Discovering Iran by bicycle: to Tehran

There was a sense of relief when we finally crossed into Iran from Turkey.

Technically we weren’t supposed to be entering Iran with our own transport. This included bicycles, so we were a little worried we would be turned away at the border. After the horrible cycle from Dogubayazit to the border crossing, the last thing I wanted to do was cycle back. The border crossing was however surprisingly easy. A couple of questions, followed by a passport stamp, and a friendly “Welcome to Iran.” They didn’t even check our bags – just think of all the alcohol we could have smuggled in! We were extremely happy to have made it and were able to start discovering Iran by bicycle.

Cycling through Kurdistan was stressful and not at all fun. When we entered Iran however, the cries for “money” changed to cries of “I love you” and “Thank you”. 2km after crossing the border, one car stopped to offer us food, drink and a place to stay in Tehran. This was the first of many cars and people that stopped us to offer us food, drink and even money. At one point Michael had 2 melons and a giant sunflower tied to the back of his bicycle, along with a couple of bags of peaches and apples – all gifts, mostly from farmers.

Discovering Iran by bicycle
The best present ever!

Ali Baba the friendly Persian

The most surprising and memorable meeting was with a guy from Maku, called Ali Baba (no joke). We were cycling down a busy road, hungry and thirsty. A car pulls over, and a very happy and friendly man gets out. Before we know it he’s giving us fresh bread, olives, cheese and tea. He tells us he’s on his way to Tabriz for the day. After making sure we are well fed, he’s off on his way again. But, the hospitality doesn’t end then. 80km and 8 hours later, a car pulls up, and we are surprised to see Ali. He gives us some more tea and cakes that he bought from a bakery in Tabriz, especially for us. He knew he would pass us on the way back home so thought it would treat us. Amazing!!!

A new adventure every day

Unlike Turkey, where we got into a cycle routine. Discovering Iran by bicycle offered a new, exciting experience every day. In Turkey we slept mostly at gas stations. In Iran we slept outside police stations, mosques, inside the Red Crescent (the Islamic version of the Red Cross), people’s houses and city parks. We also met so many people that wanted to stop and chat. Farmers, students, shop owners, police officers, families, children. To our surprise, most of these people were even conversational in English.

In every country I have ever visited, sleeping or camping in city parks was a big no-no, reserved only for druggies, drunks and homeless people. In Iran however, during summer, city parks are full of families camping and picnicking until the early hours of the morning. I guess making alcohol illegal and having such high penalties for drugs is the reason for this? Whenever we camped in a park we were always the center of attention. Often we had groups of children, followed by groups of adults, crowding around, watching us put up our tent, cook, read. Whatever we were doing, the people around us were intrigued. After “Kurdistan” we were a little bit wary of groups of children, however these children seemed quite innocent – how young children should be.

Discovering Iran by bicycle
Discovering Iran by bicycle

Being on show

Sometimes the attention is welcomed. It’s a great opportunity to interact with so many different people that you wouldn’t usually get the chance to speak to. Sometimes, however when you’ve been cycling all day in extreme heat, and you just want to relax and be left alone. Having people continuously staring and asking questions can get a bit tiring. The worse incident for me, was just before we were about to get in the tent for the night after a long, hot cycle day.

One older lady came up to us and started asking us questions (in Farsi), before we knew it there was 15 adults crowded around our little tent. People asking to borrow our bikes, to see inside our tent, to take photos with us, and other things we didn’t understand – it was a little too much. Often these situations make me feel a bit like celebrity and a bit like rare zoo animal. I don’t envy either!

I do try to remember that most people in these small towns have little of no interaction with Westerners and most are just curious to learn about us. It must be a funny sight seeing 2, smelly, white people rock up in a park, with nothing but bicycles, to set up camp for the night. It does sometimes make me miss France or Italy though, where we are near enough invisible and were left in peace.

The cycle network in Iran is really well developed.

Everyone knows everyone in the Iranian cycle world. Constantly throughout our time discovering Iran by bicycle we met people from different towns that, by chance knew other cyclists we had met earlier on during the trip. Some of these amazing cyclists we had the pleasure to stay with. This includes the famous, Akbar Nadi from Marand. We were searching for a campsite when Akbar found us at a gas station. Akbar was told by a truck driver that we were cycling towards Marand. He escorted us to Marand, bought us dinner and arranged for us to sleep at a school. He also gave us the contact details for our host in Zanjan, Farhad.

Farhad and his family and friend’s were absolutely lovely. They provided a haven and much needed break from our cycle trip. At their home we enjoyed some of the best meals of our entire time we were in Iran. In Tehran, we stayed with some couchsurfers, Ashkan and Elis. They also turned out to be from Zanjan, and knew some of the people we met there. We also discovered the Ashkan was also on warmshowers and apart of the cycle community. It wasn’t only the cycle community that helped us out. Hamid and his friend, came to the rescue in Miyaneh, and kindly let us stay at their apartment, after a horrible, long cycle day. The shower was greatly appreciated.

Discovering Iran by bicycle
The famous Akbar in Marand

In truth, Iranians are some of the friendliest people I have met.

We found that the majority of Iranians want tourists to visit Iran, and want nothing but good things for “their guests”. I do even worry that some tourists may end up taking advantage of the kindness of the Iranian people. I hope if there is an increase in tourism it won’t change the Persian culture for the worse, the way tourism has in many other countries.

The common misconception of Iran is that it is dangerous, and full or terrorists. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact I have felt more safe traveling in Iran than in most of Australia and Europe. I guess the government doesn’t always reflect on the people. Just look at Tony Abbott and his shit government, I’m constantly telling people that the majority of the Australian people don’t agree with the ridiculous policies of our government. Yes, I just used this as an opportunity to take a dig at the Australian government!!

Iranians: Amazing people… but terrible drivers!!!

I had more near misses during the 2 day cycle into Tehran (the capital), than I have had during the entire cycle tour. It seems like there are no rules on the road, each man, woman or child for themselves. Cars reversing down busy roads, car doors swinging open as we cycle past, car squeezing through tight gaps, almost hitting us on the way. It’s not just the cars that cause the problems, pedestrians are just as bad. They just don’t look where they are going and practically walk into you as they cross roads. I don’t know how half of them have made it through life without getting hit by a car. Pure madness. Pure hell. I feel like that 2 days of cycling aged me by about 10 years. I will never criticize an Aussie driver again – well, not any time soon!!

Discovering Iran by bicycle
Cycling on the highway in Iran

Busy roads, lots of wind and an awesome decent

Up until the cycle into Tehran, the roads had been busy, but most of the time there was a wide hard shoulder. Except for the odd car that just decided to suddenly stop in front of us, there was little we had to worry about. The roads weren’t as good as in Turkey, but they were manageable, with the odd pot-hole or gravel section. There weren’t even as many mountain passes to cross. My favourite day discovering Iran by bicycle included a 120km gradual decline, on a fairly good and mostly “pot-hole free” road.

The biggest challenge, however, was the unbelievably strong crosswinds. This is something that apparently, Iran is known for – someone just forgot to mention it to us. On one occasion it took us 3 hours to cycle 20km because of the wind. By the time we were finished for the day, I was close to tears, feeling very defeated, exhausted and extremely dehydrated. You can’t feel the heat as much in the wind, and we were stopping less for water and food.

Discovering Iran by bicycle has been amazing!

Cycling in Iran so far has been a great experience, but also an extremely challenging one. I am extremely happy to have arrived safely in Tehran, and happy to be off the bikes for the next 2 weeks!!!

Iran is a beautiful country, but it’s people are even more beautiful. If I was to include a mention of everyone that helped us in Iran, this blog post would be triple the length. To everyone that we met, thank you for making discovering Iran by bicycle an amazing experience – and of course my door is always open, if you ever decide to visit Perth!

Discovering Iran by bicycle
Dinner with the family in Zanjan

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