On the twenty-third day of the month dei thirteen ninety-five, dating from Mahomet’s migration from Mekka, I entered Iran and the East at the same time. How do I know it? I recognized it by the shoes.
‘How much are your shoes?’
That was one of the first questions I was asked in Iran. And although I’m wearing an old and cheap pair of trekking shoes, they belong to a completely different reality. Here spreads the world of not-the-most-fashionable and usually dusty brogues or simple flip-flops. Shoe shiners, omnipresent in Turkey, disappeared.
You’re probably curious where exactly the East begins. So it begins wherever you start noticing the existence of the rule of ‘no problem’.
My bike needs to be carried to the first floor on a steep staircase? No problem.
My bike and all my bags need to be put on the bus? No problem.
On a minibus without a boot? No problem.
On a car with a car boot full? No problem.
They would load it into a Smart car, if it was needed. No problem.
I pass the first kilometres through Iran in various vehicles escaping the cold. I arrive in Qom, the Iranian Lourdes, look at those shoes and start learning the East, where everything is apparently the same, but it’s actually very different. I get used to this new reality and change it from strange to mine. But most importantly, I start cycling again.
There’s a desert all around me. The real one, yellow, sometimes with small bushes. And flat. Plastic bags and empty bottles fly over it pushed by the wind. Every now and then some rugged, rocky mountains rise from the desert. In the sun, although it’s far from the summer heat, the air above the sand shimmers and it seems that the far bushes are sheep or camel herds or small cottages. Sometimes there are signs ‘Beware of camels’ along the road. I guess so that I could have fun taking photos of them. For 70km of cycling nothing appears around me. No towns, villages, petrol stations, shops, not even mentioning bars or restaurants. There’s only this new, exotic and hypnotic emptiness. Sand dunes and camels are a mirage. They exist only in some places and that’s where tourists are taken for their desert experience.
In Hamid’s restaurant they take me to the kitchen so that I can point with my finger what I want to eat. After choosing a chicken leg, they take me back to the main room and make me seat on an Iranian bed-table. Taht is a kind of a large bed covered with a carpet. I take my shoes off, sit cross-legged and lean on soft pillows behind my back. They bring me a thick soup and slim Iranian bread which looks like giant pancakes. Then I get a huge plate of rice, the chicken leg and some salad. It’s accompanied by curd. You eat with a spoon and a fork and for a moment I wonder which one is used as a knife. I look at the locals and it turns out they use the fork to help themselves to put their food on the spoon. Even tea is drunk in a different way. You put sugar cubes in your mouth and drink the tea through them, waiting for the sweet taste to penetrate the drink.
Black apparitions glide on the streets of Kashan. Women, although it’s not compulsory, wear chadors mainly. What is compulsory is a hijab which is a scarf covering their hair. I look how they manage to keep all these fabrics in the correct place while shopping at a bazaar or while getting on a car. It comes naturally for them. Not for me. When they put a chador on me for mosques’ visits (borrowed at the entrance), everything falls down and slips. I lose my sunglasses, the stripes of my backpack entangle, I have to hold my camera firmly so that it doesn’t fall too. Taking my shoes off is the worst because I need to squat and then absolutely everything mixes up. Luckily for a normal day on the bike, it’s enough if I put something on my head and my summer dress over the trousers to cover my butt.
Fatema is 15 years old and she loves Rihanna. She watches her videos on illegal channels transmitted by a legally bought decoder. She’s surprised that I don’t know the latest songs of Jennifer Lopez. She records herself lip-syncing but she doesn’t post it anywhere. Girls in a small town, where everybody knows each other, are not supposed to. On Thursday evening, which is Saturday here, she puts on a nail polish because she doesn’t go to school the next day. She’s curious if European girls of her age have boyfriends and if they kiss.
Ardestan is a town as many others and there isn’t anything interesting apart from the hotel where I spend the night. But to Ardestan and to other similar towns you come through big roundabouts and wide boulevards. There are Iranian flags and ajatollahs photos along the main road and often portraits of soldiers killed in the Iraqi war. There will also be a park with families having picnics. All the shops are family businesses and I haven’t seen any supermarket. When someone uses this word, they still mean a small, local shop. At the entrance street of every town there are repair shops but I call them magician offices. Looking how they resuscitate ancient cars, they surely must know magic spells and potions.
The two hundredth day on the road. I reach a small village at 2024 m above the sea level and spend the night in an old traditional house. I’m ushered by a twenty-something-year-old guy because it’s him who speaks English. Then a woman comes in with the tea and at first I take her for his older sister. Then it turns out she’s his mother. Every time I have a chance to ask the women of that generation, they say they got married at the age of 16. Now it’s different and marrying age doesn’t differ much from the European.
In the house of the family running a local grocery shop, there are gas stoves heating the rooms. You sleep and eat at the omnipresent carpets. They cover every inch of the floor, even the kitchen. All the windows are opaque and if, by chance they aren’t, they are covered with dark curtains. A house is a place where women don’t cover their hair and wear T-shirts so nobody from the street is supposed to see it. However, when guests come, they put all of their covers back again.
A guy falls from his motorcycle on a street of Isfahan. Nothing serious though. I watch him lift to his feet and wonder whether Iranians are the worst or the best drivers on Earth. They make the engines of their cars wheeze, they drive in first gear to the nearest crossroad, reach 60km/h in second. But at the same time they perform thousands of suicidal maneuvers every day and survive. Traffic resembles that of Shkoder but it’s heavier. Drivers prefer to drive in between to lanes and on crossroads, whoever was there first, goes first. They honk a lot to say ‘Hey, I’m coming’. The rest must watch out.
Sometimes the police stops me. Officially tourists are only supposed to sleep in hotels. When I arrive in Nik Abad, a small desert town without a hotel, late in the evening a police patrol passing me by immediately takes action. They stop and ask the usual questions (where from?, where to?, alone?, cold?, Iran good?) and ask me to show my passport. I know only a few words in Farsi, they even less in English so for a couple of minutes we explain to each other my situation. When it’s finally clarified, there comes a short series of phone calls and arrangements of which I only understand that they’ll load my bike on their jeep and take me somewhere for the night. I don’t protest as it is cold today. We ride some 5km to a nearby village and stop at a museum. The museum is situated in an ancient desert house. This old house surrounded by a wall with courtyards and stained glass windows becomes my shelter for tonight. Mr Karlabashi, called by the officers, comes and leads me to one of the rooms covered with carpets. Then he comes again bringing trays with tea, fruit and dinner. I spend the evening with some English students who pay me a visit. They read Quran surahs from smartphone applications to me.
The area around Varzaneh is signed as green on the map but all I see is a spectrum of yellow and brown colours. There are many villages here though and I also see an army of tractors ploughing this apparently barren soil. I wonder how on Earth these people are capable of ripping a little bit of arable land from the desert. In all of these villages there are old sandy buildings: cottages, pigeon towers and walls of former caravanserais.
My plan for today is to reach a pass at 2400m above the sea level, cycle down to a hotel in Nain and watch a FC Barcelona match. It turns out there’s also one surprise to that. On the plains high above the sea level I see a herd of camels grazing. It must have been these for tourists.
I manage to watch the match although the Internet here is partially blocked. You can’t connect to Facebook, Youtube and most of the news websites. As there’s no vacuum in the space, there are some local equivalents of these websites. Most of Iranians overcome these obstacles anyway which is not difficult, just a pain in the ass. Barca – Real Sociedad 5:2.
Some weired vehicles pass me by when I’m on the road. Apart from regular 18-wheelers, there are painted lorries (not as colourful as Indian ones yet) with double horns. The second one resembles a siren alarm and that’s what some drivers use to greet me. It gives me a heart attack each time I hear it. There are pickups with multi-storey loads of God only knows what. Sometimes it’s smells so badly as if they carried garbage. Cars are usually old and many people ride motorcycles. The fumes of their time-worn engines can strangle you when you’re stuck in a traffic jam. Some people wear face masks.
Aqda looks like a real oasis from the road mainly because of a single palm tree rising from the walls of an old caravanserai. You can also see the dome of a mosque covered with blue tiles, the rest of the houses is low. I head towards the town and it turns out that it’s a pearl about which you won’t find anything in the Lonely Planet guide (I checked it). The labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways, a renovated caravanserai, sandy walls of an old horse post office, towers, water cisterns and wind towers. It’s worth a trip.
When I set off in the morning, it’s another sunny and relatively warm day. After some time though the wind starts blowing, then it becomes stronger and then a regular sand storm begins. I’m not able to cycle any more but fortunately soon Ahmet stops and offers me a ride. While in the car we pull in such sand blizzard that the visibility drops to one metre. Everywhere around us there’s only dust storm.
I meet Mohammad who’s been in Poland recently. The first evening he was shouted at in an exchange office, a bakery and a taxi. I’m ashamed. When I cycle through Iran cars stop every day and drivers ask me where I’m from and offer their help. Sometimes people stop me on the streets to welcome me in Iran. I get phone numbers from strangers so that I could call them with some question or if in need. Darius gives me an Iranian SIM card and calls every couple of days to ask if I’m all right. Strangers invite me home offering shelter for the night and sharing meals with me.
I go on a bus trip to Shiraz. The bus is unbelievably comfortable. In each row there are only three seats, two on one side and one on the other. The seats resemble the airline business class. They are wide and comfortable with reclining stretchers. There’s a lot of space between the rows so you don’t squeeze anybody’s knees when reclining your seat.
17-year-old Nima complains that girls only want to marry a guy with loads of money and a good car. Making new friends isn’t the easiest anyway. Schools are separate for boys and girls and it’s not customary to maintain relationships with your peers of opposite sex, even as friends. In bigger cities, as everywhere in the world, the rules are less strict, but in smaller places tradition rules. Nima can’t see his future in Iran. He’d like to move to Europe.
It snows in the mountains and sandy backcountry high above the sea level is also covered with snow. Hundreds of Iranians leave their homes to throw snowballs at each other or slide from hills. Cars are parked along the road, sometimes blocking entirely one lane, but such occasion doesn’t happen every day. Somehow nobody is angry or honks. Other drivers just point to each other people playing in the snow.
I extend my visa in a local immigration office. All the formalities take 1,5 hour and on one hand, I’m glad about that but on the other, I feel guilty because there are lots of immigrants from Afghanistan and Pakistan in the office too. However, I don’t have to queue, my papers are stamped and given back to me as soon as possible and everybody is kind and patient with me. There are double ticket prices to main sights in Iran; higher (still not as high as in Europe) for tourists and lower for locals. One thing or the other.