After a deeply memorable few weeks on the road, I find myself once again in a capital city – this time, it’s Tehran.
As the prospect of arrival drew closer, I couldn’t quite prevent preconceptions from invading my imagination – a distant Middle Eastern capital simply must consist of disjointed piles of whitewashed, sand-blown hovels basking in a hazy, golden heat; a cacophonous, chaotic spectacle of beaten old cars, minibuses, camels; turban-clad men and shrouded, fleeting female figures wandering the streets amidst clouds of dust and smoke, street sellers hollering indecipherably over the honking, grinding traffic; the brief relief of darting down a quiet, wonky alley past limping dogs, torn rubbish bags and precipitously positioned power lines – like a scene from The Last Crusade.
We’d continued by bicycle south from Jolfa to the small city of Marand, where we’d been given two portions of chelo kebab (meat skewers with mountains of buttery rice) by a passing motorcyclist whilst hunting for a place to stock up on provisions. It was Ramezan, but we found no shortage of bakeries, grocery stores and street barrows piled high with the season’s pick of melons, apples, giant sunflowers, tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and cucumbers. We were even handed chocolates by a curiously wordless gentleman who strolled past with a benevolent air, and we unwrapped and ate the contents greedily before realising our blatant faux-pas. Nobody batted an eyelid.
“Do you like beer?” asked the young man who ran the mobile phone shop outside which we were sitting. (He had brought a couple of chairs out of his shop for us to rest on.) I wasn’t sure what the correct response was. Should I be honest and say that no, I didn’t really like beer much, at least not that fizzy lager crap (now a good pint of ale, now that would be a different story), because I might give the impression that I was pretending not to like beer for fear of offending his Muslim sensibilities (and laws); or should I lie and say that either I loved beer deeply, as might be expected of an Englishman, or that I hated the very thought of it, fine draught or canned piss alike?
“Erm,” was my eventual reply.
“We looooooove beer,” he interjected, as he surreptitiously concealed a cigarette from view. “Beer, vodka, whiskey…” – and with sudden inspiration – “Jack Daniels!!!”
The road out of Marand began once again to climb into the mountains, and after an hour or so of hungry pedalling alongside big, honking trucks we decided to call it a day and take the kebabs to their final, internal destination. The streaks and splodges of green that painted the otherwise golden hillscape signalled land that had been irrigated by man for agriculture, so we headed in that direction. Away from the wet coastal areas, the main source of water for cultivating Iran’s fields seems to be from streams fed by meltwater and high-altitude rains, the inland areas sheltered by the mountain ranges from weather systems coming in from Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf, and therefore receiving very little rain. The rarely-absent cloudless blue sky promised another dry, relaxed and happy couple of cycle campers in the countryside.
We struck out from the main road down a dirt track, and soon happened upon a group of farm workers finishing their day’s work. They did not hesitate to help us find a suitably flat patch of grass in a donkey’s paddock, dragging the beast itself off to another pasture, and delivering to us far more freshly-picked cucumbers and apples than we could ever hope to eat. The Iranians’ no-nonsense attitude towards helping newcomers, whether local or foreign, meant that help and hospitality such as this was never far away. We sat on the grass and watched the sun go down over a hearty and much-anticipated feast of kebab meat, butter-soaked rice, and a delicious stew of herbs and red beans called ghomeh sabzi. Another beautiful day in the enigmatic, peaceful and immensely welcoming land of Iran.
The following morning we decided to try and make the 65 kilometres to the major city of Tabriz, where we were hoping to find hospitality through the fantastic Couchsurfing.org website. Sixty-five kilometres on my own would be a good distance to make in half a day, but Tenny, whose legs are (and will forever remain) considerably shorter than mine, and whose strength had not been augmented by the effects of eight previous months on the road, was still exhausted after a day of less than fifty kilometres.
Distance, as a quantitative measure of the success or failure of a day’s riding, was not really important, but the nagging feeling that this was a little too easy was enough to prompt me to shift yet more heavy items – food, spare water, a lock-knife that had been forgotten by a Canadian cyclist in Istanbul, a spare inner-tube and chain – out of Tenny’s panniers and into mine, in an attempt to even up the workload somewhat.
The other criterium that determined our peace-of-mind was the prospect of Tenny’s parents, residing as they were in Tehran, completely oblivious to our ill-advised escapades. We’d gone to great lengths to protect them from their perfectly understandable fears about the mad lifestyle of mine that they didn’t understand, and of which they certainly didn’t want their eldest daughter partaking, in love with me or otherwise, but sooner or later, Tenny and I would have to bite the bullet; they’d have to open the door and confront the sight that lay before them, and together we’d have to make our way out of the inevitable labyrinth of consequences, which was sure to be no easy task. To bypass Tehran and brush such a brooding conflict of interests under the carpet would be cowardice and selfishness indeed.
Couchsurfing this time did not come up trumps, so we stayed two nights in Tabriz in the comfortable, cheap and central Hotel Masshad, which at $4.50 a night was an excusable relapse from my usually-stringent regime of not-unless-its-absolutely-necessary expenditure. Tenny’s pre-conceived inquisition-strength scrutiny of marriage documents proved unfounded, as I had not-altogether-confidently expected. We found ourselves back on the Lonely Planet-toting tourist trail, Armenia not being the most obvious detour between Turkey and Iran, meeting some English chaps hitchhiking to Malaysia (India wasn’t far away enough, they said) and another cycling couple (see ) who were a few months into their dream of the long-term, nomadic, trans-continental lifestyle. Seeing them, with their bewildered excitement at being in Iran (of all places), and their fresh-faced enthusiasm for the road, reminded me of how I felt in the first weeks and months of my journey – where the high points were so high, and the low ones so desperately low – where every experience, however mundane in retrospect, was still new.
You might expect me to say that we spent the following day seeing the tourist sights of Tabriz, which by all accounts are many and varied. However, I will categorically state that the most fantastic and luxuriant thing that either of us could imagine, after three weeks on the road, was the prospect of locking the door of our hotel room and enjoying a full, uninterrupted day of doing absolutely nothing, in complete and utter privacy. Four walls, two beds and a locked door may indeed conjure up plenty of alternative images (a pillow-fight, for example), but I can promise you now that the rest, silence and deep contemplation and digestion of all that had happened since we left Yerevan was the only thing in the world that I wished for.
We did leave the place on some ill-advised trip to the nearby bazaar, where I felt obliged to do some filming of the town and its people, but it was a short and unenjoyable excursion. Three weeks of being exposed, open to inspection by anyone and everyone, entirely at the infinitely-varied whims of the world, for every minute of every day makes the idea of ticking off a list of so-called ‘must-see’ sights a little vacuous. On the rare occasions I’ve been tempted to carry a guidebook, I’ve never failed to ditch it after a few pages when I’ve remembered that the process of discovery is usually more worthwhile than the object being discovered. Discovery through process, chance, total immersion, following one’s nose, or a half-understood hint from a face you’ve already forgotten? Or discovery by map reference and page number?
I hate – and I don’t use the word often – I hate to have a pre-meditated list of things I ‘should do’ or ‘must see’ in a new place, or have a preconception (often this leads to frustration when I cannot force the deeply rooted images, such as those at the head of this article, out of my mind). Being a new place, I want to see it with entirely untainted eyes, without yet another Lonely Planet List of Things to See and Do. I’d rather wander ‘til I’m lost and try and find my map-less way home, simply experiencing life in a place about which I literally have no idea what to expect. Call me anti-institutional or put me in some other vague, philosophical pigeon-hole (Ill-Founded Self-Righteousness might be a good one). It works for me.
Happily, the Tehran of my mind evaporated instantly as I disembarked the overnight sleeper train from Tabriz. It was still, in the poetic words of José Saramago, a “vast metropolis that extends over what were, long ago, hills, valleys and plains, and what is now a continuous labyrinthine duplication both horizontally and vertically, initially made more complicated by components we will term diagonals, but which, meanwhile, with the passing of time, have brought some measure of equilibrium to the chaotic urban mesh”.
But it is certainly not the pre-civilized hotch-potch that I’d tried to stop myself expecting. As we cycled through the city centre towards Tenny’s home district, I was pleasantly surprised to find an organized, working infrastructure, with well-designed road systems, bus lanes, a clean and fast metro system, manicured parks and boulevards, urban highways for quick transit between districts, futuristic buildings dazzlingly-illuminated at night, even the odd cycle-lane here and there – amazing! – in short, all the amenities and attention to aesthetics you’d expect to find in any developed European city, as well as the noise and smells; the heavy traffic and pollution; the people rushing past, living agitated, high-stress lives; but without a bar or pub in sight, and with the bizarre idea that I would never see a woman’s hair or neck in public until I left the country playing on my mind.
After one and a half hours of weaving through grid-locked traffic, we turned down the narrow, traffic-free alley that led to Tenny’s parents’ home. In the next 24 hours, one of two things would happen: either they would see that their daughter had succeeded in doing what she set out to do, in the face of all adversity and discouragement, and grant us their blessing to continue East; or they would lay siege to our enthusiastic hopes to overthrow convention and we would have to think of another direction in which to take our lives.
But, in true cliff-hanger style, you’ll have to come back for the next instalment to find out!