Chadors, Censorship and Banana Smoothies
We had already been warned that the Iranian customs were infamous for confiscating film and videotape. We hid our illicit cargo in the sleeping bags and set off nervously towards the border. Near the border 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 it's peak. Turning the other way we then spotted a multicoloured river of trucks queuing up to enter Iran.
We were soon weaving our way between the metallic monsters. We were directed towards a daunting building residing one side of the huge compound. Inside we joined hundreds of others battling their way towards a small window that would periodically opened. An unseen official inside would grab another handful of passports before slamming the glass shut again. Others tried to force their way into the actual office itself - with some success! We looked at each other and groaned. Would the rest of the country be like this?
I took both passports and dived into the fray. Half and hour and several arguments later I re-emerged triumphant. Immigration was over and only Customs to get through. We anxiously pushed the bikes towards the examination hall. Would this be the point when we witnessed the confiscation of the majority of our Turkish footage?
A man waved us towards a door in a distant wall. We walked over and pushed it open, braced for a hall full of Customs Officers waiting to pull our homes apart. Instead, we found ourselves squinting as we looked down into a valley. That was it! No Customs checks, no hassles, no searches. We were in Iran!
We spent the first four days pedalling through desert and as well as the incredible desert landscape we were thrilled by the quality of the roads. With wide hard shoulders to protect us from the crazy driving these were some of the best roads so far. But unfortuneately the strict Islamic dress code drove Lowanna mad and made cycling in the heat of the desert (average 40 degrees) almost impossible. Even though we got an extension on our visas we decided that thousands of kilometres of Iranian desert was not going to be much fun, especially when Lowanna had to wear the chador whilst cycling.
Surrounded by masochistic solo cyclists from Europe, looking down their noses at us for not cycling every inch of the way, we had to remind ourselves that we were meant to be touring by bike, not torturing ourselves by bike. So from Tehran we jumped on our first bus, and within a few hours found ourselves in beautiful Esfahan.
As we cycled around the gigantic city square, we tried to take in the multitude of mosques and palaces that form the periphery. The men in Esfahan seemed to have little to do except spend their days searching for tourists and we quickly learnt that just the sight of us was an open invitation for them 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.
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 women who were allowed out of the house without their husbands. They may still have to wear headscarves, but Iranian women seem to enjoy more freedom than their Turkish and Greek counterparts.
Our journey through the rest of the country flew by - a multitude of coach journeys and desert scenes. As we unloaded the bikes and panniers in Zahedan, the last frontier town before the border, the friendly driver asked if we would like to spend the night at his home. The sun had already set, and after losing our guidebook in the Kerman we knew it would be a nightmare trying to find our hotel in the dark.
Within moments, a pick up truck had appeared and our bikes were loaded in the back. We jumped in after them and found ourselves crouching beneath the handlebars as the truck hurtled through the bumpy streets. We screeched to a halt in a cloud of dust and felt hands grabbing the bikes from the truck. As the dust cleared we noticed a huge metal gate set into an ever-larger wall. As the gate opened to a courtyard we were welcomed with big smiles from his wife. That evening a huge sigh of relief washed over me as we sat down on Persian rugs, to watch 'Titanic' and eat a simple dinner of bread, yogurt and salad.
We ended up taking a real liking to Zahedan, despite our first impressions and the negative desciption in our guide book. We were the only tourists in town and we really enjoyed wandering the street markets taking in the sights, smells and sounds. The delicious fruit smoothies kept our vitamin intake up and the local people in all manner of headwear ensured that it was us doing the staring.
But on our third day we found ourselves pulled in for questioning by the local police for taking a photograph of a propaganda painting on a wall of the university. They wanted to know why were we in Zahedan? Where were we from? Why were we taking photographs and when were we leaving?
Iran had surprised us, amazed us and frustrated us. Now it was interrogating us. We were suddenly very nervous. Pakistan and Afghanistan were both less than one hundred kilometres away. We thought about all the gear back at the hotel - laptop, video camera, suspicious looking radio microphones, notebooks, and masses of rolls of film. We knew it was time to go. So the next morning we packed our bags and jumped on the first bus to Quetta...