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!
After leaving Azhang and Bita we continued to cycle out of Shiraz. Traffic was heavy due to it being a weekend, with lots of people heading out of the city to spend a day in the surrounding countryside.
After a few too many close over-takers we decided to try our first hitch in Iran. Iranian drivers really are the worst we’ve ever encountered, even worse that Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan.
Hitchhiking isn’t that common in Iran we’re told and the road we were on was pretty fast moving but eventually a truck did stop and a lovely chap dropped us 25km down the road where the traffic was beginning to thin.
Very soon we turned off the main road leading to Isfahan and took a rural detour via Sepeydan. When we reached the town we stopped for an ice cream and got chatting to a local who eagerly showed us pictures of his mountain bike. He had it in the back of his car along with all his gear so he ended up cycling with us up the hill for an hour.
Half way up we stopped in a lay by and 3 minutes later along came his wife, parents and children piled into an old landrover.
In true Iranian style, a carpet was laid over two large slabs of styrofoam and a pot of tea, complete with silver tray, and a huge bowl of fruit is produced. It was a lovely way to end the day before we found a secluded spot to pitch our tent.
The next day promised a mix of climbing and long downhill sections. The landscape was pretty brown after the long summer.
We stop in a small village where some police keep us a while to check our passports. We also meet this lovely lady who is dressed in this amazing outfit complete with think black eyeliner.
We finish the day with a pretty big climb and camp just off the road.
A long downhill section awaited us the next morning which would take us towards the town of Yasuj. We needed to spend some time there changing money and food shopping.
A small point of interest along the way down was what is known as the Persian Gate. It’s a steep valley where the Achaemenid army took its final stand against Alexander the Great’s oncoming Macedonian forces. The battle that took place here is as historic as the famous Persian-Spartan battle of Thermopile because it’s outcome really decided the fate of the war and the numbers of each side were heavily uneven. Unlike Thermopile it was the Persians who were the underdogs at the Persian Gate (10,000 v 700) but by using the terrain to their advantage they managed to wipe out huge swathes of Alexander’s men forcing them to retreat and regroup. Unfortunately for the Persians, their victory was short-lived, and Alexander managed to find an alternative route up the mountain, ambushing the Persians and slaughtering most of them. He then marched onwards, unchallenged, to Persepolis.
The valley also offered up a rare opportunity for us to wash our clothes. Iran seriously lacks water at this time of year as it has no major rivers running through any of the country.
We spent a long morning in Yasuj hunting for a money exchange. Eventually we got taken to a local jewellers by a very kind bank manager.
We were very worried that the next stretch of road would be really busy but the cycle ended up being incredibly scenic and the road had a descent hard shoulder and wasn’t too crowded.
Day 4 promised a lot of climbing but with it the scenery got better and better.
We also had to navigate through a lot of tunnels.
Our destination that evening was Ab Malakh waterfall which Azhang and Bita had told us about. It sounded amazing and wasn’t in the guidebook which made us want to go there even more!
After a particularly long climb we free wheeled down into this beautiful valley where this picturesque town overlooked tiered rice fields, mountains completing the picture behind.
Another long ascent awaited us after but a recording of Billie Connolly live entertained us as while we climbed.
Ab Malakh waterfall is situated 10km off the main road. Visitors need to get down the very steep dirt track to the river and climb up the other side to the tiny village beyond which acts as a base to walk the 2km to the falls. We were certain we’d be able to get down to the village but had no inclination to, or conviction that we’d be able to, cycle back up the next morning. This meant we needed to try and organise a lift.
The thing about travelling with a tandem for nine months is that you end up thinking that anything is possible and that everything will be OK in the end. So we descended the steep track confident that we’d be able to communicate what we needed to someone in the village. Of course we were happy to pay any costs.
The track was very steep… And on the way up to the village on the other side we got a puncture…
However it was all good. We reached the village and met two young lads called Ibrahim and Hassan who had a very small amount of English. With a our limited Farsi and lots of hand signals we managed to communicate that we needed a truck or car to pick us up at 11:30 the next morning, they said no problem, they could arrange it. Experience has learnt that 99.9% of time you can completely trust people. Sorted!
To top it off a local family in the village offered to host us that night and we spent a lovely evening eating barbecued fresh fish caught from the waterfall and sleeping on their porch.
One of the sons (I’m afraid we’ve forgotten his name!!) offered to take us to the waterfall the next morning so at 8:30 the three of us set off.
It was a stunning walk through a steep gorge and we were the only people around. This meant I didn’t need to bother too much with hijab.
Then we caught sight of the waterfall which looks like it’s just pouring down from the middle of the mountainside through a rich green arch of vegetation to the river below.
This natural phenomenon was made when a huge landslide fell and blocked the river.
Over the years the river has carved out a new path through the rock creating a short tunnel. At the same time, an underground spring inside the mountain found an opening where the landslide had occurred; hence the water cascading down over the tunnel made by the river.
Because we had a local with us we were able to find our way down to both sides of the waterfall and see exactly what was going on. It was very cool!
After exploring for an hour Paddy and I both took a deep breath and had a quick dip in the pools. It was freezing but we hadn’t had a wash in five day so we really needed it!
When we got back, to our relief Ibrahim was there early ready to take us back to the road but there was a slight problem… He only had his motorcycle with him!!!
After a while we realised he had a plan to tow us and the tandem up the slope… ‘Ummm… I’m not sure that’s going to work’ we said.
We’ve managed to get tandem on every kind of transport imaginable… Trains, buses, trucks, tiny cars… we even got it on this canoe boat once in Myanmar…
But we had never got it on a motorcycle before… Until now.
Our lovely guide went to fetch his other motorbike and together we took the bags, wheels and seat posts off and strapped tandem across the first bike with Paddy perched on top. Unfortunately we have no photos of this…
The second bike took me and most of the luggage. Somehow we managed to get everything up in just three trips. The guys were absolute heroes. Here they are at the top looking pretty pleased with themselves!
It was 1:30 before we got back to the road and we had some serious climbing to do. We were heading to the town of Semirom where we planned to catch a bus to Isfahan. It didn’t really matter if we arrived that night or tomorrow morning so we didn’t push it.
On the way up we were given gifts of water, cakes, apples, a bag of walnuts and a huge box of dates. Iranians really are the friendliest people ever.
We camped off the side of the road 40km from Semiron and tucked into the dates… Iranian dates are like little droplets of heaven, I can’t eat enough of them and they are particularly nice spread over a digestive biscuit. 🙂
We easily reached Semiron the next day and by 12:30 we were on a bus zooming along the last 180km to Isfahan.
A young law graduate called Hamid had offered to host us in Shiraz. It was really nice sharing his super central flat with his aunt, sister and younger brother. Hamid was busy looking after his mother’s tailors shop while she was away visiting family so we only got to hangout with him in the evenings.
His 22 year old sister Fahima who is studying tourism at the local college however was still on her summer break so she offered to show us around one day.
We started at the late 18th century Vakil bazaar and wondered through its many domed brick streets and visited it’s two green courtyards.
After a coffee together we headed over to the Arg-e Karim Khan – the fortress-like royal court of Karim Khan who, the 18th century ruler who is responsible for most of Shiraz’s historic buildings.
There wasn’t much to see here to be honest but we did enjoy the actors who were walking around in period costume… 🙂
After lunch, Paddy and I headed down to Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh shrine complex. In 835 AD Sayyed Mir Ahmed, brother to Imam Reza’s (who’s own pilgrimage site is in Mashhad), was hunted down and murdered by the Caliphate.
We have had to overcome a minor frustration while sightseeing in Iranian cities. The very high entrance fees for all the attractions are prohibitive for those on a budget. If our guide book (published in 2012) is anything to go by, admission fees were nowhere near as extortionate a few years ago and it seems the government recently introduced a blanket tourist fee of 200 rials ($5) for most ‘attractions’. Even the smaller mosques now charge this fee and needless to say Iranians pay a fraction of the price or go free.
We don’t mind paying to see historic buildings but it’s hard to part with $10 each time when you end up walking aimlessly around a semi renovated building with no explanations or guides in English.
The exceptions have been when visiting the major shrine sites. Both the Harem-e-Rezavi and Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh complexes were completely free to enter and we got a free English speaking guide to take us around.
Eating out isn’t dirt cheap either and there is a distinct lack of decent restaurants, with fast food joints and kebab shops making up the short fall.
Thanks to our amazing warm showers hosts however we’ve been able to avoid paying any hotel costs so far and we’ve enjoyed some tasty nutritious home cooked meals.
Fahima cooked Ash one morning which is a thick vegetable soup found all over Iran. Shirazi’s typically eat it for breakfast.
That evening we went to the tomb of the famous Iranian poet Hafez. Iranians are very proud of their literary history and many of their great poets have been honoured with spectacular mausoleums. Iranians will make almost pilgrimage like journeys to visit these sites, touching or kissing the tombs while reciting some of their favourite verses.
It was nice visiting after dark as the spectacular dome covering the tomb was all lit up and it was pleasant to walk around the surrounding gardens.
We come across a small band of people sitting in one dark corner listening to one man who is reciting a whole chunk of Hafez’s works by heart.
After spending some time near the tomb Fahima took us to the cafe to have our first taste of falooduh an alternative to ice cream but made of short strings of frozen starch. I think we’ll both stick to ice cream next time!
The next day we had a relaxing morning at the flat and then spent some time food shopping before
rounding off the afternoon with a traditional Shirazi pastime – a picnic in the UNESCO Bagh-e Eram gardens.
Not wanting to disturb Hamid and his family too much by overstaying our welcome we decided to spend a night with Azhang (civil engineer) and Bita (architectural consultant), another warm showers host who live in the west of the city for our last night before heading north to Isfahan. Actually they had only been signed up to the site for a week so we happened to be their first guests!!
They were a super couple with a lovely apartment and we had a great evening with them and needless to say, we were VERY well looked after!
They cooked us a delicious meal of Dizzie which is a very traditional Iranian dish.
A large watery stew of chickpeas, potatoes, lamb, tomatoes and carrots gets cooked on a low heat for a good few hours.
The liquid is drained into a large bowl and the meat and veg then pounded into a thick paste.
Ladles of the liquid are placed in your bowl and then you tear pieces of bread into it. Some people like to mix the paste into their soup but others eat it separately with bread, salad, pickled veg and olives. It’s very tasty!
After dinner we took a stroll together in the local park. People stay up late here including young families so the park is a hive of activity. Azhang treated us to an amazing ice cream – another thing the Iranians do very well.
In fact the average Iranian has a very sweet tooth and cakes, sweets, ice cream and pastries are eaten at all times of day. They love cake so much they even eat it for breakfast!
The next morning happened to be a Friday, the weekend in Iran, so Bita and Azhang were able to have a long breakfast and then cycle some of the way with us on their own bikes. They are both very fond of the outdoors and have a dream to plan their own cycle tour across Russia in the next few years.
After 15km of cycling together we stopped to say goodbye. But not before we let them have a go at riding the tandem! They coped pretty well considering we were heavily loaded!
So we find ourselves heading north up to Isfahan which we hope will take around 5 days on the bike. We might end up taking a bus from a town called Semirom.
It was time to dive into Iran’s ancient Persian history and where better to start than Persopolis, the ancient city of the Achaemenid empire which sits north east of Shiraz. We would take a bus from Yazd, spend a night camping next to the ruins and spend the next afternoon cycling the remaining 60km to Shiraz after visiting the site.
From the very beginning, Persopolis was intended to be a ‘showcase city’ to illustrate and flaunt the wealth, power and artistic superiority of the Achaemenid empire.
Construction started in 520 BC under Darius I and added to over the next 150 years by his son Xersus and other subsequent rulers. It’s worth pointing out that Britain was still stuck in the Iron Age with the Celtic people building their ditch and bank forts at this point and the great Roman buildings such as the coliseum wouldn’t be built for another 550 years.
It’s also worth noting that unlike many of the great Greek structures which were being built at around the same time (e.g. Acropolis of Athens) Persopolis was built, not by slaves, but by paid labourers and artisans, a testament to the humility and egalitarian approach adopted by Persia’s rulers.
The geographical location is significant – it sat at the centre of the empire which, at its height, encompassed Afghanistan and Pakistan and stretched all the way west to parts of present day Greece, and south to Ethiopia.
Historians believe the city which, sits elevated on a towering 12m stone platform, was used for an important annual gathering on No Ruz (Persian new year) when subjects from across the empire would travel to pay tribute to their King.
The city was taken, looted and later burned by Alexander the Great in 330BC and then for 2000 years much of it lay beneath large dunes of sand and dust which helped to preserve what was left. Archaeological excavations started in the late 1800s.
Unfortunately we forgot to change the battery in the digital camera and so had to make do with Paddy’s phone for the second half of our visit…
Even though there is little left of the sparkling city there’s enough to spark your imagination.
A majestic double staircase leads up to the city complex and then a walkway takes you through a towering doorway called the Gate of All Nations which is flanked by giant winged bull creatures.
There are some amazing bas-relief sculptures decorating the Apadana palace and staircase. They depict the delegations from the Empire’s various provinces arriving at the city gates baring gifts of cloth, livestock, pottery and furniture.
The Palace of 100 Columns and the Tripylon are pretty awe inspiring mainly due to the height and number of stone columns which make up the structures. These would have been vast halls with towering ceilings and polished stone walls but historians argue over their exact use and purpose.
It was possible to climb up the hill to the tombs of Atraxerxes II and III which offered amazing panoramic views of the site.
It was a great morning and because we had camped so near the site we were among the first in at 8am, missing the worst of both the crowds and the heat.
After a hurried lunch of Falafel rolls and Zam Zam cola (which we later realised we never paid for!!!) we got ready to cycle to Shiraz. Our exit was delayed due to lots of people wanting to pose for photos with the tandem.
It was great to be back on the bike – our first proper cycle in Iran – but it was during the hottest part of the day and I was still getting used to wearing full hejab and a headscarf under my helmet. It was incredibly uncomfortable cycling up the hills!!
We arrived at 5ish and the white sprawling city of Shiraz which, sits at the bottom of a vast valley, appeared before us. Flanking our road into the city was a lovely pedestrianised boulevard, a waterfall tumbling down the rock face behind.
We lingered for a while soaking up the atmosphere. That day happened to be a national holiday so there were lots of locals milling about, having picnics (a favourite pastime in Shiraz we are told).
Along the terraced walkways a number of free-runners were practising their moves. This one guy (who could clamour up the whole complex in about 20 seconds) climbed up this vertical surface and then polished his set off with a headstand on the edge of the highest wall…
We’d have three nights in Shiraz staying with a couple of warm showers hosts before cycling north to Esfahan.
Yadz sits in the geographical centre of Iran and also in the middle of a desert, so we arrived and left by bus rather than bike -we’ve already had our desert fix in Turkmenistan. At 7am we wearily got off our overnight bus, put tandem back together and cycled the 10km into the old town.
We made a great decision by heading to a swanky hotel and getting a buffet breakfast for a reasonable price. By 10am we were full of various sausage, breads and jams.
We headed outside, it was hot! Our time in Yazd clearly would be spent chasing shadows to stay out of the sun.
Later that day we met our warm showers hosts Mohammed and Maboub with their wonderful little girl, Anita.
They were excellent hosts and we shared food and good conversation with them at mealtimes for the next two days. Instead of eating at a table, it’s more commen for Persian families to lay out a patterned waterproof sheet into their rug and eat on the floor.
Maboub was also a talented artist and musician.
Anita is 4 and charmed us from the minute we met her, here is her colouring-in versions of us:
I particularly liked my jester hat and Annie’s green skin.
Over our two days Anita painted all of Annie’s nails, styled my hair, helped fix a puncture, showed us some groovy Persian dancing and generally made everyone smile lots. In return Annie sang a song which made Anita very happy. 🙂
Yazd had lots to see. The old town is mud-brick built and has some ancient but extremely clever ways of dealing with the hot climate. Firstly most buildings have at least one badgir which is like a reverse chimney – it’s a tall tower that catches air from 4 sides and directs it down into the building to provide ventilation.
But this is surpassed by the water management system. Persian civilisations grew up in an area where there are no significant rivers, and cities have developed near mountains in order to get fresh water. To do this deep wells were dug up in the hills and underground passages, called Qanats, were dug to transport the water along a gentle slope down into towns and cities. Along the 60cm wide qanat new wells were dug every few hundred metres to check the direction, depth and provide ventilation.
The slope and direction of the qanat is critical so that the water arrives into the basement level of the town.
Once there the water serves underground collection points, Hamams, clothes washing areas and huge storage reservoirs called Ab Anbar. These egg shaped buildings are about 30m high (mostly underground), 15m wide and ventilated by 4 Badgirs.
Needless to say we thought the water museum was excellent! The Qanat system allowed civilization to flourish on the Iranian plateau and although metal pipe has taken over, a lot are still running and in use.
Just down the road from Mohammed’s house was the Zoroastrian fire temple or Ateshkadek and museum which we paid a visit to and was very interesting.
Zoroastrianism or Mazdism was the first monotheistic religion and was the main belief system in Persian until Islam arrived in the 7th century. Zarathustra was apparently born in 1768BC and was apposed to the superstitious belief of the time. He preached that there was a single omnipresent God called Ahura Mazda and there were opposing forces of light and dark in the world.
Zoroastrian’s worship of fire represents the light from Ahura Mazda and there is a burning flame in Yazd that has been alight since 470 AD! Interestingly it is believed that the 3 wise men from the Bible were Zoroastrian Magi (priests).
Today there are around 10,000 Zoroastrians in Yazd and around half a million worldwide. From speaking with Mohammed they seem to be well respected in the community. It was very interesting to learn about such an ancient faith and the fire temple was well worth a visit even if it looks a bit like the Olympic flame behind a big panel of glass…
On our last evening in Yazd we had another great dinner with Mohammed and then headed out to see the local club Zurkhaneh (House of Strength). This is a kind of body building/strongman ritual that was located inside an old water storage building. About 15 barrel chested men perform repetitive lifts/spins/push ups to the rhythm of a drumbeat and a man reciting parts of the Iranian epic Shahnameh and old Iranian poetry.
It was impressive for us tourists and at the same time it felt like a regular social occasion for the men. Some of their kids joined in and took a go at the ‘spnning around very fast’ manoeuvre and half way through an old master arrivedand was greeted by all with great respect. He even joined in lifting some weights.
After 2 days it was time to say goodbye to Yazd and we headed to the bus station to travel south towards Persepolis and Shiraz. As usual at the bus station a host of different people came to help us, get photos and swap phone numbers…we’ve given out our number to a lot of Iranians now and randomly gets texts asking how we are getting on! We’ve also got really good at jamming tandem + bags into the bottom of busses, so with little hassle we set off south.
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.
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!