The last morning in Turkey we stood up early in order to reach the border as soon as possible. Thea had barely been able to sleep because of her stomach, as a result of the heat stroke. Chickens were strutting about since 4 in the morning and the owners crazy dog was still guarding our tent, so it wasn’t the best night of sleep for either of us. We had our breakfast consisting of bread with Nutella and sipped some çay together with the owners of the place as we enjoyed the sun rising, shining its light over Mt. Ararat.
We then set our sails toward the border of Iran and cruised the last 15 or so kilometers on flat roads. An hour later we arrived to the big border but were clueless as of where to go. People pointed us towards the exit for passengers without vehicles. So we went there, but there was nobody at the guard post where the border gate was. There was only a side entrance with a gigantic “queue” – or a funnel of people trying to cut in line from the sides, causing outbursts of anger and yelling amongst the group every now and then.
The people trying to squeeze through a 50 cm narrow corridor with metal bars on the sides, inside this rather chaotic hot hall with no air conditioning. There was no way our bikes would fit through here and nobody really seemed to know what we should do or where to go with out bicycles.
Eventually after asking around multiple people, a lady who was working at a currency exchange office told us that we would have to stand in queue, stamp out of Turkey, squeeze back through the narrow hallway with all these frustrated people, get our bikes to the gate which had no guard working. So after queueing for 20 minutes we told the immigration officer that we had bikes, and we were stamped out of Turkey with a smile and directed back to our bikes. We had to wait another 30 minutes for somebody to show up at the gate but then we were finally out of Turkey!
Shortly thereafter the Iranian gate opened and we were met by a man who seemed as if was an official working there. He asked if we had alcohol or anything illegal (which we didn’t) and told us to bring our visa and passports and follow him into the immigration office. We left our bikes outside and passed all queues directly into the office where we were interviewed by a government official as to what our business was in Iran. It’s a standard procedure where they ask where you will travel, stay, if you have any friends in Iran, what your parents do, if we were married (you have to lie about this as a couple, hehe) and all sorts of odd questions. In about five minutes we finally had our entry stamps sorted and there was absolutely no bag checks or anything else time consuming.
Back outside again, this man who apparently had helped us get this “express service” asked how much we would like to offer for his help… Oh well. He also asked if we had dollars and if we wanted to exchange them into Rial. We told him we’d do this later in the next city and he promptly replied that it was impossible as banks don’t exchange money (which we already knew was complete bullshit). The problem for international travellers inside Iran is that you’re unable to withdraw money from Iranian ATMs. Foreign debit/credit cards are not accepted due to indifferences between Iran and the US. This means you need to bring dollars and/or euros for your entire stay in Iran, accommodating for all of your expenses there. You don’t really want people to know that you’re cycling around with a large amount of mint dollar bills.
We did eventually exchange our remaining Turkish Lira (about 30€) into Rial, just to have some pocket cash inside the next city. For a weird reason it was twice higher than the official rates on the internet. Little did we know that the black market rate of Iranian Rial was, at the time, three times higher than the official bank rates, something we’d learn later that evening. Just before we entered the interview office we met another traveller who was travelling with his retro minivan around the world. He had spent 3 days at the border for his vehicle to clear customs, and our friends who’d entered the day before had spent 16 hours stuck there due to an internet failure – rendering all their computer systems non functional. We ended up giving our fixer 10$ as a tip for his help as we appreciated having crossed the border in about ten minutes.
Happy to be inside the country we hopped on our bikes and descended a few hundred meters into Bazargan, the first border city, where we were met by more loudly yelling money exchangers and flashing shop signs in Arabic lettering. It was the first time we felt that everything was going to be completely different from the previous countries. We were in a country which we know so little about in order to have any kind of expectations. A little bit nervous perhaps. We had heard so much positive things about the people of this country.
We continued cycling downhill through the city and searched for a place with a toilet since Thea still wasn’t well. It didn’t help much that the temperatures had risen to 39°c after the descent from the Anatolian high plateau, which had a much more modest temperature.
We headed towards the nearest mosque in sight and were warmly welcomed by a very sweet old man who barely spoke a word of English. He showed us the bathroom complete with showers, and later led us to the prayer room, gave us blankets and let us to rest. Normally these are separated for men and women. He repeated the phrase “Islam no problem!” and gesticulated that we could sit next to each other and that Thea could take her headscarf off if she wanted. He gesticulated sleeping/resting on the floor and said “Islam no problem!” with a big smile on his face. We’d be hearing this phrase about twenty more times as we happily tried to communicate between our language barriers.
At one point we figured out that he wanted to hear western music, by covering his eyes with his palm whilst humming a melody and slightly dancing (more like wobbling) with his body. Apparently the hand symbolised our smartphones.
We decided to take a short rest from the blistering sun in here and were shortly served Iranian tea – completely different from the Turkish çay we’d been having the past weeks. Still delicious though! Our next objective would be to exchange money and get SIM cards so we said our goodbyes to the kind old man and headed back onto the highway.
Just a few minutes later a car slowed down and started driving besides us. A very curious and friendly lady started talking to Thea in English. Just like that were we invited to their house for lunch. They escorted us for about 45 minutes, driving slowly in front of us in chaotic traffic, to their beautiful house in Maku.
That’s how we met Sonya, her husband Yaser and their daughter Merlin – our first introduction to the infamous Iranian hospitality.
When we arrived Sonya quickly hinted asked if we wanted to take showers before eating. Were we really that smelly? We had showered just a few days ago!? After having showered they quickly spoiled us with as much melon and cherries we could eat (Daniel’s favourite fruit!) as we introduced ourselves to each other. Sonya worked as an English teacher which made it easy for us to talk about anything. They were very occupied with making us feel comfortable and helping us in any way they could.
After lunch they would take us on a tour of their city, trying to cram as much they could into one evening. Here we also got an introduction of what it’s like to be inside a car in Iran. We suggest to do this as little as possible if you ever visit this country 😉 What’s a seat belt? Speed..limit? Traffic lights? Brakes?
The first thing we did was to drive to Qoban castle – a mountain cliff housing ancient castle ruins. We walked up a rather steep hill to experience a spectacular view overlooking the entire city of Maku, as well as the ruins. There were hundreds of swallows zooming around above us, far up in the crescent shaped rock walls extending outwards. Always exciting for the legs after having cycled a mountain pass the day before.
One of the areas was completely blackened by a fire and we asked if there had been a forest fire. The reply was – No, they just set the grass on fires to get rid of the very poisonous snakes living there.
Wouldn’t the snakes then flee into the city? We never got an answer.
On the way down we had to drink from a mountain spring which supposedly had magical powers. Thea didn’t drink due to her bad stomach, but Daniel still feels the powers flow in his blood as of this day!
We had ice cream, drove to some other historical ruins, to a river park and watched the sun set, sorted out a 4G SIM card, completed a shady money exchange in a jewellery shop (at the correct black market rate!) making us millionaires for the first time of our journey.
We eventually finished off the day at a burger place and headed back to their house to chat and be fed with more fruit and tea before we fell asleep. Yaser had to leave very early for work the following morning and Sonya usually slept until 11, so we quietly had our breakfast before we snuck out to cycle and wrote a good bye note. We couldn’t have asked for a better introduction of the country.
We did promise we would visit them again if the opportunity ever comes and we would be glad to meet you guys again!