Mashhad and the Harem-e-Razavi

Iranian hospitality is world famous and our warm showers app is a good indicator of this. Despite the practice being illegal in Iran, there are probably more warm shower (not to mention couch surfing) hosts registered in Iran than there are in all of the countries we’ve been to so far put together. Many of the hosts aren’t even cyclists! Just normal families who want to meet people from different cultures.

There are 76 hosts in Mashhad alone. 

We had organised to stay with a family in the west of city so that’s where we headed when we disembarked off our coach. We had our first taste of Iranian drivers (who are notoriously bad) but Paddy steered us through the centre beautifully. If possible, tandem gets even more attention than usual here and we’re flooded with photo requests as soon as we stop to check the map. 

Our warm showers host, Mohammed and his lovely wife Zena, couldn’t have made us feel anymore welcome and we really enjoyed hearing all about Mohammed’s new start up business which will offer a digital selling platform for Saffron farmers in Iran. Him and Zena are awaiting on their visa application to move to Amsterdam so we met them at a really interesting time. Iran grows more than 90% of the worlds saffron! 

We planned to have just one full day in Mashhad to visit the city’s main tourist draw; Harem-e-Rezavi or the shrine of Reza who Shia Muslims believe was the 8th Imam (rightful spiritual leader) after the death of the prophet Mohammed (there are 12 Imams in total). 

Reza is the only Imam buried in Iran and the site is considered one of the most holiest places for Muslim pilgrims, particularly for Shia Muslims but Sunni Muslims also visit. 

The building of the shrine site was started in the 14th century and has been growing ever since. Buildings are simply bulldozed down to make way for new expansions every year. The site can currently hold a whopping 7 million people. Mecca only holds between 2-3 million and unlike the latter there has never been any incidents or injuries due to poor crowd control here.

Both sexes are required to dress conservatively and women must wear a chador on site. Luckily I was able to borrow a thin 100% cotton one from Zena. Here we are in the large square. 

The chador is essentially a large piece of material (black usually but not always) which is wrapped around the head to cover the full body and is held in place with your hands or wrapped around the arms. Chador literally means ‘tent’ in the Persian language of Farsi. 

Other than holy sites, it is now not a requirement for women to wear the chador but many still choose to. It’s more common in holy cities such as Mashhad and more provincial towns than in Tehran, Esfahan or Shiraz. When you’re not used to it, it can get very hot under there!!! 

Non-Muslim tourists are strongly encouraged (not much choice in the matter) to have a guide in the shrine complex. Entry is completely free and all the English speaking guides are volunteers. Our guide was called Ali and despite him being a little zealous about his faith at the beginning it really was great having him and we were able to ask lots of questions. 

Mashhad means ‘place of Martyrdom’. It’s difficult to understand the national psyche of Iran without first understanding the importance that martyrdom plays. Naturally, the Shiite faith plays its part in this aspect of Iranian culture. For example, the three Imams who are most revered are the ones who were also brutally murdered, and at holy sites it is not unusual to see pilgrims showing heartfelt outpourings of grief for their suffering. When Ali was telling us the story of Hossain the third Imam his eyes filled with genuine tears.

During the Iran-Iraq war many men (and boys as young as 13) sacrificed their lives in the name of their country by clearing mine fields by walking through them. Many of these martyrs are still remembered and held in great esteem today, and in every town and city across the country you will see painted murals and road side posters of their faces.

But to say that the Iranian ‘martyrdom fever’ is simply a bi-product of religious fanaticism would be missing an important subtlety, and the genuine importance placed on ‘putting others first’ is fuelled by social and cultural etiquette just as much as religious teachings.

Ali took us on a walking tour of the site and explained some interesting features of the architecture which include a turquoise domed mosque from the timurid period and some very impressive tiled ceilings which were only completed quite recently. Surrounding the main buildings are a number of large squares with water features in the middle. Large red Persian rugs get laid down during prayer time. 

Before heading over to the site’s museum, Paddy was lucky enough to be taken down into the main prayer room – a huge cavernous underground space who’s walls and ceiling are covered with mirror shards. Huge chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Unfortunately I wasn’t allowed in but Ali told us that the purpose of the broken mirrors was to help pilgrims to forget their individual needs and wants and focus on their message to Allah.

Coming to the site was a really interesting experience and the site is just as important for Muslim pilgrims now as it was 800 years ago which, made it a fascinating place to people watch. 

Our next stop is the town of Yazd and to get there we will need to take a 16hour overnight bus ride across the desert. 

Our first night in Iran

Iran is a huge country and there was a lot of ground to cover in just one month. The plan was to concentrate our time in the central and western parts of the country before heading to the north west tip to cross into Armenia.

Iranian customs and border checks were very straightforward – a bit of questioning but nothing out of the ordinary and we found ourselves cycling towards the centre of Saraks town by 2pm. Most of the shops were shut and the streets empty – we could only assume that everyone was taking an afternoon break during the hottest part of the day. 
Money exchange, getting a SIM card and finding somewhere to stay were the three priorities. 

We stop at a newsagents – the only shop on the street which is open – and Paddy enquires about money exchange. A man in his 30s who had just popped out to buy the paper ends up taking 30 minutes out of his day to guide is to a money exchange. Finding it closed, he calls his brother in law Pedram who speaks English. 

Five minutes later we see Pedram running down the street towards us. We explain what we need and he insists on inviting us back to his house. We had been in Iran for less than an hour and already we had been invited back to a family home; Iran was indeed living up to its reputation of being the most friendly and hospitable country on earth! 

Iranians take hospitality and looking after their guests very seriously. As tourists in Iran we are considered personal guests to all Iranian people and so they feel bound to ensure that we are assisted in every way possible. 

Iranians also show a similar dedication to civility towards one another, and this results in a social etiquette of extreme politeness which is called Taarof. It is not unusual for a shop keeper or taxi driver to initially refuse payment in exchange for their services for example… 

We were aware that we would be offered many invitations in Iran but that it was important to remember to refuse (sometimes a number of times) before finally accepting. 

The whole system is incredibly alien and difficult to navigate but certainly makes initial conversations very interesting! 

Anyway, Pedram offered his invitation a few times so we judge it to be genuine and we were very glad to accept. 

We had a really lovely afternoon in his grandmother’s house with his uncles, sisters, parents and their children. Family is very important in Iran and Pedram’s family seemed incredibly close. There was a lot of laughter between them. 

We were fed a huge meal and and drank lots of tea. Pedram and his parents were keen to host us that night but decided to call the police to check. The police said it wasn’t possible for us to stay with them but offered to escort us to a shelter where we could stay for free. 

We said our goodbyes and we followed the police car across town on the tandem. 

The shelter ended up being a community building run by the red crescent (similar to the Red Cross).  We were given our own bedroom, a safe place for the bike, use of the washing machine, a hot shower and a free meal… Travellers are allowed to stay in these shelters free of charge all over Iran. Amazing!

Here we are posing for a PR photo with the bike.

The next morning we set ourselves the task of exchanging money and setting up SIM cards. In lots of other countries such as Uzbekistan and China it has been almost impossible to get a SIM card but Iran it’s no problem for foreigners to sign up to the system. BBC and other sites like Facebook are blocked and require our VPN but The Guardian, WhatsApp, Skype etc are all a freely available. 

Iran, like Uzbekistan, is currently suffering from high inflation so we’re careful not to change too much.

After a hurried lunch we cycle to the bus station to enquire about a bus to Mashhad. We were incredibly lucky, as the coach was pulling away from the terminal as we arrived but we managed to quickly unpack the bike and fit it underneath before clambering on board. The process would have been quicker but the two bus attendants kept pulling me away because I had managed to get a black smudge on my nose from dismantling the handlebars… They were very insistent that I wipe it off! 

We would stop in Mashhad for a couple of nights before heading across the desert to the town of Yadz. Iran here we come! 

IRAN! Country No. 10!!! 

Out of all the countries we will visit on this trip there are probably none that are as misinterpreted or held in such high suspicion in the west, than Iran. With the exception of China perhaps. 

For this reason, along with China, Iran was the country I was most looking forward to travelling in. 

Being from Britain perhaps adds an even greater weight to my time here. Due to the diplomatic relations between our two countries over the past 60 years the Iranian people have had little contact with British tourists, compared to say French, German and other European nationals. 

Instead of treating you with suspicion and fear however the general reaction from Iranians tends to be exclamations of delight. Firstly, the majority of Iranians are incredibly well educated and open minded people. They know exactly how they are portrayed in western media and are eager to dispel any negative opinions you may have. Secondly, lots of younger Iranians already speak, or are learning to speak English, so meeting a native speaker is really exciting for them. 

There’s no point ignoring the difficult diplomatic relations but since reading up, I’ve spent most of my first week here feeling guilty that my country played such an embarrassing and illegitimate role in Iran’s recent history. Just research the British organised coups of 1921 and 1953 and you’ll begin to ask the question: ‘just how much of the current situation in Iran is our fault?’

I’m not going to forget or ignore the censorship and human rights abuses which I know take place here but I want to spend my time finding out how the rules and laws of the country affect real people and what they think about them. 

I want to know more about Sharia Law and the Shiism pillar of Islam and how it plays a key role in cultural, social and political life here and what normal Iranians think about it. Is the obligatory wearing of the hejab the biggest problem for Iranian women or are there more important causes to get behind?

Having spent a week here, it feels as if we’re just beginning to get an insight into contemporary life here. Understanding the causes and events following the revolution in 1979, the domestic and foreign policies which followed under Khomeini, and how an Islamic republic functions day to day have been important to this.

And of course, as well as this complex and fascinating chapter of Iran’s recent history we also have all the ancient stuff to explore too. The great Achaemenid period and Persian’s epic empires which followed.

There’s no doubt about it, our time in Iran will be incredibly rich, and our only problem will be fitting it all in while having some time to do some cycling.

Turkmenistan – our four day dash across country no. 9!!!

After all the hype and worry about getting our visa for Turkmenistan it felt slightly surreal crossing the border and finding ourselves on the edge of the Karakum desert. We were both very revealed to be taking this route rather than taking a flight or crossing the Caspian by boat.

It took a while to convert our letter of invitation into a visa in our passport but having camped only 7km from the border the previous night we had plenty of time. We made a beeline to the rail-side market in Turkmenabat where we changed $50 into Turkmen Manat and stocked up on water and food for the four day journey. We had met a couple of cyclists on the road to Bukhara who had told us that there were cafes and restaurants every 40km so we didn’t bother carrying loads and loads of food.

Our first impressions of the Turkmen people were that they are very beautiful! People are incredibly friendly but slightly more chilled than in Uzbekistan, possibly because they’re not too used to tourists. Women wear long elegant dresses which are more shapely than the tunic/trouser conbo found in the other Central Asian countries although a lot still wear a tied head scarf. 

We spotted lots of young people walking home from school – the boys wearing white starched shirts and black ties and the girls in long green dresses with colourful hats and decorative fronts. They all wore their hair in long plaits which we guess is part of the uniform.
So we headed off into the desert. The road is very straight, flat and well maintained and that promised tailwind we had heard so much about was blowing us along nicely. 

At 6:30am we pulled off the road, snuck down into a sand dune and set up camp. 

Knowing it would be a hot day we get up at 5:45am and were able to get going by 7:30am. The wind helped a lot that morning and we zoomed along the road at 26km an hour. 

After stopping for a quick somsa and to stockup on water at a roadside cafe we get going again, but that tail wind has changed and it’s now not helping us quite so much. We also hit some small inclines and so our average speed dips to 22km/ph. 

We wanted to cover a lot of miles that day though, there was still a long way to go and we knew the road would be a lot worse for the last 100km to the border. Late in the afternoon we spot another cyclists in the distance. Annette had cycled all the way from Germany on her three wheel, reclined bicycle. We swapped news and tips before setting off again.

Darkness was closing in but Annette had told us about a restaurant 20km up the road and convinced us it would be a great place to stay. Trusting her advice we managed another 70mins on the bike bringing our total distance up to 140km – the longest distance we have done so far on the trip! This extra toil was well worth it however and not only did we get a good meal at the restaurant but the owner offered us a shower and sleeping space in a spare room all for free. Can you imagine this happening in the UK?! 

The next day saw us reach the city of Mary which is close to the archaeological site of the ancient city of Merv. Merv, along with Demascus, was once one of the great cities of the Islamic world, an important centre of learning and an important city along the Silk Rd. We didn’t have time to visit the site however.

We would also be missing out on visiting the capital Ashgabat which would have been a considerable detour north for us. It was a shame as it’s famous for being one of the strangest places on earth. A ‘showcase city’ full of golden statues, marble buildings and manicured parks all built to the lavish tastes of the current president and previous ‘Turkmenbashi’.

Cycling through Mary’s city centre did offer us a glimpse into this world of splendour however. There was a spectacular blue domed mosque with four matching minarets at each corner and a number of gold domed buildings, one of which had a fittingly ‘bling’ metal work exterior complete with a golden statue of Berdymukhamedov (current president) outside it. 

Paddy said it looked as if a handful of super yachts had just thrown up on the pavement which, I thought summed up the whole look pretty well. 

After Mary we carried on down the road completing another 100km day before turning off down a side track and camping in the sand dunes again. 

With two more days left on our visa and only 150km left to cover we were in pretty good shape. However, we knew the road would get much worse once we turned off south onto the smaller back road towards Saraghs and we also needed half a day to cross the border so we couldn’t relax too much.

After 40km we turned off the main highway and started to follow the potholed gravel road south towards the border which took us through the fertile plains, lush cotton fields flanking the road on either side – these plants looked much healthier than the ones we were used to seeing Uzbekistan. It’s a slow bumpy afternoon and we manage 96km before stopping at a group of buildings to ask if we can pitch our tent nearby. 

The buildings turn out to be seasonal living quarters for a large group of cotton pickers who are still out picking in the huge field beyond. The owners welcome us and invite us to walk out into the fields to see the picking in action.

Around 35 people, women mainly, are out in the field. Covered with white head scarfs to protect themselves from the beating sun they move through the plants plucking at the burst pods. The fields go on as far as the eye can see.

At dusk we all traipse back to the buildings and each bag is weighed and then added to a metal cage. Everyone goes off to wag and change and we’re shown where we can put up our tent. 

In a makeshift outdoor kitchen surrounded by bamboo/fern walls, a huge plov is being prepared.

We’re given a huge bowl and invited to eat with a group of women just as the sun disappears. They are a horrendous amount of mozzies and we both get attacked despite wearing log sleeves and lots of repellent. One particularly nasty one got me on my forehead and the sting swelled up into a huge lump! 

After dinner some very cool Asian drum and bass was blasted out and all the younger cotton pickers jumped up to pull some shapes. Everyone is really nice and we have a great time dancing and taking lots of pictures with them all. 

At 10.30pm we retire to our tent but the music continues to blast out for a good hour after we fall asleep. 

By 6.30am everyone is up and getting ready to get back into the field. We pack down too and after some cold plov get back on the bike to cycle the remaining 40km to the border. We leave Turkmenistan feeling sad that we only had 5 days here. The hospitality and the people have been amazing.

Uzbekistan in Stats 

Total Number of Days: 20
Total Distance Cycled: 874.4km over 

Average distance per day: 92km over 9 and a half days

Shortest Day: 42.4km arriving into Boysun 

Longest Day: 128 between Samarkand and Bukhara

Public transport: 2 shared taxis up to Khiva and back 

Hitch Hiking: 0

Number of punctures: 1 – slow puncture at Boysun which we didn’t bother changing until a week later in Bukhara 

Days of rain:

Number of nights wild camping: 6

Warm Showers: 0

Days stopped due to illness or injury: 2

Final days in Uzbek

It was well over 100km to the Turkmen border from Bukhara. Unfortunately, Jean – who had been planning to ride with us – found out she had no choice but to cross on the dates she had specified on her original visa application so Paddy and I rolled out of town on our own.

Uzbekistan had depleted our stock of dollars a bit more than we had expected but we managed to take out some extra bills before leaving – a very good thing as it’s virtually impossible to draw money out in Iran due to the international sanctions. 

It was our first cloudy day and the weather was very close but the road remained good and was flat all the way. During a short water stop some locals came out to say hello and I ended up getting some big hugs and large fat kisses planted on my cheeks from this very jolly Uzbek lady. 

Throughout the day we were tailed by a large convoy of these giant exhaust scrubbers which were slowly making their way to a power station in Karakol. 

A large team of police flanked the convoy holding up and diverting the traffic but we were permitted to cycle alongside them. The things were so big that each electricity pylon had to be lifted by a team of guys with long poles so the trucks could pass underneath. Studying the text on the outside of the empty shells told us these things had come all the way from Korea… It was quite fun escorting them for the final leg of their journey!

We ended up passing each other out all day and by the afternoon we had got pretty familiar with the police drivers and the team of South Korean engineers who were travelling with them.

We camped by a large canal off the road that night just 7km from the border. 

Uzbekistan has been a good warm up to the many historical sights and architecture which we’ll encounter in Iran. All there was left of our Central Asian adventure was to complete the four day, 470km dash across the Turkmenistan desert. 

Iran feels like the last big adventure before the home stretch (through Armenia, Georgia and Turkey) back to Greece where we’ll leave the bike before flying home for a month over Xmas. I can’t really believe we’re in our 9th month of the trip!