Cycling through Iran: a very intense yet extremely rewarding experience
Each time we enter a new country, we know we’d better be prepared to learn how local life works and what rules apply in this new environment. On the border between Iraq and Iran, we knew that this would be more than ever before the case and, at the same time, that a long-awaited part of our travel was about to start: our journey through Iran.
Based on the many exciting stories of other travelers and also the many crazy rumors out there about the country, Iran has been one of the countries that we marked as a must-go on the map before we started our travel. We took some cash with us — since it’s impossible for foreigners to withdraw money in Iran — for more than a month to cross the country from the West to the East and ended up staying only our last night in a hotel. Iranians brought our understanding of hospitality to new heights. Here’s a wrap-up of definitely the most intense part of our travel so far.
Our 35 days in Iran
We cycled in 5 weeks from the west to the east in Iran. Just across the border with Iraq, in the Kurdistan province, we cycled from Marivan to Kermanshah via Uraman Takht and Paveh. In Kermanshah we took a bus to Qazvin, where we stayed with our Iranian mama (more about this below) and went back and forth to Tehran in order to get our visas for Turkmenistan and China. Once all the paperwork was done, we continued our journey along the Caspian from Rasht to Gorgan. We traveled from Gorgan to Mashhad by bus.
Kurdistan: excellent training for the Pamir Highway
Having set off from Marivan early morning, we headed towards Uraman Takht, a small village perched on the flanks of the Zagros Mountains. It was Friday, the equivalent of our Sunday and Iranians were out to practice their national hobby: picnic! Under each tree, a family sharing a meal. As soon as we put a foot down, hands reached to us with water, watermelon or mouthwatering dolmas. “Welcome to Iran!” is a phrase we heard all day, topped by massive smiles and curious questions about what we were doing. We had heard many good things about Iran and this first day truly exceeded our expectations!
Kurdistan is a mountainous region west of Iran and benefits from some of the most scenic roads in the whole country. The serpentine road took us up to 2000m+, where kids were sliding down the remaining snow and adults were collecting it as it is believed that it will purify your body when you eat it.
The next days were memorable: valleys with rivers flowing down, high mountain’s peak surrounding us, camping in small villages. The elevation was a perfect training for the Pamir Highway: 1700m per day with some parts going from 10 to 12%. Conclusion: we can do it all!
Iranians brought our understanding of hospitality to new heights
The world can learn so much from the Iranian hospitality. Wherever we were in the country, Iranians always wanted to make us feel very welcome by greeting us in many different ways (also with their car horn grr), inviting us to their home, offering us food and drinks and much more. Sometimes to such an extent that it made us wonder if I could accept their offer or not. There’s namely such thing as Taarof, the Persian complex art of etiquette, what expects you to refuse — or at least not directly accept — the favors from strangers. As newbies, we often experienced it as a game of offer and refusal, with the more someone insisted on offering us something, the more we knew that person truly wanted to offer it to us.
As simple things as buying a sim card (only possible with an Iranian ID) and taking a bus seem to work differently, it is very nice to always have someone around who’s ready to help you. It also has to do with our Farsi inproficiency of course. The overall level of English in Iran is pretty decent what makes that it’s fairly easy to express what you’re looking for.
At the same time, we also found it very exhausting to depend so much on locals all the time, especially when they have no idea how to help you, but insist on doing so and start calling around since they absolutely want to help.
Big thank you to our Iranian mama
Our 5-weeks in Iran wouldn’t have been the same if we hadn’t met Ana, our Iranian Mama. Having met her the very first minute in Iran (literally in the immigration queue at the border!), she took care of us, helping us and welcoming us into her Qazvin home for more than a few nights. Ana, thank you!
It’s a very beautiful country, but not for cycling
Iran is three times as big as France and has almost everything to offer you can imagine. Name it and you’ll find it: desert, sea, mountains, rice fields, jungle, lakes, … . Furthermore, we also very much like the fact that you can camp everywhere you want. Putting your tent in the middle of a park in town? No problem, you’ll have locals around you doing the same.
Unfortunately, when it comes to cycling, we got crazy of the heavy traffic. The enormous amount of cars on the streets and the way people drive their car didn’t make us enjoy cycling in Iran as much as we thought we would.
Cycling as a family or in groups: the power of local communities
For her documentary, Manon is always looking for interesting stories about women who cycle along our route. What we found in Iran was far from what we had imagined before leaving! In Qazvin, we met up with a local cycling community advocating for car free Tuesdays in their town. Surprise: a third of the participants were women! In Iran, there’s an Islamic rule that forbids women to cycle but there’s no legal law forbidding it. Result: there are much more women cycling that you’d thought! By cycling in groups and make themselves visible, the Qazvin group managed to make cycling possible for women.
In Mashhad, we were hosted by another interesting family: Shima, Eshan and the small Ersalan. For more than a year, they cycled throughout Iran with their 8-months old son. Back in Mashhad, they now operate an NGO aiming to encourage people to cycle, organizing trips or painting cycling paths for more visibility.
If you want to embrace Iran, let yourself be surprised
Iran is an intense country where we slept very little, having dinner with locals around midnight and getting up early to cycle. Meeting many locals is really the reason why we travel but we sometimes missed having control of our days. If you’re going for a local experience here, there’s one thing you need to do: let yourself be surprised!
Meanwhile, we have also already crossed Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan! As our transit visas only allowed to stay for 5 days in Turkmenistan, we’ve spent some long days on the bikes to cover 500 km through the desert (with temperatures going up to 50 degrees). We’ll write a blog post about it in one of the next days!
For now, happy cycling!