I sit here, about 40km from Tabriz, inside one of the Iranian Red Crescent stations, a cool room, carpets covering the floor, four Red Crescent volunteers and two Tabrizi ambulance drivers chatting and laughing in Urdu, a 40″ Samsung LCD blares out the celebrations for Imam Reza birthday, while Ali Reza talks to me about the dinner he is preparing for us, and I feel good. Possibly, the most relaxed I’ve been around strangers since leaving London, and in Iran of all places. No thanks to the majority of media in the Western world, Iran’s image is widely received as a negative one, and it took less than 24 hours for the country to cement itself in our personal view as the most hospitable, friendly and kind nation of our trip.
After spending a week longer than predicted off the bike in Istanbul waiting for our visa to arrive, we decided to hop on a bus to make up some time and head to Agri, a city in western Turkey around 120km from the Iran border. The bus was an overnight ‘luxury’ class with wide seats, refreshments, reclining chairs and a baby crying and vomiting all night in front of us. The journey took 23 hours from Istanbul, and thankfully it went by pretty quickly.
We had planned to ride from Agri into Iran, although when arriving at the bus depot Alessia had the idea to check if there was a connecting bus to the town of Dogubeyazit, which would save us a couple of days and get us closer to Iran. We were in luck as there was a bus, although we had to wait a few hours before it left. Bus terminals anywhere are never the most comfortable and Agri didn’t differ. As we waited, the sun dipping below the horizon, the crowds slowly dispersed on various buses crossing the country leaving a few other local travellers, and some Afghan refugees, that we were advised to be wary of by a friendly Turkish man keen to improve his English.
Our doubts on wether our bus would arrive, let alone take our bikes, increased as the minutes ticked past the alleged departure date. We were exhausted after the transit from Istanbul, mostly thanks to the child in front of us, and were starting to get irritable with the though that our hotel room in Dogubeyazit may not actually be our final destination that evening. Unbelievably, the bus arrived after half an hour, and it was a small people carrier. Yet, it was the easiest and smoothest loading of our bikes imaginable. The driver happily helping and after 5 minutes we were tearing down the highway in the dark towards our comfy bed and shower.
We were dumped and left for dead at an even more precarious bus station. One flickering light, a homeless man sleeping on a old worn carpet outside, rubbish blowing across the vacant loading bays, and the tail lights of our bus vanishing into the distance. Good old Google Maps showed that we were 300m from our hotel, so after a quick pannier load and a check that our lights were working we began trundling to our hotel in the dark. The friendly welcome, which included food and beer, was received and deserved. It took a total of 36 hours door to door. We were shattered and collapsed into a deep sleep.
The next morning, we woke to the imposing Mount Ararat, most famed for being the resting place of Noah and his ark, and aimed to leave Dogubeyazit towards Iran. After loading our panniers, we stocked up on some water and hit the dusty road. It was a wide dual-carriage way, and the main border crossing into Iran from Northern Turkey. The police and army presence was noticeable on the road with intimidating bulletproof ATV’s, yet they all seemed to be in high spirits as they tooted and waved at us as we rode past. From about 6km out, the long line of lorries sat patiently waiting to be checked and let through. We breezed past them and stopped for some more water and ice cream just before the border.
Border crossings have been simple so far, although we expected this one could potentially take some time. After getting an exit stamp from the Turks, we waited patiently for Iran to literally open its gate to us. Beyond the fence, a proud photo of the President with four words ‘WEL COME TO IRAN’ stared down at us. The expression on the President’s face didn’t seem too welcoming. Gate open, and we push our bikes through to the next check, with a man waving us over and telling us to follow him inside. Another man with a surprisingly friendly attitude led us through to get our passports checked. While waiting, a very forward Dutch man strides up to us, draped in a sponsor-laden outdoor shirt, arm outstretched, and introduced himself as Rainer.
Rainer was passing through Iran on the way to Shanghai to begin a world record attempt in driving from Shanghai to Venice in 5 days. An impressive feat and another of many strange encounters with other foreigners on the road. He wanted to grab a photo of us and invite us for lunch with him and his crew. The almost demanding confidence of Rainer was putting us off, although we accepted the invitation, quickly ate a kebab plate, thanked our hosts and tried to politely excuse ourselves as we knew our day was not over.
We didn’t have a destination for that evening, but knew that we couldn’t camp near the border and had to get moving. Rainer had other ideas and held us up for interviews while ordering his cameraman around, unhappy with the 1st, 2nd and 3rd takes. Finally, back on bikes we hit the road towards Tabriz, with our eyes set on camping on the hilly outskirts of Maku. We were in good spirits as we cruised down the wide, smooth highway, kebab in our belly and a new country open for us to discover.
It was hot. But while wiping the sweat off my brow I glanced over at Alessia, covered head to toe with a scarf underneath her helmet, and I couldn’t help but feel lucky in this environment. Lucky for being born a male – yet so sympathetic towards Alessia and the women of Iran. Riding through the semi-desert, and with the 40deg Celsius in the mid of August, she was no doubt baking underneath and there was nothing she could do about it. We pulled into a service station on the highway, which offered some shade behind its toilet block, and sat against the wall drinking a cold bottle of water purchased from the small shop while we wondered what we were going to eat for dinner.
It always takes a few days to get into the rhythm of a new country, especially one as unique as Iran, be it understanding local customs, how much the local currency is worth, grasping a few key phrases of the dialect or most importantly, what’s on offer to eat! A highlight we always look forward to is wandering through a local market or shop identifying potential food options that can translate into substantial meal cooked on our camp stove.
Pondering our evening gastronomic options, or lack there of, a car pulled up next to the toilets and a man ran in to relieve himself. On his way back to his car, we made eye contact, gave a friendly wave and returned to our bottle of water that was rapidly loosing its cool. Not a minute later he was walking towards us whilst lifting his hand up to his mouth signalling “Were we hungry?”. We still had the kebab sitting in stomach, and kindly declined his offer, but he wasn’t having any of it! Another man exited the car carrying two large plastic bags, came over and dropped what must have been enough food for a large family in front of us. Rice, slow cooked lamb, veggies, bottles of Coke and a couple of big blocks of ice! The amount of food was ridiculous and we couldn’t accept what was most likely dinner for the men and their extended family, yet before we could explain how unnecessary their selfless and extremely generous offering was, they had retuned to their car and driven away. Alessia and I sat there, looking at the food, and all we could do was stare at each other in amazement. If each day’s meals came about this easily we might not need to even visit a supermarket!
With our dinner sorted, we needed to find camp, somewhere quiet and private where Alessia could shed the layers and try to cool down. Spotting some low rolling hills on the outskirts of a small village, we left the highway and pushed our bikes over a crest and out of sight. Or so we thought. The sun was low on the horizon, we had survived our first day in Iran and breathed a sigh of relief as the local mosque began its mesmerising evening call to prayer. As we set up the tent and Alessia started to de-robe, a local man came running in our direction from a nearby village. We started to panic. What could he possibly want? Did he disapprove of us camping on his land without permission? Did he want to say hello or was it something more sinister?
Alessia scrambled to make herself decent as I stood next to the tent aiming to look confident and pre-empt any situation. The man came closer to the tent, still at pace, but slowed as he came within a few meters of us. In a mixture of broken English and sign language, I kindly asked if it was ok to sleep there that night, only to observe his confusion as to why we didn’t camp in town on nice grass, with water, and the locals to look after us. He quickly accepted that we were content where we were and resumed his run to the next village, where the calls to prayer were resonating from. He was late and didn’t have time to debate suitable campsites with crazy tourists.
The sun dropped, the stars came out and as we climbed into our tent to endure the sweaty Iranian night we couldn’t help but reflect on our first day. We had heard that Iran was famed for being hospitable, but the generosity, hospitality and kindness that we had already experienced in less than 24 hours had blown us away. Wel Come to Iran.