Last report from Iran

I’m currently in Mashhad, eastern Iran, and this will be my last report from Iran. Tomorrow I am going to head northwest (i.e. completely the wrong direction), to the Turkmenistan border, near Ashgabat. I’ll take this leg easy, over 3 days, to rest before some longer days in Turkmenistan – will be over a week on the bike, 100km per day.

After getting an overnight bus from Shiraz to Tehran, I spent a few days getting my Turkmenistan visa. Note to future applicants – make sure your US dollar notes are absolutely immaculate, with absolutely no marks or exchange dealers stamps on them. I had a real problem with this, as I had some OK notes, but they had small stamps on them. Eventually used one of my crisp $100 bills – this actually worked out well, as I got some small change back, that should be useful over the next few weeks. Be prepared to wait too – we were told to come back at 15:00, but it wasn’t until around 18:00 they were ready. Apparently this is because it’s supposed to take 3 days, but the local consul tries to get Ashgabat to rush their end, to issue them the same day – sometimes it’s a bit of a rush.

But anyway, I now have that stamp, and since I need to enter Turkmenistan on the 29th, I got another overnight bus, from Tehran to Mashhad. This is a very holy city to Shiites, with Imam Reza buried here. As a result of this, it feels different to the likes of Tehran, Tabriz and Shiraz. It feels the most Islamic of all the cities I have been to in Iran, with nearly all women wearing the chador, and far more men in traditional dress. More turban-wearers too, which doesn’t exactly thrill me, given the opinion that most of the population I’ve met seems to have of them.

While on the bus here, I was chatting to Ejaz, sitting next to me. On finding out I was going to Mashhad, he took the prayer beads off from around his neck, and gave them to me. He also gave me another set he had, specifically to bring them to Mashhad. Very touching really, and now perhaps I will fit in that tiny bit more, walking along, swinging my prayer beads.

Sometimes when you are looking for a specific hotel, you will be told that it has been knocked down, or has burnt down, or something. However in this case, it seems that the Tous Hotel actually has been knocked down, as there is a large construction site there. But no problem, I found another place, reasonably priced. The room is below ground level, and doesn’t get much natural light – suits me well though, since sunrise is around 4:15 here – now I can actually sleep in. Apparently daylight savings time is no longer used in Iran – most guidebooks are out of date on this detail.

So, a few thoughts on modern Iran are in order. Firstly, the popular image of terrorists, and nutters running around beating up women because they display a stray lock of hair, is largely wrong. Most Iranians are normal people, looking to get on with their lives, concerned about the normal things – jobs, family, getting married, etc. Iran feels much more developed than other countries in this region, although poverty is certainly there. But the infrastructure in cities is quite reasonable, and I’m not expecting to see much better before getting to China.

But yes, the political rhetoric is certainly there – e.g. the enormous billboard covering the side of a building in Tehran, of the Stars and Stripes represented by falling bombs and skulls, with “Down With USA” written across it. But this is peeling and fading, and no-one seems to take much notice. I didn’t see much in the way of posters outside of Tehran – apparently this is where the army is strongest. Similarly the news is full of it – seen today: “US Congress approves war funding bill giving, Bush a blank check to pursue adventurism in MidEast” – but no-one seems to take much notice of that, they’re all watching their satellite TV (which is banned, but everyone seems to have it).

People think of women in this region, and they think of the headscarf. Yes it is compulsory, and yes I think it is wrong, and about oppression, not religion. But it’s interesting to see how it is worn – for many women, the headscarf sits a very long way back on the forehead. No doubt there is a direct correlation between how much hair is shown, and how much power the mullahs are wielding at that time. The women here are strong, opinionated, and well-educated. In Turkey it is extremely rare to talk to women, but here it is quite common.

The real shame is the way the government has stuffed the economy – a major concern of nearly all Iranians I spoke to is the lack of jobs, especially for the young. Sure, it’s fine when diesel only costs you $0.02 per litre, but if you don’t have jobs for people you get problems. This is where the drugs problem is coming from – it’s easier to get heroin in Tehran than a beer. The government prefers to take the stance they do, and effectively discourage foreign investment, than try and look for a future beyond oil. On the news they celebrate Iran-Turkey trade of $6B, and foreign direct investment of $1B. But when you consider the size of the population, these numbers are a pittance.

And people here know it – they know there are problems, but they have the knife to the throat, and there is a limit to what they can do about. One of the most depressing elements is that almost every English-speaking Iranian I have met wants to emigrate. A country cannot advance with that sort of brain drain, and it will have massive repercussions on Iran for years.

It’s all a pity really, as Iran is a great country to travel in, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has the chance. Doesn’t have to be by bike, either. The people are welcoming, intelligent, and generally too ready to help. I just couldn’t live in a non-free country, that’s all.

Oh and whatever you may have heard about the Iranian drivers is true. I have decided that they are indeed the worst I have ever seen, worse than Libya and Egypt. Just no cultural driving education, and everyone does whatever he wants on the road, leading to mayhem. They can’t see that their actions make things worse, they don’t help them get anywhere faster. How I haven’t seen (or been involved in) more accidents is completely beyond me. The accidents certainly happen though – over 20,000 deaths per year I’ve heard. Can’t say I have a lot of sympathy for them.

This is the Voice of Iran

Well, actually it doesn’t say that, but it still is very much propaganda central – after 4.5 days on the bike I checked into a hotel with a TV, and have just been watching a lot of IRINN – Islamic Republic Iran News Network. It is both disturbing and informing to watch. It’s the only thing with any English language, just a scrolling bar of newsbites. Here’s some genuine examples of headlines I’ve seen – none of them made up:

  • “The Enemy has acknowledged Iranian soft influence in the region”
  • “Poll: Iraq war has shattered American morale”
  • “Bush stammer becomes laughing stock”
  • “Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lauds role of public relations departments in establishing trust with people”
  • “Iranian investments in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq have been absolutely important” – by “investments” they mean funding and arms for insurgents, not factories
  • “Zionist regime’s helicopters martyred two children in Gaza strip today”
  • “Iran is a democracy which rely’s (sic) on religion”

But there were some encouraging points, mainly that they are prepared to talk with the US, and agree on a need for stability in Iraq, which they believe they can create. They hardly ever referred to the Israeli government directly, preferring to use the terms “Olmert regime” or “Zionists.” They also ran very disturbing cartoons, in Farsi, but clearly portraying Jewish characters doing bad things. Simple stereotypes, that sort of thing. I must talk some more to Iranian people about this channel, see whether anyone takes it seriously. I’m pretty sure they don’t.

Because there is much more to Iran than the propaganda that the government puts out. In general, the people are friendly and helpful, as long as they are not behind the wheel of a car. For example today at the bakery, I’d been waiting for a while to get some bread, but got bored of waiting, so wandered off. At the same time a man who had gotten some bread also left, and he chatted to me in English for a while, and made me take some bread from him (I did try refusing multiple times).

I rode down from Esfahan to Shiraz over 5 days, camping at Pasgardae and Persepolis along the way. Near Persepolis there was a sign for “The Persepolis Tourist Complex” that had the standard symbol for camping and caravans. But when I got there, no they didn’t do camping. No problem, the guys on horseback at the carpark told me I could camp under the trees, on the patch of grass next to the carpark. Very nice too, and when I woke up the next day, the first guy I saw was carrying a machine gun. He just waved over at me. No concerns about theft there.

I enjoyed my days riding down this way, and it has been interesting to see the country change. A reasonable elevation for most of the way, around or above 2,000m, and so things have been pleasantly cooler. Was interesting to see the country change as I came over the main pass, on this side there must be a lot more water, as the fields are green, and there are many more trees. I even had a couple of hours rain one night, meaning no hot dinner – but it was OK, I just ate one of the melons I’ve been eating each day – around $0.50 for a rockmelon or honeydew melon. The watermelons are a bit big and heavy to carry, so I haven’t tried them yet.

Sometimes it gets a bit weary constantly being the centre of attention. I don’t know how many car horns get honked at me, but I would estimate (conservatively) somewhere in the order of 100 per hour. In small towns, when I stop for provisions, I tend to get a lot of stares, and people following my every movement. In the cities, and at the tourist sites, you get people come up to you and want to chat. Usually this is nice, but occasionally you are hot and tired, and just want to be left alone for a bit. But putting in some effort is often rewarded.

Camping has been good too, people just generally leave me be, even if I’m not all that well concealed. The other day I had a nice spot by a river, on soft grass (sheer luxury!) but more or less in the middle of a small town, with houses nearby. But my only disturbances were beautiful shepherdesses herding their flocks past me as I cooked dinner. People saw me, and just left me be. It was only as I was just about to ride off, when a couple of kids came over to talk. They turned out to be the “give me money” type of kids, so they didn’t get a lot of conversation.

Annoyingly, I was kicked out of the Shagh-e Cheragh Mausoleum today, for being a non-Muslim. I’m pretty sure non-Muslims are allowed in there though – they certainly have been in the past. Was only wandering around in the courtyard too, hadn’t actually gotten around to going into the mausoleum itself. A bit annoying, since I’ve been to other Islamic mausoleums in countries like Syria without problem. It’s not like I was being in any way disrespectful, and I was, as always in these parts of the world, conservatively dressed. Actually, looking back on it, I’m not sure the guy was all that official, just being a prick.

Have also found out that my photo album is not fit for public consumption in Iran. The other day I stopped for water at what I think may have been a bank, and was soon the centre of attention, with someone filling up my water bottle, others bringing me tea and biscuits, etc. We were going through the usual stuff, I had the map out, then thought to show a few photos, which started out OK. Then we got to scandalous pictures of women without their heads covered, and the album was quickly closed up and returned to me. Interestingly though, by this stage someone had gotten hold of my “Point-It” picture book, with pictures of all kinds of different items. They all very quickly found the page with photos of various bottles of spirits, and they all made it clear they knew very well what whiskey was, and would like some, but for the turban-wearers, who would cut their throats. All this was conveyed without any English, but no matter, the meaning was clear.

So, interesting times here in Iran. Going to have a few very quiet days here, doing not much, maybe watch some more IRINN, muck about online a bit. Unfortunately the web filtering used by the Great Socialist Islamic Republic of Iran with Mohammed (peace be upon him)’s blessing, doesn’t allow me to access quite a few sites. So to those who have added me as a friend on Facebook, I’m not ignoring you, I’m just not allowed to access that site. All sites listing the sites blocked are also banned, so I can’t even tell what the full list is. Oddly, Slashdot is banned, but not The Register. Guess News for Nerds just aint allowed in an Islamic Republic.

Will be getting a 16 hour bus up to Tehran, for fun with Turkmen visas, before going over to Mashhad, and out to Turkmenistan.

Hope everyone’s safe and well out there

Hot, sweaty, and no more beard!

I have now made it to Esfahan, 450km south of Tehran. Four long hot days in the saddle, along some nice smooth wide roads – 3 lanes each way, plus a wide shoulder for me – running near the edge of the desert. These are the sorts of views I was looking at:

Iran Road
Iran Road

Towns are few and far between, and yesterday things got interesting, with no services stops for over 125km. Luckily I found an Iranian Red Crescent base, and they gave me some water. I went through over 7L of water yesterday, and it probably still wasn’t enough. But it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun, right? Not quite so good when you haven’t had a shower or changed clothes for 4 days, but in some ways that didn’t really bother me. Yesterday when having a shower, and using the scrubbing brush, I did find that much of my tan was actually just dirt, but no matter. For cyclists coming this way in future, the tollway is a good road, with not too much traffic, just make sure you stock up on food and water whenever you get the opportunity.

So now I’m having a couple of rest days here, in what is a lovely city. Look, trees and water:

Esfahan Street
Khomeini Square

I started the day with these two big bits of bread – approximately $0.05US each. Sweet. Handed to me straight out of the oven, burning my fingers. It’s very nice to sit under the shade of a tree, eat fresh bread, and watch the town coming to life – not too busy today though, it’s Friday

Iranian Bread

After various comments from Iranian men, and the fact that my head was getting too hot, I have gotten a haircut, and lost the beard. I am sure this will please my legions of female fans no end – check out the new look:

Haircut and shave

Oddly the hair doesn’t seem to be growing back as quickly on my face now, but that makes things easier.

For those who have been passing disparaging comments about the hotels and such like that I have been staying in, I would like to point out that in the previous few days, I slept in a ditch, an abandoned building, and a tunnel under the road. The last one was near Natanz, which is highly sensitive due to the nuclear work going on there, but fortunately I did not get a midnight wake up call from the military.

From here I’m going to head south to Shiraz, then in a week or so I’ll go back up to Tehran, hopefully get my Turkmenistan visa, then head east, to meet the other cyclists at Mashhad, not far from the border. Will try and do another post in a week from Shiraz.

I am NOT getting in that car!

Ali, an English-speaking Iranian, was holding up the replacement tyre, that they were about to fit to the taxi – it was as bald as a baby’s backside. At that point I lost it, packed up my bike, picked up a random direction, and headed off towards where I thought the bus station was. In my haste, I forgot to reconnect the front brake. I already had the rear brake disconnected due to wheel problems, so when I started heading downhill, and realised I had no brakes, and was heading towards a T-junction, things weren’t looking good. I should have realised that it was not going to be a good day when I swung my leg over the saddle first thing, and tore a big hole in my trousers.

We had camped in a half-finished building 15-20km from Marand, in north-eastern Iran. I had noticed that my rear brakes were grabbing a little at one spot, but thought perhaps the wheel wasn’t quite true, so hadn’t bothered looking at it, and was going to deal with it later. But then a few kilometres after starting, I realised something was wrong with my rear wheel. Stopping to look, I saw the rim had split along the braking surface. Check this out:

The wheel was holding together, but I didn’t know how long it would last. We weren’t too far from Marand, so I decided to push on to there, and try and find a bus to Tabriz.

I made it to Marand, where the fun began. A few wrong directions when trying to find the bus station, then I saw a sign for the bus station. OK, let’s go in that direction. A fair way along the road, I realise that I’ve probably missed a turn somewhere. I stop and ask directions, and meet Ali, who speaks a bit of English. I explain the situation, he says follow me, OK, this looks good. We meet an English teacher, and there is talk of cups of tea. No problem, I’m happy to spend a little of my time with people, who want to meet foreigners, practise their English, etc.

But then suddenly we are going around the bike stores, to try and find somewhere to fix my wheel. There is now a large crowd gathered around, including ‘Ice’, a German-speaker who keeps butting in. Next thing we are loading the bike in a ute, and heading off to another bike store, where I just know that they won’t have what I need – partly because Friday is a day of rest, with most places closed. The crowds continue, and I’m starting to get a bit frazzled. I’m struggling to keep up with the German flowing from Ice, who it would seem gets few opportunities to speak German, and is trying to make up for lost time.

Finally getting agreement that I need to go to Tabriz, they want me to take a taxi, not a bus. I really want the bus, but they are determined to put me in a taxi. This means that Ali and Ice also want to come to Tabriz (around 60km away). I can’t dissuade them, but then before leaving town the taxi gets a flat tyre, and I make my break. Everyone is very nice, but they think they know what I need, when (in this case) I actually do know what I need.

Getting on the bus is a mission, as I have to take the bike more or less apart, but we get there in the end. I get the seat next to the driver, which I would rather not have – I’d rather not see what’s happening on the road. But it’s OK – at the bus station we drop off all the other passengers, and the driver shows me how to take tea, Iranian style. Rather than dissolve the sugar, you put the lump in your mouth, and drink the tea through it.

Made it into town, caught up with the others again, then today we managed to get my wheel sorted out. Met a member of the Iranian MTB team, who directed us to Saeed Mohammedi’s store, where we got a new wheel built, and a couple of other issues sorted out, no problems. Lots of tourers come through here, and he does free servicing. Great place, lots of locals hanging around too. Check out what the rim looked like under the tape:

Here’s Saeed building the new rim, while I’m holding the broken one. That’s Jan on the right.

Going on a train from Tabriz to Tehran tonight, to get some visas sorted out, then going south to Esfahan and Shiraz, before rejoining the others somewhere around Mashad.

Iran has been good so far – whatever perceptions you hold of religious nutters running around planning terrorist attacks are wrong. Friendly people, but I can assure you that they are aware of the problems with their government and country. But more on that in another post.

P.S. If an Iranian suggests you should have a shave, does that mean it’s time to lose the beard?