Contrary to Georgia en Armenia, Iran is one of the countries we read up on quite extensively before we left. We met up with Iranian people, a colleague of mine went on holiday here earlier this year and I was very excited about Iran to the point of dreaming about it. We therefor felt quite prepared to enter the country and finally enjoy the many sights and the famous Iranian hospitality that we had heard so much about. Most people will only ever hear about Iran in scary news reports featuring stern bearded hardliners who hate the Western world and force women to wrap up in black head-to-toe coverings. The cycling and traveling blogs that we have read and Iranian people that we met before entering the country paint a very different picture. A picture of a proud and ancient Persian culture that loves poetry, beauty and welcoming and interacting with strangers.
Still, our first days in Iran were much harder than we expected. Reading about a country is not the same as understanding it, and trying to adhere to the cultural norms is not the same as accepting them. Experiencing everyday life here brings us a little bit closer to understanding but it is the most alien culture we have experienced so far. Some of the differences are very positive and inspiring, others less so.
So, we crossed the river that is the border between Armenia and Iran. Before crossing I put on my headscarf, my long floppy trousers and a long sleeved baggy cotton shirt that falls over my bum. This dresscode, or hejab, is a legal requirement in Iran. Since we came down from the last Armenian mountain pass it had gotten very hot, and we were looking at dry, barren and very hot craggy mountains rising up before us. No green, no shade, no villages, and certainly no jolly families inviting us for tea and handing out water melon. Just a whole lot of nothing we had to cross before getting to Tabriz, the first big city on our itinerary. After the compact countries in the Caucasus we were finding it difficult to deal with the different scale of Iran, where distances are huge and there is not much variety in the landscape inbetween destinations. We were intimidated by the landscape and I was really struggling with the extra layers of clothing. This first impression seemed more in line with the hardline political face that Iran presents to the world than with the sweet stories of hospitality we had read about. These hard and unforbidding mountains, a dry and wind still heat that is beating the shit out of you and will get you to your knees in no time, the vastness of it all. We felt small and inadequate, even after having crossed all these Armenian mountain passes. We started climbing but after some 30km really started to despair if we could make to any place where we would be happy to spend the night. Everything around us looked too stony, prickly our exposed to camp, and besides there was no water. We decided to hitch-hike to the first village we saw on the map and hopped with our bicycles into a passing pick-up truck.
We arrive in Kharvana, a small village surrounded by dry farm land. Police arrives and wants a photo of our passports and of us. We are surrounded by some men, friendly enough, but we don´t really know what to do until jolly Hamid drives by on his motorbike. He speaks English and directs us to a small park around the corner where Iranian families are camping and cooking. He introduces us to the shop keeper across the road and we are happy to put up our tent and settle in for the evening surrounded by new friends. There are women too, all dressed in head to toe black chadors, but looking and smiling at us with open curiosity. We are invited to tea by some of the other campers but we are too exhausted from a long day of cycling and our many first impressions. Despite the loud music from a live concert blaring over the village we sleep a long and deep sleep. Despite our difficult first day we are very excited to finally be in Iran and we feel very safe and secure. In the morning there is one more polite passport check and we are on our way to the next town, Varziqan.
We expect to do a similar routine today, cycling until it gets too hot, then maybe hitch-hiking to the next town and find the park where we can camp. We start cycling, waving at all the cheerfully honking and ´hello!´ hollering car drivers. The road is excellent, the best we´ve seen in months, and the hilly dry landscape is beautiful, so different from anything we have seen before. Still, it is very empty, and before long it gets too hot and we hitch a ride with a pick-up truck full of friendly businessmen. They are a bit sceptical about our idea of being dropped off in Varziqan and questioning if we really want to go there. They tell us that the whole town has been flattened by and earthquake about 4 years ago and we can see new buildings being built up all around. The city is a landscape of reinforced concrete-iron beams sticking up into the crisp blue desert sky. A medical student approaches us and helps us out with sim cards and place to lunch. He invites us to come and stay with his family that night and we happily accept. Then things get a bit weird. We have presented our passport to several policemen already when our host gets accosted by a couple of plain-clothes men who are obviously trying to argue with him. His dad, who is a local politician, gets involved and things seem to be resolved. Through our translation app and our hosts dad gesturing a turban and a long beard we understand that this is the local vice police who is apparantly not happy with our presence. We go back to the phone shop for a seemingly endless process of filling out forms, fingerprinting, passport copying and waiting and waiting before we get our Iranian sim cards. When we are finally done and get back to our new friend, expecting to be taken to his home, we find that the situation has turned in our absence. The family sits in the shop together, and with blank faces they point us away, ´to the camping´. We suspect the vice police won the argument after all so we leave without further questions, quite sad at this manifestation of state control interfering with our meeting the locals. There is no camping in this devasted town, and we end up sleeping in a dirty motel for truck drivers. More misunderstandings, we are tired and upset and very disappointed. In the morning we have breakfast and things look a little bit better. I sit with the women in the back, Cyril has breakfast with the owner in the front. This separation of men and women is one little barb that adds to the sadness we feel. Even though we knew about this beforehand, actually experiencing this seggregation and (however grudgingly) subduing to it is quite something else.
On our third day we do the same thing again, cycling and hitch-hiking into Tabriz. We decide we will stop cycling while we are in Iran, as it is insanely hot. Even in the ´cool´ North it is almost 40 degrees! We spend two nights in a lovely relaxed hotel in Tabriz and find our feet again. Tabriz is lovely and we have a great time enjoying the sights, together with our accidental tourguide Wahid. Despite a series of comic misunderstandings we get to see the Bazaar, the best coffee shop in town, a park full of families strolling around in the evening and a touristy village built in hollow rock formations. We are getting used to feeling like rockstars, people who want to have their photo taken with us, calling out to us, asking where we are from, hello, hello mister!
Our friend Hosein
Before we traveled to Iran I had contacted Hosein through warmshowers. He lives close to Imam Khomeini airport, which is handy since we fly out of there to Tajikistan. We take a bus from Tabriz to Tehran to meet Hosein and leave our bicycles with him so we can travel around the country with minimal luggage. Hosein is our hero, as he comes to the rescue to pick us up from a rather stressful arrival on the outskirts of Tehran. We are taken to his home and have a great two nights relaxing at his place. We love spending some time with his family and experiencing the Iranian way of life. Hosein works three jobs, but it feels as if he has all the time in the world to help us and spend time with us. He and his wife will open a restaurant soon, and we teach him how to make espresso with our little mocha coffee maker. Soraya´s cooking is fantastic so we are sure the restaurant will be a hit. Hosein has done some cycling trips around Iran, and cycled around the town with his wife as well. He tells me the same thing I heard from a girl in Tabriz which makes me sad: if a woman rides a bicycle she will get looks and be talked about. This is why they used to cycle around together at night, so no one would see them. As we have experienced before, we are humbled by the warm and generous welcome of Hosein and his family and we talk about how we can bring some of the Iranian culture of hospitality home with us to Amsterdam. We are already looking forward to returning to Hoseins home at the end of our tour of Iran.
We go back to Tehran to catch a night train to Andimeshk, a town quite far South and close to the Iraqi border and the Persian gulf. Before we get on the train we meet up with Verena, the Austrian cyclist we first met in Batumi. She is staying with a cool couple in Tehran and we enjoy a lovely afternoon together.
The train is great, with comfortable beds and airco. The grandmother of the all-female family we share our compartment with is a bit upset with Cyrils presence but in the morning all is good and we part ways as friends. I play rock paper scissors with the youngest kid until we roll into Andimeshk station.
Ziggurats and waterworks
Straight of the train we take a taxi to Shushtar, a town renowned for its waterworks. On the way there we stop off at the archeological sites of Choqa Zanbil and Haft Tappeh. Choqa Zanbil is a gigantic 5 storey ziggurat of which 2 and a half remain in excellent condition. It is surrounded by temple ruins and a wall encompassing a town, built some 3500 years ago. For me this site is comparable in size, condition and cultural meaning to the pyramids of Egypt, yet we are the only visitors. It is so remote, and it is also extremely hot: during our stay in Shushtar temperatures reach 50 degrees every afternoon. The ziggurat has been buried beneath the desert sand for about 2500 years, until it was discovered by an aerial survey of an oil company sometime in the last century.
Nearby Haft Tappeh is a site with a cluster of smaller ziggurats and a museum detailing the archeological work. There are some beautiful artefacts on show such as the skeletons buried in clay pots, as is custom with the burial rituals of the Zoroastrians. The Zoroastrian belief predates Islam, is still being practised in Iran and abroad and believes in good vs evil and the elements of fire, water, earth and plants. Since they don’t want to contaminate the earth element people are buried in clay pots (today in concrete cases).
We hadn’t read much about Shushtar before we arrived so we had dreamt up a poorly informed picture of a collection of watermills, based on our knowledge of Dutch and other European mills. The Shustar waterworks therefor was a jaw-dropping surprise. It is a more than 2000 year old engineering feat that is still in use today. It was built by captured Roman soldiers around the first century AD, but the qanats (underground canals) that bring the water into town together with the Qarun river are believed to be much older. The whole system consists of a weir where water is divided into two streams. These streams are then led to a complex of mills that operate by having water being run through them with great force created by differences in height and width of the water canals. The overall effect is magical: from road level you look down on glittering green water spouting out of the qanats from sandstone cliffs into a pool surrounded by an ancient collection of arched and domed mill buildings. High above the water works are the old buildings of the town, built in adobe. There are some modern additions but rather than clash with the ancient surroundings they do nothing but enhance the wonder of the engineering works: a small electricity generating plant was added in 1941 and an ice factory was running on its own electricity generated by the waterflow until a few years ago. The water continues its flow through a canyon lined with palm trees and other plants. Ducks are kayaking the strong currents in the pool. After our excursion in the boiling heat of the day it is lovely to unwind in the cool atmosphere of the water.
We are staying in a pleasant historical house that has been turned into a hotel. It consists of a courtyard with a huge date palm tree and a small pool surrounded by simple rooms. Usually we are not big fans of airconditioning but here it is a necessity as at night it only cools down to around 30 degrees. We stroll around town in the morning and have a nap in the afternoon when it gets too hot. The town is small and conservative (we see mostly chadors and very little adventurous interpretations of the hejab) but we discover a wonderful coffee house which shows artefacts from a local collector. The coffee and milkshakes are superb and we meet some nice people. Mojtaba invites (read: orders) us to lunch with his family which makes for an afternoon well spent. We are invited to nap in the living room together with his family. Somehow this is one bridge too far for us reserved and individualistic Northern Europeans and we head back to our hotel for siesta.
After much confusion and many ´no problems, relax my dearest friend´ we manage to organize a night bus to Esfahan through our hotel. We wake up as the sun hazily rises over the desert. The bus driver plays a beautifully hypnotizing call to prayer on the soundsystem and we are drifting along with it, feeling a bit delusional with lack of sleep. No need for alchohol, we are tripping.
We skip right through Esfahan onto another bus to Kashan, a town renowned for its Qajar era houses. We check into Eshan house, one of these houses turned museum-hotel-library-restaurant. For the first time since arriving in Iran we are in a place that almost exclusively caters to non-Iranian tourists. The receptionist speaks excellent English. Fellow guests lounge by the pool and most women flout the hejab. I find this a bit problematic since I fear it can get the hotel into trouble for breaking the law, but what do I know.
After a much needed siesta we head for the bazaar where we enjoy a chay with a courteous rose water merchant. The rest of the evening is spent chatting in the hotel courtyard with a Danish couple. We are unwinding from the Shustar heat and the nighttrip on the bus. This is starting to feel like a holiday.