After about a week we felt the need to leave Tabriz and to continue our journey towards the infamous capital of Iran. The roads in Iran are quite OK, maps are not that accurate, but it is pretty easy to escape the major traffic on the highways by taking some of the older roads that run parallel to them.
There were some quite long stretches and so we ended up carrying lots of food with us. Iranian food is interesting, but only for a couple of days or weeks and then even the carnivores among us lust for some more variety in their diet.
The food can pretty much be described as a bland mix of Turkish food and some elements from other countries like India or some of the Arabic countries. The South is a bit different, here the food resembles that found in Pakistan.
Shopping for fresh veggies and fruit in Iran however is awesome. High inflation of the Iranian rial makes this country incredibly cheap (it might be among the cheapest countries in the world right now) and fresh and tasty vegetables can be found pretty much everywhere. So for two or three meals a day we would prepare our own food, adjusting our usual favorites to whatever we could find (flat bread instead of normal bread, no more cheese, but lots of honey and dried fruit etc.).
The people you meet along the road were kind and helpful. We got several invites for tea or food every day and a lot of people offered to give us a ride (cycling is not that popular in Iran, so a lot of people wouldn’t understand why we would cycle instead of just taking a care). Chris and I however preferred to catch up with slow overloaded trucks and let them pull us for a couple of kilometers or until police showed up (they didn’t really seem to care, but you never know).
What I mentioned above about the roads in Iran is only true outside of the cities (but accidents happen everywhere and I met more than one cyclist who had an accident in Iran), as soon as you are getting close (20 km) to a major city traffic gets crazy and you have to be really careful. After a while we adopted a crazy riding style for ourselves that seemed to work best for us. If drivers around you notice that you are scared, they’ll cut you off as if you weren’t even there. So what we did is to cut them of first (with out bikes). If you make it obvious to them that they either wait or they have to run you over they usually (in our case always) decided in our favor. Sounds stupid (and it is), but believe me, if you were there you’d do the same (or stop cycling).
We heard a lot of things about Tehran. Not many of them were nice. The usual adjectives used to describe this monolith of a city are: smoggy, dirty, corrupt, dangerous, boring, overpopulated.
Tehran – Love it or hate it!
After a short time in Tehran however I realized: I love Tehran. Tehran is just my kind of city (I should say not for living, but for traveling). Walking around the squares, through the cramped bazaars and streets, sitting in the cafes and ice-cream parlors you won’t easily get bored. The city is buzzing with life and there is a reason why 95% of news coverage in and of Iran is about Tehran.
I stayed at Mashhad hostel right in the center of Tehran, the place was cheap but good enough and we met dozens of interesting characters (and especially a lot of other cyclists, which is not that common). The roof terrace had a nice view with an outdoor kitchen and the air up there was better than on ground level. I left and came back to this hostel about six times during my stay in Iran and all in all I stayed for about 4 weeks (I’ll get more into the reason for this in the next post).
Back to backpacking …
Chris and I had different plans after Iran and during our time in Tehran it became apparent to us, that we have to make some changes to our original travel plans. Chris wanted to go to India and I wanted to go North through Central Asia (well at first Pakistan, but I couldn’t get the visa), but we didn’t feel ready to separate quite yet.
The solution was this: Chris applied for his visa for India and I applied for Uzbekistan, we locked our bicycles to an old fridge on the roof of our hostel, I bought a shitty backpack on one of the bigger bazaars of Tehran and we became backpackers over night. Our journey would take us to the city of Esfahan, the cultural center of Iran. Taking a bus and missing out on everything in between the big cities didn’t feel good and after just a day I was already asking myself if we made the right call or not.
There was another reason we had to go to leave Tehran without our bicycles and that reason was our expiring visas. We arrived late in Esfahan and so we had to do the visas on the next day (our last day on our first one month visa). We actually thought the process would be quite straightforward, but it wasn’t. They made us sweat A LOT. I pretty much went begging on my knees to the police captain in charge of alien affairs and after he denied us the extension we waited until he went for lunch and then we continued begging other officers to help us out. It must have looked quite pathetic, especially to all those Afghans and Iraqis who weren’t even allowed to enter the building, while we were told to cut in line in front of them. Well … such is life. In the end we got our visas and were unbelievably happy and relieved. We actually started making plans of what we have to do in order to leave the country within 24 hours. Deportation would not have been funny, if it would have come to that.
We picked up our visas later that day after lunch and went on a stroll through Esfahan. While sightseeing we were approached by two Iranian women, both about our age. This coincidence turned out to be a life-changer and that is what my next post is going to be all about.