Long Way Home
Iran – Hejab, Heat and Hospitality
Iran’s legendary hospitality quickly asserts itself. We hadn’t even crossed the border before we met a English teacher from Mashad who invites us to visit once we reach the far side of the country. Waiting at the border gates I am swamped by a sea of black chador clad women. They are delighted to see us and welcome us with amazing warmth. One woman tries to get on my bike with the others giggling and egging her on. Given that she’s barely 5ft high and about 70 she doesn’t get far but it’s a definite crowd pleaser.
We cycle off to Maku around 20km up the road and collapse under a fan in a hotel. It is unbelievably hot. Out and about in the relative cool of the evening we are discovered by an Iranian family and invited for dinner. It’s the beginning of many such experiences in a country where tourists are rare and can expect a level of attention and assistance unknown elsewhere. We are continuing towards Tehran now, hoping that the Turkmenistan Embassy officials will like the look of us and come up with the necessary visa for the next stage of the trip……
…..Five Weeks later… The past five weeks in Iran have been both fascinating and frustrating. One moment we are seduced by the friendliness of the people, and the next bamboozled by the unbelievable bureaucracy.
First impressions as we pedalled towards Tehran included the ubiquitous ‘Paykan’ – a late 60’s Hillman Hunter repackaged and produced in Iran in their millions, virtually all the same pale green colour. To heighten the feeling of being trapped in a time warp, the roads are crammed with funky 60’s Mercedes buses and trucks in a kalidescope of colours. We’ve been surprised to see some Australian shows on TV, including ‘All Saints’ hospital drama, various cop shows and to cap it off ….. ‘The Crocodile Hunter’, with Steve Irwin dubbed into Farsi!!
It is definitely a country of contrasts – from the black shrouded women with chador clasped between clenched teeth, to the hip young Tehrani ladies in their tight fitting, brightly coloured ‘manteaus’ (like a trench coat), jeans daringly rolled up, heavy make-up and wispy scarves on the verge of falling off. Wearing a headscarf in the intense heat wouldn’t be so bad if only it could be worn with shorts and a singlet….. but I’m starting to get used to being trussed up like a Christmas turkey each time I step out of our tent or hotel room.
We jumped onto a bus in Tabriz and found it divided by gender ….men at the front and women down the back. The woman next to me spotted the ‘party pack’ of loo paper I had in my bag and the word spreads fast. As I get off, clutching my precious package, the entire back half of the bus is convulsed in uncontrollable giggles.
While visiting some of the tourist sites we’ve come to realise that we are a bit of a tourist attraction in ourselves. Maybe the unusual bikes and trailers plus the scarcity of international tourists makes us doubly fascinating. We barely have time to peer at whatever it was we came to see, in between posing for photos, waving at video cameras, answering questions and writing down our e-mail address. It takes a while to get used to people stopping you in the street, or slowing as they drive past, just to smile and call out ‘Welcome to Iran!’
The perception of Iran as a hotbed of anti-Western sentiment couldn’t be further from the truth as the Iranians fall over themselves in their anxiety to make us feel welcome. The main danger seems to be not so much from lurking terrorists as from the completely insane traffic. Glancing ahead to see one overladen truck overtaking another, with a third truck careering up the verge towards us in an effort to pass the other two, was bad for the heart, but that’s just the start of it. Cycling into a city feels like a series of terrifying near-death experiences which leave us shaken and incredulous. Cars dive in and out from the kerb, reverse at high speed into oncoming traffic and jostle for position like they’re on a Formula One racetrack.
Pedestrians wander serenely amidst the chaos and motorbikes buzz furiously like clouds of blowflies along the footpaths, through the bazaars and up the wrong side of the roads.
The actual cycling in Iran has been mostly easy going on smooth flat roads. Not particularly interesting but necessary largely because of the extreme heat (around 45 Celcius), which has kept us confined to the main routes where water and shade are available. It’s probably just as well – we need all our energy to cope with the sometimes exhausting offers of hospitality.
After a long day’s pedalling on the road to Tehran we were struggling to find a campsite ….. eventually we pulled off into a small area of fruit trees and crops and found Mansoor – a young man tending a patch of tomatoes. He was happy for us to set up in an uncultivated square of dirt which we immediately dubbed ‘Camp Vege Patch’. He joined us for a cuppa and was convinced to try some ‘Tuna Surprise’ for dinner, then headed off back to his village and family once it got dark.
We were woken around 11pm by loud voices and torchlight, wondering what was happening. It was Mansoor back, this time with his Dad and Uncle, determined that we should accompany them back to the village for the night. The more we tried to refuse the worse the stated consequences got….. first they said our bikes would be stolen, then claimed we would be attacked by men with knives, when finally they said men with guns would come and shoot us we realised that there was no getting out of it and we’d have to get up, pack up and go with them. After a surreal, half asleep pedal along a dirt track following the light of their motorbike we arrived at their home in a nearby village to find the entire extended family awake and waiting to welcome us. After hours of tea, food and conversation we collapsed on mattresses they’d rolled out on the floor for us.
Having reached the quarter-way point of our journey at Tehran we decided to reward ourselves with some time off the bikes exploring the south. This also filled in time while waiting for ‘approval to apply’ for our Turkmenistan visas….. a time-consuming and intricate process involving visits to the New Zealand, Australian and Turkmenistan (three times!) Embassies in Tehran.
In Yazd we explored the old mud-brick town nestled on the edge of a vast expanse of desert.
Travelling on an ancient sagging ‘Benz bus from Yazd to Esfahan, we met Fereshteh – returning home with her Mum and sister. She wasted no time, preparing a list of questions for us as the journey got underway, and soon the tea, fruit and sweets were going back and forth, cameras were out and our photo book was being perused by the entire bus.
We met up the following evening in Esfahan and spent an hour or so strolling the banks of the river before heading to the family home where we were plied with drinks and sweets as everyone gathered to meet us. Next all twelve adults plus a few kids piled into a Paykan ute with assorted pots and pans and picnic gear, and went speeding along the highway back to the river for a picnic in the park.
We loved Esfahan – it’s easily the most beautiful city we’ve visited and quite possibly one of the most lovely cities in the world. Iman Square, with it’s stunning mosques and palace, certainly lives up to it’s reputation as one of the highlights of Iran.
The pressure on our budget has definitely eased in Iran. For example one day we….. took a taxi to the bus station, had breakfast, did a 400km bus trip, got a taxi to our hotel, bought some pastries and a fruit smoothie each, bought five postcards, a large ice-cream each, had tea and cakes at a teahouse overlooking Iman Square, then a chicken salad sandwich and softdrink each, and finally bought a few groceries – butter, honey, yoghurt, teabags, feta cheese and a cold drink ….. total cost of under Aust $25.00!
Gaye talking with other travellers at a roadside rest aread. Eastern Iran
Back in Tehran we found that our combined charm had failed to sway the Turkmenistan Embassy officials. Begging and grovelling didn’t help either and so it was that we left with just a miserly five day transit visa. Worse still was the Iranian visa extension saga ….. we attempted this in Esfahan, then Kashan, before having to resort to the dreaded ‘Disciplinary Force of Islamic Republic of Iran Department for Alien’s Affairs’ in Tehran.
It’s even more horrible than it sounds and, after hours of shuffling forms, photocopying, handing over wads of cash and more passport photos (this time without even a wisp of hair showing from under my scarf), we are told to come back in six days time. SIX DAYS!!! – just to rubberstamp our passports saying we can stay in Iran a further week …… we’d had enough – if there had been a flight heading immediately out to Darwin we would have been on it.
With time running out we rode out of Tehran at dawn, planning to get a few days up the road before getting a bus back to retrieve our passports once the visa extensions were approved. Of course now that we don’t have our passports we are repeatedly stopped by police wanting to see them. The police checkpoints are often just one young recruit left roadside under a tatty beach umbrella, armed with what looks like a coloured ping pong bat – painted green one side and red the other for flagging down traffic.
At Semnan we are searching for a hotel when we meet Mehdi and Abbas – two uni students who happen to be driving alongside as we pedal around a town square. This was a stroke of good fortune as they not only led us to a hotel but continued to show us around for the next couple of days, even insisting on driving us back to Tehran to collect our passports. We were soon renamed ‘Mr Edmond’ and ‘Mrs Gayly’ and really enjoyed the company of these vibrant and charming young Iranians.
The trip to Tehran is a riot with Mehdi, Abbas and another friend Ali in full flow, at one point launching into the Iranian national anthem, bellowing out the words and clapping along. The little Kia is reaching speeds of 160 kph and shuddering like an off-kilter washing machine …. I’m wondering if we are going to die in a horrendous car smash or just die laughing.
Next stop is Damghan, where we stay with Ali and friends at their uni house. This is a far cry from the average uni house inhabited by a bunch of twenty year olds in Australia, and they even cook us up Iranian style spaghetti for dinner. When we leave in the early morning they are curled up on the lounge floor carpets like a litter of puppies (homes generally don’t have much furniture apart from maybe a TV cabinet or wall unit – the elaborate carpets are used for sitting, covered with a cloth for meals and bedding is unrolled for sleeping).
We’re now travelling along the main route to the holy city of Mashad, which is a popular pilgrimage for holidaying Iranians. It seems that half of Iran is out on the road. Ed describes it as reminiscent of 60’s Australia with the family piled in the old bomb and luggage tied on the roof. There doesn’t seem to be any limit to the number of people who can fit in a Paykan, or for that matter on a little 125cc motorbike. Iranians look on in amazement if you search for a seatbelt and child restraints are clearly unknown.
Reaching Sabzevan we turn north, with the huge Kopet Dag range looming ahead, forming the border with Turkmenistan. Here the intensity of interest takes us by surprise. We stop in a park for lunch but are immediately mobbed. A crowd of several dozen is not unusual but the mob is five or six people deep and we can’t move. More and more people are coming over to see what the fuss is about, someone has called the local TV crew, the police are on the way ….. it all starts to get out of control. We escape to a ‘quiet’ spot for a TV interview, pursued relentlessly by hoards of obviously bored locals.
The climb to the border is on a thankfully peaceful road with some magnificent scenery. It is a nice way to finish our journey through Iran ….. Next up is the transit visa dash across Turkmenistan, scarey stuff for cyclists trying to squash 700km of pedalling into five days ……….