Mesopotamia by Bike

 

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On the road west through a wintery Turkey

Mesopotamia always evokes images of great and ancient empires for me and the mystery that surrounds phrases like ‘the birth place of civilisation’. The area known as Mesopotamia covers sections of modern day Northern Syria, Iraq, Kuwait and to a lesser extent Iran and Turkey. It has seen the Sumarians, Babylonians and Assyrians (to name a few), and conquerors such as Alexander the Great. The Roman’s were there, as were the Persians and the Arabs and now it was time for the foons on bikes.  Yep, I wrote that.

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As we pushed our bikes across no mans land, I hoped that the Turkish side would be less hectic than the Iranian side. We were out of luck. The small room in which we were to pass through immigration was over crowded with Iranian women in their typical black chadors. The image of these women in the West is often of oppression and submission. These women were not living up to this stereotype. With all their rotund might they pushed and shoved their way forwards, crushing two confused cycle travellers along the way. We had elbows in our sides and hands at our back. As only one person was processing passports, pressing forwards was utterly pointless. Astrid and I did our best to shove back, but we were no match for these Iranian mamas. At one point a Turkish guard totally lost his cool and began screaming at the women to form a line. This was briefly obeyed, but before long we were all being crushed again.

I don’t expect or particularly want special treatment but I must say, when the Turkish border guy did spot us and ushered us out of the mayhem, I was grateful. It was time to leave Iran behind. Our passports and Astrid’s visa were barely glanced at before we were stamped into Turkey. Ninety days, multi entry, thank you very much. The first country in a long time where the visa process hadn’t taken loads of research, money and time. Turkey surely is the gateway to Europe.

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Tea is also a big feature of Turkish life

The first thing I noticed about Turkey was the female officer with her hair uncovered. The change between Iran and Turkey is immediate in this aspect. It was actually to cold for us to take our hijab off, although now it was okay for my hair to poke out.

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Happy to be in Turkey!

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Just over the border

The second thing I noticed about Turkey was that it was colder. For weeks the Iranians had been telling us that it’s so much colder in Turkey. We basically disregarded their warnings. For almost two years people have been telling us things are so and so in the next country (usually more dangerous, less friendly) and it is simply not true. On top of this Iranians totally (in our opinion) overheat their homes and therefore anything outside a sauna is regarded as cold. However, they were totally right in this respect. Turkey was fucking cold! The landscape was covered in at least one metre of snow as far as the eye could see.

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It’s colder and snowier here for sure!

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It’s so cold! And so beautiful.

We cycled through this frozen land and as the afternoon wore on it got colder and colder. All the clothes we had were piled on and we began to wonder where we would sleep. Deep snow lay everywhere and the wind was icy. As the evening grew dark we stumbled upon a 4 star hotel. Not exactly what we had in mind.

The warm air blasted my face as I dripped my way across the floor to ask about cautiously about the price. Everything was incredibly shiny and new and the guy at the desk spoke perfect English. The price reflected this but when I went out to discuss this with Astrid, she was turning blue. We took the room. Later we found out it was about minus 10 degrees Celsius.

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On the road to Van

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More winter beauty in Eastern Anatolia

The following morning we pushed towards Van, through the snow covered and frozen landscape. It was beautiful in a bleak, wintery way. By early afternoon we had reached Van. A SIM card was secured – this is a bit of pain in the arse in Turkey as you must register it. This costs 70 USD. If you don’t register it, the SIM will stop working after 2 months. This is the absolute max it will work for. Many travellers report 2 weeks but we got lucky and ours did indeed work for 2 months.

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Van

We met our first Turkish hosts in a cosy cafe and chatted for a while until Nathan, a French cycle tourist rocked up. Nate had crossed the border a few hours after us and was on his way home to France. He had been studying music in Tehran for the last 6 months where he had also run into Barbara. It’s a small world. We didn’t know it yet but Nate and our paths would cross a few times over the next few months.

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The town of Van and the lake

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The next day Mustafa our host took us on the most amazing tour of Van. First we went to Van castle, where we gazed at the snowy beauty of our surroundings and shared a Van Breakfast, a specialty of the region and incredibly delicious. Next we went to see the famous Van cat, that has one blue eye and one green. After checking the ferry timetable we headed to a bar and enjoyed a beer while looking over lake Van. In the evening we were introduced to Raki (a Turkish spirit) and mezze and a few friends came over to socialise. The independence of our peers was refreshing, as was the relaxed nature of the gathering. It was a dynamic we had not experienced much in our time in Iran and was quite exciting in it’s contrast.

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Van Castle

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Breakfast with a view

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Exploring the castle

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A sweeping view from atop the castle ruins

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The famous Van cat

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It’s been a long time between (legal) beers

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Amazing colours of a winter sunset and bike trouble

At some ridiculously early hour Astrid and I crawled out of bed, bade our host and Nate farewell and pedalled down to the ferry. To save time and for novelty we had decided to take the train/people ferry across lake Van. Unfortunately no one had been able to tell us the exact departure time of the ferry the previous day. Turned out it didn’t leave till 9am. It was currently 6.30am. Sigh. Never mind, this is Turkey and people are very kind. We were ushered into a warm room on the ferry and then served breakfast at the captain’s orders. After this I fell asleep, our ferry eventually left and cruised gently across Lake Van to Tatvan. We arrived in the late afternoon and were hosted by some very kind doctors.

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Sleeping on the ferry to Tatvan

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View from the ferry

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The ferry takes trains that come from Iran across the lake

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Tatvan

The following day it began to snow just as we left Tatvan. It grew heavier and heavier and soon we could hardly see anything. I had snow crusted on my glasses, sludge would spray up from the cars and the wind blew flurries into our hair. We inched our way along, concentrating hard on staying upright and not really being able to appreciate the landscape. Slowly we began to drop in altitude which meant the snow became sleet, then hail and finally rain. By late afternoon the weather was improving, with only the occasional shower. Then something else amazing happened. Green.

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Crazy snow and wind

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Pushing hard

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Astrid wears rubber gloves to keep her hands dry

For weeks we had been in the winter desert with only brown hues and then high up on the Anatolian plateau where snow lay metres deep. Now we were below the snow line and there were forests of pine trees. Astrid and I were so excited. It was something we had not consciously realised we had missed. That night we camped for the first time in weeks because it was so much warmer and we couldn’t resist a forest camp.

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Bare feet feel warmer than water logged feet!

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Our first forest camp in a long time

As soon as we had gotten to Turkey, we had spread out our big map and began questioning anyone we met, which way they would advise. Everyone had said, go south, it’s warmer.

‘But what about Syria and Iraq?’ we had asked nervously.

“It’s okay, the border area is safe. You are far away enough,” was the unanimous reply.

At first I was dead against going south. We had always planned to stay well away from the border areas of Iraq and Syria, heading north like our friends ahead of us. But everyone kept saying it was safe and the temptation of warmer weather in the dead of winter was great. I mean what are the chances of ISIS fighters stalking out two cycle tourists on the highway in broad daylight? I began to realise that maybe I was doing the thing I always try hard not to do, let the fear mongering media get into my head. We did some research and talked it over and finally decided that we would go south. Our compromise would be that we would not camp but couch surf or stay in the occasional hotel.

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Well below the snow, enjoying the green

Feeling relieved to have made a decision we turned southwest towards Batman. Yes, Batman. That is the real name of a town in Turkey. Batman proved to be much more than a city with a cool name. Sefik our host proved again to us how much richer your experience is by coming into contact with locals. Firstly he took us for tea, which is drunk with as much enthusiasm in Turkey as it is in Iran (although the glasses are smaller). Then he took us across the road to a Syrian Kurdish refugee camp. We brought the kids some treats and everyone came out to meet us and some of the kids spontaneously started to sing. It was a really moving experience. These people have lost everything fleeing ISIS and yet they remain so warm hearted and interested in the weirdo foreigners on bikes. It is not the Turkish government that is caring for these refugees, but the municipality of Batman which is in Kurdistan. Since Western Iran we had been in Kurdistan but it was not something I knew much about but it now became very relevant as people mostly identified as Kurdish, not Turkish in this area.

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Batman!!

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The cafe where we were served tea

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The building that houses the Syrian refugees

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A Turkish Hamam. Yes, we were spoiled.

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Breakfast at a fancy hotel, why not!

In brief, the Kurds are an ethnic minority in Turkey and live mainly in South Eastern Anatolia. Historically there have been violent clashes between the Turkish army and Kurdish freedom fighters. The Kurds like many minorities would like independence/autonomy, depending on who you talk to. The traditional homelands of the Kurds stretches across the international lines of Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

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Tea is an integral part of Kurdish life

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Lunch with a Kurdish family

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Happiness is holding a baby sheep

Now the word on everyone’s lips in Kurdistan is ISIS. The Kurds have been instrumental in fighting ISIS as it is often their lands that have been targeted. The Kurdish women fighters in particular have been highly publicised. We were showed pictures of these female fighters and told proudly of how brave they were and how effective. While the politics of the Kurds, the Turks, the government, army and ISIS is probably too complex to go into any great length here, this being a cycling blog and all, it was fascinating for us to hear and learn about and prompted me to do some further reading.

The next day, although not initially our intention, we stayed in order to visit Hasankeyf, a city thousands of years old, built as caves into the mountain side from around the 1st Century CE. Hasankeyf should be UNESCO listed. It is at least as interesting as Cappadocia in our opinion. Sadly, the Turkish government will not put it forward for world heritage listing, instead it is planning on flooding it. Yep, flooding it by building a great big dam. It’s a controversial project which has seen many foreign investors pull out, but as yet the Turkish government is pushing ahead with the plans. Did I mention the government historically doesn’t particularly like the Kurds? Seeing a city so old and so unique was simply amazing and was one of the highlights of our time in Turkey.

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Walking through gorge

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Goats!

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The view at the top

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This was a city of several thousand people

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With our kind ‘tour guides’

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An impressive landscape

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Goat on rock

A day cycling in this part of the world barely goes by without a random act of kindness from a stranger. On the day we cycled to Diyarbakir, there was no exception as once again we were invited in for chai (meaning lunch) by a kind family. The Kurdish city of Diyarbakir had a really lovely vibe and we stayed again with a kind WS host who took the time to show us some of the sites in the morning before we headed off.

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This man pulled over on the side of the road and invited us in for tea (lunch).

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Look! A hint of Spring!!

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Old city wall, Diyarbakir

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Amazing breakfast, Diyarbakir

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Behind me are the fertile plains of Mesopotamia, the birthplace of western civilisation

Although the weather had been fine, in the afternoon the rain and wind hit us hard once more. It was a desolate strip of highway without many trees or shelter, the ground already soggy. It grew darker and wetter and just as we were about to pull over and just pitch amongst some rocks we spotted a hut. It was abandoned and perfect for pitching a tent out of the wind and rain. Oh and man were we lucky we found it, for the wind picked up ten fold and howled all night, shaking the building and making parts of the all ready collapsing roof fall in. The following day it was still so wet that we only made it about 20km down the road before conceding defeat and crawling into a hotel to warm up and dry out.

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The crazy rock landscape with sheep

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Our shelter from the howling wind and pouring rain

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Drying out

Sanliulfa came not only with another generous Turkish host but the amazing Gobekli Tepe. Gobekli Tepe is an archaeological sight that has significant ramifications for all of us. Until it’s discovery in 1994 it was largely believed that Neolithic people did not practice religion and that only once we stopped being hunter gatherers, when there was more time did we develop religious practice. Apparently not so. Dated at almost 12,000 years old, when humans moved around the earth in nomadic groups, Gobekli Tepe is a mysterious Neolithic temple made from immense stone structures. The place made quite an impression on us as we reflected what our forbearers had managed with seemingly little technology.

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Balikgol (Fish pool) in Ulfa

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The sacred, also rather creepy fish

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Looking cool

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The Megalithic pillars of Gobekli Tepe

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Engravings almost 12,000 years old

When we left Ulfa we headed southwest towards Biracek and the Euphrates river. This strip of road would be the closest we would be to Syria. Signs of the conflict were visible in the forms of huge refugee camps, some yet to be occupied. Seeing the camps upon the desolate winter plain made my heart go out to the people who had fled the war to make these tents their home, while the rest of the world attempts to justify why they can’t look after them, or worse uses them as a fear mongering political tool to win votes. It should be enough that they are human just like us and as fellow humans we have a responsibility to take care of the world’s most vulnerable, but somehow that just doesn’t seem to cut it these days.

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How green this must become in spring..

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A refugee camp with Syria in the background

Aside from gazing at the Euphrates and dealing with badly behaved children (a warning, Eastern Turkey is full of bratty little boys who harass foreigners) we discovered the Bald Ibis. Yep, that’s it’s name. And it is bald. We met a very enthusiastic Bald Ibis and bird lover, Mustafa, who took the time to tell us all about his favourite bird. Sadly the Bald Ibis now has to be locked up in a large (very large) cage during the winter as its migratory path goes south into Saudi Arabia and other middle eastern countries where despite being endangered it is poached. So, now they live a semi wild existence. Unfortunately we also just missed the release of the Bald Ibis from it’s winter home. Mustafa said it would probably be the next day or the one after.

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We cycled to the Euphrates!

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The Bald Ibis in it’s winter cage

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Bald Ibis statue

Leaving Biracek with substantially more Bald Ibis knowledge we pedalled steadily towards Gaziantep. It was one of those arrivals into a city where everything went a little wrong. Google maps directed us to the wrong place. The phone went flat. Little brats harassed us (Astrid ended up chasing them with a stick) and it was rapidly getting colder and darker. When we finally did arrive at Irene and Ismail’s apartment all the difficulties just evaporated. We were met with so much kindness, happiness and understanding that we immediately felt completely at home. When you couch surf or use warm showers you almost always meet wonderful people, who you share a meal and some stories with. Often that’s as far as it goes, it’s very much an ‘in the moment’ experience and doesn’t necessarily translate to lasting friendship. It’s not a bad thing, in a way it’s the beauty of it. You have this positive connection with a stranger who will forever be part of your life journey.

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In cafe with Irene and Ismail

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Exploring Gaziantep

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In the Bazaar

Sometimes though, you make real friends and so it was with Irene and Ismail. The four of us really connected. It was more like being with housemate friends than couch surfing. The next few days were spent exploring Gaziantep and just relaxing, along with Nate, who had also turned up. Then it was time to take a bus to Ankara to meet our friend Brooke.

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Drinking wine and cooking equals much happiness

Taking a bus in Turkey proved to be a piece of cake. We just acted like we were supposed to be there, took our bikes apart and put them in the bus. No men bossing us about, or trying to ‘help’. It was a relief. And, for the first time EVER we were not charged extra for the bikes. Once on the bus we were served tea (served tea!) and snacks and there was even a USB charging device. So far Turkey, you win on bus quality.

We reached Ankara and it was snowing and dark. Eventually we found the small flat we had rented (cheaper than a hotel) and waited for the arrival of Brooke. Here we would rest a few days and prepare for the next leg of our adventure.

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Before I sign off however, I do want to convey how much we loved Eastern Turkey. Not a day went passed where we did not look at each other and  exclaim something along the lines of ‘this place is amazing.’ It was not something we had expected as many people had told us Eastern Turkey was full of stone throwing kids, creepy men and vicious dogs. In a way I had been bracing myself for it, while at the same time trying not to have a fixed idea about what it would be like. Well, it completely exceeded our expectations in a positive way. While the kids can be brats and the dogs vicious, we really didn’t have enough issues to complain about. Overall the people were so amazingly generous, the food delicious and the landscape beautiful. We were well and truly won over.

Jude

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Umbrellas cause slipping cars?

Last weeks in Persia.

Tehran ->Kharaj -> Abhar -> Zanjan -> Miyaneh -> Tabriz -> Marand -> Khoy -> Iran/Turkey border.

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Unlike Jude, who felt like she’d slipped back into her old life when we were home, I felt like a person visiting someone else’s life. Perhaps best described like revisiting a long forgotten dream. I did enjoy myself, but the road and the Dirty Salmon are now my life and I was looking forward to returning to both. What I wasn’t looking forward to, was returning to the constraints of life in Iran. I rallied myself with a couple of beers on the flight and landed with a fresh outlook. With a lot of cash, our pre-applied for codes and little fuss, we were granted our ’15-day airport arrival’ visas. Uninspected bags in hand, we walked into the cool of Tehran’s winter night. Watching the now familiar sites from the taxi window, it felt as if we had returned home.

The Grand Bazaar of Tehran.

The Grand Bazaar of Tehran.

Relaxing in one of Tehran's alternative cafes.

Relaxing in one of Tehran’s alternative cafes.

We loved the Women Only carriages in the metro, it's just a shame they have to exist.

We loved the Women Only carriages in the metro, it’s just a shame they have to exist.

Visiting one of the many art galleries in Tehran, on a Friday night of course.

Visiting one of the many art galleries in Tehran, on a Friday night of course.

Tehran has many patriotic and political banners.

Tehran has many patriotic and political banners.

It had been a long journey and the comfort of Roozbah’s house and hospitality was welcome. It took a couple of days for our circadian rhythms to readjust, so we slept, relaxed and explored the sites of Tehran at a leisurely pace. Glimpses of life lived outside the constraints of religious repression were hinted at and occasionally seen. On the streets, in cafes and restaurants, through music and art, and via their appearance, people are finding a way to express themselves and it is exciting. One just has to readjust one’s outlook on the everyday – for example I see lipstick as a sign of female repression sold by the beauty and entertainment industries in my culture, here it is a definite ‘fuck you’ to the (religious) government. Friday nights provide progressive people with the opportunity to meet and share ideas in semi-open spaces, as every art gallery has an opening night for the next show. We went to three galleries and each one was packed with people. We were also photographed a couple of hundred times – perhaps a new exhibition titled ‘dirty cycle tourists visit hipster Tehran’.

There is always lots of bling in Iran, and the Golestan Palace is no exception.

There is always lots of bling in Iran, and the Golestan Palace is no exception.

Looking at the fine detail in one of the hundreds of mosaic walls.

Looking at the fine detail in one of the hundreds of mosaic walls.

Edifice of the Sun (Shams ol Emareh)

Edifice of the Sun (Shams ol Emareh)

Wandering the grounds of the Golestan Palace.

Wandering the grounds of the Golestan Palace.

I wonder what's in there?

I wonder what’s in there?

Joining the moustache brothers.

Joining the moustache brothers.

When I tell people that we went skiing in Iran, they look at me like I have two heads. Not surprising, as when Jude initially floated the idea of skiing in Iran, I also looked at her as if she had two heads. But it was a brilliant idea. We pooled the funds our parents had gifted us for Christmas and spent four days skiing on fresh powder at Dizin. Old gondolas ferried us from our hotel at the base of the piste, to the top of the highest run – sitting at just under 4,000 metres altitude. Being mid week there were perhaps 20 other people on the mountain and the variety of on and off piste skiing was more than my little Australian ski brain could handle. The locals complained that it was a bad season, but compared to back home this was heavenly. All that was missing was the mulled wine, but we did enjoy the rum filled chocolates that Jude had forgotten to discard before arriving in Iran. We would have stayed longer but it was time to start pedaling again.

On the road to Dizin, excited about seeing snow.

On the road to Dizin, excited about seeing snow.

The view from our hotel room.

The view from our hotel room.

First light hits the piste in the morning and we are super excited.

First light hits the piste in the morning and we are super excited.

Ready to ski until I drop.

Ready to ski until I drop.

Jude is disappointed that the beer is non-alcoholic. They try and make you feel better by adding a straw.

Jude is disappointed that the beer is non-alcoholic. They try and make you feel better by adding a straw.

To make it to the border in time without being deported from another country, we applied for another visa extension. For those who plan to do this, we found Tehran a good option. The visa extension office for foreigners has moved to the outer suburbs in Tehran Pars. Ask anyone when you get off the Metro and they will direct you. We filled in our forms, waited to be approved by the boss, provided the required documentation, bought the required bank slip from a guy in a red hat (paid a very small commission to save 30 minutes walking and extra time faffing at the bank), handed in our forms, and made a small amount of fuss to reduce the collection date from a week to the following afternoon. As promised, we picked up our passports – with a fortnight long visa extension granted – the following afternoon and were on the road early the next morning.

Celebrating getting our visa extension with a felafel wrap and a fake wine.

Celebrating getting our visa extension with a felafel wrap and a fake wine.

Our hosts had a great message to share with the world.

Our hosts had a great message to share with the world.

If you are ever to cycle into or out of Tehran I would suggest you do this early on a Friday morning. It’s like a different world. The haphazard, cyclist killing, manic driving chaos ceases to exist for a few short hours and we actually enjoyed our morning meander out of the city. That was until in the outskirts, a taxi driver decided he had the right of way despite me already being in the middle of the intersection. Needless to say my calm evaporated for half a minute as a barrage of expletives were hurled his way. It was to be a short cycling day, as we hadn’t been on the bikes for almost a month. It felt wonderful to be back in the saddle and the kilometres flew by as we ‘sped’ our way to Karaj and the beautiful home of our lovely hosts for the night. There we were spoiled with copious amounts of delicious food, wonderful company, great music and comfortable beds.

The uninspiring scenery of the first few days.  I think that the cows here could be radioactive.

The uninspiring scenery of the first few days. I think that the cows here could be radioactive.

The view from the tent when we put it up that night.

The view from the tent when we put it up that night.

And the following morning.  Brrr it was cold.

And the following morning. Brrr it was cold.

The next two days were pretty uneventful. We were on the old highway, the scenery was drab bordering on industrial wasteland, and we had either a head wind or a crosswind. The only beauty came of an evening when we found a forest to call home, a flock of birds circled us frenetically and it snowed overnight. With so much time to ponder my surroundings I was glad that someone had the foresight to plant trees on the side of the old highway to block the wind that ravages the landscape and to provide some visual beauty in such bleakness. At the closing of the day we pulled into a small town to buy supplies and recharge our phone. It became a common joke between us that finding a SIM card or somewhere to recharge your phone in Iran, is harder than finding alcohol there. As was customary now, we were invited in for chai by the shop owner. Reluctantly we accepted as it was getting dark and we needed to find a place to camp. We shouldn’t have worried because soon we were surrounded by a dozen Iranian women, making a fuss about us, feeding us and chatting gaily into the night. Such access to women’s space and company is the one privilege I feel we have as women travelling in Iran, and for this I am grateful.

Access to women's space is one of our favourite parts of Iran.

Access to women’s space is one of our favourite parts of Iran.

Some of the women who spoiled us.

Some of the women who spoiled us.

Waking as the day dawned was not common for many Iranians, so it was with bleary eyes that our lady hosts from the night before prepared us breakfast and sent us on our way. We didn’t have long to cycle that day, as we had organised to spend the night in Abhar. Arriving in town that afternoon we didn’t even have to contact our hosts as the Iranian grapevine was at work and people had let them know when we were in town. Hadi the irrepressible arrived on his mountain bike and we were whisked away, to be spoilt by his kindness and hospitality. The way things were going, we would not be losing the extra 10kg we had each gained back in Australia.

Hadi and the gals.

Hadi and the gals.

Some of the amazing Iranians we spent time with.

Some of the amazing Iranians we spent time with.

Later that evening we joined our other host Masoud at his advanced English class. It was by far the most memorable experience of my time in Iran. It ended up being a three hour discussion about life in Iran and life on the road. I had heard the stories before, but this time I listened with a truly open mind and for the first time I really understood how repressive it is to live under such a regime. How a person’s basic freedoms aren’t even permitted, let alone their dreams. I saw how many lives people need to lead to live up to all that is expected of them, as well as trying to make themselves happy. How there is little chance of escape. How fortunate we are with the freedoms we have and how precious it is to live everyday to the fullest despite your surroundings. My thanks go to all of the men and women who shared their thoughts and feelings with us that night in that little room – I will always remember.

Our excursion to Soltanieh.

Our excursion to Soltanieh.

Climbing the spiral staircase.

Climbing the spiral staircase.

Renovations provide a maze of poles.

Renovations provide a maze of poles.

Soltaniyeh glows in the evening.

Soltaniyeh glows in the evening.

During our excursion to the Mausoleum of Oljaytu in Soltaniyeh the next day, one of the guys from the previous night’s class thanked us for coming and sharing our passion and energy. He said that he had been awake all night thinking about what we had said, how we live our lives, and how he was currently living his. He shared his story and at the end of it he said that being paramedics we probably often save people’s bodies, but he felt that last night we had saved his soul. It reminded me that everything that we say and do is important in this world.

Passing through small Iranian towns.

Passing through small Iranian towns.

The scenery improved dramatically.

The scenery improved dramatically.

From Abhar on, the grapevine of cyclists continued. Our details were passed on and our progress was shared faster than we could cycle. The scenery had improved and the cold, sunny, winter days were a pleasure to behold. Too busy enjoying the scenery we rarely heard our phone ringing. This usually lead to our hosts driving out to find us as they had been informed of when we left and thought it had taken too long for us to cycle the distance. What they didn’t take into account was that they ride road bikes, and our ladies are the cycling equivalent of lorries. We also like to meander, to take our time and lie in a field eating carrots and dates, to feel the sunshine on our faces and the wind in our hair.

Roadside corn and potato stop.

Roadside corn and potatoe stop.

Night view of Zanjan.

Night view of Zanjan.

Smoking the 'hubble bubble'.

Smoking the ‘hubble bubble’.

Behnam the speed demon and his lovely lasses, abducted us from the roadside just four short kilometres from Zanjan. They obviously had plans for us that couldn’t wait. We flew about town in Behnam’s little car, eating here, visiting there, drinking coffee here, sightseeing there, smoking ‘hubble bubble’ here and dancing (in the living room) there. Dancing in the streets or within sight of the opposite sex is illegal here. It’s those dangerous female bums again! So today I encourage you all to spontaneously dance in the street and be thankful that you live in a country where such a random act of happiness wont find you in interrogated by the police.

Being lesbians in Iran can be difficult, but we make it work the best we can.

Being lesbians in Iran can be difficult, but we make it work the best we can.

It was also around this time that this year of being invisible really started to bother me. And no, not in the you’re a woman therefore a second class citizen way. Yes I know that I’m in a country where being a lesbian is illegal, punishable either by gender reassignment surgery or by death, but after being at home free to live and love how I chose, being back in the closet (as the old adage says) was difficult. Despite having high same-sex sex rates brought on by strict gender segregation, the idea of us actually being a couple did not enter anyone’s mind. Always the inevitable ‘are you married?’ or ‘where’s your man?’ questions, the look of confusion or pity when we responded that we neither wanted nor needed one. Not telling them that the person I love is standing by my side became harder and harder. Getting back to a culture where we could act as who we are, and be recognized as such, was becoming more important than I thought it ever would be.

The river we were now following.

The river we were now following.

It looks lovely during the day, but at nights it's freezing.

It looks lovely during the day, but at nights it’s freezing.

Ice and snow remains despite bright sunny days.

Ice and snow remain despite bright sunny days.

All the brown hues that we love.

All the brown hues that we love.

As the days passed, winter deepened. The few last remaining leaves clung to the trees that lined the river we now followed. Ice sheets covered the water where the sun did not reach. Our eyes again adjusted to the myriad of brown hues that made up our surroundings, the green of spring being many months away. On the night we camped, we were in the tent as soon as the sun dipped behind the hills. The cold and wind hurried us to the warmth of our sleeping bags. All of our water froze that night and remained frozen for the whole of the next day. If it wasn’t for the Iranian custom of sharing chai, we would have gone thirsty that day.

Our veggies also froze solid overnight.

Our veggies also froze solid overnight.

Ruins by the roadside.

Ruins by the roadside.

Stocking up on our favourite lunchtime bread.

Stocking up on our favourite lunchtime bread.

More kindhearted Iranians.

More kindhearted Iranians.

We spent a night at the Red Crescent.  They provide shelter for passing travellers if required.

We spent a night at the Red Crescent. They provide shelter for passing travellers if required.

The days to Tabriz passed quickly and happily. We were again the recipients of endless Iranian kindness and hospitality. Sometimes the sheer volume and intensity is overwhelming, and in Tabriz we decided some time to ourselves was necessary. The only sightseeing we did was to wander about the magnificent bazaar tasting all of the local delicacies. Otherwise we holed ourselves up in our room with enough falafel wraps, cups of tea and treats to last the day, and just chilled out. Sometimes doing nothing is invigorating.

Tabriz Bazzar

Tabriz Bazzar

In one of the many caravanserais that exist in the Tabriz bazaar.

In one of the many caravanserais in the Tabriz bazaar.

We discovered this man making a cycle tourist's best food friend.  A boiled potato and egg mashed together with butter and spices wrapped in bread.  Carb heaven.

We discovered this man making a cycle tourist’s best food friend. A boiled potato and egg mashed together with butter and spices wrapped in bread. Carb heaven.

Turkey was now within our sights. But first we had to visit the famous Akbar of Marand. We had initially heard about Akbar in Tajikistan, as he is a Warmshowers legend. I think he may have a photograph with almost every cycle tourist that has been to Iran over the last decade. Now it was our turn. A lovely afternoon and evening was spent with him and his extended family. To wish us a pleasant journey, he rode with us to the outskirts of town where we waved goodbye and hit the road heading west. There are currently three international borders between Iran and Turkey, and we chose to travel the road that joins Khoy (in Iran) with Van (in Turkey).

On the road to Marand.

Roadside break on the way to Marand.

The famous Akbar of Marand.

The famous Akbar of Marand.

Cycling out of town.

Cycling out of town.

It was a long, cold and windy ride to Khoy and the kindness of our host family warmed our bodies and hearts. Mamma took us under her wing and treated us as one of her own. Even to the point of wanting to come in and give me a back scrub while I was in the shower. Like old women slapping my bum in Indonesia, back scrubs here had become my ‘thing’. We were fed to bursting, drank copious amounts of tea, overheated by the hearth, visited by every relative and just before midnight, tucked into piles of blankets on beds set up on the living room floor.

The riding was sometimes long, cold and windy.

The riding was sometimes long, cold and windy.

That night I thought of all of the Iranians that had taken us into their homes over the last three months. Who had opened their doors to us – two foreign strangers on bikes – and treated us as family. Warm and safe in a country whose name is used by our government and the media to instill fear into our minds, I understood kindheartedness and the concept of giving without the expectation of receiving anything in return. We extend a heartfelt THANK YOU to all the Iranians we met on this journey and wish them and their families health and happiness.

Part of our entourage speed ahead.

Part of our entourage speed ahead.

It was a gradual climb towards Qotur and the border.

It was a gradual climb towards Qotur and the border.

A farewell had been organised for us by Khoy’s cycling team – a three-man entourage for the last leg to the border. The sun shone brightly as we set off that morning. It was a lovely slow climb up the valley towards the border. The river glistened in the afternoon light, as did the snow-capped mountains that surrounded us. Arriving at the border town of Qotur later than expected, our farewell party shared a late lunch with us before donning cold weather gear for the 65km downhill cycle back to Khoy. With some spare Rial in our pockets, we sought out a hotel for the night. Not expecting much we were pleasantly surprised with the quality and value of the one hotel in town. Dinner was a hodge podge of whatever we found in the variety of small stores that lined the streets. Excited by new beginnings we fell asleep with dreams of life across the border.

The scenery was lovely.

The mountainous border between Iran and Turkey.

Dressed up to cycle back to Khoy.  Thanks guys for joining us.

Dressed up to cycle back to Khoy. Thanks guys for joining us.

A last bit of propaganda before the border.

A last bit of propaganda before the border.

It should have been an easy process. The eight kilometres to the border had flown by and our spirits were high dreaming about the cold beer that we would be drinking by the end of the day. Unfortunately leaving the country was to be a challenge. Entering the immigration building I walked into a crush of approximately 200 Iranians vying for first position in the queue for two overwrought border officials. It was like being in Tehran traffic without the cars. We had joked previously that Iranians were the most generous people in the world until you put them behind the wheel of a car. Well we could now add until you put them in a line to cross the border.   We joined the hordes and fought to keep our place in the line. After an hour of waiting an official noticed that we were caught in this chaos and came to our aid. Within minutes our passports were stamped and we were free to leave the Islamic Republic of Iran.

See you Iran!  It's been a challenging, interesting and rewarding experience being here.

See you Iran! It’s been a challenging, interesting and rewarding experience being here.

We both have such mixed emotions about our time and experience of travelling here. I think it will take a long time to process what we experienced. All I can say is that I am glad we were here. I’m glad we met the people we did, as they are what Iran is all about. Goodbye Iran, goodbye.

Love Astrid.

The Deserts Continue.

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Shiraz to Esfahan via Ghalat and Persepolis

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By the time we were leaving Shiraz, Iran was becoming more familiar. A few days after leaving Yazd we began to received a lot less police harassment and our daily existence became less infuriating. I got somewhat used to wearing a hijab, although with Martha (dreadlocks) wanting to burst out, it was never going to be very comfortable. My attitude towards men who weren’t our hosts became quite wary and I tried to stick to the Islamic norms of not shaking hands with men or really looking at them directly. Whenever we needed help, I was extra sure to ask a woman (this is usually better anyway as they are less likely to pretend they know, when they don’t). Mostly people were extremely kind, stopping only to say “Welcome to Iran’, offer us a place to stay or give us food. After a rather intense beginning things settled and I certainly began to enjoy our time in the Islamic republic even more.

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Cycling through the streets of Ghalat

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Ghalat

The next leg of our Iran journey saw us head towards the small village of Ghalat. This wasn’t exactly on our route but we had met a guy called Ali in the market the previous day who had invited us to stay at his home. He was a Qasqai, (pronounced cashguy) a traditionally nomadic people from this part of Iran. While he was no longer a nomad, members of his family were and he seemed like an interesting guy to talk to and spend some time with.

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The subtle beauty of autumn in Iran

We cycled the short distance (around 50km) from Shiraz to Ghalat and saw some truly stunning examples of ‘muppet driving’. The Iranians just take bad driving to another level. Worse than the Chinese even.  Once we reached Ghalat, we had entered somewhat of a paradise. We found ourselves in a small traditional village build into a hillside, all mud brick, stone and small alleyways with mountains all around. We climbed up on a hillside for a better view and enjoyed the last of the afternoon sun and the soft hues of the autumn colours around us.

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Exploring Ghalat

Later Ali came and met us in Ghalat and we stored our bikes at his friend’s place in the village and he drove us the 12kms to his home. He lived in a typical Iranian village house, consisting of a large comfortable room with a gas heater and a few small rooms off the side. The toilet was outside, but what we couldn’t figure out was that there was also one inside, which we were allowed to use at night but not in the day. Also, the random steps to nowhere, another strange thing about some Iranian houses. We spent the afternoon drinking tea and chatting with Ali. He had taught himself English and was well read with a love of old books. It was interesting learning about his culture, although we found some of his reasoning grating. He justified a lot of things by saying “it’s in our culture”, usually when referring to women and their roles (cooking, cleaning, having children, not riding a bicycle). I respect culture and believe certain parts of culture should be protected and taught to the next generation, but just because it’s cultural and traditional, doesn’t make it inherently good. Basically he was using the excuse of culture to justify his patriarchal behavior and we found this extremely annoying. While he was fascinated by our adventure, I almost felt he didn’t approve of us at all. Like he was trying to be all liberal and open minded but really wasn’t. It was a strange but not a bad encounter.

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Ali and his family in traditional hats

The following day we had lunch at the house where our bikes had been left (possibly the best lunch ever) and then set off towards Persepolis. It’s lovely staying with families but it’s always nice to be on our own again as well. I feel like I need my personal freedom more in this country than any other. In a way camping in the desert just us three women is a big fuck you to the patriarchy of this country, in my mind at least. Women camping without men is almost unheard of. We have gotten really good at hiding, and that night was no exception. Just as it was getting dark we found a rather creepy group of sheds which appeared to be abandoned dove coops. We made the end room our home for the night, including building a lovely campfire.

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Possibly the best lunch ever

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Our shelter for the night in the creepy dove coop

Morning saw us cut back to the main highway and reach Persepolis by lunch time. These impressive ruins were once the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire and date back to 515 BCE. It was a fitting place for a picnic. After our usual bread, cheese, tomatoes and dates it was time to explore. Persepolis was impressive. By now I have seen quite a few bas reliefs but the ones at Persepolis are truly extraordinary in the way they have remained so well preserved. I will let the pictures do the talking.

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Persepolis

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By the time we had finished exploring the afternoon was turning chilly. As we were packing our bikes and preparing to leave, the security guard came over and offered us the use of one of those portable shed things. After some price negotiations we happily agreed. We were even brought a heater and a gas cooker to make dinner on. Plus we had access to toilets, electricity and water! Dinner followed by a film. Luxury.

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Being a bas relief

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Barbara and I being bas reliefs

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The amazingly preserved bas reliefs

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Outside the ‘luxury’ hut

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Inside the luxury hut

The next day we rolled onto the highway to thumb a ride as we had already cycled most of this section coming down to Shiraz. It took 20 mins before a truckie pulled over. Bikes were heaved onto the back and secured. We took our place in the cabin with the driver and enjoyed the different view. This is Iran so everytime we went to through a police check Astrid and I hid and Barbara pretended to be Iranian, pulling her headscarf tightly around her face. Our driver ended up being one of those true Iranian gentlemen, stopping so we could buy bread and dropping us at a perfect picnic area. Later he came back with his wife because I had left my gloves in his truck. They both invited us to stay but we needed to keep heading north.

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The last fire of the women’s cyclo gang

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Our gang began and ended it’s camping with a train tunnel

That night we went back to our old favourite of camping under a rail tunnel in the dessert. I remarked that this might be our last night camping together. Funny that it should start and end with a tunnel. Our woman desert cyclo gang has been awesome.

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Barbara and Lola in the tunnel

We pushed hard the following day along the shoulder of an increasingly busy highway and slept in room next to a mosque. No creeper here luckily. Probably lucky for the creeper. There would be no hesitation to defend myself again.

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Snack time

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Making dinner outside another portable next to a Mosque.

By early afternoon of the following day we had reached the outskirts of Esfahan, one of Iran’s largest cities. Astrid, being the champion navigator that she is, took us on the ring road around to the Zoroastrian ruins of a fire temple high up on a hill. We explored the beautiful ruins and gazed on the mass expanse of Esfahan before pedalling to our host’s place.

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Fire Temple ruins, Esfahan

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Esfahan from the fire temple

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On top of the Fire Temple

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Astro looking suave

DSC_0504 Hamid, our host was an absolutely gorgeous guy, full of life and the most amazing laugh. Over the next few days he cooked us wonderful Iranian dishes and showed us around his city. Although dissatisfied with the status quo, Hamid truly loved his culture and it was wonderful to learn more about Iran. We also made him a selection of our favourite dishes and we rarely made it to bed before midnight, preferring to stay up talking and laughing.

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The famous bridges of Esfahan

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More bridge love

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Iranians love to picnic so much they will do it t 10pm in winter

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Outside the summer place of the Shah in Esfahan

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Esfahan

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Jameh Mosque, Esfahan

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So much great food at Hamid’s

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Jameh Mosque, Esfahan

DSC_0609 DSC_0617 Sadly things must come to an end sometimes and eventually we needed to leave. Esfahan was where the cyclo gang was also going to separate. Barbara was going to continue north towards Tehran on her trusty bike Lola and we were taking the bus to Tehran, to fly home.

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Spices in the Bazaar, Esfahan

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In the bazaar, Esfahan

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Back in Central Asia Astrid and I had began to discuss the possibility of going home for a visit. It was a difficult decision to make but a few things had begun to fall into place to make it feel like the right choice. We eventually bit the bullet and decided to do it, booking flights in and out of Tehran.

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Islamic architecture to blow your mind

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And some more

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Winter Prayer room, Jameh Mosque, Esfahan

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More amazingness, Jameh Mosque, Esfahan

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After hugging Hamid farewell (in his home, it would be totally forbidden to do this on the street) we cycled with Barbara to the bus station and then sent our awesome cyclo sister on her way. I am sure our paths will cross again one day soon.

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Thanks Hamid, we had a blast!

It is always a little stressful trying to put a bicycle on a bus and is something I loath. The Iranians however are quite calm about this. And their buses are lovely! We were only charged around $3 for the bikes and served tea and snacks on our 5 hour bus ride into Tehran.

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In the park, Esfahan

The Iranian capital is a concrete jungle. Traffic is a nightmare and infrastructure is poor. They finally have a metro but it’s not nearly enough. I feel like Tehran, in terms of infrastructure and aesthetics is one of those cities that just didn’t get it right. The people however are probably the least conservative in the country (in some parts of Tehran anyway) and we saw many barely on hijabs and were especially fond of the casual my hijab slipped off and I will leave it a few seconds before putting it back on that we saw. Men and women also seemed to associate more normally, which is something we had witnessed in all the big cities. For us, this was a flying visit to Tehran. We would be back in a few weeks to see more of the capital.

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Traffic in Tehran. There are not rules.

At the bus station we put our bikes back together and then began the arduous task of navigating to our host’s house. This was made extremely difficult by my i phone which has basically decided almost 2 years of hard living was not for it and it randomly turns off right when you need it most. We found somewhere to charge it, only to have it happen a second time and then refuse to turn on. Luckily we had Roozbah’s number and were able to call him from a toy shop (where they served us tea while we waited).

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Only in Iran would you be served tea in a toy shop while you wait for a host

Roozbah is a quietly spoken guy who has been a friend to many a touring cyclist. He welcomed us to his families large, warm apartment where we spent the next day packing and trying to prepare ourselves for going home.

With our bikes safely stored at Roozbah’s we left at midnight to begin the 24 hour or so journey home that had taken us 20 months to cycle. Like most people that cycle rather than take a plane to the other side of the world, I am uncomfortable with the idea of flying and have become more so over the last year or so. However I do think planes are quite amazing and that it is  a privilege that we can go home like this to visit our loved ones. I am trying not to see planes as a normal mode of transport, but rather an extraordinary one.

It was exciting to be going home and interesting to watch the Iranians on the plane. We hadn’t even taxied down the runway before women began to take off their hijab (we were not flying with an Iranian airline) and soon after take off the men were ordering alcohol. We happily took part in both these activities as well!

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In transit in Dubai

 HOME

 I won’t write much about our time at home. It did end up being the right decision for quite a few reasons and we are both glad we went. Seeing our friends and family was wonderful, although being home was unsetting in some ways. It was almost as if I slipped back into my old life. Everything was familiar. The same people, the same cafes, the same bars, but at the end of the day I couldn’t go back to Lewis street. Someone else lived in our room now, even though the house even smelt the same. This more than anything disturbed me. After a hectic few weeks it was time to say goodbye and head back to Tehran. We had managed to get another Iranian visa using Caravanistan for the code. As we didn’t have enough time to get a visa from Canberra we opted for an Airport Visa. This worked out fine. So, that’s the end of our first Iran adventure through the deserts. I will let Astrid continue with our route through northwest Iran towards Turkey.

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Waxing lyrical with Hafez.

Yazd -> Shiraz

Farewell Yazd - from the top of the Towers of Silence

Farewell Yazd – from the top of the Towers of Silence

Time to hit the road again – we’re heading towards Shiraz.  Hoping for a nice red when we get there, but doubting the likelihood of such a simple pleasure.   Ah Iran – how you often frustrate me.

Our route from Yazd to Shiraz.

Our route from Yazd to Shiraz.

With images of flesh dropping from vulture’s beaks into the streets below, we cycled from the Towers of Silence to the motorway intersection up the road.  Our host met us there for a farewell cycle out of town and he pedalled his trusty mountain bike beside us for the 20km to Taft.  Huge felafel sandwiches and a bag full of carrots were devoured as a final farewell celebration.

Farewell felafel sandwich and carrot party.

Farewell felafel sandwich and carrot party.

With the late start, dusk arrived too soon.  Camping options were in short supply.  It was time to request something magical from the universe and she delivered.  Our very own hand-dug cave network.

Our haven from the road, the following morning.

Our haven from the road, the following morning.

Beds were laid down on the floor of our mansion, a roaring fire was started and we were soon smoked like a Tasmania salmon.  Note to self – unless there is a through breeze, don’t build a big fire in a cave.  Took note of the fire safety adds from my childhood and got down low.  Worked a treat.

Caves + fires = smoked Foons.

Caves + fires = smoked Foons.

The fairy at breakfast time.

The fairy at breakfast time. 

For morning tea we stopped in a pomegranate garden and gorged ourselves.  Big magenta smiles and hands were a give away to our happiness.  Adorable old villages with cobbled streets, stone buildings and ancient trees were dotted along the road providing visual splendour for the morning.

Cycling through adorable Eslamiyeh.

Cycling through adorable Eslamiyeh.

Loving the ancient trees - this one is meant to be 800 years old.

Loving the ancient trees – this one is meant to be 800 years old.

Eagle rock gave Dog rock in Albany a run for its money in the afternoon.

The cyclo gang cycles towards Eagle Rock.

The cyclo gang cycles towards Eagle Rock.

After such beauty and a big lunch, a roadside nap was required.

Napping after lunch.

Napping after lunch.

Then we exited the valley and the village greenery dispersed itself between the desert brown.  It was a full day of cycling and as we pulled into another village we darted off the road as we couldn’t face another police road block.  With such a barren landscape it was hard to find a hidden site for the night.  A few hundred metres into the desert we found an ditch in the sand and pitched our tents around our makeshift fire pit for the night.

Tents in the barren landscape - no place to stealth camp here.

Tents in the barren landscape – no place to stealth camp here.

The morning of my 36th birthday was soon upon us.  I enjoyed a cup of tea around the fire to start the day.

Happy Birthday tea for me.

Happy Birthday tea for me.

My wish for the day was to have a picnic under the 4,000 year old cyprus tree in Abarkuh. We only had 30 km to cycle and many adventures were to be had between here and there.  Gifts from the universe and people started arriving immediately.  A dozen pomegranates arrived, followed by a bag full of apples.  My feminist stick wielding fury was released on two teenage boys who dared to try to intimidate and sexualise us. They learnt quickly.

The 4,000 year old cyprus tree where I spent my 36th birthday.

The 4,000 year old cyprus tree where I spent my 36th birthday.

Once we arrived at the cyprus tree a 4 hour heavenly, vegetarian, birthday feast ensued. Ten minutes after arriving a local gentleman appeared, silver platter in hand, with three tea cups and a thermos of tea.  “Welcome to Iran, I thought you’d like some tea” – music to my ears.  Could this day get any better?  I guess it depends on how you feel about getting abducted while trying to camp, followed by having a lady you just met walk in on your shower and offering you a back rub.  This is one birthday I wont forget.

Our abductors.

Our abductors.

We had a guided tour of the caravanserai the guy grew up in, which is now in ruins.  It was fascinating walking through such history.  Their daughter had decided I was her new best friend and wouldn’t let go of my hand.

This was his house.

This was his house.

The ruins of the caravanserai.

The ruins of the caravanserai.

My new best friend who led me by the hand exploring.

My new best friend who led me by the hand exploring.

A ferocious headwind greeted us when we pedalled out of town.  At the turn off we sheltered from the battering at a service station where we were offered a room with a heater.  This was followed by copious cups of tea, and homemade food and sweets sent over by the shop attendant’s parents who had heard we were in town.  It was hard to tear ourselves away and brave the crazy driving and wind.  Not to mention the guy who tried to grab Jude’s leg as she cycled by.  Jude reacted like a super heroine by punching and screaming at him, which resulted in him running away and hiding behind his truck.  It is taxing having to be constantly on your guard from creepers, so camp was set up early and we sang songs and told jokes to lighten the tension created by men who would invade our space.

Camp in the dry river bed after Jude punched he creeper.

Camp in the dry river bed after Jude punched he creeper.

A new day dawned as did happier emotions.  The road wound its way through hills and walnut groves where Iranians were sharing picnics in the woods.  In true Iranian style we were invited to join most of these and if we had accepted we would not have cycled far that day.  A warm river bordered by weeping willows was our home for the night (for cyclists – just before Morghab).  The place felt so spiritual, we all tapped into the vibrations of the elements.

The camp I manifested on the river.

The camp I manifested on the river.

The clouds rolled in the next morning and a constant drizzle had us riding in our water-proof gear.  The thought of stopping at the ruins of Pasargad in such weather was dismal, so we pushed on to Sa’adat Shahr where for the first time we struggled to find somewhere warm to have a cup of tea and some food.  We settled for a felafel joint where the guy let us sit behind the counter to dry our clothes by the heater.  The drizzle turned into a hard core down pour without end in sight.  Our waterproof gear could only handle so much and within a few kilometres we were all soaked through to our undies.  While waiting for the others to catch up, I was called over by a local in a car who, after establishing that we were all women, invited us to stay at his family home.  Despite making a huge mud puddle in their house, and annoying their daughter by partaking in the father’s home brew while she was praying, our stay was fun and comfortable.

Our saviours from the rain.

Our saviours from the rain.

Time was now running short as we had a visa extension to do in Shiraz the following day.  The rain had delayed us too much, so we decided that we would try our hand at hitch hiking – three women and their full laden touring bikes.  Truck one was slow due to the amount of opium the driver and his passenger was smoking.  Quiz – what is more dangerous: having a gas barbeque burning full time in your truck cabin or having a driver high on opium driving it?  Luckily we escaped the opium den unscathed, to be picked up by a man in a small pick-up who wouldn’t let one of us sit in the back.  Needless to say after being bent in half for an hour with my head whacking the roof every time we went over a bump, it was time to get out.  The final lift was great – truck with lots of room, no opium, no small chat in broken persian/english and a lovely driver.  We made it to the outskirts of Shiraz with time to spare, so we checked out one of the gardens Shiraz is famous for before heading to our host’s place for some well deserved R&R.  Unfortunately – no wine.

The view from one of the famous gardens of Shiraz.

The view from one of the famous gardens of Shiraz. 

Old entry gate for Shiraz.

Old entry gate for Shiraz.

After having our visa extension approved we spent the next few days experiencing the vibrant and frenetic life that comes with visiting Shiraz.  When we weren’t enjoying the great company of our host and his friends we were enjoying stunning views of the city.

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And exploring the bazaar with our new Kiwi cycle touring friends – Toby and Kate.

The carpet selling section.

The carpet selling section.

Original woodwork in the old bazaar.

Original woodwork in the old bazaar.

Kate sniffing the copious amounts of hand spun wool.

Kate sniffing the copious amounts of hand spun wool.

Reading the famous Shirazian poet Hafez’s works in the stunning parks that Shiraz is famous for.

Waxing lyrical with Hafez.

Waxing lyrical with Hafez.

Or just exploring them by foot.

DSC_0347 DSC_0348 DSC_0352We found a local where Jude enjoyed a ‘real coffee’, or ten.

DSC_0362  Needless to say we loved Shiraz and wanted to stay in the most liberal and friendly city in Iran – despite there not being any wine.

Love Astrid xx

Life in the Iranian Deserts

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Bardaskan to Yazd

I have really been struggling to write about Iran. It’s a country of extreme contradictions and a wide range of emotions for me. I hated and loved it. It drove me to the edge of my sanity and humbled me with it’s generosity. We had more problems with men than anywhere else (by a long shot) and the most gracious hospitality and generosity. Most of the Iranian people I met were absolutely wonderful. They are not religious extremists like a lot of the western media portrays. In fact, most people we met weren’t religious at all. Someone once said ‘we are a victim of politics,’ and yes, that often seems pretty accurate. The Iranians we met just want to get on with life, to choose whom they want to marry (or to choose to marry at all), to travel, hang out with their friends and find their place in this crazy world of ours. Sadly, they are often denied these basic rights by their government. Still, they often triumph too. Iranians live their live in their homes, where the police almost never reach them (we haven’t heard of the police coming into homes) and the rules of the state do not apply. Iran is changing, but I fear it’s too slow for the current generation, who mostly want to leave. I am not sure I will go back, but I am certainly glad I went.

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I woke feeling slightly morose on my 31st birthday. It couldn’t have felt less like a birthday. I missed my friends and family and felt overwhelmed by this new country.

Mina and her family were extremely reluctant to let us go but eventually they came to understand that we really needed to start cycling. They were so lovely. We were showered with gifts and fussed over and they made sure we had absolutely everything we needed. It’s true what they say about Iranian hospitality – it’s amazing. However, before heading to the open road there was one more thing for us to do. A publicity event at the local sports complex. We pedalled down there and were photographed and videoed for local media and given a trophy, which unfortunately we could not accept as it was too heavy. Astrid joked if it was edible we would have taken it. Tea and more photos followed and then finally we were allowed out onto the open road.

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The award we got from the lovely people in Bardescan

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Tea with the media and officials

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Taking my sweet time talking on the phone while the police wait nearby

Only we were not alone. The police had taken it upon themselves to escort us for ‘our safety’. For around 60 infuriating kilometres we had a truck full of policemen tailing us. Sometimes they were a few km’s behind, other times they would stop, wait for us to pass, then pass us and pull over again. Whenever we cycled by they would all stare at us intently. We are often a curiosity wherever we go, it’s part of cycle touring in these places but I was just not up for being harassed by the police again, no matter how good their intentions might have been. I already felt quite oppressed, given the intense nature of the last few weeks. All I wanted was to be alone in the desert with Astrid and Barbara, away from people. I felt at the edge of my sanity.  We tried to get rid of them and discussed how we would escape them in order to find a camp. I had visions of them trying to make us camp somewhere stupid because they thought the desert was dangerous. Even when we pulled off the road to get water from a village, they followed and tried to get us to go back out on the highway. We ignored them and took our sweet time (I even received a phone call from Australia and made sure to spend extra long on the phone) but they would not leave. Finally, driven passed the edge of my patience I yelled at them. I told them loudly “No police!!” and made emphatic hand gestures. To their credit they took it in their stride and finally left us alone.

I felt such relief. This country was making me crazy. I just needed to be away from people for a bit, to process the extreme contrasts of Iran.  We succeeded in finding a camp spot in the desert landscape, building a fire and drinking fake wine. The stars came out and it was beautiful. A good end to a trying day.

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Alone at last

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The sunsets after a day of frustration

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Happiness is a campfire in the desert under a clear sky

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Our awesome camp

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Desert sunset

The weather continued to be superb. Clear and cool we pedaled steadily towards our first destination of Yazd for the next week or so. The police continued to mildly harass us, driving by slowly and staring or stopping us in a town and questioning us about our employment, or who was paying for our trip. Or approaching us when we were trying to pee. Once a stupid officer tried to tell me my visa had expired. I pretty much told him he was an idiot and cycled off. Basically they just wanted an excuse to stop and question the foreign women on bikes. We are the entertainment after all. But for every frustrating interaction with the authorities, kindness counteracted it. One day some truck drivers shared their lunch with us. Another day a family invited us for tea. In a deserted desert town we could find no bread, so a travelling family cooked us a meal.

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Drink stop

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Desert cycling

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Distant camels

The towns we pedalled through had the most amazing buildings. Old ruins that were magical to explore and if they had been anywhere but Iran would probably have been museums, charging entrance fees. We consistently found great camps in the desert and would build a fire every night, drink cups of tea and try and to make sense of this country. This debriefing was invaluable as we all struggled with the inequality, hypocrisy and frequency of creepers (men who harassed us).

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A great camp in a dry river bed

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Another great desert camp

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Inside a ruin of a Mosque – may have slept on a dead guy

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Campfire in the Mosque ruin

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You could even climb onto the roof. Summer camping here would be amazing

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The morning light shines through

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Breakfast

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Outside the ruined Mosque

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The fairy and the salmon the morning

I guess it’s time to address this. I can’t write about Iran and not write about the issues we faced as three women cycling through this country. From other cyclist’s stories I felt like Iran would be some kind of paradise. That we could camp anywhere and enjoy endless hospitality. In some ways this is true. People are endlessly hospitable, although sometimes quite intense (it’s difficult to get to bed before midnight!). As for camping everywhere, as three women I would not feel comfortable doing this. And I don’t mean camping as such, I mean camping visibly, in public parks like people had suggested we could. Partly because of creepers and partly because we would attract so much attention and most likely the police would come and force us to go ‘somewhere safe’. So when we camped, we hid well. Also, perhaps a lot of the stories I had heard were from men or straight couples. Iran as a team of women was often filled with frustration, shouts, creeper stares, men pulling over and watching us cycle passed, approaching us if we stopped for a pee and a lot of condescending comments, sexism and patriarchal bullshit. We got really tired of the comment ‘where is the man?’ Being 3 women on bikes alone in Iran is so far outside of the cultural norm, it seemed to blow people’s brains.

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Sometimes the desert was salty

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Sometimes dunes

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More dunes

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Barbara cycling down an embankment to where we have found a spot to camp

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Another perfect sunset

And the dress code. For women not used to wearing a hijab, it was difficult to get used to always having an ‘outside of the house outfit’. You couldn’t just leave a hosts home wearing your normal clothes, assuming the host was okay to let you take your hijab off (most were). I need to say I actually have no problem with hijab as such. In Australia many women choose to dress this way, and why would I care about this? People in my opinion can wear what they want, as long as it’s their choice. What people choose to wear does not confront or affect me (unlike a certain Prime Minister). What got me about Iran was the hypocrisy. In the way I understand Islamic dress, both men and women are supposed to dress modestly. In Iran this is vehemently enforced for women but men could wear whatever they wanted. Tight skinny jeans and shirts were the norm. Sure, they couldn’t wear shorts, but that was about it. Loads of men wore tight t shirts. Women weren’t even supposed to show their wrists.  Enforce modest dress on men and I will shut up and wear the Hijab without complaint. But when I asked about this the answer I often got was women had to dress modestly because otherwise men might lust after them. Obviously, the responsibility of men’s reactions should fall on the woman. Sigh. I guess in the west we have a version of this too,  I mean how often is women blamed for being raped because of what she wears?

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Fight the creeper!

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Wild Dromedary

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The desert town of Tabas

It probably sounds like I am hating on Iran. I really don’t hate it. I guess I just want to reflect how I was feeling and how difficult and also contrasting I found it. For I could be thinking about all the things I just wrote about, cycling furiously through the desert, when a man would pull over and give me a pomegranate. Or someone would shout ‘welcome to Iran!’ Or insist on giving us all their sweets. Or bring us tea and dates. I met far more generous, respectful and delightful men, than I met arseholes. It’s truly a country full of the most intense contrasts.

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Shisha and lunch thanks to some truck drivers

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Cyclo ladies in the desert

By the time we neared Yazd we were all looking forward to some rest days. There had been somewhat of a misunderstanding about arranging a host but just as we considering camping in an abandoned building outside of Yazd we received a phone call and were invited to stay with a warm showers host (only in Iran can you text someone who then invites you to stay an hour later). It’s always wonderful to stay with people who actually cycle tour because they understand how exhausted one can be and we were thankfully allowed to go to bed early, which is not common in Iran.

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Exploring abandoned ruins in a desert town

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Up on the roof of the ruins we found this

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And this. Beautiful.

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Thanks for highlighting the slaughter house like a tourist attraction!

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The next morning our lovely host and his friend (both guys in their 20’s) accompanied us to the visa office to extend our tourist visas. Big mistake. Don’t take hosts to official places in Yazd (we hear it’s okay in other towns). The poor guys were grilled about how they met us and told they couldn’t invite foreign women into their homes and in fact couldn’t even talk to tourists without a license (WTF?). They were ordered to abandon us in the streets and never speak to us again. The official barely looked at us, even though he could speak English just fine. Our visa extensions were also rejected as we were too early. We had to try again in Shiraz. Barbara luckily could extend hers. The five of us left the place infuriated and one of our hosts turned around to say ‘and that is why I have to leave Iran.’ We suspect things are so strict in Yazd, not only because it is a conservative city, but also because the owner of the two cheap hotels in Yazd has complained about couch surfing (they don’t really know warmshowers) because it takes his business. He probably has a mate in the police. Anyway, we went back to the house, packed our gear and were guided to the cheap hotel in town. It was actually quite a nice place, a basic dorm and nice hang out area with moderately working wifi. We arranged to meet our new friends the following night. No, they were not abandoning us on the street, never to talk again.

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Night Mosque, Yazd

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Our dorm

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The courtyard in our hostel

We spent the first day in Yazd catching up on emails on the clunky wifi and drinking cups of tea. In the evening we walked around the ancient city, taking delight in the picturesque alleyways and beautiful, other worldly architecture. What we did not take delight in was the constant calling out, whistling and even duck noises the men made as we walked by. Sigh.

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Yazd by night

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The tower you can see is a wind catcher for the baking desert summers

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Steps to under the city..

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Yazd from the roof of our hostel

Relief however was at hand. For we had organised to meet another warmshowers host. Not to stay with, as they deemed it too risky, but to come for dinner. We caught a taxi to the outskirts of Yazd and entered another world. She was wearing a t shirt, he was wearing shorts, they had a pet dog they doted on and within the first half an hour we were offered homemade wine. We immediately felt comfortable and spent a delightful evening eating amazing food and discussing Iran, the culture, the politics and the life they led. As this was early on in our time in this country, we were thirsty for knowledge. Our hosts were Zoroastrians, the religion that dominated Iran before the Arab conquest bought Islam to Persia. Yazd is actually one of the main places Zoroastrians live. They believe in one God, Ahura Mazda and worship towards a light source. This eventually led to the development of fire temples but people are often confused, thinking they pray to the fire. It was extremely interesting to us learning about this other religion in the Islamic Republic. We talked well into the night and really had to drag ourselves away, it had been such a fascinating experience being able to talk openly and honestly in Iran.

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Yazd walls by night

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Wandering the alleyways

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Zoroastrian symbol on the fire temple

We spent another relaxing day in Yazd, exploring the fire temple, chatting to other travellers and reading. Astrid and I even managed a date at a tea house. In the evening we had tea with our hosts from the first night and chatted to them. Both are desperate to leave Iran. We would come to find this common in the youth of Iran.

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Tea House happiness

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In the Bazaar

Then it was time to get back on the road. Our route south towards Shiraz led us passed the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence on the outskirts of Yazd. This is where the people used to lay their dead. As Zoroastrians believe that you shouldn’t pollute the four elements (water, air, earth and fire) they used to leave the dead to be eaten by vultures. This was outlawed by the last Shah and they now bury their dead in cement coffins. The place felt kind of eerie and mysterious. We loved exploring this sacred site of this half forgotten religion.

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Zoroastrian Towers of Silence

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And this is where I will leave you as we head back out into the freedom of the desert towards Shiraz.

Loads of love

Jude

Two Years on the Road

Photo on 6-04-15 at 4

Two years!!!

I am sitting in an apartment in European Turkey, sipping my morning coffee. Outside the irresistible Istanbul skyline beckons, soon we will go out exploring.

A few days ago we crossed the Dardanelles, meaning we have cycled the Asian continent from Malaysia to Turkey. It was incredible setting our bikes down in European Turkey, a defining moment of our trip for sure. I can’t quite comprehend that 2 years ago today we wobbled out of Lewis Street and have pretty much pedaled the whole way to the gates of Europe. By the end of next week we will be in Greece. Obviously, like last year, we are behind in the blog. We are sorry for that, but a friend once said, ‘if you post more than every two weeks, you are not having enough fun. If you post less than once a month, you are having too much fun’. I guess we are having too much fun. And have suffered through some seriously dismal excuses for wifi as well!

So, two years on. I often find myself looking back on where we have come from and reflecting on the different elements of this adventure. Cycling through Australia will always be very close to my heart, even as I sit here, half a world away with plans to be gone longer than first anticipated. I am at the heart of it, a lover of nature above and beyond anything else. Give me an empty beach and a starlit sky over an exotic location any day. This is where I am most at peace, and cycling Australia is where this comes easiest. Perhaps it is also that I have some kind of romantic attachment to the landscape of the country where I have spent most of my life. I admit, I am the kind of person that gets attached to places in moody, nostalgic ways.

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Day one, outside Farouk’s Olive, Thornbury.

After the peace and space of the Australian bush and outback (and even Darwin, lets face it, Darwin isn’t exactly the worlds busiest city), Indonesia came as an assault to the senses. A good assault in many ways, but also a 10 fold increase in intensity. More people, more traffic and unabated curiosity. While in Australia we had attracted attention for sure, curious grey nomads, the odd person wanting a photo with us and to hear our story. In Indonesia we were the centre of attention wherever we went. Children in villages would scream ‘tourist, tourist!’ so hard I worried they might pass out. Everyone wanted to know where we were going and men and boys would follow and stare at us when we tried to find somewhere to camp.

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Indonesia held a few challenges after the solitude of Australia

Reaching Singapore was a relief. No longer were we the centre of attention. It was a slight culture shock too, being in this super clean, organised city after almost 3 months in Indonesia. We treated ourselves to the ‘western’ things we had missed. Good beer, bread, coffee. I celebrated my 30th year on this earth and then we pushed on towards Malaysia.

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Turning 30 in Singapore with a good brew

I will always like Malaysia more than most cycle tourists. I think coming from the other way, people find it dull (loads of palm plantations, flat boring roads) compared to Thailand. For me, I wanted dullness. I wanted not to be followed and stared at most places I went. Malaysia gave us that and I felt I could breath more easily. Sometimes I wonder how I would feel about cycling Indonesia now. I think I would find it a lot less stressful. After the relative isolation of Indonesia (in terms of other travellers), Malaysia felt full of tourists. We made some backpacker friends and it was fun to be more social.

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A long way to go, Penang, Malaysia

In Thailand the social feeling continued and we even had our friend Marita and Astrid’s dad join us on the bikes, plus my parents for a visit. Thailand is perhaps one of the easiest countries to cycle tour. Loads of places for refreshments, good roads, good secondary roads and plenty of cheap accommodation. Not to mention the natural beauty. Thailand was easy and fun and we stayed longer than anticipated.

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Meditation and temples, we loved cycling Thailand

Laos was a different world, back to needing to be self sufficient, with mountain villages and not a lot of food. A stark contrast to it’s rich neighbour. We loved the challenges of Laos and getting back to basics. We realised we had really missed camping. It’s not that you can’t camp in Thailand, we had just gotten used to staying in accommodation as it was so easy and cheap when split between 3.

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Mountain roads in Laos where it was back to basics

Vietnam was a side trip, mostly off the bikes where Astrid’s mum came to spend 2 lovely weeks with us. It was not a country we ended up being particularly fond of as we were hassled and ripped off more than we had been in a long time. Wallets on wheels is what I felt we were viewed as. In saying that, the last few days cycling back to Laos were absolutely stunning and I think we were able to make some peace with the country and leave on a good note.

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Enjoying some Pho is Vietnam. Not our favourite place but we did make peace in the end

We had a brief reencounter with Laos, where my sister helped us celebrate our one year anniversary of cycling in style. Then we pedalled into a country neither of us had been particularly looking forward to: China. What a surprise China ended up being. It was beautiful. The food was amazing and it was a lot emptier than expected as we stayed only in the South West and West. We had a brief encounter with fascinating culture of the Tibetans before tackling the harsh deserts of the far west. Here our trip took and unexpected turn as we met fellow cycle tourist, Neil and decided to join forces and head straight to Kyrgyzstan, rather than Kazakstan.

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China was full of surprises, including, sadly liking pepsi. The desert does strange things to you!

Our team of 3 pedalled into Kyrgyzstan, a cycle tourists paradise. It was summer and we met tourers everyday. After meeting almost no one in over a year, it now felt like everyone was cycle touring. Kyrgyzstan, aside from being ridiculously annoying to spell, was a month of mountains, yurts, questionable fermented products, too much meat, horses and really bad but beautiful roads.

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Kyrgyzstan, a cyclists paradise.

Tajikistan and the Pamir highway was another cycle touring mecca. We saw more cyclists than cars and at one point we were a group of 6. The beauty was extraordinary, the Pamiri culture fascinating and the altitude dizzying. The food was shit but we recovered in the capital, Dushanbe, in the wonderful house of Vero, which has an oven and is therefore sacred.

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The high altitude desert of the Pamir Highway

The police state of Uzbekistan is nothing to write home about it terms of cycling, but the ancient Khanates of Bukhara, Sammarkhand and Khiva and certainly worth a peruse. It was here that we began to get the creeper stares from men in a more intense way. I think we had been sheltered by having Neil along with us for so long.

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The Peoples Republic of Plov, Uzbekistan.

Turkmenistan is a blip on most Asia to Europe cyclist’s radar and we pedalled as hard as we could through the icy, mostly empty desert country. Our trip culminated in us getting deported for overstaying by an hour, which sounds way more bad ass than it was.

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Five days through the cold desert of the most obscure country in Central Asia, Turkmenistan

The much anticipated Islamic Republic of Iran was a hundred times more difficult than expected. Two words: Men and Police. Both hassled us frequently, but the people’s overwhelming hospitality did win us over in the end. Iran was a time of the women cyclo gang as a fellow cyclist Barbara joined us. The 3 of us struggled to make sense of this country that seemed to constantly contradict itself. There were cold desert nights under the stars, juxtaposed with hot (over heated) nights piled on the floor, sleeping beside wonderful Iranian families.

Ready to ride in Iran.

The Islamic Republic proved challenging for many reasons, but the hospitality won us over.

Some of you know, other don’t, but we went home for Christmas. It was a difficult decision to make but it worked out to be the right one for many reasons. Seeing our families and friends was lovely and intense. A far cry from the relatively quiet and simple lives we had been leading.

Arriving back in Iran was a relief in many ways. Certainly not because it was Iran, but because it felt like this is where our lives are supposed to be. Being home was both lovely and unsettling. It felt like home in some ways, but wasn’t. It was almost like I was revisiting my old life, but unable to really take part. Our lives right now are on the bikes and once we got pedalling again I felt myself become at ease and at peace with life again. Certainly there will be a time for being home again, and I am glad we went, but that time is not now.

And then it was winter, well and truly. As we have had not had a winter since 2012 (and certainly not what many people would consider a ‘proper’ winter) it was tough. The last part of Iran we only camped twice, mostly relying on the incredible hospitality of the Iranian’s. The landscape was stark and frozen and our water bottles remained ice blocks almost the entire day.

Leaving the Islamic Republic was mostly a relief, although we will always remember the kindness of the people. After the oppressive nature of Iran, we found Turkey a very different animal. It certainly is the gateway to Europe. Everything has taken on an easiness that we have not experienced in many months. Credit cards work, the internet works, the roads are mostly great, the police doesn’t pull you over, and all the familiar brands are back. There are both good and bad aspects of this new found easiness. I miss some of the ruggedness of the other places, but having working wifi is nice! Oh and being able to buy a beer!

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Happy to be in Turkey!

So that brings me to the present, sitting here in Istanbul, about to head into the European Union (at least for one country). After 2 years on the road, I now think I understand people who cycle around the world for years. It is only recently that I really grasped this. This feels like my life now, almost more real than anything else I have done. It is so simple and so beautiful, I could almost just keep going. I don’t miss the stable things as much anymore (aside from an oven!). I am more happy than I have ever been in my life (and I have mostly been pretty happy). It’s the simple things that really matter. Connection with people, finding a good campsite, the sun on my face, a clear night sky, dry fire wood, clean water. I think this adventure is starting to change who I am.

In my heart, I do know that we will be home some day though. Our wonderful friends and family mean the world to us, and we dream of our own bit of land, somewhere amongst the gums. Of growing food, sharing meals with our loved ones and being part of a community.

When this will be, I am not so sure. I feel like I am on this journey and one day Astrid and I will look at each other and feel like we want to come home. And then we will.

Love
Jude

Iranian impressions.

Sarakhs -> Mashhad -> via routes 95&36 -> Bardaskan.

Ready to ride in Iran.

Ready to ride in Iran.

By the time we had been deported from Turkmenistan it was late in the afternoon. Despite the kindness and the generosity of the border staff, I must admit that I was a little disappointed in the fact that we had no armed escort, no guard to make sure we left, none of the usual bru-ha-ha associated with being kicked out of a country. But these feelings were quelled by my excitement about going to Iran and the nervousness that beholds you when entering a religiously conservative dictatorship that is super paranoid. Looking back I guess we weren’t that nervous because while we were made to wait for our entry to be approved, we snuck into the bathroom to wash our socks and undies. We passed though immigration with a minimum amount of delay and questioning, and through customs even quicker, as when the officer found out that we were from Australia he gave a cursory glance at our bags and then launched into a discussion about soccer. This love of Australians and soccer would continue throughout our trip, until a recent fateful decision by an umpire ruined such sentiments.

Our route from the Turkmenistan border to Bardaskan.

Our route from the Turkmenistan border to Bardaskan.

But you’re not here to read about soccer, you’re here to follow our journey through the ancient kingdom of Persia, now know as the Islamic Republic of Iran. We chose to forego visiting the town of Sarakhs as we had enough food to last us until Mashad and a small amount of Iranian Rial from our Aussie mate Dave who we had met in Osh (remember foreign bank cards don’t work here). We were also a day behind schedule due to our deportation delay, and we were keen to catch up with Barbara again, to plan our kick-arse women’s cyclo-tour of Iran. The afternoon sun shone warm and golden as we cycled passed fields of maize and peppers. Agriculture soon gave way to our old friend, the desert landscape. As the sun was setting we pulled off behind some trees on the side of the road to set up our first camp in a new country. Despite having worn conservative dress and hijab for a matter of hours, it was liberating taking these off and such freedom became a cherished nightly ritual.

Camping and technology - the new style cycle tourist.

Camping, technology and hair freedom.

The extent of the restrictiveness of women’s Islamic dress became apparent the next day, especially with the hill climbs. We were just thankful that we were cycling in Iran in autumn, not summer when the temperatures can reach 40 degrees C. Hijab, besides being hot and annoying, blocks your field of vision, which is dangerous as a cyclist. It’s a reminder of your status as a second-class citizen and does ‘not’ protect you from harassment, contrary to what many men in Iran loved to preach to us. We joked that if men had to wear hijab even for a week the dress code would be changed immediately. Fortunately we didn’t have to wear the chador – literally translated as ‘tent’ – which many religious Iranian women wear. It’s a black piece of cloth that covers a woman from head to toe as not to incite desire in men, as women are responsible for a man’s feelings and desires towards her. I’ll leave Jude to rage about this in a later blog.

Climbing towards Mazdavand.

The hot climb towards Mazdavand.

This day was also to be our first day of experiencing the police ‘concern’ (read harassment) that we would constantly experience in the eastern provinces. In time we would learn that the IQ of many police officers is comparable to their shirt size and we would take turns in pointing out their mistakes and failings. This would normally make them leave us alone sooner rather than later, but not before the usual “Where is the man?” question. Really?

Jude using scrubs as her women's Islamic wear.

Jude using scrubs as her women’s Islamic wear, otherwise known as her arse protector.

We had been super excited about cycling in Iran as every cyclist we had met raved about Iranian hospitality and kindness. Unfortunately our introduction to Iran was far from what we expected or imagined. After our ‘first day in a new country’ excitement passed, the poverty and desolation of the tiny villages struck us. Small brick boxes better suited to a zombie apocalypse, housed tired and wary looking people. Large black flags flapped from every telegraph pole adding to the countries oppressive funeral feeling – we were later to discover we had arrived at the beginning of Muharram and a few days before Ashura (the yearly mourning/self-flagellation festival commemorating the murder of Imam Hussein over a thousand years earlier).

Campsite at the roadside mosque in Mazdavand, before the creeper incident.

Campsite at the roadside mosque in Mazdavand, before the creeper incident.

Oddities aside, we spent our second night camped next to a roadside mosque – we had been advised that camping/sleeping at mosques was a safe and common practice. Not so in Mazdavand. The mosque’s caretaker woke us before sunrise to invite us for some morning chai. In every country ‘chai’ has meant ‘numerous cups of tea’, at the mosque in Mazdavand it means ‘dirty old man groping two women before cleansing himself at morning prayer time’. Jude and I were too bleary eyed, worried about the locked door and cautious of cultural norms to punch him in the face and knee him in the balls as we should have. It was a baptism by fire of the sexual harassment we would experience on a very regular basis in Iran.

****A big note of warning for any sister cyclists passing through Mazdavand – the creeper here is real and potentially dangerous! We are not the only women to have experienced his harassment, Barbara went through a level 10 creeper experience with him just 3 days earlier.****

Ruins in the desert.

Ruins in the desert.

Fuelled by rage against the creeper and images of what we wished we had done to him, we set off on our cycle to Mashhad, Iran’s second most holy city. The initial beautiful scenery soon warped into the industrial wasteland that surrounds this city of pilgrimage. An unrelenting headwind battered us further, discovering that we didn’t have our host’s address or phone number frustrated us, and the reckless driving of the locals left us in despair. It really wasn’t our day. We made our way to a hostel I had scribbled on the edge of our Iran map months earlier and while waiting for someone (anyone) to answer our ringing on the doorbell we burst into laughter about the absurdity of it all. It taught us that we should expect nothing of any country because the more you expect the less it gratifies.

Jude & Arne walking in front of Imam Reza's mausoleum.

Jude & Arne walking in front of Imam Reza’s mausoleum.

Our highlight of Mashhad was not the beloved and bling covered mausoleum of Imam Reza that we visited the next day. Honestly, the second largest Islamic shrine in the world left us uninspired and skeptical about the charitable work the caretakers wished us to believe they did with the millions donated to them yearly. Maybe if we had not experienced the splendour of the ancient Islamic architecture in Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva, we would have been more impressed. But gaudiness cannot be overlooked, flashiness and wanton spending for the sake of religious egotism and pride is not admirable, and there was nothing of the basic pious life that the Imam would have lived visible.

My polyester chador blowing in the wind at Imam Reza's mausoleum.

My polyester chador blowing in the wind at Imam Reza’s mausoleum.

Looking like a giant floral hippy tent (a polyester chador with an elastic strap for keeping it tight around our faces), I put our guide off side by questioning the excesses I noted. I made a quip about inferior workmanship when he explained to me that the grand doors and gold/silver shrine cover were replaced regularly as ‘they did not work any more’. My query about what he believed a devoutly religious man like the Imam would have thought about the extravagance that his shrine now portrayed, was answered with a stony look and an answer of “all the money is donated, I don’t know what he would think”. I think I do and it wasn’t appreciated. The message was clear – I was a woman and had been given a show bag full of glossy pictures of the shrine, why wasn’t I humbled and grateful?

Rocking the tent.

Rocking the tent.

Saying that, the religious fervor of the believers who made the pilgrimage here was intriguing. Uncontrolled grief, trance like prayer and requests for divine assistance, were mingled with a sense of serenity and awe. Such sentiments would increase in the next two days, as Ashura would be mourned then. It’s estimated that at least a million pilgrims will congregate here, as this is the only shrine of an Imam in Iran. We had witnessed people partaking in self- flagellation in the streets and men carrying massive wooden poles with decorations at the top as commemorations. The streets were lined with stalls giving out free tea and food to believers and non-believers alike.

The nature park and permaculture farm.

The nature park and permaculture farm.

Some of the garden beds we helped build.

Some of the garden beds we helped build.

Instead of watching the spectacle on the day, we decided to use our time productively by volunteering at a local permaculture farm and nature school for children, set up by our lovely hosts (yes we did finally meet them and Barbara). It was great to get our hands dirty by setting up garden beds, composting, moving rocks and soil, attempting to build a goat pen and petting all the stray animals that now call this little patch of land home. Nights were spent socialising and we quickly learnt the massive difference that exists between the public/outside lives of Iranians and their private/home lives. At home they are free to do what they want and live like any other person in the world, outside their lives are ruled by didactic laws that forbids anything the government (controlled by the religious elite) deems un-Islamic. After our rocky start, we now experienced the wonder of Iranian hospitality and the kindness of the people.

Our bikes getting admired at the local bike shop we went to for spare parts.

Our bikes getting admired at the local bike shop we went to for spare parts.

Our wonderful hosts.

Our wonderful hosts.

Kick-arse women's cyclo-gang ready to ride!!

Kick-arse women’s cyclo-gang ready to ride!!

Three days passed in bliss, but soon it was time to move on. Our route will take us from Mashhad, along the border between the great salt and great sand deserts of central Iran, to Yazd. It was exciting to join forces with fellow sister cyclist Barbara and to become part of a three-woman cyclo-gang (foonsonbikes meets http://caretaker.cc/barbels-blog/). As recently as two years ago, it was illegal for women to ride bicycles in Iran (I’m pretty sure the prophet did not mention women riding bikes in the Quran, as the bicycle had not been invented then) therefore it was empowering to provide an example of fit, strong, independent female cyclists wherever we went. People wanted to hear our stories and share in our adventures, as their access to the ‘real’ world outside Iran (there is satellite TV) is severely limited.

Barbara on the road out of Mashhad.

Barbara on the road out of Mashhad.

Cycling out of one of the many small villages on route 95.

Cycling out of one of the many small villages on route 95.

Rest break after some morning climbing.

Rest break after some morning climbing.

The days passed quickly as we cycled south-west, climbing over the mountains where saffron was in season and the ground was covered in their iridescent purple and yellow flowers. Snowy days slowly gave way to bright sunshine and the Iranian desert turned on all her glory. To experience the slight changes in landscape, hues and vegetation are what I love about cycling in such arid surroundings. The irrepressible Iranian hospitality continued to flow thick and fast – well wishes, cups of tea, gifts of fruit (especially promegranites) and food, invitations for meals and offers of accommodation occurred so many times I lost count. “Welcome to Iran” and “Welcome my friend” became my favourite greetings. One would be called out in jubilation or whispered when passing by, and a sense of happiness and love would surround me.

Roadside gifts of coffee and tea, got to love Iranian hospitality.

Roadside gifts of coffee and tea, got to love Iranian hospitality.

Chatting and warming up while waiting for a snow storm to pass.

Chatting and warming up while waiting for a snow storm to pass.

More gifts of food from a fellow cyclist.

More gifts of food from a fellow cyclist.

More lovely hosts.

More lovely hosts.

From route 95 we turned right on to route 36 as we had found a Warmshowers host in the little town of Bardaskan. Mina and her family sounded lovely and the prospect of a hot shower and a washing machine were exciting (yep, the little things). Not that we didn’t love our night under the railway tunnel being rocked by trains, or the luxury night in the school which we organised after an hour of police ‘concern’ and being told we couldn’t do anything ‘because we were women’, or the night with the family in the middle of nowhere drinking and dancing to the small hours of the morning. With Mina and her family in Bardaskan we experienced the full royal treatment – we were even interviewed by the local media, being the celebrities that we are. After eating our body weight in food, having girl talk with Mina and her neighbours, holding hands with her grandma and spending time with her family, we finally crawled into bed exhausted but happy. At midnight I kissed Jude and wished her a happy birthday, before the deep sleep of a content cycle tourist overtook me.

Not far now to Bardaskan and a hot shower.

Not far now to Bardaskan and a hot shower.

Dinner time Iranian style, like a big picnic on the living room floor.

Dinner time Iranian style, like a big picnic on the living room floor.

Goodbye Mina and your wonderful family.

Goodbye Mina and your wonderful family.

All my love as always,

Astrid.

Just a quick note  – not all of our stories and photos have made it on to this blog.  This is to protect the identity and safety of our Iranian friends from their government.  I’m sure you understand and I hope one day they will be able to live in a country where individual freedom and choice is cherished, not persecuted.

Saffron fields.

Saffron fields.

The stunning flowers up close.

The stunning flowers up close.

Yes I did go a little crazy taking photos of the saffron.

Yes I did go a little crazy taking photos of the saffron.

Jude loves her early birthday present of a coffee maker.

And a cheeky shot of the birthday girl with her early birthday present – a coffee maker.