Dogubeyazit - Tehran ... 31/08 - 07/09
We meet Bruno after his ascension of Mount Ararat. He is the only one of his group to have reached the summit that day. There was a snowstorm and even his guide could hardly follow him. The only thing that slowed him down was the fact that he was not acclimatized to the altitude!
He will now pick up his visa in Erzurum and will re-join us on the way to Tabriz.
We decide to sleep in the no man's land between Turkey and Iran as Corinne and Loïc did 3 weeks earlier. This way we save a day on our visa and have a full day to cycle the next day.
We travel 35km to the border with Dimitri. At the Turkish customs we get a small stamp in the passport and we are out of Turkey. Dimitri and Sylvie go and explore the duty free shop but they return very disappointed, the beer is as expensive if not more than in the country. Our big beer party is off, my God, we have to live 1 month without a beer now :o)
Meanwhile, an Iranian initiates the conversation with Ben. He welcomes Sylvie and then turns to Ben: "How is your wife, what is her job?". Even if you know it is a form of respect, it is quite difficult to bear ... It's like being infantilised, or worse, like you don’t even exist or count.
Alice and Cédric join us a few hours later. The guard at the border is very nice, and tells us where to put up our tents, there is a nice lawn next to the duty-free store! At the cafeteria, we manage to get some hot water and even a stove to cook our soup, fantastic! The night is quite hectic, the border is open 24 hours and we are right beside the road. At one point, we wake up and see a man seating next to our tent, strange place to rest isn’t it?
The next day, we pack everything and Ben discovers that the man wasn’t actually resting... He was probably sick and did not want to pay the toilets or perhaps didn’t even have the time to reach them. Unfortunately, Ben, when folding the tarp, dropped it in it ... A great start for the day!
Alice and Sylvie, the girls, put on their outfits: cheich, trousers and long sleeves, not very suitable for pedaling! The boys wear long sleeves and pants. But Dimitri soon gets back to his shorts. Ben has no choice, Sylvie has decreed that by solidarity he would have to wear long sleeves shirts and pants.
We cross the border without any problem, a lot of Iranians take some pictures of our bicycles. A woman from the tourist information office shows us where to change money. Meanwhile, Sylvie battles with a man who wants to staple by force the Iranian flag on her bike. In Turkey we were advised not to have the Turkish flag: the Turks are very proud and if their flag is a little bit dirty, they can apparently get very upset. We don’t know for Iran, and Sylvie therefore removes the flag, the man is not very happy but we discover later that he has stapled it on Alice’s bike!
Maku is the first city, 11km away from the border. Nestled between reddish gorges, it differs little from Turkish cities of the East. We are already accustomed to women in headscarves or veils. The signs are, fortunately, written both in Farsi and in the Latin alphabet. Otherwise, it would be difficult for us to get directions.
The landscapes are similar to those of the road from Erzurum to Dogubeyazit. Here the houses are made of red mud bricks. It is prettier and probably more insulating than the houses made of concrete in some Turkish villages. Lunch at a lokanta (the Turks are also on this side of the border) but we are stunned, it is as expensive, if not more expensive than in Turkey while life in Iran is supposed to be much cheaper. Either we’re being ripped off, or the inflation is very high... But we don’t have much choice and have lunch there. We order a small plate of meat that tastes a bit weird. Fortunately being a group of 5, we manage to laugh about it...
We wait for the temperature to go down. It is warmer than on road 100 in Turkey and we now wear trousers, long sleeves and a scarf... When we leave, it is still very warm but we must move forward!
We are a bit behind as we stop to drink water and stretch, and try to catch up with the others when we hear a whistle. Have we committed an offence? No, it is Cédric who is calling us. They have spotted a massive scale for trucks! We discover that our bikes have roughly the same weight a: Ben and Cedric have 70kg, Dimitri, 65kg, Sylvie, 60kg and Alice is the light-weight of the team with only 45kg. As a result, we all think frantically about what we could return, give, throw away... Several parameters make the difference in speed: the length of the cranks (155 for Sylvie, 160 to 165 for Ben and Alice and Cedric), the size of the sprockets (our smallest one is 22 while Alice and Cédric are on 32). The trailer also creates more friction but puts fewer constraints on the bicycle.
After weighing the bikes, a man who drills holes to get water for the plantation offers us some tea in the shade, we sit on the floor on newspapers. He shows us the machine he designed entirely by himself. He stands proudly and gets his picture with the 3 boys beside the drill.
The last village where we stop for water doesn’t look great: small houses lined up along a dusty road, the men stare at us and there isn’t a woman in sight ... We really hope Iran is more than that!
We decide to sleep in some ruins beside the road. As there are 5 of us, there is no danger especially since Iran is known to be very safe. But we both have trouble falling asleep. A light noise alerts us. It is difficult to identify what it could be. Suddenly Ben pokes Sylvie: "Look, a claw has ripped off the tent." The poor Sylvie remembers the warnings from the villagers "Be careful of the wild beasts" and bursts into tears ... The headscarf, the customs, the heat, the light meal and now a cougar, no, really, it's too much!
It takes Ben several minutes to explain that he thought he spotted a tear made by one of the cats at the camping in Unye, but in reality, it is just a fold in the fabric! In the morning we discover rabbit droppings near the tent! The others reassure us: "After a few nights, you get used to the small noices!"
We are back in the arid landscapes and the unbearable heat. The road 100 in Turkey was just as hot, but there were service stations every 15km for us to get water, cool off, and drink tea ... Here, there is nothing, no stations, and no trees for the shade. We, therefore,always carry 3L of water each.
Haunted by the price of the previous day, we decide to buy a picnic in a small town. An option which is not without pitfalls as we are greeted by a pack of kids who rush to fiddle with our bikes as soon as we stop. The adults have no authority on them whatsoever and Dimitri finds a boy seating on his bike! Cédric is also bothered but he reacts quickly: "You want to touch my bike, what about touching the chain then?" and he takes the boy´s hand and rubs it on the chain. You should see the kid´s face of the brat when he sees his fingers full of grease!
We find a small store. Olives, pickles, some vegetables and some cream cheese that looks like Philadelphia. We also get some bread, soft and flat that looks like baguette. We take off, chased by a few children with bicycles. Villages are tough here!
A lokanta appears on the side of the road, at the right time. We buy some Coke and in exchange, we can picnic in the shade. One of us discovers that the men’s toilets have showers (it is a relay for truck drivers), ah, a cold shower, what a great feeling!
It is 3pm and when we leave our t-shirts are still wet.
Again we are behind (stopped by a herd of goats crossing the road!). We ask for water in a plant that is heavily guarded with a big sign "No pictures", better not ask any question. They kindly fill our water pocket, and even add some ice!
10km later, whistle. They found an real oasis, a huge orchard. A shepherd and a gardener live there, in a small mud hut, they sleep on the roof. We put the tents up and have dinner while the shepherd takes the animals in for the night. As the night falls, they light a fire and start smoking the shisha... peaceful life! The gardener brings us a huge bucket of tomatoes and apples. It is really paradise here!
But the night is not a peaceful as we thought, around midnight, the dogs start barking, waking us up. A few minutes later, the earth starts to shake... an earthquake! It is a very strange sensation to be lying on the floor and feel the earth tremble. The others are sleeping like logs but Bruno also felt it, stronger, near the border with Azerbaijan. Iran is in fact subject to frequent earthquakes. Tabriz suffered one in 1727 with 77,000 dead.
The alarm rings at 5:30 but it is still dark, Ben suggests "Let’s sleep a bit more". 5 minutes later Sylvie hears the zipper of Dimitri´s tent: "Come on, we will be late." Dimitri later admitted that, having opened his tent, he went back to sleep and only got up when he heard us. It is pleasant to pack while the air is still cool. We have breakfast in the orchard while the sun is rising. The shepherds have started the fire for their meal.
After 15km, the road begins to climb and at 8am we are already sweating. Sylvie wears a long linen shirt over her t-shirt and a cheich around the head, not the best gear to stay cool!
In Marand, 35km further, the slope increases and the temperature too. This time we stop and while Dimitri, Alice and Cédric cycle away, we drink and stretch, there is no hurry! Sylvie starts to feel depressed: "it will never go down again." But Ben is used to it and he reminds her of all the passes we have already gone through! It is easier to alternate uphills and downhills, rather than make a long climb followed by a long descent.
But who is the cyclist on the big road over there? It’s Bruno! Ben makes a dash but fails to catch up with him. He is stopped a bit fur her by the others who are waiting for us. Bruno has cycled along the border with Azerbaijan while we took a road more to the south. Marand is at the junction. We are lucky, 5 min later and we wouldn’t have met him before Tabriz! Bruno helps Ben and Sylvie finish the climb.
We have lunch at the top on a table in the shade. Our lunch breaks last from noon to 3pm, we wait for the air to cool down.
We are all hungry, pasta for everyone! The shop owner also offers us some tea. When we leave, a storm is threatening, but with the wind in the back and a descent of 20km, we set some new records (40km/h on average, 62km/h max for Sylvie and 72km/h for Ben!). The descent is a real treat.
The storm catches us up in Soufiyan, sand in the eyes and in the mouth, trees swinging, dust everywhere ... We manage to find refuge in a abandonned store. We take that opportunity to get some pastry, it is 10 times cheaper than Turkey.
We have noticed a change over the last few days. People are friendlier, some speak English and we feel less like Aliens. Between Maku and Sufiyan, we had the same impression as between Erzurum and Dogubeyazit: a country of its own, cut off from the world, where not many foreigners go through...
We camp a few km further, behind a bakery in an orchard. We are out of sight, the ground is soft and green and most of all the team is reunited!
The baker brings us some bread and someone else, apples and tomatoes. All they ask in return is a picture! We had heard a lot about the Iranian hospitality. It is not a legend!
While Sylvie makes dinner, Ben and Dimitri try to repair our stove but without success.
The boys make bad jokes about the fact that Alice and I have removed our cheich. Actually, we get the impression most people don’t care. We just have to be cautious with the police and the more conservative people. We spend a nice evening talking and joking, we will miss these moments.
We are only 30km away from Tabriz. We cycled dreaming of Istanbul, then Unye, then Erzurum then ... Now it is Tehran and Tabriz. Without realizing it we split the trip into a multitude of mini-ElDorados. There are also major ElDorados: when we will be in Uzbekistan, Australia, Ushuaia ... These dreams help us go always further.
In Tabriz, we finally feel in Iran. The signs are all in Farsi, sometimes translated into English. We see more women in the streets. The hejab (Islamic dress code) is left to interpretation. As Nasser, the tourist office guide, explains: "We are not Talibans here." Some women wrap themselves in a black, unbuttoned veil that they hold with their hands and mouth, others only wear a headscarf nicely adjusted on the back of the head, revealing blond and brown hair. Suddenly Sylvie feels a little bit freer. She unties her scarf a little and takes the habit of pulling it up every 10 minutes like the Iranians girls do ... They are very pretty with their colorful scarves, the many ways to tie them up, their long eyelashes, and their make up. Even with a long tunic and a scarf on their head, they exude a lot of charm ... They may have lost a battle but they haven’t lost the war!
At the tourist office, Nasser welcomes us in his perfect French and his brother helps us find a hotel. We have to find one that accommodates 6 people and 6 bikes safely. We stop at the hotel Mashad, where we find a dorm for 6 and showers in the corridor, a luxury after 4 nights camping rough.
Getting into Tabriz was quite easy until we reached the center.There are not many red lights, a lot of cars turning everywhere without signaling, and no respect for lanes. Curiously, there is much less honking than in India. Being confidence and going fast at the right time is the key to success. It´s like a game, so much that we start to regret taking the bus to Tehran and missing the huge traffic to get in. At the same time, Tabriz is very polluted and Tehran is probably even worse as it has half of the cars in Iran ...
At lunchtime, we only find closed doors. It is Ramadan, and all restaurants are closed except for those in the hotels. For lunch we have a stew of lamb, tomatoes and potatoes (dizi or abgusht). Eating it is an art: we pour the sauce in a bowl and mix it with pieces of flat bread. The stew is eaten seperately in a metal cup. It's delicious!
In the evening there is a real phenomenon: between 19h and 19h30, the traffic is more dense, the whole of Tabriz returns home, the shops are closing and everyone is hurrying home, the drivers are hungry and do not stop. After 8:10pm, the official time to break the fast, calm spreads over the city ... Everyone is having dinner. We are fascinated.
While returning to the hotel, we buy some doughnuts for breakfast. The bakeries are more sophisticated than in Turkey. There are lots of different breads, and pastries! The Iranians emerge from the bakery with large boxes...
We end up with Dimitri in a small shop that sells fruit juices of an attractive color: carrot, melon or banana juice with crushed ice or ice cream. It's so good that we have two each. We climb upstairs stumbling. Lucky for us that alcohol is banned in Iran, the doorman would think we are drunk! The next day, Sylvie is sick and Ben does not feel very well either. But Dimitri is fine so it’s difficult to incriminate the fruit juices.
A wind of asceticism blows on the group this morning ... Everyone is searching his bags for the useless-and-heavy-object. We win easily with nearly 4kg, Dimitri is behind with 1kg. Bruno seeks desperately what he could get rid of. As for Cedric, he tries to temper Alice, she is looking at our stuff for what could be useful!
In the evening, we celebrate Ben’s 32nd birthday at the Modern Tabriz restaurant. All Tabriz seems to be there. Either the Iranians go out a lot because of Ramadan, either they love going out whatever the time of the year. A lot of tables are grouped by men or women only. Some tables are mixed with men on one side and women on the other. Is it a code of conduct or simply because the conversations are not the same?
A waiter brings us some soup with bread and yogurt, it must be the starter. Even before we start eating, several iranian families come up to us with trays full of desserts. We stack rice pudding, honey cakes and other fruit pastes near our bowl of soup! After a toast (with alcohol-free beer!) to Ben, we begin our kebabs: brochette of lamb or chicken with rice in good quantity.
The next day we visit the bazaar of Tabriz, it is the largest and oldest in Iran. The goods being sold at the bazaar have evolved, spices, for example, are disappearing to the benefit of stationery. The meat though, is still there: heads of lambs (with eyes), huge chunks of fat, half-carcasses... Not for the sensitive soul! There is also bread, sugar, yogurt, rays of honey, prunes, 3 varieties of dried apricots, fresh dates... The textile section is less fascinating but the shoes one captivates Ben and Dimitri: "Look, here it says Adidac." One shop sells only soles!
The bazaar is a city within the city. Some areas are noisier than others, motorcycles honking to go through with their huge load, little old men bent pushing their carts. The air is full of negotiations being concluded, bank notes are being exchanged ... It looks like a busy beehive. The bazaar is covered but small holes in the roof allow the air to circulate. On the sides, small alleys lead to internal courtyards. Despite all this activity, we breathe well and it is not too hot. After a few purchases for our bus trip in the evening, we say goodbye to Nasser and his brother, Mansour. We meet there a French couple who entered Iran without knowing that they couldn’t use their credit cards. At the end, they manage to get some help from the French consul in Tehran.
In the evening, we take the bus to Tehran. The idea is to launch the process for the various visas and visit the southern cities while waiting. Taking the bus with 2 bikes is already difficult so with 6 ...! We attract the attention of the entire bus station, once again, watching foreigners is more fun than TV. Especially with such bizarre bicycles. "Where are you from? Where are you going? How much does your bike cost?". Help! No ticket office, it would be too simple, we pay the driver. At the end, we split ourselves between 2 buses. We stop for dinner later in the evening. Where are the beautiful Turkish service stations? The restaurant is gloomy, no electricity, everybody eats with a candle. "They fear the bombs?" jokes Dimitri. Same in the toilets where the situation becomes adventurous when the only candle goes off ... The light returns shortly afterwards.
It’s also difficult to go from a Turkish bus to a Iranian bus. They are not as comfortable, no steward with a bow tie passing between the seats with tea and cakes ... Only the films haven’t changed, they´re still crap. But Ben is missing his movies and he remains glued to the TV for the entire duration of the movie. The bus stops, is it already time for prayer? No, we are in Tehran! But it is 4:30 ... The bus was supposed to take 9 hours, but it only took 7 hours! Fortunately, we slept most of the time otherwise we would have had nightmares the eyes opened!