The experience in Cappadocia was so wonderful it kept us there more than a week. Locals were very humble and kind to us. The understanding of how they think and live became more clear to us. There is only good things to say but we had to continue. Thank you Nilgun, Senim, Deniz, Elif and off course baba and mama. The iranian visa was waiting for us and as Ramazan was coming to an end, the consulate would also have a 2 week vacation. This put us suddenly in a hurry and made us take a bus for some parts of the route.
It wasn’t easy as we were with a lot of stuff and carrying bikes was not something they were used to. To arrive in Erzurum during ramazan was like an opposite world. It was the most conservative muslim part of the world we have witnessed. People have warned us about East Turkey but I tend not to belief before I see. This means restaurants open very late during the day and you will see nobody eating during the day till sunset. The only place where we could eat was inside the food court in a mall. Women covered most parts of their face and only show their bare hands. There were no man wearing shorts. Shops were unorganized and gave me a view how things were 20 years ago in Aruba. Apart from a castle and some old buildings, Erzurum is known as a ski resort in the winter. No winter for us.
We picked up our visa for Iran at the consulate and decided to take a few days off and go to Trabzon which lies at the shore of the black sea.
We got visit from Mishally and Renate and went to Trabzon. This was a busride through big mountainpasses and valleys. There we met with Bas from Netherlands and Nick from Belgium. The following days we took a tour to an old monastery and strolled through the city of Trabzon. William managed to get a boatride at sunset and we got ourselves into a typical turkish party with live music and of course unlimited çay (tea) with Benjamin. We were contemplating about our Turkmenistan visa because lately there were lot of rejections. As we talked to Onno (dutch cyclist) we met, he was telling us about a tour he and a group booked and this opened a clear possibility for us. We hopped on the tour and the worries of Turkmenistan were gone. Uzbekistan visum has already been in the process thus everything seems to be working out.
The Turkmenistan visa is one of the hardest to get. You can either book a tour which costs lot of money or apply for the 5-day transit visa. If you are lucky you can get the transit visa and you will have 5 days to cross almost 600 km in desserted, dry, hot terrain. If you get rejected your route will have a drastic change. Either go through Pakistan and India or fly from Iran to Uzbekistan which is costly and time consuming or at last go back to Azerbaijan, take a ferry to Kazachstan and cycle through dessert for more than a 1000 km to Uzbekistan. All 3 weren’t sounding pleasant to our ears so the tour came as a blessing as we were able to split the costs in a group.
Back in Erzurum we met up with Everhard (Dutch guy) for the third time on our trip and decided to cycle again together as he was heading into the same direction. The girls went back home and we want to thank them for the awesome time in Trabzon.
Despite the headwind we had on the first day on the bike again it felt great. Legs spin in circles, music in the heads and the surroundings change constantly. Heading slowly closer and closer to the Iran border with the visa in the pocket. A country whom I have heard and searched a lot about made it difficult not to be curious how it would be like. First there were a few hundred kilometers to cross the following days and the weather was definitely getting hotter. That night we decided to camp in our mosquito net without a tent which worked perfect. After midnight it would get colder but we can adapt with a liner and/or sleeping bag. The next morning we woke up very early to start cycling while it is still cool. As soon as the sun rises, so is the temperature. Imagine it going from a cool breeze to a hairdryer in the morning. We had to cross a pass of 2210 meter in altitude with more than 20 km of climbing. This was the first day I think we experienced how intens the heat can be. We definitely struggled while we saw the asphalt creating bubbles like it was cooking. The temperature was well over 40 degrees celsius in shade but even more in direct sun. The tarmac gets stucks between your tires and you feel and hear the stickyness as it becomes like syrup. After several breaks we reached the top and get rewarded with the long downhill. This euphoria was disrupted by a second flat tire for William on this trip. With his handy bike mechanic skills we were in no time back again on the road but we set camp behind a huge rock in the valley cause it was getting late.
As we were nearing another change of timezone we would also notice how early the sun comes up. Around 4 am the sun will already be showing its rays.
Next day in Agri we met Ahmet. A young bread seller working 12 hours shifts 7 times a week. This is life in East Turkey. One thing we have in common is riding bikes. He basically showed me around after his shift, bought me good food because he wouldn’t let me pay and had good conversations. He showed us the place to exchange turkish lira to dollars. In Iran it is impossible to withdraw money from ATM’s with a foreign bank account because of the western sanctions. We can enter with lots of dollars and exchange this for Iranian reals. Never forget to enter Iran with US dollars!
We split up with Everhard the next day because he had other plans. On the road we saw many military vehicles driving around. This was a kurdish area and at this point the situation with the government was gettting a little intense. We didn’t really bother about it as we set camp just before Dogubayazit (Last town before the border of Iran). The next day we would hear from people that this is one of the most dangerous areas and that a month before military would put cycle-tourist in vehicles and let them out at the border. Cycling to the border is breathtaking as we pass the snow-filled top of Ararat mountain which is the highest in Turkey. Lots of military checkpoints but they did not check us once.
Arriving at the border of Iran we see many people standing, sitting, lying.. No idea what they all are doing there. The gate was closed but they opened it when they saw we wanted to get in and it was easy getting into no-man’s land. Then the funny faces when they see you arriving with your bicycle. They checked our visas, checked our passports. Then we needed to go to another checkpoint to approve and get a stamp. Very easy for us compared to an american man who was just in front of us with a pile of documents which everybody wanted to see. So exciting to see Iran and so different. Everything is in Farsi, written from right to left. The islamic law is followed here. All women must wear a head scarf, all men must wear long pants, even-though we as tourist get exempted. Time just shifted 1,5 hours. Yes, I didn’t know half hour time zones existed.
We rode passed the first city (Bazargan) into Maku just to find out we have to go back to exchange money and buy simcards for our cellphones. Sasan who we just met was willing to take us with his car back to Bazargan. This was a first of the many kind Iranians we would meet. In Iran there are parks where local people would camp with all facilities. This is also where we spent our first night.
Cycling till 11 was still okay but after we got out of the valley in the open everything became deserted. We thought we were getting used to the heat but this heat was really intense. It was well over 40 degrees and maybe even more in direct sun that at one point we couldn’t cycle anymore. We decided to hitchhike a part till Marand. Hamed was waiting for us made us feel at home immediately. Me and William decided to leave our bikes in Marand and take a bus to Tehran cause we heard some people had to wait a week to pick up their Uzbekistan visa. The bus would leave at night so Hamed took us to a very old christian monastery (Saint Stephanous) close to the border with Azerbaijan. This was build around 7th century. Iran is mainly shi’a islam, but there are also sunni and sufi islamists and jews. It had different religions in the past but the main one before the Arabs made it muslim was Zoroastrian.
At night Hamed took us to his parents house where we got to know his hospitable family and his father sung for us. The nightbus got us in Tehran early morning to spend a day in the capital of Iran. Tehran is very crowded, there are almost no traffic lights, lots of motorbikes and cars. It was very hot and there’s so much air pollution over the city it would burn your nose and eyes. To be honest it was not a pleasant city to be in. We prepared everything for our Uzbekistan visa and met up with the two Spanish guys (Miguel & Carlos) who are going on the Turkmenistan tour with us.
The next day we decided to go together very early to the Uzbekistan embassy to obtain our visas and to our surprise this went very very easy. We had a day to spend in Tehran so we visited the national library which just opened and the bazaars. During all of this we decided to go to a more southern city (Isfahan) the next day. The busride was during the day so at night we could do a little walk in the city center.
The following day we would explore the Naqsh-e Jahan square which is 160 meters wide and 560 meter long and his bazaars. It houses 2 mosques and a palace dating since 1629. The bazaars are filled with handicrafts of paintings, metalwork, pottery and patterned boxes made of camelbones, wood and metal. Isfahan is also know for several beautiful bridges to cross the river which was dry when we were there. Very imposing architecture as the double story Khaju bridge has 23 arches and is 133 meters long with many locals spending their afternoon. The next day we got the opportunity to do a tour in the Zagros mountains to visit nomads and a glacier. Its was a long ride to reach the nomads where we sat down to have lunch and see their way of living. They come into the mountains to escape the heat of the lower lands during summer and go back to escape the hard winters in the mountains. Some have cars and solar panels. They live mostly of herding goats, sheeps and selling herbs. Some wearing the traditional lori pants (very wide Persian pants) After a small hike we went up to the glacier which was on an altitude of almost 3000 meter. Again the surroundings were surreal. So many big mountains around us.
Iran is a very big country so it was a long ride back to Marand to pick up our bikes. After picking up the bikes we went to the north coast to start cycling. In Iran you have to bargain the price of transporting your bicycles and after quite some bargaining we agreed to a price. We never understood why they ask for extra money when we travel with our bicycles. They have enough space and there is never a fixed price or rule about it. The money goes straight into the driver’s pocket by the way.
We got dropped of just outside of the city of Rasht where numerous taxi’s are approaching to take passengers. This was at 3 am and my patient level was below zero so I let William deal with this. We wanted to catch a few hours of sleep just a little behind the road, but a dog was barking so loud a few guards came out. They said no no, come inside. We were allowed to sleep in an empty office with air conditioning. What a luxury because the next morning we even got breakfast. It appeared to be a security guard post for the taxi stand.
When we left the first thing we noticed was the humidity. This feeling we haven’t felt in a long period of time because most of Iran is just dry but the north part along the Caspian sea is very humid. One of the first thing we did was take a dive in the sea to cool off. When cycling out of Kiashahr we noticed a very beautiful mosque we had to stop and take a picture. Also all mosques have toilets and water so it sounded like a good stop. In Iran there are a lot fewer mosques than in Turkey but the mosques in Iran art all pieces of art. A lot of work is put into creating a mosque. We were told that the mosques have a certain way they have to be build. Certain materials and paintings must be used and they follow this very strictly in Iran.
They invited us into the mosque to see the prayers and observe the inside. As soon as the door opens you enter a hallway and in front there’s a big room they call the imam. This imam was build with thousands of little mirrors in different patterns. I have never seen anything like this before. Amazing! And after this they took us out for lunch where we enjoyed local fish from the Caspian sea. It appears we were having lunch with the head of marketing of national soccer team of Iran.
That night we camped on the shore of the beach enjoying a much cooler climate till we saw how humid everything was in the morning. Everything was wet and it was a cloudy morning so we decided to make more kilometers than normally. Turned down some çay (tea) invitations and cycled all the way to Tonekabon to meet up with Hossein.
He received us so well and warm with plenty of food and care. The next day he went with us to exchange money and to send a box to Netherlands which wasn’t as easy as we thought.
After midday we left Tonekabon and a few kilometers further I was cycling in front when a car cut me off and parked in front of me. I saw this, braked and turn to go around but William was looking at his gps and a second later I hear Bam! William crashed headfirst into the back of this car…
In Iran we have seen many drivers do weird manouvres. Most of them young people passing by very hard and very close to us or cutting us off. In Teheran we saw 3 accidents in 2 days so the chance of a collision was big.
Luckily William was fine, a bit shocked and we found out his fore-fork was slightly bended backwards. The steering and handling of the bike was okay after we disassembled the whole thing and checked.
As William was a little cautious with the bike we decided to take a bus further to see if a mechanic can replace the fork. We bought a ticket which was suspiciously expensive and after we let our Iranian friend check this he noticed we bought a full ticket to a town 160 km further. We felt ripped off and when we returned to hop on the bus we told the seller we are going to Gorgan now. He just smiled in a forced way when we showed him our tickets with the confidence that it says Gorgan in farsi.
Cycling through big cities at night is not one of our favorite things but it had to be done because Hossein arranged a stay for us in Gorgan which we really appreciated.
Early morning, after breakfast, after 40 km we bumped into two cyclist going the same direction as us. One German and one Swedish determined to make 100 km a day to make it in time to pick up their Turkmenistan visa. We decided to tag along and with their company we cycled the whole day and even forgot about the intense heat. We decided to camp after 127 km but they kept going as they have not reached 100 km yet. After a little while 3 curious farmer kids showed up and wanted to try our bicycles.. I wanted to try their tractor. Communication can be a little difficult in Farsi but somehow there was some understanding. Farsi has been the most difficult so far because the alphabet is totally different, but really beautiful when written.
After a while the kids came back and told us it is not safe to camp here and insisted we should go to their home. After a while we took the offer and went to a very interesting house. There were 2 kids, and older man, a young guy and I saw 3 little girls. Nobody could speak any other language than farsi and the girls did not show their faces after we entered. There was no furniture at all and the floors were filled with carpets. We got food and a place to sleep on the floor. Mosa, the young man I mentioned before is the owner of the house. He is young (23) and a farmer with no parents anymore. He takes care of everybody in the house and this night we were his guests.
There was a waterfall nearby and the next day we decided to climb a few steep hundred meters and push our bikes on a sandy road to see this.
Days following we would cross the Golestan national park and elevate more than a kilometer. First day was green and with streams of water and the next day was dry and intense hot with sever headwind. People stopped us on the road and gave us water and food. The 3rd day we decided to push the last part to reach the city of Bojnourd where we would meet up with Yasar who wanted to host us. Days of dust, wind and heat were over as we reached Bojnourd to rest before pushing the final part to Turkmenistan.