Iran

Iran: never have we travelled to any destination with more warnings from friends at home to ‘take care’, ‘be safe’ and even ‘hope you make it OK’. Many thought we were plain crazy and someone even suggested we might be putting ourselves in a situation where we would need rescuing at some point… I guess with all the media hype on Iran it’s understandable. A country of religious fanatics led by mad Ming-bearded Mullahs and dark-browed Ayatollahs bent on developing nuclear weapons to destroy Israel and America forever. On top of that, along with US and Canadian visitors, UK nationals currently require a guide to visit Iran, which is expensive.

Against that Iran for me will always be Persia; land of ancient civilisation and empire, the place where Darius built his Persepolis and the mighty Xerxes set out to invade Greece. Tales from other overlanders we’d spoken to abounded with stories of incredulous hospitality from a warm and welcoming people. And finally, as I’ve grown older, I’ve become a lot more skeptical about the accuracy of some of our news-feeds and the way they portray events. Remember WMD? We were going in to kick Sadam Hussein’s butt over a load of fabricated nonsense that totally destroyed a country leaving an unstable melting pot that has spread to neighbouring areas and spawned unheard of levels of fanaticism and terrorism as a result. Weighing everything up and with a guide all arranged to meet us at the border we decided it was safe enough for us to go and see Iran for ourselves.

Still, it’s one thing talking about an undertaking and another actually realising it… I will admit to a certain sense of unease as we left the Armenian border town of Agarak for the ten-minute drive to the border. Lofty crags that appeared so picturesque yesterday now assumed a Mordorian aspect as we rode to our doom, a feeling enhanced by the garrison of some two-thousand Russian troops at this sole border crossing between Armenia and Iran. The border was quiet; the only sound was that of money changing hands as the Armenians fleeced us of our last remaining Drams in ‘customs handling fees’ before we left their country. Our passports were then scrutinised under a magnifying glass by two more customs agents before a final check by some Russian soldiers released us onto the bridge that spanned the border.

On the Iranian side we encountered three grim-looking, AK-toting soldiers dressed in baggy desert camo-gear. They gruffly noted our number plates and nationality in a big book and then, switching to smiles and grins, welcomed us to Iran. Customs procedures took another half hour, getting our passports stamped and using our ‘Carnets de Passage’ for the bikes for the first time. We rode on to a final barrier and there, patiently waiting for us was Reza, our guide for the next two weeks.

The guide requirement almost stopped us from visiting Iran at all; it’s just not our cup of tea. Travelling on our bikes we are masters of our own compass, ready to change direction on a whim or a fancy, able to linger or move on just as we like. Now we had a two-week schedule ahead, a man to shadow and show us where to go at every step of the way and we were paying handsomely for the ‘privilege’. Yet the alternative was to miss Iran, take a more northerly route that would entail bad roads and ultimately lead us to China where we’d need a guide anyway. So we wound up on a two-week tour, courtesy of Iran Traveling Centre based in Shiraz, with stops at Tabriz – Rasht (up on the Caspian Sea) – Tehran – Isfahan – Yazd – Shiraz (and nearby Persepolis) all finishing in Bandar Abbas where we would take the ferry to UAE.

We immediately took to Reza with his soft brown eyes and welcoming smile that flashed a very warm welcome as the guard raised that final barrier at the border. Any notion that we would be stuck with some expensive fool for a fortnight was quickly dispelled on our first day’s ride from the border to Tabriz. Reza proved to be a gentleman in every sense of the word. He drove a Rodius people-carrier that we used to mule our luggage and served as a teapot / snackery for every roadside stop.

Reza was an invaluable fixer. He was polite, courteous and very knowledgeable about the sites we visited. His first service was to advise Maggie on her attire. In Iran all women must wear the Hijab (headscarf) to cover their hair and neck. Loose flowing clothing is also recommended, such that any suggestion of female form is swaddled and obscured. We read some pretty horrendous stuff online that would have you believe that all women need to be bagged and bound from head to toe, but once in country the dress code was fairly relaxed and the Hijab was not as onerous as Maggie had anticipated.

Iran, the country, was an amazing place from end to end. The ride to Tabriz was a continuation of the great and beautiful mountain road we’d been following since we left Georgia and all the way through Armenia. Tbilisi to Tabriz is without a doubt one of the most stunning motorcycling roads on the planet and this Iranian tail as it finally leaves the mountains, which by now had gathered a dusting of snow, is simply glorious with wow,wow,wow views in every direction. Then the cities with blue-tiled mosques, tombs and shrines, backstreets and bazaars with all the hustle, bustle and tussle of highly animated and friendly people going about their daily business. The icing on the cake was a day at the ancient ruins of Persepolis and the even more impressive tombs at Naqsh-e-Rostam where we stood in awe at the last resting places of Darius the Great, Xerxes and Artaxerxes an impressive lineage if ever there was one.

Iran and food yielded surprises that were delightful and surprising; fresh carrot juice and vanilla ice-cream? Try this one at home and you’ll be surprised at what a lovely drink this makes. Khak-Shir – a delicious and refreshing suspension made from mustard seeds in rosewater sipped at Persepolis gave us fresh legs to once again wander the ruins under a stifling hot sun. Then there was ‘Dizzi’ – a real blokes dinner. A runny stew made from tender chunky meat and vegetables in a savoury tomato sauce all served up in a dedicated iron ‘Dizzi Pot’. There is even a little ritual to prepare it all for eating. First the liquid is drained off into a dish where shredded bread is added to soak up all the juice. For the rest a chunky metal pestle is used to mash up the remaining solids, which can now be woofed with a spoon before devouring the soggy bread in juice. Hit the spot every time!

And so to the highlight of Iran; it’s people. There are no large motorcycles in Iran, 250 being the maximum engine capacity permitted for locals, therefore our two, comparatively large, yellow bikes understandably drew attention everywhere we stopped. We arrived during Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar and the setting for a massive and very colourful 10-day long commemoration. In particular the final day, Ashura, is marked by Shi’a Muslims as a day of mourning of the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of Mohammed, at the Battle of Karbala (c. 680AD) in Iraq.  Husayn had refused to pledge allegiance to newly appointed caliph, Yazid I, considering the ruling Umayyad regime as unjust and religiously corrupt. To avoid confrontation, he set out on the road to Medina and it was on that road that his peaceful entourage of followers and family was intercepted by the Caliph’s army and massacred.

The moral stance taken by this giant in the pantheon of Islamic saints and heroes, whereby he demonstrated complete sacrifice for God and for others, has become a cornerstone of the Shi’a religion. Ashura is a day of grieving over Husayn’s sacrifice and it is said that “a single tear shed for Husayn washes away a hundred sins”. Everywhere buildings were festooned with flags and banners bearing the cipher of Husayn, often depicted with blood dripping from each letter. At major intersections leading out of towns, volunteers from local Mosques were stenciling the name of Husayn on the rear windows of cars in blood-red water-based paint.

We were grateful to Reza for explaining all of this to us, as the spectacle on the streets was a bizarre and slightly intimidating thing indeed for the non-initiated to contemplate. On the one hand there were all these blood dripping ciphers on black flags set against the very serious mood of the congregation on the streets, many of whom were dressed in black mourning garb with a lot of wailing and groaning. All of this was ultimately in appreciation of the sacrifice made by Husayn in his martyrdom and in the past, practices of self-suffering have been enacted ranging from spouts of chest-beating to more severe acts of flagellation.

At the little town of Naein, on the road to Yazd, we observed first-hand some of these practices, where local communities gathered for a series of processions through the town mosque. We filtered through narrow backstreets in a throng of people to witness an incredible spectacle. Suddenly a powerful clash of drums and cymbals announced the start of the next parade, the men chanting as they walked and whipping their backs with chain flails while black chador clad women looked on. As complete outsiders we were amazed at the dedication of everyone involved, but then again it was a serious occasion for a pious people at their worship. At the far side of the mosque, parade complete, the people returned to the normal smiling folk we’d grown to love in our travels through this amazing place.

Another feature of Muharram is the provision of free food and gifts from local mosques and communities. On our way out of Isfahan we were accosted by smiling volunteers at some red traffic lights and loaded up with scrummy cake bars and a delicious beverage of cinnamon-flavoured, hot chocolate milk. Reza was on hand to collect everything and load it into the car and we stopped just up the road to savour these delicious offerings. But this was just another aspect of the kindness and hospitality of the Iranian people and it was bestowed upon us at every opportunity. Getting ready for the road in early morning Tehran a guy came up with a tray of hot apple-stuffed pastries from a local bakery and insisted we take some. Others stopped with offerings of apples, pomegranate, oranges, each offering accompanied by salvoes of smiles and handshakes. Then there was Darab, a small town visited on our last day on the road to Bandar Abbas. Darab will forever go down in our travelogues as simply the friendliest place on the planet, a place where we almost blocked the road with a gathering crowd of well-wishers and the simply curious.

We had stopped to meet with Hossein, one of Reza’s cousins and the plan was to have lunch there. Iran travels on the little Honda CG 125 and it’s various Iranian / Chinese / Indian copies. Suddenly we had dozens of them around us and a sea of smiling faces, all curious as to where we came from and asking ‘what did we think of Iran?’. Maggie was soon off her bike having her photograph taken with people’s children. An old guy on a dilapidated silver CG arrived with a huge flatbread balanced across the petrol tank. Chunks were broken off as we broke bread with our smiling beneficiary. A car stopped and a hand emerged from the dark interior with the gift of a pomegranate. A local shop-owner appeared with a rice dinner! It was slightly daunting to be the centre of so much attention and, in the end, Reza collected up all of the offerings and we made our way to his uncle’s restaurant where we had the best kebabs in Iran for lunch.

If there was a down side to Iran it was the traffic. Driving on the open road was fairly easy with none of the suicidal overtakes encountered in Georgia but town driving was the most manic free-for-all you can imagine. Lanes meant nothing. A major high street with two lanes in each direction yielded at least four cars going each way with a colloid of CG 125’s filling the gaps. When we followed Reza into Tabriz on our first night I looked under his car at the hotel to see if I could see the Scalextric brushes, as I was convinced that the Iranians had discovered some way to power their cars off the white lines as they drive along. I finally figured the logic of it; if you drive along the white line then you have a choice to continue in the left or right lane as appropriate. This is quite fine if there are no other road users around but when everyone does it, chaos ensues.

To spice it all up, it was now late October, getting dark around 5:30pm and we had a few night arrivals. Rasht on our first full days ride was especially horrific in the dark and our intercom was alive with incoming combat reports as we battled our individual dogfights with these crazy drivers. Through it all, Reza was brilliant. He quickly understood our riding abilities and matched his driving to suit, shielding us from the odd lunatic and taking care through especially busy junctions. Then we’d arrive at the hotel for the night, the crazy drivers all dispersed for the day and we were once again be surrounded by smiling, lovely people…

So that was Iran, a great country that has certainly left an indelible impression upon us. At the mention any country, you will have two impressions of that place. One is determined by the actions of its government in the world at large and the other by the actions of the people you meet from that place. The more we travel the more we realize that the government is very definitely not the people, who are basically the same wherever you go regardless of race or colour, creed or religion. We all strive for similar needs and aspirations. This is all becoming more apparent in the modern world where media and mass communication are now firmly in the public domain and ever more remote from governmental control.

This was so apparent in Iran where we could sense a huge undercurrent of change. Following the revolution in the 1970’s the country entered a dark age of puritanical intolerance that isolated it from most of the world though sanctions and censure. Recent moves to retire their nuclear capability are moving in the right direction and it was clear from everyone we spoke to, from old folk who remembered the era of the Shah to the younger generation in touch with the outside world through modern media, that this is the real wish of the Iranian people; to once again be a respected and tolerant partner on the world stage. We wish them well on this journey, which is only just beginning…

Iran was an immensely colourful place. Consequently there are four photogalleries associated with this blog. Please click on the following links for access:

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