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Published: March 24th 2014
I had been wanting to visit Iran for a very long time. Last year as I set out on my cycle trip around the world, Iran featured at the top of my 'must visit countries' list. I had met a few Iranians on my way through Europe and had made some tentative enquiries about what their country really was like. In the early stages, my limited knowledge of Iran was that portrayed in the media. On reaching Istanbul in Turkey, I tried to seek advice from the British consulate on whether everything in the media was being blown out of proportion. The consulate stuck with the party line telling me that they did not advise me to visit Iran. I had read an article on the internet produced by HM Border Agency, which I have to admit struck the living daylight fear into me and when the Iranian Presidential elections took place and obtaining a visa became all to difficult I opted to forego my visit to Iran and instead head east via Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Some of you may know that I had to return home to the UK from Tajikistan in November of last year when my Father
was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (cancer). After 3 day's worth of taxi rides from Khorog on the Pamir Highway to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan and then two flights to London, I finally reached my Father's ward in St Richard's hospital, Chichester at 3 pm on 4th November. Unfortunately he was no longer fully conscious and he died 6 hours later. I'm pleased that I managed to see him before he passed away and many of the hospital staff assured me that he would have been aware of mine and my sister's presence next to him.
A combination of my Father's death, as well as returning to the UK after such an epic trip, at the start of the long dark and rainy British winter drove me into a mild form of depression. My only salvation was to get back on the bike as quickly as possible and leave behind the winter blues. Returning to Tajikistan was no longer an option as the temperatures on the Pamir Highway frequently drop below - 20 degrees during the months of January and February.
On my trip last year I met a wonderful Iranian family whilst staying in a hostel in Batumi,
Georgia and this time I was determined to do everything possible to visit them in their country and experience their culture and traditions.
My Iranian visa application was processed within two weeks in the UK via an Iranian agency and having secured the necessary authorisation and visa in my passport I can say hand on heart it is the best thing that I have ever done.
I left the UK on 7 January this year flying to Iran via Baku using Azerbaijan airlines. As I embarked on the second flight from Azerbaijan's capital to Tehran, I noticed how all the women donned their Hijabs (Iranian headscarf). I left my copy of "The Sun" newspaper in the departure lounge at Baku, because anything depicting nudity of women is not tolerated in Iran.
As I arrived at Tehran International Airport I felt a little anxious as I entered the Passport control area, but I needn't have feared as I was waved through quickly and onwards to the baggage claim area. Having collected my bicycle and panniers I proceeded to customs where the Officers asked me what I had in my large cardboard box (my bicycle) and where I had
come from. Without a search of even one bag or the box, they welcomed me to Iran and told me to enjoy my stay.
In the arrivals lounge I was met by the Iranian family whom I had met in Georgia with a placard saying" Welcome Clive" and this amazing hospitality has continued throughout my entire stay in Iran.
My Iranian friend Noushin and her family looked after me for the first five days, inviting me into their homes, taking me out sightseeing in Tehran and visiting many restaurants to sample traditional Iranian food. I was amazed to see Downton Abbey and Dancing on Ice on the Television in Tehran.
I visited many of the establishments which formerly belonged to the Iranian Shah Mohammed Reza, who fled the country after the revolution in 1979. Tehran has many beautiful buildings and museums and my initial impression of Iran and its people was that of a country of both middle eastern and european influence.
Many of these cultural buildings hold fine art collections and history reminds us that Iran established the first empire in the world stretching from the Indus river in India to Greece in the west.
Even today, Farsi the language spoken by Iranians is also spoken and understood in many areas of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The Iranians I have met are extremely proud of their history. One is often reminded that they are not Arabs, but a country with its own fine culture and traditions.
Visiting one of the Shah's former palaces I was pleased to see many Rolls Royce cars on display, and other museums and buildings such as the Museum of Jewellery and the Golestan palace contain many gifts presented to the Shah from Queen Victoria when relations between our two countries were much stronger in the past. Whilst on the subject of the Museum of Jewellery, it holds so many beautiful diamonds, emeralds and rubies that no one has ever been able to ascertain the total value of this collection.
Tehran's wider metropolitan area is home to around 14 million people and with petrol costing just 15 pence per litre and many of the population commuting to and from work, much pollution and smog is evident throughout the city. That said, I was surprised how clean many of the streets were and how modern and efficient the Metro system was.
Travelling on the tube is fascinating with salespeople wandering up and down the carriages selling everything from socks to dental floss and I was amazed at how many people actually bought items from them. Certain carriages have specific areas allocated for just women.
Following my wonderful introduction to Iran and my short stay in the Capital, I set off on my bicycle with the aim of visiting the major tourist sites such as Esfahan, Yazd and Shiraz and then gradually working my way south to Bandar Bushehr and Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf.
Within half an hour of leaving Tehran, cycling on the motorway instead of the 'A' Road, as it is much safer, I was stopped by an Iranian stranger who pulled over on the hard shoulder and offered me fruit and sweets. This happened again a few hours later with another stranger offering me fruit and and a carton of fruit juice. I gracefully accepted his offer and thanked him. I tried to imagine what it would be like if I was stopped by somebody on the road in the UK and offered sweets and fruit. "What's wrong with it or are they trying to
Iranian Military Helicopter
On display at the Former Shah's residence
However when the Policeman stopped me on the motorway I thought things would become a little more serious. He told me that it was forbidden to cycle on the hard shoulder of the motorway. I apologised but stated that it was very dangerous to cycle on the alternative road to the city of Qom where the traffic was predominantly lorries and no hard shoulder to pull over. He shook my hand and told me to continue along the motorway. At other times Police cars and Ambulances just sped by shouting something out on their loudhailers.
Riding a bicycle in Iran is a very interesting experience. You certainly need to have your wits about you and concentrate all the time. I have a mirror permanently attached to my helmet and this has been a lifesaver on a few occasions. Car drivers looking in their rearview mirror, signalling, or even looking before turning into a main road is a rarity. Lane discipline does not exist and 3 lanes are normally filled with a minimum of 6 cars in Tehran. When driving on the main road, you must expect a car to pull out from a side street at
any time without looking and you must be prepared to take evasive action. Other things which constantly surprise me are the distances between cars and lorries when driving on the roads. There are actually occasional road signs which state that cars should be a minimum of 70-100 metres apart when driving on fast roads, but I have seen guys on motorbikes who literally are 1 metre behind a lorry and it is not unusual for lorries to be tailgating one another at speeds in excess of 60 mph.
The Paykan is a car, which was manufactured by the Iranians based on the Hillman Avenger. Many of them are still evident throughout the country and they were very popular. However, they are extremely uneconomical and emit an enormous amount of pollution. It became so bad that the Iranian Government had to buy the company to stop them producing this car. Nowadays, all of the cars driving on the roads are predominantly white Peugeots or white Hyundais.
On one occasion I also had a motorcyclist keep turning around and staring at me as I was cycling along the main road and he ended up colliding with some plastic traffic cones
Rolls Royce on display
At the former Shah Mohammed Reza's former residence
which were being used to cordon off an area. Although not a great fan of the driving in Iran, I never actually saw an accident throughout my entire time in the country and only saw two wreckages on the side of the road.
On two occasions I've had cars approach me from behind, blasting continuously away on their horns and then driving past me at speed within an inch of my life. Apparently this is a joke. It certainly pissed me off at the time! I wanted to give them the finger, but this doesn't have the same meaning out here as it does back in the UK. Instead, I gave them the thumbs up which in Iran means F**K Off.
Strange how body language and hand signals differ from country to country. I've had a few Iranian people tut at me from time to time and I always thought how rude they were, but I have since learned that a tut with a nod of the head up and down means "No'
On my arrival in Qom, which is the second holiest city in Iran, I visited the Holy Shrine inside the huge Hazrat-e Masumeh Mosque.
Similar to Corn beef hash, but with the person having to squash the meat and vegetables with a Pestle and Mortar
There I was introduced to a guy called Mohammed who kindly agreed to show me around the Mosque and also invited me to join him in prayer. I had never prayed in a mosque before so I joined him there with many hundreds of other Shia Muslims, copying all of his moves. And, although I am of the Christian faith and wasn't really allowed to participate in this event, it was nice to experience this form of worship with people from another religion.
A little more disconcerting during my visit to the Mosque was a sudden roar of noise coming from a crowd carrying 3 coffins with Iranian flags draped over them. I asked Mohammed why the people carrying the coffins were making such a noise and he told me that the people who had died were 3 Iranian soldiers who had been killed whilst fighting in Syria. They were now being worshipped as Martyrs.
He invited me back to his house on completion where he fed and watered me and spoke to me with great interest about his faith. He had studied English literature at University and knew many quotes from Shakespeare and Dickens and his command
Squashing my food
of English and knowledge of vocabulary was better than mine.
Taa'rof is the name given to a particular type of etiquette practiced in Iran. For example, when you you take a taxi ride, at the end of the journey when you ask the taxi driver for the fare, he will tell you that it doesn't matter and he doesn't need to be paid. This is formality of course and you are expected to ask the taxi driver for the fare three times and be declined three times before he will eventually tell you the fare and you are expected to pay him. He would be very much pi*&ed off if you jumped out of the taxi and said "Cheers easy, thanks for that Pal". This formality doesn't just happen with taxi drivers but with Barbers and many other services in Iran.
I very much enjoyed the food whilst in Iran. From sweet lemons (which I had never tasted before) and carrot jam, to Sheep's brains, tongue and eyes for breakfast, known as Kalleh Pache, you never get bored with the variety. Dizi abgusht is another delicious and scrumptuous meal, where you are presented with a pestle and mortar
and bread (Sangeck) and have to squash cooked meat and vegetables together before devoting them with yoghurt.
Also the Iranians are expert at producing ice cream with walnut, cashew nuts and fruit, known as Majun, and this is apparently good for endurance under the sheets.
Iranian hospitality and generosity, I can say hand on heart, is the best I have experienced in the world. I cannot count the number of times I have been invited into strangers' homes to stay their overnight and be fed and watered without expecting anything in return.
I could have easily gone to Iran without any money at all and survived their the whole time. On two occasions I had people stop me on the road, ask me if I needed anything and even offered me some of their money. I have been given fruit by stall sellers, pastry by women stopping me in their car, dates and biscuits by shop owners and have been bought lunch and dinner on several occasions. On one occasion while pitching my tent late at night, a policeman told me that it was too cold to sleep in a tent and that I had to sleep
in the guardroom of the local factory. Here I was looked after by a guy called Hamid, who knocked me up a wonderful omelette and looked after me the entire time.
One one occasion I had nowhere practical to pitch my tent, so I knocked on the door of the Red crescent headquarters (Iranian Ambulance service) and here I spent a night playing ping pong and table football with the paramedics, received food from them for dinner and breakfast and was allowed to sleep in the beds allocated for patients.
Esfahan is a beautiful city which has the third largest square (Imam Khomeini Square) in the world after Tiananmen square plus one other which has recently been built by the Chinese. It houses many beautiful mosques, palaces and carpet shops and displays wonderful architecture throughout. Also impressive, even though there is no longer any water, are the bridges which span across the river in Esfahan which are lit up at night and attract Iranian poets and musicians.
Shiraz is a city in the south of Iran where the famous poet Hafez comes from. I visited his tomb here and took part in an ancient tradition whereby you
open his book of poems and read the poem on whichever page you have selected. Apparently, when you read the poem it will predict your future and according to the many Iranians I met, more households contain a copy of Hafez's book than the copy of the Qoran.
Every city and even small towns depict photos of Iranian soldiers killed during the Iran-Iraq war and they are considered Martyrs.
After Shiraz, I headed down to Bandar Bushehr and Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf. I had never been to this area before and it was interesting to note the much more laid back style of life. Whilst here I also cycled around the Island of Qeshm and visited the Island of Hormuz in the Straits of Hormuz.
Having completed 2835 Km on the bike I took the train back to Tehran and was fascinated how the train stopped several times throughout its journey for up to half an hour at a time for people to conduct their daily prayers.
On arrival back in Tehran, the population were preparing for 'No Ruz' which is the Iranian New Year (21 March). People in Iran celebrate this period like
Westerners celebrate Christmas and many people have up to 13 days off from work. Women clean their carpets with shampoo and hang them out from their apartments and people purchase 7 specific symbolic items beginning with the letter 'S' which welcome in the New Year. One of these items is a Goldfish which I think represents longevity but every year millions of Goldfish end up losing their lives as Iranians celebrate the start of their New Year.
Iran has been a fascinating country and I am so pleased I plucked up the courage to go and visit this beautiful land. In fact I loved it so much that I extended my visa by 35 days and ended up staying there 9.5 weeks in total. Whilst I am not ignorant to the politics that exist between Iran and the countries of the West, the people I can honestly say have been the kindest and most generous I have met in my entire life. For a westerner it is extremely cheap to travel throughout the country and you can live like a King! Give it go and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.
Having finished my trip to Iran, I
have now elected to visit India with my Iranian Partner Noushin for two months on an overland trip, without our bikes, from Mumbai to Kathmandu via Tamil Nadu. On our return to Iran in May, we will remain there for a month before resuming our travels around the world on our bikes. The journey continues…….
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