Like the perfect host he is Hossein insisted on paying for our bus tickets. I tried to argue, but it was futile. He told is he’d bought us the best seats on the best bus he could find. The ticket seller however was rather economical with the truth. It may have been the best bus. Twenty years ago. I knew as soon as we crawled out of the bus station with the doors open because the air conditioning wasn’t working that it was going to be a long ride. What should have been a 5 hour journey took 7 and we rumbled into Sari just before midnight. Adel our host was waiting to pick us up. I felt guilty as he’d been so amazing to us. Picked Kim up from the bus station, met me, taken us sightseeing and then to meet the Vietnamese delegation, looked after our bikes, picked us up from the bus and then we were hitting the road again in the morning. Paris was calling. That’s my one regret of this trip. That we’ve been on a tight schedule and haven’t had a chance to linger in most of the places we’ve been to. My next trip will definitely be more open ended which will allow diversions and changes of route.
Adel did join us on the road out of town on his rickety old bike so at least we got to spend some time with him. And we had a welcoming committee at the other end too. Amol cycle club had turned out in force. They took us on a tour of town and a drink before we headed off with our host for the night. And next morning we had another escort out of town heading towards the sea. And actually it was pretty disappointing. The mountains and forest on the way were lovely but the route along the shore is just a busy 4 lane highway lined with shops and restaurants and resorts in various stages of their life cycle. Many under construction, some open for business but the majority seemed to be decaying, either hanging on to life grimly having seen better days or completely abandoned. Long grass and weeds growing round the buildings and through the car parks and rusty padlocks affixed to their gates. The only sight of the sea we got was a 6 or 7 kilometre stretch with no buildings either side of the road. It was lovely. With wooded areas stretching down to the totally deserted beach. But all to soon it was back to the boring conurbation which stretched for more than 100 km up the coast. For me this was the worst section of the route through Iran. Luckily we met some great people to make it more interesting. But the first night was in one of the few hotels we slept in during our stay in Iran. Our hosts the night before had told us about a good beach for camping about 10 km before Nowshahr. We passed a nice looking beach 40 km from Nowshahr but thinking there must be another one carried along the coast. Turns out it was the one they meant and we’d already reached the town by the time we discovered that. It was only afterwards that we learned you can actually camp anywhere on the beach which stretches the length of the coast. You just need to take any of the access roads which are every few kilometres.
Next night we stayed with a couple of “sea changers”, who’d given up their jobs and businesses in Tehran and set up a home and cafe by the sea. He was a geographer, an expert in GIS and there were beautiful satellite images all over the walls of the cafe.
After a delicious lunch in the cafe we went to the beach and met the famous Muhammad who seems to host every cyclist who travels the Caspian coast. We had a lovely swim in the warn waters and then had some great conversations with locals and a German guy Muhammad was hosting.
We breakfasted at Muhammad’s cafe, the German guy was helping out as a helpex volunteer and a Pole and a Spaniard arrived for breakfast with their Couchsurfing host shortly after. A typical day at the café!!! So we lingered rather longer and it was yet another late start.
Iranians don’t do early, they like to sleep late and then take their time over breakfast. Probably because they don’t eat dinner until 10 or 11 pm. That is one of the few downsides to cycling in Iran. You have to make sure you have a snack before arriving at a hosts house otherwise you are absolutely ravenous after cycling all day and then waiting another 5 hours before eating dinner. Although a pretty minor complaint really. The other downsides are the heat and the drivers. The driving was the worst we had encountered during the course of our trip. There were worse drivers in Bishkek but their bad driving was the exception. In Iran ii is the rule. They drive fast and so close, fitting two cars into each lane. Every car has a dent or scratch. And they make no allowances for cyclists, yet a collision which would cause a dent in a car is likely to seriously injure or kill a cyclist. Fortunately the road network is pretty good and there is usually a shoulder in which to escape the mayhem going on outside you. Not always though, in which case you must be ready at all times to make a dash for the gravel when a huge truck comes thundering past a few centimetres from you.
It was another boring day of busy road and endless houses, shops, restaurants and resorts. Then finally in the late afternoon just after Ramsar it got scenic again. The gaps between buildings got wider and we began to see forest on both sides of the road. Just before dusk we took a little sandy road down to the beach and found ourselves a delightful campsite. It was quiet. Only a few families enjoying the water. So quiet that some of the women were confident enough to swim without their heads covered. As soon as the tent was up I plunged into the refreshing waters, which instantly removed the sweat from the days toils. We watched the sun set behind the mountains and the last of the swimmers return home and we were alone to watch the stars pop out of the deepening gloom.
The ride to Rasht was gorgeous. This is the wettest part of Iran and it shows. Clouds hung on the mountains and there was greenery everywhere. It’s this area that is experiencing flash floods, partially as a consequence of climate change. Rainfall is becoming more intense, which coupled with deforestation is causing tides of water to sweep down the valleys destroying everything in their path. Including villages.
Our host was awesome again. He wasn’t even a member of Couchsurfing or warmshowers. I sent a request to a friend of his, he couldn’t host but Muhammad could. And he was a man after my own heart. As soon as we arrived he turned on the TV and apologised that his team was playing and he never missed a match then settled down to watch the game. Soon after his friends and fellow supporters arrived and joined us on the sofa. It was a tense match. The groans and awwws from the sofa told the story. Their team had all the play, but couldn’t score. Then in injury time. Ecstasy!!!
The next night it was the Manchester United game and the scenario was repeated. Except it was me making the groans and awwws. Just to top the experience off my host asks “do you drink? ” oh heaven. Footy and a bevy. Perfect. And we’re soon doing shots of the local moonshine. It’s known as dog alcohol either because of the taste or how it makes you feel the next day or probably both.
Fortunately in the morning I wasn’t feeling too bad as we had a busy schedule ahead of us. The day before we’d tried to extend our visa but they required the registration document from the hotel we were staying at which of course we didn’t have. So that night we went to a cheap hotel our host explained the situation and they very kindly provided the registration document free of charge. I love Iran. So armed with our paperwork we presented ourselves at the desk of the very friendly officer in charge of the immigration police and within half an hour we walked out with an extra 30 days on our visas. So painless compared with the interviews and one week wait we had to endure in China to achieve the same ends.
We took a smaller road out of town and it was just like being in Scotland. Bright green fields filled with grazing cattle bounded with lush overgrown hedges and rolling up to the mountains in the background. It was pleasantly warm and fluffy clouds dotted the predominantly blue skies. So that’s where the similarity with Scotland ended.
We’d just reached the town at base of the climb up into the mountains. It would be dark soon, so not wanting to continue on and risk not finding a suitable campsite we asked a couple of guys hanging out in an abandoned cafe of we could camp in the garden. They said no, but one of the guys indicated we should follow him and led us up a steep hillside round the corner. It was some sort of camp, but it was being refurbished. The friendly workers indicated we could pitch our tent anywhere and showed us the toilet block with showers. Score.
Next day started pleasantly with nothing to indicate the toils which eye to come later. The road started the gentle climb up through a wooded valley. Traffic was light and the sun was shining. We lunched at a delightful spot beside the river. But our pace was slow, too slow to make the 65 km to the top that day.
Kim was still not feeling 100% and decided that she wanted to hitch a lift. But where too. My initial thought was that I couldn’t make the summit. Then I made a quick calculation and decided I could make it to the top before dark. It was only after she’d sailed past me in the back of a van that I realised I’d got the time wrong. It was 4:30 not 3:30. Still I thought I could do it. And everything started just fine it was beautiful and the road wasn’t too steep. It was just long though. Around 60km and 2000 m of climbing in total and I still had 35km to go. As I got higher I reached the cloud line. It started to rain and visibility reduced to a hundred metres and still I hadn’t reached the summit. I carried on into the mist. I started to go down, I’d made it. But no up the road went again.
By this time I was feeling rough. I was feeling nauseous and could no longer eat anything solid so I was reduced to sucking on sweets to get some energy to my weary limbs. And still I hadn’t reached the summit. My legs were in agony and then they could turn the peddles no more. I got off and pushed. Any same person would have hitched a lift but not me. I plodded on through the rain and mist, convinced that every plateaux we reached would be the top. Finally about 15 minutes before it got dark I was almost too tired to push. I swallowed my pride and stuck out my hand. The fourth car stopped. The guy helped me strap my bike to the roof and we drove off.
Of course the summit was only 500 m away.
During all this time I’d had no mobile phone reception so had no contact with Kim. As we descended into the valley my phone sparked into life to reveal a string of concerned messages from Kim. She was in the town below and she’d found somewhere for us to stay. A women had spotted her on the street and enlisted the help of her English speaking friend to invite Kim to stay at her father in laws house who was away in Tehran.
Then after I had arrived and settled in she revealed very apologetically that the father in law insisted we pay. And not just a few dollars either but $50. We were both rather taken aback not just by the size of the fee which was seemed very excessive for a spot to sleep on somebodies living room floor but that we’d been asked to pay at all. It was the first and only time we’d been asked to pay anything after we had been invited into someone’s home in Iran. Indeed the women seemed very embarrassed about it as did her translator friend and I don’t think she had expected that her father in law would ask for payment when she had first invited Kim. They hurriedly dropped the price to a quarter and then offered us fish and all manner of fruit and vegetables before leaving us to cook dinner and settle down for the night. I was so exhausted after my endeavours that I was just happy to be somewhere warm and dry.
In the morning the woman very apologetically took our money and even offered to give us a lift to the top of the steep hill just outside of town. My aching legs began to wish we had accepted her offer when we were half way up. Fortunately shortly after lunch we reached the top and had a wonderful long descent into the valley. There was another stiff climb ahead of us but we decided to find a place for the night before commencing the ascent. In the next village we asked a guy painting a fence if there was anywhere nearby to camp. As we were taking a man in a lorry pulled up and asked what we were doing? Follow me he indicated after the other guy had explained what we were after. He jumped in his huge truck and we followed him through the village pulling up next to a row of houses where our new friend plus his three brothers and their families live. We were ushered inside and then treated like royalty. First came a big spread of bread, cheese and jam. We presumed it was diner so are heartily, but no later huge servings of rice and chicken were dished up. One of the brothers spoke some basic English so he acted as translator as the curious family members asked questions about our lives. Another wonderful experience and memory of our stay in Iran.
Next morning we tackled the hill. It was another biggie. We climbed all morning and into the afternoon. Earlier I had told our host for the evening that we would arrive around 7 and that we probably wouldn’t have any mobile phone reception all day. Whilst waiting for Kim on a climb I noticed that I had a signal and fired off a text asking for his address or GPS coordinates. For some reason many Iranian hosts don’t think you can use a map and often ask you to meet at the first major landmark and then follow their car through busy traffic often for a good few kilometres which is the last thing I want to be doing tired out after cycling all day. I much prefer unhurriedly finding my own way at my own pace and it’s a lot easier for the host too.
When I checked my phone again there were 2 texts asking where I was and another 2 missed calls but alas the small window of mobile reception had closed. We pushed on. This time there was a message indicating I had 12 missed calls, but again no reception. Wow he must be worried for some reason. Oh well. Better push on to the top so I can send him a message to allay his fears. Finally on the descent I got a signal and fired off a quick text explaining where we were. A little further down I was just adjusting Kim’s brakes to make sure they were fine for the steep sections to come when a car pulled up. The guy got out and introduced himself. It was our host. What was he doing there. “you didn’t reply to your messages. I was worried about you. Actually this road is terrible your should have gone the other way”
But the other way is 60 km longer I thought to myself.
“I told you I didn’t have any mobile phone reception “.
” the road gets very bad in about 10 km do you want a lift ”
We’d been struggling uphill for the most of the day and the downhill had just began so there was no way I was going to give up my enjoyment of that. so we said thanks but no thanks.
I felt bad that he’d driven 30 km to come and find us but it was a total overreaction on his part. All I did was ask him what his address was.
He was right about the road though it was terrible. It was being resurfaced and they’d dug up the road and then laid a layer of big pointed stones. It was also incredibly steep so we spent am uncomfortable 45 minutes hard on the brakes bumping and vibrating down the dusty track. Of course I got puncture. But fortunately the bad road lasted less than 10km and then it was a delightful ride along a river valley bathed with the golden light of the setting sun.
After the inauspicious start with our host things improved. We had a delicious dinner with his family and whilst we ate he told us how climate change was already affecting the local area. He was a keen mountaineer and he explained how the winter snowfall had declined markedly over the last twenty years. This alongside the fact that the snow was melting earlier due to the warmer conditions meant that the snow was no longer on the mountains year round. He described how most of the previously plentiful springs had dried up and that only one of the three local rivers still flowed all year round.
Next day he joined us on the first section of our ride. I asked him if there were plenty of places to get water along the road. He said yes. Of course by lunchtime we’d run out of water. I stood by the roadside waving an empty bottle hoping to snag some from a passing driver. Shortly afterwards a guy stopped gave me a lift to his farm up the road, filled my water bottle from his well, gave me a huge bag of freshly picked tomatoes, some cucumbers and a bunch of grapes and then gave me a lift back to our lunch spot.
The valley we were following was lovely. It started off quite narrow with cliff like edges and as we climbed broadened out. All the while it was filled with fruit orchards and it being the weekend everyone had travelled up from town to tend their farms. All along the road we were waylaid by people offering us fruit. Our bags were so full of fruit that it got to the stage that we had to just ride past and wave cheerfully. Stopping is fatal as people simply refuse to believe that you don’t have room for their 3 kilos of stone fruit and will open up your panniers and start stuffing it in. We felt guilty about spurning their generosity but for the sake of our tired legs we rode on past.
After an enjoyable day cycling up the gentle incline of the valley we found a lovely campsite at the edge of a recently harvested wheat field. We watched the sun go down behind the low hills and then the full moon bathed the valley in silver light. After the moon had set I was awoken by a rustling sound from the tent. I fumbled around for the torch and unzipped the tent flap to reveal a fox dragging my shoe off into the grass. He was less than 2 metres away and dazzled by the light didn’t move. Just stared back. Then pulled the shoe a little further back. It was only when I stood up in my underwear and shouted that he darted away across the field.
As we neared Tabriz the road became dual carriageway and got busier. There was a bit of a hill to negotiate too so Kim decided to hitch a ride. Although actually it wasn’t too bad, nothing like those we’d climbed the previous few days. And then it was a wonderful descent into Tabriz where Kim was waiting at our Couchsurfing hosts. Meysam was the youngest host we’d stayed with. Still at school and living with his parents but he had a wise head on those young shoulders. He’d already completed one cycle tour around Iran and was heading off on another a few weeks after we stayed. His lovely family welcomed us into their house. The following day he took us on a tour of the city. Due to its position at the intersection of various empires the city had been invaded on numerous occasions. And had variously been controlled by Persia, Ottoman, Azerbaijan and Russia and was almost completely destroyed by earthquakes. A few historical buildings remain and that is where he took us.
And then it was time to bid farewell to the one who had been my constant companion for the past 7 months. Due to ridiculous Turkish visa restrictions Kim couldn’t cycle across the border but had to fly and the nearest international airport was more than 2000 km away in Istanbul. Fortunately she could fly there from Tabriz. It would be the first time since departing that we had spent more than a few hours apart. It was going to be weird but also probably quite good for us. We bade our farewells at a busy roundabout on the outskirts of town.