Iranian Blues

Dogubeyazit – Marand

After two wonderful months in Turkey we were finally ready to say goodbye. We were sure we would miss it, but at the same time our experiences in the Wild East had left us shaken up a bit and we were ready for a new country. We left Dogubeyazit for the final 30km ride to the Iranian border, passing the snow capped peak of Mount Ararat on the way. There was also a sign pointing to Noah’s Arc, but we had heard it was just a stone shaped like the Arc, so it didn’t sound too exciting, and besides it was a 10km detour up a hill, yeehk!||

Shortly before the border, Freddie changed into her Iranian cycling outfit – a very light cotton coat to cover her behind, and a Buff worn as a balaclava to cover her hair.

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We then passed a queue of trucks, which was more than 5km long. They were mostly Turkish and Iranian trucks waiting to cross the border, and judging by the utterly bored looks on the drivers faces, some of them looked like they had been waiting for a long time already.

At the border, we had a surprise when suddenly Jay appeared! We had met Jay a few days earlier in Agri, and he said he had passed us on his way to the border and had waited for us there to make sure we would get through without problems (he is Iranian). However, he said he would cross the border by himself as he feared that chatting to foreigners might cause some problems for him with the secret police.

As soon as we came to the Iranian side of the border, we were greeted by some extremely friendly border guards, one of which slipped us a friend’s phone number in Tabriz when we mentioned we would pass through the city. We were also interviewed by a friendly tourism officer who took some notes about our route and gave us a map of Iran. When we were waiting for our passports to be returned to us, which only took about 10 minutes, we first pretended not to know Jay, but he is such a nice guy that he couldn’t resist coming over to ask if everything was ok. We had arranged to meet again in the border town, but we waited there for quite a while until Jay finally arrived, looking a little frazzled. He said that he had been detained at the border for an hour by the secret police who wanted to investigate him. They asked him who we were and how he knew us, and then proceeded to quiz him about his frequent travels abroad, threatening to detain him again when he next crossed the border. This was the first time we felt that we needed to be very aware of our actions in Iran, and how they could impact the Iranian people we were interacting with.

We stopped in a tea shop to calm Jay’s nerves. We were sitting on a platform laid out with carpets and pillows, and with some men smoking water pipes nearby. The tea in Iran is served slightly differently to Turkey: instead of putting sugar in the tea, you put it on your tongue so that it melts when you drink your tea. We have also found that the tea culture is not as prevalent in Iran as it is in Turkey, and a few times we actually had trouble finding tea at all, which would have been unthinkable in Turkey. 

We then cycled on to the first bigger town in Iran, Maku, while Jay took a taxi there. In the town, we really had trouble finding a hotel, as all signs, even on hotels, were only in Persian script. To us, it was completely illegible, and so we had to ask several locals before we found the hotel. Jay was waiting there for us and it felt really good to see a familiar face in an environment that felt so foreign to us. The women in the head to toe black chadors, the heavy traffic, the correct etiquette, the secret police, Ta’arof – all this was swirling around our minds.

Jay was planning to take a bus to Tabriz in the evening, so he had a few spare hours to kill. The hotel was basic, but very cheap, particularly after Jay had negotiated a discount for us. We had a walk around town and went out for dinner in a local restaurant. The food was excellent – barley soup, grilled chicken in a tomato sauce, rice decorated with pomegranate seeds, and yoghurt – and the bill came to only $11 for the three of us. Good news, Iran seemed to be a lot cheaper than Turkey which would hopefully give us a chance to reduce our budget blow out from Istanbul.

We planned to take three days to cycle from Maku to Tabriz, and we were going to try to stay in hotels. Being in such a new and different country, we wanted to get to know it a little first, before we started to wild camp again. On our first day out of Maku, the weather was cloudy, cold and it started to rain later on. The scenery was drab and we were struggling to adjust to the crazy traffic.

The road was quite small, which a narrow hard shoulder. There was lots of traffic, including many buses and trucks, and we witnessed many dangerous overtaking manoeuvres which literally made our jaws drop with amazement. At times a bus would overtake a truck, and at the same time a car would overtake the bus on the hard shoulder with one wheel completely off the road, in the meantime a motorbike would be trying to squeeze into any small gap that might appear. Meanwhile there was also oncoming traffic so we saw quite a few narrow misses. Luckily the vehicles usually gave us enough space, but we really had to be very aware of the traffic around us at all times. Even during moments of nice scenery we dare not take our eyes of the road for even a second. To add to this the heavy traffic is made up of mainly older vehicles that spew out intensely polluted exhaust fumes which makes our eyes and throats sore.

The villages looked a lot poorer than in Turkey, and also not as colourful. Not every village seemed to have a mosque, and there didn’t seem to be much going on in terms of agriculture. It was quite hard to believe that Iran actually has the world’s second largest oil and natural gas reserves, and none of that potential wealth seems to get to these villages. We even passed a sign with an image of a fuel station and a rose, saying “Victory is ours” (in English, probably for the benefit of us tourists!), all rather ironic when you look at the state of the crumbling industries some distance before. However, there are not many fuel stations at all in Iran, and half of them are closed down. The ones that are open usually have massive queues of cars – normally about 40-50 cars queuing for fuel. We are not sure if this is the effect of the recent sanctions (Iran actually reimports a lot of its refined oil from other countries), but it was certainly a strange sight in such an oil rich country.

There were not many facilities on the road at all. The water points we were used to from Turkey had dried up, and there were no shops or restaurants along the road, no mosques that we could see, and obviously no fuel stations to stop at either. We couldn’t read many of the road signs as they were in Farsi, although once in a while there was an English sign as well.

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We were feeling pretty down – the Iranian Blues had struck. We missed Turkey but we knew from previous travellers that Iran was a real highlight, surely things would improve. In the afternoon, we were having a quick stop by the side of the road to clear our minds from the demands of the traffic. It was cold and raining and we were fed up with it all. A car passed us, then turned around and pulled up behind us. A couple of guys got out and pulled out a Thermos with tea, which they offered to us. The warm tea was just what we needed in the trying conditions, it cheered us up immensely.

Shortly afterwards we pulled into the small town we were planning to stay in, Qara Ziaeddin, to look for a hotel. A friendly looking older guy on a motorbike motioned for us to follow him and took us across town and into some back streets before stopping in front of a small tea shop. We were confused – this was a tea shop, not a hotel! They explained that the owner rented out a couple of rooms above the tea shop, at the cost of only $10 per room. Bingo! Our room was basic but fine, and the owner soon invited us for some tea. He said his name was Jalil, and he spoke good English. The tea shop was very popular with old men who spent the afternoon there smoking water pipes and drinking tea. Freddie, as always, was the only woman but there seemed to be no problem with her being in the male dominated environment. We then asked Jalil where we could buy some groceries, and he summoned his 12 year old son, Hadi, to take us on a tour of the town.

With Hadi, we discovered how shopping is done in Iran. There are usually no supermarkets, but many small shops specializing in particular items. First, we went to the grocery shop to buy some milk and biscuits. Next, we went to the fruit and veg man to purchase pears and tomatoes. Finally, we visited the bakery. This was a fantastic place: several men were busy kneading and shaping dough balls, which were then flattened and placed into a large wood fired oven. Our bread came out of the oven and was immediately placed on a small table with a brush, where Hadi brushed off any remaining bits of charcoal. We walked through the unlit back streets where some boys were playing football and women in black chadors were darting from house to house. Iran seems a very safe country, and parents don’t seem to worry at all about their children walking around town after dark.

Jalil invited us to come to his house once the tea shop was closed, to meet his family. When we arrived, we were taken through a courtyard into the living room. Chairs were lined up along the wall, but Jalil’s 80 year old mother was sitting on the floor chopping huge amounts of celery. Freddie was invited to take off her headscarf, we were served tea and snacks, and then the TV was turned on. Amazingly, we were then watching the German ZDF channel, BBC’s Persian channel, and some Iranian programs broadcast from the US. Apparently most Iranians have satellite TV (illegal of course) and they really like to watch the international programs.

Iranians are very curious people, and they ask us many questions about how things are in our home countries. Many questions relate to costs and money, and we did get caught out when Jalil asked us about our salary (this is quite a normal discussion topic here). We understated the facts so that the gap between our incomes and his income wouldn’t be too shocking, so Jalil was rather surprised to find out that he apparently earns more than we do! Oops.

Later, we had fun with the camera and a few props as Hadi and his sister clowned around with us before they were off to bed.

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The next morning we felt better about Iran, the sky was blue, the landscape beautiful and mountainous and the traffic tamer. We had a long day ahead, as we wanted to cover over 100km to get to the next town, Marand. The cycling was quite easy, but we still had to concentrate on the traffic intently. In the early afternoon we stopped at a picnic bench to have some food. There was a Red Crescent ambulance nearby, and soon the paramedic came over for a chat. His English was excellent, and he was a really nice guy who had given up a career in civil engineering to become a paramedic. He was really passionate about helping other people, but unfortunately he was also a little shaken up as there had been a very bad accident that morning. It was a frontal collision between two cars, and one of the drivers had died. We stayed for an hour or so before we had to move on and cycle into Marand.

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