The northwest part of Iran is definitively less populated than most of Turkey, where you would find gas stations, restaurants and every necessity within very close distances. Here we would have long stretches of nothing, no shade and it was very hot during the day, upwards of 40°c. We would soak our headwear in water at every opportunity but still it wasn’t enough to keep Thea well.
Having to cycle fully covered in clothes after recently having had a heat stroke in Turkey didn’t work out. Later that evening we ended up in the middle of nowhere as Thea broke down mentally and physically after getting news of illness within her family. Countless cars would stop by us sitting on the roadside whilst the sun was setting only to ask if we were okay, if we needed help or to give us fruit. Some even offered us money. Many people offered us a place to stay but it was either 20 km in the wrong direction down the hill we had just climbed, or 18 km to the next city – Qarahziyaeddin. We were by then too tired to continue and it was also dark outside. They asked where we would stay and we said we’d just camp somewhere. They warned us of wolves but we weren’t really afraid of the unlikely event that wolves would come inside our tent, as they have little interest in humans.
One old lady comforted Thea for a while, which did help a little. She also made sure that her hijab was tightly knit in place. We decided we would just camp on a dry river bed next to the road and head for the only existing hotel in the nearest village early the following morning. We don’t think any wolves visited us during the night.
As we rolled up to the hotel the next morning we rang on the bell radio to ask if the hotel had any rooms. With a prompt “No” the guy quickly hung up. However some by-passers helped us and called the owners mobile phone, and he quickly showed up to greet us with a big smile. We would immediately be served delicious fresh bread straight from the bakery, together with honey, butter, eggs and rose tea.
Included in the room price was lunch, dinner and breakfast totalling in at about 15$ per person. After a rest in our room we decided that we would try to cycle to Tabriz and catch a bus to Tehran from there, so that Theas stomach and body could get some rest whilst we applied for the Chinese and Turkmenistan visas. To accomplish this we’d have to go up very early each morning in order to escape the worst heat of the mid day.
Other than a few minor errands in the city we spent the remaining time of our rest day watching Netflix until late at night. At 22.45 someone comes knocking on our door. – Mr. Daniel, dinner is ready! We didn’t know that Iranians eat dinner this very late at night and thought they’d just forgotten our dinner as time passed. But apparently it’s common for people to eat dinner around midnight. We are usually sleeping around this time!
The next day we headed onto rather flat desert roads with barely any civilisation. Just after exiting the city we passed by a car that just had driven off the road in high speed, flipped upside down, most likely having tried to overtake a car. Everybody was alright though.
Eventually we passed by a few small buildings and someone yelled ‘‘STOP!’’ to us. We looked over and it was a paramedic who was stationed at this tiny E.R. station. We were invited in for Tea and a chat with Gasem, his colleague and a nearby shop owner named Akbar. We mentioned that Thea had had a heat stroke so they checked her values – everything was completely fine so that was reassuring. We were then allowed to rest as long as we wanted in their air-conditioned room whilst they were called out to a car accident. Once they got back we were served lunch Iranian style – on the carpet. We got a little insight of how hard life is in Iran. One of the guys there had three university degrees but was unable to find a job, so he had taken a paramedic course to get this job. Sadly, the job opportunities are good in this field. If you ever experience traffic here you’ll understand why.
We wondered if they knew a good place to camp, but they insisted we’d sleep there. We did however want to come closer to an upcoming mountain pass to sleep beneath it, so we wouldn’t have to climb it during the hottest part of the day. They, as with all Iranians we’d met so far, were very worried for our safety so we exchanged phone numbers to let them know when we had found a camp spot.
What happened next was quite weird. We cycled for another hour or two and started looking for a camp spot near some farming fields full of fruit trees. Normally we’d just pitch our tent somewhere in a place like this, but it was mostly full of people working so we decided we would ask some of them. It turned out they couldn’t read our google translations, maybe they didn’t understand Farsi? We never really came to a conclusion. They would try to talk to us (despite us not understanding anything they said) and we kept asking if we could sleep in our tent somewhere there. They didn’t really understand our gestures either – tent, thumbs up or down?
After like 30 minutes of laughing and trying to come to a conclusion, one of the ladies brought her car and beckoned us to follow. She took us to a park and playground some kilometres down the road and said we could camp there. It was next to the main road, so we thought we would wait a while and just go further down into the forest to camp when everybody haft left.
For some reason they didn’t leave and just stared at us. So we started cooking dinner with our Primus. We think the lady now thought we would set the playground on fire so she started yelling trying to grab the now hot burner with her bare hands. Eventually they left and another family came up to play with their children. They invited us to their house but we were too exhausted to stay up and socialise after barely having slept the previous nights, so we kindly declined. They gave us a kilo of fresh grapes and also left.
Once we had eaten we headed into the forest so we were a bit further from the road. Halfway pitching the tent in complete darkness, being swarmed by mosquitoes, someone starts yelling and shining a flashlight towards us from afar. It was the farmer who owned the land who wondered who was rumbling in the bushes. It turned out he wasn’t angry at all and invited us to sleep in his house and showed us photos of many other cyclists who had stayed there!
The next day we had a very early breakfast. Before sun had risen we set off towards Marand. From here the traffic would start to increase which meant slowly climbing a mountain pass sharing the road with 50 year old trucks spewing out toxic blue exhaust clouds in our faces all day. We finally made it to the top before it had gotten too hot and had a break at a bus stop. Just a few minutes later, a couple on a motorcycle stops when they see us and invites us in for tea. We gladly accepted and descended halfway down the mountain before taking a right turn straight up into the mountains again.. They would take us to their family orchard where we’d be met by many other family members.
We’d yet again to be spoiled with Iranian hospitality and were served fresh fruits from their orchard, and later lunch. They wouldn’t take no for an answer and insisted we’d eat more even when we told them we were full. We would spend the entire day here with this lovely family. Farzin, the youngest of the family, was the only one who spoke English. But he withheld this information for some hour, which meant gesticulating most of our conversations until he suddenly surprised us and started talking perfect English. We would meet him a few days later in Tabriz, where he was studying at the university. After a lovely afternoon together we headed down the pass to sleep next to the train tracks.
Once we arrived to Tabriz we checked into a hotel for 2 nights to figure out how to get ourselves transported to Tehran. Later that afternoon we would be picked up by Farzin for an evening in the town of Tabriz. Fridays are weekend days for Iranians and that’s also when everyone gathers for picnics in the gigantic city park. We probably spent half an hour trying to find a parking spot in the traffic chaos where people only abided by law of the jungle. We walked around among the crowds and as we are western tourists, which are quite rare here, we immediately got a lot of attention wether we wanted it or not. Lots of selfies and curiosity towards us wherever we went. This would become the norm from now on. Being blonde and blue eyed, or two meter tall, tattooed and wearing shorts isn’t the most discrete look here.
The next morning we’d be hooked up with Farzins friend Arash who worked as a tour guide in Tabriz. We met him for lunch and would later be taken around an exclusive tour around the city. We walked around for two-three hours in 40°c sweating like pigs, visiting the Grand Bazaar, Tarbiat street, a Museum and the Arg of Tabriz. We think Arash was a little disappointed that we didn’t have any questions about the Arg of Tabriz as the tour came to an end, then again we aren’t the typical tourists who are only travelling to see historical sites. But we still had fun together!
Something that fascinated us was the fact that almost everybody we met knew so much of Irans history and heritage, not just Arash. It almost felt as if nobody cares about history back in our home countries. A common expression in Sweden – history is in the past. But here it was told with pride and passion, since it’s taught heavily in school. Very inspiring!
To end the day we got help from Farzin to buy tickets at the bus station which was quite far outside the city centre, where we were staying. This meant driving in rush hour traffic – a wild ride to say the least. We were almost squeezed between two cars on the highway but made it there and back alive. A ticket would could about 10 euro, or 450.000 rial at the time. We’d have to pay the driver about the same just to bring the bicycles aboard, but we already knew that. They did actually take up an entire storage compartment below the bus and we noticed other passengers were a bit grumpy about having to smash their luggage into the other rather full compartments.
The bus ride from Tabriz to Tehran lasted for about 8 hours and the bus lacked toilets, but other than that it was pretty alright with plenty of leg space and air conditioning. It would be the first time we weren’t actually traveling with our bicycles on the roads beneath us. Thea was a little sad that we had to take the bus, but concluded that it was the right thing to do. We’d also have time to rest while we wait for our Turkmenistan and Chinese visa applications, so we weren’t losing too many days of our Iranian visa. We didn’t really feel as if we missed out on scenery either. The road from Tabriz to Tehran mostly consisted of dull repetitive rocky desert.
One sad part about taking the bus was that we had been invited to stay with multiple Iranian instagram followers who lived along the road to Tehran, and we would miss out on visiting them.