The purest humanity in the realm of repression; Iran by bike – between stupidity, bravery and ostrichry. 🤯
This feedback is honestly one of the most difficult to write down, as bipolarity have been the key word of this travel on bicycles in the “Islamic Republic of Iran”.
It will not have the same format as the others: no sharing of photos/info/names/places related to the people who – defying the government – have warmly welcomed us: what may seem like a detail for us may cost them their freedom.
Like Armenia, it is a country that we had immediately removed from our itinerary (the first itinerary, the one that imagined that Azerbaijan would open its land borders). Iran attracted us with its story but politically it was a serious problem for us. Worse, 6 months ago, we read “Sufi, my love” (the meeting between the poet Rumi and the dervish Shams Tabriz) regretting not being able to discover birthplaces of Sufism.
And here we are! At the border of the country, hesitant. Regarding the latest news, we review our route a little: we decide to carefully avoid the capital Tehran, Kurdistan and the north coast of the country : places where the protests seem to be more intense since the death of Masha Amini.
“We go to Khoy and see how it goes. If it’s not okay, we’ll go back to Turkey” was our first idea.
——-> more pictures of Iran HERE
To cross THE Iranian border by bike. 🔒
We’ve heard so many stories… “they even take the white vinegar off you”, “they searched everything”, “you have a drone?!” Send it back from Georgian post office! “, “hours of questions”, “everything you have may seem suspicious”, “hide your cameras, hard drive, memory cards”, “they take away all your food to force you to re-buy everything on the spot”, “you won’t find anything for at least 100 km”…etc etc. We get carried away, we make a whole mountain of it and here we are, a few kilometers from the country, tight feeling in the stomach, at 5am, reorganizing our bags by 0°C. We hide the drone under a pile of dirty panties, sanitary napkins and socks. We hide our memory cards in the middle of the coffee; we store the hard drive in a make-up box: real smugglers. We then take out our longest clothes. In Iran, you have to hide every part of your body (especially for women): arms, hair, legs. Honestly, with this temperature, it doesn’t really bother us.
As we approach the tiny border post in the mountains, our paranoia is at its peak.
Trembling, we groped our way forward. One of the officers calls out to us and beckons us over. After carefully bypassing the X-ray, our bikes are dropped off and kept at the exit. No search, no strange questions and nice customs officers! As an added bonus, a gang of soldiers took care of getting us past everyone – we didn’t ask for much! Relieved, we still need 20 km of descent to dare to take a camera in the middle of nowhere.
First stopover in Khoy. 💸
First mission: to change dollars into Rials.
No foreign bank card works in the country because of the embargo, so it requires a little anticipation! Beginning of the confusion: with only one note we came back with enormous bundles: we are millionaires and we do not understand anything about the local currency. In this peaceful town, we discover with amazement that it is here that the Sufi dervish Sham Tabriz is buried! After saying hello to him, we set off again.
Women and the veil. 🧕
As soon as temperature rise up, the lengths that cover our whole body begin to be felt: Pedaling with a veil is not that easy! How to wear it without looking like an Easter egg? How to make sure that it holds despite the wind and the effort? How to make it not drag in the pedals? How to position it so as not to have half of the blind spot field of vision? How can you bear the heat that emanates from it, under the blazing sun? And there? Are wicks sticking out? By dint of effort, we do too much and quickly the question arises: “Are you Muslim?”
“You wear the veil better than an Iranian!”
Iranian women often wear coloured veils that they nonchalantly let down to reveal their hair and when we are invited, we are quickly invited to remove the hijab and make ourselves comfortable! Our friends are often embarrassed by this dictate imposed on all women, regardless of their beliefs. We don’t really know where we can stand in this context. Especially as we also come across different discourses: a woman calls us to ask our opinion on the veil, we reply – a little confused – with a ready-made answer. The exchange concludes with a lively “Thank you for respecting the Muslim culture of our country”! We then hastily put up the scarf on our hair, a light embarrassment on the corner of our lips.
Veil or no veil, what strikes us from the first days is the approach of these women. They are strong, charismatic and friendly. Never in any country have so many women come to meet us with so many questions and so much spontaneity, for an exchange, a smile, a tea!
As we approach the cities, we are also surprised to see so many Iranian women with a small square bandage on their nose.
- That’s a lot of head-butting!
We then understand that they are rhinoplasties! With this compulsory veil, there is a real obsession with the “perfect face”: when your nose is one of the only visible parts of your body, it is understandable that you pay particular attention to it! Of course, full make-up is also there and plastic surgery is a “graal” towards which many people (even men) tend!
Freedom of expression? 🔫
We are quickly surprised to hear people speak so freely about politics, the disastrous economic context and the violent repression. Iranians are particularly curious and open to discussion. Of course, we are aware that there are certain subjects to avoid and that we have to be careful with every word we say: there are many spies and we never know who we are dealing with.
We are often approached in public places to ask us where we come from and what we think about Iran, politics, Iranians, the government, religion… It is frustrating not to be able to answer these questions sincerely and freely! We have to deal with evasive and superficial answers. But words don’t need to be spoken: the eyes say enough.
The only subject that can be substantiated is the way the French look at the Iranians: many people ask us (insistently) if we think they are terrorists! While all of them dream of fleeing the country, they are worried about the label that Westerners may put on them because of the stupidity of their government.
The arrival in a more “free” region: Azerbaijan. 💙
The locals quickly point out to us with pride that this is not Iran, this is Azerbaijan. Turkish people! The transition is smooth: we enjoy exchanging with our few words of Turkish.
However, the excess of kindness is even worse than in Turkey: we are stopped every kilometre to offer us fruits! As we pedal on, our panniers are filled with apples, grapes and peaches! Even better than the refreshments at the Tour de France, on the four-lane road a car slows down getting close to Anai, the passenger rolls down the window and hands her three apples. Anai nimbly grabs them – all without stopping!
To add a bit of adventure, on the same day, we noticed a white car -recognizable because it’s a brand new one- follow us for almost 10 km. We salute the effort: it’s not an easy task to follow bikes going at 20km/h on a busy motorway and stopping every 500 metres to eat fruit! The guy doesn’t give up: he stops tirelessly on the side of the road at each break and then starts again when we overtake him. This absurd ceremony will have kept him busy for a good hour! We finally lose him at the entrance of the city -thanks to the traffic jams. We will never know the reason for the slowest chase in history and the worst tailing of the century.
We then push the bikes into the city, waiting patiently for it to wake up from its daily nap. We had in mind to push the door of the Red Crescent to spend the night there: it seems that it is possible! We didn’t even have time to reach it when a car stops, an enthusiastic man gets out, followed by his wife. He makes us understand that he is a cyclist and that he will find us a place to sleep. So we follow this car which leads us to a bike shop. Here we are in what we will call the “Iranian whirlwind”, an effervescence of people swarming around us with the photo session that goes with it! We are taken from all angles. So many photos that we could make our own 3D model! While the smartphones are waving, the bikes are being re-inflated without us even noticing. We are then taken to a flat where we are welcomed like queens! We spend an incredible evening with another family who takes us from shopping centre to cafes, then from other shops to restaurants to introduce us to everyone! They even took care of picking up their 16 year old niece with her perfect English who, from then on, had the heavy task of translating all the exchanges!
The next morning, we woke up early! The whirlwind is not over! We were far from imagining that the town’s club was waiting for us to cycle the first 20 kilometres with us, followed by a broom wagon! More than forty people: young people, old people, women, it made us feel good to take this nice little world with us! While yesterday we were still imagining leaving like mice, the group of young people was busy: they confided to us that they were stressed by the idea of meeting foreigners for the first time: they spent the evening revising their English and making revision sheets!
First interaction with the police. 👮
After a huge straight line without the slightest shadow, we see a building on the side of the road, we don’t really know what it is but we stop! Two policemen sitting cross-legged, cup of tea in hand, give us big signs and invite us on their picnic carpet on stilts. We comply. We sit down in front of them, not very comfortable with the Iranian police in this context. Inside, we smile: “Even in uniform, a cop in socks with a çay loses complete credibility.”
Then begins the parade of food, the tea flows freely, the selfies follow one another. We quickly understand that we are in a restaurant. The owner makes us taste our first fresh pistachios! A discussion starts quickly, with their few words of English and our few words of Turkish, we almost understand each other well! We take the opportunity to ask them if we can pitch the tent behind the building.
“Sleeping under the tent? No way!”
In their view, it’s not safe to camp for two women, it’s even unthinkable (it will often be impossible for us to succeed in wild-camping without being invited, under the pretext that “it’s dangerous here”). The policeman then set out to find us a place to stay. Finally, the manager of the restaurant and his wife welcome us. Food at will, laughter, and visit of their pistachio farm! We spend a nice evening in their house with a floor covered with pistachios (drying)! The next day, we are ready to take the road again, our hearts full of gratitude and our stomachs full of a champion breakfast!
After a very long day on the road, here we are, arriving in Tabriz before 4pm (THE Tabriz of Shams Tabriz!). We won’t meet Shams there, but Lamin, an Algerian traveller in his sixties. He amazes us with his positivity. He has just arrived after a 36-hour bus ride from Istanbul, tired but still on his feet and ready to explore the city, even though he forgot his shoes on the shuttle. We spend a nice day with him, we like to listen to his stories of life on the road and in Algeria! We meet him again completely by chance on the island of Hormuz, three weeks later!
A new teammate. 🚲
After ten days in Iran, Raph’, a friend from Quebec, joins us to share his 3 weeks of holidays towards the south, Dubai, where we will take our respective planes. On paper the idea is ideal, the reality is, of course, more contrasted. Between the joy of seeing a friend again and the difficulties of matching our wishes and visions of the trip, these 3 weeks with 3 are a new challenge! We feel the difference between a long trip and a holiday. And the more we are, the more complicated the decision making can be: so in a context as particular as this one, you can’t even imagine how hard it can be! We have already shared parts of the road with many travellers, but this is different! A new dynamic is established, we have a good laugh, and we notice again how different it is to travel with a man. People don’t even talk to us anymore and we have to admit that in some contexts, it’s not unpleasant!
They stare at Raph before saying: “Iranian?” Dark-eyed, they all fall for it! With his local bike and his Sherpa bags, he can only be our guide! With the few words of Farci he has learned, Raph plays along. When they understand the trick, they still don’t believe it: “You look like Iranian!”
After having fortuitously started crossing the desert (luckily, the day before someone warns us that there is nothing left for the next 120 kilometres: “no asphalt, no water, no gas station, no food, no trees, the real desert!”), we stop for the night in a caravanserai. A vast courtyard surrounded by buildings where caravans used to stop on the Silk Road. A haven of peace where you can pitch your tent in the desert immensity, in the shade! Here, no light pollution, the night is black and lets the milky way appear!
In the middle of the night, Anai wakes up GG. “Someone is walking around the tent.” The sound of footsteps comes closer and closer, until they step on the plastic sheets a few centimetres from our heads. We then pluck up the courage to open the canvas: who is roaming around here, in the middle of nowhere? A beautiful and fierce fox raises its head and stares at us without moving! We disturb them (him and his family) while they feast -in the bin we left in front of the tent!
Internet and the connection with reality. 🚫
In the country, internet cuts are numerous and to get around the censorship you have to use a VPN. The first days, we manage quite well with the wifi we got on our way. But it stops working quickly: the Iranian government shows an infinite creativity to restrict communication between people, to censor the release of information (especially images of repression) outside the territory: they succeed every day in destroying one by one the best VPN. We met a young man who told us he had 36 VPNs.
- What government is capable of cutting off access to the internet, even at the risk of self-destructing its own economy?
The art of shooting yourself in the foot, but the governement bearded ones don’t give a shit.
Without access to the internet, it’s so dangerously easy for us to become disconnected from the political reality of the country. We cycle in the middle of nowhere, meet incredible people. Each new random connection to the network is a violent reminder of how dramatic the situation in the country is and how it is deteriorating day by day. Iranians injured, imprisoned for protesting, sometimes killed. Arbitrary arrests of tourists, phone searches: photos, contacts. The repression is getting stronger and stronger.
We’ve been on the road for more than 7 months now and we’ve never felt so many contradictions. What are we doing here?
A complete opposite vision of “wild camping”. ⛺
While it was almost impossible for us to camp with 2 people, Raph’s presence suddenly calms the Iranians’ fears. They advise us all the same: “don’t camp far from towns and villages, the more people around, the better!”. We are confused but we finally comply: there are dedicated spaces in each city (“no no, don’t put the tent in the grass, but on the concrete part”): the park suddenly turns into a shisha-çay-camping party at night!
Young people and homosexuality. 🏳️🌈
We sympathise with the young waiter in a restaurant. The next day, he invites us to his house with his family. Impossible to pay anything: we are his guests! He confides in us, with tears in his eyes, his desire to leave Iran, like so many other young people. He learns English quickly and eagerly. He also tells us that many of his friends are homosexuals, and that they risk the death penalty for that. As he asks us about the situation in France, he gets stars in his eyes when we tell him that marriage is legal there.
- With each beautiful person we meet, we can laugh out loud as well as feel deep sadness when we hear some of the stories.
What the hell are we doing here? 🧨
The more the days go by, the more dramatic stories we hear and the more powerless we feel. We are in the middle of the country when the French embassy asks all its citizens to leave Iran as soon as possible. And for good reason, there are many arbitrary arrests of tourists.
- Is it worth risking your freedom for a trip? And maybe even to put in danger the freedom of the people you meet? Westerners have an unstoppable ability to convince themselves that they are smarter than others, that they will not be arrested, that they know how to look after their own safety. We can convince ourselves of the contrary, but we have no idea what is really going on.
Nadushan, the çay fight. 🫖
After two days in the desert, we collapse under the first tree to devour our picnic. People are intrigued by our presence here. Children approach shyly and emit amused “hello” “hello” over and over! The first family approaches and invites us warmly. We refuse several times, in accordance with the “Taruf” rule, then we finally accept, specifying that we will finish our lunch (piece of bread) before coming. A second family arrives a few minutes later and invites us for tea! Everyone insists, on the right, on the left… We don’t know where to turn!
A few hours later, a man guides us to a guesthouse that was recommended to us! Here we are in front of an incredible building: a castle on top of a hill. The view on Nadushan is just incredible! We laugh: there must be a mistake! He shakes his head: it’s right there!
From now on, we are entitled to an exclusive visit of the village: we enter the prayer room, we discover the person behind the psalmodies which flow from the high towers of the mosque, we climb on all the roofs, terraces, all the courtyards open up and we even climb to the top of the minaret! We wonder if we are not turning into a heresy but the authenticity of our host relieves our doubts.
Still in desert areas, and in the incredible harmony of the village, we are once again far from being able to imagine the issues at stake in the big cities. The Internet has suddenly started working, like a reminder.
Shiraz, not Shiraz? 💣
After much debate, it’s off to Shiraz, “since we have to”. Visit the famous pink mosque and the site of Persepolis. Probably the most touristic site of the country that “must be seen”. We don’t retain much of this city that we visit very quickly, with a tight heart: what are we doing here?
24 hours on the clock before taking a night bus to Bandar Abbas.
- Is burying your head in the sand the key? For us it is impossible. Visiting a country in this context becomes an ordeal. We have only one desire, to cross the border and take our damn flight to Delhi. But now there are three of us, we make decisions together and we have to make compromises. Compromises that put our freedom at risk? Let’s do some damage control, together. The gargantuan size of the country means that we have to cycle less and travel from city to city in buses. To be honest, we don’t like it. We just feel like we’re flying over, it goes way too fast and at the same time, not fast enough. We get off the bus feeling like we’ve changed countries – but still not. It’s quite frustrating, but we try to adapt, it’s also part of the trip!
Hormuz Island: finally out! 🎊
First relief: not being on the “mainland” anymore. It’s not much, but we already breathe better despite the sudden 40° and the extremely high humidity. We remember Hamed, an Iranian we met in Turkey:
“If you have to visit ONLY ONE place in Iran, it’s the island of Hormuz!”. We understand better.
Hormuz is a small fishermen’s island with mountainous and volcanic landscapes whose colours are as magnificent as they are unreal! Here, the red sand is eatable!
The price of freedom? 🤮
New encounters remind us of the severity and control of the government: we learn that iranians have to do a 2-year military service to hope to get a passport. Those who don’t comply “can” pay $20,000 to hope to travel outside the borders.
Qeshm Island: waiting for the ferry to Dubai. ⛴️
Funny feeling, as if the trip was over and we were waiting to catch our flight. The atmosphere on the island is different from the Iran we have been in! Buildings are growing like mushrooms, cars are brand new and women are hidden by coloured masks/burqas. We leave Raph, well surrounded, for a few days, the time for each of us to do a bit of the road in our own way, on this peaceful island, before meeting again to happily cross the Persian Gulf.
We have just found a VPN that works and we receive the testimony of a German cyclist who was arrested and questioned at length, again.
In Bandar Abbas, as night falls, Iranians gather to demonstrate and shout at the dictatorship: the reaction is immediate: the motorbike militia takes charge of shooting all the demonstrators and non-demonstrators. The inhabitants start buying weapons to defend themselves. We are told of a civil war.
The opportunity to ask ourselves the same questions: why are we here? To risk our freedom for a trip? To consciously visit a country that millions of locals dream of leaving? To visit a police state that sows terror? Why are we there?
- We no longer feel in tune with the values of our own journey. But travelling as a threesome means finding compromises. We could have split up and gone off on our own – it’s impossible to let a friend go off on his own in such an unstable context. We feel so helpless in this situation. There’s nothing we can do but talk about Iran, to speak out about the incredible people we meet and the stupidity of this damn government.
- That’s what we tried to do.
Step away. 🙏
We get the bikes on the ferry the next morning, with other bike travellers. They share the same questions and visions: it’s good to exchange on these subjects -and on other, lighter ones too.
On the ferry deck, the wind blows the veils off , falling on shoulders.
Dubai appears with relief in the distance: we really didn’t dream about it but we are infinitely grateful to see these huge modern towers: we are out of Iran!
On our entire trip, Iranians are by far the most open, caring and generous people we’ve met. But they are people who are fed up with the repression, violence and bullshit of their government – which has only gotten worse in the last two years. We can only hope that one day they will be able to live fully in the freedom and peace they deserve, regardless of their religion. We also hope that we have been able to make their voice resonate a little more beyond their closed territory.