Iran is quite simply a land of contrasts. We spent three enriching and eventful months there and we still often talk about it and compare our current situation with our life in Iran, especially, but not only, whenever we have a beer!
This, beer, is the best example of what life is like there because it is prohibited. Yes I know, shocking! But not just beer, all alcoholic beverages. And a lot of other things like dancing in public, meeting in public, singing in public, showing your legs or hair, even tapping! Technically, if you’re shopping and your favourite tune comes on the radio and you tap to it you could get fined (or worse) for it!
The point is that a lot of things are forbidden in Iran and sadly this is the day to day for millions of people. Normally we start our blog by praising people’s good nature and hospitality, we will get to that soon don’t worry, but this time we really feel like sharing with you Iranian’s pains first.
Being Europeans born and bread, it’s simply inconceivable to live in a place where half of your daily habits can get you jailed! We met uncountable people who told us about their lack of freedom and we really felt for them.
It always made us aware of our luckily we are to be who we are just because of where we were born. It’s something which we often take for granted but which changes absolutely everything. Being in Iran for as long as we did really made us change our minds about politics and religion and, above all, why it’s a seriously bad idea to mix these two concepts.
You see, Iran’s government is the religion and vice-versa. After all, its official name is Islamic Republic of Iran. So, as we understood it, nothing goes on in the country if it’s not mentioned somewhere in the Quran and the authorities make sure that this is taken very seriously.
Being hosted is always great from a traveller’s point of view because it enables you to take a deep look inside people’s lifestyle and true nature. In Iran this is even more true because inside their homes is where people get the chance to get away from all the rules and laws that tie them down. As previously mentioned, in Iran there are a lot of things which are forbidden in public, so if you really want to witness pure Persian culture at its best, it’s inside the safety of people’s homes where you’ll get it.
Inevitably this brings us back to hospitality; Iran is well-known among cyclists for how easy it is to find a host and, once there, you quickly notice this. It’s difficult to describe but the bottom line is that it could be possible to travel there without ever setting up your tent or having to pay for accommodation for a single night. We met many cyclists and backpackers who spent less than 100€ per month! You will get hosted, fed and cared for just because Persian culture is awesome that way!
Right now it’s almost impossible to choose an example among the many great ones that we have but maybe a really significant one is the following; we arrived to Saveh late. It was the end of December, the sun had gone down and we felt cold. We went directly to the Red Crecent HQ to ask for a place to stay (this is common in Iran), but they couldn’t help us. Seeing that we were in trouble, the security guard invited us to his house. Problem is, in his eyes his house is not big enough to receive guests so, after dinner they went to sleep in their parent’s house leaving us to rest in their own home!!
For days I couldn’t stop thinking about his great act of humanitarianism; how many people would go to such distances to help strangers?
Inside one’s private property is also where you can freely speak about anything you want and also where you can, sadly, observe another detail of Iran’s current situation; the divide between men and women.
Ok so, everything which has been said so far in this entry is to show how deeply sorry we feel for the people of Iran. We sincerely and utterly believe that it’s a country with so much to offer to the rest of the world and which doesn’t deserve its current government and the consequences that Iranians are currently bearing because of it. However, of all the unanswered questions that Iran has left in our minds about many principles, the one about gender differences is by far the biggest and the most saddening of them all.
This is actually a really sensitive subject so please bear with us as we try to be super politically correct about it. First though, another quick anecdote to illustrate our point here; we were hosted by an amazing guy and his superb family. We were all sitting on the floor and having some good after dinner chat about life and tourism in Iran. Suddenly, an uncle arrived. Quickly all the women covered their hair with a veil and we were left baffled. Why? I mean I (Marco) am also a dude, why was it ok for them not to wear Hijab around me but as soon as this other man steps into their home they must cover up? The answer is respect. The women owe respect to the men but, sadly, not the other way round. It goes without saying that after a few minutes all the women left the room and went to another where they continued with their joyful evening without head scarfs.
It was our first week in Iran and we were stunned. At no point did the uncle tell the women not to do that, to feel at ease in their own house. He assumed that that’s the way it is and that “they don’t mind”. We heard that endless times and every time we cringed. We talked about this with tens of women and almost every time we got the same answer; “we want equality and the chance to be ourselves”.
In a country where religion, tradition, taboos and rules are mixed and mistaken, we had the feeling that this subject in particular is the one which is most holding progress and true freedom back.
We, cyclists, are in contact with the locals more than any other type of traveller and, in a way, this kind of makes things harder. Everything we have explained so far in this entry is not just to give you an insight into Iran’s current situation but also to try to give you a general idea of what is actually happening down there; for us a good summary is that it’ s a country that it’s really trying hard to open up to the whole wide world but is constantly held back by its own closeness and traditions and whose government doesn’t really help.
Ok, sorry, this is a cycling blog right? Let’s get back to business. By far, the first thing that you will undoubtedly notice while pedaling in Iran is that cycling there is not always enjoyable. Sure, you can find secondary roads (in some parts of the country), and if you’re really lucky they will be located parallel to a highway which attracts most of the traffic and you’ll then be able to relax and enjoy yourself momentarily, but chances are that they will also be pretty busy. Combined with the fact that Iranians are not the best drivers in the world (we’re really trying to be as nice as possible here) and you, as a two wheeled, human powered traveller, will really feel glad that Iran is great in so many other ways as to forget that bike touring is not just about cycling in beautiful landscapes.
So as not to sound too over critical here, we would like to state that although we do find cycling on quiet roads a lot more enjoyable, we also have to confess that Iran offers an amazing selection of landscapes in which to cycle through; right from the mountainous and snowy north to the humid and Mediterranean Caspian Sea (IT’S NOT A SEA!!!), from the amazing pink desert south of Isfahan to the dunes of the desert in the middle of the country, from the amazing islands in the south (do not miss Hormuz) to the unique rock formations around Shiraz and, well, whatever is in the east, … sorry, we didn’t go there.
Having said this, please do not forget that this is a country full of wonders, and we’re not just referring to the natural ones; umpteen tourists explore and fall in love with the many architectural styles found in Iran’s numerous historical cities; Shiraz is simply marvelous with its royal buildings, gardens (although we visited in winter and they were not as spectacular) and amazing mosques, cities such as Isfahan and Kashan are lost in the middle of the desert and so have a magical (and dusty) air to it, Mashhad and Qum are religious jewels whose golden domes and mystical atmosphere will certainly unlock your curiosity for Islamic devotion.
On those rare occasions where we managed to get away from cars and trucks we did actually love discovering this amazing land on our two wheels, going through small villages and meeting real locals, but for the most part it felt like more a case of “let’s just get on with it” than anything else.
Last but not least, we would like to close this chapter of our travels with something of a curious cultural affinity which is not unique of Iran, but which does however still make it to the “top 5 things that we’ll never ever forget” list; Taarof. It’s quite difficult to explain but it’s basically a way of being polite and considerate towards others but, especially when you’ve had a long day, can also be a way of being totally annoying.
Maybe the closest we, westerners, get to Taarof is the question of “Who’s paying the restaurant bill?” This is an awkward situation where everybody reaches for their wallets and it’s usually resolved by social status: the one with the highest income, the most legitimate reason, or most power pays. But still, everyone insists on paying. For our fellow Italians reading this, a custom similar to Taarof exists back home in the boot; fare i complimenti.
Sounds nice right? It is, it really is. Kids as young as 5 refuse to touch their food before you, the guest, do, a married couple will give you their double bed and sleep on the floor in the living room because, again, you are the guest, and so on. In a way it’s a kind of chivalrous behaviour that in most cultures has been lost and forgotten and still survives in a pocketful of places around the world, Iran being one of them.
But a few paragraphs back we used the word “annoying” and here’s a quick explication; Taarof can also get you into some pretty tricky situations because Iranians often use it as a way to show politeness but sometimes it is difficult to tell whether they are honestly offering a goods (say a meal) or a service (doing the laundry or show you around their town maybe) or just being well mannered. Thus you, an alien to this concept, may agree upon a condition which can actually be very uncomfortable for the host which, don’t forget, was just being polite!
Bottom line? You learn to deny everything two or three times just to see if the person in front of you is honestly proposing something or just being nice. You can see why at the end of a long day that can sometimes be a bit too much. Eventually, we more than often gave up and just accepted whatever we were offered or invited to.
To wrap it all up, Iran is definitely a place to visit. Is it perfect? Well no, many places aren’t, but we are dead glad to have spent three whole months there navigating through and exploring cultures, tasty tasty food, religion and many more unforgettable moments and people which we carry around in our panniers wherever we go. The only regret is not having pedalled through this incredible land in spring when nature just explodes and gardens look amazing, people spend much more time outdoors in well equipped picnic areas and wild camping must be so easy but hey, we don’t think the country is going anywhere…
We also have an amazing YouTube channel with lots of different videos (in lots of different styles) from the road; 421adventure on YouTube
And please don’t forget that part of our adventure consists of fundraising and raising awareness for two incredible NGOs so please help us to spread the word and, of course, if you’re feeling generous, donate here; DONATE