I had my longest ‘civilisation-less’ stretch ahead of me from Sharhud. Nothing major, but more than 200km between towns.
As usual the wind was pain in the back (or front, rather) and the heat scorching. I hate the lack of shade in the desert – it makes things really tough sometimes. Normally I like to take my breaks somewhere private, but with no shade around I’m forced to pause in the ‘rest areas’ by the roadside and I’m always befriended by someone. I don’t normally mind but often I just need a minute to myself – I don’t get much alone time off the bike. On this occasion it was bunch of kids who came to check me out while I was having lunch and reading my book. They loitered around me staring like a pack of vultures, lacking the social skills to see that they were clearly unwanted.
People in ‘my’ society are terrified of any encounter even slightly awkward, but here they just don’t seem to register things in the same way. I couldn’t have made it any more obvious that I didn’t want their company with my head in my book but they just kept sitting next to me watching as I turned each page, occasionally taping me to ask something stupid like ‘Iran, good?’ I look them in the eye and say ‘yes, it’s great apart from the morons like you won’t leave me alone when it’s obvious I’m just trying to read my book in peace and quiet’. They look at me blankly and say ‘no English!’.
I know you don’t speak English, just like how I didn’t speak Persian 5 minutes ago. Strange how neither of us learned a new language in a just a few minutes! Then they’ll say something to each other in their own tongue and one will blurt out – ‘Denmark… sex?’ and they’ll all piss themselves laughing. Very occasionally I’m glad I don’t speak the same language as those around me…
That sounded mean. I love the Iranians but sometimes they’re exhausting.
I pushed on to reach the last village on my map, stocked up on water and found somewhere to camp in the desert.
Deserts are famous for their stars, right? Instead of going straight to bed at dusk I stayed up (rebel, I know) and watched the stars emerge from nowhere as the sky turned black. It was one of the best star skies I’ve ever seen.
I took a rare moment to reflect – my days are so hectic at the moment I never get a chance to do that. All I could think was ‘bloody hell – I’ve come along way’. Here I am, somewhere in the desert in the Middle East – a very, very long way from home.
What is my goal for this trip? That’s another funny question the Iranians ask me all the time. The paragraph above probably makes it sound like I think everyone here’s an idiot which is not the case at all. In fact, anyone with a grasp of English always asks me such profound questions – like what my ‘goal’ is. I reply ‘Australia’ looking for an easy answer, but that’s not what they mean. They want to know the internal goal.
Unfortunately I never have a good answer prepared. I tell them the goal is to feed a curious mind – that’s all it is to me. I then make a cheap analogy to support my already cheap answer. Like: imagine you love pizza but you only ever have pepperoni because that’s the topping you’ve always haved and loved. But if you never try something different, you’ll never have anything to compare it to. Maybe one day you’ll try a Hawaiin and think ‘damn – I never thought pineapple could taste so good on a pizza!’ (It tastes awful, for the record), ‘why was I only eating pepperoni before?’. That’s basically my goal from cycling. To ‘try’ every culture and then have something to compare my own with. There are loads of things I now realise are far better in England than Iran, but also vice versa.
The sun woke me up nice and early as usual. Another miserable day in the wind. Headphones in and push through the desert. Some more police stopped me (this happens very frequently these days) and asked for my passport as usual. I was starting to get a little fed up with them and this guy was an idiot. He asked me ‘country?’ and I said ‘Denmark’. Then he studied my passport closely and asked ‘family name?’ I told him it (it’s a long one). He looked back at my passport and said ‘Jonathan Dansk?’ clearly not understanding the family name I’d told him (printed right under his nose). I said the same more clearly but he just couldn’t figure it out, so I watched in silent amusement as he wrote my name down as ‘Jonathan Dansk’.
What’s the point in asking for a passport if you can’t even work out what the 5 boxes of text mean?
I stopped for a night in Sabzevar and then continued to Neyshabur. I was stopped on the way by a truck driver and his family (in a similar way to how I’m stopped everyday) and given ice cold water and melon. The authorities are annyoing here – but the people? Still totally incredible. The more I cycle the more I love Iran.
As I arrived into Neyshabur the same family had pulled over again by the side of road next to a huge group of kids. I didn’t have a clue what was going on, but they clearly thought I was extremely exciting and within seconds I was having my personal space invaded from every angle by 50 kids shouting: ‘what your name?’, ‘where is country?’ ‘Iran good?’ ‘are you muslim?’ etc. Eventually I escaped with a tub of ice cream in my handlebar bag given to me by one of the teachers.
I love how everyone in Iran is so self confident – it’s amazing. They’re uselss at English and yet it doesn’t seem to bother them in the slightest and that’s a fantastic attribute. When I was cycling in Western Europe I’d often ask someone on the street if they spoke English. They’d frequently reply with a shake of the head and a ‘no’, but then I’d just ask them the question in English anyway and of course – they could reply without any trouble. They’d just be shy about their English not being perfect. Iran is the total opposite…
Would I rather travel in a country where everyone spoke English but was too shy to do so? Or would I rather travel somewhere where everyone speaks barely any English and yet is still happy to try their best at interacting?
Have a guess.
In Neyshabur I visited the Omar Khayyam complex before leaving. Luckily my Couchsurfing host’s mother in law had a pensioner’s card so we could all get in for free (I just had to lurk in the background and pretend not to be a tourist). The site was gorgous – neat and tidy gardens with buildings covered in perfectly patterened mosaics.
I’d hoped to cycle all the way to Mashhad in a day but that clearly wasn’t going to happen. Sorry to mention the wind again – but this day was particularly awful. It took me 6.5 hours to cycle 65km. Pathetic. I gave up for the day and set up my tent by a windmill farm (I guess that means today wasn’t the first windy day around here).
Yep – sustaniable energy in Iran! Who would’ve thought…
I had a slightly embarrassing revelation that evening. My camping stove has legs! I’ve been using this thing for months now with out realising they fold out. What an idiot! It’s been a great cooker, but I’ve always thought ‘what a silly design’ as I’ve struggled to balance it. I can’t quite believe I didn’t realise that the legs folded out – whoops. I am literally clueless when it comes to ‘camping survival’. I often wonder how I’ve managed to get this far!
The next day I finally made it to Mashhad. On the way into town I bumped into the first other cyclist I’ve seen in the country – a French guy called Olivier on his way home from a round-the-world-tour (by bicycle and sailing boat). I think he said he’d left in 2008. He’s got a blog too.
I had a lovely guy to stay with in town and was happy to pause for a couple of nights – I needed a break badly. In the morning I went to the Turkmenistan consulate – praying that everything had worked out OK.
It had! I handed in some more paperwork and was told to come back at 3pm. He told me that I wouldn’t be getting the 7 days I requested, but that was fine – I never really expected that to work and I was over the moon to have been accepted.
When I returned, there was a Swiss couple (also cyclists) who’d come to collect their visas too. I mentioned that I’d told an explicit no for my request of 7 days, to which they said ‘oh – we were given 7…’ Er – what!? That must be some kind of sick joke. But the door had already been closed and I couldn’t be bothered to compain, I sensed there wasn’t much I’d be able to change anyway. God knows if there’s any system to this country. It was also annoying to learn that they’d only paid $55, while I’d had to pay a rather extortionate $85. Whatever – I was a happy boy.
There was one essential place to visit in Mashhad: Imam Reza’s Holy Shrine. I’m not really any expert on this stuff, but the role of Imam Reza is one of the important differences between Shia (Iran) Sunni Muslims. You’re not allowed into the complex if you’re a non-Muslin, it’s very much a pilgrim site in practice. I still wanted in, and my host reckoned it would be fine if I dressed up a bit more ‘Muslim’. With my tan and new beard I reckon I already look pretty eastern, so I borrowed a white shirt, put on some smart shoes and went for it. Greeted the guard with a ‘salaam-alaikum’ and was let in after a quick pat-down.
I’ve been lucky enough to see many incredible and famous sights around the world and this place was right up there. It was breathtaking – both in size and beauty. Also perhaps, because it was clearly such an important place to so many people there. It was rammed – apparently it was one of the other imam’s anniversary so it was chock-a-block with pilgrims. Mass prayer services, people kissing doors, chucking wads of cash into Reza’s mausoleum and many sobbing while reading from their prayer books. I’ve been to other religious pilgrim sites like the Vatican, been to services at churches like Santiago de Compostela and the end of walking the Camino – but no where have I experienced such an emotional atmosphere. Imam Reza’s death is still a sore spot for Shia Muslims. He was poisoned rather sneakily over a thousand years ago, but still his death is mourned like it was yesterday.
I usually feel like a bit of a fraud in a church when people are actually practising their religion around me when I’m just in to look at the pretty windows and I felt like even more of one here.
Unfortunately no photography inside. I took a couple of sly ones out in the courtyard but you’ll just have to trust me on this one and come see for yourself. Breathtaking.
With my visa in hand, I headed for the border. No time to dilly dally – I now had 7 days to cover more than 700km.
The two day ride to the border was pretty – the road cut into the mountains and meandered around rolling desert. Of course, the wind didn’t make it easy for me – but after one night camping halfway I reached the border town Sarakhs where I stayed the night in the Red Crescent (the Muslim Red Cross).
I started the next morning with butterflies in my stomach. The moment I’d been dreading for ages was about to happen – crossing the Iranian border having to show my UK passport. Part of me thought it would be nothing to worry about, but the other part thought of a story I’d heard about a German guy who had an unfavourable other passport and had been detained for two days! Oh well – I’d find out very soon how much the officials dislike us Brits…
I handed in my Danish passport and the scenario played out just as I’d imagined. After flicking through it he said ‘Problem. No Turkmenistan visa?’ ‘No problem’ I replied, ‘it’s just in another document’. He raised his eyebrows – ‘show me’. So I nipped back to my bike, withdrew my UK passport and brought it over. He studied it for a moment, told me to sit down and then returned a few minutes later with no less than five other guys. Then the questions began. Nothing aggressive – I just had to deliver my life story to explain why I had two passports. Luckily I didn’t really have anything to lie about. They asked for my camera and carefully looked through it, but I think they were mostly just being nosey. I asked them loads of questions about their own families in reply to theirs, in between telling them what a great country Iran was and eventually I think they were satisfied.
Nothing to worry about in hindsight – they were just curious as to how I’d qualified for dual-citizenship I think. Luckily the soldiers in Iran are lovely – they’re all doing time as part of their two year compulsory service and they all hate it. Even these guys were telling me how rubbish it is in front of their bosses! They’re usually well educated (like most in Iran) and speak good English. We all shook hands and they wished me a safe onward trip. I love this country!
The UK foreign ministry just changed their travel advice on Iran. When I arrived they advised against ‘all but essential travel’ to the whole country, but it seems now they suddenly think it’s safe. Because of a nuclear deal? How on earth would that affect the day-to-day life of a normal traveller. Now that the British Embassy may open – hopefully you guys can come and visit soon. You’ll be welcomed with open arms. I’ve only met a couple of people who’ve voiced a ‘fuck America’ but everyone else loves ‘the West’, especially England. Although, perhaps if your Israeli don’t expect to be very popular here…
I’m impressed that the the Iranian politicians have been so stubborn regarding this nuclear business – almost stupidly stubborn considering the damage they’ve done to the country’s economy. But part of me also thinks ‘good for you – Iran’. Don’t get bullied by the US. The talks have a been a huge talking point here, and understandably. I feel embarrassed by how little I knew about the sanctions. For example – I thought I couldn’t use my debit card here because Iran had made the choice to keep things internal, not that ‘we’ had made it impossible for them to get hooked into the international banking system!
The idea that some countries can run around telling others what to do makes me feel very uncomfortable. All countries are equal, but some more so than others? I get asked very often what I think of the nuclear talks by the Iranians and I always tell them this: Iran should be free to build all the nuclear weapons it wants. The ‘western powers’ should spend their time building relations and understanding between us so that no country in the world should feel the need to make any dangerous weapins. Wouldn’t that be a nice planet? In the same way that women in Iran shouldn’t be forced to wear the headscarf. The Iranian government should create and educated environment where women choose to wear it, rather than force them. That analogy might seem a stretch but it makes sense to me.
Speaking of headscarfs – let’s talk about women’s rights.
I often got asked (like I do in every country) what ‘we’ think of Iran back home. I lie through my teeth on this one, because we really don’t have the best impression of Iran. When I told my mates I was going to Iran they’d say ‘good luck’ with sarcasm, or ‘nice knowing you’ in jest. We imagine Iran to be full of bearded old men building nuclear weapons ready to finish the wicked West while their poor wives are tied up back home in their chadors looking like demeantors… OK – not quite. But you know what I mean.
Women’s position in Iranian society wasn’t anywhere as bad as I expected. I didn’t see or interact with many – but it’s been like that in a few of the countries I’ve recently travelled. Many of those I met where, of course, Muslim women very proud of their dress code. Others I met, were most definitely not. Maybe they were Muslim, maybe not – but they were most definitely opposed to the mandatory wearing of the headscarf. And they have a right to be! Why on earth should they have hide their bodies away? One man told me off (not seriously) for my facial piercings – I’d spoiled the body God gave me. I see his point. So then why make women hide the body God gave them? I understand the headscarf and of course I have no problem with it at all. But forcing women to wear those long, baggy manteaus and headscarfs – that’s an uncomfortable thought for me. It’s easy to see how the Muslim world and the West has its tensions – there are many differences that are really fundamental differences between our cultures.
I remember that news story from a year or two ago, about a British-Iranian women who’d been arrested for attending a volleyball match. Bonkers. Some things like that just wouldn’t go down in the UK. But there were other discussions I had with women who were telling me about something they ‘couldn’t’ do and I realised that actually, that was maybe the same in England. I’m not really much of a feminist, but it started to occur to me that many of the daily struggles women face her are the same back in England. 99% of the interactions I’ve had in Iran have been with men, that’s a pity. I wonder what my experience would have been had I been a girl cycling across the country – very different, no doubt. But that’s something I’ll never know.
Sorry this is a long post – but I still have energy left in my fingers. There were lots of things I loved in Iran, but also many I didn’t and those are just as important to write about. As the headscarf reminds you everywhere you look, religion is a pretty big deal here. It is, after all, the Islamic Republic of Iran. I’ve never been anywhere where religion is so vital to every aspect of daily life – both social and political. It was really nice for me actually – generally a religious person is a pretty nice person too, I find – religion teaches us how to be decent people on the whole.
Many of the Iranians were pretty ignorant about foreign religion, though. One women told me should wouldn’t be able to travel in my country because people wouldn’t like her headscarf. What!? There are millions of headscarf wearers in London. Maybe if you walked into a Wetherspoons pub in a burka you might turn a few heads, but otherwise no-one would bat an eyelid. Sometimes it’s like they think there are no Muslims in England. I proudly tell them that the biggest mosque complex in western Europe is just round the corner from where I grew up and that always surprises them.
Religion shouldn’t be forced upon people the way it is in Iran. If everyone is Muslim in a country then that’s fine – but is there anywhere like that? I don’t think so. I know for certain that not everyone in Iran is Muslim, and these people shouldn’t have to pretend to be. But officially you basically have to be Muslim in Iran – for instance if you’re in a public job or applying to university. I also think it’s inexcusable for a religious state to not teach other religions in school – none of the people I asked had had to study any other religions in school. I think my religious education left a lot to be desired (considering how many religions/cultures were present in my school) but at least we did learn about them all. There are so many overlaps between the world’s major religions – how can you not teach about them? Perhaps that’s exactly why they don’t…
It’s been pleasure to dive so deep into the Islamic world. I’ve loved it and learnt a lot. Countless times IS have been brought up. Even people I’ve met on the street who speak barely any English have been quick to tell me ‘Iran no Daesh (that’s what everyone calls them in this part of the world), no terrorists’. This one really pains me. Something has gone very wrong with the world if they should feel the need to defend their religion to me. It really saddens me when someone says ‘Iran – good muslim’. They should never have to say that. I ended up at a service in a church in Copenhagen a few months ago, and the priest talked about how it was a hard time to be a man of religion these days. There are so many people committing atrocities in the name of God, it’s exhausting to defend. And he was a Christian! Imagine what it’s like for the Iranian’s with all these maniacs running around chopping people’s heads of for no reason in their neighbouring countries. Anyway, when this topic comes up I ask them if there are any Iranians fighting with IS. They always say ‘no, no!’ and I ask them if they knew that there are hundreds of Brits fighting for them in Syria. They don’t, and that curveball usually ends the conversation.
So (now I’m out the country) I’ve done my criticism. But I leave Iran really speechless about what I’ve experienced, simply because of the people. I’ve never met so many people so ready to go right out their way for me. I hate to think what lengths some of those people would have gone to help me had I needed. I’ve been given so many presents (does anyone want any prayer beads? I have a good few sets now and last time I checked I wasn’t Muslim). I’ve been given so much food – from car windows, in people’s homes, from picnics or out at restaurants. I’ve been invited into strangers’ homes more times than I can count. It’s really been incredible.
I leave the Middle East having found some faith in humanity. I actually think Iran has been the victim of an elaborate smear campaign in many regards. I suppose it’s much easier to have ‘enemies’ who look like lunatics. But in Iran I’ve discovered a bunch of people who are, put simply, much nicer people than those from my country. I worry sometimes about the ideas the media puts in my (and everyone else’s) head, and we’re so quick to judge things we know nothing about. When I was younger and I didn’t like the look of what my poor mum had made for dinner, she used to always say ‘even if you don’t like the look of it, you have to at least try it before saying it’s not nice’. I think that line of thinking can be applied to many things in life.