Welcome to Iran! 'Hello Mister!', 'How are you doing?', 'Welcome to my country!' These are some of the sentences drivers shout at me while passing. Sometimes it's just a simple honk. Sometimes a motorcyclists drives next to me for several kilometers, asking me all kind of questions. Iranians are extremely interested in foreigners and I feel like I do more waving on my bicycle than the Queen of England.
As a cycle tourist in Iran you cause a sensation everywhere you go. The moment you stop cycling, a group of curious men is already surrounding you. Iran was isolated until the late 1990s and even today you can't find too many foreigners in this ancient country. For a lot of Iranians I was the first European they ever caught sight of. That is the reason why the interest in travelers like me is immense.
And the hospitality knows no boundaries. For a muslim it is an honour to host or help a guest. Even more if he comes from a foreign country. I experienced this hospitality already in Albania or Turkey but it seems like Iranians are taking it to another level. When Kemal and I (Kemal is a turkish cyclist with whom I joined forces for three days) were camping at a city park in Marand, people brought us all kinds of food for dinner. Then they started making us tea and when we were finished they even cleaned our dishes! (Which was almost embarrasing - we said no but they insisted). So my question is the following: How is it possible that a European is most welcome in the Middle East, whereas a person from that region going to Europe will probably be despised? How comes that a melon vendor that has no other sort of income than selling his watermelons is giving me one for free whereas we in Europe, who own more than we need, are in constant fear of losing our wealth to immigrants?
'How can I help you?' All Iranians want your stay in their country to be as pleasant as possible. Unfortunately, the constant need of making you feel comfortable sometimes results in the complete opposite. Here's an example: Shortly after Tabriz I met Steffi and Andreas from Germany and we decided to cycle together the 600Km to Teheran. It was a very hard section because for 8 days we had to fight against strong headwinds and temperatures above 40 degrees. In fact, it became so hot in the semi-desert we were crossing, that we could only cycle in the morning and in the evening. This meant waking up at 6am, covering up to 70Km before midday and then doing another 20Km shortly before sunset. During our six-hour-long afternoon break we were very tired and desperately needed to rest. But in the city parks we could hardly get any rest because every few minutes another group of Iranians passed by, asking us questions and if we needed anything. Every individual tried to be as friendly as possible but all together it was more than exhausting. In the end we answered the questions as short and monotonous as possible for the people to lose interest. I wish I could tell my travel story as exciting as I told it to the first Iranian who asked me for it, but after listing my destinations for the 500th time this is just not possible anymore. Sometimes I get tired.
But when I look back at these first 12 days in Persia, it's the interactions with people that made me smile and that will linger on in my mind for a long time: An old man who lived in Hamburg for 17 years, making money dealing tickets at the black market. A young engineering student with perfect German, trying to find a way to study in Germany. A journalist who can't write his actual thoughts about his government and religion because this way he would face death penalty. A psychologist at the military, actually being crazy himself. A female student, feeling trapped within her countries religious beliefs and laws, searching for a way to escape. A friendly Mullah with the clearest blue eyes, taking pictures of the foreign cyclists. Some women in chadors (religious outfit that covers the whole body as well as the hair of the women) giving one of their black costumes to Steffi and laughing like children about the sight of a European woman in a chador. And on the opposite site some girls in a café in Teheran, wearing the compulsory headscarf behind their ears, trying to show as much hair as possible while the scarf deliberately slips down their heads every once in a while.
All these ecounters show me one thing: I already cycled a lot. I made my way from the Occident to the Orient. On a bicycle - sometimes it's hard to imagine. Iran is different. The landscape is different. The trees got substituted with rocks and sand. People are different as well. Their behaviour is different, their thinking is different and their values are different. But in a way they are just like me. They smile when they are happy and they cry when they are sad. In Tabriz I got hosted by Elias and Arslan - two wonderful guys that I am proud to call my friends now. We talked about a lot of things: Philosophy, Politics, Love, Religion. Arslan was right when he stated, 'Simon, you and I are the same.' I basically cycled for 5 months and 8,000Km to find out that people everywhere are more or less the same. We are humans. And that is a wonderful insight.
No means yes. During these last days there is one thing I learned the hard way about Iran: That No actually means Yes. What I mean by that is, that in the Iranian culture it is considered polite to say 'no' to something you get offered - even if you really want it.
When I left Teheran, still a bit sick because of the heat, I didn't feel like eating anything at all. But trying to explain that to the Iranian people was nearly impossible. If I said, 'No, thanks! I am not hungry.', all they thought was, hey, he is trying to be polite by rejecting our offer. And then they invited me to a nearby restaurant. One day I got invited for lunch - chicken and rice in a restaurant. In the afternoon an old woman gave me a huge bowl of her homemade soup. And in the evening two men invited me to a kebap house. My stomach was about to burst into pieces and at last I had to call Kimia in Teheran to translate for me on the phone that I don't want to be rude, but all I was trying to tell you the whole evening is that I can't eat more food. The kebap had to go to the trash untouched.
But let's go back to Teheran for a minute. I recently heard about a book called 'City of Lies' by Ramita Navai. In this book, she calls Teheran the city where nothing is allowed but everything is possible. I have to agree. When cycling out of the capital a young scruffy man stopped me to offer me some LSD. He said that with that drug I can cycle straight into the sun. My answer was that I don't need his LSD for that since Teheran at midday already feels like the center of the sun.
To reach the Caspian Sea I had to cross the Alborz mountains. But already after the first day the mixture of heat, heavy traffic, headwind and uphill cycling took away all my energy. I was feeling very bad. Very very bad. Actually, I was feeling so bad that I searched up the fastest flight from Teheran to Germany. Just to know. My stomach was hurting for one week now and all my motivation was gone. Even cycling couldn't cheer me up anymore. Even cycling.
Erfan invited me to his home and brought me for 25Km up to the mountain pass the next morning. I was rolling down the other side of the mountain range towards the Caspian Sea and every kilometer the scenery went greener and greener. In the evening I put up my tent nearby a small river and it tentatively started to rain. For a moment the heat was gone and I was feeling to start better. The first rain since more than a month tasted like dust.
At the Caspian Sea I reached the lowest point of my journey. Geographically this time, not emotionally: The coast is situated at 28m under sea level. That's why it isn't actually an ocean but the biggest lake on earth. But somehow the Iranian managed to even put the biggest lake on earth full of trash, so swimming in it wasn't that much of a pleasure. The road along the coast goes through one town after another and it felt like I got invited to someone's home in each of these cities. And people continued to give me food: At one point I had four different glasses of homemade marmelade.
The one event that definitely made me happy again was my stay at a family's house in Ramian. It was a big family - 12 brothers and sisters in total, almost all living in different places. But in summer most of them come together with their families at their parent's house. That's when I got invited to join them at their family reunion. And what a crazy family! From the first moment on, Amin and his relatives made me feel more than welcome. We went to the Iranian jungle to do some fishing - Iranian style with nothing but a cloth. When the heavy rain bedraggled us we went back to the cars. The Iranian pop songs from the radio were lifting up our spirits until we had to stop the vehicle to do some Iranian dances in the rain. It was a fantastic day.
Afterwards I was cycling through beautiful Golestan National Park. The first part was dense jungle. 50 kilometers later I reached a sandy high plateau with red shimmering mountain tops. Another 50 kilometers later I was back again in the semi-desert. A lot of things happened these last days: A slow moving car hit me in the rear pannier bags. Some young rowdy military guys harrassed me for a while. I saw a family of wild boars as well as some incredible sunsets/sunrises. And I got woken up in my tent by a bunch of men with a rifle. But these are all stories for another day. For now, I will just let the pictures tell the rest of my Iran story.