Early days – Iran

20 09 2010

‘Pow! Pow!’ boomed Ramak, as he cut large crosses on our map, ‘takkka takka takka’ he juddered over our kebab, his eyes wide and urgent, ‘NO! Danger, don’t go!’  We both nodded wearily and resumed our disturbed mouthfuls.  Every time we mention our planned route the reaction is the same; are you mad, don’t go there, stay here, it’s safe here, there they are unpredictable and dangerous.  It is hard to skim the truth from the usual lumpy broth masquerading as neighbourly ‘love’.  In Turkey we were given mace to protect us from the Georgians, in Georgia we were warned about the dishonest Azeri, in Azerbaijan the Iranians were all branded a nation of war mongering loonies…  And in Iran the Pakistanis are all deemed a rotten pack of terrorists *sigh*.  Impartiality anyone?

We have been in Iran only two days so far and so know nothing. But the nothing we know is ours to tell.  There are unavoidable clichés that are littering our experience; the friendly smiles and waves, the ubiquitous  bottles of Zam Zam (Iran’s answer to Coca Cola- think soda-stream), the cavalier driving, the national obsession with picnics – a whole family, huddle like an abandoned delivery of sack-potatoes on a concrete slab only a metre or so from the motorway.  Cars bustling at the seams screech up to join them, pulling forth carpets, samovars, breads, cheeses and meats plundered from the unfathomable depths of car boots.  They spy us, and within seconds the sacks have sprung arms that wave furiously at us and gleaming white picket fence smiles lines our way.  It’s 8.30am.

In Iran young men ride mopeds.  As a cyclist, this is annoying.  They whizz by, slowing down, speeding up, cutting in.  Their slightly desperate calls of ‘hello Misses’ bubble lightly on the air around us and pop into fits of giggles, or flop to the ground as a hat gets whipped off in the wind, or a moped wheel hits a rock and wobbles into maroon flushes and jeers from friends.  It is easy to be annoyed by the sticky dampness of their need.  They are boys, and they are harmless.

The women in Iran are…. formidable.  They instruct their drivers (husbands, sons, brothers) to pull over; they wave us down and pull us in.  Two middle aged women, clad in traditional manteau and head scarves, their men hanging gingerly behind, held our hands and told us of their lives; both were nurses, one worked at the University, one had worked in Bam during the devastating earth quake of 2003.  Tough women, with tough jobs.  They asked about our lives, they gave us bread, they gave us wishes, and they gave us their smiles.  Two other women pulled beside us, beaming faces with plucked eyebrows and shimmering gold teeth strained out the window, a bottle of ice cold water waving urgently in the air. ‘Happy…’ faltering English, struggling to find purchase, landing with a thud on ‘Iran!’,  to which Liz uncertainly replied ‘Happy… Iran?’  Every one eager to offer a welcome, every one just wanting to say hello.  I don’t know if it is because we are women too, I don’t know if it’s because we look like raggedy sodden kittens, but we illicit full-frontal, disarming warmth from Iranian women.




16 09 2010

‘Fate’ heralded Lucy (Cath’s sister) ‘whatever happens now, I feel happier that the Universe had something to do with it’. And indeed there is a discernable ball-rolling feel rocking about – finally.

It was with hollow hearts that we approached the Iranian embassy yesterday morning, and with cautious elation that we received the news from the ‘Wizard’ that the magical telex machine had finally spewed up the permission from Tehran (we are still unclear how a telex machine actually works… we have visions of messages swirling around the telex ether erratically making their way from one machine to the next… or maybe it has something to do with Pigeons?).  Bless the little ‘Wizard’ who seemed so genuinely excited to have received it (we suspect it may not happen often..) that he sprung into visa action and told us to come back the next day at 9am to pick them up. Which we duly did, and visas we now duly have.  Along with some heart warming well wishes from the Iranian consular crew. It was a beautiful moment.

Mee Nooi cradles her visa


7 09 2010

By the skin of the working day Sarah at Iranvisa.com has sprouted forth the goodies…..check out dem cherries… it appears God was indeed willing …

‘Pleased to inform you that your visa application has been approved by the Iranian Foreign Ministry and an authorization letter has been transmitted to the Iranian Consulate in Baku’

Inshallah the next step won’t take two flipping weeks  (is that Eid i see on the horizon…..!?!?!)

*glow glow*

Waiting and mass debating (Baku/Iran)

6 09 2010

‘Baku is expensive!  it’s the oil… their oil… not my oil’ ranted our rough shaven taxi driver Cahil.  His (by now 20 min long) monologue was as persistent and visceral as his driving; ‘It’s a republic in name only’ he spat as he shaved the corner off another bend, throwing us rattling across the back seat like unhinged nodding dogs; ‘the oil isn’t for us! (mumble mumble) I used to be a teacher now my wife is a teacher she earns $130 a month! Imagine… how can you live when prices are higher than Paris, or London?!’ He pauses only briefly to holler across to another taxi driver, it is becoming clear that he is not quite sure how to get us to our destination… ‘Do you know about the Armenians?’ he shouts back at us as he resumes his confidently urgent trajectory; ‘the world listens to them because they are Christian, everyone is afraid of Muslim, but the truth is that they won the war… the information war! They are everywhere, be careful, where there is a stone under it you will find an Armenian. No one helps the Azeri, no one knows about Azerbaijan, do they know Azerbaijan in UK?’ Struggling to know how to answer ‘…no…’ Liz ventures gingerly; ‘SO!’ he slams on his brakes triumphantly and swivels to look at us, ‘So! That is true. But now you must learn. Do not let fear win and you will tell your family and people will know.’ Unsure of the appropriate response we both nod sombrely, he is satisfied and abruptly returns to his wheel, ‘I used to be number three in Azerbaijan judo team. We are here.’ He indicates to the International School we have come to visit. We step into the blinding morning sun, blinking.

It’s true; we don’t know much about Azerbaijan. By “we” I’m including you. And by Azerbaijan maybe I mean anywhere and everywhere. There are always stories within stories, and perspectives that are more complicated than even the BBC would have us believe.

We have been battling with choices and prejudices and preconceptions for the last few weeks as we have been engaged in what has become, affectionately known as, The Great Iranian Mass Debate. As we can’t go in to Pakistan from the north because of the floods, we are waiting to see if we can get a visa to go through Iran and into India that way… so for anyone interested in our mass debate… dive on in! (PS – thanks for the Lonely Planet Iran mum!)

WARNING!!!! Iran – Axis of EVIL!

Iran is an evil state wanting to build nuclear bombs! Yes it is true that Iran is still in a standoff with much of the rest of the world over its nuclear programme and they have actively defied a number of Security Council resolutions calling for its halt. I can’t say if Iran is secretly trying to build a nuclear bomb, I can’t say if they are really going to bomb Israel if they manage it. And I don’t know if my not knowing is a reason not to go through a country… unless there was some evidence that they wanted to build and deploy a kill-all-cyclists-called-cath-and-liz bomb in the next few months!

It is dangerous if you are BRITISH! The British Foreign Office warns that following the 2009 elections the security forces will be more suspicious of British travellers, especially of those travelling on their own and looking… suspicious. There is a general terrorism threat and a kidnapping warning. Phew! This is better than the advice for Turkey which was a HIGH terrorism threat… I wonder what it would be for London? There is no warning against visiting Iran at this time.

They repress Women! After the 1979 Islamic revolution women in Iran lost many rights. While things are not perfect in Iran (as in most counties in the world) there is a real sense that ground is being won back by local women; with an estimated 60% of university applicants being women and the nationwide literacy rate for girls aged between 15 and 24 is up to 97%! Yes, if you are a women in Iran you have to cover up. There are a billion arguments either side of the hijab debate needless to say we really don’t have an issue with adhering to a countries mores while travelling through it – hopefully it will still be September by the time we get there and thus it should be coolish!

Women can’t cycle in IRAN! Iran has a women’s cycling team. Recently an Iranian cleric criticised women cyclists . Women can cycle, women do cycle, women have cycled but, yes, it is uncommon (two women trying to cycle to Thailand is relatively uncommon!) To find out more about the actual experiences of foreign women cycling in Iran we searched the internet for tales of recent experience – the first thing we came across was travellingtwo.com which has some good advice about how to hijab-up! I have already contacted my mum to send out a few spare buffs! We have spent many many hours riffling through the net, emailing people, talking to people and we came across quite a few recent stories of men travelling, mixed couples, women etc and the story of Ann Wilson, a 59 year old British women who cycled in Iran in 2009 and sums up research well – ‘The last 3 days have confirmed everything I had read about Iran from travellers who have actually been here. The beauty of the country cannot be described in mere words or pictures and the welcome and warmth that is extended to strangers like myself is greater than anywhere else I have seen on my journey.’ These testimonies, compounded by that of a middle aged French couple we recently met who were in Iran last month have really helped to ignite our curiosity about Iran and set our minds at rest about some of the fears that have been raised.

And so…..

Iran has risks. As do all the countries we are cycling through, including the one we started in. But we can’t escape divinely ordained assassination. Every day we cycle yards from insane screeching 20 tonne lorries, each night we get bitten by insects that may carry deadly diseases, two weeks ago we cycled across a new bridge because the old one got bombed by the Russians in 2008; in the past six weeks we have cycled past dead dogs, cows, cats, and sadly humans and we have been meters away from a truck tyre blow out. We fully appreciate and are in awe of the risks that we take. We do not take them lightly and we do not take them unadvisedly. We will continue to incline our ears to wisdom and our hearts to understanding, and we will work very hard to continue to stay alive and out of trouble!

Holed up in Hopa – decisions, decisions, decisions

15 08 2010

Described in the Lonely Planet as; ‘best appreciated on a grey day with a bad raki hangover.  It’ll probably feel like that anyway’. Hopa, a border town 30 km from Georgia, is where we find ourselves. Three days here have proved the Lonely Planet very wrong, it’s a friendly little place with a central workaday little tea garden, festooned with backgammon playing men perched on small wooden stools sheltering from the growing heat of the day, their games punctuated by slow sips of tea and occasional bouts of raucous laughter. The splendid Black Sea forms a constant back drop that is at once calming and weary. It is a plain place, a working place, an honest place.  Here we find ourselves, camped up in the compact rooms of Otel Cihan. Stopping to pause and think about our next move, in part because of the changing situation in Northern Pakistan,  but also to ensure that Catherine is located nice and close to a toilet!

You may have heard that there are some major floods occurring in north-west Pakistan at the moment. It looks bad. With bridges swept away, roads impassable, hundreds of thousands displaced – now really isn’t the time for us to be adding our fumbling foreign straw to that overloaded back! That, along with the ongoing situation in Krgysztan, has forced us to have a bit of a rethink about the route ahead.  The Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) advises against ‘all but essential travel’ in both of these areas…

…So we have joined the little old men in the tea garden to take a long hard look at our blow up globe (splendid route planning tool!) to see what other options we might have…. and the large country between here and India happens to be Iran.  ‘But women can’t cycle in Iran’ I [Liz] chirped ‘we could travel through by bus’, ‘there’s no way we could get a visa and it wouldn’t be safe’… but we thought let’s do some research and see what we think – have any women cycled there?  What happened to them?, was it ok?  The more research we did, the more we dug, all we kept hearing were tales of fantastic hospitality, welcoming and friendly people, and what a great place to cycle through.  Admittedly most of those tales had come from mixed couples… but even so…

And maybe it is possible to get a visa for Iran after all; maybe they won’t automatically reject us just because we are British. Well then. Let’s give it a whirl! Because, quite frankly, there aren’t that many options left! So we have applied online …. I had a sleepless night worrying about the decision, was this a stupid thing to do, would we be putting ourselves in unnecessary danger, would it just be a constant worry the whole time we are there… I imagine all of these questions will continue to plague me throughout the journey… but with all the research and thought I feel more confident about how to be respectful enough of the local people, while also being able to stay on our bikes through Iran…. successful visa application pending…