Leaving for Iran, a close shave
Upcoming elections seem to be a good reason for Iranion immigration services to become even more suspicious (read nerve wrecking slow), especially when dealing with foreign journalist dressed in casual tourist outfits. They don’t seem to care about travellers getting impatient because they haven’t received any news for several months. They seem to forget that most of them have already booked a flight. Just three days prior flying out I walk out of the Iranian embassy in Brussels with two passports and the necessary stickers and stamps. That was a close shave, but we finally manage to take our flight.
Our first destination is Tbilisi, Georgia. From there we take the train to the port of Batumi where our bikes are waiting for us to prepare them for the trip. The shipping container should have arrived from Antwerp by now. “Huh? Weren’t you guys going to Iran”, I can almost hear you think. Well yes, but shipping goods to that country is still an extremely unpredictable process because of the trade embargo. One can never tell for sure if and when they will arrive. So we opted for Georgia, an international hub for car trading between Western Europe and the Eastern countries. They should be more used to dealing with bike transportation, so we were told. It only takes a day until we’re heading for the Turkish border, bribes not even required this time :-). These people are professionals! We want to spend as much time as possible in Iran and that’s why we chose to kind of rush through Eastern Turkey. We must admit that the scenery is far from disappointing here, but we can’t resist the siren voices of that unknown country. The engines roar and with the throttles wide open, we find our way through this diverse landscape. As usual, Turkish hospitality is very welcoming and the food is just great. We can even enjoy an ice cold beer, a privilege for westerners that will slowly become more and more exceptional as we make further progress.
A little conservative
The western tourist athmosphere on the beaches of the Turkish Riviera are miles away from the conservative nature of the locals in Dögubayazit, the last Turkish town before the Iranian border. And on top of that, it’s ramadan, which doesn’t add to the open mindness of the locals either. People seem to stare at Caro (a women, for the sake of Allah, a woman!) as she simply queues for a meal. And the beers? Well apparently you can still find them in some illegal, hidden alcohol store.
We enjoy the rays of the morning sun and early in the morning, the heat is still pretty much bearable. After a roadside breakfast, we’re finally rolling into the border zone as many truck drivers honk and wave at us. We even spot 1 more bike waiting at the border and we are surprised as our attention is drawn to his Belgian license plate. We meet Alex, a bit of a strange personality but a friendly bloke. We will meet him a few times more later on the trip. We expect to cross the Turkish side of the border pretty much hassle free, but after the traditional smalltalk and joking around with the immigration officers, Alex and I are “randomly” selected for an X-ray scan. Well, not us personally really, but the bikes are placed inside a huge truck scanner and also our luggage is briefly checked. Everything appears to be ok and after waving our new friends goodbye, we finally cross the Iranian border.
We are leaving the bikes unattended and together with two cyclists, we are taken to a small office by a veiled woman. What follows seems more like a tourist information session at first. We are explained how to change money, we are told about the do’s and don’ts in the Iranian streets, how women should dress. But it doesn’t take long before she starts firing suggestive and delicate questions at us and we quickly end up in plain utter propaganda for the Islamic regime. “What do you think about the right for Iran to produce nuclear energy Iran?” Well, there you are then, trying to make up your mind what answer would suit them the best. Should we shout it out loud, our fist in the air: “Yes goddamned, nuclear power it is!” Or do we keep it more low profile but honest? A bit of mumbling is a all she gets from us, until one of the cyclists comes up with the best answer ever: “I am against all use of nuclear energy”. It felt like a relief to be able to just say: “yes, me too”. But she brings up the whole list of nasty questions: the Americans, the Jews, the idea all Iranians are terrorists etc… After a 1 hour ‘brain wash’, we are finally allowed in the country and we enter the border town Bagarzan.
Our first concern: money and petrol. We deliberately didn’t fill up in Turkey because we were told Iran is extremely cheap. With 14 million rial, the equivalent of about € 400, we reckon we should be able to make it through our first days here. It finally takes us more than two weeks before we run out of money, and that includes food, hotels, petrol for two people and two bikes. In this third largest oil country in the world, petrol prices have sunk to an astonishing 12 cents per liter. A single Euro takes you pretty far here in Iran!
Full throttle with a veil
Tabriz is the first major city across the border and together with Alex, we dive into the snake pit called Iranian traffic. Incredibly long strings of out-of-date, soot spewing trucks and a blistering heat are what we are facing for the next 300 or so kms. Moreover finding a meal during ramadan has proven to be harder than we thought. We are lucky to find a roadside restaurant that serves Dizi, some kind of cheap stew with lamb and chick peas that turns out to be pretty tasty after all. The joke with the burning hot pepper in Alex’ plate inevitably leads to another good laugh followed by an affectionate farewell of the chef, shoulder taps and thumbs up included. Iranian traffic is all ours, again.
Tabriz is chaos. Cars, trucks, motorbikes, pedestrians. There’s just so many of them and they seem to be all over. The law of the strongest is all that counts and priority rules don’t seem to exist. Priority is simply enforced. The bigger the vehicle, the more privileges in Iranian traffic. That means we constantly have to push and pull in order to get to the very heart of this megacity.
Hotel room scarcity forces us into a lousy little room that would let every western sanitary inspector suffer an accute stroke. The room is extremely hot, the sheets are dirty and the sanitary installation is just plain disgusting. And we have even more luck than Alex: his room doesn’t have a door or a window. It has bars and would for sure provoke a major prison riot in our own country because of inhumanity. But we are lucky to have a safe spot inside to stall the bikes and the hotel manager is a great guy that is open to a good discussion. And these are quite instructive so it seems. They profoundly hate Americans, but apparently Europeans are pretty much ok. And when I carefully inquire for their support to the religous regime, given the pictures of the Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei on the wall, all I get is a long Farsi swearing rant. He then explains us that the pictures are only there because of the law, but that the vast majority of the citizens just loathes them. That kind of puts things in a different perspective and makes us reconsider the western news coverage about the political situation somewhat.
For the first time since Caro and I are travelling together, “turista” strikes with both Caro and myself. We had pizza in one of the more trendy restaurants in town the night before. We didn’t pay much attention to the fact that, compared to the more basic restaurants that appeared to be chock-full. Major mistake. A bit weak on our legs, we do manage to visit the souks, in search for a decent outfit for Caro. Ever since we arrived, people seem to stare at her, despite her long sleeves, long trousers and veil. This is not the place where women just dress like they prefer. Even men are not allowed to wear shorts in the streets. A €7 ‘manteau’ and a chador (Iranian veil) for Caro, let us blend in just a little more. But only until the day after, when Caro, dressed in full riding gear, hops on her bike and opens the throttle as she leaves this city behind, followed by that other KTM. We leave Alex in Tabriz as he is in doubt wether he would ride on or return back home.
Southern piste fun
We follow the Iranian motorway for another few 100 kms but then we finally decide to go for the smaller, less traficky roads. These are a true relief and for the first time we are able to fully enjoy the scenery without continuously having to watch out for trucks and cars. Despite our rallye tyres, the throttle goes wide open and we try to corner as low as the tyres allow for. The archeological site of Takht-e-Soleiman offers us a magnificent view over the city of Takab and we ride the fast gravel piste back to the hotel at sunset. Caro is taking it easy on her first stretch of dirt, but I cannot resist to drift my way through the corners every now and then. My heart is beating like mad and I can feel my blood pumping everywhere. Lovely that is! But those Iranians, they just don’t get it. They’re not used to tourists around here in the first place and if you look for a nice stretch of dirt, they try to convince you by all means to take their brand new motorway. The hotel manager seems to understand, so we follow his advice to go visit the Ali Sadr caves the very next day. Because:”No foreign tourists there!” We must admit that the road to Ali Sadr has a lot to offer and that we got a very warm welcome in each of the villages we passed. The real Iranian life, lovely. Too bad the authentic Iranian life comes to an end exactly there where the touristy circus begins. No foreign tourists, that’s for sure. But instead we are facing endless herds of local tourists. Ali Sadr is the place to be for Iranians so it seems. Now we are there, we decide to give it a go despite the screaming children and the sudden feeling of claustrophobia due to the massive crowd around us. So we take place in one of the little tourist boats. Two crazy foreigners in full riding gear… blending in is definitely not an option. But apart from the crowdy atmosphere, we must admit the inside of the cave looked pretty spectacular.
We most probably will never be the typical tourists and that also has its downsides. When a few days later fatigue makes us crave for a bed and a warm shower, a simple hotel room appears to be extremely hard to find in Malayer. We are guided by Mahmoud who races through this labyrinth town for hours to take us from one hotel to another in search for a place to sleep that is not fully booked. When it turns out that on top of that we also have to pay his mum a visit to go drink hot goat milk – she won’t take no for an answer – Caro and I both lose our patience. A bed is what we need goddamned, not fucking hot goat milk! It’s almost midnight as we finally arrive in a hotel where Caro’s desperate state of mind persuades the staff to free a room for us. The chef even manages to cook a feast in no time. Iranians are susceptible to drama, that’s fo sure!
The more we go south, the hotter it gets. Around noon, temperatures easily exceed 40°C, but luckily the riding wind still cools us down a bit. Near Khomeyn we again decide to take a really nice dirt road. No traffic, a stunning landscape and apart from that lonely shepard and his herd, not a living soul around. The track is great and I manage to satisfy my hunger for excitement. Also Caro does great and she enjoys the ride… albeit only for a short while. At a first stop, Caro fails to properly place the 640 on the kickstand, the bike tips over and it ends on her wrist. That means no more riding for that day and we can’t but spend the night on a slope next to the piste. The two of us there, under a clear starry sky. A fairy tale!