Saturday, 1 October 2011

Iran: 28 days in the Axis of ?.. you decide..

36th hour
I couldn't see! a moments panic at this sudden blindness was soon resolved with one hand grabbing the offending spinnaker of headscarf covering my eyes and tucking it deftly into the collar of my dress. Why had I listened to the helpful Hammit with the refrigeration shop from whom I'd tried to purchase an ice cream yet he'd looked earnestly across his desk at me and said "but you're a tourist, I can't let you pay. Welcome to Iran"? I'd peered over his shoulder at google maps showing the streets of Tabriz and he'd insisted the highway was the best way to reach my destination. A non-cyclist with a mercedes does not care about how many metres of ascent are involved in a 5km drive and I tried to remember this as I struggled upwards, red mountains to my left and a sprawling city to my right in an ever increasing heat. The rebellious headscarf reared up again so I stopped,  grabbed both ends and crossed them over my damp throat and tied a knot at the nape of my neck. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a swirl of black racing up a dusty bank towards me. I turned my head, resulting in near asphxiation and tried to loosen the offending headscarf while peering to see what was approaching. Hello! it shouted "Welcome to Iran" and my eyes rested on a excited face, shaded by an black baseball cap under a swathe of black material: a pair of white trainers poking out from the bottom. She grabbed my arm " I saw you when we were leaving the airport and oh it's fantastic and you are on a bicycle please do you need somewhere to stay oh yes do please come and stay with me and my husband"

the 7th Hour

106 km after crossing the Armenian/Iranian border I reached a village, weary, sweaty, dusty with headscarf askew. I needed to find somewhere to camp. A man on a motorbike with a young boy clasped to his waist saw me. He greeted me and in stumbling English asked if I was ok. I gestured "sleep" he gestured 'follow me'
and we began the slow ascent into the village of garden walls made out of mud. we bounced down an unpathed track and then he led me through one of these mud compounds into a garden full of cherry and apricot trees. A lady sat there on a wide verandah wrapped in a white scarf and a floral dress skirting her shins and quickly rearranged the scarf so her greying hair was covered. 2 children stared at the traveller then with the nonchalence of the young turned their backs and continued to play. I was led to the centre of the garden and my feet were gently washed by Iman. I rested on the blanket they'd laid for me and the old lady brought me platefuls of melon, watching me intently and with concern as I gorged on the succulent fruit. More food was brought, rice and chicken with a plateful of fresh herbs, chai was poured and her furrowed brow relaxed as she watched my face turn from a vibrant raspberry to a more delicate shade of pink. A mobile phone was handed to me and I was asked by Iman's English speaking contact if I was ok and could they do anything for me and when did I want breakfast. 2 hours passed and Iman and his mother broke their Ramazan fast: Iman inhaling deeply on a cigarette before sitting cross-legged and scooping chunks of meat into a pocket of bread.  He said his farewells as he returned to his wife and family. His mother wrapped herself in a black chador and stood praying for 45 minutes before laying her blanket next to mine on the verandah and we slept until sunrise.


1 week later
I'd been kidnapped! When I'd mentioned I was going to cycle to Iran I'd been warned about this and there I was being held hostage in Iran and being force fed. Not one full hour had passed in the 7 days where I had not been fed. Every national dish of Iran had been cooked for me. I'd been met in the streets of Tabriz by the father and a battle had ensued between my soon-to-be kidnappers and the lady in black from the 36th hour who was trying to take me to her house and was laying claim to finding me first. My current hostage takers also transported me to other family members where more food was forced upon me. I was even taken at one point to a walled garden some 60 km away where fresh walnuts were peeled for me and songs were sung and it was there, on my mother's birthday, where they made me write a message and record a video for her


 Even my bike had not escaped and had been ruthlessly strapped to the roof rack of a car and transported to a bike shop by the son and his friends where a full service had been given at no cost. It was difficult to leave and I felt the tears fall when I finally escaped this family


Day 10
I sheltered from the Tehran heat and chaotic traffic under a tree outside a toilet block while consulting my map. The female attendant was questioning me, I thought aggressively, and I tried to dismiss her attention with a wave of my hand as I returned my sleepy gaze to my map. But there she remained and a man carrying a spade joined her and the unintelligible questioning continued. They consulted each other and I moved my bag of valuables closer to me yet they turned their backs and walked away.
A few minutes later I heard their footsteps but did not look up. Warm bread scattered with sesame seeds was placed on my lap, a bowl of honey sat beside a plate of feta cheese by my feet and a cup of chai was placed on the kerb where I sat.

Days 11- 21
Days in Tehran were spent sharing conversations with an inspiring Iranian girl. I learnt more of the troubles in 2008, the peaceful demonstrations that had turned so sour. I watched on the Roof of Tehran - a viewing spot some 2000m high- as young iranians tried to live the lives they deserved, girls pushing the limits with headscarves- pushed back as far as they dared- resting upon bouffant hairdos. Long shirts crept above the acceptable thigh level and I watched in dismay as 2 women in black chadors stopped them and escorted them to police cars. I received claps and cheers when cycling to the embassies in this country where women are not meant to cycle. Lives were lived behind closed doors. Young women told me their dreams of emigrating, to study further and to leave their country and families behind.
I visited the former US embassy. The photo below is not the view of the majority of these wonderful Persian and Azeri people.

I looked in dismay at the partial mastectomies performed on the mannequins that had not followed the flat-chested criteria


I travelled south to the city of Esfahan and with another solo female traveller from Turkey we explored and absorbed the beautiful mosques and palaces.





Once again we were treated to more muslim hospitality: looking hungrily at the food an elderly couple had just received in a teahouse they promptly gave us their bowls of dizi and bread and simply ordered some more.

And we joined some young musicians who had been hiding in the arches of Esfahan's bridges to play their music


My journey took me further south to the city of Yazd one of the world's oldest living cities: a labyrinth of mudbrick houses, domed rooftops and badgirs (windcatchers - the first air-conditioning units) filling the skyline, Zoresterian fire temples and intriguing ancient qanats (undergound water channels used to supply drinking water and irrigate the crops).



Adventure playground a la Yazd.


Below: A fellow cyclist and his friends



The final days in Iran
With the longawaited Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan visas in my passport I headed east to Mashad, the holiest city in Iran where, with the help of some local ladies who giggling corrected my wearing of the black chador (it was upside down), I visited the Haram-e-Razavi where the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza is. Evenings were spent drinking copious amounts of non-alcoholic beer with other travellers and it was during one of these nights that we arranged the jailbreak of a bear called Wilson.. but that's another story for another time.

The dash through undulating desert landscape to the border with Turkmenistan began. It felt good to be back on the road and gifts of watermelon, corn on the cob, baguettes, chai and water were given by fruitsellers, bus drivers, policemen and bakers. Once again after a day of ferocious heat and headwind and searching for a camp I was welcomed into another Iranian home where melon, chai, rice and chicken was followed by a bed then breakfast. As I cycled the last few kilometres to the Iranian border town of Sarakhs I could only hope that people stop confusing governments and extremists with cultures and religion, media snippets highlighting only the bad, and start judging countries on the kindness they will encounter and receive if only they would choose to get to know the people within.