10 – 27 September 2016
This section covers 2,000k through Iran from the Turkmenistan border in the East to the Armenian border in the northwest. My initial idea had been to leave the bike somewhere at the Caspian Sea and travel around the country 3-4 weeks by bus before continuing to Azerbaijan. However, unfriendly people and endless bike problems made me ride straight through the country and skip Azerbaijan because it required a visa, which could only be obtained in Tehran on Mondays. Countless travellers over the years had told me about the lovely Iranian people, so it was impossible to avoid high expectations and therefore Iran, became my biggest travel disappointment ever.
Itinerary and weather
From the Turkmenistan border, I rode main road 22 most of the way through Iran all the way to Rudsar at the southwest corner of the Caspian Sea. First 200k west through mountainous and desert-like landscape to Mashhad and then 300k northwest to Bojnurd in more open landscape, all very dry except when irrigated. From Bojnurd, it was a nice 300k mountainous ride to Gorgan from where it became flattish 450k to Rudsar - first through more dry/irrigated countryside and then along the Caspian Sea; in the beginning very built-up and terribly commercial but as I rode west, it was all farmland outside the big cities. From Rudsar, I took the nice coastal road north all the way to Astara by the Azerbaijan border where I turned west up the mountains to Ardabil and afterwards Ahar – first through a desert-like landscape and then through lovely gorges irrigated from rivers. From Ahar, it was a beautiful ride north over more mountains and then west along the Azerbaijan border river until I reached the Armenian border at Nordooz.
When I crossed into Iran, it was 40-45C though the desert, but as I turned north from Mashhad the temperature dropped to more pleasant 30-35C – riding here, the often medium/strong winds helped cool me down and for once, they changed around from all directions. As I navigated the mountains from Bojnurd, the temperature dropped to mid twenties, which was also the temperature by the Caspian Sea – the wind still changed around though the strongest winds were from where I was heading. Some of the irrigated regions had a high humidity, which became even higher by the Caspian Sea despite the late season – one evening I forgot to put my toilet paper in a plastic bag and the next morning it was soaking wet. Leaving the coast at Astara, the temperature was still pleasant 15-20C until after Ahar, where it some days dropped to 5-10C which meant two layers of clothes for the first time in months. Except for the first days in Iran, night temperatures never exceeded 20C so sleeping was easy except when the humidity was very high or the night when heavy rain partly flooded the tent because I camped on a concrete floor where I couldn’t get the tent pegs in and the water couldn’t run-off.
Roads and drivers
As I had been told, most of the Iranian roads were of decent/good quality (80-90%) – at least the bigger roads I rode on. I was surprised by all the glass, but most annoying was the “speed holes” of which there were often 10-20 before and after every village/town and many times also in the middle of nowhere. I never saw a vehicle slowing down for them, so they were an unnecessary nuisance as a bicyclist especially me on a heavy bike with a very fragile rear wheel – see section about equipment below.
Most of the way, I could ride the shoulder, but even when wide it was no guarantee for a safe ride. Let it be stated clearly “the Iranians are terrible drivers” – generally not vicious, just a bad mix of curious and incredibly incompetent. When riding the shoulder, somebody would constantly (hundreds of times per day) drive in front of me and stop, so I either had to emergency brake or go around them on the busy road (it was the holiday season with millions of Iranians driving around the country – most of them seemingly not used to driving more than a few kilometres around Tehran or some other big city of residence). When I passed them on the outside, they would either open the door right into me or start driving next to me pushing me further out on the road - and when I slowed down to get in behind them, they would do the same leaving me "hanging" on the road. Another challenge was countless vehicles parked on the shoulder and sometimes also in the “first lane”, so I had to ride around on the “second lane” with vehicles passing at 130 k/h or more. One time I experienced a guy parking in the second lane on a 6-lane road because he wanted to check-out an accident in the opposite direction! Backing is another Iranian specialty - often for several kilometres even though it meant going out in the second or third lane on an 8-lane road. Most dangerous however, were right turns were vehicles cut right in front of me – I quickly learned to brake when one car did it as at least one more car would follow immediately after (Iranian families are too big to travel in one vehicle only).
Many other times people would drive next to me (with passing vehicles doing +100 k/h) and while talking to me (in Farsi only, of course) pushing me off the road/shoulder. On the many narrow and winding mountain roads, cutting corners was the biggest risk - even oncoming drivers sometimes passed only 20-30 cm from me, while I was on the shoulder or the white line in my side of the road. One day when a number of cars had pushed me within a short time, I shouted at a guy, who got so angry that he followed me for 15k constantly shouting obscenities out the window – hardly a surprise in this macho culture. Worst however, were the many motorcyclists going fast and reckless and seemingly coming very close on purpose to scare me – sometimes also shouting loudly just as they passed; a known phaenomenon in Iran.
I had hoped riding would become more relaxed in Iran, but nothing changed with thousands of drivers honking and/or shouting at me – most of them likely as friendly greetings but having experienced this every day since I left Singapore in January, it was extremely annoying. I really treasured the few people who offered a normal greeting e.g. a nod, a wave or a simple ”welcome to Iran”.
As mentioned, I had heard so many good stories about the Iranian people that it was hard not to have high expectations. Some travellers had told me they had to change most of their money back, because they were offered so much food along the way that they never had to buy anything. Despite the hundreds of thousands of people passing me on the road, it only happened to me three times and only once I had a good feeling about it. Allegedly, Iranian hospitality requires offering food to foreigners, but being a chore instead of own initiative/desire, it didn’t feel right. A common scenario was shop owners saying I didn’t have to pay but when I insisted they cheated me on the change – a typical example of required hospitality that wasn’t honest and heartfelt.
One exception was meeting Asghar in Meshgin Shahr one of the last day’s in Iran. Despite his limited English, he took the time to show the way to a suspense bridge, invited on a local yoghurt soup, bought candy for the trip, paid for my grocery shopping (against my will) and finally took me to his brother's bike shop where I got patches and glue (for free of course). He must be the friendliest man in Iran - and it was obvious that he gave because he wanted to and not because Iranian hospitality required it. Another great experience was staying with Mohammed by the Caspian Sea, after stopping to buy a few things in a small shop. We met many of his friends who were all unhappy with the lack of freedom in Iran though they seemed to suffer less with the limitations than many other people e.g. watching illegal foreign TV and drinking alcohol – in the evening we shared some bottles of illegally imported Scotch whisky. Quite interesting to experience this side of the Iranian society.
The good experiences however, were surprisingly and disappointingly quite rare. Besides the countless incompetent drivers, hundreds of people aggressive shouted at me and three times people even threw rocks after me. I don’t know what I did to deserve this – the only possible thing was wearing short pants while biking; though I had been told this was acceptable for foreign men as long as I put on long pants when having a break. Some regions were worse than others and particularly the first week riding through E and NE Iran up to the Caspian Sea was unpleasant. In Bojnurd (NE Iran), a local couchsurfer caught up and biked through town with me. He didn't like to hear my negative perception of the Iranian people though hosting many foreigners (incl. bicyclists) he wasn't surprised having heard the stories before. It was by the way a nice – and very rare - opportunity to speak English. Only a few other times, I met people who spoke a bit of English to have some kind of a conversation. Interestingly, all Iranians assumed I spoke Farsi despite few people speaking this language outside Iran and themselves not speaking any foreign languages.
With the endless rear wheel problems, I must have stopped more than 50 times by the roadside to fix the bike. Few of the thousands of drivers passing me every day took notice and of the few who did, almost all drove very close and slowly by to curiously observe without any intention of stopping to inquire. Only a couple of people stopped to ask if I needed help which I really appreciated. However, the language barrier prevented conversation and anyway nobody could help me getting a new touring wheel – quality bicycle parts simply don’t exist in this part of the world.
More annoying was when I had to fix the bike in a town where locals quickly gathered around me like flies on shit – looking though my bags and stepping on my equipment to check the tire pressure (even the spare tires!) while giving "valuable advice" (in Farsi as no-one spoke a word of English). One time a guy came and said: "I am police" - I told him that unless I was doing something illegal or he was better at fixing my bike than me, I didn't know why he was there. He of course didn't understand a word and eventually left.
Except for an incident the first day where two soldiers threatened to shoot me, the authorities I met were generally friendly enough. On a steep downhill through a small town, I had to take a rim-cooling break but unfortunately, it was next to a military area. Two military "kids" signalled me to move on while I tried to explain the need for a short break. They didn't care, released the gun safeties and pointed at me - I figured they were unlikely to shoot me but as they kept shouting at me, I found it safer to walk down the road... so much for Iranian hospitality!
One evening when I camped just off the road on the edge of a private plantation, I experienced a little more hospitality than I cared for. While setting up the tent a young man approached me and we "talked" (no English) for 10-15 minutes. ½ hour later when I was eating, he returned and before I knew it, he was giving me a massage, which quickly entailed grabbing my balls. I sent him away but also felt a bit sorry for him - 18 years old and gay in the countryside in a country where it's illegal; apparently so desperate that he approached a filthy, old foreigner having no shower for weeks.
I spent most of my time in the countryside, but still I was surprised to experience how uneducated and immature many people seemed (15-18 years old young men often behaved as being 7-8 year old kids, which was particularly disconcerting when riding big motorbikes). With Persia at one time being the “crib of civilisation”, society seems to have developed in the wrong direction – probably on purpose, for changing despots (including the current regime) to more easily keep the masses under control.
Iranians love picnics, which seem to be a "national sport" in the holiday season. It's nice that they get out in nature though they never walk more than a few steps from their cars. Worse however, they leave their garbage everywhere so the country is one big pigsty.
Biking with French Vincent
On my first day at the Black Sea, I stopped to check the bike and have a snack when French cyclist Vincent caught up with me. It was his first bike day in Iran as he had flown into Tehran, travelled around for some weeks and taken a bus to the coast. While I was in a bad mood with all the unfriendly Iranians and endless bike problems, he was cheerful so far having only good experiences in the country. A few days later he was more annoyed with the Iranians than me, so it seems biking is not the best way to experience the country.
We never agreed to bike together – it just happened and one day took the next. I think we had a mutual understanding that we would continue as long as it was enjoyable or we went in different directions. For me it was nice opportunity to change my bike pattern for a while. From only biking, more often riding 150-185k per day, Vincent went slowly with many stops for shopping, eating and sightseeing, and we never biked more than 100k per day. In the beginning, I enjoyed his positive energy but as the days went by he complained more than me and even worse, he began blaming me for all the things he didn’t like. For instance, he always complained about the places we had lunch or camped – the view, the ground, the road noise, etc. I tried explaining that his way of biking didn’t allow any flexibility as he never wanting to carry food or water more than a few kilometres. I always carry food for several extra days in case I have bike problems, want to stay in a nice place or bad weather entail a layover. He said he was interested in my observations as they confirmed what other people had told him over the years, but he seemed to struggle with a big ego preventing an open mind and desire to change – anyway, you have to be ready to make changes and he obviously wasn’t there (yet).
Camping, food and water
Even though it was almost exclusively open countryside, camping was never a big problem. More often, I camped just off the busy road fully or partly exposed, but I always arrived late and nobody seemed to care – a few mornings some locals looked disapprovingly at me, but they never approached me. We had some nice camping spots by the Caspian Sea and in the NW mountains where we camped in plantations, by rivers and occasionally had nice views.
Until I met Vincent, I brought a lot of food so I didn’t have to think about supermarkets and could bypass the big cities. All I needed was water and soft drinks, which I got at gas stations and village shops. Meeting Vincent, I adopted some of his habits e.g. having lunch at restaurants. Our different breakfast habits entailed a bit of a challenge – I preferred eating porridge while packing while Vincent wanted to bike an hour before he stopped for breakfast. Another challenge was time – I was always ready to leave at the time we had agreed in the evening while he often took ½ hour extra to be ready (a typical difference between northern and southern Europe).
Other bicyclists had told me they had problems with the water in Iran, but for me it was good and easily accessible everywhere, so I never had to carry much except for the relatively short desert stretches.
Equipment and health
After a sandstorm the first evening/night in Iran my tent zipper stopped working leaving the whole side open and exposed. It meant a lot of “visitors” everything from mice, to cats, a snake and endless bugs and mosquitoes.
However, a bigger problem on the first day was a spoke breaking through the rim so my Australian "wonder wheel" was beyond repair. Riding the bad roads in Australia and many horrible roads in Asia, it had done beyond expectation, and despite the allegedly good Iranian roads, I knew I was in big trouble without it. According to other travellers, qualified assistance and bike parts were not available until Istanbul, which was still more than 4,000k. Changing to my bad spare wheel (at least I had one) entailed countless problems. The first week I had several flat tires and broken spokes every day, so I was convinced I had to quit biking and take a bus from Tehran to Istanbul. However, when I got close to the Black Sea I decided to risk it and continue, as it might be my only chance in life. I figured I could always take a bus to Tehran if the bike broke down completely. As I biked along the Black Sea, I somehow managed to “stabilise” the wheel as I had done with another problematic wheel in Thailand. However, even though it got better, I still had regular problems but with “only” 1-2 broken spokes per day, I had enough to go all the way to the Turkish border and maybe even Istanbul. More problematic was all the flats, which meant I would likely run out of tubes, patches and/or glue. So I decided to take one day at the time and see how far I could get.
I sometimes still struggled with my sore wrist and sore finger, but worse was a sore butt. Having lost a lot of weight, my bike shorts were too big and constantly had to be adjusted however, having also to wear proper shorts, I couldn’t adjust them except when stopping which would prevent progress. So I just had to accept the pain, hoping it wouldn’t get too bad before leaving Iran. Another annoying thing biking in normal shorts was that they were too tight in the thighs, which was particularly uncomfortable because of the heat and my sweating.