosts had gone away for the weekend. But at wasn’t a problem. They very kindly and trustingly left the key with a neighbour and we had the place to ourselves. Which was actually just what we needed. We’d travelled nearly 1400 km in 15 days and the only days off we’d been stuck in a car for 8 hours going back to Tashkent to pick up visas.
Needless to say we didn’t do much. A well-earned lie in and then catching up with online tasks after being disconnected for a week. Although I still managed to be admonished by an imam for wearing shorts on a Friday. At least I think that was what he was trying to do. The language barrier made it impossible to tell. That afternoon we went to the shrine of. He is one of the 8 prophets of Islam and the only one from Iran which makes it one of the holiest places in Iran. Pilgrims journey from across the country and beyond we witnessed the following day as we passed a weary looking crowd walking along the road around 50 km out of town.
The shrine itself was very impressive. Shiny domes and minarets. Kim had to wear a chador, the tent like garments women wear to “preserve their modesty”. Of course it was too big for her so she looked rather like an ewok. I had to stifle a laugh every time I looked at her. It was Friday so the place was packed and I always feel like I’m intruding on people’s spirituality hardened atheist that I am so we didn’t linger too long.
It was summer and summer is the time when Iranians fill up their car with as many children and relatives as they can. Cram in enough food to feed a small army strap a huge pile of blankets and a tent to the roof and head off around the country. They can be found at all hours of the day taking extended food breaks under the protection of a shady tree scattering trash liberally across the countryside and raiding nearby orchards for some fruit.
As we headed north towards the Caspian sea the hospitality continued . We were looking around for a hotel one evening and had asked 4 different people and been given 4 different sets of directions to 4 non-existent hotels. As we were asking some taxi drivers a guy came out of a chemist shop to ask if we were ok. He explained that there were no hotels but we could stay at his friend’s house. His friend arrived a few minutes later, and we followed his car to reach his house. Over dinner he showed us pictures of all the travellers that he’d hosted in the same way.
Then there were the lovely couple in Bojnurd who looked after us so wonderfully and then invited us to join us at their friends camp on the route north. They drove and Kim elected to get a lift and there was space for my luggage too. So I enjoyed a wonderfully unencumbered ride through the hills and up into the delightful wooded valley. In the shade of the trees we ate some barbecued fish and had some great conversations. Our hosts were so tired of the constrains of Iranian society, particularly for women that they planned to emigrate. It was a story we heard repeatedly among the various people we stayed with.
Next morning we reluctantly bade farewell to our lovely hosts and headed up the hill. It wasn’t very steep but it was quite high and it took us most of the day to reach the summit. And then enjoyed the descent down the forested hillside into the Golestan national park. Just before dark we pulled off into the forest and set up camp.
We were eating dinner by torch light when a car pulled up and a group of men came over. Oh uh what do they want? They garbled something in Farsi. Then seeing my uncomprehending look one of them took me by the hand and led me to their truck. In the torchlight I could make out the red light on the roof, and the white paint job with a black stripe and an official looking badge on the door. Ok. Better do what they say. And they said we couldn’t camp there. We had to move 5km down the road. Ok we’ll finish our dinner and then move.
I was just polishing off the last of my curry when there was a cry of “oh no” from Kim. I followed the beam of her torch into the forest and spotted three pairs of beady eyes staring at us through the trees. Shit. Wild boar. No wonder we couldn’t camp there. They had obviously smelled my delicious cooking and come to try and get some. Supposedly boar cause more injuries than bears and wolves. Although probably because they are far more numerous and most attacks occur in the spring when they are protecting their young. Still better not take any chances. One of them looked huge and had nasty looking tusks. We packed up hastily. Half an eye on the task in hand half an eye on those shiny eyes. When they got closer I would shout to scare them off until we’d finished packing and could beat a hasty retreat back to the road.
We followed the directions the rangers had given us and camped by the gate to their compound. No wild boars there, only some kittens that the rangers were looking after.
Next morning was a beautiful gentle descent through the forest. It had rained overnight so the mist was rising from the trees. It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve been in Iran. Apart from the trash. Which was everywhere. Just a tide of plastic bags, food packaging and bottles. People come to the forest to picnic and camp and are too lazy and ignorant to take their rubbish away with them. And then the next visitors come place their rug among the detritus and happily eat surrounded by rubbish.
Finally we descended out of the cool forest and onto the steaming plain that borders the Caspian sea. It looked remarkably like Vietnam. Lots of verdant rice fields and forested mountains behind. Except this crop wasn’t grown using surface water. In every field a pump was chugging away, belching black smoke and sucking up precious ground water to grow wet rice. One of the most water intensive crops there is.
We pushed on to Gonbad Kavus. This is Turkmen country and where there are Turks there are horses. A friend of our host insisted on taking us to one of the local stables. We were entertained by the owner, a former international volleyball player and now champion horse owner and Kim got to touch a horse for the first time. Later we visited the race course built by the Shah and still host to the most important events in the Iranian horse racing calendar. It’s also the only place in Iran where it is permitted to gamble and people travel far and wide to indulge their vice. I guess it’s ok to be unislamic in the Islamic state if it means keeping the horse mad Turkmens happy.
Then it was on to Gorgan and our first encounter with the lovely people from the Iran Vietnam Friendship Association. We took the back roads and it was great riding on the quiet route away from the man highway with its four lanes of trucks and buses. But by late afternoon Kim’s stomach which had been dodgy ever since we arrived in central Asia was playing up again. She was in quite a bit of pain and we crawled up the hill into town. Luckily Rohit from the association had arranged for a couple of friends to meet us and they helped us find a hotel and then took us out for dinner.
But Kim was still in pain and she woke me in the early morning after suffering a sleepless night. We headed out, looking for a hospital. Luckily there was one nearby and we didn’t have to wait before the English speaking doctor examined Kim and sent us to the stomach hospital on the other side of town. Again we didn’t have to wait long and again the doctor spoke excellent English. He diagnosed a stomach ulcer, gave her an injection, told her to stay clear of spicy foods and red meat and that was that we were back in the room by 8 am.
We decided to take a rest day to allow Kim to recover then next day I continued by bicycle while Kim took the bus. I rattled off the 120 km to Sari, it was nice and flat, but the fertile farmland bordered by steeply rising mist shrouded mountains meant there was still plenty of interest to look at. I arrived mid-afternoon and Kim was already ensconced at our host Adel’s house after enjoying a lie in and being assisted on to the bus by Amirali and Yasha
Adel was awesome, he took us around town to see some of the sights and then to meet Meysam from the Iran Vietnam friendship society who just happened to be in town with a delegation of officials from Cần Thơ, Vietnam. We joined them for dinner and then did a TV interview with a crew from Press TV who Meysam had invited over from Tehran.
Then early next morning we took the bus with them back to the Vietnamese embassy. The very down to earth and extremely helpful Ambassador invited us for lunch and then enlisted the help of his staff to help us obtain a Turkish visa.. The lunch was a great success, Kim was overjoyed to be eating Vietnamese food again after having to endure lamb and bread for the past 3 months. The visa however was not. I’d been in contact with the Turkish Embassy previously and been told they would only issue visas to Iranian residents and that we should apply in Vietnam. We had tried to get one in Hanoi, but they told us that we needed an EU visa first. But the EU visa is only valid for 3 months so that wasn’t an option. With the Vietnamese Ambassador on side we thought we were in with a chance. But a new obstacle had appeared. A few weeks earlier the Turkish government had renewed their attack on the Kurds and a full blown war was taking place in the areas bordering Iran. The border itself had been closed for a couple of days. There was no way they were going to allow a Vietnamese cyclist into that.
However our disappointment was short lived after hurrying across town to catch up with my friend Hossein who I had met the first time I had visited Iran three years ago. He is simply one of the best human beings I have ever met. With a heart of gold, a wicked sense of humour and an open and intelligent world view. He was just about to set off to visit his friends villa in the mountains. So barely 30 minutes after arriving we were heading off through the atrocious Tehran traffic. Not long after that we’d swapped the oppressive heat and smog of the city for the cool pure air of the mountains. It was wonderful. Just what we needed after months of sweating across deserts. We stayed in a single roomed house in a shady cherry orchard ate copious amounts of food, plucked the last remaining sweet cherries from the trees and lolled around in the dappled shade of the trees.
The owner explained how climate change was already taking its toll on the valley. A few decades ago the snow would be 2 or 3 metres deep every winter, but the past few years there has been hardly any. Warmer conditions also mean that the snow starts melting earlier. He’d just spent $15,000 upgrading the water supply to his land. Lower down the valley the village has already started to experience water shortages, leading to conflict and disputes. Warmer weather also means more pests and diseases, further increasing the troubles for the farmers. A way of life that has existed for centuries could disappear within a generation.
After a wonderful 24 hours in the mountains it was back to the giant car park that is Tehran. There is very little to like about Tehran and if like me you don’t like cars plenty to dislike. The city is appallingly planned, polluted and filled with worst drivers I have ever encountered. The few green areas that there are tend to be jammed into the curvy bits in the road junctions. In short it’s a climate change activists worst nightmare. Fortunately we didn’t stay long. We had a day sorting out bits and bobs for the bikes and replacing the camping mattress that someone left at one of our hosts. Then the amazing people at the Vietnamese Embassy pulled together a fantastic press conference for us with only a couple of days notice. We had TV, Radio and newspapers there plus some representatives from various Environmental NGOs. Then lunch with the Ambassador and we hightailed it to the bus station to catch the bus to re-join our bikes in Sari.