Before I arrived in Iran I had many preconceived ideas about what Iran would be like. As many people are influenced by western media, i didn’t want my judgment to be altered by the lies, propaganda, and hate spread by most new agencies. To enjoy traveling and get the most out of it, it is best to keep an open mind and put trust in people you don’t know.
After the first day in Iran I already knew I would love the country. Within the first hour after crossing the border we had already encountered the amazing Iranian kindness and hospitality. Even at the crossroad to the first town we came to, Maku , there were people driving by telling us which way to go, waving at us and honking their car horns. A few minutes later a family pulled their car over to ask if we needed any help, recommended us a hotel and told us what price to expect. Cycling into the town I could feel everyone’s eyes on me, catching peoples stares through the glimmer of their windshields as they drove past , and see them gawking at me from the sidewalks, not normally in an unfriendly manner but in a curious and welcoming way. After checking out a few places offering beds we settled on a cheap hotel kinda place to crash for the night, where beds were being held up uneven with some old rusted and dented oil cans, but it fit my budget. You can find hotels in almost every town.
That night we walked around the town for a bit. As we walked past people they would say hello and “welcome to my country”. Many people would ask us where we are from and how we like Iran, those questions would follow us several or more times a day throughout the months of traveling in Iran.
While walking 3 young dudes joined us, practicing their English and chatting us up. As we walked past a shop they asked what we wanted. We told them we were fine and refused repeatedly but still they bought us a bag of chips, then said goodbye. Continuing our walk a car pulled over beside us, a young women driving and a young guy in the passenger seat called us over, gave us some popcorn then drove away. Up the road a bit some guys working at a video game and computer shop invited us in the store for a tea. We hung out with them and their friends for an hour or two, although I wish our communication could have been better because we couldn’t speak a word of each others language and had resorted to using google translate, but it was a good time none the less.
This hospitality I met on my first day in Iran I learned is found throughout the country and has deep roots in the Persian culture.
A typical day for us cycling in Iran would normally consist of waking up under a bridge or on the ground under the sky just after sunrise. I would have a little breakfast, usually some fruit and some bread, then start cycling to get in as many hours as possible before dark. It was now getting dark around 5pm.
Where ever we could find a small shop we would load up on lunch and dinner, usually canned beans, breads, cheese, fruits, veg, and snacks. Anywhere we could find a water tap we would fill our bottles. All day long cars would honk at us and big, polluting, diesel trucks would honk their deafening horns right beside us as they passed by puffing black smoke in our faces. Many times a day cars would pull over in front of us to talk to us, usually wanting to take a picture with us, and offering us any help. When we cycled along the Caspian coast where citrus fruits grow in abundance, people would stop to give us bags of oranges and other fruit that grow there.
Usually we wouldn’t know where we would arrive by dark, only having rough guesses, and not knowing where we would sleep. We would just cycle until sunset then find a spot out in the countryside where we wouldn’t be seen and crash for the night. Staying in big cities is easy too because you could use cs contacts to meet good friends and get to know a lot of people, but often we wouldn’t need to because we would be invited into strangers homes for the night when they see us on the street. When I would walk around in big cities streets almost everyone I walk bye would at least say hello and if I ever stopped anywhere for a drink or food or whatever , 9 times outta 10 someone would sit and talk with me for a while. If your lucky you can find yourself at some underground parties and concerts.
Iran has an ancient culture that is thousands of years old and has one of the world’s oldest continuous major civilizations, with historical cities dating back to 4000 BC. Iran also has a very wide range of languages spoken and many different ethnic groups from Persians (65%),to Azeris (16%), Kurds (10%,) Lurs (6%), Arabs (2%), Baloch (2%), Turkmens (1%,) Turkic tribal groups (1%), and non-Persian, non-Turkic groups (e.g. Armenians, Assyrians, and Georgians) 1%, and because of this multiculturalism, dispite Iran being an Islamic republic and not secular, you will still find different religious groups in Iran from Christians to Zoroastrians to Hindus to the largest Jewish community in the muslim world. Where we entered Iran the most common language spoken was Turkish so it was easy for us to settle into because we were just cycling through Turkey for the last 2 months.Then slowly we cycled into more Farsi speaking areas.
The geography of Iran is very diverse….from rugged, mountainous rims surrounding the interior, to the salt flats and deserts of the central plateau, to the humid tropical Persian Gulf coast in the south, to the lush green Caspian Sea coastal lowlands in the north.
Some of the highest mountains in Iran are over 4000m high, some of which we had to cycle along while passing over the Alborz mountain range on the dangerous and breathtaking highway from Chalus to Teharn. It is here where Maarten got attacked by a dude with a club and was given his new nickname….Spittin-Stam….but I’ll let him tell you the whole story.
Cycling over the Alborz mountains was probably one of the hardest and most dangerous parts of this bike trip so far. The road was very small with only one lane for each direction, and sharp hairpin turns where fast cars would overtake slower ones on blind corners leaving their fate in the hands of god. One side of the road is the rock walls of steep mountains and the other side is the edge of a cliff with usually at least a 500m drop. It took us about 2 1/2 days of cycling to reach the top of the pass where temperatures where below freezing and snow lay on the ground. For one whole day we were only cycling up an incline continuously and relentlessly, never once going downhill or cycling on a flat road. It was some extremely heavy cycling and I think Maarten’s chain snapped off at least twice during that ride. But it was beautiful.
Cycling into Tehran was not as bad as I was expecting it to be. About 20 million people populate the city so I was expecting to encounter the worst traffic of the trip so far, even worse then Istanbul … but it was pretty straight forward and since we were entering by bike it allowed us to fly by all the cars stuck in traffic jams. The scary thing was seeing the pollution from the outside of the city. Looking towards Tehran you can see a dark brown cloud hovering above the city. This is a thick, choking layer of smog from all the cars, trucks, buses, planes, and factories. When we arrived, Tehran had low air quality warnings, and the center of the city was shut down with schools closed and warnings for the sick, elderly, and children to stay away from the city center because the air was not safe for breathing.
I hear people argue that climate change is more political then factual and that there is no harm in continuing our lifestyles burning all the fossil fuels we can dig out of the ground and creating C02 gas. But CO2 is not the biggest problem, a bigger problem is ground level ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and other particles. These gasses are toxic to humans, plants, and animals, and whether or not we believe climate change is real, it is a fact that by using all these fossil fuel burning machines instead of sustainable energy we are indeed destroying the planet.
After our time spent in Tehran we headed south to the cities of Qom, Isfahan, Yazd, and Bandar Abbas, not to mention all the small towns in between. These cities have a rich history and are full of beautiful old palaces and mosques to visit.
Qom is one of the most religious cities in Iran and we arrived there during the holy time of Ashura. Ashura falls on the10th day of the lunar month of Muharram when according to Islamic tradition Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, was martyred in battle in 680A.D by the army of Caliph Yazid who attacked Hussein and followers in the desert near Karbala (now a city of Iraq). Hussein was killed in a battle that lasted 10 days after he had refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid. Hussein was decapitated, his army destroyed, and his head was taken to Damascus where the seat of the dynasty of Yazid belonged.
Ashura is a day to mourn and remember the bravery, chivalry, kindness, honesty, and selflessness of Imam Hussein. Shi’as express this mourning by self-flagellation, crying, and listening to poems and sermons about the tragedy of how Hussein and his family were martyred. This is to connect them with Hussein’s suffering and martyrdom, and the sacrifices he made to keep Islam alive. It is a day to rally against injustice, inequality, and oppression. Now every year during Ashura millions of people gather at Karbala to commemorate Imam Hussein at his shrine.
In Qom, like many other cities around the world during the time of Ashura, the streets are filled for days with crowds of people wearing black and mourning Hussein, gathering together to pray, meals (niazz) are donated to feed all people, and processions last into the night. For me it was unlike anything I had seen before. So many people gathered together but it was nothing like a festival where the general mood is of celebration, but rather a sad event full of intense grieving and crying to the tune of hypnotic beating drums and chants of “Ya Hussein” in the streets. One night our lovely hosts brought us to join people in a hall where a public procession was taking place in English and finally I could understand what people were talking about. There we took part in ceremonial chest beating and chanting, and a Mullah and other people gave sermons about Hussein’s personality, beliefs, and history, and retold the Battle of Karbala so we could relive the pain and sorrow felt by him and his family. After this we all sat on the floor to eat dinner and talk together.
I will never forget my time spent in Qom (about a week) or the kindness showed to us by the people we met there.
After our time in Qom we continued south through the deserts to Yazd, then took a short hitchhike trip over to Isfahan because our visas didn’t allow us enough time to cycle there. I had a great time in both Yazd and Isfahan, these cities are very ancient and there are a lot of places to see, things to do , and people to meet there. Continuing from there we headed south all the way to the Persian Gulf to the city of Bandar Abbas where temperatures were warm again usually above 25 degrees.There our buddy from Tehran, Mahyar, came to meet up with us and we and some other friends went for a camping trip on a little nearby island called Hormuz where we watched flamingos graze on the beach, we swam, relaxed, and slept on the beach under the stars. The day we got back from the island was the last day left on our visas and we had to say a sorrowful goodbye to our friends and to the country that showed me more kindness and hospitality then any other place I’ve been to. I felt a bit nostalgic when I was leaving on the ferry to Dubai, but Iran left such an impression on me that I don’t doubt I will be back there again, hopefully sooner then later.
I’m certainly glad I didn’t heed the words and concerns of people that told me it would be dangerous to travel in Iran and I should pick another place to pass through. These warnings of course all came from people that had never visited Iran and mostly have their information from the western media, which is full of hate and propaganda being spread by the U.S government who seems to be trying hard to build a case for yet another unjust war, with the goal once again being laws taking ownership of the countries oil out of the hands of Iranians and into the hands of a few multinational energy cooperation’s, and a regime change to reclaim Iran as a country favorable to U.S military and cooperate interest including non-opposition to the Israeli government. Just like the rhetoric of the U.S before many of their wars, what you hear about Iran from the west is mostly based on lies with the purpose of getting the support needed to fight an unprovoked war. But don’t take this the wrong way… both sides of this cold war are spreading lies and hate. Iran does have a terrible government that is dangerous for its people, but the changes needed to be made must come from within Iran from the Iranian people, to be in favor of them, not the U.S. and multinational corporations.
Iran definitely has a great deal of problems, mostly with pollution, poverty, and a government that I hope will soon see the end of it’s days, but the spirit and hope of the Iranian people doesn’t seem to be affected by these things.
I’ve been left with a great impression of the Iranian people, their kindness, hospitality, and culture. I wish for them to have a bright future and I’m counting the days until I return again to hang out with all the great friends I made there.
Until then……Khodahafez Iran , hello India.