Friday, 20 September 2013

Iran: A (short) Game of Two Halves

Expansive vistas!

Part One:

We’ve just spent ten days cycle touring in Iran. We found expansive, dry landscapes, dotted with the odd village. The roads were reasonable, and the drivers very considerate of cyclists. For accommodation, we discovered that Iranians are camping and picnic lovers, especially at this time of year, and we could join them in camping in children’s playgrounds, central town roundabouts, and city parks. 

Camping with the multitudes in the park, Hamadan.
 In terms of clothing, I had to be fully covered at all times, from ankles to head, and Ollie from ankles to biceps. After some initial frustrations with a hot, neck smothering scarf in windy 40 degree days, I mastered the technique, and was also relieved to find that although Oliver was the first and chief spokesperson, my attempts at conversation were well received. We enjoyed some cities, the desert city of Tabriz, all shades of beige, pink and white skyscrapers set amongst the red hills. Hamadan had a more ancient centre, beautiful mosques and an old covered bazaar, its narrow alleys filled with women in black chadors.

Riding fully covered. In my bright red Tajik kurta I didn't exactly blend in, but seemed the coolest and most practical option!

In Hamadan Bazaar, a striking mix of black chadors and sparkly tinsel.

We had heard of the hospitality of Iranians. Indeed, it has been the major recommendation we have heard from cycle tourists we meet going west to east: “Go to Iran! The people are so wonderfully hospitable!” And they were right. The care, help and generosity we received there exceeded expectation and imagination. A typical example is this: A car passes us as we cycle, and pulls over. A man climbs out, goes to the boot, pulls out something. We roll up. “Salaam!” “Salaam!” He hands us a bag of four peaches. We say, “No, no!” He says, “Yes!” “No, no.” “Yes!” He pushes them on us. “Where are you from?” By the end of the conversation, we have his cellphone number, “Incase you need any help, anywhere to stay, just ring.” We wave goodbye. This happens multiple times a day. Here I will insert our “Iran Gift List”. These gifts were given over our ten day stay.

Breakfast x 6
Tomatoes x 9
Bag of figs
Bag of dried mulberries
Packet of biscuits
Melon x 6
Sanyak bread x 5
Lavash bread x 3
Cup of chai/tea x 6
Cucumbers x 3
Bottle of water/ice water x 4
Bunch of grapes x 8
Sheep cheese
Apples x 2
Night’s stay
Bicycle guiding around city
Ice creams
Kebab lunch x 2
Cup of coke
Egg sandwich
Malt drink (non-alcoholic beer)
Night time car escort along motorway
Car escort for city route finding x 2
Motorbike escort for route finding
Sports bars
Jam pikelet
Diversion of fierce dogs by car pulling over and tooting horn
Peaches x 4
A shower
Bag of almonds

So much kindness and attention was given to us. Our Kiwi/personal desire for free time and personal space were sometimes challenged simply by the sheer amount of friendly approaches, helpers and self-appointed guides.

As well as these short encounters of generosity, we were blessed by the friendship of some special people during our time. We first met Faeze, a twenty six year old economics student at Tabriz University, as she called a long “Welcooome!!” out of her family’s car. They stopped in a town down the road, and again talked to us there, inviting us to stay with them when we got to Tabriz the next day. 

Me, Faeze, Faeghe (sister) and Mohammed (father) having breakfast in their house, Tabriz.

So we spent the next night at their family home, enjoying a shower, lovely fruit, a special local meal involving stuffed fig leaves, and a trip to their beautiful city park and pool, El Goli. The following day Faeze took us to the Old Bazaar to help us find some things we needed, and we met another amazing person, her friend Bahador. He was unstoppable, treating us to special ice creams and an amazing kebab lunch, and working to get us all the discounts on our other purchases that he could wangle! We all met again for breakfast the next morning, in a lovely outdoor eatery, again no chance of paying the bill ourselves. Bahador’s sister Shiva met us there too, and Faeze’s sister Faegheh. We enjoyed wonderful conversation, loving their enthusiasm, motivation and sense of humour.

Anna, Shiva, Bahador and Oliver having breakfast (flat breads, omelette, honey, butter cream and chai)

Back on the bikes again, we encountered what felt like a more old fashioned type of hospitality, as we were literally dragged off from our kerbside bread munching to the house of Hanum, a woman whose home was obviously a bit of a local hub. She gave us chai and grapes, and then offered me a shower, an offer I couldn’t refuse, although it was an unconventional hour. She wouldn’t hear of us leaving without lunch, so we stayed for omelette, bread and salad.

Hanum, Shotkar and Akbas

Amazing experiences, plenty to challenge, inspire and interest us. We realized our time in Iran wouldn’t be altogether simple and easy, but we were keen to get more to grips with this very different culture, when...

Part Two:
“Money! Money! Dollars? Have you dollar?” I’m beginning to feel increasingly intimidated, as through the broken English it’s fast becoming obvious that the dozen or so Police we’re surrounded with are wielding a fair bit of power over us. How justly they will choose to use this power remains to be seen. For the second time in 24 hours we’ve found ourselves in an Iranian Police Station. Last night in Ghahavand they took us in and gave us a place to camp, they were jovial and caring, offering us chai and lavash (bread). Tonight there’s no such fun to be found. How did we get here?

Thursday 12th September, we were enjoying a peaceful scene, riding along a pleasant rural road enroute to the small Iranian town of Khondab. The sun was slowly sinking and local life quietening in the late afternoon. We thought it was not a big deal when we were pulled up by three officers in a marked Police car. Just another standard passport check surely. The fact the car was marked and the officers were in uniform gave us an assurance. The scene appeared much more legitimate than the two random guys in a beat up old car last week that asked to see our passports. On that occasion we rode away quickly, playing dumb. This time however there were phone calls back and forth, serious faces, some limited attempts at English translations through broken cell phone coverage, and an ever-increasing sense for us that things we becoming abnormal. Sure enough the vibe we felt was soon confirmed. The officers held our passports and we were handed over to a second pair of officers in another car who proceeded to escort us to the Khondab station 15km down the road. Along the way I couldn’t believe we were a Police priority when all around us other motorists drove in a manner which in NZ would have resulted in a good size fine and a nice collection of demerit points!

Upon arrival a couple of stern looking plain clothes Police ushered us into a small office and proceeded to sit us down for questioning. Questioning though is not really an accurate term to choose to describe this peculiar situation. We and they blundered our way through a foggy haze of misunderstandings. Frustratingly they wouldn’t let us get our phrasebook from our bags, and as they talked at us louder and louder their opinion of us appeared to grow increasingly negative. We were in the dark. What the heck was this all about?! And why now was this policeman, obviously a senior, demanding to look through all our photos?! We’d done nothing wrong though so surely eventually we’d get through this rigmarole and move on without problem.

One man came back, waving photocopies of our passport. “Five!” he announced. Finally we had some vague understanding of a problem. The officer proudly held up a handful of fingers and waved our passports around. Our understanding was that we still had 14 days left on our visa; they continued to insist that we only had five. Odd, but that’s no big problem, so we thought, we could roll with these punches and get a bus south to Isfahan and apply for a visa extension there.

“No problem. Welcome to Iran!” our young police friend finally announced proudly, and ushered us out. For us however there was still a problem. Night was setting in, we’d already ridden 95km for the day, yet the Police were now refusing to let us stay in their town.

“Hotel, No. Chaador(tent), No. Arak. Hotel. Go!” We were now expected to ride another 85km through the night. With maps on hand, using the minimal Persian language we knew and no doubt some genuinely desperate looks on our faces, we persuaded Police that this was completely and utterly ridiculous. Their solution however was not to let us stay but to provide us with an escort. For some reason we were seriously not wanted in this town.

So the bikes, bags, and us were squeezed into an unmarked Police truck, we were handed over to another two junior officers who’d just arrived on the scene and off into the night we roared, swerving unlit motorbikes and struggling to see the road, dimly illuminated with our single headlight. After only 15km we swung off the main, two large gates were opened by armed guards and we pulled into the courtyard of another Police station where out of the darkness around a dozen young men in the camouflage arrived to greet us, not with smiles and handshakes but with talk of “Money” and “Dollar” and much laughter as we grew rapidly more uncomfortable with our plight. The three men in full combat kit and weaponry who looked down on us from the roof didn’t help the vibe. To their credit they did sit us down and we were presented with a plate of melon and grapes as we waited, although by 9pm after a big day riding, we found it a poor substitute for dinner! We waited some more. An hour ticked by and departure looked likely as the radiator was refilled with cold water and the cab was loaded with rifle and baton. “My goodness,” I mused, “what tricks do they think we’re going to try and pull here?!” But after those preparations our bags and bikes were then surprisingly unloaded again, and that truck disappeared into the night. Thankfully before long a new vehicle rolled in through the large steel gates, our kit was reloaded, and we were handed over to yet another driver, this time a local taxi man. We set off once again, hoping that this time we might be taken to Arak and then left to our own devices.

To begin with it was a relief to be away from the Police and their intimidating presence. After not long though it became apparent that this driver was a complete loose unit, as he sang, mimicked us and made loud animal noises though the night. It also quickly became apparent that he must have been briefed to keep us under tight rein. We were effectively in custody! And each time we’d been handed over to a new escort who understood less of our original situation things felt like they were spiraling further out of perspective.

On arrival in Arak we drove around in circles as he attempted to book us in to five star hotels while we insisted on cheap, as this and our forced “taxi” were at our own cost. Eventually with our sanity at serious risk we came to a compromise. Just when it seemed the saga might have come to an end our bags were locked inside the truck and our driver insisted that he must check us in before we had access to any of our things! From the hotel he had to obtain written proof of our check-in to take back to the Khondab police force to show he’d done his job and cleared us out of their precious little rural small town.

At 1am, after over seven hours of increasingly stressful confusion, rattled and in disbelief, we crashed into bed!

Waking the next morning our solution seemed simple, we’d head for Isfahan on a bus and get our visa extension. This would solve the date confusion on the existing visa. We were rattled, but we didn’t want to bail on this country yet. Down stairs in the lobby we got chatting to a group of young soldiers staying in the hotel, in mufti on their day off. They were fascinated by us and in typical Iranian fashion keen to chat. What they told us left us stunned. What they had been told was that we had been “captured” and were “suspected spies”! The complexity of our new found situation was fast unveiling itself. Suspected spies are highly unlikely to be granted visa extensions! In fact back in early July in the Tajikistan Pamirs we’d had a conversation with a German traveller who’d faced similar accusations from the Iranian authorities and was subsequently denied visa extension.

By this time we were down to four days remaining on the visa (apparently, we’re still confused by the wording on the visa!) and if we were denied an extension in Isfahan we would be a long way from the safe haven of the Turkish border, with little time and in some serious bother. Question: What’s worse than being a suspected spy in Iran? Answer: Being an overstaying suspected spy. So literally within the space of 30 seconds our path became obvious. Departure to Turkey was the only low risk option. Sometimes risks are worth taking, after all fortune favours the brave doesn’t it?! I’m just not so sure that fortune favours the brave when you’re dealing with Iranian authorities!

So now a week on we are happy to be several days into the Turkish leg of our journey. We could have taken the risk but it didn’t seem worth it and we are absolutely pleased with the decision we made. A weight lifted off our shoulders as we were stamped out of Iran and into Turkey. There certainly is some sadness in leaving Iran and it’s wonderful people after such a short time. They themselves are obviously saddened by our situation and the issues their country has. Even the young soldiers in the hotel lobby showed their frustration and sadness at our misfortune.

As to the cause of this whole debacle, one young Policeman who spoke a little English said to me (perhaps naively), “No tourists can stay here, this town is too important to Iran.” Most locals obviously have no idea of the issues, as they had recommended the route we took. Another of our helpers in the lobby mumbled under his breath to me, “This is a nuclear area,” he whispered. As I suspected, being handed from one escort to another, and onto the hotel, our story had evolved. I showed this kind man on the map where we’d originally been pulled over and it was around 200km from where he’d been lead to believe, 200km from the nuclear area of which he spoke.

In the small town of Khondab, we are just left to guess what secrets may be hidden nearby!

Part One: Anna
Part Two: Oliver

Some of our helpers in Arak

An interesting section of hill riding near Kharvana

Melon seller on the higway to Tabriz

Tabriz is famous for spectacular carpets, handmade art works to be hung on the wall.

Tabriz friends, Bahador in the back, then Anna, Faeze, Faeghe and Oliver

Mosque in Hamadan

Old village near Ghahavand

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