For previous blog entries of our ride through NZ, Australia, South East Asia, China and Central Asia, click on the little arrows beside the dates in the Blog Archive below and use the scroll down menu.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Iran - Sarakhs to Bazargan

This blog is dedicated to Ben's grandfather Kenneth Casson who passed away last week.

Route: Sarakhs - Mashhad - Neyshabur - Sabzevar - Tehran - Tabriz - Bazargan

Distance cycled: 22,000 kms

Crossing into Iran couldn't have been easier. The friendly guards on the Turkmen side even let us through without loading our gear into the x-ray machine. We gave them a completely sincere rave review of their friendly country before we cycled over to the Iranian checkpoint. There was a bit of a wait on the Iran side. No problems though as it was on a seat in a huge air conditioned building. After a short power nap, our passports were brought back to us, stamped and we were directed to another x-ray machine. Once again, the friendly hejab-wearing lady saved us the bother of stripping down the bikes and instead pointed to a couple of random bags and asked us to open them. We were then free to go. We had made it, we were finally in Iran!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Straight out of the gates we changed some dollars for rial with money changers waiting outside. We couldn't escape the fact though that we were done in after our 5 day, 50 degress celsius Karakol desert dash into a headwind. We couldn't even contemplate cycling on in the heat and putting the tent up somewhere. Thankfully hotel Doosty was waiting for us.

Mr Doosty with us looking like a couplatubes
A night at the hotel didn't come cheap. The asking price for a room was 400,000 rial(20 pounds). The most we'd ever paid for a hotel was 12 quid so 20 was out the question. Speaking not a single word of Farsi, we typed 300,000 into the calculator and smiled at the nice man behind the desk trying to look as desperate and forlorn as we could. It was a done deal and a completely justifiable expense. Never before had 2 people needed air-con, a hot shower and some clean cotton sheets as much as we did then. We checked in again for the following morning as our saddle sore backsides needed another day off. Hotel Doosty was one of the friendliest places we'd ever stayed in.

The internet stopped working on day 2 so English-speaking Mr Doosty sent us up a complimentary breakfast. As I sat in the lounge one evening my eye wandered over to the book cabinet where I spotted a copy of the Iranian Lonely Planet, the exact same edition as the one I'd foolishly left in the taxi in Tashkent. I asked Mr Doosty if I could borrow it overnight to take some notes. He said “No my friend you cannot borrow it....................... for it is yours! I make to you present!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” I'd look after this one. As we were leaving Mr Doosty and the staff proudly showed us a photo album they had compiled of all the cycle tourists who have stayed at the hotel. Surprisingly there was no-one we knew in there. We too had our photo taken and wrote a little review to go with it. Mr Doosty offered us a complimentary lunch before we left and sent us off with some cold drinks. What a great welcome to Iran.

Amongst travellers, Iran has the best reputation of any country we have been to. Mentioning Iran to someone who has spent some time there brings a smile to their face as they start to tell you about the continual kindness, hospitality and openness of the Iranian people. By the time we arrived in Iran we had been told so many positive things about it that it really had a lot to live up to. Our first few days in the country certainly did not disappoint.

These young blighters pulled us along for a bit at 50 km/h

After a late departure from Sarakhs we set off in the late afternoon heat. Just about every car beeped their horn and waved out the window at us. The road was in great condition and the road signs thankfully were in Farsi and English which would make our lives easier. Too many people to mention called us over for tea or food. The scenery on the Sarakhs to Mashhad road was stunning and reminded us so much of Kyrgyzstan with it's vast plains and heather coloured mountains in the background. We camped that first night after 60 kms after a 7km side trip to see the Rubat Sharaf Caravanserai. Nice enough if you like old buildings but not worth the 14 km detour in our opinion. The road leading to it though was a lonely place and we found a good camp spot just off the road opting for sleeping under the stars on the tarpaulin instead of in the sweaty tent. We ate wotsits, drank ice-cold water we'd got from a shop up the road and watched Bear Grylls parachuting over Mount Everest with an propellor on his back(as you do). I saw 2 shooting stars that night as we lay looking at the sky and wished both times for a safe return home from our trip.

The next day was unforgettable. We had a fairly big climb over a mountain pass resting from the mid-day sun in some shade at the summit. A couple of lorry drivers from Shiraz came over to fill our drinks bottles with ice and top us up with water. Despite the language barrier, it was clear they were inviting us to their house if we made it to Shiraz. They left us with their phone number and address hoping to see us again. Apparently everyone in Iran likes the Shirazis and we could see why. We then had a fantastic downhill to look forward to and stopped on the descent at a shop for some cold drinks. The shopkeeper invited us in for lunch with his family next door and we accepted. We spent a couple of hours with the man, his wife and son and got fed until fit to burst. They were disappointed that we could not stay overnight. They waved us off and we set off down the hill again, returning as many of the greetings and salutations as we could be bothered to.

Shirazi truck drivers

A crocodile
We were having a huge problem with our tyres. It seemed that the extreme heat was softening the rubber or something as we were puncturing continually. It was really turning into a joke as Ben had to stop and fix puncture number 3 or 4 of the day. We pulled into a shop and used the shade from the awning to sit in and fix the puncture and repair our collection of punctured tubes. The shopkeeper brought us a bucket of water to check for air and instead of expecting us to pay for it in his shop, brought us some ice-cold drinking water.

Despite having to wear a manteau(long loose thigh length coat) and hejab(headscarf) by law, I was feeling neither repressed nor hard done to. I had accepted that this was the way things were here and wanted to enjoy my time as much as possible. I had so far been treated as an equal to Ben with most men acknowledging my presence as much as his and engaging with me in just as much conversation. Not all men were like that in Iran though, I knew that but so far they seemed thankfully to be in the minority. Nonetheless the treatment of women as second-class citizens is the thing that puts many people off coming to Islamic countries and that's completely understandable. The thing I was having trouble with was the question of to shake or not to shake. Men in Iran love to shake hands with other men so whenever Ben meets a man there's a friendly handshake and no awkwardness. I myself am a hand shaker. It seems like the natural and most friendly thing to do when you meet someone . Here in Iran though, most men do not shake women's hands but instead give them a nod or bow to them. However, some Iranian men realise that Western women are used to shaking hands so will infact make an exception and offer you theirs. I've decided not to offer my hand though unless they make the first move.

The law in Iran states that any girl from the age of 9 must wear a hejab and cover herself with a baggy thigh length garment. Needless to say, legs must also be covered. The law does not state that women must wear a chador(full length black vale like a nun's) but nonetheless many women in Iran still either choose or are forced to wear them by their families. In the cities though, young women's hejab's seem to be slipping further and further back to reveal more of their hair, manteaus are gradually becoming shorter and loose- fitting trousers are being replaced with skin-tight jeans. Not everyone in Iran is religious and it became very easy to spot the difference between religious women and non-religious women.

We cycled on into the evening, resting regularly as my leg was bad again. I had to get myself to Tehran to see a chiropractor, this was my only hope. A van pulled up in front of us and looking in the back at the pile of juicy watermelons, we knew we were in for a treat. Mohsen cut one open for us and we shared it by the side of the road. He was keen for us to stay the night with him but we were tired and because of the language barrier just fancied going to sleep in the tent. As Mohsen drove off, another van pulled up. A teenage lad approached us carrying another 2 watermelons, laid them in front of us and walked off without saying a word. We looked at each other and chortled at our watermelon collection now 3 strong. Not even 200 metres up the road our Shirazi truck driver friends from the previous day had pulled in at a lay by. By the time we reached them they already had a picnic blanket spread out and the kettle boiling. We drank tea with them watching the sunset. They were desperate to give us a lift to Mashhad or even Shiraz in the completely wrong direction and couldn't accept our plan to just put our tent up nearby and carry on in the morning. They made a phonecall to a friend who spoke a little English who told us that they did not want to leave us here at night, how dangerous it was etc. We just smiled and thanked them, insisting however that we would do our own thing. We tried to get them to follow us over the moorland to a campspot so they could see our set-up complete with cosy nightlights, tea brewing on the stove and a good film on the laptop. They didn't come though and instead wished us well and watched, completely baffled, as we pushed our bikes across the moors and into the distance.

We slept very well in the tent that night with the door open. The next morning, after only 5 kms 2 cycle tourists approached us from the other side of the road. It's always nice to see the familiar silhouette of the bulky panniers come into view soon followed by much waving and shouting. We sat down together in the shade and ate bread and one of our watermelons from the previous night. Brigitte and Clements started in Switzerland only 3 and a half months ago and have already done 7500 kms. Whatsmore Brigitte is in her 50's. Inspiring. Compare that to our 21,000 kms in almost 20 months. Never mind, steady away.

Brigitte and Clements
We arrived in Mashhad and had our first experience with Iranian city traffic. It sets a new standard in madness. Most Iranians it would appear think that traffic lights are there just do brighten up the town centre. People rolled down their windows and shouted “Welcome to Iran”, inviting us back to their homes. We tried to talk to them whilst weaving in and out of traffic and trying not to get squashed. After only 10 minutes in town we had been invited back to 3 different people's houses, all of whom we had to turn down as we were off to meet Saeed from Couch Surfing.

We waited for our host Saeed to meet us at the entrance to the Holy Shrine. Iran has a thriving CS and Warm Showers community and we were really looking forward to our first stay in an Iranian home. We are by now used to repressive governments banning sites like Facebook, You Tube and our blog site but in Turkmenistan, we were baffled to find Google Maps blocked scuppering our chances of finding a host in Mashhad, our first Iranian city. However once again who should come to our rescue but Ben's Dad Paul. After instucting him on how to get into my Warm Showers account, he emailed a couple of potential hosts on our behalf. At the hotel in Sarakhs I was happy to see that two hosts had got back to us, offering us a place in Mashhad. We opted for Hamid who was due to be in Tehran when we'd arrive. Nonetheless, he was really keen to help us out and arranged for us to stay with Saeed instead.
Saeed and family

We followed Saeed in his car for over an hour back to his house at around 15 kms/hour through the busy traffic. Saeed welcomed us into his home where he lives with his mother, father, sister and brother. We were waited on hand and foot from the moment we arrived until we left and by the end, really felt like part of the family. Everyone was so interested in us, especially the rest of Saeed's extended family who we met at his Aunt and Uncle's house. Iranians spend so much time with their extended family and every day we would either go out to visit relatives or relatives would come to the house. Saeed translated for us that the family were honoured to have us there. The feeling was completely mutual. Saeed's father had to go on a trip to Iraq soon after we left which left us with Saeed's mother, his sister Faeze and brother Reza. Saeed's Mum is an absolute gem of a woman and looked after us like her own children. If you are invited into a traditional Iranian home, don't expect to help out in the house as a way of showing your gratitude. Saeed's Mum almost had a fit when she caught me doing the dishes one day, telling me to sit down and relax then bringing me a platter of fruit to enjoy! It's hospitality the like of which barely exists back home and despite spending the first couple of days feeling slightly uncomfortable with such V.I.P treatment, we soon decided to embrace and enjoy it.

When Hamed came back from Tehran, we met him round at Saeed's. It was thanks to him that we were there in the first place. We had a great couple of days hanging out together with Ben teaching the guys how to say “Ya bawbag” in a Scottish accent. Saeed is planning to emigrate to Quebec next year and so is spending loads of time improving his French. He was so keen to learn so I spent many hours working on grammar with him. Every day we ate delicious Iranian food cooked by Saeed's mother and every hour or so, Saeed's Mum would bring us tea, a cold drink or a huge plate of food. After lunch everyone would find a comfy spot on the living room floor and we'd have a 2 hour nap. I could get used to this! We spent almost a week in Mashhad, every night sleeping out under the stars on the roof.

Bracelet from Faeza
Whilst in Mashhad we visited the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza. Muslims travel from all over the world to visit this place. I donned a chador and went in a separate entrance from the boys to see the actual shrine. The scene inside was unbelievable. As I got closer to the shrine, I started to get jostled and pushed around by the other women. They were desperate to touch the tomb and it seemed the closer they got to it, the more out of control they became. Before I knew it I was being crushed in amongst hundreds of black chador wearing, wailing women. The sound of crying and screaming was all around me and I watched in disbelief the reactions of the desperate, hysterical women when they finally got to cling onto the bars of the tomb. I would never and didn't want to feel what they felt but I was still affected by how overcome with emotion these women were. 
Getting ready for the Holy Shrine

Wearing a chador is a pain in the ass. Not only is it a tripping hasard but it leaves you unable to carry out most simple tasks as you are left one handed when wearing it as your other hand is used to hold it shut at the front. It's not compulsory to wear a chador in Iran but many highly religious women choose to anyway whilst trying to simultaneously carry shopping and keep 3 children under control. I don't know how they do it.
Saeed, Hamed, Reza

On our second last day in Mashhad I got really sick(again) and ended up on a saline drip in Saeed's living room as my blood pressure was so low. I was pretty sure my giardia had flared up again due to the recurrence of the familiar eggy burps, violent diarrhoea and debilitating nausea. So I was back on antibiotics again, weakening my once strong immune system even further. Saeed's family paid for my medicine, consultation and all the girls loved taking care of me when I was on the drip. After the drip was taken out, my arm swelled up like a balloon. It was most disturbing but went down again in a few hours.

Before we left Saeed's money gave us loads of presents such as socks, underwear and a new t-shirt for Ben. Even his Aunt and Uncle bought us some clothes as a going away present. It had been a beautiful experience we would never forget. We truly loved staying at Saeed's and had fallen in love with Iran. We hope that Saeed, Reza and Hamed can all get to where they wanna go and soon. Best of luck guys. We love you, ya bawbags!

New socks and t-shirts from Saeed's Mammy

On our first day cycling out of Mashad we managed 115 kms.Cycling out of town was great fun as everyone cheered us on from their car window. A tailwind pushed us most of the way, by way of an apology for how unkind it had been to us in Turkmenistan's Karakol desert. We camped 20 kms from Neyshabour in an orchard and made tuna pasta on the stove. It was nice to spend the night on our own again. We arrived in Neyshabour before lunchtime and went to see Reza from Couch Surfing. Reza, like a lot of educated Iranians is keen to move away for better job prospects and more freedom. Reza's country of choice is Norway. We got a very warm welcome from his family and soon realised that our initial plan to just pop in for a cup of tea and leave again wasn't going to work in Iran. Reza, his mother and 2 sisters were overjoyed when we decided to spend the night there. Reza is so keen to improve his English and is really hoping to meet as many Couch Surfers as possible.


Dinner at Reza's
Reza's family were so good too us. Again we didn't lift a finger and were cooked for and brought tea, drinks, fruit and snacks throughout the day. I felt terrible the whole time I was at Reza's however with the tailend of my Mashhad illness. When Reza and his friend also caled Reza's took us around some sights of Neyshabur in the evening I felt like death warmed up. The guys really wanted to show us a good time and I felt so bad for my lack of enthusiasm. The following day was no different when they again took us to a museum and then for ice-cream. Everything was paid for, even some stuff we needed from the pharmacy. As beautiful as it is, it's pretty full-on spending time in an Iranian house. Everyone is so keen to talk to you and many extended family members will come round to visit too. It's also important for them to show you the sights of their town. It's a lesson in making an effort for others even when you don't feel like it.


I believe there is no other country in the world that treats it's foreign guests as well as Iran. The generosity and kindness is quite literally never-ending. What makes Iranians this way I don't know but all we could do was enjoy it and take away from Iran some of the happiest memories of the whole trip.We set off in the afternoon much to the disappointment and to be honest, genuine sadness of Reza's family. Reza's sisters in particular were close to tears when we said we were going and went off into their room to find us a going away present and write us a letter in English and Persian saying how much they loved us. It was very touching but also made me think of an Iranian man we had met who believed Iranians liked having foreign guests a little “too” much!

Reza and Reza

We set off for the next town Sabzevar where Hamed's friend, Masoud, also a Couch Surfing host was waiting for us. A hellish side wind was blowing against us and we were both in a foul mood after a few hours. I also felt sad and angry about my leg problem. It was beginning to have a bad effect on our relationship as Ben was becoming increasingly frustrated with me. I had cycled with this leg problem since northern China and was running the risk of doing myself permanent damage instead of doing the sensible thing and getting a lift to Tehran where I could visit the chiropractor. I hadn't enjoyed cycling in such a long time with this in the back of my mind and hated how slow I had become. I decided to finally listen to Ben. We would take the train from Sabzevar to Tehran where I would hopefully get the help I needed.

Reza in Neyshabour had written out the address of Masoud's school in Sabzevar in Farsi for us and we showed it to some people as we made our way into town. In usual Iranian style, the second guy we asked motioned for us to follow him in his car and took us right to the door of the school. It turned out however that Masoud's plane from Tehran had been cancelled.He arranged for us to go to Mahboobe's house, the mother of one of his pupils at the school. Just after welcoming us into her beautiful house, I mentioned the huge ulceration on my bottom lip and the fact that I was in search of some Vitamin B2 capsules. She worked as a pharmacist and knew exactly what I needed for the ulcer and went straight out and got me what I needed as well as bringing us back a take-away. We spend a nice evening with Mahboobee, her husband Ebrahim and 7 year old Farnos who spoke great English. We slept a full 9 hours in a comfy double bed and woke refreshed for our action-packed day at Sokhan school.
Mahboobee, Ebrahim and Farnos

Masoud came round to meet us in the morning and we went round to the school on our bikes. Waiting for us was a stage, the mayor, a TV camera from Sabzevar's local station and about a hundred little kids on their bicycles from Sokhan school. As soon as we arrived, we were mobbed. People wanted to interview us, look at the bikes and more importantly take photos of us with their kids. We were then directed to lead the kids round the pond several times. It was pretty hilarious cycling round in circles with all those little kiddies to blaring happy hardcore.After the cycling we were called up on stage to be interviewed about our trip and then the mayor came up to welcome us to the town. He looked at Ben the whole time, not making eye contact with me once. It'd be funny really if it wasn't so f***ing annoying! Then some littlies came up on to the stage and asked us questions like “What is your favourite day?” in front of their proud parents. We asked them some questions in English then told everyone about how we were raising money for charity. The crowd were suitably impressed. Then we were off on our bikes again for a few more laps round the park. Ironically, this cycling awareness event has a sting in the tail as in Iran. Cycling for women is not technically illegal but is very much frowned upon by the government so most women don't bother. About a million parents asked us back for lunch but we were going back to Masoud's so had to decline. We signed some autographs for the kids(hilarious I know!) and went back to the house.

The mayor of Sabzevar. No comment

This guy got me to write "I love you Mortizar" on his arm.

Back at Masoud' s we met his wife and 3 year old daughter who was a little sweetie. We spent the day chilling out in the house with two of their friends Fiona(which I told her means 'the fair one” in our native language) and her husband Mahdee. In the evening we drove to the countryside to meet Mahdee's family and picked fruit in their orchard as the sun was setting. Back in Sabzevar we went to an all-male birthday party of one of the guys from Sokhan school where Mahdee smashed 3 year old Pana's face in the birthday cake then had the same done to himself. We then went out for a late dinner by which time I was half asleep. We had had a cracking day though, were welcomed by everyone we met and absolutely loved the larger than life Masoud.

Next day Masoud took us to a place I can only describe as a cross between a gym and a mosque! Women aren't allowed in but Masoud's friend asked if they would make an exception for me. They did and when we arrived were sat at some seats close to the action. We were brought tea, fruit juice and fresh dates and a man introduced us to the crowd in Farsi telling them about our trip. Everyone then prayed for us. Then the practice of “ancient exercise” began where big, muscly men work out “in the name of God”. They swung huge clubs over their shoulders to the beat of a drum combined with prayers muttered over the tannoy. They then carried out dancing similar to that of a “swirling dervish” where the dancer spins round and round in circles with open arms. All this was carried out in a sort of sacred pit in the middle of the gym. Ben was then invited into the circle as a mark of respect to him. He was asked to kiss the ground as he entered then tried his hand at the spinny dancing. Afterwards he was handed two of the huge clubs and despite being able to lift needed a bit more practice to get the hang of swinging them over his shoulders. It was a really interesting display the like of which we had never seen before and as always, we were treated like V.I.P's.

Later that night we drove a few kms out of Sabzevar to the house of Masoud's friend Reza who had organised for us to go to the gym mosque thingummy. A huge party was being thrown in our honour and over 100 people turned up. As well as a DJ, Reza had also arranged for him and his friends to play some traditional Iranian music. Only the men danced but I told Masoud that I wanted to get up too. Masoud arranged for a rave tune to be put on and I bopped away with a circle of clapping Iranians around me. I went over to the women and tried to get them to come up. No-one took me up on my offer except for one ballsy woman who I had loads of respect for. There was one other woman dancing though. Her and her husband danced together doing a traditional dance where they hit sticks together. As the music got more intense so did the woman's dancing. Her hejab fell off but she continued regardless losing herself in the music. It was a refreshing sight as I looked at all the other women sitting shyly against the wall. Women generally don't dance in Iran unless they are in an all-woman environment and an English teacher from the school told me that her husband doesn't let her dance. Ben told her exactly what I'd say to him if he tried to stop me dancing and she looked pretty sad. This was a private party so of course the women could dance if they wanted to but, believe it or not, dancing in public is illegal in Iran.

We were welcomed over the microphone in Farsi and Masoud translated for us. He then passed the microphone to me and I said a sentence in very colluqial Sabzevar dialect which I had been practising all day. The crowd went wild. Masoud then put me on the spot asking me to sing a song. I had to think fast and got Masoud to tell everyone I'd be singing the Scottish national anthem. Everyone stood up for it. It wasn't so bad, definetely wouldn't get a “You're through” from the X factor judges but the Iranians loved it. The Iranian national anthem came next and then Masoud tried to get me to sing another song as apparently everyone had enjoyed the first one so much. He's a persistent sod but I managed to hide from him until he forgot. Whilst all this was going on Ben was dancing with the men in a circle whether he wanted to or not.The night ended with some traditional Iranian music played by our host Reza and some other musicians. It had been a cracking night.

Getting interviewed at Sokhan school

Once again we didn't pay for a thing whilst at Masoud's and our bus ticket to Tehran was no exception. After spending the day with lovely Fiona and Mahdee we followed them in their car to the bus station where, with absolutely no hassle our bikes and luggage were loaded into their own spacious private compartment on the bus. Mahdee went to the shop and bought us a carrier bag of treats for the trip. As the bus set off we drew a love heart on the bus window and pointed to them. They looked happy and so did we. Our experiences in Iran had been so amazing that we thought our hearts might explode with joy and happiness. Thankfully they stayed in our chests though, it would have made a right mess of the bus. Mahdee and Fiona saw us right to our seats before our departure and said something to the people around us in Farsi. We can only presume he was asking them to help us if we needed anything as, as soon as he left, the old man next to us showed us the button for reclining our seat and did a mime to show that the plastic bag in front of us was for rubbish!

That was easy

We travelled through the night to Iran's capital Tehran, me feeling regretful at not being able to cycle it. I felt happy though that I had finally reached the place where I could get some help. We assembled the bikes and cycled to yet another Couch Surfer's house in the North of Tehran. Tehran is a HUGE city and it took us over 2 hours of navigating, questioning and weaving in and out of wreckless traffic to find Mitra's house. It is known as one of the most polluted cities in Asia and certainly the worst for bad driving. At all our lovely CS host's places in Iran we had had a ball. It had been fun but tiring as most of the time would be spent visiting relatives, going sightseeing and eating together. We wouldn't have had it any other way. However arriving at Mitra's, we discovered that she lived alone and we would have the flat to ourselves every day while she was at work. I must say, it was music to our ears as we had been relishing some time on our own without any meeting and greeting. Iran requires maximum effort and interaction most of the time and it would be so nice just to lay in bed all morning and sit around drinking tea in our underpants and watching Iranian Jeremy Kyle.

Darius and Mitra
Mitra was the first Iranian we had met who lived on her own. She was so different to the other Iranian women we had met and was extremely liberated in her thoughts and actions. We were so grateful to her for giving us the chance to have some Iranian “time out” before the next bout of meeting and greeting. Tehranian women are more open-minded and chador wearers are very much in the minority here. Tehran is not the gritty, industrialised metropolis we had imagined but actually a fairly cosmopolitan(by Iranian standards) city with friendly people and a good vibe. Mitra is also planning to move to Quebec so I helped her with her French. Emigrants to Quebec must successfully pass a very difficult interview in French before being considered for citizenship.

I don't blame Mitra for wanting to move. Iran is a man's country and women are without a doubt treated as second class citizens by the government. Life was good for both Iranian men and women before the Islamic Revolution of 1979 when the repressive laws which still stand today came into force. Life got a hell of a lot worse for most Iranians after this point especially women who under the new laws had to wear a hejab and manteau in public and were pretty much banned from riding bicycles. Alcohol was also banned as was dancing in public and sex outside of marriage became an arrestable offence. Women are arrested every day in Iran for wearing their hejab too far back and the punishment for consumption of alcohol is still 70 lashes of the whip. “Going out on the lash” therefore takes on a whole new meaning here. Dancing in public also became a crime and satellite dishes became illegal.Just a few days ago a new law came into force that women can no longer smoke shisha pipes or even be in an establishment where shisha pipes are used. Also, despite what President Ahmadinajad might tell the Iranians, homosexuality does exist in Iran. The punishment for this “crime” is the death sentence.

The Iranian people however ARE NOT the same as their government................

Woman cycling, Tehran

Infact to be honest most Iranians hate them. Ben and I now can't believe how Iranians have been portrayed in the Western media as Iran is quite possibly the friendliest, safest country in the world. Savvy travellers know more about the real Iran but most people sitting at home watching TV would consider it madness to come to a country like this which they consider to full of American-hating religious fundamentalists. As far as the Iranians themselves are concerned, everyone is welcome to Iran and they do their upmost to make foreign guests welcome in their country. Most Iranians are also very well-educated and they love to chat with foreigners about even controversial religious or political issues. It goes to show how misleading and destructive the media can be. We are never shown the real Iran on the news. Yes the Iranian government are hideous but let's then feel some compassion for the Iranians who have to live with them.

Faz and his workmates
At Mitra's, I made an appointment to see chiropractor Dr Salimian. At the first appointment I told him all about the leg pain I had been experiencing since China and how it had become unbearable. He sent me off to get an MRI scan and a hip x-ray. As we stood outside the hospital trying to figure out where to go, a friendly English speaking Iranian man approached us to see if we needed some help. He gave us a safe place to lock our bikes at his workplace across the road then took us to find the MRI department. They were asking over 200 pounds for the MRI which was more than we had expected. Faz and his workmate however offered to put it through their work insurance bringing the cost down to under 100 pounds. Amazing. Back over at Faz's work we were treated to lunch then the 3 of us cycled to a bike shop so Ben could buy some bits and pieces.Cycling in Tehran can occasionally feel like fun in a strange sort of way as you weave in and out of the stationary traffic, bump up kerbs and dodge pedestrians. Most of the time though, it's just horrible. By the end of the day I had the MRI report and the x-ray done and dusted. On the way back to Mitra's Faz took us in to meet his lovely parents. Even in a huge metropolis of 17 million people like Tehran, random acts of kindness could still occur. We were really lucky to have met Faz and arranged to meet him and his wife in a few days.

Faz and Eli took us out to dinner

So it was back to Dr Salimian with the MRI. The diagnosis: multi-level vertebral disc bulging, 3 in the neck and one in the lower back. The doctor also explained to me that I had the start of a condition called reverse lordosis(straightening of the spinal curve) in the neck area. The sciatica, which was the thing that made me go to him in the first place was being caused by the bulging disc in the lower back pushing on the sciatic nerve. He didn't mince his words saying simply “As your doctor, I am advising you against finishing this trip”. My heart sank through the floor and I couldn't quite believe what I was hearing. How could this have happened? As he lay me down for my first spinal adjustment I just about managed to hold back the tears. As soon as we were outside though, Ben put his arms around me and the floodgates opened.

Dr Salimian

After much discussion we both agreed that there was no need for us both to give up our trip of a lifetime and so decided that Ben should carry on without me. I had been feeling lost and very sorry for myself since my visit to the doctor's but the thought of Ben carrying on seemed like a great idea.I would support him all the way and although he was so sad that his wingman was gone, he too couldn't see the sense in us both finishing. I was so disappointed though I won't lie. I had spent hours on the saddle dreaming of the moment we would cycle into Kelvingrove Park with all our friends and family waiting to welcome us home. The thought of arriving on a plane at Glasgow Airport with my bike in a box made me want to weep.

So, with my usual level of stubborness I came up with a new plan. I could take the bus across Turkey to Istanbul and wait on Ben for a month or so while he zoomed across the country on his bike. During that month I'd have a good long rest, do my exercises and swim. Then from Istanbul I would attempt the last 3000 kms, slowly and carefully on the Danube cycle path back to Scotland. Dr Salimian's reaction to this was very positive and he commended my plan saying it was “a good compromise”. He explained though that if I started to cycle again and the pain was the same as before I would really have no choice but to stop. He was of course right as no matter how much this ride means to me, it's not worth sacrificing my future health and happiness for. I left the Doctor's feeling much more positive.
Cycling with Faz
After another 5 spine and neck adjustments, electric impulse therapy and ice treatments my treatment was over. It had really worn me out. Dr Salimian had been a godsend and I was damn lucky to find him. Whatsmore, he had given me each treatment for less than half price as I explained we had very little money. I don't know what we'd have done without him. Thankyou so much Dr Salimian! Thanks to you I might just make it home in one piece.

Reza looking scary
In the middle of my chiropractic work, we relocated to a second Couch Surfer's house. Reza has been named a CS ambassador due to the help he has given the organisation and the amount of people he has hosted. Once again, Reza had a very hands-off approach to hosting leaving us the house to ourselves most of the time while he worked next door in his office. Most of the people we met in Tehran were not religious and it was great being able to shake everyone's hands again and talk about anything we liked without worrying about offending anyone. Outside of Tehran many non-religious people we met had to live the lie of pretending to be Islamic in order to keep their job and be accepted by their religious friends, family and neighbours. It was ideal that Reza didn't expect anything from us as I was wiped out most of the time from all the chiropractic work. Reza is a great guy though and has travelled all over the world. He'll retire next year at 45 to continue his travels. He is an international paintball referee and we went to see him play. The friendly match was some of Reza's girlfriends v some young soldiers. The girls kicked their asses.

Our new friend Faz and his wife Eli took us out to dinner at a very posh restaurant with some of the nicest food we've eaten. We then stayed the night at their place and the following day Faz took me to see a sports doctor he knew. His attitude was basically, “you're a sports person, you want to continue doing your sport so let's get you fixed today”. Wow, a refreshingly optimistic attitude but I didn't think it would be that easy. He glanced over my MRI scans as though they were completely meaningless then started stretching my legs asking me where it hurt. After 5 minutes he told me to go and ride for 30 kms then come back. 30 kms around Tehran? I called it a day after 15 kms of beeping horns, smog and near misses and went back to tell him the pain came back at 10 kms.He did more stretching then told me to go out riding again. I wasn't happy but Faz came with me this time to take me on a more “scenic” route through the city. Faz was so keen for me to carry on as he had done long distance cycling himself riding across Canada a few years ago. In the end though, the pain was the same and the doctor couldn't really give me any more help. I decided to trust Dr Salimian and go with his advice.

We spent our last night in Tehran with a couple of Faz and Eli's friends. They lived way on the other side of the city and a random motorbiker went over 10 kms out of his way to take us right to the door. I felt horrible when we had to turn down his offer of going to see some sights with him and he rode off looking quite hurt. Nasim and Jafir had cycled round the world a few years ago, planting trees for peace along the way. They had also came up with several ingenious ways of making money on the road and financing their trip.Now they were back in Iran they had become documentary makers making films about ecology and hosting a travel show. They also had a radio show once a week. We wished we'd met these two earlier as one night with them was just not enough. Still, a great night it was. They're the sort of people we'll probably bump into again in some weird place so here's hoping. Nasim made us a packed lunch, offered us some money then waved wildly out of the window taking photos of us as we cycled into the distance. An amazingly cool couple. It was great to see the many different sides of Iranian culture. We'd had a magic time in Tehran.

 Nasim and Jafar

So we then hopped on a bus to Tabriz, a city close to the Turkish and Azerbaijan borders. Everyone here speaks Farsi because they are taught it in school but at home most people spoke Azeri. Tabriz was a pleasant city about a twentieth of the size of Tehran and we found our way to Majid from Couch Surfing's house easily. Tehran was just to big. We couldn't find anything we needed there and were constantly late. It would be hard to meet a kinder, gentler and more modest man than Majid. We spent 2 days with him and his family feeling so relaxed in their company. Majid's family were keen to meet us but also wanted to give us space and privacy. It was the perfect balance. Majid's mother is also a fantastic chef. We couldn't have wished for anyone better to spend our last days in Iran with and consider Majid a friend who we'd love to see again. Our door in Scotland is open for him. What am I saying? I don't even have a door............ or two ha'pennys to rub together. Ah but soon enough well be work treadmill-bound rodents again and will have money for a door and maybe even a house to go with it.

Osh, an Iranian classic

Majid with a huge cone
Majid with his lovely sisters

So we took our final, very short bus ride together to Maku near the border on visa expiry day. Iran really is awesome. As I've always said, border towns in our experience have always been weird and depressing but not here. As soon as we had built up the bikes, a bunch of merry menfolk called us over for tea and friendly banter then one of the men beckoned us into a cafe where free sandwiches and drinks were waiting for us. He then disappeared into thin air before we could thank him.

The Turkish border was utter mayhem when we arrived. I tried to make my way in a door where physical fights were almost breaking out as security guards held back the crowd. In the end though it transpired that this was the exit door to Iran which was why no-one was allowed back through it. We went in through the Turkish entry gate. No-one spoke any English which is really useful at an international border crossing and most of the guards gestured that we needed to have already procured a visa to get in. This was absolute rubbish. Turkey offered visa on arrival for UK nationals, end of story. After being passed from one person to the next, none of whom wanted to deal with us due to the language barrier, we were finally taken to an office where lo and behold we could buy our Turkish visa on arrival. In the end it was a doddle and an absolute bargain to boot. $20 for a 3 month multi-entry visa. No-one gave two hoots about looking in our bags and we cycled into Turkey.

Sad face
It's always a great feeling for us when we cross into a new country but this time we didn't feel quite so euphoric. We'd covered much of Iran by bus, would be saying goodbye to each other very shortly and the future of my ride was definetely uncertain. Nonetheless we were here. I managed a 40 km ride to the town of Dogubayzit without too much trouble. As soon as we cycled into town some men called us over for tea. As we sat talking amongst ourselves one of the guys turned to me and said 'Are you from Glasgow?' I nearly fell off my seat. He then went on to tell me that he'd lived in Dumbarton for 2 years and now owned a chip-shop in Preston! He was just back visiting his family for a few weeks. Moosa invited us back to his house for the night and we accepted. It was an unexpected but enjoyable meeting. Like most Iranian women, Moosa's sister did all the work in the house and really looked after us without much thanks I'm sure from anyone. Moosa's brother was a very troubled young lad who was on drugs and had just been released from prison. I was sure that he wouldn't cause us any trouble though as we were his elder brother's guests. Moosa explained to us that as the elder brother he has to send money from England to support the younger brother who can't be arsed to work. It's his duty regardless of the younger siblings reason not to work. He resented having to do this but family traditions here are sacred. Moosa was really good to us and I'm sure it was nice for him to have some visitors from the UK as his home is clearly there now and not Turkey. Moosa, next time we're in Preston we'll be in for a fish supper. Thanks a lot. As we were leaving Moosa's sister gave me a silk scarf. I am truly grateful for all the good fortune and opportunities I have been given when so many other women will never even leave the town they grew up in.

Last seen on her bike some time ago

Mount Ararat
Swiss cyclists on their way to Iran


As we cycled to the bus station, we bumped a bunch of friendly young Iranian lads cycling to Georgia. We chatted for a while and they helped us buy a sim card for Ben's mobile. Then we all cycled to the bus station where the guys with just enough Turkish set about getting me on a bus to Istanbul. Just then, a whirlwind entered the office. Before arriving in Dogubayzit, we had emailed a couple of CSers to see about a place to stay for the night. One of the people we had emailed was the larger than life Memet with a big kurdish heart the size of Mount Ararat. He kissed us both on the cheek and forehead as though we were his long lost children then got us a bus ticket. All the men in the ticket office were chortling as he said to them in Kurdish, 'if you do not look after her and she does not have enough tea and coca-cola on the bus I will hunt you down like dogs'. He was joking of course but we loved his style. So my bus left in 2 hours, just enough time to go across the road to Memet's for some coffee. The Iranian guys were still with us and a German Couch Surfer, Daniel was already staying at Memet's.

Ali and the boys. Iranians are just as nice out of Iran.

Memet. A Kurdish legend

Just as Memet was buying us all doner kebabs, a German cyclist called Pete turned up, shortly followed by an Italian women. There was now about 10 of us hanging around outside Memet's place which was hilarious really as Dogubayzit(I call it Dog Biscuit for ease of pronunciation) doesn't exactly get many visitors. Ben. Memet, Ali and the other Iranian guys walked me over to the bus and packed all my stuff away in the boot for me. In the few minutes before my departure Memet kept running over with more snacks for me for the bus. We were all grinning from ear to ear. Our couple of hours in Dogubayzit had been crazy, comical and very special indeed. I told Ben he should take Memet up on his offer to stay the night and I knew I was leaving him in good hands. So I said goodbye to my love with a lump in my throat and wished him all the best for his ride across Turkey. As we smiled at each other through the bus window we shared one of those moments of pure love and admiration that life doesn't allow you to feel that often. As the bus pulled out of the station Ben and our new friends were there to wave me goodbye. As they finally disappeared from view, one of the bus stewards handed me a can of coke. I smiled to myself and thought “la vita รจ bella”.