The kindness of strangers

The Iranian side of the Esendere border was friendly and efficient – no annoying or expensive scams, no time-consuming detailed checks of Carnet details. Also no currency exchange office, just a number of hopefuls wandering around with wads of assorted notes. At this stage, it wasn’t at all clear how reasonable the rate being offered was (approximately 6000 Rial to the Turkish Lira) or how legal it would be to change money here under the noses of the officials. Once all the customs and immigration formalities were complete, Dan asked the customs man about the rules regarding changing money at the roadside like this.

“100 is the maximum, because the roads in Iran are not so good and more is dangerous”.

That sounded more like a speed limit, so the currency question remained unanswered. Having taken the expensive precaution of filling both bikes with fuel before leaving Turkey, no fuel would be required that day. Dan’s colleague at JCB, Changiz, had put Dan in touch with his family in Orumiyeh and the accommodation for the evening was the family home of Changiz’ uncle Alireza. Consequently, there was no real urgency to get local currency so the guys left without Rials and headed off down the road to ride the 50 km or so to Orumiyeh.

Sure enough, the road from the border was not so good, but the locals didn’t seem so fussed about speed. In fact, they didn’t seem so fussed about many niceties of “normal” european driving habits. This was only going to get more exciting as the roads got busier towards the city. At any given time, it seems that every resident of Orumiyeh over the age of 18 is driving at least one car. The majority are Saipa Sabas, which are Kia Prides with a boot. Saipa also supply the universal blue Zamyad truck – as common in Iran as a transit in the UK.

There are also lots of 70s-chic Paykans – Iranian built by Iran Khodro for nearly 40 years from 1967, and now superceded by the thoroughly modern looking Samand. The remainder are mostly Peugeots – the 206, 405, the facelifted 405 “Pars” and Roa and, to Dan’s great delight, a surprising number of Citroen Xantias which made him feel very much at home. The Peugeot Roa looks like a 405, but one can’t help but notice Dan couldn’t help but notice that they’re rear wheel drive with a leaf-sprung live-axle back end – which isn’t a modern approach to chassis engineering unless you’re American. Dan was left to ponder what old-school running gear had been engineered under the relatively modern 405-alike skin to make this strange creation. It turns out that it’s actually built by Iran Khodro using the Peugeot name and styling under licence and is basically the archaic Paykan wearing a fancy new frock.

Followers of Dan and Ed’s previous trip, Brighton2capetown, may remember the rules of Moroccan roundabouts, and whilst Iranian roads are bigger and faster, they seem to share a Highway Code with their Moroccan cousins. The first rule of Iranian roundabouts is you do not talk about Iranian roundabouts. The second rule is that there are no rules. It’s every man for himself out there, to hesitate is to show weakness and weakness is not tolerated. One of the many 405s swept past Ed up the inside, swerved between the two bikes and round the outside of Dan, before slowing right down and peering in his mirrors. At the time, this felt a lot like the guy was trying to rid the streets of Orumiyeh of British motorcyclists. When the two Brits pulled over to phone their hosts and make arrangements to meet up, the 405 pulled up just in front, the driver running back smiling to say hello, welcome these new visitors to Iran and to Orumiyeh, shake hands, look at the bikes and find out where they were from. Before long, a small group of local people were gathered around for a qualifying round of the Hand-Shaking and Welcoming World Cup.

Once the crowd had mostly dispersed, one well groomed young man remained for twenty minutes or so, asking in faltering but good English whether he could help at all. Did the visitors need anything? Could he buy them anything? Could he phone their hosts in Farsi (Persian) to arrange their meeting? Could he take them to his home to wait for their hosts in comfort? Could he put them up for the night instead? This level of friendliness is difficult to adjust to for a Brit – where any foreigner stopping at the side of the road would be unlikely to get so much as a second glance, never mind an offer of a place to stay for the night. Eventually, once reassured that the visitor’s hosts were on their way, the kind man accepted a gift of a Turkish Biskrem (little biscuit filled with chocolate paste – and seemingly as essential an overlanding fuel as petrol) and left, visibly disappointed that his assistance had not been required.

Before long, Changiz’s family arrived at the roadside next to Dan and Ed. Changiz’ sister Narmin was leading the charge in their mother’s Kia, followed by their mother and a friend who had left another social engagement to come and say hello, and Uncle Alireza with his wife, son, daughter and daughter-in-law in a third car. Everyone was smiling and excited to meet their new British friends, and before long the family motorcade weaved it’s way through the streets of Orumiyeh to Uncle Alireza’s house, where the visitors were treated to an astounding welcome, rested, showered and taken out for dinner in the Band area of the city – which is the place to be on a weekend evening. After an excellent dinner, then taken out to a tea garden – raised carpeted seating areas in amongst the greenery, complete with a wandering minstrel who seemed particularly keen to sing for Dan – possibly attracted to his increasingly luxuriant beard.

On 21 May, two weary travellers had a Saturday morning lie-in followed by an excellent breakfast with the ladies of the house, Alireza and Farhad having gone to work at their respective branches of Bank Sepah hours before. Alireza had suggested that the bikes could be washed and Dan’s bike needed it’s oil change, having now done three thousand miles or so since it’s Bulgarian service. Washing the Turkish roads off the bikes and servicing the DRZ took all morning, and with the aid of a few scrap cardboard cartons, no oil was spilt on Alireza’s immaculate white driveway. The bikes had not been so clean since leaving the UK, and neither had they been treated to a stay in a garage.

Alireza had taken the afternoon off work specifically to show his guests around the city so after an excellent home-cooked lunch, once again there was a two-car family fleet travelling around Orumiyeh to see the sights. First stop was an ancient temple to Zarathustra, surrounded by various other historic artifacts that had been removed from their original surroundings and put around the temple in the centre of town. We’re talking ancient rock paintings chiselled out of their caves and concreted into place, and 2000 year old inscribed stonework removed from their display cabinets in museums and similarly cemented onto plinths, unprotected in town. This was interesting, and a very convenient way to be able to see these things, but it seemed almost a wilful attempt to destroy history by neglect. Even without vandalism, it’s hard to imagine these things lasting long out in the open. Contrast the approach here with that at Lascaux in France, where an intricate concrete replica of the Lascaux caves complete with their pre-historic paintings has been produced so that the breath of visiting tourists nolonger deteriorates the originals.

Next up was a treat – a visit to a confectioners, of a type unique to Orumiyeh. One speciality is a kind of pistachio and almond putty, made by hammering away at a mixture of the nuts and a concentrated grape juice syrup – the result is delicious. The other main type is nuts of various types coated in flavoured sugar – the favourites being walnuts with cinnamon and almonds with a hint of saffron. After being invited downstairs to see the stuff being made, a couple of souvenirs were bought to be taken with the travellers, Ed and Dan making a note to be sure to repay Alireza the purchase price as soon as they had local currency. A local SIM card was also bought from a nearby shop by another family member, adding to Dan and Ed’s mounting Iranian debts.

From there the party made it’s way across town to the old Bazaar, with an amazing array of items for sale, including a brand new Paykan pick-up, hand-made scythes, wood products, the usual shoes, clothes and foodstuffs, and the carpet shop that used to belong to the family.

Then on to the more modern and wealthier part of town – a visit to a very funky modern shopping centre, (this being the Azerbaijan region of Iran, Eddie Izzard fans could note that this was, strictly, an Azerbaijan shopping centre) and the ice-cream shop belonging to an old friend of Alireza. Here on the wealthier side of town, the hijab looks somewhat different – it is generally worn further back with western-styled hair showing at the front, and is more likely to be Luis Vuitton branded than the traditional plain black. Attitudes to such things seem to be changing, though those women looking to work in positions of responsibility still need to tow the line in a relatively small city such as Orumiyeh.

The final visit of the day was to Sar Margiz church, up on one of the mountains surrounding the city, built in third century AD, the place has a certain charm and a charming tradition – rub a stone against the wall and make a wish, if the stone sticks, your wish will come true. The place was closed when the tour group arrived, but after a few enquiries on behalf of the British visitors the gates were unlocked especially for the newly extended family to look around.

After this came dinner at a kebaberie, after which the party made their way back to the Nasouhi family home so that every man of posing age could be photographed astride Dan’s bike. Much hilarity ensued and the visitors were very pleased to be able to provide some small interest and entertainment in return for the astounding welcome they had received.

By Sunday 22 May, it was sadly time for the travellers to leave their new Iranian family behind. It was a great shame to leave after only a couple of days, but there was so much to see in Iran and on this trip, relatively little time to see it. There was the possibility to meet up with Narmin again in Tehran as she’d coincidentally be there when the guys needed to be there to pick up Turkmenistan visas, and there may be the possibility of seeing Alireza and family in the UK if they make it over to visit Changiz. Narmin and Alireza led the two bikes first to a currency exchange office so the travellers could finally get some local currency after having survived the first two days in Iran on the generosity of their hosts, and then to the road out of town towards Tabriz and onwards to the Caspian Sea coast. The exchange rate being offered at the office was 7350 Rial to the Turkish lira (significantly better than the 6k being offered at the border) making it approximately 17000 Rial to the pound. Even once his guests were equipped with huge wads of Rial, Alireza flatly refused to accept payment for the various things that had been bought for the travelling duo, so for the moment the debts would have to stand.

There is a causeway and bridge across Orumiyeh lake and whilst the weather was extremely hazy, it was possible to see that the water levels were very low. The view of the surrounding mountainous countryside however was almost completely obscured. The road to Tabriz however was good and the guys made good progress before heading into town to find fuel for Ed’s WR. More chaotic city driving was in evidence, it not being unusual to find yourself trying to exit a roundabout with a Paykan nuzzling against your right leg.

North of Tabriz and into the mountains, it becomes apparent that there are no trucks in Iran. Goods are instead ingeniously transported in clouds of smoke – heavy loads float up mountain roads in thick black smoke, before being transferred into impenetrable clouds of acrid white smoke for the descents. In another life, Dan would prescribe a reduction in nozzle hole size to improve in-cylinder mixture formation and an increase in injection pressure to maintain performance. In this life however the prescription was simply a twist of the loud-handle to blast past and enjoy the clear air in front.

Up high in the mountains, a tunnel loomed and the bikes blasted through, passing from the scrub land to England. The view from the twisting rollercoaster road is one of hills and valleys green with grass and trees, with views down to lush green pastures by the coast. It was only as the bikes approached the shoreline that they were once again transported, this time back to Asia – the lush green pastures are in fact paddy fields growing the local staple of rice. The search was on for somewhere to camp – it wouldn’t be long before dark, and the lush green paddy fields didn’t look so great for camping close up. Along the road to Choobar a pine forest appeared on the left and the guys decided to investigate.

As it happened, the place was filthy. There was more litter than grass, and whilst this certainly made it seem well used, it didn’t make it particularly appealing. Whilst riding up and down the road searching for a patch of green big enough to pitch a tent or two, the guys were approached by a guy called Mahmood on a rather funky “Jetro” branded dirt bike, who led them to a spot on the beach which looked very promising. Much cleaner than the forest, the only evidence of previous human activity within the immediate 10 metres or so was the remains of a campfire near the water’s edge. What followed was a sequence of sign language appearing to include walking and eating, and not a lot of camping. A few other locals appeared to check out the new arrivals, including a local private English tutor whose English whilst mostly correct came across as amusingly camp. After a bt of chat, the leader of one group announced “these guys are clearly tired, we should leave them in peace to get some rest”. He and his buddies departed, but the English tutor was understandably a little harder to deter from his free English practice. The conversation as the guys tried to put up their tents mostly consisted of repeated vocabulary questions, which whilst they were happy to help, got rather tiresome and obstructive at this stage in the day. It should come as no surprise that the invitation to stay at his home was turned down.

With tents up and a quick snack eaten, Dan inflated his Thermarest to discover an issue with it – the top layer was separating from the central foam, causing a bulge between his shoulder blades. The “Pregnarest” was a problem that a friend had suffered from in Africa, and the manufacturers had replaced it free of charge. Dan was hopeful for a similar conclusion just as soon as he could contact them. The guys were just about to settle for the night on the shore of the Caspian when Mahmood’s Jetro reappeared with a different pillion. This one was called Yaser and spoke excellent English. He explained that he was an active member of couch-surfing, and the guys were very welcome to stay at his, as lots of other travellers had done. They would be left to themselves, given free reign of the house, and not bothered with questions unless they emerged to make conversation. Moreover, Yaser recommended they stayed at his rather than on the beach as it was not unheard of for people camping there to have unwelcome visitors in the night. With that warning served, Dan and Ed realised they now wouldn’t get a good night’s sleep with or without unwelcome visitors – every little sound would disturb them, convinced they would be disturbed or something would be taken from one of the bikes. There was nothing for it but to pack up in the dark, and follow Mahmood’s two-up Jetro through the dark streets of Choobar to accept Yaser’s generous invitation.

After chatting about life, the universe, international travel and Iranian politics with Yaser until midnight, the guys finally called it a night and settled in the spare room for some kip. This didn’t aid their planned departure the following morning as they awoke later than planned. The urgency to get to Tehran was because the Turkmenistan consulate in Istanbul had been closed on Wednesdays, if the Tehran embassy had the same day off, another day spent in Choobar would result in a day wasted in expensive Tehran. Yaser came to the rescue however – a phone call to the Turkmenistan Embassy in Tehran confirmed their opening hours, and they were open on Wednesday. It would be good to go hiking in the hills with him and some friends after all, so the decision was made not to leave until the following morning, Tuesday 24 May. After a spot of lunch, Yaser’s friend Azim was summoned with his car (a Saipa Saba, of course) and his son Alireza to spend Monday afternoon taking the group round the sights of Choobar then up to the base of the mountains to take a hike to admire the view. The sights included a trip along the beach to Azim’s kiwi garden – Iran being the main producer of the fruit other than it’s New Zealand home. Kiwi gardens in this region are the big business – if you have the land and resources to set up a kiwi plantation, you have it made, relatively speaking.

After the kiwi garden came the rice paddies and then up the hill to the base of a dirt track that would take the walking party high up to enjoy the view of the coastline. After only a couple of minutes of walking, the view was already remarkable. With each metre climbed, it improved. At one point, one of the universal chinese Honda CG125 clones came down the track three-up. It’s a common form of family transport in Iran for single-child families – the child sits on the tank in front of dad, the wife on the back. Presumably it’s only the arrival of a second child or the first one’s feet dragging on the ground that would necessitate any other arrangement.

Before long, it was time to descend again, by a shorter steeper route. Having broken an ankle walking on a grassy slope a couple of years ago, Dan is now a little overly cautious on slippery slopes and it would probably have been quicker to come down the long route. Next to one precipitous drop, Azim climbed a tree and requested a photo call.

That evening, after a wash and brush up for the grubby overlanders, a couple of Yaser’s wife’s friends arrive, and after a while pluck up the courage to request photos with the foreigners, convinced as they are that Dan’s been in films. Dan is aware of a few episodes of Crimewatch that feature men with wild unkempt hair and big beards, but it seems unlikely that Iranian TV shows the BBC’s meticulous reconstructions of British burglaries. The girls are probably just lifelong fans of Flash Gordon and understandably convinced that the increasingly-bearded Dan is in fact Brian Blessed travelling incognito. Mary went so far as to insist the overlanders arms be draped around her shoulders for her photo. Dan and Ed eventually retired to the spare room for the night, resigned to the fact that they’d wake up in prison.

On Tuesday 24, the guys were surprised to wake up without leg irons or iron bars on the windows. Over breakfast, Yaser asked what problems the guys had had in Iran. The tongue-in-cheek response was that the biggest problem was all the nice people they met making it so hard to actually make any progress across the country… Despite this, the bikes were once again packed up and pointed towards Tehran. Yaser had spoken to a friend in Tehran – another British traveller whom he had “rescued” and who had been so taken with Iran and it’s people that he had decided to stay and learn Farsi to allow himself to find out more about the place. Sam had told Yaser it might be possible for the bikers to stay at his, and if not he may be able to find somewhere else. All seemed fine as the bikers headed out on the highway, with no address to head for, but a promise that Sam was expecting their call.

The ride was easy going through pleasant countryside before heading up into and over the mountains towards Tehran. Once again there was a tunnel to transport the bikes to a different world, here arriving in some kind of renewable energy paradise – a reservoir surrounded by wind-turbines bathed in glorious sunshine, with canopied plastic picnic benches though little shelter from the incessant wind. Food was purchased from a shop in the town, but more shelter from the wind was offered by a stop off on a little dirt track off the motorway out of town. The lunch itself was not entirely without incident, Dan managing to break a tooth on some particularly challenging cream cheese. This caused no discomfort however, so Dan was characteristically unfussed about getting it sorted, figuring that if it didn’t cause a problem by the time the bikes arrived in Tehran, it could probably wait until it got back to the UK.

By 6pm, the bikes were on the outskirts of Tehran, and keen not to dive into a bustling capital city with no precise location to head for, the guys paused at the edge and tried to call Sam. A recorded message explained that the phone was switched off. A text message was sent requesting a call back, and the guys waited. Figuring that it was worth doing something during the wait, a trip to the airport in search of web access resulted in a location for the all-important Turkmenistan embassy, which would be visited by two grubby overlanders the following day. By 9pm, there had still been no response from the elusive Sam, and the guys were in Tehran, in the dark, with nowhere to stay. Another attempt at a phone call at least got an answer, but it didn’t sound promising. Time for Plan B. Ed once again braved the roaming charges and fired up the Blackberry to locate a likely hotel. In retrospect, it was crazy to have left Choobar without a back-up, particularly having never actually spoken to their proposed host before. Thankfully, the Horizons Unlimited forum had a recommendation for Hotel Khayyam, which was pinpointed on the home-made GPS maps less than 2 miles from where the bikes were currently parked. Pausing only for Dan to lose his temper with some kids messing with his bike, the guys headed for their new destination to be pleasantly surprised with the deal on offer. Thirty US dollars a night would bag them a room in the tyre-and-general-auto-supplies-region of Tehran, with shared bathroom facilities, breakfast and inclusive WiFi web access. Done.

The following morning, a cab to the embassy cost about a fiver, and got the guys there comfortably before the place was due to open. Even more comfortably before it actually did open. The Turkmen were doing good trade that day, with a few groups waiting to pay to be allowed to visit Turkmenistan, including a very friendly dutch cyclist by the name of Vincent. After making the guys play the waiting game until just before closing time, the consular officials finally proclaimed that yes, the applications made in Istanbul had been approved in Ashgabat, and the visas could be issued. Fifty-five US dollars would have a visa arrive in a passport in another four days, eighty-five dollars each would make them appear in about five minutes. As the difference in price was the same as only one extra night’s accommodation in Tehran, the increased fee was paid and the visas were duly stuck into the waiting passports.

By the time the guys got back to the hotel, Narmin had already been in touch to suggest meeting in the evening to see a bit of the city and get some dinner with some of her Tehran friends. This left the afternoon free for the guys to explore their local surroundings. It really was tyre-haven – the alley outside the hotel had two tyre shops, the next one along had a tyre fitting workshop and the main street was packed with more tyre shops and car accessory stores. Not your classic tourist hotspot, but not a bad spot for an overlander to hang out.

There were also a few fabric workshops, and Dan enquired with one about making a new bag for his tent poles. The proprietor of the shop had all manner of fabric options, but unlike most fabric shops, the male customer was only expected to form an opinion on strength and durability, not weave, pattern, colour, texture or whether or not it would go with those scatter cushions. To Dan, this seemed an altogether more agreeable sort of fabric shop than most. After a hurried ballpoint sketch on a piece of scrap paper, a price of 80,000 Rial was agreed (about five quid). This seemed a far better option than spending a few evenings trying to stitch the post-apocalyptic original back together. A brisk walk back to the hotel to fetch the poles and within minutes production had commenced. A few minutes later, production had been completed and the new bag had the poles in it. Dan leafed through his wallet, counting out the agreed price – the craftsman counted 60,000 Rial back into Dan’s hand and accepted just 20,000. A better-than-new pole bag, custom made while-you-wait for £1.20: not a bad service, by any means.

Further wandering along the street found Ed some additional rubbery insoles for his bike boots (the vibes of the Yam having not completely disappeared) and after chatting to the owner of a tiny but very well equipped machine shop for a while, the guys found themselves in the white-goods district. All the well known brands were on offer, as well as a few others. Ever fancied a Royal Chiantishire range cooker? There’s a couple of guys on little motorbikes somewhere in central Asia who know where you can get one.

One aspect of Tehran that’s hard not to notice is the increased frequency of the token-hijab. In small towns women are generally in a full length shawl, in smaller cities such as Orumiyeh there is a mix, but generally a “proper” tailored black head scarf. In the anonymity of a huge city like Tehran, the token-hijab with big hair sticking out both front and back is far more likely, and is likely to give the impression of Parisian chic rather than any religious devotion and be teamed up with heavy make-up. It makes the visitor wonder just how long the current rules can realistically last, while they seem to be spiritually irrelevant to so many of the people they are applied to.

On the way back to the Hotel, Ed happened to spot the Total Quartz 7000 oil that the guys had used in Africa and also found in Turkey. It was in the doorway of a tiny little shop owned by a guy called Behzad. The guys were invited down to the basement to see some photos of Iranian scenery and drink tea. It turns out that Behzad is the proud owner of a glorious bright red Land Rover Defender V8, which he uses to take himself, his wife and his Canon 50D to various stunning locations in Iran to camp, photograph and generally enjoy the place. It’s not surprising that Dan and Ed (also fans of funky off-road transport, adventurous sight-seeing and Canon cameras) would find the very friendly and helpful Behzad very easy to like. After being shown some stunning photos of a few locations, the guys were desperate to learn more. Behzad promised to bring in his GPS the following day to provide waypoints for a few of the places – what more could anyone ask?

That evening, Narmin and her friends arrived at Hotel Khayyam to take Dan and Ed sight-seeing. The route took them past an important Mosque (no photography allowed), the old parliament building (no photography allowed) and the new parliament building (no photography allowed). The guys decided that to be on the safe side, it was probably best not to even remember what these places looked like, to save any awkward questions being asked at the border.

Dinner was to be in what used to be a village in the mountains to the north of Tehran, but which has now been absorbed and become a playground for Tehran residents. The place is wonderfully characterful, and provided an authentic Iranian dining experience.

The seating arrangement was the now familiar raised carpeted booth, the foods rather less familiar. Aash (a rather good vegetable stew/soup) was followed by a speciality made from a sheep vertebra in a pot. Not something you can find amongst the mixed grills and deep-fried scampi of your local Beefeater menu. The precision of the drinks bottle amused the visitors, having never seen a properly toleranced food container before (300ml +/- 7.5ml).

On the way to dropping off the guys back at their hotel, Narmin asked what the strangest thing about Iran was for the British visitors. The answer really was that the place is strangely similar to the UK. Attitudes on the ground are much the same between the two countries, and nothing like as different as the media or popular attitudes in either country would have you believe. Of course it is difficult for most Brits to adjust to a non-secular government and legal system but the reality is that these things do not define a people, and it is the people who make a place.

On Thursday 26 May, the guys revisited Behzad’s little oil shop to collect the waypoints for a couple of places to visit on their way towards the Turkmenistan border, before meeting up with Mahdi (one of Narmin’s friends met the night before) and her friend Mohammed to visit an Iranian craft fair. Mohammed is Iranian, but works in Tajikistan, and was happy to share his Tajik mobile number in case the travellers required assistance on their way through. Mahdi could not be dissuaded from buying the travellers gifts, even though it seemed to them that they should be buying the gifts in exchange for her time taken to show them around. In fairness, it is probably the generosity of the people that is the most striking difference between Iran and the UK.

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