Just before the border we prepared for our adventure in Iran. With all its rules, including the dress code. For me the only change is long trousers, but for Lynn a headscarf, long trousers and a long shirt, so there’s nothing feminine visible anymore. Our plan is to hitchhike to Tehran, with a stopover in Tabriz. In the capital we will apply for visas, for Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and China. While waiting we want to make a two-week trip without bicycles, to the south of the country. After that we want to cycle the last stretch to the border of Turkmenistan.
A warm welcome to Iran
From the quiet Armenian-Iran border-crossing we cycle on the main road leading to Tabriz. A quiet road, so it takes a while before our first hitchhiking opportunity comes. It’s a small blue pick-up truck. We raise our thumbs and he stops. I see that his car is already crambed with stuff, but the friendly man says it’s not a problem. With ropes we have to tie our bicycles on top of all the stuff. Off we go, to Tabriz, at full speed. The man speaks a bit English and he tells us that he is on his way to another city. We tell him that he can drop us at the turnoff to Tabriz. After a while, the man tells us that he will drive to Tabriz, especially for us. We thank him, but say that he really does not have to. We repeat this a few times, because of Tarof. Tarof is a form of politeness in Iran. They say no, but they mean yes! Other travelers we met advised us to ask at least 3 times, to make sure it’s not Tarof 😉 . At the turnoff the friendly man takes the exit to Tabriz anyway. He suddenly makes up a story that he is going to his wife, in the hospital of Tabriz. We thank the man for taking us, our first experience with the friendly Iranians!
In Tabriz we are hosted by Mehdi. At his home we meet two other cyclists, Michiel and Janne from Belgium. The next day we make a trip to Kandovan together, an old village made in the rocks, a bit like Cappadocia in Turkey. And the day after, Lynn and I go into town to see one of the biggest covered bazars in the world. We are often approached and invited by the locals, and a few times we accept the offer. Every time it’s fun and interesting. The subject that always comes up is the great dissatisfaction about the regime.. We are invited by a woman in her bridal store. She apologizes that I have to wear a headscarf, and that she can not offer us food because it is Ramadan. When we almost get on the wrong bus, we ask a man, who is already on the bus, if this is the right direction. The man gets off his bus and takes us to the right bus-stop. And when it rains, people with umbrellas come and walk with us. We can hardly believe that we have already met so many nice people, in the first city we visit.
Hitchhiking to Tehran
We stand near the highway and when we raise our thumb a big Turkish truck stops right away. When he comes to a standstill I see that the truck is sealed. I try to explain what our plan is, and the man shows the lock and apologizes that he cannot take us. After about 10 minutes discussing the trucker finally drives away. The friendly trucker was dissapointed he could not help us.. The following trucks are all the same story. We lost a lot of time explaining that it’s OK that they can’t take us. We try a different approach, Lynn stays 200 meters away and looks if the truck is sealed. If that’s not the case, she raises her hand and I try to stop the right truck. The first truck is a hit!
A holiday without bicycles
We leave our bikes behind for a trip to the south. Almost all the time hitchhiking was easy and a great experience. When a big truck with two men stops, we could take a seat on the bed. The co-driver sits on his chair looking backwards all the time. I try to sit a bit more forward, hoping he would stop. But no, he keeps looking all the time and the men also become a bit rude. Suddenly, they started to ask for money, while we had clearly agreed in advance that it would be for free. Okay, we say, let’s get out of the truck. No, the driver says, it’s just a joke! A little later he starts nagging again, he would like to have a souvenir of us.. We ask them to let us out of the truck right now, because we no longer feel comfortable. He stops at a police checkpoint and both men walk to an officer. We quickly walk off, and immediately a car full of enthusiastic Iranians stops, who would like to take us along. After that experience we are a bit pickier while hitchhiking..
In the following weeks we have unforgettable experiences with the extremely hospitable Iranians. It’s very interesting for us to hear their stories, but also very sad, that people cannot live in freedom. Everything that makes life fun seems to be forbidden. As if time has stood still, with all those old-fashioned laws. Whipping still is a punishment here and if you drink alcohol you can get a long prison sentence. Half the internet blocked and TV shows are censored by the government. In reality, no one cares about this, and everything is possible inside the homes of the Iranians. Also during Ramadan in Iran, we are not allowed to eat, drink or smoke during the day. However, there are restaurants where you can enter through the backdoor, to eat secretly.. and we had food at the people’s homes!
We are also impressed by all the beautiful cities that we have been able to visit. Tabriz, where we visited the largest covered bazaar. Kashan, a beautiful and quiet desert city with impressive mosques. Isfahan, where we saw one of the largest and most beautiful squares. Shiraz and Yazd, the hot desert cities we visited with a different atmosphere and architectural styles. Persepolis, the ancient capital of the kings of the Achaemenian dynasty of Iran (Persia). And finally Tehran, where we spent most days with our great hosts Farida and Ebrahim.
Iranian traffic, a disaster
It seems there are no rules here and nobody looks after eachother. If someone forgets to take the exit on the highway, the car is simply put in reverse. You also see a lot of cars going from the left to the right, because they are playing with their mobile phones. If you want to overtake a car it’s therefore advisable to honk first. We always ask ourselves what are all those cops doing here, because there are more than enough on the street. We see the police only twice in action, when two innocent teenagers want to make music in the metro station. Of course, that is not allowed here. And at the end of the wordcup match Spain to Iran, it’s huge party in the streets. Not because they have won, but people can finally celebrate something, in public. Celebrating on the street is forbidden here, as is dancing. However the police cannot do anything, because there are too many people. They only intervene if someone really goes crazy. When a man climbs on his car to whip up the crowd, the police intervenes. It’s sad for us to see. First you see the people super happy, and then they are taken away by the police.
Last stretch to Turkmenistan
We often doubted our choice of cycling around the world, instead of a backpacking and hitchhiking trip. But if we travel without our bicycles for a while, we really miss the freedom that it gives us. Unfortunately, we still have no response from the embassy of Turkmenistan. We call every day and we become a bit desperate. In the meantime we have arrived in Teheran again to pick up all the visas. We decide to go on the way to Mashad, the last big city for Turkmenistan. But it’s hard to find motivation, if you don’t know if you’ll ever get the visa.
The first two days of cycling, we still have good hope, but after another phonecall, we lost hope again. The embassy employee told us that, usually, if their decision is taking so much time, the visa application will be rejected. We are done with it, and we decide to go in the other direction, to Azerbaijan! From there we take the boat to Kazakhstan, and we arrive via a detour in Uzbekistan.
Thanks to all the Iranians that hosted us, gave us a ride and made our 5 weeks in the country truly unforgettable and a special experience! We advise everyone to visit Iran, to meet the most hospitable people in the world, to see diverse nature, a different culture and beautiful cities 🙂 .