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!