Bicycle touring IRAN | First week impressions

Bicycle touring IRAN | First week impressions

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We are about to enter country number 9 of our Amazing World Bike Tour. And yes, we will cycle all the way through the infamous Islamic Republic of Iran. In the meantime we had intended to skip the country due to the tense security situation, but we just couldn’t come to terms with it. Call us reckless, but here we are again at the border of Armenia with Iran. However this time, we are more or less prepared to enter a confusing but also extraordinarily exciting new chapter of our journey.

The coming months we will cycle the legendary Silk Road across Persia. To provide important context, we will share some publicly available information with you early on. Some of this might be upsetting to you, but we’ve always been of the opinion that it is important to face reality with open eyes.

Despite the serious problems you probably learned about in the news, there are other aspects too. First and foremost for us: All cyclists we know loved Iran. So what is it then? Well, there is only one way to find out! Yesterday we hitchhiked from Yerevan almost here to the border town. That was a rough ride and kind of crazy.

We cycled here, hitchhiked back to Yerevan, got the visa and now hitchhiked here again. Behind us is already Iran, and when we cross this border a whole new world is awaiting us. I’m very excited, my heart is racing.

So see you on the other side. Iran. Salam. We just crossed the border.

Everything has worked fine so far. Was pretty straight forward. We got a stamp in the e-visa paper, not in the passport. And we’re now in Nordooz. Our first proper goal is Tabriz. And Tabriz will be very interesting, because it has one of the largest covered bazaars with a roof, a gigantic bazaar.

I’m a millionaire in Iran. How much money is this? Like 30€, but we have 1.800.000 Rials or Tomans. I have no idea. One of those. Oh my God! 500000 Rials, which is actually 50000 Tomans, that people actually call 50 Tomans. Let’s go… We’re multimillionaires.

Wait, we have what, like 15 Mil, 18 Million. We have 18 Mil, no?! Rial! No, 1.8 Million. We have 18 Million?! I have no idea.

No, 1.8 Million. We’ll figure it out. It was 18 Million, by the way. Anyway, we think context is important and naivety can be dangerous. To get a few things out of the way let’s cite the German ministry of foreign affairs: “There is a travel warning for Iran, refrain from travelling to Iran.”

“In particular, refrain from "adventure tourism" by bicycle, motorbike, motorhome or camper, as there is a particularly high risk of arbitrary arrest.” “Do not travel to Iran, especially if you have been critical of the country and the political system in the past.” “There is a real danger that German nationals will be arbitrarily arrested, interrogated and sentenced to long prison terms.”

“There have been a large number of arbitrary arrests of foreign nationals in the recent past.” “Photographing and filming even supposedly harmless places can lead to arrests and prosecution on charges of espionage” The list of specific and dire warnings goes on for several pages. Anyone travelling in Iran should be aware of the considerable risks involved, not only for themselves but also the people they meet.

So, we largely do without our good camera and drone while travelling in Iran. We’ve cycled the first 20 kms in Iran and I can tell you, in roughly 5 kms there is something. Whatever it is… I’m looking forward to it. We’re in this first village after Nordooz, the bordertown. I paid 850.000 Rial which is 85.000 Toman, which is maybe 1.8€ and we got two gigantic sandwiches: One with chicken and one with some sort of sausage.

Look at this. Chicken, salad, tomato. We've just filled our fuel bottle. This is almost a litre I think, and we paid 30000 Rial, which is about 5 Cents. Yeah… Ok. Due to staggering inflation rates the Iranian Rial has devalued drastically over the past decades.

While in 1979 one US-Dollar equaled 70 Rial, the relevant street rate was about 500.000 per Dollar when we entered the country. While this doesn’t explain why they sell petrol under the cost of production, with over 15 millions of cash on hand we are optimistic to reach the first bigger city, Marand, in a couple of days. This is an amazing place for our first night in Iran. We even have fresh water running behind us, which is amazing. Yes, the ground is a little bit rough, because there are thorns. Other than that, it's beautiful.

It’s right next to the road, but it’s very quiet. Nobody can even see us. We have a stunning view, as you can see over there in the back. By the way: I did not convert to Islam, but like Afghanistan, Iran requires non-Muslim women to wear a headscarf, or hijab. This hasn’t always been the case though. In 1936 then emperor Reza Shah had issued a decree banning all veils.

The law was relaxed only 5 years later in 1941 under his successor and son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The wearing of a headscarf was no longer an offence, but still considered as an indicator of backwardness, and remained a significant hindrance to climbing the social ladder. According to Iran's current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the policy was aimed at, and I quote: "eradicating the tremendous power of faith" in Muslim societies that was enabled by what he termed the "decency of women", as hijab (in his view) protected Muslim women from the "malicious abuse" suffered by women in the West, and the people from preoccupation with sexual desire.

In spring of 1979, shortly after the overthrow of the monarchy, the leader of the Iranian revolution Ayatollah Khomeini announced that women should observe Islamic dress code. By 1983 the penal code prescribed punishment of 74 lashes for women appearing in public without Islamic hijab. Iran's current penal code stipulates hefty fines and up to two months in prison for failure to observe hijab in public. This has repeatedly caused protests across the country.

The last one started in September 2022 following the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman, who was arrested and abused by the morality police for not wearing a hijab “correctly”. There they go. We’ve just had our first control by the police. They just wanted to check our papers. I think mostly they were just curious who we are, then they have nothing to do. It took less than 3 minutes.

According to Iran Human Rights, an NGO based in Norway, at least 551 people, including 68 minors, have been killed in the government's crackdown on the recent women, life, freedom protests, with tens of thousands placed under arrest. In 2023 Iran also hanged at least 834 people, the second-highest number in two decades. At least 7 of them were executed due to their involvement in the protests.

Oatmeal, the stuff that makes cyclists fly up mountains… Hot, hot… This is me flying up a hill at 9 in the morning. Sweating a little bit… It is early May, but the sun is already intense, which is why Arev is experimenting with new strategies to protect herself. This northwestern region of Iran is called Eastern Azerbaijan, not to be confused with the Republic of Azerbaijan. The vast, and dry landscape already gives us an idea about the barren beauty of the mountains, plains and deserts we will cross following the historic Silk Road in the months to come.

It’s our third day in Iran and a few quick observations so far. Quite obviously people are very kind and everyone is greeting us. Every other car is honking, flashing the lights, people are waving their hands, which is always nice. That never gets old. And then, oh you just saw it. Three of those very old Nissan pickup trucks just passed us.

Because of the sanctions they have a very low variety in the vehicles they can use. They have these old Nissans. On the other side of the road it’s a Peugeot, a French car. I know it as a Peugeot 405 or 406, like this one. They have plenty of those. Then there is this Iranian car, Saba.

I think it’s Iranian, it’s pretty small. They have a lot of them too. I would say, all in all, those make up at least 60 percent of the vehicles on the roads.

The roads by the way, the roads are pretty good. There are not that many roads, so we don’t have a lot of choice, but at least most of the time there is a wide shoulder. That is very relaxing.

You see, another Peugeot, and he is also honking. We also notice that the majority of drivers in Iran do not seem to be overly concerned with fuel efficiency. In other words, they blast through the countryside with the pedal to the metal. You will not believe what happened to Arev.

No! *Mathias chuckling* Give me the light. *Arev chuckling* Shit! Literally… Unbelievable! So, she is still inside, cleaning her sunglasses. After washing her sunglasses with plenty of soap about a dozen times and using all of our hand disinfectant on it we’re good to go again! In the early afternoon we will reach Marand, the first somewhat bigger city. We want to buy an Iranian sim card, exchange money, grab some lunch and cycle out of town before sunset to find a camp spot.

For decades Iran was the most heavily sanctioned country in the world, only recently succeeded by Russia. This is why visitors basically have to bring all the money into the country in cash. We hope to find a place where we can exchange our Euros for mountains of paper. Once we arrive in the city centre a local immediately leads us the way to the shop of a network provider. We are in the "Irancell" shop and will now spend a lot of money. 1.35 Million Rial.

That’s about 2.5€. For that we get a sim card and 15 GB of data. Foreign credit cards are useless in Iran.

We are told that we can exchange cash in the gold bazaar, so that’s what we do, before leaving Marand. Arash and his friends stopped us before we could leave the city, and said, “Come one! Don’t you want to stay with us and have some fun?!” and we’re like “Okay?!” So, this is cool. We can even stay the night here. We are friends. Our party garden! Fantastic! Please eat! Oh, wow! Stuffed grilled eggplant.

Nice! This will be tasty! They insist we stay another day, so they can show us around. We learn that Arash’s dad is also an avid cyclist and has toured all of Iran, Iraq and Turkey. In the afternoon we visit Zonuzaq, a small village in the countryside. It is known for its apples growing on the slopes of the hill, the stepwise architecture of its houses, and a wonderful sunset.

Hello! Hello! What did he say? He spoke to you: Hello, how are you? Aaaah… I’m fine! Good bye! Hello. How can we get to the castle? The path starts from our yard. Go from that side. Ah, thank you! Our new friends want to show us the best view from the top of the hill, but we get lost in the alleyways of Zonuzaq. Fortunately the old lady leads us the way. Farhoud has outdone himself. He was busy cooking in the kitchen the whole evening.

Farhoud is our mom! Yes! They’re all joking he is the mom of the group, because he’s cooking such good food. So, what do we have here? What is this? What is this?! How can I explain? Rice?! *in Farsi* Rice! Meat. *in Farsi* Meat! Carrot! Tomatoes. And what is this stuff? Jam! Jam? Yes! Ah, your mom made jams! Orange jam. Fig! Fig jam. Enjoy your meal guys! The meal is fantastic indeed.

Restaurants usually represent only a fraction of a national cuisine. Therefore eating at someone's home is one of Mathias’ highlights. During the obligatory after meal tea Amir-Hossein shows me how to play the Tanbur.

So, we’re leaving these amazing people here in Marand. Love you! Come visit us in Yerevan one day! Yes! Bye-bye! Good bye! *in Pharsi Amir-Hossein has to go to university and accompanies us to the edge of town. The people in this city were so incredibly kind. We got the sim card working.

Now we got the VPN working, so we can use all the social media apps that are blocked in Iran. This bunch of money is about 10 Euros. So, what Hossein did yesterday is: We handed a bunch of money to the bank and they made us three of those gift cards.

Now we can use them kind of like a credit card when we pay for stuff, which makes it a lot easier for us. So, yes, we are fully set up to explore Iran now. We are heading to Tabriz, the provincial capital of Eastern Azerbaijan, one of the three provinces of Iranian Azerbaijan. Most people in this region speak two languages, Azeri Turkic, and the official language of Iran Farsi, the Persian name for Persian.

Turkic, as the locals call their language, is closely related to Turkish, Turkmen, Gagauz, Qashqai, and Crimean Tatar. It is mutually intelligible with each of these languages, to varying degrees. We are about 15 kms from Tabriz. Traffic is getting worse and worse.

Maybe 1.5 hours to go. Nowadays over 1.5 million people live in Tabriz, making it the sixth biggest city of Iran. While the quality of the roads in Iran is fairly decent, there is sometimes only one huge and very busy road per general direction. This is not ideal for cycling, but at least there is a hard shoulder most of the time. However, the massive, often decades old trucks are fairly intimidating nonetheless. To the right here.

Finally we will visit the grand bazaar, but first some typical Iranian breakfast. Yeralma Yumurta or smashed potato and egg, a simple, tasty, filling and very affordable street food from Tabriz. They usually also add butter, salt, black pepper, and sometimes condiments like onion, pickled cucumber and or herbs.

We’re inside the bazaar now. This part has many jewellery stores. And this is also where people usually exchange money. That’s because the jewellery store owners handle high value stuff, so they always have a lot of money and gold at hand. This is why people trust them to exchange money at a better rate, than let’s say on the street or in a bank. Mr. Ali.

Mr. Ali, hello! They’re selling all kinds of dried herbs and teas, I believe. This is maybe a dried lemon. This gives a very intense flavour. They use it for cooking, because they like some sourness in their dishes. Then there are teas.

They also use a lot of mint, which is tasty. So, they have plenty of high quality herbs here. We shouldn’t forget to look up, as the ceiling is so beautiful. It is one of the oldest bazaars in the whole Middle East as Tabriz has been a place of cultural exchange since antiquity.

Now we’re coming into the area that is all about carpets. Carpets, carpets, carpets! I’ve never seen something like this! This is a carpet! How nice. Persians are famous for their carpet making techniques.

And if we would not travel with bicycles, this would be a very good chance to buy one for a good price, I imagine. The historic bazaar complex is one of the most important commercial centres on the entire Silk Road, and was already mentioned by the Venetian traveller Marco Polo, who claimed to have passed through it on his journey to the east. While we wander around the seemingly endless hallways we are approached by Hossein. He is visiting Tabriz to explore business opportunities for his village. How big is this bazaar? Do you know? It’s close to 5 kms long.

5 kms?! Yes. Photo? He said you can take a photo. So, what do we have here? How can I put this? It’s a grandfather's hat. So this is the traditional hat of the Tabriz region. This is hand woven.

When you touch it you can feel it. That’s very interesting. I’ve never seen anything like it. They have carpets that are paintings. Painting….

No, carpet paintings?! Very interesting. Thanks! Thanks. Tabriz is the main centre for the production of the famous Persian rugs. The distinctive durability of Tabriz's carpets and their unique design made them famous all over the world.

Hand woven with the finest materials including wool and silk, a single Persian rug can often take years, or even decades to make. Therefore a high-quality Iranian carpet can cost tens of thousands of dollars. So, even if we could transport one, we couldn’t dream of buying one, as most of our money went into this journey. Ugh, silly us. Why are we even doing this? We could have had a rug instead! This is insane.

There are so many carpets everywhere. It does not stop. They have millions and millions of carpets, wow! The bazaar is gigantic, I think we haven’t even seen half of it. I’m getting a bit hungry and I’ve heard that there is an area where they sell cheese.

That’s always interesting, let’s go there! We love cheese! This is the food section! This is always the best part. Look at this woohoo! There is tea, dates, olives, everything you can imagine and I can smell cheese already. This is how turmeric looks, when taken from the ground. And then they grind it down in this machine here.

We always enjoy discovering local markets, even though they are usually crowded, loud, messy and often smelly. In the midst of the hustle and bustle, with visual impressions, new discoveries and smells rushing in by the second, we observe the local life, and authentic interactions. So, this was the bazaar of Tabriz. Hossein was so kind to guide us around in this huge labyrinth, where you can find everything! Incredible! If you ever come to Tabriz, come to the bazaar and spend two days here.

We’re hungry now. So we have to find something to eat, I’m sure we will. As you could see, so far we experienced nothing short of the utmost kindness, helpfulness and hospitality.

As always, we want to give you a balanced glimpse of our time in Iran. However, this is easier said than done and we invite you to think about what or rather who you don’t get to see. Although we have to abide by the local rules, as foreigners in Iran we still have most of our freedoms, and the great privilege of only passing through. This is it from Tabriz.

Join us again next time, when we continue cycling across Iranian Azerbaijan, get in a sandstorm and eventually enter Iranian Kurdistan, where a huge surprise is waiting for us! Hey, we Arev and Mathias, a couple of independent amateur filmmakers on an unsupported journey around our planet. In late 2021 we sold our belongings and set out to explore, grow and show the world as we see it, in the hope to inspire some people along the way. If you like what we do, it would be great if you could help us out. Editing this type of unscripted and spontaneous documentaries takes a huge amount of time and effort, which is why roughly 50% of our rapidly shrinking budget goes into this channel. On average we receive about 30 Euros from Youtube ads per month, which helps, but is only a fraction of what we actually spend on creating a single episode.

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2024-05-01 19:53

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