The border crossing from Turkey into Iran seemed excessively overcomplicated to me. I must have shown my passport to no less than ten people, be they Turk or Iranian. The only thing that told me that I’d crossed into Iran was the emergence of the looming portraits of the religious big-wigs hanging on the walls, and the huge mustaches under the noses of the Iranian immigration officers. To my surprised relief, nobody gave my bike so much as a second glance, and before I knew it I was rolling down a hill into the Middle East, into Iran!
After a stop in the bustling north-west city of Tabriz, I headed generally south-east towards Esfahan. The landscape is generally arid and mountainous, and there have been a few occasions where I have started to worry about finding somewhere secluded to camp. As the sun creeps below the mountainous horizon, though, I always seem to spot a distant copse of trees, some useful mounds of discarded earth, or some dead-ground, out of sight of the road. One particularly pleasant evening was spent in an apple orchard, with the most lush, green grass I’ve seen since western Europe! Unfortunately my petrol stove ran out of fuel halfway through boiling up some water, so lukewarm smash was the order of the day, though it did little to dampen my spirits – it was still far superior to stale bread and cheese, to which I’ve become rather accustomed.
Visitors to Iran may wax-lyrical about the ancient ruins of Persepolis, the beautiful parks of Esfahan, or the humbling generosity of the people. It is true that these are highlights – to that I will not disagree – but the highlight of recent days for me was the discovery of the availability of Chocolate Digestives in a small roadside shop! Eleven o’clock biscuit stops have since become a staple of my average cycling day!
English is certainly more widely spoken in Iran than it had been in Turkey (which is convenient, as I’ve long since given up trying to master Farsi in my limited time here), though it is true that many people are limited to “hello! How are you?”. I do meet the odd person that I can communicate well with, though. One such character asked me a few days ago what my opinion was of the Iranian people. Are they good to you, he asked. I said that they were fantastic people, everywhere, except on the road. When behind the wheel of a car, or when sat atop a motorcycle (which seem to abound in rural areas), the kind, generous, placid nature of the Iranian people becomes twisted and reversed, leaving what I can only explain as road-madness! It is common practice here, for instance, for cars to reverse the wrong way down a dual-carriageway without warning; other cars seem to be in competition in to how closely they can pass me at speed, and it seems to be bad form to even pretend to glance into oncoming traffic when joining a busy road from a junction. Cycling, particularly in the larger cities, requires immense concentration and the patience of a saint, not to mention eyes in the back of my head!
But this is not enough to tarnish my impression of the wonderfully generous and selfless people. Despite what you may read in the newspapers, everyone in Iran is not enriching uranium in their back gardens. They are a nation of picnickers and socialisers. In the short time that I’ve been here I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been invited to join breakfasts, lunches and dinners, or to stay at people’s homes rather than camp in the open, be it by rural farmers or modern, educated city-dwellers. It pains me to say that I’ve had to begin to refuse some such offers, for the simple fact that if I don’t, there’s no way I’ll make it through Iran before my visa expires!
I arrived yesterday in the central city of Esfahan, Iran’s second city, and once capital, in time to mark my twenty-forth birthday. As a special birthday treat, I’m staying in a rather extravagant hotel (at least by my standards), with a real toilet! – my first since leaving Turkey! It’s incredible how the simple things can mean so much on a journey such as this. Toilets and hotel rooms aside, I’m spending today exploring the beautiful city of Esfahan. I continue south-eastwards towards Pakistan tomorrow.