Our Unlimited Cycling Dream: Iran Part 1

Iran. Even though it was a backpackers tip for traveling since a while already, it was still the country that raised the most concern from friends and family when we said that we’d be going there (partly also because of the name confusion with Iraq, since some warned us of IS). And, just like many travelers before us, we came out to say it’s completely safe.

Note: This marks a departure from my chronological, day-by-day writing style. Following articles will be summarized country impressions. Apologies if you liked the chronological style, but it was too intense to keep it up.

Pictures by Yuily, text by Stephan.

Visiting Iran was a long term target for me since about four years. Mostly due to logistical reasons I had to postpone it, but now on this bicycle trip it was finally the time. Iran was along with the Pamir Highway, one of the things I was looking forward to the most on this trip. The primary reason were the people, which were supposed to be some of the most friendly and hospitable on Earth.

Resting out in Mashhad

Due to knowing we would be able to extend our visa at least two times in Iran, we chose a long, elaborate route. The plane took us from Tajikistan to Mashhad, in the northeast of the country. Even before flying, I already organized a warmshowers host in Mashhad, Amin and Mona. We were tired of cycling for a while and chose to hang out 11 days in Mashhad, hosted in a very comfortable apartment. From here, I originally intended to cross the Kavir desert to Yazd, but as late as September, this area was still soaring with temperatures over 50°C, which made me re-consider.

We were careful to respect our hosts and said that they can kick us out if we stay too long, but actually they were really happy with our presence – someone was there to chat after work and they could improve their English.

We went out multiple times with Amin and Mona and their friends, which was good fun. On the whole, Iranian people were delightfully friendly so far. A crucial difference to other countries was their respect: we didn’t get stared at and when someone talked to us it was a good conversation instead of the usual “Are you married? Do you have children? Why not?” of Central Asia.

The time came to leave though, so we bought some parts from a bike shop and set off the next day. It was good to wait as the temperature also dropped over the course of our 11 rest days, giving us cooler nights.

Sticking North

We ended up sticking north, close to the Turkmenistan border, before descending into the Caspian Sea basin. Mashhad was an endless sprawl. It took 30 km of riding to catch a glimpse of countryside. We discovered the awesome array of soft drinks for sale in Iran, many of them with fruit juice.

For a few days we followed long valleys. I saw that Iran was full of warmshowers hosts – the most for any country in Asia. So it was actually quite easy to string together a few stays with different hosts and keeping our camping to a minimum. The hosts always responded quickly and positively, being wonderful company. I heard about this before, but it was still an eye-opener to know that many Iranians are not religious at all, wouldn’t call themselves Muslim, say they love beer and pork and promt Yuily to take her hijab off. Not surprisingly then, these people usually have one primary goal in their life: emigrate to another country with more personal liberties.

When we had to camp, it was never hard. We saw numerous tents by the roadside, most of them instant-tents, in mornings or evenings. Iranians camp just about everywhere, so if we were discovered in our tent, people didn’t mind in the slightest.

We managed a meeting with Harry, another Taiwanese cyclist who was on the way from Tehran to Mashhad, in the small campsite of Darkesh. He was the first Taiwanese cyclist we met on the road and we would meet him again later. On the same campsite, we befriended a group of Iranians from Shiraz, who were a crazy bunch sneakily drinking some Vodka. They invited us to stay at their place once we make it to Shiraz sometime later – Iranian hospitality.

Two days of more riding saw us breezing through the Golestan national park.  This place is massively popular with Iranians as well, so at every accessible bit, there were cars parked and people picknicking. We wouldn’t mind the company, that was not the issue. All of these places were covered in trash! It was filthy, disgusting. We camped close to a small garbage dump once in China, but this was much much worse. And it says something when people treat their environment worse than fricking China! And here, these people were just camping between the trash as if it wasn’t there. I lost my faith in humanity a little bit.

The 400 km Caspian Coast City

Through the national park we lost over 1000 m of altitude and were deposited at an all-time low -90 m, the humid-hot Caspian Sea basin. On it’s eastern edge it’s populated by native Turkmen, so to no big surprise our host in the city of Gonbad was Turkmen as well. These people are noticeably more Asiatic, some even looking similar to Yuily. He invited us to stay for a few days longer as thunderstorms were on their way. Despite it never raining much, we did so anyway.  Our host was great, showing us around and meeting his friends and joining some English classes. I fell sick for a few days as well, to the annoyance of everyone, with a mysterious fever. All this lost time meant that it was time for our visa extension soon.

I strang together a few warmshowers hosts who saw us getting through the Turkmen plains on to the actual Caspian Sea. Due to a public holiday, we actually needed to extend the visas on our last possible day and had to race on 90 km days to the city of Sari to do so. Thanks to Yuily outracing me several times with superior speed, we managed it with no problems though.

At the foreign police office in Sari we were gulping then when we saw them deny a Pakistani the extension. They then started drilling us with questions… why do we want to extend? Where have we been so far? Why did we travel so slow? How could they know a further 30 days are enough? Why didn’t we ask for a longer visa? Which countries did we visit so far? Where can we go visa free? …

Our host Yaser was wondering what is taking so long and intervened: “Hey. They are cycle tourists.” Suddenly, everything went quickly, the officer wrote us a note with instructions where to pay, mentioning he loves cycle tourists. We made a mental note to mention that we are cycle tourists straight away next time. Yaser was a fantastic host. We invited him for pizza as a thanks for his help in the extension process and he let us stay another night.

We kept going along the shore of the Caspian Sea now, which was basically an endless strip of resorts and shopping malls. It was crowded with Iranian holidaymakers. The laws in this country of course don’t permit any bikinis, but the “shirt and trousers” law for men seemed widely ignored, so I went for a swim. Great temperature. Yuily didn’t want to anyway, but she would have to swim in all of her clothes, as some women there did. Ridiculous. We both agreed that a beach without bikinis isn’t the same. Many people camped, had barbecues and some even danced to loud music (technically illegal). We found a nice spot and set up the tent, going to sleep, thinking: “It’s a strange country…”

Our friend Pierre, who we met in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, was approaching us from the opposite direction. His Turkmenistan visa got ultimately rejected, so he was forced to go the long way round, going through Uzbekistan to the Caspian Sea, taking a boat into Azerbaijan and then enter Iran from there.

Pierre is even more of a budget traveler than us. He really hates camping, so he spams hospitality networks and if that doesn’t work, directly knocks people’s doors. He suggested we try it tonight, and we agreed.

It took multiple tries and it was getting dark, starting to rain, but he didn’t want to give up and kept ringing bells. Eventually, we were shown inside a villa. Amazing. It was a big place, with three bedrooms and a pool, and they told us to make ourselves comfortable. We confirmed once more that we couldn’t afford to pay, with which the owner had no problems. We really had to thank Pierre, his determination saved us a miserable night camping in the rain, instead we had a villa for ourselves, chatting away into the night.

While Pierre went up through the mountains to Tehran, we followed the shoreline for a while, passing by many Iranian holiday spots. Yuily convinced me that we should try some hiking in Iran. The Albroz mountains were very close now and I found good information about a hike up to Mt. Samomoos, 3600 m high. We wanted to give it a go.

We got a supermarket in the city of Ramsar to store the bicycles for us while we hitchhiked up to Javaherdeh, a mountain town at 2000 m, serving as a base for many treks. Unfortunately I finally fell sick with food poisoning after having the symptoms for a few days already, so Yuily attempted the summit by herself while I stayed in the tent. Some help by passing motorbikers saw her reach the top, from which she came back with amazing pictures and videos.

My sorry state of health had us pause and recover for a few days in the city of Lahijan, from where we finally turned inland on the easiest way across the mighty Albroz mountains to Qazvin. We cycled on an expressway here that had us gradually gaining altitude over a few days until we were back on the dry plateau that covers most of Iran.

Tourist Iran

Reaching Qazvin, we recognized multiple awesome tourist attractions this city has. Up until now, the Caspian Sea cities were blatantly uninteresting as tourist destinations except for the beach. But Qazvin boasted many fantastic mosques, palaces and a huge silk-road caravansary that were nice to visit and made us look forward to more: Qom, Kashan, Isfahan, Yazd and Shiraz lay on our way with many attractions each.

A massive tailwind saw us cover the distance to Qom relatively fast and we managed to meet up with Pierre again there, who has been taking off his time in Tehran. Qom is easily the most conservative city in Iran: Every single woman was wearing a chador, a black veil covering everything but the face. When we went to a park to wait for Pierre, Yuily was resting on my shoulder and the park warden came to tell us it was haram (forbidden) to show affection. Wow.

The shrine of Fatima was the main attraction of this city, attracting thousands of pilgrims. We couldn’t enter without a guide, so one of the many, many imams wandering the complex was summoned to give us a free tour of the fascinating place. At the end, he mentioned something very interesting in response to one of our questions: Right now, Iran has an Islamic government, but they shouldn’t overrule the people. If the people want a secular government, they should be able to change it. Like this, this imam voiced his criticism of the government indirectly. Not just secular people dislike the Iranian government, also some clergy.

On the way to Kashan, we were hosted by some Afghani workers on a farm. They, just like the Turkmen, had a much more Asiatic look to them and could easily be confused with farmers from China. Even though they were very hospitable and friendly, they never smiled much. Pierre asked them if they had any photos of Afghanistan, so they dug out an old photo of a Buddha statue. Wondering where it is, I remembered from the news that it was blown up by the Taliban. They confirmed it with a sad nod. Their heritage, wiped out, just like the smiles from their faces.

We managed to get to Kashan the next day. The bazaar is the main attraction of the town, a very old complex to get lost in, where Yuily found some rose water that is famous for this city. For the first time in Iran we also saw a significant number of Western and East Asian tourists. For sunset, we went to the Azar Bozorg mosque, which was a beautiful sight. Unfortunately, most other attractions in Kashan had an entrance fee of IRR200k each, way too much for our budget.

From Kashan, we cycled on the expressway with a wide shoulder, easing our way into Isfahan over the course of three days. It was the city we looked forward to the most in Iran…

Previous: Tajikistan Part 2