Iran part 1: From the Armenian border to Tehran (16/07/15-26/07/15)

I woke up on my last day in Armenia exactly 6 months since I started this trip. Half a year! That’s a good while… Very soon this will be the longest I’ve ever been away from home.

From Armenia to Iran
From Armenia to Iran

Time seems to move at a different pace on bicycle. It doesn’t feel like I’ve been away that long as I move just a small amount (in the grand scheme of things) each day. But when I step back, reflect and think about how far I’ve come it feels like forever. I’ve experienced so much more over the last few months than I have over the last few years! Every morning I wake up feeling blessed to be healthy and safe, and excited about what the day will bring. That’s the main thing – I know each day will be an adventure and that means it’s never a struggle to start cycling. Of course, sometimes it’s hard (and I think I honestly admit the struggles I face in this blog), but most of the time this trip has been nothing short of amazing. I have so many generous people to thank who have helped me along the way. Many of those people will read this – you’ll know who are and so thank you!

I feel more excited about this trip than I ever have, long may that continue. Here’s to another 6 months…

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Looking back to Armenia having just crossed the border river

Anyway – enough rambling. I finished my salami for breakfast, removed my nose piercing, swapped my shorts for trousers, hid my UK passport deep in one of my panniers (all those things are not allowed here) and cycled the 2km to the border.

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Beginning to climb up the mountain from the border

I was super nervous. Officially you’re not allowed to enter Iran by bicycle. I had to lie on all my application documents about my means of transport. Apparently no one ever has a problem crossing the border on bike, but I was still worried that today might be the day that they start enforcing the rule.

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Welcome to the Middle East!

I was let through pretty easily. My bags were checked properly for the first time and I was asked more detailed questions, but nothing major. The border staff all welcomed me into Iran with big smiles…

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Village in the mountains

First thing I had to do was change money. That was nice and confusing. In Iran they don’t use the same numbers as us (and almost all of the world). The currency (rial) is crazy high, something like 50,000 to the GBP. But just to make it extra confusing, the Iranians count almost all money in ‘toman’ which is basically a made up currency a tenth of the ‘rial’. Does that make sense? So if something costs £1, it’s 50,000 rial – but you’ll be told 5,000 which doesn’t mean that you’re getting a bargain, it just means that it’s 5,000 toman = 50,000 rial.

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A brief descent on day one

I changed $100 and was suddenly a multi-millionaire. Iran isn’t hooked to the international banking system thanks to the financial sanctions so everyone travelling here has to carry USD. I hate that. I also hate the fact that any thieves with any intelligence could easily realise that many of the cyclists crossing here are heading through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as well (both those countries are also cash only), so almost certainly carrying a very large amount of money on them.

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Dry mountains

I think most people follow the main road around the mountain to Tabriz – a three day trip. But I didn’t like the look of that so opted for the village road that went straight over the mountains – I reckoned I could do it in two days but I was just praying that the road would be paved. There was no way of knowing so I hoped for the best…

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On so many walls and buildings there’s this beautiful ‘Persian graffiti’. I think it’s mostly religious text and quotes.

Within 10 minutes of cycling I was all on my own. The landscape was like nothing I’d ever seen before and just like how I’d imagined Iran to look. Big sand-coloured rocky mountains with no trees in sight. The kind of landscape I sometimes see on TV, usually accompanied by Taliban rebels running around causing trouble!

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We made it to Iran – who would’ve thought…

I kept having to pinch myself to believe I was in Iran. I was both nervous and excited. I’d heard nothing but good things about this country for months and yet now I was here my mind slipped into the prejudice nurtured by years of negative media coverage on Iran and I struggled to convince myself that, of course, it’s a perfectly safe country to travel (despite the foreign office advising against ‘all but essential travel’ here).

Good thing I bought food for two days – the only villages I passed were tiny and many of the shops were closed or selling nothing useful. I stopped in some to get water and the people were lovely. It was different world to Armenia – the men were sitting around playing with their prayer beads again (a sight I’d found so funny in Turkey) and the women wearing head scarfs. Now everyone is zooming around on motorbikes – even small kids (and of course, hardly anyone is wearing a helmet).

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Up, up towards the first mountain pass

The few cars that passed all waved at me and I had a good feeling about everything. But then on one long hill some kid turned up (I guess he was about 15) and spoiled my welcome. I was struggling to pedal more than walking pace and he kindly cruised along side constantly talking to me in a language I didn’t understand. I apologised for not having a clue what he was saying, hoping that he’d get bored trying to talk to me if I just replied to him in English. He didn’t, and I didn’t like his body language one bit. He kept asking me ‘phone? iPhone?’, pointing to my bag and making money gestures. Yeah – as if I’m going to show you my phone or money… that’s like the first chat up line you hear when someone’s about to mug you London. Call me paranoid, but I have my spare cheap nokia ‘drug dealer’ phone at hand in my handlebar bag (which no one would want to steal) while my iPhone is hidden in a secret pocket. He was persistent and I felt pretty uncomfortable as there was no one around and I was going so slowly up the hill. But I was also getting pissed off – and that was the dominant emotion which I think he understood eventually and he revved away.

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My first hosts in East Azerbeijan

It was a shame to have my confidence knocked but I pushed on and decided to dive in at the deep to see how hospitable these Iranians really are. In the last village before the big mountain climb I stopped by the shop to buy some water and said hello to the local guys. I mimed that I was looking for somewhere to pitch my tent and sure enough one fella invited me to his home. His family was lovely – hardly a word of English but that didn’t matter. They gave me dinner 15 minutes before it got dark, so I started eating before they could break fast. That was a little embarrassing…

I was given some homemade ayran (or dur in Persian) which was completely different to anything I’d tried in Turkey. Normally it’s a fairly neutral mix of yoghurt and water but this drink was so sour – it tasted like yoghurt that had been left out too long in the sun. I kept finishing the glass to be rid of it quickly, which they clearly thought was a sign I loved it. I made this mistake a few times and ended up drinking so many glasses of this foul concoction. 

After dinner tea was served. We sat outside (the weather now nice and cool) and bunch of other people came to check out the strange tourist. There was a bowl of sugar cubes but no teaspoons so I asked for one to stir in my sugar. That’s how you drink tea isn’t it? But they all just picked up a cube with their fingers, chucked it in their mouth and then slowly nibbled at it while they drank their tea. I thought that was very strange – like taking a bite out of your toast and then butter separately! But that’s just how they drink their tea in Iran.

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What a welcome to Iran!

I was really surprised by how many words were the same as they were in Turkish – but then I remembered that here (in East Azerbeijan) they speak a Turkish/Azeri dialect.

I knew that Iranians eat on the floor, but I didn’t know they slept on the ground too. That’s taken some getting used to! They rolled out some sheets and we slept in the large living room covered in beautiful carpets. In the morning I was given breakfast which was again a little embarrassing as they were all fasting. I said goodbye and climbed up the last of the mountain – a tough climb but the descent to Tabiz was perfect.

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Last section towards the pass, around 2,500m up

I had to do the last section on the motorway – that wasn’t as fun. I met a local cyclist who was out training and he accompanied me into town. I’d been given an Iranian sim in Armenia but had no phone credit so I couldn’t get hold of my Couchsurfing host, but my new friend called his sister and she put some money on for me. Of course – I wasn’t allowed to pay. In fact, I’ve needed people to help me top up my phone three times now in Iran and yet I still haven’t been able to spend any of my own money…

It was good to be able to use Couchsurfing & Warmshowers again. I made a ‘public trip’ for my first week in Iran when I was in Armenia and now that I could check my emails for the first time in a couple of days I saw that my inbox had been swamped with invitations. In Tehran I received more than 20 invites to stay with people – crazy!

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Shephards on the road descending to Tabriz

Tabriz was a nice city. The thing that struck me first was the amount of colour everywhere. In Georgia and Armenia everything had been so grey and dull but here all the shops and streets were lit by different coloured lights.

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People camping in El-Goli park

I visited El-Goli park, which was completeley full of tents. The Iranians clearly love camping. The car park was lined with tents. I recognised the hotel towering over the park as the one I’d lied about staying in on my visa application, after a quick search on Travel Advisor in the Trabzon consulate… It looked pretty expensive and so seeing all these tents just next to it was an amusing juxtaposition.

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Another thing I love in Iran is how all the different shops just sell just one thing – like eggs, cleaning products, or fans. I spotted a bunch of these strange ones selling cars for children – Iranian kids are clearly living the dream!

My host took me to a local ‘tea house’ to smoke sheesha. The places I’d been invited to smoke in Turkey were all bars for young people and the pipes were loaded with that synthetic flavoured tobacco. This place was so much more fun, totally ‘oriental’. Loads of old geezers just sitting puffing away in silence or chewing the cud over a background soundtrack of gurggling water pipes.

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Tabriz tea house. Those boxes on the shelf are the stacks of tobacco.
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In that big bowl is the wet tobacco.

In the morning it was Eid – the end of Ramadam. Time to eat again! We had ‘Kale Pacha’ for breakfast. Sheep’s brain and tongue… Not my favourite Iranian dish I must admit.

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Iranian picnicers

I cycled East, out of Tabriz along the ‘old’ main road. I didn’t take very long before the first car stopped to give me some food and invite me to their home should I pass that way. I’m glad I avoided most of Ramadan – every single day I’ve been given food as I’ve cycled. Before most of the cities I’ve been invited into someone’s home before I’ve even arrived. It’s crazy but amazing.

I was getting hungry in the late afternoon as I passed the small town Boston Abad. It was still holiday and one park I passed was full of picnic-makers. They absolutely love picnics here. Literally every park I pass is full of families having feasts. I decided to get invited to one – this sounds ridiculous but it’s literally how it works here. I cycled in to the park, got off my bike and within seconds heard ‘mister, mister!’ and was beconed over by one family.

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First campsite in the country
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There are so many old abandoned villages just crumbling away along the side of the road.

Well fed I cycled on, and found somewhere to camp just of the main road.

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On many of the roads here they have different speed limits for day and night – something I’ve never seen before.

The next evening when I was arriving in Miyaneh one guy stopped me and invited me to stay with him, which I gladly accepted. He owned a cement factory. We had tea in his office and then went to the factory where I could sleep for the night. With some of the family we had takeaway dinner (kebab, of course – is there any other food in this country?) and as usually everything bought for me.

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Cement factory hosts
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My morning view over the factory site

In the morning the factory workers arrived and I had breakfast with them before heading off for my long day to Zanjan. In one village I was flagged down by a shop owner who gave me a bunch of these sweet pastry things (that all the shops here were selling) and some warm goats milk.

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Bakers

The road was long and boring – 140km in total. I cycled a large section through watermelon fields where many of the farmers were selling their fruit at the side of the road. I considered buying a watermelon – they’re too big and heavy but they’ve been getting cheaper and cheaper over the last few countries to the point where it’s silly. They sell them in places here for 6p a kilo… So a 10 kilo watermelon costs 60p – crazy! But I didn’t need to buy any – I was stopped loads of times to be given slices as I passed the stalls.

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Watermelons

I arrived in Zanjan as it got dark. I don’t feel safe cycing the Iranian cities in daylight, let alone in the dark. I passed one collision on my way into town – I’ve seen so many road accidents in this country. My host had recently been knocked off her bicycle and had stiches on her face. One of the family I stayed with the night before had recently been in a bad crash and was lucky to be alive, it seemed. Once again – I wonder how people can be such incompetent drivers. In one town I was in the car with a guy who casually told me that I should be careful on Iranian roads because the drivers weren’t good – while he himself went straight through a red light!

The one rule – ‘drive on the right’ doesn’t even seem to be very important here. You know in the UK when you miss a turn off on the motorway and you think ‘shit – now I’ll have to take a huge detour to get back on track’. In Iran they’ll just stop the car on the inside lane and reverse backwards while everyone swerves around them.

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Wherever that is…
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Video shop in Zanjan bazaar. There are no copyright laws in Iran – so selling and buying pirate DVDs and software is completely legit…

My Couchsurfing host was studying craft work. She showed me the carpet she was currently working on – in fact, she’d been working on it for 5 years! Carpets are everything here – you sleep on them, eat on them. They’re a sign of art, status, wealth and everything in between. A good carpet is a good investment – if it’s good quality and lasts over time then the value of it will go up. It’s a good thing they don’t drink wine in this country…

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How to stitch an Iranian carpet…

Yet another other horrible day in the headwind from Zanjan. I was happy to stop for a long break and take a small detour to visit the Unesco heritage sight of Sultaniyeh – the third largest dome in the world. I parked my bike and went into the grounds – but first was told by the guard to roll my trousers down. I should have known better than to show so much shin!

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Sultaniyeh

It was impressive from the outside, but a waste of £3 to go in – the interior was completely full of scaffolding. Perhaps  the site could lay a claim to fame for having one of the world’s most ugly scaffolding arrangements too…

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Dome interior

I stopped in one small town shop to buy some chocolate milk and a chocolate bar – my afternoon treat. When I took my money out the owner waived his hand and told me not to worry… I was very confused and my inner capitalist couldn’t work out why on earth he was giving me something from his shop for free. It doesn’t work like that – does it? We’d not even spoken – he’d just seen I was a tourist on a bicyce! Iranian generosity had baffled me once again.

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First taste of the desert

The following day something similar happened. I stopped in another small town to buy some stuff in a little shop. The owner seemed pretty excited to have me and they were impressed by how far I’d cycled. I was sat down and they started giving me food from the shop while we took a million photos of me and everyone who came in to buy something, at their request. When I needed to leave I took out my wallet to pay for the stuff that I originally came in to buy. ‘No, no’ I was told again. I couldn’t believe this. In many places people want to make an extra quid of you if you’re a white tourist. But in Iran – it’s like they don’t want to make a penny of you! They’d rather just treat you like a king and have you leave with a good impression of them and their country. Was this ‘tarov’ – the Iranian word that doesn’t have a direct translation but means offering someone something when you don’t really want to? I tried to insist on paying with much more conviction this time, but they weren’t having it at all.

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Shop owner
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Another snap of myself and a happy customer. They all have amazing mustaches in this country.

As I continued into Qazvin I was stopped more times to be given bags of fruit, frozen water and other bits and bobs. One motorbike driver was really desperate to give me a ‘lift’, so I cruised a few kilometres holding hands with him zooming down the road – we must have looked an odd sight. I had to politely decline two invitations to stay in people’s homes as I already had somewhere to crash. I arrived into town with a big smile on my face  – I am falling in love with this country. Not the heat, not the constant headwind, not the traffic – but the wonderful people.

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Not got a clue what this was all about… They sell some strange stuff roadside. Sometimes shoes, dolls it seems and even one guy near here was selling safety deposit boxes!

I stayed with a really nice guy and his dad and best of all I slept on my first bed in Iran!

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Dome of the bazaar in Qazvin
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Roadside mosque

There are parks in every town in Iran. There’s no where to hide from the sun in between civilisation so if I pass a small town I always take a break in the park. They’re totally artificial – the grass needs buckets of water to survive but they are all immaculate and real social centers. I guess with no pubs or bars and a non-existent cafe culture they are the places to hang out. In this one I tried to find a place to hide but that never works in Iran and quickly a group of lads came over to say hello. The bought me a cold drink and it was a pretty normal encounter about football and the usual until one of them whipped his trousers down and they started injecting each other’s buttocks with some kind of muscle steroid – very odd.

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Park acquaintances

Stayed with a nice family in the edge of town near Karaj. When I say edge of town I mean it. Here the road will just stop – one side neat, frequently watered grass, and on the other side just rubble and dessert.

They had a sit down toilet in their house. Yesterday a bed, now a proper loo? I’m living the dream! Pass me my book…

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Every town Iran is lined with these photos of fallen soldiers who died in the Iran-Iraq war. They do love their martyrs…

In the morning we went for a quick look around town and had a walk up in the mountains above the city.

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I come across some good propaganda from time to time. This one is basically Britain and Israel giving Iran satellites but taking away their religion. What are we like! Satellites are illegal in Iran and all the TV stations are government owned. However, everyone has satellites. Occasionally the ‘satellite police’ come along and confiscate them, but people just buy a new one the next day. There are lots of Iranian TV stations that broadcast to Iran from abroad (although probably not from Israel – they really hate that country) like the UK’s BBC Farsi where you’ll spot women without their headscarfs on. In the Iranian hand is a prayer book and headscarf being given away.

I knew the road into Tehran would be a nightmare and it didn’t let me down… One big busy motorway. I got flagged down by a guy at the side of the road and Id with a polite smile as always. But he was different, after the usual questions – ‘what is your country?’ ‘what is your name?’ he then started asking me if I had English money or US Dollars. I replied the latter, confused why he was asking me. He then started insisting ‘I see, I see’ pointing at my handlebar bag. Yeah – like I’m going to show you my dollars! But he was uncomfortably pushy. I pointed to my front pannier to show that they were in there and too difficult to get out but clearly he thought that was an invitation to have a look and started unclipping my bag! A tourist’s most useful weapon is always the naive smile, but sometimes you need to know how to let me know that they can’t try to take advantage of you. And once he’d crossed the line and touched my bag I did just that – pushed him away, politely told him to fuck off and pedaled off as quick as I could.

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There are loads of ‘traffic police’ stations along the roads. Next to most of them they have a completely smashed up car like this one on a podium to remind people what happens when you drive too ‘Iranian’.

I got about a couple of km’s down the road before another group of guys were flagging me down. The other chap had really pissed me off and I’d had enough of the Iranians for today. But just as I was about to ignore these guys I realised I recognised them – they were the guys from the park I met a couple of days ago! I was pleased to see them and clearly vice versa. We exchanged lots of handshakes and smiles and I left reminded how good the Iranian people generally are. I’ve had one or two ‘blips’ among a thousand amazing experiences with the people and friends I’ve made here. Everyday I’m cycling with a huge grin on my face and I always know why – it’s because I’ll meet someone amazing just round the corner. I can’t go a day without being given food, invited for a conversation, offered help or invited to stay in someone’s home. It’s like no where I’ve ever been before.

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View over Karaj

I arrived in the capital very excited about the next chapter cycling this country…

 

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9 thoughts on “Iran part 1: From the Armenian border to Tehran (16/07/15-26/07/15)

  1. This is like the Berry fan club … but I just love reading your posts … even laughing out loud sometimes! Especially at your very practical thought about red wine and Iranian carpets!! It all looks amazing and wonderful – happy pedaling. Amanda x

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  2. Johnny,
    this was your best blog ever, right from the beginning when you left the main road, you brave traveller.
    Keep on smiling!

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  3. Awesome blog man.

    I have to point out what you said about… :

    “I stopped in one small town shop to buy some chocolate milk and a chocolate bar – my afternoon treat. When I took my money out the owner waived his hand and told me not to worry… I was very confused and my inner capitalist couldn’t work out why on earth he was giving me something from his shop for free. It doesn’t work like that – does it? We’d not even spoken – he’d just seen I was a tourist on a bicyce! Iranian generosity had baffled me once again.”

    Look up Persian taarof. This is simply part of their culture, you’re not supposed to accept the stuff as free. They even do this with locals.

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    1. Hey – thanks for getting in touch!
      If you read a bit further on, I do actually mention taroof (although I clearly spelt it completely wrong).
      It’s a strange thing, because for me – arguing with someone over something like that seems disrespectful. But I suppose that’s just one of those small cultural differences at the end of the day… Are you supposed to force money into their pockets if they keep refusing!?

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  4. The community became active in the cultural and economic development of Iran. The remaining Armenian minority in the Islamic Republic of Iran is still the largest Christian community in the country, ahead of the Assyrians.

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