The Islamic Republic of Iran
My last couple of days in Azerbaijan were a gentle roll down the Western flank of the Caspian Sea. The Caspian conjures images of C.S. Lewisian fantasy worlds, but I'm afraid it's rather more hum-drum. Rolling roads through forests, and fields of cotton and vegetables and small, pleasant Azeri towns, and the occasional overflowing truck load of cotton bearing down upon me on the wrong side of the road. The real highlight of my last few days in Azerbaijan was my stay with Ramil, who I got talking to in the small Azeri town of Lenkoran and who offered me a place to lay my head for the night, scoured the town for the very freshest, local recipe, baked chicken and generally treated me like royalty. Ramil's hospitality was quite humbling and it was a real shame to have to push on so abruptly the following day, but my visa was running low on days, and I'm due in Dubai for Christmas. Ramil, thanks again for your quite heroic hospitality. Ramil and I After I left Ramil I had a short 40k ride to the Iranian border during which time I managed to change all my Azeri Manats, to Iranian Rials (and was invited to share lunch with the money changers family in the process - a little bizarre). The border at Astara is a busy one, but clearly they don't get a lot of tourists making the crossing into Iran here. There were a lot of special forms to fill in, which it took the Iranian officials some time to merely locate let alone translate my answers to Farsi. It would seem that trying to convert "Ashford" (my place of birth) into Farsi script is a particular challenge. Some hours later, with several forests worth of forms filled out in triplicate, numerous photographs snapped and even my fingerprints taken (why I'm not sure) I was through. Frustratingly, I was plagued by a series of punctures in my first few days in Iran, despite my brand new tyres, and my progress was slowed quite a bit by this. Both pumps which I bought in Turkey are less than brilliant, and it takes me a long time to get enough pressure back in the tyres if I get a flat, and even then I have to go in search of a top up in a petrol station or mechanics shop. I don't really mind this because tracking down a man with a pump is always a bit of an adventure. The mechanics in Rasht enjoy a well earned cup of tea and a sit down after a job well done. I'm not sure it needed all 7 of them to pump up a type, but that's how they roll here in Iran. After cycling down the Caspian coast for a few days, from Rasht I turned inland. Crossing the Abhorz was some of the most physically arduous cycling of this trip; I went from 25m below sea level to over 1500m all the time battling a headwind that constantly threatened to blow me off the bike, but after three tiring days I was up and over. In the one-time Iranian capital of Qazvin, about 100k to the west of Tehran I plotted my assault on the desert to the south... Water bottles with water, rice and pasta. Hello carbohydrate. I am now in Qom, the cultural hometown of the current Iranian administration, with 220km of desert behind me, which was (as you might expect) very flat and very dry. The distances are vast it's not uncommon to go 50km between villages, and hence opportunities to get water, so I have to plan ahead a bit more than I have been. What I hadn't realised is that central Iran is largely over 1000m in altitude which, in December at least, makes for short hot days and long, cold nights. In fact that's not quite accurate, it makes for warmish windy afternoons, long cold nights and mornings which are a gentle transition between the two. For the last 6 days I have been getting up, putting warm clothes on, and watching the sunrise while eating leftovers from the previous evenings dinner and drinking "3 in one" (instant coffee, powdered milk and sugar). Following this on the bike I jump and pedal until the sun goes down again at about half 5. The desert is very dramatic, but the above routine would be a little repetitive, (i hesitate to use the word boring) if it wasn't for the incredulous Persians who, perhaps with reasonable cause, stop to enquire why I am alone in the middle of the desert on a bicycle. At least once or twice an hour a motorbike, car or truck pulls alongside for a chat, and these conversations are always quite entertaining. My favourite of these was when a couple of guys in an ambulance pulled over, and invited me to stop for a cup of tea at their emergency centre a couple of kilos down the road. I ended up stopping for a few hours for lunch and playing chess, table tennis and cards with the staff of this medical outpost in the desert. It was just as well they didn't have any emergencies to deal with. The "emergency station" staff in the desert. The empty spaces make for relatively quiet cycling, but the Iranian towns are total mayhem. As I entered Qom this afternoon I watched a guy on a motorcycle, wearing no helmet, go full tilt the wrong way around a roundabout, thick with high speed traffic, while chatting on his mobile phone. If anything it makes me glad I'm on a bicycle rather than having to compete with these crazy drivers on their own terms. After a rest day in Qom it's back out to the desert I go. 1400k to Bandar Abbas... Sunrise, and breakfast in the desert.