Ancient Persia, modern Iran stand side by side

Just over the Border from Dogubeyazit: welcome to the Islamic Republic!

Ah!! Iran! When the embassy in Istanbul granted my request for a visa, I made one of my most timely and meaningful en-route website entries:

Doors to silk road swing open wide!

What a heady week it had already been. The week started with the solar eclipse of the sun far to the east in Kastamanou on the Black sea coast. Hopping a bus for Istanbul from Samsun a few days later, I just missed the massive earthquake that rocked the city and destroyed villages just to the south on the sea of Marmara. Plus, the city of Istanbul wins my award for the most beautiful city I went through on this tour. Do not miss the sight of sunset over the mosques and city buildings from the bridge over Golden Horn bay. I used to live in Vladivostok, far off in the Russian Far East, and its bay was said to resemble Golden Horn, and indeed it did. But nothing could match the sun on the domes and minarets in the red skies of the westering sun, and I stood on the bridge, spellbound as I was so often on this trip.

But we are talking about Iran now, not turkey! I entered Iran at the Bazargan/Dogubeyazit crossing, beneath the solitary Mt. Ararat. The nasty events in eastern Turkey had me wishing that there would be another flood, and this time without an Ark. I was glad to be over the border, and the Iran authorities and citizens at the border seemed more than willing to have me come in. The adventure began almost immediately. There were many veiled women waiting in a large anteroom with a small door that was locked shut from the other side. A large photo of Ayatollah Khomeini frowned on the patient crowd. At least, they were patient until the door opened! Then a few of these veiled women put their hands firmly on the small of my back and PUSHED me thru the doorway--with themselves in tow! Whoooosh went a biker, a bicycle, equipment and a gaggle of Iranian women, barking in English and Farsi at the overwhelmed gaurads on the other side. One grabbed my passport as i tripped over the small jamb, invisible on the crowded floor. A few minutes later it was returned to me.

I was directed to sit down in a small office. An official there stamped my visa, looking at the twenty days I had received in Istanbul.
"But you'll never make it all the way to Mir Javeh (Pakistani border) in twenty days on your bicycle," he said, chuckling. He scribbled on my visa sheet and smiled, saying he gave me some extra time...ten extra days, so he said. More about this 'extension' later!

Since I am a mountain rider, my intention was to cross the northern (Elburz) mountains to reach the Caspian sea. Riding east for a while I would then re-cross the mountains just west of Tehran (avoiding the capital itself) and head due south for Shiraz. The I would ride due east into Pakistan. The ride south to Shiraz would take me thru Iran's other great mounatin range, the Zagros.
It was a good selection of routes and I recommend it to my fellow riders. If you think Iran is all desert and scrubby hills, think again. The 'scenery becomes greenery' rapidly as you head north over the Elburz, as the Caspian sea breezes are quite humid. In fact, near the Azerbaijan border there is a jungle! From Rasht east to Calus there is a chain a small towns and cities but the road is in good condition and the cycling was pleasant enough. There are not alot of places to wild camp in this region, however, as the land is low, boggy, and settled in many places. But all the towns have guesthouses or small hotels you can stay in. I told an english speaking gentleman to right down in farsi the phrase.."where is an inexpensive hotel?" Instead he wrote down..."where are you from?" So everytime i asked for a place to stay they told me the name of my current location. GRrrrrr! In any case, you obtain a view of the Caspian in only a few places, as the road is not that close to the shore. To the south the Elburz rise higher and higher. The towns are attractive with many parks and clean commercial areas; in fact, Iran was a very clean and well kept countryside. The people are well educated, extremely worldy and knowledgeable about international affairs, and justifiably rpoud of their country's place in history. Iran's young people (of which there are many...a big baby boom after the war with Iraq!) are anxious to see Iran return to the community of nations as an economic and regional power. President Khatami, well liked in Europe and the west, so far has managed to walk the tightrope between reform and the need to adhere to basic, if conservative, Islamic principles.

A great surprise was the road back over the Elburz toward Tehran: the Calus pass, as Iranian cyclists call it. It starts amidst deep chasms, scales more open walls, higher and higher, to nearly 9000 feet before finally descending to the hot, central Iran plains. It was easily one of my most spectacular mounatin roads, and is hugely popular with Iran riders. If there ever is a Tour d'Iran, this will be part of it! I wild camped near the top; it was very chilly and clear that night! The next day i discovered i was not as close to the top as I thought....A tunnel is being dug under the mountain enabling cars and trucks to avoid the final steep switchbacks. Much like Switzerlands' Grand St. Bernard, this means we riders soon will have the upper reaches all to ourselves.

The main mosque complex at Qom tinted in the evening light
I bypassed Tehran and headed directly south to the holy city of Qom. The main complex of mosques was impressive but closed to non-Muslims, so I only spent a long afternoon and evening there. Still, the city is a world locus for Islamic scholars, and the remarkable assortment of bookstores, libraries, and journals makes a lasting impression. I could not go in the Mosque but could look thru the windows, being quite tall. The walls of the rooms were covered with small pieces of mirror, and lit with chandeliers and lamps. Many people sat on the floor, reading, praying, or quietly talking.

You can reach Qom by taking the Qom autobahn. You may as well take this highway: the traffic is lighter than the side road! Most people take the old road to avoid the tolls; it is narrower, and dangerous. It goes thru the small towns but you can walk across a small sandy berm from the highway to get to them if you need food or water. To the east of the road stretches the expanse of the Desert of Liut; salt pans catch the evening light and seem almost phosphorescent in the failing light. I wild camped in the dunes by the roadside; a bit out of view of the traffic. Iran is fairly safe for cycling, but I nonetheless was hassled several times in the larger towns by people in cars who would stop and ask for 'money'. Not currency exchange, mind you, but money! The best thing to do here is pretend to take their photo and tell them you are 'going to the police.' They'll take off, and fast, like this motorcyle rider did. The police in Iran are feared and one wants undue attention. Often I would get the license plate number and give it to the next person who spoke english: they can decide which course of action is best. The best defense is a good offense and a great state of mind. Concentrate on enjoying the beautiful, often stark road and scenery in front of you 99% of the days and the hours that you ride. This photo from northwest Iran, taken in the afternoon sun, shows you how the shadows and rock faces look like they could cut paper if given the chance. Can you imagine trying to flush mujahideen out of the hills up ahead? More humorously, could you imagine trying to find a biker who decided to wild camp after nightfall? How many stars do you think you could count in the night sky? Sometimes the simplest pictures make the joys of cycling the most evident. Roads like this always started me singing--usually Judy Collins' Both Sides Now, although i had to make up alot of my own words. My wheels and bicycle would sing a song of their own: the rubber tires against the road would whistle, the chain over the freewheel would grind ever so slightly. If I was neglectful with my lubricant (WD-40, usually) maybe there would be that infernal squeak your links make as they wind over the derailleur rollers. I would rest in my tent after a pleasant days' riding, perhaps listen to the BBC (even though, after months on the road like this, I really began to wonder if there was a world out there. Maybe its all a Bush House (London BBC Hqtrs) fantasy, sort of a radio version of Capricorn One?

Iranians are gracious and kind hosts. One fellow I met in the northern Iran countryside offered me his home for the night. He had lived in America and his English was very good; an artisan, he was going to make a table and chessboard out of a piece of tree branch and root he had found. That night we lit a fire and talked well into the morning hours. He liked America but was glad to be back in Iran, the country he called his home.

The Ridges of the Zagros
The Zagros mountains form a thick wall with Iraq to the west...without them the Iraqis may well have marched all the way into Tehran in the wars early stages when Saddam's forces pushed deep into the country. The mountains are, in fact, massive north-south trending ridges with very steep grades from one river basin to another. As is often the case in Iran, the landscape is dry and the air crisp with low humidity. But there is plenty of groundwater to support vegetation if the roots can just get deep enough. Biker's paradise: wild camping almost anywhere, although many of the small towns have guesthouses and hostelries. At the time I was in Yasug, Iran's football team had a match with xxxxxx. The whole guesthouse was glued to a small TV set to watch their star of the German league, Ali Daiai, who had a couple of good scoring bids. But it was all for nought as the game ended in a 0-0 draw. The Iranians never hesitated to remind me that Iran had beaten the USA in soccer. (I love soccer: but not what Anericans are doing to the sport: the NASL is mostly a joke and I hope it dies a miserable death in the next few eyars. For the record, I am a Chelsea and Galatasaray fan; and I have a soft spot in my heart for Boca Juniors, as well.)

In any case I followed the ridges south to Shiraz, which many Iranians told me was their most beautiful city. I'll leave that argument to them: Isfahan, Shiraz, Rasht, Qom, Tabriz..all were attractive to me. I spent a day in Shiraz at the ..... mosque, hoping to get my visa extension processed. It was my 27th day and my '30' days were almost up.

OH YEAH--about that 'ten day extension.' The Shiraz authorities did not recognize it, so I was already 7 days overdue on my visa! After some wrangling they granted me the 10 days, which gave me only 3 days to get to the border. Too far! Bus time-- all the way to Quetta in Pakistan. Even then my adventures were not over. I stayed the next night in Zahedan after a full day and night on the bus. Only a few weeks before a group of Japanese geologists had been kidnapped from a hotel in the town. [That too was a story..the kidnappers went after the wrong group! But once they had them, what could they do?] As my visa stated I was a professor of Geology, the police were quite spooked by my arrival--whether on a bicycle or not-- and insisted i stay at a special camping site nearby under police guard! I slept well, bantering a bit with a few Iranian soldiers. The route ahead in Pakistan promised even more close calls with international riff-raff, as I was soon to find out. 1