Iran #1 – Border biking.

This world is a comedy to those who think, and a tragedy to those who feel.
–Horace Walpole.

In my two weeks in Iran, I’ve begun to feel that this quote characterizes this country well.

At my last stop in Turkey, I decided I would spend a little more and get a couple beer. Alcohol is illegal in Iran. When leaving for the border, I had 4 Lira left, and decided to spend it on a beer. In my infinite wisdom, I placed said beer in the bag on my handlebars. When I hit the speed bump, the can fell out and was punctured. A pressurized can of beer explodes all over me, my bike, and everything in my bag. The crowd goes wild! The Turks on the street found the site of this stupidity entertaining. I happened to have my passport ready to cross the border, and it was now covered in beer. I can only imagine the fun I will have when the police examine my newly scented passport in a country where beer is illegal.

The Iranian border

I had spent 3 months to the day in Turkey. I think I may technically have been one day over my visa, and the border guard made a little fuss about it. Fortunately there was no problem and I was allowed to pass. The Iranian border authority was even easier. It took no more than five minutes, and they didn’t bother to search anything at all. I believe it might be different when I exit the country.

I arrived in Bazargan to find Hanif awaiting me with instructions and information on the “alternative” route I was to take to Tabriz. He’d cycled the same route earlier, and had giving me a lot of very useful information. The route followed the Iranian border to the north for several hundred kilometers, and then south to Tabriz. It’s much more scenic then the main route, although longer. He is my Iranian savior, helping me with the basics on my first day in the country. Since I can’t read anything, this is a big asset.

On my first cycling day in the country, I started to follow the route Hanif had prescribed out of the city. I made it about 2km before some concerned Iranians and later a police officer stopped me. They would not allow me to go north, as they claim there are PKK rebels in the area. Hanif (and I) believe this to be a contrivance of the Iranian government, just as it is in Turkey. So I was forced to turn around and take the main highway for a time. I ended up only making it 20km to the next city, Maku, where I got rained out. I was fortunate enough to meet some locals, hang out in a park, and smoke hookah for the majority of the day.

The fonz, Iran.

Found this perversity in the park

I stayed with a fine young gentleman, Ramin, and his family in Maku for a night. As they are Turkish, I could at least communicate with them a little bit. Ramin lives with his father, grandfather, and his uncle. Sadly, I do not have a photo of the uncle… he was a character.

Three generations of Azeri

The night I stayed there, Ramin’s uncle peppered me with questions for hours on end. He was a comical man with a limp from an apparent gun wound. I didn’t ask how that happened. Late in the evening, he comically pulls a pistol out from under his pillow (literally), waving it wildly about. This reminds me of the movie snatch!

“Uncle, why have you got a gun under your pillow?”
“For protection, Jeremie.”
“Protection from what… Z Iranians?”

Now I wish I had some record of this, but I believe it might not be a good idea in this country.

The following day I managed an alternative route to the border.

Road porn

I ended up in a very small village near the Aras dam, just across the river from Azerbaijan. There, I met a young man who blew my mind. His name is Hafez, and he spoken perfect english. It blew my mind, as he was blind and incredibly talented.

Hafez, Jeremie, Hasan

In their home, they have a computer which he uses to read. He uses a program called JAWS, which reads everything to him on the screen. Although it is read in English, it is read so quickly I can’t understand it. The man is talented enough that he’s figured out how to connect his phone to the computer, and access the internet over the air. It seems to me that most people who can see can’t do this. As he spoke fluently, I learnt much of the way of life in Iran. The difficulties that this young man must overcome in a country where “normal” people have difficulty getting by is inspiring. There a very few services for the blind in Iran.

Having spent the night, I watched the sky darken the following morning. It looked like I was going to get rained out again. Rather than ride, I opted to spend another day with Hafez and his family. He jokingly tells me that the Iranian government had criticized the western world for stealing it’s rain. Yes, stealing the rain. He joked that I had brought it back. I wasn’t so enthusiastic. I thought this was borne of the rumor mill, until I found this little gem in the Iranian English paper.

Hah!

Occasionally, I think of my bicycle as a spaceship, and this place another planet. Stranger than fiction.

The second night, the rest of the extended family came for a visit. The questions that arose were eye opening. How much do you pay for a kilo of meat? What is the cost of natural gas? How much does a home cost? How much does an average person earn? It becomes apparent that most of the villagers in these small towns are scraping by, with a small increase in price hitting them hard. For example, the price of petrol in this country has always been heavily subsidized by the government. Four months earlier, the government had reduced the subsidies… ten fold. As everything (including food), is tied to the price of petrol, an increase like this hurts the poor. With the increase, the price of diesel is now 30 cents CND a liter. It’s plausibly insane that the price of diesel was previously 3 cents a liter.

That’s enough ranting. To make a long journey short, I followed the border for a couple days taking in some of the most breathtaking scenery yet. Since I’ve run out of names for my photos, I’m calling them all road porn. It’s like climbing porn and ski porn… for cyclists. It’s the only porn you’ll see in Iran.

Road porn

Road porn

All along the Aras

Along the way I noticed an abnormal number of big oil trucks on this road. As it turns out, the oil is coming from Baku (Azerbaijan), and is making it’s way to Najikistan. As Armenia and Azerbaijan don’t get along after the war, the trucks skip Armenia and come through Iran to get there. It’s still a tense region of the world.

Petrol trucks from Maku

Stopping for lunch with truckers is a favourite of mine. You never know what to expect. This guy, for instance, served me up some fried eggs in a pan with pliers and other tools lying about. Kind of reminds me of the life aquatic.

Life Aquatic anyone?

Along the way, I had the most unexpected encounter with two other cyclists. I never expected to find other tourists on this little travelled route. Etienne and Menon are a french couple from Savoie?? making their way home from Indonesia. This is there honeymoon trip. More photos and information can be found here: www.unvoyagepourlavie.fr

Etienne, Menon, Jeremie

They are the only other cycle tourists I’ve seen in more than six weeks, so I opted to spend the night with them. As they were going the other way, I rode back to the last village and spent the night there with them. I only covered a grand total of 20km, but it was worth it to hang out with them and shoot the breeze about their journey. I got a lot of good information about the ‘stans and they were kind enough to give me their old map and guide. I believe they found my traveling gong show of a bicycle tour curiously entertaining. I believe they expected me to pull the kitchen sink out of my panniers at any moment.

The following morning we parted ways, and I continued along the border. I couldn’t complain about the scenery. 17,500km and the open road is still my opiate.

Road porn

I stopped to visit the one of the oldest ham am’s in Iran, Kordast ham am. The place is being restored and I’m not sure if the designs are as they were 1000 years ago, but they are very nice.

1000 year old Hammam

Hamam wall patterns

Hamam wall patterns

The rest of the border was nice, although not as pretty as the places I’d just been. Still, the all seeing eyes keep watch.

Who is watching me?

I stopped briefly in Eskanlou, a small village on the border, before I headed inland. In a small restaurant, I found this little gem.

Iranian version of porn.

Somewhere in the hills south of Eskanlou, I decided I had enough for the day. I found a police barracks, and they let me put my tent in front of a seemingly abandoned building. It was not abandoned. I found a man by the name of Ali squatting here, who invited me in for tea. He was despondently comical about his situation, as he flipped through the Iranian propaganda on his television.

click
“terrorist”
click
“terrorist”
click

After we had a bite to eat, a large thunderstorm moved in and the downpour began. Everything was inside my tent and I presumed the situation fine. We watched the rain pour for a while, and I noted a little river flowing near my tent. Thinking this river was going elsewhere, I went back inside for another tea. Five minutes later, I thought the better of it and went back into the pouring rain to check up on things. I arrived to find my tent floating in 10cm of water. I ended up having to move everything into the house, and slept inside for the night. The following morning I had to give all of my mud covered possessions a good wash. I can only wonder what would have happened had I been asleep in my tent when it rained. Here is what the place looked like this next morning…

Site of the flood.

The following day I arrived in Kaleybar and was privy to a beer transaction with unnamed locals. Being caught with alcohol in this country carries a steep penalty. For Iranians, it is 80 lashes. Still many people seem to run the risk, paying 8-10 dollars for a beer. Apparently the border I’d followed along the Aras river to the north is used to smuggle beer into the country. People use the guise of fishing to tow in packs of beer over the river from Azerbaijan. This is a novel absurdity for me.

I’d planned only to spend a night in Kaleybar and make my way up to the nearby castle. I planned to go in the morning, and was somewhat dismayed to discover the castle sits on a mountain peak another 700M above the road.

Babak castle, from the road

I met a young man from the village, Reza, who spoke english well enough to show me around. He an his friend came with me to the top. We took an alternative route up, following a small stream into the mountains.

Lushness of

The hike up to Babak castle

…and Reza my guide…

Reza

The last couple hundred meters of this climb was more or less a scramble to the top. It was all worth it when Rezas friend noticed a coin on the ground. Not just any coin. A 1300 year old coin. Mind. Blown.

1300 year old coin

We also found a lizard. He was less easy to pick up.

Babak lizard

The top of this castle was amazing as well. It quite literally sits at the top of the mountain, at an altitude of 2300M. In the 9th century, Babak Khorramdim fought against the invading Islamists from the south, holding his position in this fortress for 23 years. As this region of Iran is Azeri Turk, Babak represents the cultural independence of these people. This is one of the reasons the current Iranian government doesn’t seem to be too enthusiastic about the place.

Babak castle

Babak castle

Babak castle

Babak castle

Reza, thank you for accompanying me up to the castle. It was a great pleasure to spend the day with you.

Reza & Jeremie

Having spent my day at the castle, I stayed in the city a second night. I wanted to make it to Tabriz quite badly by this time, as I’ve already spent a lot of time on this route. The followed day, I rolled an easy 160km to Tabriz. The colored mountains east of the city are magnificent.

The color mountains

On the outskirts of the city, I was more than pleased to find a friend waiting for me with his car. It was a relief, as I wasn’t terribly excited about riding into the big city.

It’s now been one week since I arrived in Tabriz, but those stories will have to wait. I set out again today for Tehran. I’m finding myself constrained by the seasons. I do not wish to cycle across the deserts of Iran, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in the height of the summer heat.

I’ve also found someone silly enough to ride to China with me in the late spring heat. She’s Swiss, and we’re getting an Iranian wedding. I’ll leak more about it next week.

Peace.Love.BicycleGrease.
-jer