Would you believe me if I told you we'd been run off the road by a car full of Iranian woman, who whisked us away to their seaside villa for the night? I'm not sure I would believe me either…
But let me start where we left off. The border crossing from Armenia to Iran took five hours but was uneventful. Our 'fixer' had explained the process to us and we knew we were in for a wait. We spent the time chatting to the other team from Paraguay who was also waiting, as well as the Danish team who had been there two days and were being prevented from exiting Iran after they were turned away at the Turkmenistan border.
A bit about our fixer for those not in the loop… in order to enter Iran with a vehicle, the vehicle must have a 'Carnet de passage en douane' which is essentially a visa for the vehicle, and requires you to leave a hefty deposit in your country of origin, refundable once you prove you haven't abandoned your car in another country without paying import taxes. The difficulty is, that in Australia the deposit is only $300, but the admin fee is $900 per bike, plus $100 compulsory insurance. And only the AAA do it – there's no shopping around. So with a bill of $1,000 for each bike looming (not counting the deposit), and Iran being the only country this was needed, we looked for options.
Our options were to arrive at the border and find a 'fixer', or arrange one beforehand. We chose the latter. We selected Hossein from various internet reports as being reliable and honest, and we were not disappointed. He told us we would need to enter Iran through Armenia (hence the change of route), not Turkey as we planned. We are lucky – another rally biker was unable to get a fix for his bike at the Turkish border, so had to change his route completely as his Iranian single entry visa had already been stamped (you enter Iran first, get papers for bikes, then are released from customs into the country).
So after five hours of receiving our Armenian exit stamps – we were in!
This is Peter talking to someone who wanted to welcome us to Iran in the customs hall. Look at that chandelier!
Hypothetically speaking, if we had wanted to smuggle some Armenian Cognac into Iran, we would have hidden the bottle under my underwear (to avoid too much handling if we were searched). Hypothetically speaking we believe we would have been very successful.
The drive from the border to Trabiz – our first port of call, was extraordinary. The stark, desolate mountains are as ragged as the teeth of Stephen King's character 'IT' (or 'Cujo', take your pick) and the heat is overwhelming. We were again blasted by oxygen-thieving winds. But that was not our prime difficulty. Unfortunately, it is not permitted to download Google maps for Iran – so without a map and internet connection, we had a little difficulty finding our way.
At first we followed the Paraguayan team who were also heading to Tabriz. But they soon left the poor Whizzers who were battling to achieve 40km/h in second gear, in their dust (literally, dust). We followed the only road until we came to an intersection where we stopped, unsure of our next step. Left, or right?
An old jalopy stopped and we told him in our best Persian we were heading for Tabriz. He understood 'Tabriz' and told us to follow him (admittedly, our Persian needs some refinement). We followed him to the highway where Tabriz was clearly marked, and he waved us on our way.
The whole way, and even now, 95% of the cars and bikes which pass us hoot, wave, give us the thumbs up and yell 'hello' or 'bon voyage' out their windows. We feel like visiting royalty the amount of photos and video footage which has been taken by Iranians hanging out their car windows as they pass us (then often slow down, so they can pass us again).
We arrived in Tabriz and were surprised to find an enormous city. It didn't look that big on the map! Where to start looking for a hotel! Again, as Peter likes to do, we pulled up at a busy intersection causing traffic havoc and looking dazed. A friendly taxi driver asked us what we were looking for, and told us to follow him when we explained we needed a hotel. We thought we had it made as we wove through teeming traffic after our man. Eventually he pulled into a gravel side road, and we pulled up next to him only to realise it wasn't our guy! We'd been following the wrong taxi, for who knows how long! He looked at us oddly and drove off. Now we were really lost! We drove around for a bit, but knew we were out of our depth. We needed help.
We stopped at a store for a much needed Coke, and asked directions to a hotel. The man was extremely helpful and drew us a map to the 'city centre'.
As I said – we need to work on our Persian.
Eventually after more driving around, tired, hot, thirsty and filthy, we stopped again to ask a group of men, whose English is again, about as good as our Persian… they in turn accosted a man who had stopped nearby, to draw money, for help understanding us. Eventually it was agreed that he would take us to a hotel, and we would follow him.
This is my GoPro footage of me trying to keep up with Peter who is following The Man In He White Car Who Is Going To Save Us.
And save us he did! Not only he deliver us to a hotel, but a lovely hotel with an English speaking concierge (who has a cousin in Sydney – we would soon learn that most Iranians have a cousin in Sydney!).
We unpacked, showered and went for a quick walk about town. We knew we needed a SIM card so stopped at one of the shops which was still open. Again, no English, but this didn't stop one guy – a customer not an employee- talking our ear off in Persian telling us what I think he understood we needed. We headed back to the hotel for dinner, a delicious kebab with garlic yogurt and flat bread.
Breakfast the next morning was flat bread, Iranian cheese, honey and cream. It was absolutely mouth watering. Then our concierge arranged for a 'trusted' taxi driver to collect us and take us to the Bazaar to exchange our US$ for Rial and buy a SIM. Buying the SIM was interesting. We were seated on a luxurious couch and served Chai and pistachio meringues while the paperwork was being completed – with fingerprints!
We returned to the hotel, were told our SIM would only activate in a couple hours, so set off with 'directions' to the Caspian Sea – our next destination!
Our entire journey we were hooted at, waved to, photographed, and some of the young men going past on their bikes would all do the same little dance for me – I'm not sure if it was a 'hello' or some other type of proposition, but I'd laugh and wave back at them anyway.
We stopped in Ardabil along the way to get our phone loaded up, and once again we were overrun with strangers wanting to know about us. Every single person we speak to, tells us 'welcome to Iran' and shakes our hand.
We were still struggling with our phone (see note above about our Persian language skills) when this young fellow stopped to help us. He spoke really good English and spent about an hour of his time sorting it out for us, including calling MTN IranCell for us! The older guy ran a charity nearby and not only bought us an orange juice, but allowed us to use his office. He also asked if we had a place to sleep that night, and we explained we were hoping to get to Astara. When Peter went to buy some nectarines from the shop next door, he insisted on paying for them too!
Everywhere we stop, the children gather around and tell us "hello, how are you?" But if you respond, they repeat "hello, how are you?". It is delightful the way they try so hard to communicate with us despite knowing only limited phrases in English.
We reached Astara after driving along the Azerbaijani border for a lot of the way, and finally after crossing the Northern mountains, seemed to leave the hot dry desert for greener pastures. The Caspian Sea twinkled its aqua eyes enticingly at us, her lashes lowered seductively, and I dreamed of adding another sea to my growing list.
We wound our way down the mountain and found our next hotel. Most hotels have a restaurant, and with dinner generally eaten at 10pm, we usually eat there (or walk out for street food, if we're in a city). We asked (with the help of Google translate) for their traditional dish and received this enormous but delicious chicken dish.
The next morning we went in search of someone who could help solder our broken microphone. While I'm sure Peter was enjoying the situation of being able to talk to me without me being able to answer back, we knew we had to get it repaired. We found a small mobile phone repair shop, and Peter had a great time explaining what the problem was. The two of them managed a short term fix, and after a couple of hours we were back on track. The repair man at first refused to take any payment (despite having gone up the road to buy epoxy for us with his own money), but eventually accepted payment for the screen cover we bought for my broken phone (which is great, because it no longer feels like a cheese grater when we use it!).
Our next stop was Rasht (at the suggestion of our earlier English speaking concierge) so off we Whizzed. On the way we stopped to speak to some farmers who were harvesting their rice. It was amazing to see them using the old methods of hand scythe, mule and hand stacking. Of course Peter couldn't resist lending a hand, but not before I tasted my first rice straight from the field!
On our way to Rasht, we stopped for an oil change and were offered lunch and accommodation by curious bystanders. We had to push on so politely declined. About 50km out of Rash, Peter tells me that the car next to him is indicating for him to pull over. I said, keep going! They then slowed and did the 'smile and wave at me' which I reciprocated, before speeding up to Peter and offering him food out the window of the car. 'They're wanting us to stop and offering food' he tells me, 'Let's pull over'. I agreed.
The car was filled with four women, and we ate the bread and delicious eggplant dip they offered. One of the women, Samieh, asked where we were heading and we told her Rasht. 'That is my city!' she exclaimed, and it was settled, we were going home with her!
We followed her back to her family home which she shares with two sisters and her mother. She has two other sisters who are married and live with their husbands. One of the girls in the car was a sister, the other two just friends.
When we walked into the house, the women declared 'freedom!' And cast off their headscarves, instructing me to do the same. Mum and sister #3 (who wasn't in the car) they explained were 'religious' and would remain fully dressed. We were given more food and drink and discovered Samieh had a business degree and was hoping to travel to Italy to complete her studies, sister #2 in the car is an assistant accountant at the university and sister #3 is a teacher, currently also studying Persian. They had a brother who was killed in a motor car accident, and claim their father died shortly afterwards of a broken heart.
We were then told that we were not staying there, but that Samieh was taking us to the family Villa on the Caspian Sea for the night.
We bundled into the car (which was a very pleasant change for my butt) and off we went. First we stopped for some famous ice cream which is made from fresh fruit and was absolutely delicious, then headed to the villa. Once there, we were cooked a sumptuous dinner, before collapsing into bed at about 1am.
The next morning we were taken on a guided tour to the lagoon, and then the Caspian Sea. We wanted a dip but settled on a wade (I didn't pack my birkini). Peter made the fatal mistake of leaving his shoes in the car and walking across the hot sand to the water. 'Walk' is a strong word. He was like a leaping gazelle as he pranced over hot coals (the sand might as well have been) until his feet landed with an audible singe and rising smoke in the water. Once our laughter had subsided, I asked him if he wanted me to fetch his shoes for the return journey. I'm not calling him stubborn, but let's just say my generous offer was declined. Once again he defied gravity and pirouetted back to the car. Baryshnikov would be envious. Although the beach was probably only about 50m (so 100m round trip), the soles of Peter's feet were blistered by the time we got home.
After a sad farewell to our new friends, and promises of an invitation to the next lucky daughter's wedding, we were off. Our next goal was Tehran, which we hoped to reach the next day. We wound our way up to the hillside village of Masuleh, then down to Qazvin where we stayed last night. Today Tehran is ours, although our plan is to avoid the city (and its traffic) at all costs.
We were told before our trip, and since then by ralliers who are ahead of us, about the people of Iran, but let me say rumors of their friendly and generous nature is vastly underrated. We have been overwhelmed. It is actually quite emotional to experience their sheer joy with 'tourists' and when we asked Samieh about this, she explained that there are so few tourists, and many Iranians are unhappy with the political relationship their government maintains with other countries. I will write another post about some interesting conversations we had with Samieh (as in, once we're safely across the border). Peter says that every world leader should be forced to do a comprehensive, seat of the pants road trip in any country, about which they make comment, or form any kind of policy, or make decisions that affect them. I can't say I disagree – and I am humbled to call Samieh and her family my new friends.
Peter's feet are much better this morning. He also marvels daily at my body's apparent 'amazing' ability to heal itself. My Rocky Balboa upper left arm has returned to its usual tuck shop self, the bruises have turned a beautiful sickly yellow and are fading fast, and the scabs on my knees are looking good. Despite fears of infection, gangrene and possible amputation above the knee in relation to the really deep cut in my left knee from the fall (admittedly it probably could have done with a couple of stitches), Peter has declared my immune system nothing short of 'miraculous'.
We are on the mend and we are on the move. I can't wait to see what else Iran has in store for us.