A dash before The dash
We cut our stay in Tehran short by one day, already having spent 8 days there resting and getting our visas. We woke up at 4 am, barely having slept, to have breakfast and were ready to leave before the sunrise. We figured it’d be good to get out of the city centre before the traffic starts. We had changed our route from the originally planned southern desert route, which was going to be 40-45c° and headwinds for the next week. Instead we were going to take the northern coastal route which has a somewhat lower temperature, but a permanent higher rate of humidity varying between 60-100%. To reach the coast you also need to cross a large mountain range. The road also happens to pass by Mt. Damavand – Irans highest mountain.
We set our rather ambitious goal of the day to reach the top of the Damavand pass. Tehran resides at around 1100m, and the total climb would be 1900 height meters over 70 kilometres. We didn’t factor in the heat and Thea again struggled to keep herself cooled down, so we had to take a long lunch break once we reached the last village with 20 km and 700 height meters remaining to the pass. Completely knackered we lied in the shade outside a shop, and the shop owner eventually came outside to greet us. She’d treat us to bread and delicious ice cold lemonade and later called her son Amir, who was around our age and was fluent in English. While we were waiting for him to come, another man passed by and treated us with food from his favourite restaurant across the street. He also invited us to his home to spend the night if we wanted.
Eventually Amir showed up. We instantly felt a connection to him and would spend three hours just to chat inside their small family business. We’d learn that all business were enforced to have a photograph of the country leaders somewhere in the shop. If they refused they would be harassed or fined by police. They had hid the photo in a corner, barely visible – as a sort of silent protest against the government. Almost everyone we met in Iran opposed the government and many opressing, controversial islamic laws.
Meeting people in Iran was often bittersweet when you hear things like ‘‘I wish I’d been born in another country’’ or get asked how they can start a life in Europe. Too many we met want to leave the country for a better life, but were unable to because of financial or governmental restrictions. Just getting ahold of a passport is extremely expensive and requires US dollars. Their own currency is so inflated that even if they would manage to save money for a year it would be almost pointless because the value would have decreased so much. Getting inside another country as an Iranian citizen is also very difficult. Just getting an answer for your visa application for example Germany would take 2 years! We felt privileged to be Europeans, who can travel so freely in the world.
After hanging out for quite some time we wanted to reach the pass before the sun would set, and kindly declined the offer of spending the night there. In hindsight we would’ve loved to stay with Amir and his mother for a day or two, but we kind of set ourselves in a pinch when we decided to rush to the border. We definitively hope to see them another time.
As we continued uphill with little energy left, the inclines would become steeper and steeper, and we realised we wouldn’t reach the top before the sun had set. Cycling on these streets in the darkness was a big no no. There was nowhere to pitch the tent and we gave up the goal of reaching the top by our own legs that day. We opted to hitchhike the last 7 kilometres. Luckily, getting a ride in Iran is ridiculously easy, and what’s funny is that every other car on the road is a blue pickup truck which has perfect space for two bicycles in the back. 10-15 minutes later we were dropped off at the top.
The top is a tourist attraction and since we were the only western tourists there we were immediately the center of attention with our heavy bicycles and odd looks. A gentleman treated us with soda. Then another one did the same with energy drinks when the first one had left. We’re such spoiled kids! After a quick gaze over the valley to enjoy the scenery, we started rolling down the descent towards the coast. From 2700 meters all the way down to sea level.
We struggled to find a camp spot here, as it would be a narrow gorge pretty much all the way down. With almost no daylight left we eventually stumbled across an unfinished building next the highway, where we would spend the night. For dinner we had some chicken nuggets and bread we had been gifted from Amir. It wasn’t the easiest to cook without any cooking oil on a Primus, but it’d suffice for the night.
We would spend the next day cruising down a beautiful valley for many hours. It would be downhill for more than a hundred kilometres which was good since we were chased by a pack of 10 grumpy dogs at one point. But even on the other side of the mountain range it was hotter than we had expected. A local told us it was the hottest day of this summer at 39° c with 100% humidity, and one of the hottest summers they’ve ever had on the northern coast of Iran.
It helped a lot with the breeze of the wind, which was luckily in our backs for the first time EVER since this trip started. The upcoming 500 kilometres east would be more or less flat before we reached Golestan national park, and we would have tailwinds for most of the coast. Yet again we struggled to find camp spots and ended up in another unfinished house for the night. It was almost impossible to sleep because of the humidity, despite sleeping in only the inner tent and without sleeping bags.
Just as we had started cycling the following morning se saw something along the road. Two touring bicycles parked under a tree. Hey! It was the dutch couple, Harm and Annemieke, whom we had hung out with at the hostel. They had collected their visas the same day as we did and were heading the exact same route, except they would enter a different border crossing into Turkmenistan where they instead would be taking the train through the country. So we decided to team up together for the rest of Iran and would have a complete blast together. It was the first time we would cycle together with somebody for longer than a day. We initially thought they were old farts in their 40’s who casually cycled around doing short daily distances, and took trains every now and then. Boy were we wrong.
They turned out to be beasts who kicked our asses when it came to both speed and endurance. They are avid road bike cyclists back home and would often easily finish their daily distances of 100 kilometres in half a day. Because of our weight we were also slower than them, but now we got to test our capacity before Turkmenistan and they sure made us sweat for it.
We made it 135 kilometres over the course of 8 hours on our first day cycling together. As the sunset started closing in on us we started looking around for a place to pitch our tents. We tried finding a camp spot in a gigantic orchard but most of it was fenced off. Eventually we were met by a few local farmers who owned the land. Without anyone speaking any English they quickly beckoned us to follow them behind their motorbikes into the orchards. They took us further and further inside the endless plantation and eventually we reached an ice cold water reservoir where we could swim and cool down. What a blessing!
Then they led us to a nearby container-house, which was used as a lunch/rest room for the farmers, and showed us that we were free to pitch our tents to spend the night there. They left us with the key to house and the property’s gates, as well as their phone numbers if we needed anything, and headed out. We pitched our tents and started making dinner. The farmers returned a little while later to bring us 3 litres of soda, a large bucket of fresh fruits and vegetables and a light bulb strip to hang in the trees. All of this generous treatment without asking for anything in return – such a big contrast from back home.
Even the day after this we would again be invited again to stay at a guest house completely for free just because the owner loved to meet foreigners and practise his English skills. We were actually cycling towards a big picnic park/forest to finish off our day when a man we’d waved and said hello to earlier comes driving by. He stops us and says we have to come with him to stay the night at his guest house. He said it was only 2 km the other way, and the park we had planned to sleep in was like 500 meters in front of us. With the luck we had the previous night we said what the hell and went back with him. This man ran a small guest house with a few home built huts and insisted we were staying in them for free.
Once we had arrived (with very hungry stomachs) and unloaded our bikes, we almost immediately set out to cook a pasta bolognese for ourselves and our hosts. It helps having an actual kitchen and we thought the result was actually quite tasty! We don’t really know for sure if our hosts liked our cuisine or not but they seemed satisfied and asked for seconds! Things tend to taste a lot better than they actually are when you have cycled well over 100 km (even pasta soup).
After dinner we were served tea and watermelon next to a bonfire in the courtyard. They had invited a lot of friends and relatives to come chat with us but eventually we were so exhausted and had to cut the evening short at midnight. Our routine was still to wake up early and leave at sunrise to escape most of the heat. We’d only get about 5 hours of sleep this night but still had a lovely time.
In the end we managed to offer a small payment after spending a long time insisting that we wanted to pay at least something for the room in order to help out with his bussiness. You must try very hard in Iran for someone to accept any kind of payment as a gratitude for their hospitality. As we had such a cozy time here we decided to send our friend Sam to visit them as well. Sam was at the time still waiting for his visas in Tehran but did actually visit the guesthouse a few days later and even convinced the owners son to hop on his bicycle and join him for the journey to Mashhad, and they actually made it there together! Pretty rad for someone who hasn’t ever cycled more than a few kilometers to cycle 500 km in just a few days.
After these first few days we would start climbing up into and through Golestan national park – a proper jungle. It supposedly hosts multiple rare animals like leopards and bears. Whether these exist or not we don’t really know but we didn’t see anything other than gigantic wild boars that mostly were interested in eating the trash left by human visitors who have picnics here.
Cycling through here was kind of a disappointment as it was completely filled with trash and plastic everywhere! You couldn’t even begin to imagine how much trash is here and it was just sad. It could have been so beautiful!
The actual jungle part only lasted for about half an hour of cycling, but we did get our first jungle camp spot here next to a river. Wild camping is our area of expertise, whereas Harm and Annemieke only had used their tent about five times since Europe, mostly staying at cheap accommodations along the way. We scared Harm shitless when we told him there were leopards here and that they like to eat humans, and acting spooked as if every sound coming from the jungle around us was a leopard. Sorry dude!
In the evening we were so exhausted but were still going to make dinner. Harm, who was the most tired and almost out of his head, had the responsibility to cook pasta for all four of us. Turns out pasta for four people and too small of a skillet turns pasta into mushy goo, especially if you let 5 minute pasta cook for 25 minutes. We will never forget your pasta soup but we still love you guys!
The following day we cycled really really far and climbed many hundreds of height meters in headwinds and decided to look at iOverlander for camp options. It’s a community driven offline mapping app where people can upload and save information onto gps coordinates – for example good wild camping spots, actual camping grounds, water sources, cheap hotels and many other things. On the map there was a warmshowers host who apparently had lived in Sweden!
The only problem that it was really far away, 30 kilometers, and it ended with a 200 meter climb into the mountains. By the time we made it to the last climb, it was already dark and Daniel/Thea had barely any energy left. So we had the option of just going into a forest to camp or push our limits for the last stretch into the village, just hoping that someone would be home as we hadn’t contacted him beforehand. It was around 21.00 in the evening at this point and completely dark. We hadn’t even had dinner yet. Would we make it up there?