I cycled out of Mashhad in northeastern Iran under light snowfall and climbed westward into mountains; brown, white, barren and beautiful. The days grew dark and freezing cold by 5pm and the sun didn’t coax the mercury up with it until 8am so I passed at least 15 hours in my tent when camping. Two sleeping bags, long sleeps and a handful of books helped pass those hours. My usual breakfast consisted of coffee, break, feta cheese, nuts and fruit.
Motorists often pulled over to chat, force food upon me, take photos and in one instance try to swap a flash new pair of leather boots for my rotting and redundant £5 Chinese walking shoes (complete with hand-stitched repairs and carrier bags for something resembling water resistance).
One morning I woke in an unusually small, dark and warm tent. The unfamiliar cacoon was caused by a heavy, insulating 10cm of snow on the canvas and an impressive 3cm perched precariously on the 1mm wide guy lines. That day I worked my way across an utterly white land under an utterly white sky on an eerily empty minor road. Three roadside dogs sat, mournful and silent, around the dog-shaped lump of a dead forth in the snow. The land sloped downwards again and by afternoon I’d descended into the northern fringe of the Kavir desert; still cold at night but thankfully dry.
In a basic village a handsome shepherd in his 40s gave me tea and bread while he smoked teriyok (resinous morphine) and smiled contentedly. His three wives and six children looked on with shy curiosity.
A police car spotted me sat on the sand patching a puncture and its driver asked to see my passport. He was convinced my visa had expired and a soon-to-be-familiar two hours of questions in a village station followed:
“Do you have GPS?”
“Do you have a camera?”
“Why have you taken this photo of the desert?”
“Why did you come to Iran?”
“Are you sponsored by your government?”
“Do you have GPS…”
The next day, another village police station, two more hours, the same questions. This time from a fat man in an undersized shirt with two popped buttons and a ring in need of cutting off from a swelling finger. He spoke down to me like I was a child while his deputy (with Bollywood-style bouffant hair and thick moustache) checked the photos on my phone and camera. Captain Bluefinger had received a call from yesterday’s espionage-busting geniuses about my visa. I was eventually released and told to report to the Ministry of Intelligence and Security’s office when I arrived in the city of Shahrud.
To avoid retracing road I’d ridden in 2010 I turned onto a sandy track through a cluster of low mountains on my last day’s ride to Shahrud. Unfortunately the track ended and I spent several hours pushing through and over sand dunes, occasionally finding little mud shepherds’ huts abandoned for the winter and with small snowdrifts slumped in their shadow. Five huge and terrifying dogs had to be literally beaten back with a stick and six drunk hunters in a couple of 4x4s bounced over to show off their guns and a sack of dead birds.
Exhausted and long after dark, I cycled through the streets of Shahrud and to the home of Monireh and her family whom I met two years before. It was a joy to see them again and catch up. Ali and Neda (Monireh’s brother and sister-in-law) were in and Ali embraced me warmly with the traditional triple-kiss. Neda’s bump of two years ago had grown into an 18-month-old girl called Viena who was so terrified of my appearance that I decided to shave off seven months of bushy, copper-red beard. The young, slightly gaunt face that emerged surprised me.
In the morning I visited the surly intelligence officers in their down-at-heel offices. They already had my details so it was prudent to present myself. They quickly realised my visa was not yet expired but spent an hour checking through roughly 500 photos (mostly from outside Iran) on my camera’s 3x5cm display screen. They said I could go but in the future could only take photos of the road, not the land either side of it.. Also, I must take the main roads (along which trucks thunder) for my own safety. Naturally I obeyed neither.
Narenjistan Palace, Shiraz
I stayed a week with Monireh and her family. Ali took me to a swimming pool one evening and lent me an old pair of threadbare lycra shorts (through which I could have read a book) as my cotton trunks were not allowed. In the jacuzzi he told an assembly of very hairy, barrel-chested men about my bicycle journey and each one came forward to prod, squeeze and generally inspect my leg muscles.
I learnt a lot from Monireh about Iran’s marriage system. She is 32 and has received 25 proposals from 25 men. On each occasion she’s had to sit down with the suitor (who, often as not, she’s never met), his parents and her mother. Her courage in not bowing to pressure and continuing to say no is admirable in a country where “Are you married?” is normally the second question strangers ask me. “Why not?” always follows. Most marriages in Iran are effectively arranged by parents and unsurprisingly the divorce rate is high. Romantic love is seen as an abstract privilege to most Iranians.
We went to nearby Semnan for a few days and, on Christmas day, I visited the Art University where Monireh and her sister Mona study. I had to walk in with a male pier of theirs while they walked a few yards behind as men and women cannot enter the university together, even if they’ve arrived on the same bus. I ended up sitting a 30-minute pose for a drawing class who were scandalised when I told them that the last time I sat for art students I was nude. After lunch the police told me to leave as I was an unregistered guest. I subsequently got in trouble for unwittingly standing at the women’s bus stop.
From Shahrud I rode southwards through mountains and again into the Kavir. I had 5 days to cover the 400 miles to Yazd and extend my visa before it expired. Those days were solitary and wonderful. Long, hard rides on a quiet road through some of the most featureless landscape I’ve seen; an evening hunting among mud ruins with a Jeremy Paxman lookalike under a fat, red rising moon; a village imam questioning me about my religion and tutting disapprovingly at my false claim of Christianity (atheism is simply not accepted in Iran and upsets people); a three-hour moonlit ride through hills with Elgar in my ears; only one session with police.
In Yazd I found a dormitory bed with an extensive breakfast buffet for £2 a day and happily passed the 5 days it took to process my visa. My stay coincided with the commemoration of the death of Imam Hussein (the grandson of Mohammad the prophet and the 3rd Imam in the Shi’a tradition) who was martyred in 680AD. The city flocked to the mosques leaving the winding warren of narrow alleyways in the mud-build Old City largely empty. I wandered around this labyrinth with an Irishman called Connor. Crumbling old buildings neighboured freshly mud-plastered ones and occasional clusters of young boys charged after a football. In the summer the city is unbearably hot and hundreds of badgirs (windtowers) built above the houses catch cooling breezes and funnels them refreshingly down into homes.
Shiraz old fort: one glass too many?
On a couple of hilltops south of the city are two ancient dakhmeh (Towers of Silence) from the Zoroastrian religion. Bodies of the dead were left here to be picked down to bleached bones by the vultures before burial so that no ‘impure’ flesh could contaminate the earth. The practice dates back 3,000 years but was made illegal in Iran in the 1970s. Today they are peaceful, empty and provide a good view of the sprawling modern suburbs.
Heading south from Yazd I had an uninspiring week of icy rain showers and piercing headwinds on a little-used road through the desert. The streets of villages and small towns, as in all of Iran, were lined with posters of men who died in the 8-year war fought with Iraq in the 1980s. The war was initially over an oil field but evolved into a Sunni-Shi’a conflict (and simultaneously an intra-Shi’a conflict). It was a dirty war with roughly one million dead, chemical attacks and the use of archaic trench warfare.
Snowcapped on the road
Brainwashed volunteer soldiers as young as 13 fought and died. Iran’s dead are referred to as ‘martyrs’ and used as rallying tool for nationalism and religious feeling. Their haunting faces gaze at you everywhere you go and are a constant reminder of the Iranian government’s inability (or lack of desire) to put the past behind it and move on.
One morning I was sheltering from the rain and reading Mrs. Dalloway in an empty roadside hut when I was suddenly ripped from Edwardian London by a screeching followed by a hideous grinding. I peeked outside to see a pickup truck 50m away that had skidded, ploughed off the road and rolled onto its side. Running over and clambering onto the top I saw a tangle of bodies in the cabin. When I pulled the door up and open, the previously-muted wailing of two women hit my ears. The middle-aged male driver stared up at me with a vacant expression and a toddler quietly trembled below him. I snapped him out of his trance and he handed the child towards me. I plucked her out and she took one look at my unfamiliar foreign face before erupting into a fit of screaming. I set her down on the sacks that had spilled from the back of the truck and helped the man climb out.
The women and girl continued wailing and screaming but the man was busy inspecting the damage. His wife and mother refused to take my proffered hand and get out of the confused heap they still lay in. They were not hurt but were evidently shaken and wouldn’t calm while piled in the sideways cabin with a puddle of rain forming around them. The man seemed disinterested in his family. At length I simply lifted the little woman out which silenced them both. Her mother-in-law sheepishly followed and they set to calming the girl while I helped another carful of men who had arrived to heave the truck back onto its wheels. It was only scratched and 10 minutes later everyone was gone and I returned to the hut to make a fire and dry off.
The weather cleared and I reached the town of Qader Abad where I met Ebrahim the local English teacher. He invited me for lunch and then to stay the night. It happened to be a national holiday commemorating Mohammad’s death and I was introduced to Ebrahim’s four brothers. They had many questions about life in Europe (mostly concerning sex and relationships). Ebrahim retrieved a bottle of homebrewed wine (made with Shiraz grapes; the city of Shiraz was not far away) from under a rock in the garden where it had hidden for two years. Alcohol is illegal in Iran. We drank some of the passable wine and it was Ebrahim’s first taste of alcohol. An hour later he had his first taste of a hangover.
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Copyright © 2013 Charlie Walker