Short version: reached Iran – encountering random driving – met a man who lived in Tehran for 40 years and in Marand for 23 years – walked through some alleys in Kandovan – checked out some rubble at Maragheh – checked out some rubble at Alamout – saw a blue dome – was stopped by the legitimate police – got wet in a tent – getting stuffed – met a man who lived in Tehran for 40 years and… – Still alive and kicking!

Once I entered Iran I realized the traffic in Turkey is actually really orderly and safe. In Iran cars pull in and our of traffic randomly, drive against traffic, hunk horns, pull up fast and break hard and take over where they shouldn’t. This driving style reminds me vaguely of India and I call it “random driving”. Where the saying “Mi casa es tu casa” is progressively valid the further I travel, a similar but slightly adjusted phrase “your lane is my lane” follows suit (this includes the shoulder).

Mount Ararat

Mount Ararat

From Dogubayazit I cycled east where stone-throwing kids showed me that it was time to leave Turkey. The Iranian border town of Bazargan is similar to Dogubayazit but complimented with worse roads and a lot of sleazy guys that want to change money. Oh poor Mount Ararat, that such a beautiful mountain Is to be surrounded by drab towns, dogs, stone throwing kids, touts and a lot of dust.

From Bazargan I cycled into a beautiful long narrow valley with steep walls and a small river meandering through it. This could have easily been an early highlight of my ride through Iran were it not that this valley was also hosting the town of Maku, the full length of it. I myself was hosted in Maku by Mohammad and his family which was great. I smoked some hubblybubbly with Mohammad and some of his friends and had a late dinner after that. Thank you for the hospitality Mohammad and family!

It’s always good to see what is behind the walls of homes and in many villages in Iran the houses themselves are indeed hidden behind a wall. Once you get through this wall you enter a courtyard and then when you enter the house itself you will usually first see a big open room with carpets. This room was usually the place where I was made to sit and eat till I looked like a balloon.

From Maku I cycled to Marand in 2 days where I met with Akbar who owns a little store. He didn’t host me himself but had a friend around the corner who would. I think every cyclist that comes to Iran and passes Marand visits Akbar. He had hundreds of people coming to his store and he showed me the pictures of many of them. His English however was not that good so I guess he had called a man called Bahram to talk to me. And talking he did. He had lived in Tehran for 40 years and 23 years in Marand. He was actually of Iranian Turkish origin but his Farsi was very good, so good that Iranians say he does not have an accent. This is because he lived 40 years in Tehran and 23 in Marand. His English was also quite good. He wanted to speak American English which he thought sounded like if you have a hot potato in your throat. I thought his accent sounded a bit like in the movies, the very old ones. Also he spoke very good English because he talked a lot with tourists since he lived in Tehran for 40 years and in Marand for 23 years. We ended up sitting in front of his son’s store which had “electrical accessories” for sale. The whole line of stores next to it sold similar products and when I told him I noticed there weren’t many customers he explained that this was due to the low economy. I looked at the “electronic accessories” which Bahram was now hanging on the trees in front of the store as “advertisement”, and figured that the string with what looked like slightly dusty but colourful plastic porcupines which might also have been party lighting or anything else that could fit within the term “electronic accessories” might also not have sold very well if the economy would have been booming. I was actually quite tired from the cycle ride and after he had introduced me to at least 20 of his closest friends of who some were keen to know about my wife, kids and religion I asked him if I could please return to Akbar’s store. Sleeping that night was also not easy since my host had friends over and were smoking hubblybubbly and talking till 5 in the morning. Perhaps I should have joined them for the good memories and experience, but sometimes, you just want to sleep.

From Marand I went down the road to Tabriz where I met Hamed, a very kind and helpful person who showed me a free campsite and kept me company. When walking through Tabriz I find it hard to believe but it used to be a city of great importance. Tamerlane captured it without a fight after the city’s leader, Sultan Ahmed, had fled and thus the city was spared from destruction. On the contrary, the city flourished in all ways under his regime. Marco Polo, who traveled to Tabriz some years before the time of Tamerlane, described the city as noble and surrounded with delightful gardens, producing the finest fruits. I saw none of that but did visit the bazaar. The Tabriz bazaar is supposed to be famous and all but over the years I have seen a few bazaars and I didn’t think the Tabriz one was particularly special. It was big though and I wandered through the maze of little streets lined with shops for a while. Thanks for all the help Hamed!

Kandovan

Kandovan

In the Bazaar and from friends I had heard that Kandovan was one of the must see places around Tabriz and it happened to be vaguely on my route to Maragheh. I felt the need to see something special so I went for it. I was warned by Hamed that the road would be going up a lot. It did go up a lot. It was a boring road and it went up to 2300m; the highest point on my journey so far. When I have something in my mind I have to be really hard pressed to not proceed and do it. But with temperatures now consistently in the mid-40’s, a terribly boring and seemingly never ending road I was being pressed fairly hard. Even when the sign read that I had 5km to go I was doubting whether continuing was actually going to be worth it. But apparently it all didn’t press hard enough; I made it to the touristic town where many locals come to probably just escape the summer heat since not many of them actually ventured into the little streets that went up into the Cappadocia-like mountain. It was great to wonder through the little alleys, up and down narrow stairs, meet some animals like donkeys, and see the locals that actually still live in the caves.

Maragheh Observatory

Maragheh Observatory

I doubt many cyclists or tourists in general put Maragheh on their lists to see when going to Iran and to be honoust, the reason for visiting Maragheh is probably going to disappoint many. Even I was a little disappointed with what is left of the observatory that was built for Hulagu Khan, grandson of Ghengiz Khan, on a hilltop just outside the town. Actually, nothing is left of it but some foundations, which are protected by a more modern observatory which has now also fallen into disrepair. I got to this hilltop on my little tour through Maragheh and surroundings provided by Nima and Habibeh, the lovely couple that hosted me in this town. After the little tour I had just enough time to watch the Netherlands win its last game of the poule against Chile. Thank you so much Nima and Habibeh!

From Maragheh I cycled to Miyaneh where I was hosted by Navid and his brothers. Navid was a kind young man who spoke good English and next to his studies is writing novels. The latter seems to be complicated business in Iran since it has to be approved by the government which most books are probably not. Later another brother of his, Sattar, joined us and we went to a pool. A nice and relaxing sauna and jacuzzi later we went back home for another good amount of food which their mother had prepared. A group picture and the promise to give my regards to my mother from their mother and off to dreamland. Thanks Navid, Sattar and family!

103 - IranSometimes you cycle on a road and you wonder how this road will continue when it seems to go straight into a steep mountain range blocking the view in front of you. Your legs start to feel slightly nervous with the prospect of going uphill a lot. The road from Miyaneh was such a road but fortunately it did not go up. Instead, it followed a riverbed with the river actually still flowing in it through a narrow rocky valley, providing beautiful views. Just after having my spirits boosted by such a beautiful road I got stopped by a car. This is nothing unusual, I get stopped by cars, motorbikes or whoever is on the road a lot. The man in the passenger seat got out and showed me a police badge. I had also been stopped by the police before a couple of times, mainly to get offered tea. This man’s badge was in English and under his photograph it said “legitimate”. So I guess that should make me believe he was a legitimate police officer, even though they were driving an old Peugeot (like most people) and he was wearing plain clothes. He wanted to see my passport. I showed my passport to him holding it far enough away to make sure he couldn’t grab it. He said he wanted to have it so he could see when I entered. I showed him the visa page showing the stamp with date. He could not ask for more than that and not be even more suspicious than he already was, so I stowed the passport. Then he wanted to know if I had drugs with me. I got annoyed with the dude and told him he could ask me whatever he wanted at the nearest police station. This went back and forth a few times and then he told me to “go, police station in 1 km”. There was no police station in 1 km, nor in 2, nor in 10 nor did I see one till the city of Zanjan, a day’s cycling away. I was a little nervous about this incident though, not knowing if they would be waiting for me on a quiet stretch of road and therefore decided to agree with the Red Crescent Moon team before Zanjan to spend the night at their base. They of course stuffed me with food. Thanks guys!

Soltanieh

Soltanieh

The next day I cycled to Soltanieh, a small town boasting one of Iran’s highlights when it concerns Islamic architecture. Soltanieh used to be the capital of Hulagu’s great grandson Oljetu’s empire, and in its time was a grand town, a metropolis. Castle walls, a palace, gardens and monuments. Hardly anything is left of this now. The most beautiful and grandest of buildings, the “blue dome” of Soltanieh however, is still standing. It shows how magnificent this place must have been. It is indeed a beautiful blue dome and what I could see of the inside was also very pretty. Unfortunately for me, but probably fortunately for those in the future who would like to visit the building, the inside was completely filled with scaffolding for repairs/maintenance. Soltanieh was an important trade centre when Tamerlane arrived and it was one of his greatest prizes in his conquest of Iran. Now, the “blue dome” of Soltanieh looks out over nothing more than a dusty and insignificant village…such is the cycle of history.

Alamout

Alamout

The next days I cycled an uneventful stretch to Qazvin. Here I planned to stay an extra day to check out some of the leftovers of the Safavid period, of which one of the Sha’s was Thamasp who was the main adversary of Ottoman emperor Suleiman I and thus funny enough helping the Europeans. In the hotel I met Rinus, a Dutch guy who is on his way to Australia by motorbike. We watched a superior Dutch football team easily defeat the Mexicans and then decided to head for mount Alamout the next day by car. After a small struggle to get a car for the right price we somehow managed to get a free ride in an old Landrover. The road to Alamout is phenomenal, both in stunning beauty and in twists and turns. After a 2-hour bumpy ride and suffering from a mild car sickness we found ourselves at Alamout. Nothing is left of the famous castle of the “Assasins” except some rubble which is protected by metal sheeting. After the occupants of the castle, which were part of the Ismailites were finally defeated by Hulagu Khan after having resided in the castle for many years the castle was utterly destroyed. The views from the place are spectacular though. We then proceeded by taxi to lake Evan where we pitched our tent. Rinus and I are both outdoor lovers and decided this would be an opportune moment to only bring the inner tent. It’s Iran after all and it’s summer. It rained.

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At Dizin

Then it was finally time to get to Tehran. Cycling into this mega city might at first feel a bit like applying for a Darwin award, but with a bit of confidence and showing the random drivers explicitly where you are going it is all not so bad. After having stayed with Alireza and his lovey family in Karaj, a town just before Tehran, I arrived at his parents’ and sister’s house in Tehran. All very well coordinated by his other sister, and my great friend, Bahar. Here I am being stuffed with food to make up for all the kg’s I have lost over the last months. Now, after a visit to Dizin with Alireza by car I am ready to take on my next challenge…getting through the visa circus for the Stans.

If you want to see some more pictures of Iran…please hold on, I am busy sorting them…they will be online soon!