Sarakhs -> Mashhad -> via routes 95&36 -> Bardaskan.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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).
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.****
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All my love as always,
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.