Hello. I am a British passport holder and I’ve just completed a wonderful month of independent travel in Iran.
In the past it was tricky for British and American citizens to obtain a visa for Iran and 99% of tour agents (who organise your authentication code needed to obtain a visa) still claim that British and American citizens need to book onto a fully guided tour package to travel in the country.
So you might wonder how it is that I travelled independently without a guide with me 24/7?
From our own experience and what we have researched, there are seen to be no official rules stated anywhere on official sites which say Brits need a guide 24/7. For example nothing is mentioned about it on the UK foreign office website or from any official Iranian sites.
We believe (and it’s only our informed opinion) that Internet forums and the tour agencies are responsible for helping to keep this myth alive. Tour agents because they want to sell their services and Internet forums because they are, more often that not, written by travellers who are regurgitating other forum posts or their conversations with tour agents (or other travellers) without possibly having had any experience of travelling in the country themselves…
It IS possible to get a visa for Iran if you are British (I have no direct experience if you are American but we have heard it’s possible). But you need to contact the right tour company and the total cost of the LOI and the visa may be prohibiting for many British travellers.
If this cost really puts you off we have spoken to a number of Iranians while travelling here and they (speaking from personal experience) claim it is possible for an Iranian to apply for foreigners’ Authentication code, even if the foreigner is British. This way you wouldn’t need to go through a tour company at all, significantly reducing the cost.
If we had know that this was an option when sorting out the codes and visas we would have simply contacted a number of couch surfing and warm shower hosts to see if any of them were willing to apply for us at their local foreign ministry office. Now that we know how helpful, hospitable and generous the average Iranian is, we are almost certain we’d have found someone who would have been willing to try for us.
We found travelling in Iran very safe. I was treated no differently to Paddy (Irish) at the border, no mention of my being British from any of the guards and I’ve had my passport checked many times subsequently without any problem. Rumours amongst the travelling community (especially on the Lonely Planet forum) tell of hotels handing British travellers into the police and British travellers getting arrested. From our experience this is just scaremongering. I’m not saying that these things haven’t happened in the past or might happen to an unlucky individual in the future, but from my personal experience the only likely problem a British person will encounter in Iran is being smothered to death my Iranians caring, loving and hospitable attitude towards you!
If you’d like to know more comment below this post with an email and we can send you all the help and info we know.
Similarly, if after reading this you also successfully travel independently in Iran please visit this page again and share your experiences via the comments below for the benefit of other travellers.
All we can tell you is what we experienced and it’s up to you how you manage ‘the risks’ when visiting foreign countries.
The last two days would see us complete our final climb in Iran and drop down to the Aras River valley. We would them follow the Iran-Azerbaijan border for a while up stream before heading into Armenia.
The cycle would end up being an amazing ride – definitely in our top 5 of the trip!
Incredible mountain-scapes, steep valleys, rolling green hills, picturesque villages perched precariously on cliff tops, and best of all, the whole landscape draped in an incredible Autumnal tapestry of gold, pink and red trees. We definitely caught this ride at the best time of year!
Along with the amazing views came a few problems however. The back chain continued to jump and we had to start zigzagging our way up any gradient bigger than about 7% to prevent the chain jumping… Concentrating on achieving a steady and smooth pressure and speed also really helps. This is all much harder on a heavily loaded tandem so we really had to work hard on the hills. Hardly ideal but it’s working so far!
Here we are at the top!
Later in the day we got three punctures! Yes, THREE. Lucky we bought those new inner tubes in Tabriz. We spent a long time on the roadside that afternoon before finally diagnosed the problem… The protective tape inside the rim had bunched up… Thankfully we just had enough electrical tape to fix the problem but we were down to our last tube after a number of patches had failed.
The wheel seems to be holding up ok and we hope it’ll last until the next town where we can buy some more tubes.
We stayed in a basic motel that night as we didn’t roll into town until after dark having spent the best part of the afternoon fixing punctures on the road. The next morning we cycled along the river. Great views once again! The puncture repair seems to be holding and we enjoy picking pomegranates, walnuts and figs from all the road side trees.
We camp in a family’s garden but the next morning wake up to a flat tire… Slow puncture… Today we have to cross into Armenia but thankfully we’re only 22km away…
We spend the whole morning sticking patches on only to pump up the tube and have them burst. We finally get one to hold but it lasts for 2km before giving up. By this time it’s 1:30pm and we spend another frustrating hour on the road gluing, waiting, pumping and getting more and more hungry.
Irananian kindness saves the day when a guy (who had obviously already driven passed us once) takes time out of his day to bring us mutton stew and rice. We eat hungrily before loading the bike up for the third time that day.
We make it across though and suddenly we’re getting our exit stamps for Iran and crossing the Aras into Armenia!
After all those punctures we felt we definitely deserved our first beer in nearly 5 weeks!
Our journey north would see us leave Tabriz and cycle via Ahar and Kaleybar and then follow the Aras river border to Norduz where we would cross into Armenia. We planned for the journey to take up the last week of our time in Iran. We were really looking forward to doing a long stretch on the bike and seeing more rural parts of Iran. Some of it promised to be breathtaking.
North western Iran is dominated by large Azari (Azerbaijani-Iranian) communities who’s language is much closer to Turkish than Farsi. In fact, there are more Azerbaijanis living in Iran than there are in neighbouring Azerbaijan and the majority of them live in north western Iran.
The weather would be turning cooler as we headed north – a welcome change from the scorching summer temperatures we’ve had since Uzbekistan – and as September gives way to October we hope to see the harvesting in action as well as catch some of Iran’s nomadic population before they pack down their tents and drive their flocks southwards for winter.
Tabriz to Ahar
We had a leisurely morning in Tabriz enjoying a lie in and then an epic street breakfast of baked potatoes, boiled eggs and bread which we sat out in the sunny square to eat.
We had chosen a hotel very near the street that housed all the bike shops because we were in desperate need for more inner tubes. We bought three and then stocked up on food.
There are three routes to choose from connecting Tabriz and Ahar and we decided to choose the highest, most rural of the three. It ended up being a lovely cycle and we even hit an unpaved section; our first in Iran where the roads have been very good. It didn’t last long (thankfully) just 12km between two peaks.
The landscape was pretty brown, scorched by summers heat and all the fields had already been harvested but the views were still spectacular and there were some amazing changes in colour in the rock.
Further along we did hit some green valleys which were mainly populated with fruit trees. The green leaves are beginning to turn golden red.
We also cycled through a number of villages. Here is a cow being dismembered on the street.
On the second day we completed the major climb…
… and dropped into this flat bottomed valley which was host to a number of small villages. We hadn’t done huge amounts of miles but we’d completed the climb and it was so lovely here that we decided to pack up early and set up camp.
We watched the shepherds bringing in their sheep and got cooking dinner. At dusk a herder comes over with his flock and starts speaking to us for a long time in Farsi… Very little gestures accompanied his speech but we think in the end he was trying to tell us that it would be too cold to camp. We tried to explain that this was OK and we we had plenty of blankets and after a long time he moved on.
It was indeed cold that night and we woke to find A LOT of frost on the tent and our washing was stiff with frost but we’d slept well in our thermals and down sleeping bag. I can be a bit of a wuss when it comes to getting out the tent when it’s chilly so Paddy got up and made coffee. By the time I crawled out 30 minutes later the sun was up, thawing everything out nicely.
We had a leisurely breakfast while we waited for the tent to dry and spotted lots of birds of prey perched along the road side. We also found a cute little water vole hiding in one of our helinox chair bags. He’d obviously scuttled in their during the night and was very reluctant to leave his new hiding place. I really wanted to take him with us.
We got going and soon met paved road again. We stopped in Varzegan for lunch and more food stocks and managed to reach Ahar by 5pm completing a 85km day.
Ashura parades were in full flow but we were tired and so headed straight for the large park where we planned to pitch our tent. Iranians are very fond of all day picnics and overnight camping so lots of parks are set up with 24 hour toilets and dedicated washing areas.
We were just deciding where to pitch the tent when we’re approached by a local called Parviz who makes an offer for us to come and stay with him. We were both reluctant mainly because we were very tired and hungry but the draw of a shower after three days was too tempting.
Parviz and his lovely family looked after us well and they even insisted on us sleeping in their bedroom. We hope they didn’t mind us going to bed at 9:30 – positively early by Iranian standards! In the morning we had a lovely breakfast with them, showed them lots of photos of China (the country they seemed most interested in) and did a photoshoot before we left!
Ahar to Kalaybar and a visit to Babak Fortress
A steady climb towards Kalaybar ensured an average speed of 13km the next day. Kalaybar is a very cool town set at the bottom of a valley, towering mountains on all sides. Again, we headed to the town’s central park and set up camp.
It was a lovely little spot and everyone was at the top of town at the Ashura festivities so we were completely left to our own devices. As darkness fell the park lamps came on and each corner of our little green courtyard was suddenly bathed by soft light so we even enjoyed a quiet ‘candlelit dinner’ before watching a documentary about John Coltrane.
The next morning we spent time food shopping and then got ready to leave. The climb up from Kalaybar is very steep and the first section out of town would have been tough going on any bike but tandem’s rear chain had recently developed a tendency to slip and jump off the smallest cassette on stiff climbs… It made it impossible for us to cycle the first section which was about 11% gradient and we ended up pushing for a bit.
The problem is a bit worrying considering the amount of high mountain passes we have ahead of us both in northern Iran and Armenia but there is nothing we can do about it right now. After 12,000km the whole system has just worn out and it won’t go away until we replace the chain and all the cassette cogs. A costly replacement but inevitable at some point especially as the bike was second hand… It’ll have to be our Christmas present to one another!
We only had 10km to complete up to the entrance to Babak Castle but it took us a good 3 and a half hours a) because it was tough and b) because we kept stopping to admire the view which was spectacular.
We had left the brown rolling hills behind us. The whole area here is covered in a thick oak tree forest and catching this landscape in Autumn was a real feast for the eyes.
We arrived by lunchtime and by the time we’d eaten we decide it was too late to start the long hike up to the castle ruins so we set up camp among the oaks with a great view of the valley below and had a relaxing afternoon blogging) (me) and bike tinkering (Paddy) in the sun.
The hike up to Babak Castle
Babak castle is an extensive crag-top fortress (dating back to the 9th century) and was the home to the Azerbaijan hero Babak Khorramdin (yes we’re still in Iran).
We started early as it was a 70 minute hike up to the ruins.
Breathtaking views across the landscape, more golden oak forests tumbling into the valleys and lots of photogenic backdrops to set up a few timed shots.
The fort itself sits on an impressive cliff top and we were lucky enough to have the whole place to ourselves for a few hours. I was able to de-scarf and even roll up my trouser legs!
We sat and had lunch perched on one of the walls and by the time we had finished a couple from France and a Dutch guy had turned up, so we sat chatting for a while before all heading back down together.
We had a few more hours until sun down so we managed 25km down and over the next valley. The green hills and thick blanket of oaks continued. It was so nice to see some trees and cycle through some mountainous countryside. Tajikistan feels a long time ago now!
When we got to Tabriz we were desperate to find a hotel. We didn’t need to, there were plenty of warm showers hosts across the city but we REALLY wanted to stay in a hotel. Here’s why…
If you have read any of our other blogs about Iran you will know Iranian hospitality is world class, the best! And it is, it’s amazing. Iranians are warm, funny, generous and very consientious people.
But after nearly three weeks of travelling here we have discovered that Iranian hospitality can become a tad overbearing to an outsider.
Before you denounce us for being ungrateful, cynical travellers here’s an insight into Iranian hospitality.
First of all there’s the sheer amount of hospitality which is offered.
Naturally we’re used to folks beeping, waving and flagging us down while we’re cycling along and we are almost always happy to stop, take the customary photo and answer the normal questions. After all, we did choose to cycle a ridiculous looking bike.
But if we stopped for everyone in Iran, honestly, we would never get to our destination because someone tries to flag us down around every 15-20 minutes. So instead, we occasionally slow down, wave and say in our limited Farsi: ‘sorry we can’t stop, thank you, goodbye!’.
If we are lucky, they understand but often they will simply get back in their car, tail us for a while, overtake while shouting their questions from the window, and then rashly cut in front of us and stop again…
Also, sometimes, just sometimes, we want to eat a meal without four different individuals interrupting us to ask ‘where we are from’, ‘do we need help’, ‘are you sure the bicycle is safe’, ‘you must be very careful’… Etc.
Secondly, when you do get a rapport going with someone there’s the need to navigate your way through Taroof, Iran’s cultural etiquette of extreme politeness.
Taroof is hard to get your head around. First of all you are set the task of identifying if that ‘free ice cream’, ‘free lift’ or offer to host you really is genuine. To do this you should decline their offer a number of times. The conversation goes something like this:
Host: ‘I would like to host you at my house’
Us: ‘No, no, it’s ok thanks’
Host: ‘No, I really would like to have you at my house’
Us: ‘No, honestly, it’s really ok, we can sleep here’
Host: ‘Wait, I will call my friend who speaks good English, and he can tell you how much I want you to stay’
Friend: ‘Hello? Yes my friend really wants you to stay at his house’
Us: ‘Oh, ok then, that’d be lovely’
Sometimes a scenario arises where, for whatever reason, you really don’t want to accept their kind offer to host you. You’ve already completely emptied your food pannier and your tent is half way to being pitched. Maybe their house is a 15 minute cycle away and you’ve already completed a hard 90km day; mentally you’ve stopped for the day and the last thing you want to do is get back on that bike. Or perhaps you’ve just completed a 500m climb, you’re starving and you know the only way you’re guaranteed to eat a meal in the next half an hour is if you cook it yourself on your stove.
So you continue to decline their offer and soon they realise you don’t want to stay with them. You then either have to face their bitter disappointment or they try a different tack and start telling you that it’s a security risk camping here anyway or it’ll be far too cold.
In the end you end up accepting, either because you’re tired of declining or because you feel guilty!
The worst scenario of all is of course, when you misread Taroof. Suddenly your host feels bound to take you back to their house when they don’t really want to. They are angry about this, and this anger can manifest itself in a strange passive aggressive attitude towards you. To make up for your error you work extra hard back at the house to break the ice. But you still go to sleep knowing you’re in a home that had no intention of hosting you in the first place. Awkward! Fortunately this has only happened to us once!
Even in the congenial scenario where our hosts are delighted to have us and we are very happy to accept, Taroof still naturally comes into play.
‘Please eat more; was your shower ok; you must be careful on the roads; I think that route will be far too cold and dangerous…’
Of course we don’t mind this because we know that this attitude comes from a wonderfully loving place and is genuine concern for our comfort and welfare. There have been a few times however, when the Taroof has reached a point of complete ridiculousness!
Twice now our hosts have insisted on getting into their car to escort us out of the town. They insist, even though they know that we have a gps and have navigated our way through ten countries, and across 11,000km of terrain.
The first time this happened our host absolutely insisted that the quickest and easiest way for us to exit the town was up a stiff 300m climb instead of the alternative 8km longer DOWNHILL route around the mountain. We tried to explain our predicament but he insisted. Naturally we both ended up very grumpy. We, because we had to struggle up an unessesary climb, and our host, because he spent 35 minutes of his day crawling up the hill in his car at 7km an hour.
Another time one of our hosts had given us a bag of walnuts weighing about 3kg in weight. I decided to split this yummy gift in 2 and give one bag to our next hosts two days later. I made the grave error of attempting to give this gift to our hosts in front of their neighbours, and so followed a dramatic show of Taroof.
I put on my most gracious smile and offer them the bag explaining it’s a small gift for their wonderful hospitality. It’s pushed back into my hands. I offer it again and this time it’s taken but then simply hung on my handlebars. I patiently unhooked the bag and offer it again but by this point our host is backing away, their eyes darting between my face and the walnuts as if the bag might explode at any moment.
I shove the bag into their hands and it’s shoved back. Things were starting to get violent…
It was only when I started to show my irritation, and they realise that the walnuts were in danger of falling all over the floor, did they feel it was ok to accept!
We’ve absolutely loved staying with our Iranian hosts. 99% of the time it has been a wonderful, wonderful experience and many of them realise how alien Taroof might be to us so they dispel any anxiety by asserting there is ‘no Taroof’ in their house.
But don’t judge us for wanting one night, just one night, in a hotel room. A place where we can lie on a bed in just our t-shirt and pants, stuffing our faces with chocolate digestives while reading the Internet; despairing over the news that two of our MEPs had a fist fight in the European Parliament and that Donald Trump might just win the US election…
Tomorrow we’ll be back on the road and ready and eager to make more friends in Iran.
On the 2nd of October the annual Ashura festival started. This ten day festival of mourning remembers the third Imam Hossain, particularly focussing on his bloody murder.
It’s probably the strangest festival we have ever encountered and we’ve been fortunate to have passed through a number of cities and towns to see how it’s played out in different places.
At first glance, the ten days are seemingly marked by uplifting evening gatherings of worshippers who meet in the main square every night to chant, play very large drums and listen to a select group of singers reciting the story of Hossain. The proceedings are heartfelt but relaxed with different generations getting involved and a communal feel about the whole experience.
Explore a little deeper however and you begin to see some rather quirky traditions which make the whole thing start to feel all rather macabre.
Almost everyone, especially in more rural areas, wears black for the full ten days. Remember this is supposed to be a period of national mourning. When we cycle through a town it can feel a little sinister, especially with all the women waring jet black chadors which ripple eerily around them in the autumn breeze. Black bunting hangs over the streets above.
Public outpourings of grief are common especially during the evening ceremonies. You may see some people discreetly lying on the floor weeping genuine tears.
Men preform a ritual dance with sticks or chains (many of them go into a trance like state) and the crowds will beat their chests or head in time to the music while repeating the name of the Imam or reciting some of the religious texts.
Parading through the streets with drums and flags is also widespread and it was once common practice for the men to flagellate themselves with chains.
This practise has fortunately now been made illegal but the chains are still sold openly in shops.
Whether it’s mainly ceremonial or the real practise is still widespread we don’t really know – we’ve seen a bit of both!
Lots of people decorate their cars with red paint which oozes down their windows and headlights and in Tabriz even the water in the fountains had been turned red in commemoration of the Imams martyrdom. Restaurants also play mournful vocal music dedicated to the remembrance of his death. We even cycled by a market place where a makeshift stand was blasting out a recording of sobbing voices into the crowd of shoppers.
Even cartoons on children’s television tell the story of Hossain’s murder. His crying horse always features heavily in the story and the killing scene gets pretty graphic!
We’d be missing Haloween back home but we sort of feel we’ve had our very own in Iran!
Before spending some time cycling in the northwest tip of Iran we needed to get there.
We didn’t have time to cycle the whole way from Isfahan so we jumped on another overnight bus to Tabriz.
We weren’t too fussed about spending much time in another big city, so we decided to spend a day visiting Kandovan, a sleepy village 65km from Tabriz. It’s a cool place to visit because the old town is made up of ancient troglodyte homes carved out of strange humps of eroded rock.
Kandovan is up a very hard climb but luckily there were two warm showers hosts in a town called Osku 40km from Tabriz. Osku is the natural base for tourists wanting to visit Kandovan village so it was perfect, we could cycle there and then stay with some locals.
Sirious, wife Rebob and their lovely family (who had been in their new flat only a week before they offered to host us) were really great to stay with and we enjoyed our time with them. They didn’t speak much English but that was good because it made us learn more Farsi!
Their grown up daughter Mahsa came home in the evening from Tabriz where she works as a nurse and she spoke really good English so after dinner we all went out to look at the Ashura festivities taking place across the town.
Ali, Sirious’ youngest child and only son was taking part in the ceremonies so we only met him briefly between drumming sessions.
The next day we spent with Hassan and his wife Elnaz, the other warm showers hosts registered in Osku, as they had kindly offered to spend the day with us exploring Kandovan and the surrounding countryside.
First we stopped at an abandoned troglodyte site – an amazing collection of underground homes and animal shelters.
Then after spending an hour walking around Kandovan village we took a drive south across a really nice mountain road before eating lunch (fresh chicken kebabs) in Hassan’s huge allotment.
Discussion turned to why the couple have a plan to emigrate to Australia after Elnaz has finished her PHD which she studies for in Turkey. We also talked about Aziri-Iranian politics in this part of Iran and how many people in the region would like some form of independence.
Hassan dropped us off at 3pm and we picked up the bike from Sirious’ flat. After saying our goodbyes to everyone we cycled back towards Tabriz where we planned to stay the night before heading north.