Months before we’d even put foot to pedal on our global ride travellers had gushed their praise for this Middle Eastern and some cyclists had gone as far as to say of all the countries in the world it was their absolute favourite.
It’s a big call and one we’d often wondered at but after two weeks in this hot, dry and often barren land we’re going to call it.
Iran simply rocks.
And it’s all thanks to the people.
I could tell you about the motorists who pull over to offer fruit, a bed to sleep in or just a kind conversation revealing their love for foreigners. I could tell you about the broad, often theatric greetings from women covered head to toe in black cloth who defy the stereotype of “depressed” in their joyous booms of “welcome, welcome” and I could tell you about the ecstatic families who run up to you in the street, thrusting their children at you and begging to take a photo for their albums but instead I’m going to tell you about the Hesam family.
We’d been on the road for almost two weeks when we came across the English teacher Zahra, holidaying with her family (dad: Hossein, mum: Maryam, brother: Reza).
With our German friends Hans and Uschie we had pedalled from bustling and over excited Tabriz with its epic bazaar into the scorching hot barren lands that stretch out like a moon scape into Iran’s “Azerbaijan” region.
It took almost two hours to ascend out of the city and farewell the mass of farting trucks and considering we’d started late (after lunch at 2pm) we could tell immediately it was going to be a long and dissatisfying day.
The sun was already burning the following morning as we climbed up a 1850m rise which rewarded us with a 40km descent through Meshgin Shahr where we stopped for dinner. Iran has a reputation for wild driving and consequently bloody high road fatalities (something in the area of 30,000 a year) and as a result “Red Moon” ambulance stations dotted the road sides, popping up every 10 or so kilometres.
We’d heard of other cyclists pitching their tent inside these compounds so after 7pm, when a sign said “Emergency 15km” we pushed on to try our luck. Dusk was nigh when we wheeled up to the gate and a non English speaking attendant quickly ushered us in and offered us tea. We asked for a spot to pitch our tent but the ambulance officer looked troubled and called in his boss. A snowy haired man wandered out, listened to our pleas and made some phone calls.
He then said we’d have to pedal to the next station (10km away) and try there. We were crushed but he escorted us in a flashing ambulance and so pushed on. At 10pm we pulled in and had a long confusing conversation with a new team of ambos’ who said we’d have to go back to the original station. I was close to snapping point and doubted I had another 500 metres in me (let alone 10km) but what I’d forgotten to factor in was the Iranian desire to help. Our guide put all our bikes and bags in the back of an ambulance and then ordered another to take the weary passengers back up the hill.
The sheer absurdity of the situation (two ambulance wagons and two officers just to escort four baffled tourists) wasn’t lost on me and at 11pm we were nestled inside the station with tea, biscuits, sweets and amazing conversation.
Our team of burly men were like giant teddy bears and they gave us two rooms (the men all together while Uschie and I had a room to ourselves) and offered the use of an immaculate bathroom and anything we could need.
We woke to a fully cooked breakfast by the boys, more tea and well wishes.
A phenomenal 20km downhill kicked off the day but by 10am the road was veering upwards as we skirted around one of Iran’s biggest mountains – Sabalan.
We passed rustic villages where shy woman in voluminous bright skirts carried water and washed dishes and pushed up barren hills where shepherds as young as six and seven herded sheep.
Lunch was in a stretch of village we dubbed the “killing street” with every cafe also serving as a farm and abattoir bringing a whole new meaning to the Australian phrase “paddock to palate”.
By early afternoon the heat was all but killing us as we pushed wearily uphill in temperatures soaring to over 50 degrees celcius.
The eternally energetic Hans and Uschie seemed to push on unscathed (they’d quickly become my cycling heroes) but while their strength and optimism put us to shame we all felt weary and washed out at 7pm and ducked off the road in the foot of Mt Sabalan to camp for the night.
There was just 85km left until Ardabil, a religious mountainous town above the Caspian where we’d spend a couple of nights recovering before farewelling our two new German friends.
There is little to say about this final stretch other than it was hot, rife with headwinds and painful (Hans and I had open saddle sores) and when we pedalled into town I was so relieved I could have slept in the street.
Camping in the town parks is not only normal but heavily practised and while the underlying need to save money was always on our mind we needed somewhere to shower and rest in air conditioned comfort.
And so we booked into a hotel. It was more than we could afford but the room was air conditioned and the breakfast plentiful.
Uschie and Hans had hoped to head out of town to some natural hot springs and so we bundled into a taxi the following afternoon to check it out. In my head we were en route to a New Zealand-esque village but instead another hot, barren town greeted us and with it, hundreds of Iranian tourists.
The remarkable thing about travelling through Iran is the lack of foreign visitors (it’s a rare site to see another westerner wandering about the bazaar) and as a result we were frequently the object of curiosity. And as a result the amazing Zahra found us. The 20 year old university student and English teacher was on a short summer holiday with her family and like all Iranians, was kind, curious and welcoming. Her English was remarkable (something she attributed to a love of Harry Potter) but the truth was she was razor sharp, intelligent and had an outstanding memory. We discussed books, movies and life in Iran. Her family was equally remarkable. Her mother was a headmaster of a girl’s high school, her father – a university professor, and her brother: a sweet, English speaking 14-year-old.
They bought us a cool drink and then offered their house up to us (along the Caspian Sea). It seemed an opportunity that was too good to be true and we exchanged details with promises to visit.
It was tough to leave Ardabil – a town were we also met the amazing Sarah (a strong, independent and intelligent English teacher and her professional tennis playing brother) and it was even harder to say goodbye to Hans and Uschie. The near-retired couple proved adventures know no age while a round-the-world cycle trip needn’t be done the conventional way. The pair use their summer holidays each year to chip away at their global cycle, picking up where they left off each time, and were nothing short of an inspiration.
It was just 80km to the town of Astara (right near the Azarbaijan border) on the Caspian Sea and we set off late forcing us to reach the much anticipated 50km descent (from 1600 metres to just below sea level) in mid afternoon. The road was atrocious which made for a bumpy, hair-raising ride but just near 7pm, a short 10km from the bottom, a car gave us a big honk and pulled in. It was the Hesam’s – greeting us with grins, fruits and warm welcomes.
We were only 170km from their house and so we felt confident to lock in a date of arrival – two days. With this sorted (and a bag of plums in our hands) we said our farewells again and pedalled straight into a wall of overbearing humidity that would put even Australia’s tropics to shame. The Caspian Sea region is famed for its soaring summer temperatures and suffocating humidity and at 8pm it felt as though we were still pedalling through soup.
A basic old campground sat at the end of town and for the grand total of about $2 we had a pitch, a squat loo and a whole bunch of new friends desperate to ply us with tea, fruit and chit chat.
To our disappointment we woke up to even more new friends of the six-legged variety.
Ants, in their millions, had infested every single pannier overnight, even making their way into our water bottles and it wasn’t until close to midday that we set off, mostly ant-free, along the eastern road towards Tehran.
Just after lunch a man waved us down yelling “Couch Surfing, Warm Showers” and introduced himself as a host to travellers and an English teacher. He was desperate for us to stay the night, be fed and watered and to met his students but it was too early and we had to push on.
Two hours later another car pulled over, this time revealing a beaming man called Farid in a “Warm Showers” tee-shirt. He insisted we come back to his parents house and eat cold fruit before saying we were more than welcome to stay. Farid was a delight but again, we had to keep pedalling and so an hour later we pushed on into the wall of humidity.
Farid had given us the name of a potential host (Sam) another 60km down the road and while it was 4pm we were confident we’d make it.
Four hours later we called him and he gave us the devastating news, we still had another 20km to cycle to his house and it was already getting dark. We didn’t know if we had it in us and on the outskirts of Talesh (a big city just before his own town) it was full dark and almost 9pm. A car pulled over and a man jumped out, introducing himself as an English university professor. He asked if we needed help and we said we were honestly trying to cycle to somewhere to sleep.
He told us to follow and in our weary state we followed to an enormous park full of singing Iranians. “You can put your tent here”, he said. We were tired, cranky and not keen to pitch our house in the middle of a festival but minutes later a gleaming four-wheel drive car pulled in and it was Sam and his family. How they had found us we will never know but we were soon following him out of the city another 15km to his house. Sam ran an English institute with his beautiful wife Sarah and their house was a gorgeous, modern, mini mansion. We were welcomed in, fed, watered and then taken to his parents’ house next door for tea. It turned out Sam was a Warm Showers institution on his own, hosting cyclists from all over the world for often days and sometimes weeks at a time.
We could see why. He was, smart, fun and driven and the family made us feel instantly welcome. It was a shame to cycle on the next day but our visa date was drawing closer and we still had a date with the Hesams.
With 15km to go we contacted Zahra and at the outskirts of town the family met us in their car. Hossein had organised a taxi to take our bicycles and were relieved of our steeds, given a cold drink and driven to the house. An entire downstairs suite of the house was offered and soon after arriving, showering and resting the trend of this remarkable family began. We were fed feasts of Iranian delicacies, plied with tea and yoghurt drink and treated like nothing short of royalty.
Most Iranians get just four days off per summer and to our mortification Hossein was taking one of his precious days off to take us to a nearby mountain village filled with beautiful terraced houses and hundreds of Iranian tourists. After breakfast he drove us through rice fields and tea plantations, stopping for delectable pastries to Masooleh where we walked around gorgeous old houses, ate sweeties and then were treated to delicious kebabs for lunch. The family refused money and we were overwhelmed at their kindness. Zhara had forbid us from leaving after just a day and while our visa dates were slowly closing we realised this was an opportunity we couldn’t knock back. We were given a rare and beautiful insight into a traditional Iranian family and if it meant we’d have to catch a bus for the last leg than so be it.
To add to the experience Hans and Uschie turned up on the second day and we enjoyed amazing feasts for every meal while learning about the traditions of religious families, the wedding ceremonies, the suitor process and most importantly the tradition of the Iranian table.
Friday in Iran is our Sunday in Australia and after Uschie and Hans had moved on we stayed, being treated to a boat ride along the river and marshes, local treats and foods varying from stews, to potato bakes and beautiful tzatziki dips.
Truth be told it was hard to sum up this family in a few sentences. Each member was kind, thoughtful, incredibly generous and eternally polite, warm and welcoming. We never ceased to be overwhelmed at how much they were willing to do for two smelly travellers and after just a couple of days we felt as though we were treasured members of the family.
It was easy to forget about the road that lay ahead, the fact that we needed to book our Tajikistan flight and the fact that we had probably not withdrawn enough money to get ourselves to Tehran and then out of the country because life in the Hesam house was all about peace, love and relaxation.
We knew this family would be the hardest to leave in our travels and we wished more than anything that the “Islamaphobes” out there, even just in Australia, could meet this awesome foursome and learn the most crucial lesson of all: we’re all the same, no matter our religion, no matter whether we cover our hair or not. After all we just want to live our lives and take care of our loved ones.