Miles on the clock: 8,445
With Iranian visas secured, Ashley and I left the Turkish town of Erzurum. It was after about ten miles of heavily militarized roads that Ash realized he’d left his passport behind so nipped back while I tinkered with my bike.
Recovery was complete when he reached us in the evening and we celebrated his 29th birthday with a big supper, cooked on a cowdung fire, and bed by 8.30. Not only were the days getting rapidly shorter but we were heading steadily east, shaving a few more minutes off sunset each day too.
Eastern Turkey can be a fairly wild place (“The Wild East” or the “Badlands” as Ash called it) and this feeling climaxed in the last few towns we passed through. Near the Iranian border sits Dogubeyazit (or “Dog Biscuits” in the traveller’s vernacular) where we were pelted by stones. Two fist-sized rocks hit my bike and Leigh was attacked with a tree branch. Scaring the mischievous children into scattering was out best bet so I took to overtly wielding a threatening stone while Leigh and Ash began charging the little clusters and staring down the ragged little figures who had just armed themselves.
Rolling up to the border, we were confronted by confused officials, a lengthy fingerprinting process and large portraits of Imam Khomeini (late leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution) and Ali Khamenei (the current Ayatollah – expert in Islamic studies who ranks above the President). English language was sparse but without too much hassle we were ushered through and the adrenaline struck. As we followed a river down a narrow, winding valley and through a town called Maku, many shouts of “Hello, how are you?” and “Welcome to Iran” began and we enthusiastically shouted replies and lent heavily on our klaxons much to the delight of pedestrians. Bunking down in, what turned out to be, a landfill site that night couldn’t kill our mood. Something about Iran had already gripped me and I felt certain it would be a good month.
In the morning I observed a genuine tear in Siamek’s eye as we parted at the mainroad. Never had I received such hospitality from a stranger; it was (forgive the cliché) truly humbling and was the first of countless kindnesses that were showered upon us on a daily basis. Grinning motorists pulled over to give us nuts, fruit and drinks; and ask us about our opinions of Iran. Beaming businessmen invited us into their offices for tea and questioned us about politics and the western opinions of Iran. Everyone was falling over themselves to help us, talk to us, give us food and (with a timid national pride) discover our thoughts on their country, countrymen and government.
Camping was great as the long nights regularly facilitated 10 hour sleeps. A feeling of absolute security amongst the Iranian people made us overly relaxed about choosing spots and one night, pitched in an orchard in some suburbs, our hearty dinner was interrupted by a burst of gunfire about 20 yards away and then a couple of shouts and the sound of an aged motorbike spluttering into life and zooming away. Under the assumption that it was merely celebratory, we continued eating but we did so in silence and went straight to bed.
Rather than reaping the benefits of resting and sleeping in a hotel, Ash fell ill as the last few weeks of avoiding affliction seemed to catch up with him. Energy-sapped, yellow-faced and lifeless; he dozed for two days and two nights and showed no real signs of improvement. Cursing ourselves and hating the time press our visas caused, Leigh and I left him after waiting an extra day. If he recovered soon he would catch a bus and join us further east.
Letting us into the secret that Iran is not all sunny deserts and ceaseless summers, the weather turned ugly for a couple of days when the temperature didn’t top 6°C and a pea-souper presided over all. Ears plugged into ipods and hands gloved against the chill, we forged on in silence, always looking for places that might offer warmth or a free cup of tea. To this end, we visited a tomato farm where Assad (a small, aged, bald man with awful teeth and a weathered face) and Jarved (a hansome young man with combed hair and a colgate smile) invited us into their hut for lunch. Before eating, Assad produced a small block of a dark, resinous substance that he called teriyok that came from Afghanistan and could get one arrested. Young, nervous and naive, we assumed it was opium (the hut had a spoon with burn marks and several empty pill packets on the floor, as well as a Koran) and, when pressed, felt obliged to try a small sample of the unknown drug that Assad carefully unwrapped from a length of clingwrap.
In one town near the capital we passed a demonstration, of mostly women in the traditional black chador, marching down the street waving red, green and white banners (the national flag's colours). Thinking it was a protest, I surreptitiously filmed the chanting mass as I passed, hoping no policeman would see my camera perched by my hip. We later discovered that they were celebrating the anniversary of the storming of the American embassy in 1979.
Weaving through the gridlock I noticed a thankfully ignored sign with an arrow pointing right but words reading “KEEP LEFT”. The two-direction squares (Iranian name for a circular roundabout) were quite an experience and the occasional city-planning slip where the road system is suddenly left-sided was a nice reminder of home.
My time in Tehran was spent mostly eating and walking. The city’s attractions were largely closed as we were there for wednesday and thursday (Iranian weekend) but I enjoyed simply getting a feel for the enormous city. I spoke to one man who’s father was a leading figure in the ’79 revolution but now both he and his son are firmly anti-government. When I asked him if there will be another revolution (all educated people I asked were anti-government) he said no as too many died in the last one and they cannot now go back on that despite the perversion of the ideals that were proclaimed back then.
Ashley had emailed to say he was well and staying with a kind Iranian man. I finally gave up hope on a Pakistani visa (having had a fruitless string of email contact with the Pakistani High Commissioner in London) and booked a flight to Delhi. The irritation of breaking my cycle route in this way was somewhat appeased by the exciting news that my friend James would be coming out and joining me for an month in India.
A particularly fun feature of Tehran is crossing roads. There are black and white stripped pedestrian crossings but no traffic lights or courtesy from drivers to justify their use. The general rule seems to be to cross anywhere, one lane at a time and, if necessary, stand in the middle of speeding traffic until the next lane has an opening. The challenge is the unwritten rule: the crossing must be done as nonchalantly as possible (at least outwardly) and without breaking step if possible. Resorting to running is a complete loss of face.
We left the city in rush hour and asked directions from a man who had been filming us from his car for about five minutes before pulling over. He lead us for half an hour at bike pace in the middle of the busy multi-lane roads with his hazards on. When we finally reached the outskirts he asked us to stay at his place that night. “That’s very kind of you. Where do you live?”
We politely declined.
Mashhad is the holiest city in Iran (3rd holiest city in Shiite Islam) and the main site of pilgrimage in the country. Every year 25 million visitors flock to the city to pay homage to the shrine of Imam Reza (the 8th Imam) who was martyred in 818 AD. Due to our now swarthy appearance and the fact that we were heading to Mashhad, people began to assume we were Muslim pilgrims ourselves. Linguistically is was often difficult to correct this misapprehension but we both had become to feel that our crossing of Iran (along the Silk Road route) had become a bit of a personal pilgrimage anyway.
We had each worked out that visas (Leigh was travelling onto Turkmenistan) and flight times allowed us a fairly leisurely crossing of the northern Kavir desert. We relaxed the pace and found idyllic campsites surrounded by flat nothingness to the south and the occasionally snow-capped Alborz mountain range to the north. One night we made our home among some mud hut ruins on a high plateau. Their steadily weather-decayed state was as beautiful as it was sad. There are abandoned buildings all over Iran; a squatters paradise. It is not worth reusing mudbrick so they are left to the elements. These ones were particularly enigmatic and it was hard to tell whether they were 50 or 500 years old. We also passed several decayed caravanserai; a sort of silk road coaching inn with high rampart walls for protection and a large courtyard for accommodating camels and poorer guests.
In the town of Shahrod/Shahrud/Shahroud/Shahrood/Shahrude we were sat in the park stuffing our dust-coated faces with some cheap cakes when three very pretty girls approached us and timidly offered us tea. A few minutes later they re-appeared with a tray of tea, fruit and chocolates. We asked them to sit with us but they declined and skittered away, returning to offer us more tea before long. One spoke good English and ventured “you look very dirty. Would you like a bath?”
We didn’t have to consult with each other to accept this offer and 30 minutes later the brother, Ali, appeared from his shift at the bank and took us to their house on the edge of the park. Monireh, Moona and Monzieh were waiting for us and were much more talkative in their home. They were two sisters of Ali and a cousin (Monzieh). Our clothes were thrown in the washing machine in the distinctly up-market house and we were thrown in the bathroom to scrape off the caked dirt under a hot shower. Ali’s wife, Neda, cooked a huge lunch and we all sat to eat. Monireh (the anglophone) is a lifeguard, Moona is a amateur swimming champion and an art student, Monzieh is also a student and Neda is a nurse. We all got to know each other and it was soon decided that we should go with them to Semnan (town we passed 120 miles earlier) that night to see a theatre festival the next day. Toothbrush in pocket, I climbed in the Peugeot 206 with the five others and after two hours of taking turns to sing and trying to be relaxed with Iranian night driving, we arrived at Ismil’s house in Semnan. Ismil is a brother in law and lives with his wife (who was away) and two sons confusingly named Pooya and Pouria.
In the morning we breakfasted on yogurt, cheese, honey, quince chutney, butter and bread. Then it was time for the theatre. I was luckily sat next to Monireh who whispered the plot in my ear. It was delightfully melodramatic with some classic clowning characters, much face-slapping and many wailing women crouched around a shrine. The feel was not dissimilar to Spanish soap opera. The standing ovation was a surprise to me.
We drove back to Shahroud in the evening (having visited some more relatives first and eaten even more) and met the small, smiling family matriarch who radiated wisdom. Her deep-set eyes grinned and she insisted on feeding us again before bed. In the morning we went with Monireh and her mother to visit the shrine of Sheikh Abol Hassan Kherqani, a 13th-century poet and holy man who could allegedly command lions and be in two places at once. The peace inside this small building was moving but more so was the calm and content it brought to Monireh who seemed completely regenerated and at peace after praying before the tomb. My thoughts hovered briefly over my own lack of faith; seeing the positive side of belief is all too rare for me; my cynicism blocks my open-mindedness.
I sorted my kit out, got my bike fixed up for free in a friendly shop, and then boxed it up for my 4.40am flight. Leigh went his own way towards central Asia and I headed to the airport. I was somewhat of an oddity on the flight (wearing wellies and carrying the shopping basket from my bike) and, during the lengthy and crowded bus transfer from gate to plane, I played a little game. I would stare at my feet for a while and then suddenly look up to see 30 or so faces quickly look in another direction, embarrassed to be caught staring at the beardy wierdy whitey.
After a 14-hour stopover in Doha, I boarded a flight to Delhi. As the sun drooped towards the horizon, I gazed out of the window and allowed myself to agonize and speculate over all the potential adventures lying along the hundreds of hidden miles beneath the billowing clouds. I had cycled a third of the way around the world over 5 glorious months of touching, smelling, seeing and feeling everything; and now was jetting over the earth in a tin can. The sense of dislocation was crippling but I had to remind myself that plenty more excitement lay ahead and that my journey was never about cycling all the way around the world but more about seeing the world.
In Delhi airport I stumbled upon a much-improved Ash before James arrived and we assembled our bikes and rode into India, brimming with expectation.