“T’aarof”. If you don’t know this word, make sure you learn about it before entering Iran, for the good and for the bad.
Turkey/Iran (Kapiköy/Razi) border
Our two longest downhill so far are in Iran. The second shortly before leaving the country and the first one right at the entrance.
Coming from the Kapiköy/Razi border we start our first pedal turns in Iran by 90km of downhill passing from 2200m high at the border, to 1100m at the city of Khoy. The day is however not the easiest. Entering a new country always requires a time for adaptation: new language, new culture, new rules, no money, no network, etc. Added to that, Ramadan that has just started, the bad weather in the mountain and the stress at the border, our batteries are quickly empty.
Until now all frontiers crossing have been smooth and easy, as we were able to enter without any visa and with our French ID. This is the first of a kind and may keep on getting more difficult, particularly for Xavier’s stress level. Fortunately Angélique is here to relax.
We arrive at the border on the Turkish side around 8 a.m. and the queue is already quite long: one line for people and one line for vehicles. In this narrow gorge at 2200m high, there was hardly nobody the day before. Looking at all those people in an apparent chaos, it has a very particular atmosphere, slightly uncomfortable. Although people are in appearance calm and speak nicely to us, we can feel the tension, waiting for the gates to open.
We don’t know where to go or what to do and this is not the last time. We find someone to explain us a little bit, despite of the language issue. Following the advice, we move forward to the beginning of the vehicle line but end up passing the people’s line with the bicycles (very inconvenient to pass the turnstile doors). We have a short stress when the Turkish border guard tells us that Xavier needs a entry stamp on his passport to exit the country. In fact you can enter Turkey with only your ID as U.E. citizen, so without a stamp in your passport. But that’s West border practice, they say, we will not allow this in the East. After discussion and pressure from the people waiting behind us (do stamp his passport and let them go!) the man accepts to let us exit Turkey and we enter Iran.
We haven’t eaten anything since the morning and feel quite hungry after four hours at the customs. To respect the Ramadan practice, we hide to finish our leftovers and start the road towards Khoy to get some local money at a better rate than at the border.
Our assumptions are a 100$ per person per month (we end with an average of 150$ per person per month, not including the next visa fees). There is in Iran the official rate, which is the one used internationally (1$=40.000 Rial) and the unofficial one used inside the country (1$=147.000 Rial, at the time we enter. It keeps changing). We decide to change our first bill of hundred dollar not sure what to expect. We receive a first big pack of 100.000 Rial bills and the banker asks us if we would like 50.000 bills. We say yes, as small bills are always good, and he brings us a pack even bigger. We want to give him back the 100.000 bills but both packs are for us. Surprised and happy we leave the bank with the money, a big pack of biscuit and a guide to show us the closest hotel as first Iranian behavior demonstration. We are tired and need some comfort for this first night to adapt.
Once in the hotel room we can not resist to through above our head all the bills, we are billionaire.
We are now in the West Azerbaijan region, capital Urmia. Iran has two regions called West and East Azerbaijan which are together bigger than the country Azerbaijan. It’s a big mix of culture and we find here more people saying they are Azeri (or Turkish) or Kurdish than people saying they are Persian, same for the language.
Our first idea is to reach Tabriz, the capital of East Azerbaijan and the city of Shabistar where leaves the family of Farnaz, that we met in Albania. But due to the traffic and the nicer roads in the West Azerbaijan we stay on Urmia’s side of Urmia’s lake. We plan to go to the UNESCO site of Takht-e-Soleyman and cycle the nice road towards Bijar and Hamedan. In the city of Naqadeh we learn that Marine and Michael, a French cycling couple with whom we discussed in Turkey but could never met are only one day ahead. We start a four days race through the mountain passing Miandoab and Shahindezh to catch up with them. We join them “au taquet” (in French) in Takht-e-Soleyman. The cyclist world is definitively small. Marine and Michael cycled in Georgia with Joey, Annelise and Tom that we left in Cappadocia and we now meet them in Iran whereas our roads have been completely different. They passed through Georgia and Armenia whereas we stayed longer in the Turkish Kurdistan and crossed directly to Iran.
Hijab and Ramadan
We hide for a first lunch together and enjoy the delicious dates from Iran. Definitively the dates from Iran are the best we ever tried.
We actually hide more from the sun than from the sight of the people because of Ramadan. We realized in the past days that most of the people are not doing Ramadan. It is mandatory by the I.R. Iran (Islamic Republic of Iran), so by law you are not allowed to eat in public in the main cities but most of the people do eat at home. And once in the nature or in remote places this is no problem anymore. We even see people simply having picnics in the park without worrying. We now laugh at seeing how stressed we were on our first day to eat on the side of the road.
This is a similar topic to the hijab. It is mandatory by the I.R. Iran but most of the people don’t like it and woman don’t wear it by belief. We see women wearing the hijab on the shoulder or way back on the head just to say they have it because they have to. None of the Hijab or the Ramadan was mandatory during the previous regime. It doesn’t belong to the Iranian culture. Added to the international situation and the economy of the country, the actual government is not always appreciated. We hear terms as backward revolution or direct critics of the government.
This apparent rigidity of the government is at the complete opposite direction of the Iranian behavior towards us. People are so much willing to help, welcome us in their home, share a meal or a chaï together. As French we have a certain level of politeness and society behavior but Iranian are on another level. We could not describe the Iranian culture without mentioning T’aarof. Cycling, we are clearly visible as tourist and it’s a constant flow of invitation. Some of them are forced, their are T’aarof and you’re supposed to decline them 3 times. Some of them are real, as this invitation we receive with Marine and Michael in Tahkt-e-Souleyman. The family of Narges settled close to us for lunch and didn’t hesitate to invite us for a chaï.
The discussion ends by us four being invited to their home in Bijar, a city we pass three nights later, which will follow by us two visiting Jabbar, Narges’ brother in Tehran.
An icecream maker would stop us on the side of the road to invite us for an icecream at his shop in Salmas. We stay at his place for 2 nights after a lot of icecreams. In Urmia we face six positive answers on Warmshowers. Based on Europe experience we contacted multiple person but all answered and wanted to meet us. What a mess but a funny situation it is. In Naqadeh we meet Ali who was in the national team of mountaineering and dry tooling. He offers us to climb Damavand, the highest summit in Iran and to organize the equipment for us. It didn’t work at the end but by pushing a bit more, most probably it would have. And this is without mentioning all the small moments along the road. Even right now, while we are writing those words, someone just brought us a plate of fruits.
That can be however exhausting and when we are tired it is difficult to support this agitation. When we enter Iran, Farnaz told us: “Welcome to Iran, say bye to your freedom and loneliness”. This is very true. We are rarely alone, peaceful and quiet in Iran.
The four Frenchies on the road
We cycle with Marine and Michael from Tahkt-e-Souleyman to Hamedan. The road is very nice, small enough to not have to much traffic and with nice scenery. Globally we are less happy in Iran concerning the cycling part. It is difficult to find small roads, and at this time of the year, it’s hot. But this stretch is nice. We stop before Bijar in a pseudo abandon small fort and make a detour to take a boat in the cave of Alisadr.
It feels good to cycle with French people; finally some companions who share the same humor! And those two have a lot to claim. In Hamedan we split, they head south to Ispahan whereas we stay north and head towards Tehran for our visas.
In Hamedan we stay with a group of mountain bikers and active sport people. We use the opportunity to climb the Mount Alvand and camp at its base. In Tehran we can’t miss to climb the Tochal (3995m) and meet during the ascent Sako and Javad who invited us four days days at his flat. Iranians are globally fit, at least compared to the Turkish who are, I quote: “a nation of lazy people, who like to sit, speak and drink tea”. Sport is an integrated part of Iranian life. Hiking, biking and climbing are quite popular and developed. It’s nice to see and makes us feel even worse compared to the economic situation of the country.
In Tehran we meet a lot of other cyclist. If you want to make visa for the Pamir and China this is the only place in Iran. But the city has not much to offer and as soon as we receive our Chinese visa we leave the capital, not waiting for Turkmenistan which takes up to 2 weeks to give an answer.
Caspian Sea coast
We decide to take the road to Amol to pass at the base of the Damavand and see the summit. Too bad we haven’t pushed for it, it looks very easy. Just before our camp we see a pickup passing with two loaded bikes in its trunk. We have no choice. We speed up to catch it up and start the conversation. Surprised, we realize they are Iranian. The discussion, even if limited, is interesting. Mohammad, his father and his friend plan to cycle along the Caspian coast for the Eid holiday (Ramadan’s end). But at the end of the discussion we understand they want to camp and cycle with us. No idea what their initial plan was and no idea if this was T’aarof to make sure we are alright, but they end up staying with us for the next three days of their holiday.
We do a new downhill and distance record. For the next 130km we move from 2700m high to 0 at sea level in the same day. It’s summit to sea.
We get tired and upset to not be able anymore to argue which route to take, where to camp or when to eat. But we can’t be mad. Our 3 new friends always smile and pay everything. They even give us their helmet lights as they saw during the many tunnels we don’t have any. This is Iranian behavior, at least towards European tourist.
The all visa procedure has been between Turkmenistan, China and the Iranian visa extension, stressful and exhausting. We arrive in Sari illegal, with Iranian visa expired from two days. We tried in Tehran to extend but our visa were kept at the Chinese embassy for four days and the police was closed the following week because of Ramadan holidays. Hopefully we met in the bazaar of Tehran, completely randomly Hossein. Hossein traveled to UK and stayed there for six years, getting his British passport. We were invited to his home in Sari. His friend Sina helps us the following day at the Police station to argue in our favor and get our visas extended. That’s however when we learn after calling, that we got very unfortunately rejected for our Turkmenistan visa. It is a lottery and they don’t give any reason to why you get it or not. It is for us, still a mess. We have to go back north to Azerbaijan to take a ferry to cross the Caspian Sea, arrive in Kazakhstan and cross all of Uzbekistan. Besides it shortens our time in Iran that we just extended… Shit. We played and lost.
Trying to always stay positive we see the good of it. Instead we will have the opportunity to see 2 new countries: Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Angélique will be able to take off the Hijab and Xavier to drink a beer much faster than planned. After 40 days in Iran and a lot of nice experience we cross the border in the city of Astara.