Iran! A country we knew in advance that traveling was going to be a challenge. Getting a visa, no way to get money from an ATM, the climate, the rules. A country we were warned about. But also a country that we knew previous travelers were excited about, about the people and the culture.
A country currently in turmoil, as many of you will have heard on the news. We have now left Iran ourselves, but still want to tell you a lot about the special encounters, the culture and the unparalleled hospitality of the Iranian people. The recent events in Iran sadden us, but also testify to the great discontent among the people and the injustice done to them (especially women). This injustice and discontentment we felt and saw almost daily. No international payments, restricted trade with foreign countries, extremely old and polluting means of transportation and low wages under poor conditions. There is huge unemployment among the young population and some are trying to flee the country in search of opportunities. A government that exercises extreme controls and from time to time blocks the Internet to make it difficult to organize protests against the existing government. Until a few years ago, women were not allowed to ride bicycles in Iran. Unimaginable in our eyes! Having a pet and walking your dog: it is forbidden in Iran. Our mouths fell open in amazement. Singing in public as a woman: forbidden! Why!!! Long sleeves, long pants and headscarf for women: mandatory. And there is even a religious dress police to see that the rules are followed. The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by police for not wearing her headscarf in the manner required and died not much later, led to the protests that are going on now, but are founded on years of oppression of people in this country.
Continue reading below about our experiences in Iran. To begin with a quote from a young man trying to find a better future for himself and explaining what it means to him to see foreign people.
“I think it is very good that you travel around the world and experience something new every day. It is really interesting for me and my plan for the future is to go and see different countries, people and cultures on the planet. It’s great that I met you and this means for me that I want to travel to different countries. This is like a sign for us. I was very happy to meet you. I would like to say these words to you and now I said them so that I don’t forget it.”Omid, Iran.
After two rest days near the border of Turkey and Iran, we cross the border today. We begin with a strong headwind and many armored vehicles that occasionally stop along the side and then move on. After first waiting in the car line, we have to go to the queue inside for a stamp. The Turkish border police are indignant that we didn’t get a stamp when we entered Turkey, but after some difficulty they find us in the electronic system. Inside it’s push and pull and our bikes are pulled through a too narrow barricade and we get an exit (car) stamp. Without luggage control, we are through border control after 2 hours! When we then look for a way out among the trucks we only breathe exhaust fumes. There are no modern cars with particulate filters here, just old French models (with Peugeot leading the way) or a local junk car. We notice that almost all the cars are white, except for the blue Nissan pickups. The Nissans are used to transport literally anything in. They are no longer made by Nissan, but they are still produced in Iran and then they stick a Nissan logo on them ;). A few other examples:
- KFC (Kettucky Friend Chicken) = HFC
- Snickers = Dominickers
- Magnum = Magnulia
- McDonald’s = Mash Donald’s
- Subway = Freshway
- Pizza Hut = Pizza Hat
We drive on quickly and arrive in Maku. Our money still needs to be exchanged, because we can’t get cash in Iran, and we don’t have a place to sleep yet, and our stomachs start to growl. Two passersby point out that changing money is not possible here, but they want to give us a ride back to the border village. After we arrive at the first best hotel, Eloy rides back with us, an exciting adventure without seat belts between cars on the racetrack. In the end, he returns with no money because the exchange rate offered is less than half that on the Internet. It later turns out that Iran has its own exchange rate that is communicated among exchange offices every day via WhatsApp. There is also no restaurant open nearby, so with our last Turkish lira we can buy some meat and vegetables for our instant noodles at a supermarket. Money can only be changed again in the next village, but when we want to pay for bread with lira, we get a strange look. We can only pay with the Iranian bank card at the bakery. A customer asks how many loaves we want and then, after paying, pushes the giant loaf into Eloy’s hands. A little later, a roadside fruit farmer gives us some fresh fruit.
Although very tasty, it proves to be disastrous for Eloy because in the hamlet that follows, he vomits twice. And then again. However, we have to keep going because there is nothing here. Later, when we really can’t go on, we rest under the sole shade of the only house in this desert. It turns out to be a vegetable plantation and we are warmly welcomed. Eloy rests on the bed and Audrey gets acquainted. We have lunch and when Eloy finally feels a little better, an elevator is arranged to the next village where we have found a hotel. Eventually one of the workers also calls a friend who lives there and we can spend the night at home. Only the driver didn’t get this and we can’t understand each other for a word. We haven’t been able to arrange an Iranian sim card either, so no internet. After 10 circles through the city and a lot of hand and foot work, we end up with the right people, we think.
We walk into a mechanic’s workshop where we can park our bikes. The floor above is our guest room. Father and mother are going to a party and their son is coming later. When Audrey’s stomach has also turned over and Eloy has not fully recovered, we quickly go to bed. The following day, Eloy and the son go into town to change money, buy a SIM card and see what life is like. In the afternoon, we eat lunch with the whole family and the son asks how he can invest in the Netherlands. Like his father, he has studied, but there are too few facilities in Iran to utilize the knowledge so he wants to seek happiness elsewhere. We will unfortunately hear this story many more times from Iranians. When we “order” a pickup truck at the end of the afternoon, we say goodbye. Mother has a craft store and gives us a souvenir. Then we are wished good luck through an Islamic ritual by walking under the Koran three times and then throwing water and sugar after it. With tears in her eyes, the mother gives us a farewell hug.
In Marand, we join Peyman’s family. He traditionally lives with his wife and son above his parents’ house. We eat sitting cross-legged on the floor (Eloy is still not limber enough to hold it for long). The fried rice on top of cooked rice is a delicacy; it seems to be fought over regularly within families. As a Software Engineer, Peyman knows English well and we again learn much of Iranian culture. This includes the concept of taarof. In the rules of hospitality, taarof requires a host to offer anything a guest might want, and a guest is equally obligated to refuse it. This ritual may repeat itself several times (usually three times) before the host and guest finally determine whether the offer and refusal are sincere, or simply a show of politeness. Similar to paying the bill when dining out together, it is a form of respect. However, it can be very confusing.
If we want to cycle to Tabriz the next day, we start a climb up to 1,800 meters, but it takes us almost 4 hours. We are not yet fit, it is too hot and the traffic is terrible. We feel like we have been breathing gasoline all day and our lungs are already black. In Iran, Audrey is required to wear a “hijab” (headscarf) in sight of others. However, it is almost unbearable in this heat. Unfortunately, there are also not as many water taps to cool down as in Turkey. A little further on, a farmer selling fruit along the road forces us to stop and immediately comes running with water and fruit. That comes as a true gift! It is incredible how many people shout “Welcome to Iran” from the car. A little later we pass orange/pink colored mountains. The colors are beautiful, but it is so hot that it is hard to enjoy them.
Fortunately, a village looms further on where we buy the largest bottle of Coke and ice cream. After we still have some trouble paying the right amount (the currency is Rial, but people talk in Toman which is worth 10x more, and for speech they often leave out the thousands or sometimes the extra zeros to keep it simple…. Get it? 1 euro = 300,000(!) rial = 30,000 Toman, and in colloquial language 30…. (or 3 or 300, you’ll have to figure that out for yourself😏). Then we plop down on the sidewalk and cool off at a tap. We decide not to bike anymore above 35 degrees. We look for a place to sit quietly until it cools down a bit, but finding one turns out to be harder than we thought. Further down the road is a store and we buy ice cream again after the man offers us tea from a giant “tea tank”. Using Google Translate, the man asks if the hijab is not difficult to wear and Audrey nods. The man continues, saying that 70% of the population is against the obligation, but there is little to be done about it. We continue talking for a while. We point out that so many people are honking at us on the street and sometimes we don’t know if this is meant as encouragement or if we should pull over. The shopkeeper says it is meant as a greeting anyway. “When I see a tourist, I greet them from the bottom of my heart and Iranian people like that”, Google Translate says.
‘When I see a tourist, I greet them from the bottom of my heart and Iranian people like that’Shopkeeper in Sufian
For a few hours we sit breathing in exhaust fumes from heavily polluting traffic. The trucks are vintage cars, the car mats are sold on the street, the bongs next to them. The crowded blue Nissans are works of art in themselves, they look like passing hay bales. It is an experience in itself.
When it has cooled down a few degrees we cycle a little further when Eloy tries to speak to a driver of a parked pickup. It is Hamid, he does not speak a word of English but gestures that he would like to take us to Tabriz. He’s passing through anyway and could use the company. The bikes are quickly loaded in the back and in less than 5 minutes we are in the car with 35 km to go. Fortunately, because it is already starting to get dark. Arriving at Tabriz, he drops us off at the train station. There we hear “Welcome to Tabriz” several times. While Eloy inquires (in vain) about train tickets, a bunch of girls walk past Audrey several times and then shyly dare to approach her. They ask some questions and one of them apologizes for her limited English. She says “You are so beautiful”. They would like a picture, our Instagram profile and then walk away again. Moments later they return with big pieces of chocolate cake and while giggling they wave as we drive away. Then it’s dark and survival mode kicks in. The traffic is chaos. No rules, traffic lights are ignored, merging is always possible, even when a cyclist drives by. After a lot of anxious sweat and almost-dead-experiences, we arrive at the hostel. The door opens and peace returns. A green oasis in the middle of the city, no more honking, shouting or danger. Immediately a German cyclist arrives! “Hi guys!” It turns out he worked for the Red Cross for years but has now quit and is heading for Pakistan. But he wants to go all over the world. We talk for a long time and don’t go to sleep until late, but it is nice to talk for a while with people who are doing the same thing: crossing the world by bicycle.
About one and a half million people live in Tabriz. The city is located in West Azerbaijan Province, and more Azerbaijanis live in Iran than in Azerbaijan itself. The spoken language is Azeri-Turkish, but officially Persian/Farsi. Tabriz comes alive mainly in the evening, as it is nearly 40 degrees during the day. When it has cooled down a bit, we walk toward the large bazaar. First we pass the Jameh Mosque and risk our lives several times to cross the road. Chaos! The great bazaar is listed as a World Heritage Site and contains 6500!!! shopping stalls. From sweets, to skinned lamb heads, chicken legs and vegetables. Washing powder, paintings, cheese and carpets: eyes short of eyes to take it all in. It is overwhelming. We notice that everywhere we go or stand people stare at us. It seems like they want to ask something, because at least they don’t yawn subtly.
From Tabriz, we take an overnight bus to the capital, Tehran. After all, for the next few days it will remain above 35 degrees and not very responsible to cycle through the desert. And since we only have a 30-day visa, the bus offers a good solution to bridge distances. Arriving at the huge bus station, we know we will have to negotiate the bus ticket for the bikes. It is abundantly clear that we are tourists, so the bus company tries to pull a leg on us by charging more than 2 times the bus ticket. After Audrey starts a fiery discussion and the man asks if she is pregnant, he goes down with the price, because we know what the price should be approximately. It’s still a game. After we pay it turns out that the bus has no room at all, because there are all kinds of equipment and tires in the hold. After another discussion, 1 of the 2 bikes goes along hanging in the stairwell. The other passengers laugh about it and don’t know what they are experiencing. We don’t get much sleep, but in the end we arrive in Tehran in one piece!
In Tehran, we bike to our host Navid. He lives with his dogs Leo and Shiba and lets us do our own thing for a few days. Not much later after our arrival Navid takes an afternoon nap, and since we are still a bit broke from the bus we do the same. It is quite common in Iran to go inside during siesta time and sleep. People live mainly in the evening and night. Lunch is only around 14.00-15.00 hours and dinner is often at 23.00 hours. We have to get used to this.
Navid suggests we go hiking in the nearby mountains the next day. To avoid the heat, we leave at 6 a.m., so it’s another short night. However, the hike toward a (dried-up) waterfall is beautiful and Navid prepares the most delicious omelet Eloy has had in a long time (chef’s secret: dates and honey). In the evening, Navid has arranged to meet at a friends house and we join him. Alcohol is banned in Iran, but that doesn’t stop people from getting it in alternative ways. We get a tasting of home-brewed beers and wine. Everyone has brewed something and they look expectantly at our reaction to the taste considering we know what “real beer” is. And admittedly, it tastes good and we have an enjoyable evening.
The next day we visit a the famous Tajrish bazaar in the North of the city and taste all kinds of strange things. In the evening we go to the observation tower with an extraordinary view of Tehran. Besides the orange colors, a black fog is visible over the city, making it, unfortunately, one of the most heavily polluted cities in the world.
We say goodbye to Navid and cycle through Tehran again. We slowly see the Azadi Tower popping up in front of us and some more cab drivers are eager to take our picture. The tower is a monument in honor of the Shah and is supposed to symbolically represent the gateway to the Western world.
Then we go to the bus station. Behind us are a mother and her son Abbas, who are waiting for the same bus and without hesitation invite us to their home in Isfahan. The scenery during the 6-hour bus ride is all desert and rocks. The thermometer indicates 39 degrees and the road is a race track. One time a truck almost hits the bus, because the bus overtakes on the right and then has to swerve to the emergency lane. Luckily we were not cycling there… But the sunset in the desert, magical! Judge for yourself!
Until the next one!
Audrey and Eloy