July 29th, 2016 in Bukhara
All was not bad though. As we wanted to get an early start in Iran we decided to camp as close as possible to the border. What we hadn't accounted for was the open countryside and a 20 km long queue of trucks leading up to the border. Unable to find a spot, we resorted to cycling all the way to the border control and just asking them if we could pitch our tent there. The answer was no but one of the custom officers welcomed us and we ended up going to his restaurant before spending the night at his place.
We had just arrived in our first Iranian city, Maku, when we had our first experience with the ever present and persistent kindness of the Iranian people. A man stopped his car and asked if we needed anything and as we were in need of a place to eat lunch he proceeded to guide us with his car almost 5 km to the only place opened (due to Ramadan) in the opposite direction he was originally going. As the day continued, so did the Iranian kindness in the form of passing cars forcing fruit upon us. By the end of the day we were cycling with what was probably 2 kilos of fruit stuffed in our bags!
As we left Marand and Akbar, a car pulled up by Robin and started asking questions (like many times before). He pulled us over, introduced himself as Josef and continued with his questions. While we stood by the side of the road a second car pulled up and a women called Fariba asked us to be her guest in Tabriz (the next big city along our route). When we got to Tabriz we immediately ran into Josef again, who obviously had been waiting for us. He proceeded to guide us approximately 17 km through Tabriz (apparently Tabriz is Iran’s 3d biggest city) to what we thought was Fariba place.
In Iran a guest has a position of honour and we had heard that to be a guest in someone's home in Iran is the best way to experience Iran. So we were excited about our first home stay! But what we didn't realise until later that evening was that we where not to stay at Fariba’s but in an apartment where her son just to live. Apparently Fariba lived in Marand! So there we were, actually being disappointed that someone just had given us an empty apartment to stay in for free…
When Fariba left she told us that she would be back the next day between 9 and 10. After we waited until 11 and she still wasn't there, we decided to explore Tabriz on our own in search for coffee and a SIM card.
A series of events then had us shooting all over town, from one side to another, visiting a rotating restaurant, a huge park, an old bazar and finally ending up in the apartment of a guy called Zoli. At Zoli’s we called Fariba, or rather Zoli’s wife called Fariba for us and before we knew it Fariba, Josef and two other men are at Zoli’s drinking tea.
Outside Qazvin, we had the pleasure of cycling a while with another Swede! Elvira is a solo-cyclist cycling the same route as us up until China. Check out her blog. We learned about Elvira from Akbar in Marand as she had met up with him the day before we passed by. And Robin (but not Ida) later had a brief encounter with her due to a Iranian gentleman's concern for her safety…
What happened was that we were stopped by a car. “Your friend is tired! Your friend needs help! ” he told us quite aggravated. He continued to explain that there was a female cyclist 5 kilometres behind us in need of help. Or rather he believed she was in need in help. We quickly realised that the cyclist was probably not at all in need of help and that he most likely just thought that a women couldn't or shouldn't cycle alone… But if there actually was a problem we would feel rather douchee not coming to her help… So Robin jumped in his car and they drove 15 (!) km back where Elvira was (we had evidently passed her in Tabriz as she stopped two days and we one) in no need of help at all (of course). This happens so often. The Iranians are so desperate to help, to ensure we have everything we need, that we are safe, that we find “Iran good”. But sometimes they end up just complicating things. It sometimes makes us miss the Swedish way where you are more left on your own until you ask someone for something and then they will go the extra mile to help. It just feels simpler to us… and less annoying.
In Qazvin we took a day off (while Elvira continued towards Tehran) and made a day trip to Alamut Valley and the Castles of the Assassins; a pretty valley with lots of ruins just some hours away by car (and probably days by bike due to all the ups and downs). When we got there we tagged along with Bahman and his friend (sorry for not remembering your name) Bahman (not Batman) was originally from Iran but had lived in Texas since he graduated from university.
The first half of our time in Iran was during Ramadan (or Ramazan as it's called here). For those who do not know what this is, it's basically means that everyone is fasting while the sun is up. What we didn't learn until Tabriz was that it was apparently alright for us foreigners and non-believers too eat openly but not for the Iranians (though they sometimes did anyway). We still tried to not to eat too openly as it seemed rude even if we were allowed.
We thought this was weird; (but really appreciated!) why is okay for us to disregard Ramadan but we (or mostly Ida) have to follow the dress code? We tried to ask Bahman about this. He said that as a foreigner Ida was exotic and out in the rural areas men might never have seen anyone like her before and therefore she needed to wear the hijab for her own protection. To us this just seems fucked up and basically follows the same rhetoric people use when they say it's a girl's fault she got raped if she was wearing a short skirt…
This is probably a good time to introduce a new segment to our blog. Welcome to “Ida's dress-rant corner!”
I'm all for people wearing whatever they want. That means if you want to wear the hijab, a burka or go around in just a bikini - go for it; whatever makes you happy. The biggest problem with the dress code in Iran is really that it is the LAW; that you don't have the choice to wear anything else. And wearing long trousers and a longed sleeved shirt is not at all fun when bicycling in 40+ degrees Celsius. And having to constantly to double check that hijab is in order or just having to put everything on again just to go outside the tent or a hotel room for just one minute. It's just so bloody frustrating… I guess it's part of the package that is Iran and to be honest for the most time it's been alright. But all through Iran the dress code has been there, constantly reminding me that I simply does not have a choice, forced to dress in a way I don't want without really understanding why.
In Tehran we had two things planned, namely fixing our visas for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and hanging out with our friend Emma (and her mum Pia). Emma and Pia came down for 3,5 days to spent time with us. (They of course also really enjoyed the hijab…) Tehran wasn't a favorite for us. It has too much traffic and no apparent city center making it feel like a unfriendly, too big and sprawling city more designed for cars than humans (Robin was even hit by a car coming into the city). But with that said we did have a couple of good days exploring and catching up with it each other. All the presents (new sleeping mats, a pair of Goretex trousers for Ida, a gameboy for Robin, Kalles kaviar and Swedish candy) they brought was also very much appreciated!
During their stay Emma and Pia even got to experience some of the ever helpfulness and hospitality that is Iran as one of the owners of our hostel showed us around town and later had us all over to her place for dinner. This was really appreciated as we were struggling a bit to come up with activities for the duration of our time in Tehran.
As we've touched on before, Iranians take their role as hosts very seriously. We think it really comes from a genuine desire to put others needs first and please where possible. We have stayed with many hosts in Iran and they have all been really great, but sometimes it gets a bit too much. They don't want us to miss a single thing in Iran and seem unable to comprehend that what they think is essential for any tourist (read Esfahan) might not be what we want to get out of this trip. Some Iranians almost seemed angry with us when we explained that we wouldn't have time to visit Esfahan or Shiraz.
Iran was also the country where we had to sort out most of our visas for central Asia. This has unfortunately been in the back of our minds more than we would like to admit. We obtained our Uzbekistan visa, for which we had applied for a letter of invitation while in Turkey, quite smoothly once we got to Tehran. We were in and out of the embassy in 40 minutes. But after Uzbekistan came the real challenge - the Turkmenistan visa. We were going to apply for a 5-days transit visa as we are basically just going to cross Turkmenistan to get to Uzbekistan (not that one has any other choice). So as soon as we got the visa for Uzbek we rushed to get it photocopied as proof for our Turkmen application. According to online guides and rumors, you need to present a colour copy of your visa but we were only able to get it in black and white. We thought it would have to do and continued over to the Turkmenistan embassy, a briskly 40 minutes walk, arriving at a big building with a tiny little hole in the wall. But when we got there the hole was closed! The opening hours for the Turkmenistan embassy was supposed to be between 9 and 11 so why was it closed?! There was a guard posted outside so we asked him. He shrugged his shoulders and gestured that will probably open soon. Half an hour later the hole suddenly opened. We rushed to it and was supplied with an application blanket and a blank piece of paper to write our application letter on. And as fast as the hole had opened it closed again. After an additional 30 minutes or so, the hole opened again and we handed over our applications, hoping that we had filled out everything to satisfaction. But as it all sank in, doubt started trickling into our thoughts.
Rumors had it that normally Turkmenistan deny 20-50% of applicants. So here we were, having giving them black and white photocopies of our Uzbek visa and a rushed handwritten application letter. Had we just fucked up? We didn't know and we wouldn't be able to find out for another 10 days; and that's if the embassy picks up the phone, which they are notorious for not doing.
So as we headed out from Tehran the idea that we might not receive a visa for Turkmenistan was constantly in the back of our minds, making the heat and the constant head wind out in the desert even more unbearable and tedious.
The landscape in Iran isn't all dry desert. However, along our route from Turkey to the Turkmenistan it definitely dominated (especially since the 30 days visa we got for Iran doesn't leave time for too much detouring). We only had two days of really different climate and landscape and this was in and around the Golestan National Park. The route there took us over a cloud-shrouded mountain pass where the the temperature abruptly lowered to only 17 degrees. On the other side it felt like we arrived in the tropics as the humidity was high and the hills was clad in green instead of the desert dryness and all yellow. Unfortunately, we only had time to spend one night in the National Park and it wasn't long until, once again, all we could see was desert in every direction.
So even if the landscape hasn't impressed and amazed us the people definitely has.
You might have been able to tell from the rest of this post but we want to be clear; Iranians are by far the most generous and good hearted people we have yet to come across! But this is not to say that the Iranian people are simple. On the contrary, we got the feeling that the Iranian identity is in a constant tug of war between polarizing extremes. The country and it's people are both very modern and very conservative at the same time. People are generally both very educated and very religious (we know, these are not opposites, but as Swedes, we tend to think that they are). The people so obviously despises the government and the rules that they have to live by but still love Iran as a country. Anyone familiar with Orwell’s 1984 has a good idea of the vibe you get, and yet, Iran did not partake in the Arab Spring a few years back.
All of this, together with their natural curiosity and social nature, have resulted in our own feelings towards the Iranians not only being polarized but shifting from day to day or hour to hour. We'll go from being overwhelmed by their kindness in the morning to just wanting to be left alone in the afternoon.
Take our interactions with the police as an example. Almost every day we have been stopped by the police. Sometimes the stops are a delight as they quickly ask us where we are from and then offer us water, tea or fruit. But sometimes it is a frustratingly time consuming process as they insist on checking our passports, make a copy of them, calling someone to verify our visas, asking all types of questions and finally writing a report...
Almost every interaction then ends with a seemingly mandatory selfie.
So “Iran good?” This recurring question reflects a strong sense of national pride and at the same time is telling of insecurities over how Iran is perceived in the world. Iranians wants so desperately to not be labelled as terrorist. And they are obviously not. They are a people that are friendly, helpful and generous to the extreme. But even though Iran is founded on one of the oldest civilisations on earth, it feels a bit like a teenager, still figuring out what it should be when it grows up.