IT’S Sunday in Tehran and heavy pollution sits like an old blanket over the city. Here air quality levels could at times put Beijing to shame while the traffic could give Rome a run for its money but for the first time in months we’re truly removed. Instead we’re watching rich Iranians swing Gucci handbags and sip lattes in the capital’s pint-sized international airport. Here you’ll find a whole other side to the Middle East and in a rare shock to our inflated egos no one stares or says hello. We’re no longer fascinating celebrities that blew in from the west but two slightly smelly travellers hauling panniers that have been stuffed into cheap blanket bags and bikes loaded into fraying cardboard boxes as we prepare to skip two countries and beeline straight for Tajikistan.
In three hours we’ll land in Central Asia’s poorest nation and it seems surreal that we’re wrapping up one hell of a remarkable month in a remarkable country in this sterile airport.
Especially considering the past few days.
Against all our plans we’d stayed with the wonderful Hesam family for well over a week and in the slightly chaotic days leading up to our departure they’d all but rained food on us and introduced us to their relatives, their region and typical Iranian life. They’d also sneakily purchased our bus tickets to the airport and on the night of our departure close family friend Leda turned up with gifts and money (that she’d snuck into a hand made card). To sum up the generosity of this family is tough in a mere blog and it was with teary goodbyes and a “Keep Calm and Live in the Best City On The Planet “Anzali” t-shirt that we boarded the overnight bus to Tehran, gearing up for a 2pm flight the following day.
For the next few hours we mulled over the past month and racked through our jumbled feelings on Iran.
The truth is no country is without problems and while we’d adored our stay in this hospitable Middle Eastern nation it didn’t come without conflicting thoughts and opinions. Liberal Iranians had told us of the country’s oppressive rules, the crippling shackles of the economy and the suffocating sanctions that made them a prisoner in their own land. A young English teacher in Ardabil said she was desperate to get to America where she would rip off the hijab and play sports with men, dance in public and cut the chains some Iranian women feel as though they’re born with. Other, less liberal Iranians, defended their country, their leader and the Islamic rule while secretly coveting life in the west with an almost burning curiosity that belied their beliefs while others were more pragmatic: “We know we have our problems, we know things aren’t perfect, but we also know there are many countries that are a lot worse off”. Like every country Iran is complicated and at times contradicting. You can’t deny its guide to living is a strict one and that women have less rights than men but simply stating it as such is woefully ignorant of all the complexities of this great nation. The women aren’t oppressed, they don’t cower behind their great black chadors and hijabs and as of the last few years, they’ve outstripped male populations in universities. Many are highly educated, highly opinionated and full of life and personality. For them the hijab isn’t a shackle but a sign of their dedication to their beloved religion and they cherish their sometimes overloaded roles in this society: mother, wife, house keeper, chef, full time worker in perhaps a school or office and religious devotee.
With our minds whirling we lined up to Tajik Air’s deceptively smart counter and forked out a whopping $100 USD for excess baggage before jumping on what had to be the worst airplane we’d ever seen. We would later find out that Tajikistan expats call it “Tragic Air” and avoided it at all costs.
The seats were crammed together, the safety warnings were long peeled off and the plane reluctantly took off with a great heaving jolt while we sweated like pigs in a sauna. The best I can say about the flight was that we survived.
Three hours later we touched down in Dushanbe and the shock was instant.
This small city is everything Tehran isn’t: impolite, green, cool, traffic-jam free and wonderfully colourful. The airport, however, was reminiscent of the bowels of hell. We were shoved, hassled, stalked and shouted at and that was before we’d even left the building. Scamming taxi drivers wanted to charge us the equivalent of about $15 to drive two kilometres and suddenly Iran, with its manners, helpful attitude and overwhelming politeness seemed a million miles away. We finally convinced a driver to take us the pitiful distance for about $5 (after ensuring he knew where our hostel was located) and 45 minutes later he was still driving around Dushanbe looking for the building. His limited English meant he couldn’t understand our directions and when we finally turned up to the impressive looking Green House Hostel he demanded double pay for his own ineptitude. And so the inner hulk roared but this time I wasn’t alone. Scott was fuming and our fury radars jumped to 10 as we screamed words my mother would be mortified to hear. The taxi driver screamed back and tried to run off with our money, Scott’s rugby skills came into play and then the hostel guests emerged to stare at what had to look like an absurd Monty Python sketch. In the end the driver backed off and we entered red faced into Dushanbe’s relatively new and fancy hostel.
We planned to stay just one night before cycling over to the home of prolific Warm Showers host Vero. The French expat is famous for hosting hundreds of cycle tourers making the ultimate pilgrimage over the Pamirs but owing to her own touring adventures she had only just returned with her son Gabriel and was reopening her house on the 31st. As a result the hostel was filled with a handful of cyclists awaiting her return, a small contingency of hikers and even a couple of long distance motorcyclists.
It was a wonderful collection of intrepid travellers in an impressive hostel and we hooked into spaghetti bolognaise cooked by a French cyclist and our first glass of red in months. Bliss.
The next day we put our bikes together, packed up the panniers and joined fellow cyclists Paul and Leissette (from Melbourne), Californians Didier and Kyla and the epically fit Romanian Radu on the commute to Vero’s.
Outside women wore all the colours of the rainbow in long feminine dresses with matching pants and billboards screamed out the latest Playstation games, Hollywood films and American fast food.
The pint-sized country is Central Asia’s poorest according to Wikipedia but judging by the gleaming Toyota 4-wheel drives whizzing down the immaculate boulevards you wouldn’t have known it. I was later told half of Dushanbe’s wealth could be attributed to the silk road opium traffickers but right then I felt closer to home than I had in months. Little did I know that feeling wouldn’t last.
Vero’s home has long been touted as a haven for cyclists tackling the holy grail of long distance routes and within minutes we could see why. The large abode sits amid green gardens, lush strawberry plants and grape vines while being shut off from the city via a huge wall with a 24 hour guard. Vero herself is a UN diplomat and cycle tourer who offers up her house and garden for free, taking in hundreds of people each season. German couple Leoni and Phillip had already made it to the house and after relaxed introductions we sprawled ourselves across the lawn, the tents forming a bizarre and colourful community of slightly mad and dirty travellers. Later that day two more cyclists from Japan turned up and the following our number grew to 17 with Erica from Italy, Peter from the US and our friends Barry and Richard from the UK rolling up.
We’d met Barry and Richard in Istanbul, caught up with them again in Ankara and stayed in contact on the road east with tentative plans to reach Dushanbe at the same time and tackle the Pamirs. By a twist of fate (otherwise known as our inability to factor in visa costs in Iran) our old plans would come into fruition and I couldn’t have been happier. Friends are a precious commodity on a long term trip and Barry and Rich were true gems.
In fact the horde at Vero’s (and of course Vero herself) were phenomenal and with eight tents sprawled around her backyard we came from just about every corner of the globe. We said goodbye to the relaxed Aussies and charming Californians (who were keen to push on over the Pamirs) and welcomed a Polish couple who’d come from China and an older Italian man who’d hauled his somewhat reluctant wife along for the ride.
Most of us tottered around Vero’s for at least a few days, cooking communal meals, sharing wild stories and laughs, fixing our embattled bikes and even washing smelly tents and sleeping mats.
With the Pamirs looming like Everest in front of me Vero’s became more than a home but the physical equivalent of the calm before the storm. It would have been easy to forget the road awaiting us had it not been for the tourers who’d already survived it. Like war veterans they came with tales of camel spiders, freezing cold nights, sandy ascents up to 4000 metres and corrupt Tajik militants angling for bribes. We’d also face stomach bugs, altitude sickness (the highest pass would reach 4600 metres) snow, winds and long stretches with no food not to mention one leg that would come within a few metres of the Afghanistan border. To make matters worse we’d seriously fattened up in Iran I feel about as ready as a bed-ridden hippo.
Scott whacked on an impressive five kilograms in one week while we lazed about at the Hesams and my pants were bloody tight.
We’d also stupidly organised a 30 day visa for Tajikistan which would force us to cycle a minimum of 60km a day over what is the second highest international highway in the world. For not the first time I wondered what the bloody hell I’d got myself into.
Despite the dangers and annoyances not one cyclist had regretted the route and when asked how it was they each responded the same way: “absolutely brilliant”.
With one day left until crunch time we learned the dangers wouldn’t just be on the Pamirs. At 3am on Friday two sets of gun fire shook the city and we woke up to the local news that a retaliation shooting had left more than four policemen dead. Despite Tajikistan being a Muslim country beards are illegal (as are black head scarves on women) and days earlier a young university student who had been abroad in Russia was arrested back on arrival, according to the story. Reports claimed he was beaten to death by police and thus the 3am shootings were acted out by his irate family. But as the hours passed the story grew and soon the BBC claimed it was a terrorism attack with 17 dead (including eight police). Vero said it could possibly be retaliation to the government annihilating opposition parties but it was so hard to know the truth with so many contradicting stories.
For us there was little to do but buckle up and continue on with plan A – cycle the Pamirs!