Miles on the clock: 24,715
Iran is not starving. Iran is suffocating. While food is relatively ample and affordable, the oxygen of progress and prosperity is strangled by a paranoid theocracy. The Islamic Republic's partially self-imposed isolation has lead to inflation running at about 30 per cent and the looming collapse of an economy that, under differing circumstances, could be ranking among the largest in the world.
The Iranian people had lost patience with the Pahlavis; a dynasty of monarchs installed in the 1920s. Crudely used as a tool for foreign (largely American and British) exploitation of Iran's mineral wealth, the last Shah (Mohammad Reza) finally fled the country in 1979, making way for a revolution of secular, Islamic and communist groups which had been gaining momentum for some time. The exiled, octogenarian cleric Ruhollah Khomeini returned from Paris and claimed the revolution in the name of Islam. The communists and secularists were brushed aside. Many were executed.
Ayatollah Khomeini installed himself as Vali-e Faqih ('Supreme Leader'), sitting at the head of the Wilayat al Faqih ('Guardian Council of Islamic Jurists') with the (frequently-exercised) power to veto any decision made by the "democratically" elected government: the world's first theorcracy was born (excepting a small group of elderly men in Italy with a predilection for wearing dresses and ceremonially drinking "blood").
The laws laid down by a 7th-century Arabian warlord were instituted absolutely. Accordingly, the legal age of marriage for boys and girls was set at 13 and 9 years respectively (since changed to 15 and 13). The conservative dress code of hijab for women was re-enforced having been outlawed by Shah Mohammed Reza. All non-Islamic, non-martial music was banned and the death penalty was installed for conversion out of Islam.
However, things are moving forwards slowly. Many women allow their headscarves to slip scandalously far behind their hairline; Tehran grows ever more cosmopolitan; and people with internet have ways of getting access to the government-censored world media.
Despite the difficulties of life in Iran, or perhaps because of them, Iran remains home to the friendliest and most-hospitable people in any of the 60 or so countries I've drifted through. My last visit, two years ago, was a month of being continually astounded by the kindness shown by complete strangers. My recent visit spanned almost three months and left me no less amazed by the endless hospitality of Iranians. Too many people have shown me too much kindness to mention even a fraction of them here.
Motorists often pulled over to chat, force food upon me, take photos and in one instance try to swap a flash new pair of leather boots for my rotting and redundant £5 Chinese walking shoes (complete with hand-stitched repairs and carrier bags for something almost resembling water resistance).
One morning I woke in an unusually small, dark and warm tent. The unfamiliar cacoon was caused by a heavy, insulating 10cm of snow on the canvas and an impressive 3cm perched precariously on the 1mm wide guy lines. That day I worked my way across an utterly white land under an utterly white sky on an eerily empty minor road. Three roadside dogs sat, mournful and silent, around the dog-shaped lump of a dead forth in the snow. The land sloped downwards again and by afternoon I'd descended into the northern fringe of the Kavir desert; still cold at night but thankfully dry.
In a basic village a handsome shepherd in his 40s gave me tea and bread while he smoked teriyok (resinous morphine) and smiled contentedly. His three wives and six children looked on with shy curiosity.
A police car spotted me sat on the sand patching a puncture and its driver asked to see my passport. He was convinced my visa had expired and a soon-to-be-familiar two hours of questions in a village policestation followed:
"Do you have GPS?"
"Do you have a camera?"
"Why have you taken this photo of the desert?"
"Why did you come to Iran?"
"Are you sponsored by your government?"
"Do you have GPS..."
To avoid retracing road I'd ridden in 2010 I turned onto a sandy track through a cluster of low mountains on my last day's ride to Shahrud. Unfortunately the track ended and I spent several hours pushing through and over sand dunes, occasionally finding little mud shepherds' huts abandoned for the winter and with small snowdrifts slumped in their shadow. Five huge and terrifying dogs had to be literally beaten back with a stick and six drunk hunters in a couple of 4x4s bounced over to show off their guns and a sack of dead birds.
Exhausted and long after dark, I cycled through the streets of Shahrud and to the home of Monireh and her family whom I met two years before. It was a joy to see them again and catch up. Ali and Neda (Monireh's brother and sister-in-law) were in and Ali embraced me warmly with the traditional triple-kiss. Neda's bump of two years ago had grown into an 18-month-old girl called Viena who was so terrified of my appearance that I decided to shave off seven months of bushy, copper-red beard. The young, slightly-gaunt face that emerged surprised me.
I stayed a week with Monireh and her family. Ali took me to a swimming pool one evening and lent me an old pair of threadbare lycra shorts (through which I could have read a book) as my cotton trunks were not allowed. In the jacuzzi he told an assembly of very hairy, barrel-chested men about my bicycle journey and each one came forward to prod, squeeze and generally inspect my leg muscles.
I learnt a lot from Monireh about Iran's marriage system. She is 32 and has received 25 proposals from 25 men. On each occasion she's had to sit down with the suitor (who, often as not, she's never met), his parents and her mother. Her courage in not bowing to pressure and continuing to say no is admirable in a country where "Are you married?" is normally the second question strangers ask me. "Why not?" always follows. Most marriages in Iran are effectively arranged by parents and unsurprisingly the divorce rate is high. Romantic love is seen as an abstract privilege to most Iranians (despite the abundance of pop songs sung about it).
We went to nearby Semnan for a few days and, on Christmas day, I visited the Art University where Monireh and her sister Mona study. I had to walk in with a male pier of theirs while they walked a few yards behind as men and women cannot enter the university together, even if they've arrived on the same bus. I ended up sitting a 30-minute pose for a drawing class who were scandalised when I told them that the last time I sat for art students I was nude. After lunch the police told me to leave as I was an unregistered guest. I subsequently got in trouble for unwittingly standing at the women's bus stop.
From Shahrud I rode southwards through mountains and again into the Kavir. I had 5 days to cover the 400 miles to Yazd and extend my visa before it expired. Those days were solitary and wonderful. Long, hard rides on a quiet road through some of the most featureless landscape I've seen; an evening spent hunting among mud ruins with a Jeremy Paxman lookalike under a fat, red rising moon; a village imam questioning me about my religion and tutting disapprovingly at my false claim of Christianity (atheism is simply not accepted in Iran and upsets people); a three-hour moonlit ride through hills with Elgar in my ears; only one question session with the police.
On a couple of hilltops south of the city are two ancient dakhmeh (Towers of Silence) from the Zoroastrian religion. Bodies of the dead were left here to be picked down to bleached bones by the vultures before burial so that no "impure" flesh could contaminate the earth. The practice dates back 3,000 years but was made illegal in Iran in the 1970s. Today they are peaceful, empty and provide a good view of the sprawling modern suburbs.
Heading south from Yazd I had an uninspiring week of icy rain showers and piercing headwinds on a little-used road through the desert. The streets of villages and small towns, as in all of Iran, were lined with posters of men who died in the 8-year war fought with Iraq in the 1980s. The war was initially over an oil field but evolved into a Sunni-Shi'a conflict (and simultaneously an intra-Shi'a conflict). It was a dirty war with roughly one million dead, chemical attacks and the use of archaic trench warfare. Brainwashed volunteer soldiers as young as 13 fought and died. Iran's dead are referred to as 'martyrs' and used as rallying tool for nationalism and religious feeling. Their haunting faces gaze at you everywhere you go and are a constant reminder of the Iranian government's inability (or lack of desire) to put the past behind it and move on.
The women and girl continued wailing and screaming but the man was busy inspecting the damage. His wife and mother refused to take my proffered hand and get out of the confused heap they still lay in. They were not hurt but were evidently shaken and wouldn't calm while piled in the sideways cabin with a puddle of rain forming around them. The man seemed disinterested in his family. At length I simply lifted the little woman out which silenced them both. Her mother-in-law sheepishly followed and they set to calming the child while I helped another carful of men who had arrived to heave the truck back onto its wheels. It was only scratched and 10 minutes later everyone was gone and I returned to the hut to make a fire and dry off.
The weather cleared and I reached the town of Qader Abad where I met Ebrahim the local English teacher. He invited me for lunch and then to stay the night. It happened to be a national holiday commemorating Mohammad's death and I was introduced to Ebrahim's four brothers. They had many questions about life in Europe (mostly concerning sex and relationships). Ebrahim retrieved a bottle of homebrewed wine (made with Shiraz grapes; the city of Shiraz was not far away) from under a rock in the garden where it had hidden for two years. Alcohol is illegal in Iran. We drank some of the passable wine and it was Ebrahim's first taste of alcohol. An hour later he had his first taste of a hangover.
The following day we went to the nearby UNESCO site of Pasargad which was the grand city of Cyrus the Great. Built in 550BC, it was the capital of the largest empire the world had then seen. Though little remains today, the wide plain with its scattered ruins is a pleasant and peaceful place. The highlight is the well-preserved tomb of Cyrus. A 12m high stack of vast slabs that dominates its surroundings.
We then drove 20 minutes to the abandoned remains of the village where Ebrahim was born and lived until he was six. A 50x60m complex of decaying, shoulder-high mud walls with a thick, circling wall for defence in the event of quarrels with other villages. There was a chief who dispensed food and justice to the 300 villagers and each family had a single room, roughly 3x5m built over a space for livestock which acted as central heating in winter. Only 30 years on and Ebrahim's family have spacious houses with airconditioning, gas heating and widescreen televisions.
I managed to see some of Tehran too including the National Jewel Museum in a vault under the Central Bank. Thousands upon thousands of diamonds and gemstones glittered in a display equally impressive and sickening. I've never seen such a show of wealth (which had once belonged to the shah) and such tastelessness. Every different item had as many jewels crammed onto it as possible; it is wealth, not art.
Back in Qader Abad, I remounted Old Geoff and pedalled to Iran's biggest tourist draw, Persepolis. The ancient city and nearby tombs of Darius the Great and Xerxes the Great don't need detailing here. It was a quiet afternoon and, after paying the 6p entrance fee I virtually had it to myself. I wandered mesmerised among the ruins, marvelling at the intricate stone carving and paying silent homage to the untidily-scrawled graffiti signature of a hero of mine: "Stanley, New York Herald, 1870".
To extend my visa a second time involved a short interview where I was asked my father's name, my father's father's name, my father's job, my father's father's job, my mother's father's name and my mother's father's job. It seems that women's names and occupations are deemed unimportant.
I rode back to Persepolis for a day and a night before again heading into the mountains and the snow. The Zagros mountains stretch 1,000 miles diagonally across Western Iran and can be very inclement in winter. I enjoyed a week spent climbing, crossing majestic snowfields, meeting villagers, occasionally spotting foxes and once a jackal. Iran is truly an endless resource of stunning scenery. I dropped down the eastern flank of the mountain barrier and back into the desert and thence to Esfahan. Another dynastic capital (Seljuk; 1598-1722) and with the world's second biggest square (after Tian'anmen), the city is generally regarded as an architectural masterpiece with numerous mosques, palaces, bridges and islamically-domed Armenian churches.
My time in Esfahan coincided with the "Ten days of Dawn" celebration of the '79 revolution. Banners and posters of Khomeini and Khameini (his successor and current Supreme Leader) were everywhere. I sat in the Square (now named Imam Khomeini Square) during the friday noon prayers of this celebration and chatted with a young man called Ali. A few thousand had flocked into the square to prostrate towards Mecca. Ali translated some of the sermon blasting from the loudspeakers. It included the unsubtle sentence: "we shall tread the American's under the soles of our shoes". I spotted a few places where a couple of hundred pairs of military issue boots were neatly lined up next to the sea of barefoot men and women at prayer. Something about an army obediently listening to that hate propaganda disturbed me.
My time in Iran was drawing to and end and I began making quick progress towards the border with Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region. The road took me across more mountains, through Khomeini's birthplace, into a couple more police stations, across farmland and into fertile Kurdistan; Iran's bread basket where glowing green wheatfields dotted with grain silos basked in mild weather. Men in baggy Kurdish pyjama-style trousers scattered seeds by hand.
My last snow was during a cold night in the mountains near the Iraqi border. It was six months to the day since my first snow of a long on/off winter back in western Mongolia. I pedalled past a long queue of trucks and reached the border post at a mountain pass. Iran lay behind me and winter with him.
Iran is a beautiful country with wonderful people and I believe there is a bright future somewhere ahead. However, things will get worse before they get better. I think large change will occur in Iran certainly in my lifetime. I urge people to read more about this misunderstood country and visit if possible. There's gold underneath.
For more photos from this visit to Iran please click here