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