Iran #3 – Head for the hills, Tabriz to Tehran.

Having spent a week in Tabriz, the time had come for Sabine and I to leave. Sabine had been waiting for me now for four days. I had spent the last two days burning all of the film I’d taken in Turkey to DVD, with aspirations of sending it back to Canada. I copied everything twice, hoping that at least one of each disk would make it intact. Having spent so much time doing this, I failed to actually make it to the post office before it closed. Rather than wait another day, I opted to carry the package with me to the next town I could mall it. I hadn’t realized the next town I could send international mail was 250km away.

Cycle courier

So we set off for the Caspian sea, east of Tabriz. The mountains along the way were sufficiently high to be void of trees. The only people around are the nomads, herding their sheep over the barren hills.

Nomads on the steeps of Sabalan.

Nomads on the steeps of Sabalan.

Coming down the east side of this mountain range was a very fun ride down. Losing 1500m altitude, over 30km, it’s all smooth sailing. Stopping on the side of the road for some snacks, we sat on the edge of a valley and absorbed the silence. The trees are in the full bloom of late spring, and only the sound of the sheep baying in the hills can be heard.

Narrowly avoiding the storm

Descent to Mt. Sabalan.

As we rolled down, Mt. Sabalan came into view. Sabalan is one of the higher volcanoes in Iran, towering at 4811m. We were going to ride all the way around it, at least for the next 150km to Ardabil. The volcano could be seen from quite a distance, at least 50km away.

The road to Sabalan.

The following day we passed through several small towns, and decided that we’d visit one of the hot springs. Unfortunately, we likely picked one of the more difficult ones to visit. We strayed off the highway into a small village leading up to a spring and asked about it. Iranians are famously friendly and helpful, and perhaps infamously bad with distances. We were told 10km to the hot spring in the village, and a slight climb. I’d little idea that this meant a 30km 1600m climb that would take us all day. This was a road that doesn’t exist on the map.

A 1600M climb.

It took us most of the day to make this climb, including a lunch stop with a bee farmer half way up. Near the end of the climb there were two steep sections of road, likely around %12-%15. A slog when you’ve got nearly 60kg of your life packed on a bike. While climbing, we’re approached by an older Iranian man in an old land rover. He stops and gives me a piece of chewing gum. He seems to be very impressed that we’ve climbed this far. He gets right up close to me, and my internal dialog begins something like this.

what’s this man doing so close to me. Oh, he wants to give me a hug. Nope, he’s going for the kiss. Give him the cheek! The cheek!

He plants a big wet one on my cheek and pats me on the shoulder. So that’s why he had chewing gum! Sabine gets an awkward cheek pinching instead of kiss. That kind of surprised me, as I’m pretty sure that broke the rules here. He followed us up for more than an hour, stopping every couple hundred meters to give me another kiss on the cheek and words of encouragement. Strange.

Near the end of the climb, we came across this.

Finish!

It must have been some kind of joke. It still kept climbing after the finish line. At least the Iranian kisser had left, and we finally made it to the hot spring. There’s nothing quite like a swim in a 55C pool after a monster climb. The hot spring looked more like a prison from the outside.

The hot spring at night.

They let us camp outside the hot spring facility, on a tiled patio that seemed to be there for no good reason. Waking up at the foot of Sabalan was fantastic.

Another epic campsite.

Cycling down was even better. The view in the Shirvan valley where amazing.

Shirvan hot spring descent

I changed the color in this panorama with the gimp. I made it look a little more LOTR 😉

Making it look LOTR.

More nomads.

I clocked my 18,000th km on the way down too. Huzzah!

18,000km.

Arriving in Ardabil we decided that we would stay in or near the city so I could mail this package home in the morning. Trying to navigate our way through the city, we meet a man who tells us we can camp in a large park near the city. He brings us to a fair ground near a small lake. The place is packed, there’s no way were going to camp here. So we continue around the lake and he stops and shows us a place on the other side of the lake. There are fewer people, but still a few families camping. I have an audience putting up my tent.

Always an audience.

We share some kebab with a family, and go to sleep. Everyone goes home, and all is good. At 2am, Sabine elbows me in the ribs. Hey, wake up, there’s someone outside the tent. Hey it’s the police! The only english they speak is “passport”, to which I duly comply. They then try and explain something to me in Farsi, and unfortunately my Farsi’s pretty bad at 2am. I’m asked if I understand some Turkish. Well yes, a bit more. He proceeds to explain that we should move our tent across the park so we don’t get robbed. He emphasizes his point with the hand across the neck throat slitting motion, and take your bags from you. Well thank you for your concern, Mr. police officer. So what difference will moving to the other side of the park make? It seems I’m just as likely to get robbed over there. The rest of my night was punctuated by my hyper awareness of any sound outside. I woke in the early hours of the morning with a sore face. It was only when I collected myself I realized I’d fallen asleep on my knife I had been clutching in my hand. I don’t suppose I’ll ever be sure if there was any real danger, or if the police were simply being more paranoid than me.

Later the following morning, my goal was to get this package posted back to Canada. It was a 3.5kg package that I’ve now carried with me for 250km. I feel kind of like the ultimate bike courier. When we finally found the post office, I was promptly informed that I would have to bring my stack of 75 DVD’s to the customs police and get authorization to post them. They looked a little surprised when I walked in there with my big stack of disks. Initially, the first officer puts a disk in his computer and concludes there are a bunch of files on it. Sound analysis! The stack is then given to a room with a handful of women who apparently look through the files. Most of the film is from Turkey, but there was also some video from my journey along the Iranian / Azerbaijan border I hoped they wouldn’t recognize. (Taking photos and videos are forbidden). However, no one in there spoke English. That kind of helps when I’d narrated my videos along the border. When I was finally able to send the package, it cost me 80,000 toman (about 73CND). Now that I’ve gone to the trouble, I find out the Canadian postal service is going on strike 😉 Inshallah, someday in the coming months, that package will arrive.

Sabine had been waiting for me this whole time. That’s amazing patience. In the meantime, she’d met a nice young man, Hamid, who offered to take us to lunch. It was a pleasure and an honour to have lunch with him and his friend Soheil.

They took us for a visit of the mausoleum of Sheik Safi-al-din in Ardabil. He was the founder of the Sufi Islam sect in Ardabil, called Saffaviya. It was the founding stone for what would later become the Safavid empire in Iran. This was one of the greatest empires in Persian history, ruling much of current Iran 1501 to 1722.

Safavid

To underscore the importance of the Safavid empire, it was during their empire that Shi’a Islam was made the state religion. They promoted the believe of the 12 Imams Iran is still home to the largest Shi’a Muslim population in the world.

Sheik Safi al din tomb

The mausoleum is very impressive. The old tomb of Sheik Safi is a huge ornamental structure in the middle of the complex.

Sheik Safi monument.

On the inside, his tomb is equally as impressive.

Sheik Safi's tomb

Next to the tomb, there is the Dar-al-Huffazz, which effectively means “the library for the study of the Qur’an”. The ceiling of this library is mesmerizing.

The ceiling of Dar-al-Huffazz.

The ceiling of Dar-al-Huffazz.

There is a 600 year old stone emblem of the Safavid empire. The Safavid empire was the high point in Persian culture.

Sign of the Safavid.

The tour of the mausoleum was made so much better with friends. Thank you Hamid and Someil for sharing your time with us in Ardabil. Hamid, I must also thank you for your incredible patience at the post office.

Hamid, Jeremie, and friend.

Sabine and I continued our journey through the hills to Khalkhal, and on to the Caspian sea. We had a little summer hail, in a land with no trees…

Riding in the hail

I was accosted by half the town in Kahlkahl. It’s like, where’s waldo?

Sometimes

On the way over the hills to the sea, we had an unfavorable run in with a Shepard. I happened upon this man first, and he hailed me down with his Shepard stick. I soon realized that he didn’t want to make conversation with me, his aim was more nefarious. The gut feeling that something was amiss was quite strong, so I pushed a goodbye on him and continued riding up the hill. I stopped a hundred meters uphill thinking that I should watch Sabine, just in case he should try something. As she passed through the sheep, I thought she was in the clear. So I turned around and continued climbing only to hear her scream a minute later. Awww shit…. I turned back and saw her stopped on the road and the Shepard sprinting back to his flock of sheep. Having realized he’d tried to either rob or assault her in some way, I decided I’d ride back and have a good yell at him. So I rode at him and his giant flock of sheep, scattering them everywhere. Ten meters away, I decided to keep some distance as he pulled back his jacket and reached for what was presumably a weapon. He didn’t actually take anything out, but I didn’t want to find out what he had. I yelled at him for a while, and turned around to join Sabine. Apparently, he’d put his Shepard stick into her spokes to stop her and reached to grab something off her bike. It now became clear that is was his intent to try and rob us, and that he’d changed his mind when he stopped me the first time.

When we continued up the pass, a car tried to stop Sabine. Given the experience she’d just had, she ignored him. The poor guy was just another friendly Iranian. So he drove up the road and stopped me. Of course, I will talk to anyone. The man pressed a Heineken to the window, and asks me “Would you like this?” You sir, are my hero. I haven’t had a drink in a month, and this beer is going to taste soooo good 🙂 His name is Ali, and he offers us a place at his resort in Noshahr along the Caspian.

This man is my hero.

Ali, you really made my day. Thank you very much. In the end, the day worked out well. Nobody got robbed, and we got a beer after our 1000m climb. We even got lucky with a campsite near the top of the pass.

Waking up with cows.

Waking up at 2000M

The descent from this pass to Asalem on the coast was one of the nicest roads I’ve been on in Iran yet. A 2000m loss over 40km, coasting through small nomad camps, villages, and lush green forests.

Descent to Asalem

Descent to Asalem

Descent to Asalem

Descent to Asalem

The north side of the mountain range is covered in Iranian jungle.

A most epic downhill ride.

Near the sea, there are rice paddies everywhere. People were out working in the rice paddies.

Women working in the rice paddies.

Rice paddies along the Caspian

We passed through Rasht on the way, and I decided to extend my Iranian visa. I would be arriving in Tehran very close to the last day of my visa, and did not want to risk anything. We found a particularly crazy man who helped me find the foreign aliens office there. He helped me out a lot, as I had to pay the bank for my visa extension. Of course, the forms are only in Farsi, so he filled them out for me. It cost me 30,000 roman ($27 CND) to extend it for a month. I don’t even know this mans name, but I must thank him anyway. Thank you for your help kind sir.

Nothing special here.

We didn’t get very far out of Rasht, when we met another couple on the road. Ali and Massy (Masoume) were driving back to Lahijan and invited us to stay with them at their home. We showed up, and spent a lovely evening hanging out with them.

Masoume and family

Masoume and family

Walking around Lahijan, we came across an old man an his impressive mustache. Also he had a parrot.

A man, his moustache, and his parrot. Epic.

They didn’t have room for us to sleep, so we took up the offer to sleep on the roof of their apartment building. Massy’s father went to a great deal of effort cleaning the roof, and old toilet that was up there.

Rooftop camping.

Illegal satellite.

The view was great, but we could not stay longer. The reflective covering cooked us in the early morning. Thank you Masoume and family, it was a pleasure to spend the evening with you.

Sabine, Masoules father, and I.

We rode all the way to Chalus, and camped one night along the Caspian sea. It’s dirty, and the beaches aren’t really great. We did sit on the shores of the sea and watch a full lunar eclipse for more than an hour. That was great…

Lunar Eclipse

When we arrived in Chalus, we had planned to see if we could stay with Ali, the beer saviour. In the evening, we were accosted by a news reporter who wanted to interview us for five minutes. An hour later, it was dark and we hadn’t sorted out a place to stay. We met a local who offered to take us in for the night. Abu works as a translator in Chalus, translating Persian books and poetry to english. Apparently, he also composes some of his own poetry. My mind flipped back to the hitchhikers guide to the galaxy when he pulled out a large stack of poetry. It was like… Vogon poetry. While he was reading us his poetry, his youngest daughter was busy assailing him with a spatula.

Our host in Chalus, Ali

The following day, we started our climb up the narrow road from Chalus to Tehran. Traffic was very heavy, and there is no shoulder on this narrow mountain road. We’d only gone 20km when we saw a family we’d met a day earlier in Chalus. They were having a picnic up the road and invited us to join them. So we stopped and had a bite to eat with them, eventually passing the whole afternoon with them.

Fire for Kebab

Kebab

Ghasem

They insisted that we stay with them for a night in Chalus, and we agreed that if they drove us back in the morning we would. So why the hell not. We load the bikes into the back of his truck and drive back to Chalus.

Back to Chalus

We had a very nice night with them. Food, discussion, and new friends. Thank you Ghasem, Zainab, and the rest of the family.

Diner at Ghasems

Ghasem dropped us off on the road in the morning, and we continued our assault of the Alborz mountains. The road is narrow with no shoulder for 150km. In some places, they’ve blasted away the mountain leaving large pieces of overhanging rock.

How about that for tight roads?

Road through the Alborz

We met two other cyclists on the side of the road having lunch. One of them, Ali, was on the Iranian national cycling team. It looked like a Scott at first. Then I had to have a closer look…

Hey it's a Scott!

… it’s actually a Giant, underneath then hand drawn decals 🙂

Was a Giant, now a Scott

Ali showed us his cycling membership. I guess when you have painted your bike yourself, this cycling membership doesn’t seem too far out.

National Iranian MTB teammember

Thanks for lunch guys. It was nice to meet some other cyclists along the way.

Cyclist lunch

The following day, we came across two other cyclists. These guys had trailers, and older MTB bikes that I vaguely remembered seeing earlier. They each had a heavy duty tripod which must have counted for at least a kilo or more.

Trailers and Tripods

We met the owners of the bikes, two young Frenchmen, Mael and Simon. When I began speaking to them and ask them where they had come from and where they were going, I found out where I’d seen the bikes. Two months earlier, I’d gone to Nemrut Dag in Turkey, and taken a hotel at the foot of the mountain. Not wanting to cycle up another 1000M with %15 grade roads, I took the sensible option of a hotel and a bus ride to the top at 5am. That’s where I discovered a tent, two bikes, and two trailers on the summit of the mountain. I hadn’t actually met them at the time, as it was 5am and they were still sleeping. More or less, we’d both come from the same place in Turkey, and met randomly 2 months and 3000km later in Iran. It really is a small world.

Mael et Simon

The French guys from Nemrut.

After we’d left the French guys, we passed two mountain passes in the Alborz mountains with some amazing scenery.

Road tunnels

Dizin

We took the smaller road through Dizin into Tehran. There is a ski resort here. Some iranian guy even handed me a flier for skiing. Uhhh… thanks. Coming around the corner and seeing the ski resort, I thought “how nice, I wonder how we get around it?” There was no getting around it. Vicious switchbacks all the way up.

Climb to 3200m

Last last 500m climb.

The sun was setting at this time and the top of this pass turned out to be 3200m elevation, the highest pass I’ve gone over yet.

Made it!

We camped near the pass, and rolled into Tehran in the morning. 60km rolling into one of the largest metropolis’ in the middle east in the morning. I’d say it wasn’t bad. This is what we woke up to.

Dizin

Dizin

So finally we arrive in Tehran, also known now as visa purgatory. We’re just in time for the international conference on terrorism!

Terrorism conference, Tehran

So now we’re still in Tehran. I have to get my visas for Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China here. Soon we will leave and make a break for the roof of the world. The forecast calls for +40C everyday for the foreseeable future. It’s great, if you’re a lizard.

Peace.Love.BicycleGrease.
-jeremie