Translated by: Éva Kapusi
We wasted 3 hours of our lives with the border crossing at Kapikoy. The bureaucracy took an hour and a half and the time difference was the same so by the time we jumped into the saddle again it was already 3:00-3:30. We were descending and everything seemed different again from what we were already accustomed to. The cars were different, the license plates were different, everything was written in Farsi (Persian) and we were watched by portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini everywhere.
To tell you the truth, we weren’t well informed about Iran’s history but we quickly filled that void with the help of the Internet. To fully understand what is going on in this country we have to learn about their past.
I’m not going to write too much about Iran’s history since anybody can read more about it if they wish. (We find the country’s 20th century history fascinating.) Make a long story short, in 1925 Reza Pahlavi, a former army officer, names himself the Shah (king) of Iran and he adopts the politics of Ataturk for his government. The country is developing nicely and the infrastructure is being built but, according to the masses, this is all accomplished via dictatorial practices. Furthermore, he wants the country to return to its ancient Persian roots instead of following the teachings of Islam. In 1941 Iran is attacked by Soviet and British forces due to the Shah’s support of Germany. The Shah was overthrown and his son, Mohamed Reza, took his place while the Shah was exiled to Mauritius. This was when the younger Pahlavi’s reign began which was characterized by his friendship with the United States, Israel and Egypt. The new Shah wanted to implement an American way of life in Iran but he didn’t succeed. Due to his irresponsible and erroneous economical and agricultural decisions the country started going bankrupt. Meanwhile, the Shah was leading a luxurious life and surrounded himself with the elite. Fearing that he could be overthrown he implemented the secret police. The oil price explosion of 1973 didn’t help matters either even though Iran greatly benefited from the Arab States’ boycotting of the oil commerce. Even though money poured into the country, the people didn’t benefit from it since all of it was spent on the army, the administration of the Shah, and the elite. In 1978 the Shah wasn’t able to curtail the Iranian Revolution (many people perished during the demonstrations preceding the revolution) and in January of 1979 Iran’s new era had began. The Shah fled the country and resided in the United States for awhile. As a consequence, on November 4th 1979 the US Embassy in Tehran was attacked by an angry crowd and a 444-day hostage situation developed. Ben Affleck made a movie called Argo based on the aforementioned events. (It’s an interesting movie and I highly recommend it.) This was the start of the Iranian Islamic Republic. The United States and Israel were blacklisted. In 1980 the 8-year long Iraq-Iran war had started. The war had many casualties and neither of the two countries came out of it as a winner. The radical Islam leaders implemented many new laws in order to guide their society back to a righteous way of living with the help of the Prophet Muhammad. Among these the most obvious are the head covering (hijab) for the women and the long pants for the men that are mandatory to be worn. Ayatollah Khomeini (who looks like an evil wizard according to Eni) returned from his exile and quickly became the leader of the Islamic Republic. He introduced the radical Islam government that has been in power ever since. We can see his portrait on every street corner as well as on the local currency. I’ll write more about the everyday things we experience in this country but now I’d like to continue with our story.
After crossing the border we found ourselves at a sparsely populated, rocky mountainous area. We followed a swift-moving river downhill and we found a campsite on the banks of this river. We got permission from the men working nearby to set up our tent there. Later we learned that one of them was the owner of the “property” and they even gave us some yoghurt, bread and water.
The next day we continued our journey downhill into the valley and we couldn’t believe our eyes at how beautiful the scenery was along the route. There were walls reaching to the sky on both sides in the sometimes narrower, sometimes wider valley. The bare landscape was replaced more and more by cultivated terrain. We met 3 Iranian cyclists who were training for their trip to Lake Van the following week. We started chatting with them and they quickly offered their help to find a currency exchange office in the nearest town, Khoy. This happened on a Friday which is the official day off in Iran. We saw many families picnicking under the trees along the road sitting on their blankets and chatting happily. We found a currency exchange office in town which was right next to a shop where they were roasting seeds. We killed two birds with one stone by purchasing some freshly roasted sunflower seeds while exchanging money at the same time. We were not aware of the currency exchange rates so we were worried that they might overcharge us but we experienced the honesty of the Iranian people on many occasions since then. We got 3,290,000 rials for 100 dollars. Well, it took a few minutes to count that much money. The official currency is called rial but everybody quotes the prices in toman which has one less zero. It’s very easy for us to convert the prices into Hungarian forint since we just have to cut two zeros from the rial or one zero form the toman to get the prices in forint. Sometimes the price is marked in rial and sometimes in toman so we always double check before paying, but the real problem is when the numbers are written in “Persian” (although we learned those pretty quickly). We said good-bye to two of the guys after exchanging money but the third one, Hussein, accompanied us to a kebab restaurant and then he went home to change into long pants. (Some men wear shorts for biking but they always change into long pants upon arriving back to the city.) The kebab was delicious and the service was without complaints as well. After Hussein returned, he invited us to stay with him for the night and continue on tomorrow. We accepted the invitation since it was late in the day. Hussein lives with his sister in an apartment and their parents live next door. We had a great time together. Eni and I took a bath and washed our smoke covered clothes (we had a problem with our gas stove so we had to cook dinner and breakfast over an open fire) and then we went shopping for groceries because we wanted to cook dinner for our hosts. We spent 329,000 rials in the store. We have never paid this much for food before! Of course, this is only a little less than 3290 forints (about 10 dollars). We made penne with a tomato and mushroom sauce for dinner and for dessert we layered chocolate pudding with cookies. Hussein had called one of his friends who came over with a Paykan (an Iranian automobile; I’ll write more about it later) which I was very excited about. We had a long conversation with our hosts. We were naturally most interested to hear about the mood of the Iranian people.
The next day we awoke to a delicious breakfast which we ate together and we even got some to go. We visited some of the sights in town with Hussein before heading toward Tebriz. We said good-byes at the edge of town but only for a short time since he surprised us an hour or so later by driving up in a car to give us a talisman. The traffic is massive in Iran; lots of cars, trucks and buses. Some of these are older than Eni and I together. Because of this, the smog is unbearable in the cities. We made it to Khoskseraj the first night and tried to find a suitable place for the night at a truck stop. We had some tea in a restaurant where we asked about the possibility of pitching a tent somewhere. There was no suitable place but a nice guy from the restaurant led us into a chapel and said we could sleep there. We locked our bikes to an iron railing where they were protected from the rain that started falling.
Our plan for the next day was to reach Tebriz where we already had a host. We met Mina and Habib, a married couple from Iran, in July of last year when they were our guests in Budapest. They found us on Warmshowers.com (Couchsurfing for cyclists) while they were cycling in Europe for 3 months. We became very good friends and couldn’t wait to see each other again in Tehran. Mina’s niece, Vida, lives in Tebriz. Arriving in the town of Merend, a nice man bought ice cream for us. He wanted to invite us for lunch in his home but we were unable to accept his invitation because we were pressed for time and still had quite a bit of distance to cover that day. We met Akbar, Iran’s (possibly the world’s) most active Warmshowers host, at a small kebab restaurant. He has already hosted 554 cyclists from around the world by the time we met him. As we learned, his friends called him after seeing us, to let him know that there are a couple of cycle tourists in town. We sat down to eat and started chatting. He showed us his photo albums organized by the nationality of cyclists. He gave us about a dozen phone numbers for hosts in different Iranian towns. He is truly an amazing human being. He also gave us Zoli Kobra’s Iranian phone number whom he hosted a couple of days before. After we snapped a picture together, we continued our journey with a long uphill ride exacerbated by a headwind. While we were ascending for 12 kilometers, people greeted us from their cars, welcomed us to Iran, asked us where we came from and thanked us for visiting their country. A few people even stopped to give us some goodies. We got a bag of cucumbers, dried fruits, as well as the aforementioned ice cream all in one day. Every uphill comes to an end at some point and this was true here as well. We started our long descent toward Tebriz and even the wind changed its course in our favor. The kilometers were quickly rolling by as we were breathing in the exhaust, but this was still alright outside of the city. Tebriz is the seat of East Azerbaijan Province with a population of 1.6 million. The traffic was very heavy going into town and although it was much more chaotic than in Turkey, we noticed that the drivers were paying much more attention to us cyclists. When we reached Azerbaijan Square with its approximately 100-meter diameter roundabout with cars entering and exiting from every possible direction, we thought if we survive this, we’d survive anything. To our surprise, we had no problem whatsoever. They slowed down and let us in. To tell you the truth, our hearts were still beating faster than normal. We’d like to write more about the traffic in Iran because it’s insane and amusing at the same time. There are some laws that make our lives more challenging. One of them is the fact that when we are on a bicycle the wind always blows in our face. If we don’t take an umbrella with us it will definitely rain. Another law we discovered is that our hosts always live on a hill. This was the case in Belgrad, in Sofia, in Kayseri, and now in Tebriz where we were completely exhausted by the time we reached our hosts’ apartment. Along the way we saw a wedding procession, soccer fans, and the city from above lit by lighting. It started raining, but this didn’t bother us at the end of our 97th kilometer. Ahmed, Vida’s husband greeted us with a big smile. They were waiting for us with hot water and a mouth-watering dinner and they catered to our every need in the next few days. We became very good friends with this couple who were the same age as us. You can read about our days in Tebriz and our arrival to Tehran soon.