Iran, the land of Ayatollahs, economic sanctions, and the highest global rate of nose jobs! No country in the world is so wildly misunderstood (or misrepresented) in the international community, and after two months and thousands of kilometres it was a struggle to urge myself to cross the border into Turkmenistan. I’m one of those lucky sods who have been able to travel to over a quarter of the world’s countries, and I must say Iran just about tops them all; true there are many fascinating historical and cultural sights, but it’s the incredible people that I met along the way that have driven me to fall in love with Persia.
I arrived into Iran at the best time of year; the snow had (just about) gone, and by the time I tackled the mountains to reach Tabriz the Persian New Year was in full swing. During the ten day Iranian holiday families seem to spend their time going on roadtrips throughout the country; the result is elaborate lunch and dinner breaks on the roadside shared with any smelly cyclist who happens to pedal past!
On one 10km gradual ascent east of Tabriz a bloke pulled over and insisted I hold the back of his ute to take me to the top. I was a little sceptical as I’ve never been able to hold a car before, and when he accelerated to over 50km/h I was a little concerned! It was fantastic to reach such speed going uphill on an 8% incline, and its fare to say Mohammad made my day…
It was during this time that I turned 27, and being in Iran it meant that this year I have had two new years and a birthday all sober! I soon learnt, however, that although everything is technically illegal in Iran, ‘everything is possible’ as my friends in each city pointed out. I enjoyed wine and vodka in Shiraz and Qom, beer at a wild party in Shahrud (complete with two cross dressers), and plenty of opportunities to smoke opium with truck drivers on the roads in the east – although I happily declined this last treat.
Going off all those chador covered women we always see in the media, I had definitely not expected to find any romance while in Iran. I was happily mistaken as we stealthily hid ourselves amongst trees in the mountainside, and when in public we refrained from holding hands. It is illegal to be affectionate in public or have a foreign boyfriend, so my partner wisely became my ‘tour guide’.
As I rode south from Tehran my right knee ligament was becoming too painful, so I took the sensible decision to leave my bicycle with a friend in Qom and explore Central Iran with public transport. Needless to say I took my tent for all the times I could not find a host; I’ve come to completely abhor paying cash to stay in a lonely hotel room. It soon became a travel experiment on the joys of couchsurfing; I had fantastic hosts or guides in the cities of Qom, Esfahan, Na’in, Yazd, Shiraz, Tehran, Damghan and Shahrud. In Persian culture people embrace a wandering foreigner, and because of so many hospitable and kind experiences I now have many friends in Iran that I hope to see in the future. Unfortunately authorities in many places have cracked down on such hospitality, so with many hosts I had to use an elaborate story of the hotel I stay in and with my friend storing my belongings.
One of my favourite experiences at this time was witnessing the release of the river water in Esfahan. It was amazing to see the water inch itself forward throughout the day, reaching the Khaju Bridge in the evening amongst thousands of roaring locals celebrating with music, fireworks, prayers and picnics.
I have taken hundreds of images of the spectacularly diverse array of Persian mosques, and I thought I would share a few of my favourites here…
When I stayed in Shahrud with friends I made my first appearance on television. It was a hilarious situation as I had to have the question explained to me, then the Farsi speaking interviewer would ask, after which I would pretend to comprehend the question. We would then pause and discuss my answer, and have an impromptu interpreter explain my response into the camera. It was an exciting experience for me, and I just hope that through the language barrier the message of my cancer charity adventure for AICR reached the audience.
Nothing can piss a cyclist off more than cycling into a headwind on the flat desert plains. I literally got a helping hand when two young lads on a motorbike stopped and motioned for me to grab a hold of their passengers arm. I had never tried to hitch a lift with the arm of a motorcyclist, but with a wide smooth shoulder it seemed safe enough to take me through the headwind. It was exhilarating to speed to 60 km/h on an uphill into headwind, and in 45 minutes they took me the distance of nearly three hours of pedalling on Wilson. By that stage my arm was agonisingly ripping out of my back, especially when changing gears and with the motorcycle jolting forward.
At the Iranian/Turkmenistan border I was hit by a tractor! After a hard day of riding I was arriving at the border town of Sarahks when I heard a tractor behind me and saw an incoming overtaking car in my lane. The incoming car merged back into its lane, while I moved two metres off the road into the gravel… so while leaving a five metre gap I assumed the tractor driver would merge over and overtake me, but instead the idiot ran me over! I was able to jump off the road into the shrub, but I had to leave the bike behind. The front wheel of the tractor ran straight over the back wheel of my bike, and after he had reversed off I unleashed a barrage of abuse. Luckily I could still turn the wheel and somehow escaped any serious damage. While protecting my bike the back pannier rack bent inwards and snapped, while the impact of the fall bent my handlebar. I was thankfully able to continue my ride into Turkmenistan the next morning with my friends Zigor and Maria, and in Bukhara I was able to find a welder!
In the interests of all those travellers waiting to apply for visas (Iranian embassy’s in the region have more or less closed for foreigners during the period of elections), as well as all the incredible Iranian people and new friends I met while in Persia, I have decided to be very selective with my words and images on this post. If you are at all interested in my experience and impressions of how the people have adapted within the suppressive political system of Iran please send me an email, thanks!
What I will say here is that the economic sanctions are appalling; as always it is the people who are suffering as those in power are legitimated by the ‘foreign enemy’. The sanctions run in the face of the geopolitical and economic reality in the region, and as in Burma and elsewhere it’s the people who are feeling the burden. How fair is it to punish millions of people for what a bunch of blokes in suites or turbans are doing in the capital? One example that’s relevant to cycling4cancer is the increasing cost of cancer medication and treatment since the sanctions have come into force. I admire the way people have adapted over the past decades to life in Iran, and together with every single person I met in Iran I hope for a drastic political change as soon as possible.
Be careful, Big Brother is watching you…