THE clock had just struck 6.30am when Scott uttered the worst words you can hear in a tent:
“Oh shit, I’ve got diarrhoea”.
After a sleepless night of tummy rumbles in feral 40 degree heat he woke to the ultimate traveller’s nightmare forcing me to madly dash for the baby wipes. Minutes later he dove out of the tent before the next onslaught struck and with nothing but a few pebbles to hide modesty in a modest country was thrown to the dogs.
It was our first morning in Iran and our 14th month on the road.
Just two days earlier we’d pedalled uphill out of Van, Turkey, climbing from 1700 metres to 2400 before collapsing at the last town before the border – Saray. Here tourists are not just a novelty – but a bizarre rarity and the villagers stared open mouthed as we cycled into the dusty centre.
With Iran just 24km to the east we decided to burn up the rest of our Turkish Lira (sources claimed the exchange rate was rubbish) and hunt down the only hotel in town. Eastern Turkey is a contrast at the best of times but this region truly felt like no-man’s land. Just a couple of hours earlier a grocery store owner had insisted on giving us our food completely “gratis” (with huge smiles and hand shaking) while 15 minutes after kids hurled rocks as we pedalled by. Women were covered from head to toe in black chadors and Kurds and Turks seemed to live uneasily side by side as military tanks and jeeps hovered like wasps.
The sensory explosion seemed to sum up everything we’d experienced in the past six weeks – hospitality, generosity, animosity and culture shock. But while we were sad to say goodbye to Turkey we were relieved. Tensions had grown between the Kurdish community and the Turkish police with the PKK ceasefire spectacularly ending just days before. It started with an ISIS suicide bomb in a kurdish town (killing almost 30), escalating to the shooting of two Turkish cops and then blew (metaphorically and literally) with the bombing of a Kurdish village by Turkish police. Of course the bombing wasn’t covered in the media and since then more attacks, more bombs and more gunfire has wreaked havoc over eastern Turkey. As always it’s the civilians who suffer most. Other cyclists we met on the road reported being stopped and told to turn back by police near the town of Dogubayazit due to “PKK rebels hiding out in caves”.
We left the filthy hotel room and dove head on into hot winds and a hellish uphill ride that turned our quick dash to the border into a three hour slog. Noon had come and gone when we rolled into the rustic Kapikoy outpost and suddenly our nerves bubbled over. Crossing borders (especially in this part of the world) is nerve wracking at the best of times but to add to the fear rumours had spread like wildfire that cyclists could be turned away (as technically you’re not supposed to cycle tour Iran). As usual the fear mongers proved false and not only we were shown through with smiles and hand shakes – but we were even given biscuits by the cheerful guards. One thing to note for overland travellers from Turkey … hold onto your E-visa! The Turkish border guards demand it and if you don’t have it you’re in trouble.
After we’d dodged the dodgy money changers (resolving to get some cash at the first major town) the dusty road turned into a tree-laced path snaking through the hills next to a river.
To add to the fun our reward for climbing to the border was a largely epic downhill run and we whizzed past ramshacke villages and along the river bed for 60km before fatigue forced us to turn in for the night. In the search for privacy we’d turned our noses up at shaded fields where locals were enjoying evening picnics and instead waited until we could find the hottest, rockiest and most barren stretch of river bed to set up camp.
After a two minute noodle feast we retired to the tent but the temperature was still 40 degrees and we suffered through one of the longest nights of our lives until Scott’s…ahem… explosion at 5.30am.
It was 9am when we finally got back on the bikes and we soon realised our next big mistake. Unlike Turkey, towns and rest stops were further apart in Iran and we had about 500 mils of water left between us and 20km to the next town. Scott was badly dehydrated and had to keep answering the call of nature as we battled onto Khoy.
With 15km to go he hit the wall and was hunched over the gravel in a lay by when all of a sudden the slow moving lump of two bike tourers appeared in the distance.It was Robyn and Don – two Kiwis we’d met in the Iranian embassy in Ankara who might as well have been gifts from the cycling gods.
While plying Scott with water and electrolytes we shared stories and laughs (we’d apparently cycled past them the night before without even realising) and after just a few minutes an Iranian man pulled up in his old sedan. With limited English (and our exceptionally limited Farsi) we conveyed our reason for stopping (Scott’s ill health) and he immediately pulled carpets and a pillow out of the car boot so Scott could have a lie down. We’d scarcely been in Iran a day and already that famous hospitality had enveloped us.
Half an hour later we were back on the road to Khoy in one big convoy but after arriving, guzzling down water and exchanging money Scott was in no condition to carry on and we bit the bullet and beelined straight for a hotel. It was more than our pitiful budget would allow but at times like those a good loo and air conditioning are priceless. We forked out the cash (promising ourselves we’d make it up later) and collapsed on the enormous bed.
Scott was still under the weather the following morning and so we forked out for yet another night in the expensive hotel, venturing out for a little sight seeing in what was actually a pretty boring city.
In a bid to beat the heat we were on the road just after 7.30am the next day with the aim of making it to Marand (a 100km dash). The temperature was more bearable but the surrounds were mind numbingly boring with dry, dusty plains and a few barren mountains in the distance about as exciting as the landscape got. To add to the mix old and decrepit trucks and buses farted toxic black fumes all day sparking us to cough like chronic smokers. By lunchtime our water was hot, our lungs were burning and the only bit of shade we could find was littered with used condoms and spiky plants.
We’d just talked ourselves into jumping back on the bikes when three other cyclists rolled over the horizon, turning out to be a trio of Austrian boys en route to Tehran.
By early afternoon we were knackered but while the scenery hadn’t changed the motorists had and every few minutes we were either invited for tea or stopped by a driver keen to ply us with apples, plums, cucumbers and even their lunch. The generosity bowled us over and we ploughed on towards Marand. It was in this small north western city that we hoped to meet one of Iran’s most famous cycle touring hosts. The small and incredibly fit marathon runner Akbar was said to use the trucks coming in out of Marand to stay abreast of any incoming cyclists and would then pedal to the outskirts of town to meet them.
True to form the unbelievable host was waiting (sporting his “Warmshowers” t-shirt) and was ready to lead us to his shop for cold drinks and ice-cream. In just 18 months Akbar has hosted or helped host 650 cyclists (we would be number 650 and 651) and after rifling through his photo albums we not only felt incredibly humbled (there are so many bloody bike tourers out there) but in awe of a man who would so selflessly help so many people.
He’d arranged for a friend of his to take us in for the night (he was waiting on the Austrians and three other reported cyclists) and so we set off with Mohammed to his modest little house.
Where Akbar was all smiles and humour Mohammed was all seriousness (while at times showing an alarming candour). His house was largely a room coated in carpets (for eating on and sleeping) with a small kitchen off to the side, a little shower behind a sliding door and an office.
His wife was quiet and reserved and his young son, while shy, was clearly bursting with energy.
It was a slightly awkward night (and I’m not just saying that because Mohammed broke the mother of all faux pas and called me ‘fat’ – I mean bloody hell!) but because they were a somewhat subdued family. Despite that they cooked up a sensational dinner of soup, chicken and roasted chick peas and afterwards we all slept outside on carpets in the patio.
But then it all went downhill the next morning.
We woke up late to fierce temperatures and within minutes my stomach was gurgling.
After a quick breakfast we headed back to Akbar’s shop to say goodbye and meet the other five cyclists (the three Austrians and also a Belgian and a German couple) and thanks to some serious gas bagging it wasn’t until after midday that we got on the road. The German couple – Ushie and Hanz – stuck with us us while the boys whizzed on ahead. Tabriz (our destination) was about 75km away and for the first 20km the road wound steadily uphill. But what was going steadily downhill was my stomach.
To put it simply, it was one of the longest uphill rides of my life. I felt weak, exhausted and plagued by stomach spasms and by time we stopped for lunch (at 3pm) I had more of an appetite for the toilet than a sandwich.
I would have happily stayed in that park but the smelly road and Tabriz beckoned while a long downhill made the going a little easier.
Hours later, when Tabriz finally came into view, we were all exhausted and worst of all coughing and spluttering from the heavy fumes. The road had been boring (even if the vehicles were full of smiling, waving Iranians) with just a random stop from the “fake police” to break it up. Ushie and Hanz, who were ahead, were told to hand over their passports and show all their money but luckily managed to pull away from the dodgy “copper” while we sailed through unchallenged.
The plan was to treat ourselves to a hotel and hours later (despite paying more than we can afford) I was thrilled we did.
I felt rotten and the following morning the “loo” was a war zone. With just two days in Tabriz we had little time to do more than see a few sights and plan our next leg. Tehran was still a daunting 600km away but the most direct road promised to be little more than a hot, barren highway filled with farting trucks. Instead we opted for the longer route via the Caspian Sea, figuring a couple of mountain ranges would be a small price to pay for cleaner air and greener scenery.
Our other big decision was visas. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were not just proving to be a bureaucratic nightmare but a bloody expensive one. We’d optimistically withdrawn all the money we thought we’d need in advance for Iran (owing to the bank sanctions) without allowing for the fact that these two visas alone (if we were lucky enough to get them) would set us back almost $500USD. It was far more than we could afford and to add to the financial burn cyclists were overwhelmingly underwhelmed by these two North-Korean-esque nations. We’d planned to pedal quickly through them (covering Turkmenistan in five days and Uzbekistan in two weeks) and suddenly it all just seemed a bit ridiculous. So we began operation Contingency Plan.
A small Tajikistan air line could get us from Tehran to Dushanbe (at the foot of the Pamirs) for just 400 euros for both of us which meant we’d not only save our precious Iran dollars, but get to the freezing Pamirs before, well, hopefully they were too freezing. It felt like cheating, it felt like giving in, but at the end of the day it also felt like we had little choice. Forget mountains and headwinds, visas are the most torturous hurdle for the average cyclist and already we were feeling the heart breaking burn.