But we are talking about Iran now, not turkey! I entered Iran at the Bazargan/Dogubeyazit crossing, beneath the solitary Mt. Ararat. The nasty events in eastern Turkey had me wishing that there would be another flood, and this time without an Ark. I was glad to be over the border, and the Iran authorities and citizens at the border seemed more than willing to have me come in. The adventure began almost immediately. There were many veiled women waiting in a large anteroom with a small door that was locked shut from the other side. A large photo of Ayatollah Khomeini frowned on the patient crowd. At least, they were patient until the door opened! Then a few of these veiled women put their hands firmly on the small of my back and PUSHED me thru the doorway--with themselves in tow! Whoooosh went a biker, a bicycle, equipment and a gaggle of Iranian women, barking in English and Farsi at the overwhelmed gaurads on the other side. One grabbed my passport as i tripped over the small jamb, invisible on the crowded floor. A few minutes later it was returned to me.
Since I am a mountain rider, my intention was to cross the northern (Elburz) mountains to reach the Caspian sea. Riding east for a while I would then re-cross the mountains just west of Tehran (avoiding the capital itself) and head due south for Shiraz. The I would ride due east into Pakistan. The ride south to Shiraz would take me thru Iran's other great mounatin range, the Zagros.
It was a good selection of routes and I recommend it to my fellow riders. If you think Iran is all desert and scrubby hills, think again. The 'scenery becomes greenery' rapidly as you head north over the Elburz, as the Caspian sea breezes are quite humid. In fact, near the Azerbaijan border there is a jungle! From Rasht east to Calus there is a chain a small towns and cities but the road is in good condition and the cycling was pleasant enough. There are not alot of places to wild camp in this region, however, as the land is low, boggy, and settled in many places. But all the towns have guesthouses or small hotels you can stay in. I told an english speaking gentleman to right down in farsi the phrase.."where is an inexpensive hotel?" Instead he wrote down..."where are you from?" So everytime i asked for a place to stay they told me the name of my current location. GRrrrrr! In any case, you obtain a view of the Caspian in only a few places, as the road is not that close to the shore. To the south the Elburz rise higher and higher. The towns are attractive with many parks and clean commercial areas; in fact, Iran was a very clean and well kept countryside. The people are well educated, extremely worldy and knowledgeable about international affairs, and justifiably rpoud of their country's place in history. Iran's young people (of which there are many...a big baby boom after the war with Iraq!) are anxious to see Iran return to the community of nations as an economic and regional power. President Khatami, well liked in Europe and the west, so far has managed to walk the tightrope between reform and the need to adhere to basic, if conservative, Islamic principles.
A great surprise was the road back over the Elburz toward Tehran: the Calus pass, as Iranian cyclists call it. It starts amidst deep chasms, scales more open walls, higher and higher, to nearly 9000 feet before finally descending to the hot, central Iran plains. It was easily one of my most spectacular mounatin roads, and is hugely popular with Iran riders. If there ever is a Tour d'Iran, this will be part of it! I wild camped near the top; it was very chilly and clear that night! The next day i discovered i was not as close to the top as I thought....A tunnel is being dug under the mountain enabling cars and trucks to avoid the final steep switchbacks. Much like Switzerlands' Grand St. Bernard, this means we riders soon will have the upper reaches all to ourselves.
You can reach Qom by taking the Qom autobahn. You may as well take this highway: the traffic is lighter than the side road! Most people take the old road to avoid the tolls; it is narrower, and dangerous. It goes thru the small towns but you can walk across a small sandy berm from the highway to get to them if you need food or water. To the east of the road stretches the expanse of the Desert of Liut; salt pans catch the evening light and seem almost phosphorescent in the failing light. I wild camped in the dunes by the roadside; a bit out of view of the traffic.
Iran is fairly safe for cycling, but I nonetheless was hassled several times in the larger towns by people in cars who would stop and ask for 'money'. Not currency exchange, mind you, but money! The best thing to do here is pretend to take their photo and tell them you are 'going to the police.' They'll take off, and fast, like this motorcyle rider did. The police in Iran are feared and powerful...no one wants undue attention. Often I would get the license plate number and give it to the next person who spoke english: they can decide which course of action is best. The best defense is a good offense and a great state of mind. Concentrate on enjoying the beautiful, often stark road and scenery in front of you 99% of the days and the hours that you ride. This photo from northwest Iran, taken in the afternoon sun, shows you how the shadows and rock faces look like they could cut paper if given the chance. Can you imagine trying to flush mujahideen out of the hills up ahead? More humorously, could you imagine trying to find a biker who decided to wild camp after nightfall? How many stars do you think you could count in the night sky? Sometimes the simplest pictures make the joys of cycling the most evident. Roads like this always started me singing--usually Judy Collins' Both Sides Now, although i had to make up alot of my own words. My wheels and bicycle would sing a song of their own: the rubber tires against the road would whistle, the chain over the freewheel would grind ever so slightly. If I was neglectful with my lubricant (WD-40, usually) maybe there would be that infernal squeak your links make as they wind over the derailleur rollers. I would rest in my tent after a pleasant days' riding, perhaps listen to the BBC (even though, after months on the road like this, I really began to wonder if there was a world out there. Maybe its all a Bush House (London BBC Hqtrs) fantasy, sort of a radio version of Capricorn One?
In any case I followed the ridges south to Shiraz, which many Iranians told me was their most beautiful city. I'll leave that argument to them: Isfahan, Shiraz, Rasht, Qom, Tabriz..all were attractive to me. I spent a day in Shiraz at the ..... mosque, hoping to get my visa extension processed. It was my 27th day and my '30' days were almost up.
OH YEAH--about that 'ten day extension.' The Shiraz authorities did not recognize it, so I was already 7 days overdue on my visa! After some wrangling they granted me the 10 days, which gave me only 3 days to get to the border. Too far! Bus time-- all the way to Quetta in Pakistan. Even then my adventures were not over. I stayed the next night in Zahedan after a full day and night on the bus. Only a few weeks before a group of Japanese geologists had been kidnapped from a hotel in the town. [That too was a story..the kidnappers went after the wrong group! But once they had them, what could they do?] As my visa stated I was a professor of Geology, the police were quite spooked by my arrival--whether on a bicycle or not-- and insisted i stay at a special camping site nearby under police guard! I slept well, bantering a bit with a few Iranian soldiers. The route ahead in Pakistan promised even more close calls with international riff-raff, as I was soon to find out.