Category: Silk Route 2012 Page 2 of 9

Meeting the people of Iran

Traveling over the ancient Silk Route by bicycle shows you this wonderful world we live in, full of beauty, charm and adventures. Iran is definitely part of this wonderful world! Full of history and friendly people! The Silk Route took us through the cities of Quchan, Bojnurd, Shahrud, Semnan, Theran, Zanjan and Tabriz with many small villages in between. Plenty of time to meet the people of Iran!

Meeting local people is easy and the first interesting discussion I had, was actually next to our camp site on the second day. Due to the end of the Ramadan and the 16th summit of the Non Aligned Movement (countries) in Tehran, most Iranians were enjoying a long weekend or short holiday. And Iranians love to camp when they have holidays, something which totally surprised me! They camp preferable in parks or next to a mosque, spent their evening on a carpet while eating and drinking, and sleep outside of in a typical Iranian tent! I have seen camp sites with hundreds of people, with kids playing and men smoking water pipes. But all is needed for an interesting discussion is a cup of tea! With more than 50% of Iranians less than 35 years old, most of them speak English pretty well. And as I am from The Netherlands, I don’t mind asking people about their government, religion or view on the world. Most Iranians don’t hesitate to express discontent about the lack of freedom in their country. Women have to wear a chador but most women don’t want to. Officially almost 100% of the Iranians are muslin, but there are just a few people going to a mosque. Partying, like going out to a bar or discotheque is also not possible in this country. The same is true for alcohol. So people find ways around that. Truck drivers smuggle alcoholic beer into the country; which tastes much better that the non-alcoholic fruit beer which is available in most mini markets. Iranian pop music is actually pretty good; one of our support vehicle drivers is enjoying loud music at lunch or in camp! In the discussions I have with Iranians, it is obvious that somewhere in the next couple of years a rebellion against the regime will happen. As one Iranian man says: “a wind of change will blow through Iran within a few years”. Many people I spoke are also saddened by the imagine that Iran, and thus Iranians, have abroad. But the people of Iran are one of the friendliest and hospitable I met in Asia!

You can notice the friendliness in many simple things. For example: riding in the mountains, a car stops and offers me some orange juice. In a way I can’t refuse! Or a real Heineken (5% alcohol, and Ingrid is my witness)! I was walking through the streets of Tabriz when a man walks towards me and asks me where I am from. Before I can say anything he continuous speaking and says he’s happy I am visiting his city and country and hope I enjoy may stay here! Hospitality is part of Iranians culture. T’aarof is a kind of ritual where the host is obliged to offer a guest anything, and the guest is equally obliged to refuse it. But I can tell you that’s difficult! I met this guy next to the highway selling sun flower pits. I had a nice chat with him, and he gave me two sunflowers. I refused kindly but he insisted and put them on top of my back rack. When I saw an Iranian pay 20.000 Reals for two, I insisted to pay him the same. He refused. I wanted to push the money into his hands, he pulled back. There was simply no way not to accept these sunflowers! He must have a simple life with not much money, but he shared what he had with a stranger, a guest. When is the last time you have seen someone doing that in the west?

There are much more similarities between Iran and the west than I thought there would be. The cities in Iran are full of life: commercial streets and shopping centers are offering western style clothing and other luxury items, lots of traffic and traffic jams, fast food restaurants serving Coca Cola or Fanta, there is a difference between rich and poor when looking at expensive jewelry, BMW’s and houses in Tehran, there are high speed cameras on the highways, people love their children and family and most of all they want to enjoy life. But there are also differences: public busses or subways have special areas for women, women have to cover their head with a scarf of chador although some show more hair than others and everywhere in the country you see pictures or the two Supreme Leaders Rouhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei. In many cities and villages you see also billboards showing pictures of the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war, which made somewhere around 750.000 Iranian deaths. Also, in many roads in cities and villages you’ll find many boxes for collecting donations, apparently for one of the five ‘pillars’ of Islam.

Iran has an ancient culture and our local support guide Ali has done a great job in showing us as much as possible. Camp sites were always special; a.o. we camped next to a mosque, an abandoned mine or inside a caravanserai. He gave us some insights in the country’s history and geographical location. In Tehran he organized a visit to the Golestan Palace. In Tabriz we went to the Azerbaijan museum, the Blue Mosque and a local festival where one of us was interviewed for the Iranian television. The bazaars in Tehran and Tabriz were impressive: many small shops for kilometers and kilometers in small alleys! I bought a real Gucci bag for Mariëlla! And also a Channel and a Louis Vuitton bag! 😉 Ali was able to persuade the tour leader to adjust the route (no highway!) so we’re able to visit the Qara Church, which is listed in the UNESCO World Heritage list!

Iran has been a great experience! Such a difference from what I read in the newspaper! There is much more to see and explore in Iran! And certainly on a bicycle!


 (I have too many pictures to sort out… just an impression above)



First impressions of Iran

Cycling through Iran is something I’m really excited about. With the Caspian Sea in the north and the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman in the south, Iran has been important for the Silk Road and trade between east and west. The country has one of the oldest civilizations dating back to 2.800 BC and yet we know so little about it. So it’s great to be here and learn more about the people living in this country!

For some reason, border crossings have always taken much time especially for a group and their bicycles. Leaving Turkmenistan went quickly (due to a not working X-Ray machine) and entering Iran went even faster with just an extensive passport check. Just before we were allowed to enter the country, the head of Immigration gave us a warm welcome! He wishes us a great time in Iran and hopes that our stay will be that pleasant that we come back many more times! Wow, I have been traveling to many countries, but never felt more welcome than here!

From the border we cycled in two days to Quchan. On the first day we were able to camp a little bit further (30 kilometer) down the road in a little park due to the fast border crossing. This was the month of the Ramadan, and people are allowed only to eat before sun rise and after sun set. Which means: many people go out for a picnic in the evening. Until late. We were camping in a perfect picnic park… This was also true for our second night, where people were celebrating the end of the Ramadan. It was special to see how large families were gathering together and have a nice meal in the open air. It was also the first time I saw tents, other than ours, where people would sleep in; both during the hot afternoon and at night.

Since the second day was only 50 kilometer, I was able to explore Quchan in the afternoon. First impression is that it was similar to a small Chinese town. Lots of small shops selling the same things or things you would not need. Lots of traffic without much regulation. Many people in the streets. But it’s different. People seem to me more modest. Advertising is less obvious. There is no loud music or shouting in the streets. The cars use their horns seldom. And there are no tall buildings (which you would see in China everywhere). People are friendly and hospitable. We were invited for a cup of tea and some bread at one of the picnic’s right next to a mosque. That was very special since a large group of people was praying only 10 meter from where we were sitting! After drinking a Zam Zam (coca cola) the shop owner quite often refuses to let us pay since we are guests; we do pay of course.

Next to our camp ground, in the shade, we met a couple of which she spoke good English. A few of the riders, including me, were able to talk to them for a couple of hours which was really great. We talked about religion and what that means in their life. When a girl turns 9 years old she has to start wearing a scarf. Some regions are more conservative than others; in Quchan women all wear a black chador, in Bojnurd it seems to be more relaxed and other colors are allowed. I was told that if a woman does not cover her head properly she can go to jail. It seems that people are quite afraid of the police and that the justice system is not transparent. Still she was telling us that she did not like the political system, the people did not elect this president and she would like to travel to the United States. There are many Iranians living in the United States and she does not believe that country has any intentions to do the Iranian people any harm. If there is an anti-US demonstration, she says that people are forced to participate.

After three days and seeing just a small part of this huge country, I found the people in Iran one of the friendliest I have seen on this Silk Route journey. They are relaxed, open minded and hospitable. A great country to visit!


From Mary to a canal camp

After a week we left Uzbekistan and entered Turkmenistan. Two days of cycling through the hot country side of Turkmenistan brought us in a nice small town called Mary for a well-deserved rest day. It has some really impressive buildings, a big bazar, a dirty hotel, nice shashlik restaurants and that’s about it.  From Mary we’re cycling some 120 kilometer to a ‘canal camp’. Another great day on my bicycle!

If you look around you, you’ll always see something. Even in a desert or on a rough road: camels, strange road signs, bridges, lots of sheep and goats, someone repairing a truck and beautiful ancient looking cars and busses. A Coca Cola stop is usually something else than an cola: a little kid trying to ride my bicycle, sleeping for an hour, having fun with my fellow riders, putting water from a well over my head, patching Mun Yew’s tube. And sometimes, there is a stop just to enjoy the view and take a picture.

One of the stops is at a cotton field where girls were collecting cotton by hand. So when these girls waved to me, gesturing to join them, of course I couldn’t refuse! It was hilarious! When I was next to them, they wanted to have their picture taken. At first they were a bit shy, but after a while they took of their scarfs and argued between themselves who would be in the picture next. The younger boy took the pictures, including a few of himself of course. At a certain point, they even asked me to lift them and everyone was laughing when I did. After approximately half an hour Carolina, doing the sweep, joined and much more pictures were taken. We had a great time in the middle of a cotton field!

I can’t remember how much kilometer after this cotton field Carolina and I stopped at a Coca Cola stop. Chris, Mun Yew, Jane, Siegfried and Martin were about to leave and John stayed to keep Catharina and me company. They say it’s my fault… I had my second flat due to a big thorn so I accepted the invitation of four men just having lunch. After one glass of vodka, I started to patch my flat. At that moment, Catharina and John were also invited by the men and they started their first glass of vodka. Seeing the speed everyone was drinking, I hurried up and fixed my flat in 5 minutes or so. Catharina and John were already drinking their third glass! In order to catch up, I got a big glass and more vodka. We talked about soccer, Amsterdam and Ashgabat, but it was all about the drinking. One of the guys was a former judo champion and his hands were really huge! My hands are big, his were at least 5 centimeter longer. I figured that it’s better to have him as a friend so I bought another bottle of vodka (for 3,5 US dollar). After bottle number four, lunch was over and they had to go. And we still had to cycle 5 kilometer to camp. Easy…

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