| Before we could get processed by the Iranian customs, Nathalie had to put on a headscarf, but the formalities were over and done with quite quickly and we came out to be greeted by a huge crowd of people, some waving fat bundles of paper money at us in the hope of making an exchange. We fought our way through this chaos and made our way to the city center where Nathalie bought herself a new, light weight headscarf at a bazaar In this heat. it’s a real torture dressed in scarves and longarmed clothes, especially when you’re doing a bit of sport!!
In the areas near the Caspian sea, the main crop grown is rice and women working in the paddies waved to us or just gaped in wonder as we passed by.
The first day in Iran was exciting but at the same time tiring. We stopped in Hashtpar, were invited to tea by a man who lived with his wife in a large flat, and when they offered us a place to sleep, we accepted gladly, although one has to be rather cautious here because sometimes this generosity is only offered out of politeness and should not be taken too seriously.
In the evening at „ Ç ay“, as we were showing photos from our famiies,,the lady of the house told Nathalie to take off her head scarf and the longsleeved jacket, which she did without having to be asked twice! Normally women must be very careful with clothing because it’s a punishable crime to show oneself in public without a headcovering.
The road to Tehran wound over a mountain pass at 1550 meters altitude, along which many police control points were stationed, each one usually occupied by a caravan with „POLICE“ written on it. We couldn’t find a suitable place to camp so we asked the policemen for advice and they said we should pitch our tent „side by side with the Police“, an officer even helping us to put up the tent. His superior however made it clear that he should let us get on with it by ourselves.
From conversations with locals who spoke either German or English, we got the impression that they were not at all happy with the political situation and were totally in disagreement with their „Leader“.
An 18 year old biker called Navid, accompanied us to Qazvin where we visited the Mausaleum,whose entrance and courtyard is covered in mirrored mosaic tiles.The son of the eighth Imams Reza is buried here and in the middle of the courtyard there is a symbolic tomb which is worshipped. Men and women must enter the courtyard via separate visiting rooms, the women clothed in the obligatory Chador as they cried and kissed the fence that surrounded the tomb. It is forbidden to turn one’s back on the sacred tomb and so to leave the room, you have to go out walking backwards.
Biker Navid, together with his parents brothers and sisters, came to visit us at our hotel because he wanted to go with us to Tehran then on to Esfahan but his family just wanted to make sure that this plan was ok and also to check out what sort of people would be travelling with their son.
After riding 152km in 44°C heat we arrived late in the afternoon in Tehran in the middle of an unbelievable traffic chaos.
Over the next few days our plan was to climb the 5671 meter high, but extinct, volcano Damavand which is situated north of Tehran in the Alborz mountain range.
The climb up the Kuh-e Damavand turned out to be a big challenge. At 5 o’clock in the morning, together with Navid, our 18 year old biker friend, we left the big city of Tehran for the Alborz Range. The road went over a 2600m high pass and due to the 45°C heat, we had to constantly stop for a cool drink because the sweat was just pouring off us so we stopped for a rest at the top of the pass. On the opposite side of the road was a police station and we were commanded to present our visas but one never knows just exactly what the Iranian officials want so we were a bit annoyed at the policemen who seemed to be checking our passports just out of sheer boredom. As the officer in charge called us back over to the office for yet a second time, we responded rather reluctantly but as we came into the office, we couldn’t believe our eyes when he set a plate down in front of us full of slices of melon!!
By the time we got to Reineh, the start-point of our expedition, it was evening.and we still had to organise everything for the climb up the volcano. We bought enough food for two days then we marched off from the first camp at 2950 meters altitude. A donkey carried our baggage to the second camp up at 4200 meters where we arrived at around midday.
What we found there was quite shocking: there were piles of rubbish everywhere as far as the eye could see, there was no toilet, and the place stunk to high heavens. Luckily we were able to reserve bunkbeds for ourselves although some of the wooden slats in the frames were missing.
In the afternoon, more climbers arrived, some descending from the summit, some coming from the huts. We made up a group with a pair from Poland and two Iranians, deciding to leave at 3 o’clock in the morning, which meant forgetting about sleep for that night.
At 2 o’clock everyone was on the move in the hut, and despite light headaches we cooked up a pot of tea, ate some bread and cheese then headed off for the summit. The higher we climbed the colder it got although the sun had already risen by 4:30am, and the last 300 vertical meters were exceptionally hard as we dragged ourselves one foot after the other towards the peak. The volcanic scoria was loose underfoot, sulfur fumes stung our nostrils, an ice-cold wind howled in our faces and of course at this altitude there was a noticable lack of oxygen in the air. Totally exhausted but elated with triumph, we finally set foot on the top of the mountain
The descent on the other hand, seemed to go on forever and we all began to feel ill. We’d only had one day to acclimatise at 4200m which was really the bare minimum of time required, but back at the hut we cooked up a boullion soup and were soon feeling much better again.
At the first Camp on the first day, a payment office was set up where all foreign tourists were obliged to pay US50$ for the ascent of the volcano. We were pretty angry about this because the Iranians didn’t have to pay a single cent so we complained to the head of the Mountaineering Club, noting that the money was surely not going to be used for the upkeep of the camp and preserving nature, but would most probably be siphoned off directly to the president and his cronies.
The morning after the climb, we awoke with swollen eyes, cracked lips and terrible muscle pain so we decided to take the bus back to Tehran instead of riding. At sunrise, accompanied by Navid, we left the capital city for Isfahan, taking the road running along the edge of the Kavir desert towards Qom.
In the small cities south of Tehran, we noticed the strong Shiite influence, and the people here are generally very reserved in the presence of western tourists which was a great contrast to the people of Tehran who greeted us with open arms, and gave us presents of melons, nuts, cucumbers, figs and dates. Khomeni, the leader of the revolution, lived here in Qom, His photo is pasted up all over the place and he still has many followers. Almost all the women from this region wear the Chador and the locals are deeply religious, seeing us as a sort of herald of the western culture so they tended to keep their distance from us.
In Kashan, we met up with two motorcyclists, Lili and her father and together we went to visit the persian paradise gardens where there is a profuse water spring from which many canals have been led to irrigate the gardens. Fully dressed and wearing her Chador, Lili lay down in the canal, causing a major uproar amongst the local visitors.Later we cooled down in the clean water of the pond, of course dressed in long sleeved clothing and head scarves as tradition demands, but a few seconds later, the Morals-guardians were blowing alarm whistles from all directions. They were probably too afraid to approach us though, so we only saw their faces peering at us through the bushes.
We rode on to Isfahan via the highway passing through a barren landscape, broken only by a few abandoned villages consisting of crumbling, clay huts. Lili lent us her „iPod“and the driving rythyms of the music helped make the passage along the edge of the desert a lot easier.
Pretty much dead tired, we at last arrived at the Isfahan Oasis which lies at an altitude of 1575 meters above sea level.The city is rightly described as a „Pearl of the Orient“, when one observes the countless turquoise coloured minarets and magnificent gardens and palaces there. On Friday, (which is like a Sunday in our culture), we did like all the local Iranians and went to the park for a relaxing picnic.
Then it was time to say farewell to Navid who was going back to Tehran. Like so many Iranians, he dreams of leaving the country for good, because the Islamic State totally oppresses the people and corruption is a daily occurrence.
The friendly receptionist at our hotel had tears in his eyes as he asked if we could help him to organise a visa for Switzerland, but naturally his idea of life in Europe has little to do with reality.
Our next destination was Shiraz, a fertile highland dotted with traditonal clay-hut villages where the women were busy washing at the water canal. When we asked a woman if we could take some photos, she agreed wholeheartedly then invited us to Ç ay and we were amazed at the large and attractive house behind the clay facade. Of course we could have stayed overnight with the family, but we decided to ride on a bit further.
The valleys we rode through were planted with rice, wheat and corn, and near Shiraz there are widespread vineyards producing a wine which used to be very popular throughout the country, however since the revolution, wine-making is prohibited (at least officially ) so now the Shiraz grape is mainly planted in Australia, South Africa, and Southern France.
Shortly before we reached the capital of the Fars province, it began to rain, .....a brief and enjoyable refreshment!!
The sights in the most famous city of the Achaemenidens (500-400 BC), were impressive, especially in and around Persepolis which is an area about 400m X 300m originally used for big receptions during the Iranian New Year celebrations and for victory parades after important battles. In 332 BC, it was occupied by Alexander the Great’s troops.
The flight to Mashad was very pleasant, and despite the cheap ticket price, a meal was served and our bikes which were packed in cardboard, arrived without a scratch.
Here in Mashad, the Pilgrim’s City, there are many hotels of all catagories although most of the simpler ones only allow locals or pilgrims as lodgers, so it took a while before we found a place to stay.
An Iranian mentioned to us that there were two other Swiss people here, Lili and Bruno. We expressed our desire to meet them so off he went to tell them, and soon Lili arrived to see us, proving that the „bush telephone“ really does work wonderfully in this city of two million inhabitants!! Nevertheless, it didn’t take long before there was a knock on the door of our room then a couple of seconds later the phone rang: the agitated receptionist wanted to know why two women were in one room together, so to calm the situation,and reassure the hotel staff, we changed our meeting place to a local fruit juice shop.
Every year, 15 million Muslim pilgrims come to Mashad. Access to the holy area where the Mausoleum of the eighth Imam Reza is situated, is for all non-muslims strictly prohibited. Despite this, we tried to get in through one of the four entrances. After the guard made a few phone calls, a German-speaking female guide appeared, and gave Nathalie a black Chador to wear. There was a bit of discussion about Nathalie’s bare feet, but eventually we were allowed to enter the first courtyard,.although it was not permitted to go all the way in to the burial room. Again we were astounded at the gilded entrance and the massive gold dome over the last resting place. Here, the religious fervour reaches extremes, with faithful Muslims touching and kissing the gravestone.
Two bicycling friends gave us a tip, reccommending that we absolutely must visit the capital city Ashqabad, so we altered our route and rode over the mountains to Bajgiran, past many green valleys, nomads and shepherds. We’d never seen such a brilliant blue sky or breathed such pure air since we entered Iran.
Around midday, we reached the border city and stopped to rest a little so that we would be ready to cross the border on the morning of the 9th of July and get full use out of our five-day visa,…but we to our horror we discovered that the exact entry and exit points had been previously noted in our visas by the Turkmenen Consul in Turkmenistan and that the immigration locality was 500 kilometers southeast in Sarakhs. By the way, the Turkmenish Consul in Tehran must have been much friendlier because he gave two Dutch cyclists a transit-visa for seven days.
Anyway, the Iranians reckoned that it was no problem to cross here, but we didn’t want to try any experiments and chose to ride the whole way back again. We were on the road half the night long, arriving at Sarakhs the next day around midday.
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