Turkey - Iran
Sixteen days spent in Cappadocia, in the centre of Turkey, had lulled us into a false sense of tourist-security. As we left the fairy chimneys behind us, we discovered our first bike lane since Switzerland. It had been designed to ensure the safety of visitors pedalling through the amazing scenery. At least that was the idea - the locals all used it as a handy overtaking lane.
Continuing east, we began to notice a change in the social landscape. Just after breakfast one morning, we spotted an old man at the side of the road chopping wood. It was only as we pulled level, we realised the wood was actually a dead cow and he was in the process of hacking off the legs.
In Turkey, when the roads reach the end of their life, the authorities simply recoat the crumbling surface with sticky tarmac and sharp stones. The constant vibration lead to acute saddle soreness, and the serrated surface ate through our tyres - and daily distance totals - at an alarming rate.
Battling to reach the border before our Iranian entry visa expired, we had our first major breakdown whilst descending from a 2290m pass. The rails under my Rolls San Marco snapped leaving me without a saddle for the next sixty-five kilometres. As a mighty thunderstorm broke, Lowanna then lost a bolt from her back rack causing her to swerve dangerously out into the road. Searching for a spare bolt in the front pannier revealed saturated maps, film, videotape and journal. Our Agu panniers had reached their use-by-date.
Wondering what else could go wrong, we limped into the dusty border town of Dogubeyazit just as the last of the light faded from the sky. Sporting dirty faces and dishevelled hair, local children clamoured for money, pens, cigarettes and photos. One of them took direct action and ripped something from the back of my bike. Luckily, it was only a plastic bag full of rubbish. Pedalling furiously, we climbed to our chilly campsite at 2000m, to find the place teaming with overland travellers either coming from or going to India. It was a complete treat to talk English once more and to enjoy our final beer before entering the alcohol free world of Iran.
Already warned that the Iranian customs were infamous for confiscating film, we hid our illicit cargo in smelly socks and sleeping bags before setting off nervously towards the border. En-route we stopped to admire the majestic beauty of biblical Mount Ararat, Turkey's highest mountain. With the temperature on the road climbing towards 40 degrees, it was incredible to see snow on its peak. Just to the right of the volcano we then spotted a multicoloured river of trucks.
Weaving our way through the queue of metallic monsters, we were directed towards a daunting building on the other side of the compound. Inside the stuffy dark hall we joined hundreds of others battling their way towards a small window.
Lowanna took both passports and dived into the fray. Half an hour and several arguments later she re-appeared with a triumphant look on her face. Immigration over and only Customs to come. We nervously pushed the bikes towards the examination hall. Would they confiscate our precious five hours of Turkish footage? A man waved us towards a door. We walked over and pushed it open to find ourselves looking down into a valley. No Customs checks and no searches. We were in Iran!
We spent four days pedalling through stark desert and vast apple orchards. As we left the quiet town of Marand we were astonished to see a lycra-clad group of 20 racing cyclists approaching. As they swished past, every one of them took their hands from the handlebars. Clapping and cheering us on, it was one of the most surprising and touching moments of the trip so far.
Nearing the city of Tabriz, we met four more racers who offered to accompany us into town. When we reached the outskirts they suddenly pulled over at a roundabout. One of the cyclists jumped off his bike and dived into the bushes. He reappeared minutes later clutching a small rucksack. We watched curiously as he distributed long sleeve shirts and trousers to each of his companions. It was humbling for Lowanna to realise that it wasn't just women cyclists who were inconvenienced by the Islamic dress code.
All the same, she was finding it incredibly hard cycling in her 'chador' (translation: tent). With only a two-week visa, we decided to use public transport to help us across the several thousand kilometres of desert. We wanted to tour by bike, not torture ourselves by bike - and the Foreign Office advice to get an armed escort through the more remote areas had also pushed us further away from the masochistic cycling option.
Before we knew it, we were on an overnight sleeper to Tehran. Soldiers filled half the train while families took up the remainder. We were given a sports bag, which upon inspection was found to contain a blanket and pillow. So we settled down for a good nights sleep and awoke to find ourselves rolling through the Tehran suburbs just as the sun began to peek above the horizon.
"You can collect your bikes at 4 o'clock" said the man behind the baggage counter. It was only 9am. The baggage wagon had been sent off for cleaning - and only on its return would they empty the contents. So we set off to explore the city. I got a long-overdue haircut and we discovered the delights of Iranian juice bars several times over. After being reunited with our slightly squashed bikes, we decided to see what the Iranian coach service could offer.
Twelve hours later we were safely deposited in Esfahan. The glorious city hosts one of the largest squares in the world, and as we cycled around it, we tried to take in the multitude of mosques and palaces that form the periphery. We quickly learnt that just the sight of Westerners is an open invitation to come over and talk. And it was not just small talk - Iranians want to dive headfirst into lengthy discussions about religion, politics and culture. With the women taking on most of the work the men seemed to have little to do except spend their days searching for tourists.
But come evening time everything changed. Suddenly whole families arrived - armed with Persian rugs and entire kitchens! Spicy smells wafted through the air as evening meals were prepared. Cookers, pans, kettles and baskets overflowed with goodies, and within a few minutes the groups were devouring huge plates of stunning food.
Our taste buds tempted by such delights, we went to the local pizza restaurant and were shocked to find the place full of unaccompanied Iranian women. For Lowanna it was the first time in nearly quarter of a year that she had shared an eatery with local women. They may have to cover their heads, but Iranian women seem to enjoy a lot more freedom than their Turkish and Greek counterparts.
Early next morning we set off to find the famous arched bridges of Esfahan. A mighty river winds its way through the city - or at least it used to. As we arrived on the bank, we discovered that drought had turned the bridges into out-of-commission ornaments. We watched locals walking across the dry river bed as an old Iranian man explained that years without rain has already killed over one million head of livestock. Was this another result of global warming? With news of cholera in the worst hit areas, we knew it was time to push eastwards.
Another incredibly long coach ride took us through the scorching hot desert to the bustling border town of Zahedan. As we unloaded the bikes and panniers, the friendly driver asked if we would like to spend the night at his family home. The sun had already set, and after losing our guidebook in the last town, we knew it would be a huge saga trying to find our hotel. So, we loaded the bikes into his pick-up and crouched beneath the handlebars. As we hurtled off down the bumpy street, it crossed my mind that we were very close to Afghanistan. Was the bus driver who he said he was? The truck pulled up outside a house and interrupted my thoughts. After a lovely evening spent relaxing on giant Persian rugs with his wife and six children, we knew we had made the right decision.
On our third day in Zahedan, we found ourselves pulled in for questioning by the local police. Lowanna had been spotted photographing a propaganda painting in the university grounds. For two hours they fired questions at us: Where were we from? Why were we in Zahedan? Why were we taking photographs? When were we leaving? Iran had surprised us, amazed us and frustrated us. And now it was interrogating us. Pakistan, less than one hundred kilometres away, started calling.
Arriving in Quetta was a complete assault on the senses. Everywhere I looked there was someone or something to watch. Three wheeled auto-rickshaws flew in every direction belching clouds of smoke from their whining two-stroke engines. Multicoloured lorries announced their arrival with jangles from the bells bouncing off the bodywork. Beautiful, intricate decoration dripped off the buses. As we enjoyed a breakfast of spicy samosas and sugar cane juice, we tried not to notice the cloud of pollution overhead or the raw sewage underfoot.
We looked at each other. Suddenly the little Turkish shepherds seemed easy in comparison. Three thousand kilometres of cycling through the Indian subcontinent lay before us. Was it possible to weave our way through this intriguing, intoxicating chaotic mess without losing our lives or sanity?