Editor’s note: We love this story from Jonathan about cycling in Iran. Having spent three years biking solo around the world, his words really do this beautiful country justice. If you’re looking for your own Iranian cycling adventure, we recommend checking out Intrepid’s new 16-day trip. For more on Jonathan’s journey, check out his blog.
It was a typically hot July morning when I crossed the border from Armenia into Iran on my bicycle. I’d heard so many good things about cycle touring in the country but I was still nervous about my first foray into the Middle East. Iran never seemed to be on the news for anything other than bad reasons and I was unsure what awaited me in this desert land. A border guard with a thick moustache stamped me into the country and gave me a pat on the back. “Welcome to Iran!”
There are three roads to choose from at the border at Nordooz. One leads downstream towards Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea. The other is a highway into the desert. The final route is a minor road that snakes up into the dusty mountains. It is the shortest way to the city of Tabriz but involves a big climb up and over the mountains on bumpy back country roads.
I headed for the latter. A sign pointed out onward directions but it was of little help to me. The town names were written in script I couldn’t decipher and the distances were marked in Arabic numbers, which I was yet to learn. I found my road fairly easily and within minutes the hustle-bustle of the border was out of sight and I was alone in the mountains.
The only ‘traffic jams’ to navigate were large flocks of sheep being led down the roads by shepherds. All day I sweated up hill under the burning sun until I reached the last village before the high mountain pass. I was already 2,000m above sea level and that was enough exercise for one day.
With a little sign language I asked some local guys for a place to put my tent. One of them, Ali, led me downhill and invited me to stay in his family’s home.
It was still Ramadan and the summer days were long. Despite my objections, Ali’s wife laid out food for me before darkness fell and I ate early with their daughter who was too young to fast. We all sat outside together after evening prayer and played charades over endless cups of tea. Mats were rolled out in the communal living room and we slept side by side in a room covered entirely in beautiful carpets.
It was a magical way to end my first day in the country but was by no means unusual. Everyday I was treated to the warmest hospitality in Iran. The next morning I conquered the mountain pass and soared down the far side into Tabriz.
I knew my love affair with the country had begun.
I spent one month cycling across the north of Iran that summer. By the time I left into Turkmenistan, Iran had cemented itself as one of my favourite places to ride.
The beauty of bike touring is the opportunities it offers for engaging with people in the places to you travel, and what better a place to experience that than in Iran, where the people are some of the loveliest in the world. Every single day I was given food by strangers and I was regularly invited into homes by people who welcomed me into their lives. I don’t think any other country does hospitality quite like the Iranians.
I love cycling in the desert. I like the long and empty miles. I like riding into the sunrise and watching it drop behind my back in the afternoon. I like pitching my tent miles from anywhere and staying up to count shooting stars.
There is more to Iran than desert, however. As I cycled east the Alborz mountains loomed to my left, where there are dozens of peaks higher than 4,000m. I was amazed to discover there’s decent skiing up there and I found it hard to believe that I’d just missed the season as I plastered myself in factor 50 sun cream at the bottom of my hills.
Over on the on the other side of those mountains are the flashy resort towns lining the Caspian Sea; to the east there are vasts deserts stretching towards Afghanistan.
Cycling into an Iranian city is a perilous task but once you’ve got your bearings in the urban sprawl they are wonderful places to explore. In Ramadan the days are quiet but after dark the towns become alive. Families fill the streets under bright neon lights, eating kebab for dinner and rose-flavoured ice cream for dessert.
After Eid al-Fitr, the highlights of my day were cycling into the morning markets to load up on fruit for the ride. I suspect the highlight of the vendors’ day was serving a sunburnt Englishman wheeling a peculiar bicycle through the busy aisles. I’d fill a bag up of peaches, nectarines and cherries before heading back into the desert.
At the edges of towns, watermelon vendors would set up shop and sell giant melons for as little 5p a kilo. I often wondered if I could handle the extra weight of a huge watermelon on my bike but there was no point buying a whole one as the sellers would always flag me down and hand me slices for free.
There are plenty of famous architectural masterpieces dotted around Iran, from Esfahan’s Shah Square to the Nasir al-Mulk mosque in Shiraz. Visiting the Imam Reza Holy Shrine in Mashhad was one of the most beautiful places of worship I have ever seen.
But what made Iran a remarkable place to go cycling was not the ornate mosques, the rocky mountains or the empty desert. It was the people I got to meet and talk to as I slowly pedalled through dusty villages and hectic towns.
It’s just that special.
Tempted to embark on the adventure of a lifetime? Check out Intrepid’s new 16-day ‘Cycle Iran’ trip.
(All images c/o Jonathan KB.)