Khosh Amadid!

It’s been written in a thousand blog posts before, but I’ll do it again, since I’ve got a few messages from people, worrying about my long silence. The Iranians are the most welcoming people I’ve encountered so far. Western media gives you a one-sided view on the current situation of this country. When I started this journey, I didn’t know that I’d ever be here, and I probably didn’t even want to go. But, by bumping into a lot of travellers going the opposite direction, my expectations gradually grew so big, that I even became afraid of an inevitable disappointment. That disappointment never came.

The people themselves are very aware of that terrible image, and put much effort in trying to change it.  “Excuse me for our government, we Iranians love foreigners, can you write about that?” In the three months that I stayed, I got warmly invited by all sorts of people. From the conservative people in village houses, where both genders live strictly separated, and food magically appears through doors – and likewise, dishes disappear – ,to progressive students in Tehran, with a much more western lifestyle than, let’s say in Istanbul. I’ve been in situations, where people were almost fighting to host me. ‘I saw him first’. Pulling on my arm. On the rare occasion that you don’t get invited, you can always go to the park. Picnicking locals provide you with dinner, and the park guard will make sure that your teacup is topped up in time, and you don’t run out of firewood. 

Often I got asked how travelling in Europe would be for them. I’d answer them, embarrassed, that it probably would be a shock. People don’t stop you for a cup of tea, and if your desperately looking for a place to sleep, people don’t even let you camp in their huge gardens. Instead they will give directions to a hotel. Furthermore, first they have to break through the visa barrier. I’ve met quite a few Iranians who tried, armed with the pile of papers they need, to proof they won’t stay in Europe. Most of them got rejected. It’s terrible.

On cycling: because of the constant visa extension pressure, I was forced to take the main roads. And since those roads are rather busy, and Iranians have a ‘creative’ driving style, cycling wasn’t that pleasant. Three months is not enough to explore this huge country by bike. Besides, my knee wasn’t fully recovered yet. So leaving the bike in Tehran, and bussing around a bit, was the more appealing option. Because of the well-known sanction imposed on Iran, and the following recession, the currency took a never-ending dive. I’ve seen the Rial devalue 20 percent in a matter of hours. Life became very expensive for the Iranians, and very cheap for tourists. You can take a 14 hour train ride, bed included, for a few dollars.

To be honest, I’ve been a very bad tourist. I met a lot of really nice people, and became a sticky. Staying several weeks in Tehran, Esfahan, enjoying my lazy days, constantly cancelling destinations on my to-visit-list. The original plan, of going south slowly, take a ferry to the Emirates, apply for a new visa in Oman, and come back next spring, was a bit risky. The chance of not getting a new visa, after a three-month stay, is rather high. Flying would be the only escape. So instead, I started the bureaucratic battle to get my Uzbek and Turkmen visa. Everything went surprisingly smoothly.

I’d like to thank all the wonderful people who I’ve met during my stay. Especially Nooshin, my host in Tehran. We got along well, and she invited me to visit her family, in and around Ahwaz. After some days, I felt like a member of the family, filling my time being beaten at takhte nard, smoking ghalyun with the uncles, and above all, being fed with all kinds of delicacies, like never before. Behbahan nesfe jahan mostarabesh Isfahan!

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First day in Iran

NurduzMy first day there I’ll never forget. The sun had already set when I crossed the border, so I went to the first village to look for shelter, which didn’t take me too long. The next day, it appeared to the day of Ashura, a Shia Muslim holiday, to remember the death of Emam Hussein, their third imam. The people of the village invited me to come and watch a play of the Battle of Karbala at the square. I gladly accepted, happy to take a break after the tough days I’d had. Refusing the ‘VIP’ seat they offered me, was no option, and from there I followed the three hours lasting play, in which a cow got slaughtered on stage. It was hard to imagine that, on the other side of the river, a stone throw away,  there were probably a couple of old, grinning Armenians, sitting next the their homemade alcohol distiller, waiting till it topped up their glasses.

playAlthough the play was in Azeri , a language very close to turkish, I couldn’t make much of the brutally amplified sounds. Time enough to let my eyes wander.  Women in full chador sitting on the roof of the mosque, giggling and whispering to their neighbours, most likely about the stranger that arrived in their small town, old men crying when certain things happened in the play, etc … .

CowDuring the play, the cow ‘d been neatly crafted into kebab for everyone. Seated between de mullah and the imam, I got bombarded with a whole series of questions in broken English. I’d never felt so welcome in a new country before than here. After the feast, the villagers sang songs together, beating their chests on the rhythm. I got overwhelmed by the very powerful feeling that group rituals like this can give you, and started copying them. It probably continued for hours, but it was time to say goodbye.

When I set off, not before the leftovers had been stuffed into my panniers, the whole village was waving goodbye. Would it be like this every day?

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Race to Iran

Back in August, when I made my Iranian visa, I told them I would enter early October. They gave me till the 25th of November. I laughed: time enough.

gorisSo on the 20th, I finally manage to leave Yerevan. In my panniers: the traditional empty camera battery, some last-minute recovered items that were spread over town, an unfinished blog post, and 1600 AMD – 3.2 Euro. Ready for a five-day race to the border, 400 tough kilometers further. On the third day I was still ahead of schedule, happily surviving on bread, butter, piroshki, and a sporadic coffee, to keep the moral high. It required some long forgotten discipline. But suddenly, durinDSC01155g a climb, my knee started to hurt. It got worse quickly and I didn’t manage to reach the top before sunset, in a thick fog. Luckily I found refuge in a small cafe, where I spent the night playing nardi and drinking home-made wodka with the owner. He fed me well and let me stay overnight. Next morning, a truck driver, who hopped in and provided us with breakfast, offered me a ride straight to the border, with an additional stay for the night. My knee felt a bit better, and I was too stubborn to accept, which I regretted not much later. It was a struggle to Kapan. The next offer I would definitely take. I didn’t have to wait very long. A man invited me for a coffee, and told me that one of his friends had to go to Meghri, at the border. No money! No money! My old Peugeot got stuffed into the old Lada, and off we went.

cafeSome minutes later, it already became clear that the man wanted an astronomical amount of money for his efforts, so I told him I’d cycle, which was impossible according to him, because it was uphill – sigh. I insisted and unloaded the bike, but he wanted 1000 AMD for the small distance we’d done. I felt ripped off, and didn’t want to pay anything. But while demonstrating his knowledge of Armenian, Russian, Azeiri, and even some German cursewords, he was clever enough to lock one of my panniers in his trunk. Meanwhile, some people had gathered around, and I had no option but paying. The child in me threw the coins on the floor, which made him toss one of my bags in the middle of the street, with one minute traffic chaos as result.

DSC01174The rest of the day I tried hitchhiking, without success. I had to stay for the night in Kapan, wake up early, and finish Armenia myself. A last pass too 2500 meters. I suffered, my arm had to assist my leg, to decrease the pain. It was already dark when I reached the border. Then there was this extra problem that the ATM machine didn’t want to give me any money. But everything got solved, and I entered Iran, just in time. Time for some rest.

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Armenia

SevanWe waited one more week for Sylvains visa for Iran. Every day I lost a small piece of my soul in the hostel. It was enough, time to go to Armenia.  It took us about a week to reach the capital. One of the instincts of a bicycle tourist is to ride to every possible blue spot on the map. So we went straight to lake Sevan, already imagining ourselves swimming, catching some fish, and settling down camp for some days. What we didn’t know was that it’s one of the biggest high-altitude lakes of the world, at nearly 2000 meters. No fishing rods nor swimsuits got unpacked, and we headed straight to the lower Yerevan. Cycling in Armenia is much less exhausting than in Georgia. Quiet roads, almost no people insisting to join then for vodka in the morning, …. People keep a bit more distance, but are always very helpful when you ask them something.

YerevanAfter one night in the park there, we got hosted by a group European volunteers, living in a big house, near the center. While Sylvain was making a last attempt to get his Iranian visa here, days became weeks again. Winter is coming, and we are both looking around a bit for a place to stay. So why not there? If only we had something to do.  The idea came in to start a bicycle courier company in Yerevan, something that would Bomzdefinitely work here. The city is perfect for cycling, but Armenians don’t realize that. It started as a joke, and we talked to the head of the volunteer group.  Since they were working a lot on green projects, he was very enthusiastic, and before we knew, we had an office, a free place to stay, etc. … We only needed some Armenians to work with us, and an meeting was arranged with the local bicycle group, where, surprisingly, also television showed up. There we concluded that, although there certainly was enough of enthusiasm, nothing was ever going to happen. Maybe later. I didn’t want to wast my valuable Iranian visa, so the time had come to move on.

I really enjoyed the three weeks I stayed in Yerevan. Compared to Tbilisi, there is so much going on. Really good bars there, and I met a lot of nice people. My biorhythm got shifted to night-mode again. Time for some change…

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Georgia

Six weeks I’m here, and I still don’t really know what to think of this country. After having spent more than nine months in a Muslim country, crossing the border was like entering another world. Sylvain, with whim I’ve spent last winter in Istanbul, was waiting for me in the capital, so I decided to go more or less straight there. The main road Batumi – Tbilisi is not the most safest one for cycling, but in a way it’s very entertaining. Grazing cows on the railroad, disturbed by an approaching, rusty train. Panicked they jump blindly on the road, where a bunch of overloaded Ladas, randomly scattered – paint on the road only has a decorative purpose – has to get the best out of their brakes, to avoid an interspecies massacre. Miraculously, these situations always seem to end well. I guess it’s experience.

I’d heard many good things about the Georgian hospitality. It’s true, people are very welcoming here. There is only one problem. Invitations, even if it’s nine o’clock in the morning, always, no exceptions, include alcohol. In Turkey I’d picked up the habit to accept every invitations, but if you’d like to survive the day here, that’s not a wise thing to do. In the beginning I’ve made the mistake several times, with resulting hilarity, including a football match, nearly having a set of car indicators on my bike – the fact that I had to carry a car battery made me back out – etc … . What they don’t do so easily is inviting you in their homes. Even after an irresponsible amount of chacha – a local strong drink, made of grape residue, left after making wine, and which is often replaced by pure alcohol – they just walk off, leaving you there with your bicycle, desperately looking for a place to camp. Luckily, in that state of mind, any piece of land looks like a 5 star camping ground.

Arriving in Tbilisi, it didn’t take me more than 20 minutes to find Sylvain. No phones involved. He’d already spent some months in Georgia, because he got banned for 5 years from Turkey, after having overstayed his visa without knowing. Autumn is coming, and we will go south together. He applied for his Iranian visa, which takes some weeks here. To escape the city, we cycled to Kazbegi, and the Vasholvani National Park. I’m glad we did so, because I hadn’t seen any real beauty of this country yet.

About two weeks ago we arrived in the capital again, and every day they say the visa hasn’t arrived yet. It’s been over a month now. Except for some sporadic laps in the old velodrome, the bike hasn’t seen a lot daylight lately. Neither have I. Out of boredom, I even went to the casino a few times, to look for sponsors.  The hostel isn’t a bad deal though. Free wine, diner, and laundry, for 5 euros a day. That’s just one red chip…

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About Safety

During this 16 months, I got into a lot of new situations: I’ve been invited by hundreds of strangers, slept in woods populated by boars and bears, cycled on motorways, etc… . But I’ve never really felt unsafe, and nothing bad has happened yet. And then this one night, we go out in Tbilisi, and the security guard randomly breaks my nose with his forehead. Why? Apparently there were some Iranians making trouble outside, and one of them was inside. There I was the first one crossing his path, who looked Iranian enough to beat up. Situations like this, though not so extreme, have happened numerous times back at home too. These people, literally hired to keep the place safe, are often fight happy bodybuilders, abusing their position to try out their newest moves. Nobody needs them. At least not me.

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Güle Güle, Türkiye!

The only way to avoid the main from Trabzon to Batumi was going through the mountains again. The warm-up was a beautiful climb from sea level to 2600 meters. What followed was a stretch, that was probably a cycling paradise some years ago. A small road next to a river for 150 km to Artvin. But unfortunately it was one of those places that got completely ruined by the booming Turkish economy. It became a long battle against dust, huge trucks and new unlighted tunnels, because they were building a dozen of new dams. Luckily there were the angry villagers, gladly offering me tea, so we could complain a bit together about the building projects.

damn dams

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