We decided to take a 2 week break off the bikes to explore a bit more of Iran, as backpackers. Discovering Persian hospitality was definitely a highlight so far, but we were keen to see some more of the culture. With that being said, we didn’t see a whole lot in Tehran, besides the traffic and main roads. To be honest, it wasn’t a city I cared much about seeing. It’s massive, busy and polluted. What should be a 30 minute cab ride or cycle could easily turn into a 2 or 3 hour trip. There are however some nice parks and good coffee shops. We had the pleasure of staying with some awesome couchsurfers, Ashkan and his sister, whom definitely made the stay a lot more pleasant.
Our main reason for visiting Tehran was visas
We needed visas for Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and China! Plus we needed to make a stop in at the immigration office and the Australian embassy. After spending 5 days in Tehran, attempting to sort out all our visas, we were keen to take a break and visit some of Iran. Unfortunately, we did have to return to Tehran, to sort out the rest of our visas. This did mean we were able to leave our bikes in Tehran for the week and head south, bike free!
Discovering the power of the motor vehicle
It’s easy to forget the distance that can be travelled in just a few hours in a car or bus. It’s almost soul destroying knowing that the distance we traveled to Kashan in just a couple of hours, would have taken us 3 days. The further south we travelled, the hotter it got and some days reached the mid-40’s – definitely too hot for cycling! Aside from the heat, we also experienced the strongest sand storms of the trip. If we were cycling, I’m sure we would have been thrown from our bikes.
From Tehran we drove to Kashan with 2 Swiss guys, Alex and Flo, whom we met at one of the embassies in Tehran. They were on their way to Mongolia, but like us wanted to see some of Iran before continuing. We weren’t planning on visiting Kashan, but I’m glad we did – I loved it there, and preferred it to both Isfahan and Shiraz. We stayed in a beautiful (and cheap), traditional house, and visited some of the ancient sights in the city. Less people, less traffic, less smog – heaven!
Beautiful Isfahan and Discovering Persian hospitality
After Kashan we headed to Isfahan with Alex and Flo. Isfahan was nice, lots of beautiful mosques, palaces, bazaars and parks. We continued to experience Persian generosity and friendlessness, however maybe not quite as much as in the North or when we are on the bikes. One evening in Isfahan, we did get invited to eat dinner and drink tea with a local family in Imam square. Something that has happened numerous times in Iran, however this time we weren’t exhausted (or smelly) from cycling all day. Even though we had a huge language barrier, it was very enjoyable. I guess all those years of playing charades when I was a kid came in handy for something.
Shiraz and Persepolis
From Isfahan we caught the night bus to Shiraz – apparently the city of love! The only love I saw was between 2 guys, lying on the grass, playing with each others hair, stroking arms and chests and snuggling – not something you would expect to see in a country where being gay can cost you your life. I also saw a man raise a hand to his wife at a public bus station. No one did anything, not even the security. I wonder what the unofficial domestic violence rate is? Anyway, Shiraz – the City of “Love”, I remain unconvinced!!
Unless you’re into Persian poetry, the main attraction for visiting Shiraz is Persepolis (about 60km North). A city built by the guy that burnt down Athens, Alexander the Great. He then repaid the favour by burning Persepolis to the ground. It was a nice change from visiting mosques and bazaars and the carvings where very impressive.
The desert city, Yazd
From Shiraz we travelled to the ancient desert city, Yazd, where we had the fun chore, of renewing our Iranian visa. Luckily this turned out to be quite a simple process and only took 3 days. I loved Yazd, from the moment we arrived. We had no issues hanging around for a couple of extra days. We also were staying at another beautiful, traditional Persian house, so a great place to relax.
Then it was back to Tehran, and more visa stuff – fun!!!
Tehran is like a black hole, it just keeps sucking you in. We planned on staying only 1 day. 3 days later and we were still there. No matter how simple something may seem, Tehran makes it complicated. Even to print some documents is not an easy chore, and can end up taking several hours. To our surprise, Alex and Flo had also been sucked back into Tehran, and were also staying at Ashkan’s apartment.
Off to the Caspian Sea
We had to wait 5 days for our China visas to be processed, so to escape Tehran once again, we headed to the Caspian Sea. We decided to catch the train to Sari, then a bus to the Sea. The train ride was awesome, with awesome views of the mountains and jungle. Getting to the Sea from Sari by bus turned out to be impossible, and taxis were expensive. We did however eventually manage to reach the coast, at Balbosar, an Iranian seaside resort town. It was a bit of a disappointment; very dirty and busy, though the temperature of the water was good. I think growing up in a coastal city that has access to some of the best beaches in the world, makes you a bit of a “beach snob.”
It was extremely hot and humid around the Caspian Sea. It was made even worse by having to wear so many layers of clothes, plus a hijab! After spending only one night, camping in the unbearable humidity we decided to head back to Tehran early to wait for our visas.
Change in plans
Due to some visa complications we didn’t have enough time to cycle from Tehran to Mashhad. The cycle would have taken 9 days, through a very harsh and barren desert, where temperatures reached the late 40s. So we weren’t to upset about missing out on the cycle. Instead we caught the VIP bus to Mashhad.
Creating a riot
The bus to Mashhad turned out to be an epic ordeal. If we could have predicted what was about to happen, we probably would have cycled/ hitchhiked our way to Mashhad. In short we caused a riot on the bus – and this is no exaggeration. The bus driver wanted 5 times the amount to store the bikes on the bus than what we were originally told. We haggled the price, and agreed on paying double. The next thing we knew another bus driver was on the bus, yelling at us in Farsi, and trying to kick us off the bus. Luckily all the passengers on the bus stood up for us. They said they knew we were being ripped off, and that the man was a bad man. This disruption lead to a riot on the bus. Everyone yelling and pushing, then the police got called on.
After about an hour of this, we were finally off. The crazy bus driver was unfortunately still on the bus, and kept losing his temper at people. He even went to hit a few passengers. It was friggin’ nuts. To be honest, we don’t really know what happened, as it was all in Farsi, but I think the bus driver had something wrong with him, because he completely flipped out. I should also point out that this bus driver does not at all reflect on the Iranian people.
Unfortunately, there are douchebags in every country, and the fact that so many people on the bus stood up for us and helped us out, just proves even more how lovely the Iranian people are. I’m sure in most other countries, we would have just got kicked off the bus. 1 douchebag, but 30 awesome people, and in the end, we won the fight. Crazy Man: 0 vs. Cyclists and a bus full of passengers: 1.
We finally made it to Mashhad
Surprisingly we got our bikes off the bus with no more dramas and cycled off to meet our next couchsurfer, Amir and his wife, Hani. We spent 3 nights with them. They did their best to try and fatten us up, before we headed back off on the road. Another example of discovering Persian hospitality!
So the 2 week break, turned into 3.5 weeks. I would be lying if I didn’t say I was worried about getting back on the bikes after having such a long break. From here on the roads would be getting worse, and the terrain much harsher. We had about a 250km cycle to the border, which included 80km of mountain passes. It was not easy, but the scenery was beautiful and discovering Persian hospitality was definitely one of the highlights of the country.
We got to camp in the garden of a small village house, next to some sheep. I think it was a traditional Kurdish family – they were lovely. We also camped outside a military post and in another park at the border. It felt good to be back on the bikes and on the road again.
Unfortunately during this time we both got mild tummy bugs and colds… which little did we know would linger around for the next few weeks, making the cycling even more difficult.
The next challenge: The Turkmen Dash! Hello desert!